Jack Riley writes queer psych-pop as Pleasuremad. Their latest record, Where the Tragic Happens, is a social dissection glossed in glam. An occult journey through dysphoria and detachment manifests a deeply immersive listen. Jack sat down with us to discuss identity actualization, inspirations behind the new record, leaving Hartford and why coming back was so necessary.
Margot is at a party, dancing in a corner by herself. "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem is playing. She’s flailing, screaming every word, spilling wine everywhere. Margot's friends look over, roll their eyes and shake their heads with scrunched smiles. On the other end of the room, a quiet guest rearranges the cracker-spread on the coffee table. They fold each napkin just so, fixing the host's half-assed attempt at presentation. They mouth every word to themself, nurse their beer and try to stay invisible. Sam's doing blow in the bathroom; the bass rattles the mirror. She adjusts her bra and thumbs off running mascara. Victor and Nellie are impatiently waiting. They barely know each other, but Victor is certain he'll go home with her tonight. In anxious anticipation to break the seal, he surveys the room and scoffs to Nellie that he could do more pushups than any dude there. She lets out some kinda sound, but it's not really a laugh. Sam comes out of the bathroom hastily, wiping her nose on her sleeve as she catches Nellie's eye. Before the end of the party, the two of them will end up in that bathroom together while Victor is waiting outside, telling Margot that he could do more pushups than any dude there. She’ll let out some kinda sound.
This scene, or something like it, opens Pleasuremad's latest release Where the Tragic Happens. The first track, "Largo," is a 40-second voice-memo taken at a party in Richmond, VA. People clap, someone tells a shitty joke, things sound fucking lit. A clave beat fades in before "Coronation" locks into full swing with a massive percussion palette, reverse guitar swells, gliding synth interjections and disdain for the condescending generation above us and their rigid idea of normalcy. With so many moving parts, Pleasuremad's intention to write complex pop is immediately apparent. And it works: "Coronation" was recently deemed by music journal, The Auricular, to be “one of the absolute best dance-rock/indie pop tracks to come out of Richmond this decade.” In a live setting, Pleasuremad can make an audience move around as much as search inside themselves. On record, they stage a world where stereotypes are unearthed, posed, and critiqued. Where youth is framed for the wisdom that it holds. Where pride is felt as much as it is flaunted.
“For so long, I was trying so hard to be like the men in my life, as if there was this level of power that I had to reach— some archetype of a grizzled, wise old man that I had to get to.”
Jack recently came back to Hartford from a year living in Richmond. Serving as a sort of necessary escape from Connecticut, time there was to reexamine why they are who they are. Knowing no one in a new place was a leap outside their comfort zone. Direction and community seemed like a distant light. Once Jack got a job at Lift Coffee Shop and found themselves working alongside a group of driven, self-actualized women, something started to click inside. "For so long, I was trying so hard to be like the men in my life, as if there was this level of power that I had to reach— some archetype of a grizzled, wise old man that I had to get to. You know, the type of man who seems to know better than anyone else. For so long, I was stuck on learning for the purpose of seeming like I knew more than anyone else. But then I grew worried that people would find out how full of shit I was. I landed on, 'I'm just gonna stop being full of shit,' out of sheer exhaustion, honestly. I got so tired of trying to fill the shoes of the men in my life," They sighed, staring at the freshly smudged lipstick on the cup of Giv Gura coffee they'd just brewed. One day, after hearing the song "Pretty Things" by Big Thief, abstruse sentiments began to crystallize. The particular line, "There's a woman inside of me / There's one inside of you, too," struck a chord, "For days, that song was all I wanted to listen to. One day I looked into the mirror and said 'Woman' to myself. It just made so much sense. It felt so right. I started feeling so much more comfortable in every situation." Identity actualization is a driving force of the record as much as social disconnect, queerness, norm-challenging, and self-celebration. “The song ‘Days Like These’ came from this state of dysphoria I'd been reveling in, where I could experience something so clearly in front of me without having the means of communicating it within the confines of a masculine identity.” As a disquiet solitude stages the track lyrically, recursive guitar flits and musing piano arpeggios stage a balmy landscape to roam with wanderlust. Just above the powder-pink clouds but still in sight, vocal layers swirl like a phantom dawn chorus. Enveloping and intricate, Jack’s arrangements juxtapose euphoria with dysphoria seamlessly and saliently— enough to leave one in a surreal daze. “The day I wrote 'Misery's Company' I'd just come back from seeing Lady Bird. I couldn't believe how many parallels I felt between the protagonist and myself. The relationship between the two female leads really reflects my relationship with my mother. On top of that, watching Lady Bird picking out her prom dress and having her first time...I felt like those were experiences that I was missing. The ones that I had never felt right." Cradled between gentle guitar work and lilting synths, Jack calmly delivers lyrics meditating on identity evaluation: ”I’ve been up staring at the world again in different patterns, searching for spaces to fill in / and when I find it / I have changed again for worse or better / and I’m without something within.” Keeping on theme, "The Foolish One" is an upbeat jaunt observing the way many of Jack's male cohorts would over-assert their masculinity. (The pushup scoff in the opening paragraph is unfortunately not fictionalized). "I'd think to myself, 'You don't have to do that.' I wrote this song about men as if I wasn't one of them. That was the first song for the record that set something off inside of me. I started asking myself larger questions and realized I have a lot to say about it."
“As progressive as Hartford’s creative orbit is, the population as a whole could benefit from more visibility...queer-celebrating spaces that aren’t underground, but in the public eye. We need local businesses that aren’t afraid to push that.”
In search of an album closer, Jack dusted off a song he wrote for his former group Art School Girls. “A Younger Man’s Waltz” was once a wistful, symphonic waltz about searching for the dream girl, one that’d make sense of all the things Jack couldn’t make sense about themself. Now, stripped down to just voice and piano, Jack has an evolved understanding for their own lyrics, “There's a girl that I know I've been waiting to show / but it never could be you." Once about self-protection and waiting for the perfect one, “A Younger Man’s Waltz” breathes with a new confidence of an awakening.
The album, primarily recorded during their time in Richmond, visually crystallized when Jack was FaceTiming with Hartford photographer Ryan Kelso. In the background hung a photograph Ryan had taken, which would soon become the record's front cover. "The subject shaving their face while all made up. That's what it's about. I wasn't yet living queer, but I was coming to it, and those songs were all about the process. Shaving my beard and putting on lipstick." Jack finds inspiration within this duality. "Adrianne Lenker writes songs about men in her life, but not in a pining way. More in an empowered way like, 'Yeah I could take you or leave you whenever I feel like it.' 60s psych-rock too. In ‘Bold as Love,’ the way that Hendrix really looked at the different parts of himself and assigned them a color, painting himself as a rainbow. There's something powerful about looking at your anger or jealousy and realizing that's all they are. Not acting out a negative or braggadocious response, but channeling it creatively. It takes emotional intelligence and bravery."
As their lease was ending, Jack considered another year in Richmond, but as much as they felt at peace there, it felt too much like a retirement. They couldn't shake the fact that they’d gone as a means of escaping their problems in Hartford. For a time, moving to New York seemed like the right thing to do. “Then I got back to Hartford and was reminded about all the unique, valuable things the city has to offer. Things I was afraid to take part of for so long because I didn't think I had anything to offer. Now hearing about them with a more realized identity, I feel I could make an impact here— however small that is.”
“I know there are other gender-nonconforming people in Hartford, I see them. I go to events like Drop Dead Disco and see them shining. What I want to know is where else do they go? As progressive as Hartford’s creative orbit is, the population as a whole could benefit from more visibility...queer-celebrating spaces that aren't underground, but in the public eye. We need local businesses that aren't afraid to push that. That's part of what drew me to working at Story and Soil. Having a 'Smash the Patriarchy' sticker on the espresso machine. That's part of what visibility means to me— showing all the way up.” This call for visibility is channeled into songs like “To Make It Count” through a subtle yet alluring amount of glam.
“The new music I'm writing will be about what living queer in Hartford looks like to me. A continuation of unpacking gender: a warsong against traditional roles and a rally cry for visibility. I'm here now and I'm not going away."
“Some of the queer spaces I go to— what seems to matter is who you're going home with that night. What I'd like to see from the community as a whole is less of a focus on who you fuck and more of a focus on creating a safe space where you can trade subjective experiences. You can talk about LGBTQ+ rights, but until you're in a room with those from that community, you don't really get a chance to fully understand what that experience is like. I don't even fully understand what that experience is like yet. I'm still working through a lot of intruder's guilt because it still feels new to me. But the days I present myself cis— I'm every bit as non-binary as the days I spend hours making myself up. I'm just as proud those days, but it’s a quiet pride that pulses through everyday interactions.” Jack sat back, silently marveling a cherry blossom tree just off the porch. “To many, pride can come down to what you show, not what you feel. But I don’t always have time to show all the way up. On those days, I can tell people don’t approach me as openly because they’re assigning a gender role to me and acting accordingly. Fuck that.” At some point in their life, Jack has been every character in "Largo." They've lived the stereotypes, the contradictions, the royal fuckups. All that was crucial, though. It's how they’ve bloomed. "Don't self-depreciate, self-celebrate. If you're gonna do shitty things, own it. If you're going to complain about it, don't do those shitty things anymore,” they offered, before jumping off the porch-swing for another cup of Gura. They made an about-face just before the kitchen, went to their MPC and started looping an elvish melody. “The new music I'm writing will be about what living queer in Hartford looks like to me. A continuation of unpacking gender: a warsong against traditional roles and a rally cry for visibility. I'm here now and I'm not going away."