Abandoned town inspired Houses’ A Quiet Darkness
Death is all over A Quiet Darkness, the thought-provoking sophomore record from Houses, a Chicago-based duo made up of real-life couple Dexter Tortoriello and Megan Messina.
This won’t surprise anyone familiar with the record’s beginnings. A Quiet Darkness is a concept album, with the atmosphere-rich songs—built around soft-glow piano and hushed synths—telling the story of a doomed couple searching for each other in a postnuclear apocalypse.
That admittedly sounds more grindingly depressing than Cormac McCarthy doing a dead-of-winter reading of The Road in an abandoned Chernobyl coffee shop. But what’s funny is the way that Tortoriello’s songs turn the inevitability of death into something that sounds almost uplifting. If you have to go, there are worse things than exiting to songs like the break-of-dawn hymn “Smoke Signals” and the outright angelic “What We Lost”.
“It’s not supposed to be super-depressing,” the singer-keyboardist says of A Quiet Darkness, on the line from “somewhere in rural Indiana”. “My goal conceptually and sonically was to sort of explore the idea of mortality in general. Everyone is going to die. It was coming to terms with that, and then dealing with the stages of grief.”
The main challenge was looking into the light rather than wallowing in the darkness.
“There were 90 songs written for the record, plenty of them horribly slow, depressing songs that could have made their way onto the final release,” Tortoriello reveals. “It sort of became a conscious decision to not go that way. The concept of the story is sad, but I didn’t want to force that feeling on people because that’s not what I like. I don’t like someone forcing their own agenda on me in books or music or movies—I want to be able to put my own feelings into things.”
He’s happy to reveal the inspiration for A Quiet Darkness. While he and Messina were driving Highway 10 in California a few years back they encountered a one-street town called Desert Center, pulling off to find a string of shacks.
“There’s eight little cabins, an elementary school, a gas station, and a couple of farmhouses that we didn’t go into,” Tortoriello says. “Everything is abandoned, and has been for a long time. All the cabins are in a line, like four on each side, so I went up and down, looking in each one. It was like they were used for storage. One of them was full of hot- water heaters, another one was baby toys and clothes. The door on the last one wasn’t open, and it had a satellite dish on top of it. I walked towards it, and a light clicked on inside, at which point I was like, ‘Oh shit—we need to get the fuck out of here!’ ”
Except that he would return, making field recordings in Desert Center that would eventually be worked into many of the decidedly enchanting songs on A Quiet Darkness. Ironically enough, that’s going to ensure that the dying California community in some ways lives on forever. Death can indeed be a beautiful thing, even if everyone doesn’t always agree.
“I’ve actually had plenty of people call me for interviews and say, ‘You’ve made a deeply depressing record,’ ” Tortoriello says with a laugh. “That means that people are injecting their own thoughts into it. So the record changes from person to person. I really like that, because that was what I was after.”