One fateful day, Geoff Hornby made a seismic shift in sound.
The Paper Bags singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one and ventured into Delta-inspired blues.
“The current sound – bluesy garage rock – was something that had been brewing inside me for a long time, since the days of playing with The Johnny Timbers during and right out of high school. I wanted to make kind of a blues-infused Nirvana record. And I had grown tired of the acoustic troubadour act – it was time to get heavy,” said Hornby, who lives in Southgate.
Hornby intricately fuses heavy-duty blues with raw, underground garage rock sensibilities on his latest five-track EP, Shifting Metaphor, with drummer Jason O’Dea. The gritty Paper Bags project quickly seeps into the thematic crevices of acceptance, anticipation and appreciation across timeless, authentic tracks inspired by Hornby’s favorite authors.
“As far as those themes, I didn’t intentionally write about any of them. I try not to write with so much intention anymore. It’s all going to get interpreted differently in the end anyway. When I write a set of lyrics, I start with a basic line or idea and just see where it takes me. I feel like most of the time they write themselves and take on a life of their own,” he said.
“Three of the tracks on the album were inspired by novels I’d read in the last few years – “6,000 Stars” was inspired by Graphic: The Valley by Peter Hoffmeister, “Thank You” by Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, and “Butterflies” by Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov. And “Always The Same” is tinged with some concepts found in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.”
Hornby quickly tackles new Paper Bags Shifting Metaphor terrain on “6,000 Stars” as pithy, buzzy electric guitars, pulsating drums, crashing cymbals and throaty bass clear a pathway for accepting change. He calmly sings, “Across the valley/Away from the valley/Sometimes the valley gets its way.”
“The current incarnation of the band – myself with Jason O’Dea and Joshua Thorington – weren’t able to play shows anymore and really wanted people to hear some of these songs, so it became a recording project between Jason and I via email. The pandemic was the catalyst for everything you hear on that record. It was something to work on, focus on and look forward to releasing one day,” Hornby said.
As part of his new musical direction, Hornby eagerly anticipates moving forward on “Thank You” as gritty, swift electric guitars, tingling cymbals, thumping drums and bouncy bass advance him to the next stage. (This propulsive bluesy track also includes a lyrical Easter egg referencing the EP’s title.)
Hornby quickly reveals, “I ain’t ready for Hell, not quite yet/Do we really have to bury this?/A day or two don’t count as time/This shifting metaphor is mine.”
“Paper Bags as an entity has always been changing, evolving. So I liked the line, ‘This shifting metaphor is mine,’ to represent the idea of the band itself. I’m not sure how the shift in sound came to be other than to say that I rediscovered my electric guitar. I’ve always felt best about myself with an electric guitar in my hands,” he said.
With a hazy electric guitar in hand, Hornby expresses his appreciation for a new relationship on the grungy love anthem, “Butterflies,” as thunderous drums, ricocheting cymbals and spirited bass surround him. He reflects, “The butterflies are breeding/Eternal night/If this is just a dream then everything’s alright.”
“If I had to pick two favorite tracks, I’d say ‘6,000 Stars’ because of the groove and it being the first track we started working on for the EP, and ‘Butterflies’ because of the overall composition and Jason’s production. What people take away from these songs is up to their own hearts, and I would hate to impose upon that,” Hornby said.
Hornby started his Shifting Metaphor creative journey last summer with O’Dea as the two traded instrumental parts back and forth. O’Dea sent drum tracks and assisted with mixing and mastering while Hornby finalized vocals, guitar and bass in the midst of becoming a father.
“I asked Jason, ‘Do you think we can put this out by Christmas?’ And sure enough, we did. Jason did such a great job on this record. I remember him saying to me at one point, ‘I like helping people realize their visions, and I believe in your visions.’ I feel pretty lucky to have been surrounded by so many capable and supportive musicians in the history of this project,” Hornby said.
Becoming Paper Bags
Hornby initially formulated his musical vision while growing up in Grosse Ile. He devoured vinyl albums with his father during intense basement-listening sessions and discovered the love of guitar at age eight thanks to his uncle.
At the time, Hornby and his brother learned a riff from The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on their uncle’s electric guitar. By age 10, he bought his first guitar after saving birthday, Christmas and allowance money.
Along the way, Hornby played in several bands, including The Johnny Timbers, and honed his guitar and songwriting skills. In late 2009, he found himself without a band for the first time and embarked on a new solo adventure.
“I had all these songs I wanted to do so I started recording them as a solo project with some of the guys I had worked with at the Southland Music store – Bob Tomich and Joe Tortonesi. I never had any intentions for Paper Bags,” said Hornby, who’s inspired by Nirvana, The Stooges, The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Junior Kimbrough and Taylor Swift.
“It takes on whatever form I need it to take, whether it’s the lineup that included two guitars and a cello, me by myself with an acoustic guitar, or the current incarnation of guitar, bass and drums.”
A year later, Hornby released his debut Paper Bags track, “Gravity,” a dreamy, bluesy romantic ballad with Tomich, aka Thelmer (bass, drums, cello, violin), and Tortonesi (drums). The trio initially recorded the track along with “Anyone Anywhere” at Tomich’s studio, The Thelmerhouse, and reissued the single and B-side with two other versions of “Gravity.”
“I had this riff and Bob invited me over after work that evening to record, and the next thing you know, the track was done. Working with Bob is just a joy – he’s one of those musicians who is always able to play exactly what a song needs. And Joe never judged my music either,” said Hornby, who named his project after Fiona Apple’s 1999 track, “Paper Bag.”
“I could give Joe any song I was working on to put drums over and he would do his best to bring that track to life. I feel forever indebted to those guys for helping me start this project known as Paper Bags because they were supportive and encouraging.”
Over the next decade, Hornby released a series of singles and dropped his first official acoustic-centered EP, Moonlit Melody, in 2018. With hints of bluesy elements, the majestic, thoughtful EP beautifully laid the groundwork for Hornby to morph into his current electric garage rock sound.
“I’m already planning work on at least an EP to be done sometime this year. I have enough songs for a full-length album, but we’ll just have to see how things go. I plan to start breaking ground on recording new songs in the next week or so. We’ll take it one day at a time,” Hornby said.