The last time Portland heard from Kyle Morton, the news wasn't good.
In 2014, the driving force behind the beloved indie-pop orchestra Typhoon, fell ill—sick enough to cancel a swath of tour dates and send the band into an extended hiatus. Although he never went into detail about what was afflicting him, Morton suffered from Lyme disease as a child, a trauma that informed White Lighter, the group's grandiose album from a year before.
He's better now. Typhoon, however, has been slower to recover. Turns out, wrangling together a dozen musicians doesn't get easier as everyone gets older. With the ensemble taking its time getting back into playing shape—a new record is promised by the fall—Morton got restless. So he did what a lot of songwriters do when their creative partners are preoccupied: He made a solo album.
Released in September, What Will Destroy You strips away much of Typhoon's sweeping ornamentation, leaving the emotions bare save for guitar and bits of instrumental shading. As opposed to his main project's often painstaking process, Morton wrote quickly, almost subconsciously, and what ended up emerging was a meditation on love in all its forms—"from old-fashioned heartache to acute sadomasochism," as he puts it.
As he prepares to embark on his first-ever solo tour, Willamette Week caught up with Morton to discuss playing by himself, his health, his obsession with death, and where Typhoon fits in a changing Portland music scene.
WW: How are you feeling health-wise these days?
Kyle Morton: Have you seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The "bring out your dead" scene, where the old man's like, [affects a feeble voice] "I'm feeling much better, I'd like to go for a walk now"? I'm completely over that bit. It derailed a lot of touring, and it was kind of the reason for the hiatus we took the last couple years, but my health has been pretty stable the last year or two years.
You've described What Will Destroy You as a "detour" you took while preparing for the new Typhoon record, which makes it seem like you didn't plan for it to happen.
It was pretty extemporaneous. I had several songs kind of kicking around, and they weren't Typhoon songs. Typhoon was starting to write and practice and play together again, but we'd kind of been on hiatus. So we had this time on our hands where the whole band wasn't really around. I was trying to keep myself busy, so I did a video project with my friend Matt Ross called Book of Matches, and then I recorded this solo record. To me, the two things are kindred spirits. The recording styles came from the same place, and experimenting with different ways to write songs than the normal Typhoon way. That's kind of how it came about. It was really boredom.
How did you know these songs weren't meant for Typhoon?
For some, it's a lot clearer than others. Typhoon often goes for this grandiose thing, and I wanted to do something that was quite a bit more understated. The elegance of it is something I like about this record. To me, it feels somewhat effortless.
How much conscious thought did you put into trying to distinguish the sound of the record from that of Typhoon?
This was kind of a crossroads, because there was a point where I thought these songs could just be the next Typhoon record if we wanted to really do something different. As I was recording it, somehow it just didn't quite work as a Typhoon record. I wasn't making a conscious effort to not make it a Typhoon record, but I did feel like if I didn't slap the name "Typhoon" on it, I had a freedom to write in ways I hadn't before and try some things out that wouldn't really work with Typhoon.
You've mentioned how this theme of love that surrounds the record arose organically. Do you have an idea of why that is and where it came from?
If I can be somewhat confessional, my own love life has gone rather well lately. I just got married to my longtime girlfriend, so there's no juicy breakup story, at least not a recent one. An old professor friend of mine and I had been trying to work on this idea of why people in the modern, so-called secular age still get married, aside from maybe tax benefits and child-rearing. We were asking, "What does it really mean to do that?" Because it still seems like even if people don't identify with being religious anymore, there's this element of the sacred there. That had been on my mind a lot, and I was thinking about love as this extreme, destructive and creative force—a very ambivalent force that can level you or build you up.
There's a lot of references to death and imagery relating to death, too, particularly on the first song, "Poor Bastard."
Well, that one is a parody of Typhoon in general. I've sung about death and dying for so many years and I'm still here, so I thought it was funny to make a song making fun of me for that. I've spent so many years examining this idea of mortality and the finitude of life, to the point of getting sick of talking about it and having it be my whole thing.
You're going on tour solo for the first time. Are you comfortable with that idea?
I'm a little apprehensive about it. I've gotten more comfortable with solo shows, and some of them I really like, because I don't have to worry about embarrassing anyone else onstage—it's just me. I'm also a little nervous because it's a totally different thing. I think Typhoon fans will be able to get something out of it, but it definitely won't be the big fanfare, visual spectacle of having a million people squashed onstage.
What's the update on the next Typhoon record?
It's close. Right now, I'm working on some lyrics still, and we've got a lot of finishing touches to do in a lot of places on the record, but the bulk of it's there. I can't say much about it, but it's definitely the biggest record we've ever made.
Typhoon has been around 11 years now, and it seems like many stalwarts of the Portland music scene are winding down. Has that made you think about Typhoon and how much longer it may last?
It seems a little bit like the sun's setting right now. Bands are hard to keep together. Their de facto position isn't to stay together. You have to work to keep it together, or else it'll just drift. There were times where we were touring a lot where I thought, "How long can I really do this?" On the converse, I'm now having the thought, like, "How long can I not do this before I go crazy?" Because I'm not good at that many things, and this is the one thing I've got. I think I speak for everyone in that we want to keep working at it and not let it just fade away.
SEE IT: Kyle Morton plays the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., on Friday, Jan. 6. 8 pm. Sold out. All ages.