John Klemmensen’s Unplayed Growing Pains

John Klemmensen says he understands women are all-too-regularly regarded as objects in our world.

“Even that stupid Robin Thicke song,” he says of “Blurred Lines,” which was nominated for three Grammy awards last year. In a line from the song’s chorus, which lyrically blurs lines between consensual sex and sexual assault, Thicke sings “you know you want it.”

“She doesn’t want it, dude.”

About a month ago, a killing spree in Isla Vista, Ca. left seven dead. The perpetrator, a young man, murdered his victims on the heels of a video where he states his motivation is to punish women for not engaging sexually with him and to seek revenge on men that have what he considers more successful sex lives. The societal patriarchy that encourages such entitlement to women to persist and even proliferate through our culture is near indomitable.

Almost one year to the day before the Isla Vista murders, Klemmensen quietly released an album with his band John Klemmensen and the Party. If you’ve seen John Klemmensen live since then, perhaps at one of the several Omaha open mic nights he frequents, you’ll not have heard any songs from the album, Songs I’ll Never Play. He doesn’t play them.

By that time, “Blurred Lines” was halfway up its climb to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it reigned for 12 weeks, the longest of any song in 2013.

If you don’t personally know Klemmensen or his bandmate Molly Welsh, also in All Young Girls are Machine Guns, if you stumbled upon the band’s Bandcamp page or heard about the album from a friend, the fair question is: Why won’t Klemmensen play these songs?

Songs I’ll Never Play is so far Klemmensen’s pinnacle work, musically, more fully-realized than 2012’s Advanced Hedonism. The melodies are poppy, the minor keys made oddly danceable by drum programming. The music manages to emote without getting mired in itself.

The lyrics are so starkly earnest, any budding heartbroken teenage lyricist with a couple Taking Back Sunday albums as their how-to books might blush. It’s his feeling of conviction that elevates the album’s lyrics from baby’s-first-emo-song to something worth examination.

Even if you might never say something like “girls like you are why microphones were made,” as Klemmensen sings on “One Song with Your Name,” the line packs enough punch to command your attention.

If the lyrics are good cause for floor-gazing and feet-shuffling, then the album’s thematic explorations seem almost immediately trite.

“A couple of songs a year, but never a whole EP,” Klemmensen introduces the album by addressing the album on opener “Nobody Else.” It’s the “now, I usually don’t do this” at the beginning of “Ignition (Remix).”

Klemmensen means to say he’s never written an entire album about one girl before, just songs here and there. But like R. Kelly’s own opening comments, it’s only a framing device. He may not usually do it, but he’s doing it now.

Here is my album of love songs about my love interest.

His lamenting, wailing vocals and a familiarity with popular culture’s infatuation with tales of unrequited love give off immediately: this does not have the protagonist’s happy ending.

All through the first six and a half of the album’s 8 songs, Klemmensen goes on in this manner, through expertly-crafted pop songs, he ponders the literal weight of his own heart in his hands, his interest in her smile, her presence with other men at bars. On “The Architect,” he’s even carved out a place in his own heart for her to live. Klemmensen injects a modicum of self-awareness in track six’s title “Creepo Song #2.”

The listener wades through, kept afloat on the albums listenability, and perhaps by not paying too much attention to one man’s own self-pity.

But then on the seventh track, “Tryn 2 Be,” there’s a sudden turn. It’s perhaps the album’s climax, the guitar propelling the hero forward to claim his just desserts, or die trying. But before Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he has some time for reflection.

“I’ll get jealous, but I’ll hold it in. I don’t want to lose you trying to be your man.”

And the paradigm shifts. Except for some backing vocals on “The Architect,” a woman’s voice enters the conversation for the first time. Molly Welsh’s voice. The woman’s voice.

photo by Chevy Anderson

“I’m not this woman, this idea in your mind,” she says. “You don’t want to know me as a better friend, can’t even wonder about what might have been.”

Her final line: “You won’t stop telling me that you want to be my man. Stop trying, I’m already in your band.”

In a way, it’s like hearing every “but I’m a nice guy” guy get told “who cares,” and then maybe you start to wonder how much of this album is fictional. Then the final track opens with the same woman’s voice from before. But this time she’s speaking, clearly shaken up, certainly not part of any script.

“I don’t … I’m sorry. I’m not OK right now.”

If you wonder at some point during the course of Songs I’ll Never Play how much of the two characters are fictional, the answer is next to none.

Suddenly that stark lyrical earnestness is much more compelling.

If you know John Klemmensen and Molly Welsh, then you’ll probably understand why Songs I’ll Never Play is songs they’ll never play.

About their relationship, the bones are laid bare on the album, which, in a way, was a therapy that helped both of them work through a number of complex emotions about each other.

This is no fiction or fantasy. On the final track, “Forever Party,” Klemmensen is faced with a choice: accept the fact that Welsh might be with another man and let go of his own desires or quit singing and making music with someone who had by then become one of his closest friends and musical partners.

Welsh is still in the band. They’re currently putting the finishing touches on an album due out in August. Klemmensen says Welsh’s voice is “all over the album.”

“It got to a point where losing her friendship was going to become a reality if i didn’t stop being so strong about it,” Klemmensen says. “I had to learn to be able to just sit with my feelings and be OK with it.”

* * *

Welsh’s appearance on Songs I’ll Never Play, the presence that sucks the narrator outside of himself and confronts him not as mannequin but as human, with her own point of view, desires and affections, is, in a way, the reason Klemmensen and Welsh began working together in the first place.

photo by Chevy Anderson

It was a Monday night in 2012, open mic at Barley Street. Klemmensen played “On My Mind,” a song that, by the sounds of it, could have been a cut on Songs I’ll Never Play.

“It’s about a bunch of girls,” Klemmensen says. “It’s about all the girls in my life I’ve had things for that couldn’t be mine.”

After the show, Welsh approached Klemmensen about the song. You’re missing the other side of the story, she told him. The woman’s perspective. Klemmensen took her up on it, asked her to start singing with him. The two began working together. Klemmensen recalls feeling wary of his own emotions almost immediately.

“In the weirdest way, I was trying to say this could be so good, but I don’t know if it’s going to work,” Klemmensen says of Welsh. “And (she) had no clue what was going on in my mind. I was like, I have feelings for you. That’s going to get completely in the way.”

“I was like, it’s going to work. You’ll get over it,” Welsh says.

On Klemmensen’s birthday at a Satchel Grande show, a band in which he used to play, Welsh explained to him that by becoming her friend, making art with her, sharing the creative process, he’d get closer to her than he ever would by dating her.

“I’ve always said I’m not good at the girlfriend thing,” Welsh says. “I don’t like it.”

She says to Klemmensen: “You are closer to me than any other dude. And it’s in a way that I need and that you need. We wouldn’t be sitting here if we would have gone the easy way.”

* * *

Klemmensen describes his songwriting process as “trying to catch lightning in a bottle.”

He’ll play guitar. He’ll begin singing. Eventually, he’ll find the right line. An idea that sticks. At some point, a bunch of the ideas that stuck had to do with his feelings about Welsh. The skeleton of a collection of songs dealing with his feelings for a close friend and bandmate.

Welsh says that before Songs I’ll Never Play had a name, before it was eight songs, before it was anything beyond just a handful of thematically connected ideas in which Klemmensen saw promise, he approached her about it, essentially asking her permission to move forward on the project.

“I am no one to censor someone’s art,” she says.

Early on, Klemmensen showed Welsh rough cuts of most of the tracks.

One night, though, maybe at another open mic, he says, Klemmensen played “One Song With Your Name.” Welsh, an audience member that night, hadn’t heard the song before. Her friends Rebecca Lowry, band leader in All Young Girls Are Machine Guns, and Elizabeth Webb, who has played with Brad Hoshaw, sat to either side of her.

“There’s all sorts of lines where you’re not saying my name, but they’re very specific,” she says.

Then he gets to the line about the microphone, how girls like Welsh are why they were made. She recalls that Webb and Lowry simultaneously elbowed her. She describes that moment as the only album-related instance that was a “punch in the gut.”

In one way or another, Klemmensen says he was at least somewhat interested in soliciting that reaction from her. Lowry, who is also a good friend of Klemmensen’s and had been privy to the complications in their relationship, sings haunting harmonies on “The Architect.” At one point, Lowry asked Klemmensen why he asked her to sing when they’re notes that fall in Klemmensen’s vocal register.

“It’s going to hit harder if you sing it,” Klemmensen told her.

photo by Molly Misek

Even after the album was completed, Welsh says Klemmensen told her to listen to it in a specific way, a la Anita Miller’s note regarding the Who’s Tommy left on a pile of records to her little brother William in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous: Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your entire future.

He told her to listen to it in her bedroom with headphones on, lying on the floor.

“I was like, John. I’m going to listen to it however I want.”

While Songs I’ll Never Play was working itself out, people were taking notice of Klemmensen and Welsh’s relationship. Omaha’s music scene at large exists as a tight network of venues, artists, promoters, etc. Within that are sometimes even smaller communities. John Klemmensen and the Party, All Young Girls are Machine Guns, Travelling Mercies, Underwater Dream Machine, Michael Wunder and the Uninspired and a handful of other bands all share and rotate members, many of whom hang around and play frequent shows at Barley Street in Benson.

Songs I’ll Never Play is far from an album released to an uninitiated audience. Probably most of the people who would’ve heard it at the time of release knew Klemmensen, Welsh and the story behind it.

Naturally, some close to Klemmensen or Welsh were compelled to ask questions.

Welsh recalls one friend asked her if she was being held hostage by art, saying she knows what it’s like. She wanted to make sure that Welsh was happy, in a place where she could still be creative on her own.

“We wondered about that,” Welsh says. “But it doesn’t have anything to do with me, not really. I felt like it was honest, fair, truthful. At times a little manipulative, but that’s John.”

Klemmensen knows many of his friends wondered if she had a place in the band only because he had romantic intentions. But he says those questions disappear once someone actually hears her sing.

“I knew that some dudes didn’t take me seriously because the way that John felt, not because of me. It pissed me off and I felt like I had to prove something even though I didn’t have to prove anything,” Welsh says.

“She was a very strong woman throughout the process,” Klemmensen says.

He calls her strong for her dedication to the band and to the art, for her strength in holding off his emotional advances for the sake of their friendship. She calls it something else.

“It was pretty selfish of me to be like, no, I’m still going to be in the band and you’re going to shut the fuck up about it. I want to be in the band.”

Still, persistence doesn’t resolve the conflicting feelings of two people who won’t budge. Until about four months ago, Klemmensen says he and Welsh had an unspoken agreement that he wouldn’t go into her house. They would drive separately to gigs, or if he picked her up, he would wait in the driveway.

“We both knew that I would get weird. It’s a hard thing for me to admit. Being the love song guy, I’m not proud of it all the time,” he says. “As a 35-year-old man, I’m still trying to figure out how to treat women the right way.”

Welsh remembers a point where she left the band for about two weeks. This was while Songs I’ll Never Play was being written, before either she or Klemmensen knew that it would become a piece of art, an album with something to say.

She holds the palm of her hand centimeters from her nose.

“It got to the point that he was so right here with his feelings that he forgot he was making an album,” she says. “I had to just be like ‘fuck off’ and not talk to (him) for a few days.”

She recalls playing that night at the Side Door Lounge, another open mic, a night where Klemmensen’s feelings for her became too pushy.

She remembers saying: “You don’t understand that I am giving you more of myself by doing this than by being your fucking girlfriend. Fuck that. Don’t fucking talk to me. I quit.”

Kelmmensen says he was unsure all the time what he thought, that he was always working through their relationship and his place in it.

“It helped me realize things are meant to be. You can’t force things to be your way.”

photo by Chevy Anderson

Klemmensen and Welsh both seem to hold faith that in one way or another, the universe has their backs, that they’ll get where they need to go and the people they meet along the way will help them get there.

Welsh mentions Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. She has a tattoo inspired by the series’ concept of ka-tet, roughly, one’s group of people, who help that person reach the places in their lifecycle they need to be. Klemmensen has a similar tattoo on his forearm. A quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Klemmensen sums up the sentiment: “If you’re a positive thing in my life, you’ll remain in my life. If we stop being positive for each other, then why bother?”

Eventually, the two reconciled. Their mutual belief that they could be very positive factors in each other’s lives played a role.

* * *

During the interview, Welsh leans across the table to pull a ladybug from the front of Klemmensen’s shirt. On the patio at Blue Line Coffee in downtown Omaha, both sip on iced drinks and Klemmensen smokes a handful of cigarettes in the hour. Welsh is going to buy Klemmensen lunch afterward.

People still ask them after shows if they’re together, she says.

“The connection we have is there, so people automatically assume it.”

“We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re not making it look that way,” Klemmensen says. “It’s all gender stuff.”

Klemmensen says that many people see a girl in a band and presume a sexual relationship with one of the male members.

“Most people would never assume it’s just a girl in a band because she’s talented.”

After playing with Oliver and Megan Morgan, a married couple, for years in Landing on the Moon, Klemmensen admits that when he first got to know Welsh as a creative partner, he was hoping for that kind of relationship.

“I’ve had a weird relationship with girls my whole life. Girls are love songs to me. For the longest time, they were just like pretty things. She’s helped me get a lot better at that,” he says.

Songs I’ll Never Play is arranged nearly chronologically. It’s the rare album where each song depends on the others for success. To take it as anything other than the whole would be to discredit Klemmensen and Welsh’s relationship, the emotional turmoil and creative energy that they and the rest of the band put into it. It would be to take away from the entire point of the album.

“The Architect,” a song as much about providing a support system for those you care about as anything else, and “Tryn 2 Be,” where Welsh finally provides the counterpoint, might be exceptions. Album opener “Nobody Else” can stand on its own musically. Thematically, maybe it could. But it wouldn’t be anything special — another track about some guy with a guitar that likes some girl that doesn’t like him back. Nothing repulsive, but nothing particularly interesting either.

Yet put them all together, and you get something extremely original: a compelling and visceral story about a man who painstakingly learns from his unrequited affection.

The fact that it’s an original ending to a well-trodden tale makes Songs I’ll Never Play an important album.

* * *

Klemmensen says he understands that women aren’t objects. He also admits that his relationship with Welsh has helped that understanding. This isn’t to imply that Klemmensen was some brute who felt he could and should do as he pleased with women before meeting Welsh. There’s a difference between knowing that, sure, women are people, and understanding the subtle ways in which your behavior might not reflect that knowledge.

photo by Chevy Anderson

Songs I’ll Never Play begins at the point of that knowledge and ends at the understanding. It’s about Klemmensen and Welsh’s relationship, but more than that it’s about hearing what someone else is saying, learning from that and adjusting one’s own outlook and behavior accordingly.

The album was released into a culture where the actions of a self-admitted sexist mass murderer receives posthumous defense from an entire online community, songs like “Blurred Lines” top charts and win high honors and politicians caution women on how not to get raped, or that they should be prepared.

In that way, Songs I’ll Never Play is a political album, even if Klemmensen and Welsh don’t think about it that way.

They think about it as an album they worked on that helped both of them along an emotionally tumultuous period.

“The last song, ‘Forever Party,’ it’s cheesy to say, literally helped me work through my feelings,” Klemmensen says.

And, now, a year removed from Songs I’ll Never Play, and on the eve of forthcoming Party All Night, they anticipate the album that chronicles their relationship has begun to lose its connection to their relationship and become more like most other records: one about nameless people onto which listeners can project their own experience.

“One of the things I said to plead my case for the album,” Klemmensen says, “was that a year from now, this is just going to be songs about a girl.”

Jacob Zlomke is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. Reach him at jacobz@hearnebraska.org.

Jacob Zlomke is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Reach him at jacobz@hearnebraska.org.