Johnny Hayes ’20, who sings under the name Perihelion, released their debut EP, Introduction [No. A] on Dec. 1, 2019. The Argus sat down with Johnny to talk about their musical influences, experiences doing music production, and plans for the future.
The Argus: So I’m curious, where did the name Perihelion come from?
Johnny Hayes: So you know when you’re like a cringey twelve-year old, but you grow up and you accept that you were a cringey twelve-year old?
A: So this is like the band name you wanted when you were twelve?
JH: Yeah. Perihelion is actually an astronomy term, this is a deep cut…. So when a planet is orbiting a star, the closest point of orbit to said star is called its perihelion, and the furthest point is called the aphelion. So I was like, perihelion is such a neat name because—close to the stars—and for me, twelve-year old me was like, “Star is fame. Direct metaphor!”
A: I like that people wouldn’t necessarily know that meaning right away.
JH: Right. I’m also not the only person on Spotify who has that as their band name, I found out later.
A: You have to kill the other ones then. So your album is some covers and some original right?
JH: Yeah, so the EP is four songs. It’s three cover songs and then an original demo because [the original] is not the fully fledged production, it’s not even the whole song, it’s just me saying I’m going to take the lines that I’ve written over the past two years and throw them together and make it a demo.
A: Which is the original again?
JH: “Nosedive….” I write a lot of poetry, but I can’t write lyrics. I just took a bunch of poetry lines, because they’re all about the same person, because I’m that bitch who keeps writing about someone who did me hella dirty.
A: I mean, no shame, Taylor Swift made her career off of that.
JH: Me and Tay-Tay really got that going on…. So “Nosedive” was just like, let me put all these words together, and a bunch of people have been like, “this is my favorite song on the EP.”
A: It was really cool, you definitely could tell that it was very specific.
JH: Yeah, I wrote the poetry over the course of about two years and then I pulled from there. The reason why it’s a demo is because I didn’t have time to fully flesh it out because this was a six-ish-week process over the summer.
A: Wow. You produced it somewhere, right?
JH: Yeah. My uncle is actually a dialogue editor for many movies. His name is David Bach. So he has a whole home studio now, [but] he is actually not a music producer. I’m also not really a music producer. I’ve practiced and I know music, but I’m not really [a music producer]. And so a lot of it was him opening ProTools, and us being like, “OK, let’s look this up on YouTube, let’s figure this out.” We have the space, we have the items that we need, but actually making an album is very different because his space is like—if you want to record a live album, you can do it there.
A: So how much of the instrumentals did the two of you do?
JH: So if there’s drums it’s him, guitar it’s him, I did all the vocals.
A: I feel like there was orchestra, too?
JH: Yeah, I did all the orchestration and put that in Midi. And some of it was more, “This is how the song goes so I’m going to do that,” and some of it was more, “I’m going to get creative and fuck around with it.”
When you have a vocal track in ProTools, you can run it through an autotuner, right? So I ran all my vocals through an autotuner just because I didn’t want to be out of tune. Most of the time I wasn’t really out of tune which is kind of nice…. There were times in the album, and I know where they’re at, where you can hear me fall out of pocket, which means that my tone or my pitch is not in the pocket of the pitch, [but] not so you’re like “Ow! It’s grading.” So Dave and I were like, “What if we didn’t change that? What if we left those alone?” So we would sing a song…. The guitar and the vocals we’d always sing at the same time to give it a live campfire-ish kind of feel, if there was guitar. And then once we got a take that we really liked, we’d add reverb if we wanted, but very little vocal editing or processing.
A: Is it really unusual to leave in things that are slightly out of pocket, or is that common for singer-songwriters?
JH: In live performances you hear it a lot, because it’s just a part of singing. But on an EP or an album track, it’s very rare, in my experience, and the decision to do that was really scary…to be like no, we want it to sound live and in person, and part of that is having vocal imperfections and hiccups because that’s what I sound like as a singer.
A: And on “Nosedive,” how did you choose what parts of your poetry to translate into lyrics or if there were certain phrases that were the core of the song?
JH: So there’s a poem I wrote a long time ago—I say a long time ago like I’m so old—that is just really simple, like two lines. It’s just “Don’t freak out, he whispered / as he found the perfect place to bury me alive.” That’s the whole poem. And that’s how I felt at the time, like shit, here we go being emotional, and so I used that and was like alright so, underground, falling…nosedive? That’s a cool name, let’s run with it.
Maybe the song is only meant to be a minute and three seconds long. Maybe that’s it. But I would like to take it for the next one, which I would love to happen. But yeah the other songs were…“The Good Side”…I’m a slut for Troye Sivan. I really love his wordplay, and what he does with lyrics is kind of beautiful. And “The Good Side” was…. This album was basically me being, “I’m sad and gay, let’s talk about it.” “Everybody Hurts” is a song by R.E.M. I don’t really listen to them but…I’m going to just embarrass myself if that’s ok.
A: Do it, yeah.
JH: So the R.E.M. cover is based off the Glee cover from Season 5, I think?
A: Wow, you’re really putting yourself out here.
JH: I’ve watched Glee six times.
A: I haven’t seen Glee at all, actually.
JH: Save yourself. It’s not worth it. Everything past the third season is so bad. But I’ve watched it all.
A: So you saw it on Glee?
JH: Yeah, so I saw it in Glee, and then I listened to the original, and I found that what they did with instruments in this one was just so much more for me was like, “Oh it’s more desperate I think in a way.”
A: In the Glee one?
JH: Yeah. So the character, his name is Ryder [Blake Jenner], he sings this before he tells the Glee Club that he was sexually assaulted. And it’s a whole moment, the writers don’t treat it well by the way. But the song itself, I really like the idea of desperate clinging to this hope. Because the writer’s really giving everyone advice almost like, “Oh, don’t give up, but to be that person doing that and to also feel like you’re hopeless.” I was like that’s some relatable content.
So a lot of what that one was—it’s almost a direct copy, it was re-creating a lot of it—because I loved the feel of it so much, and I wanted to put my own stamp on it with the vocals…whereas in the show it felt this way, hopefully this version feels a little more of that desperation that I was feeling when I listened to it.
And then “Breathe” is actually a song by Dom Ferra. Nobody knows who that is, it’s one of my favorite songs ever.
A: Who’s the artist?
JH: So actually, here’s a fun throwback, do you remember the Lazer Collection on YouTube from when you were like twelve, the guy with the red mouth and the giant eyes who would like split a laser?
A: Hmm. I don’t think I do.
JH: I’m sure some people will know it, he was like twelve when he made those, it had millions of views and memes from it, it was a huge hit. So he grew up, became a filmmaker and also a singer and an artist, so I had been following him basically since the Lazer Collection, really liked his filmmaking stuff, and then he started doing music and I was like, “This is actually really good, these lyrics are kind of tight.” And then he came out with “Breathe” and I was like, “Oh my god.”
A: That song is so dramatic, but it’s so good it gets away with it.
JH: It’s right up my alley. Dramatic is right up my alley. So just the whole idea of the lyrics, they’re saying, “Don’t hold your breathe, I’m saying how can you breathe?” is like I’m trapped and everything is awful and you know, admitting to yourself I’m looking for the easy way out, I was like, me all my sophomore year, so I fell in love with the song and was like, this would be really fun to recreate. So I grabbed my friend Clay Rodgers [’22], who is a feature on the track, and was like, “You wanna do this song?” He did all the keyboard instrumentals in the back, he did all that, my uncle did the drums, I did the voice.
A: And did you write the parts?
JH: So Clay and I tossed ideas back and forth, and then he came out with an instrumental part and then we made a tempo map of it because we decided to keep the live feeling, so also none of the songs stay at a specific tempo they all breathe sort of. [Laughs] They all breathe with the music.
[“Breathe”] was actually the reason that I had to delay the album. It was supposed to come out Oct. 15 and it ended up coming out Dec. 1, [because] I could not secure the rights to cover this song. Because he’s not part of a label, or if he’s really small, so we needed him basically to sign off.
A: Yeah how did it feel to have it finally released?
JH: It was such a weight off my shoulders, part of it, because in the middle of this I was also doing Laramie [Project] and my senior essay and I was like, “How am I supposed to have time for this.” But it was very emotional and people were so kind about it…and it was just one of those things where I wouldn’t have done it a different way as much as it was so scary to be like yes there are vocal imperfections here you go world!
I do have to give some shout-outs if that’s ok. My uncle David Bach, my friend Natalie Ruybal did the cover art…all the photo editing…her Instagram is really great, you should follow it @_nataloaf_. Clay Rodgers, obviously, for agreeing to work on this crazy project, because we were not in the same place at all, he was in Santa Barbara and I was in L.A., so he made everything in Logic and I found a way to put it in ProTools. It was really a good time for us!
A: And you said that you’re hoping to release another album eventually?
JH: Yeah. I mean obviously I have to graduate first. I’m looking at doing this last semester sort of a very much less involved project with my friends because I feel like it’s sort of my last semester to do projects musically with my friends. But the main thing is, this last EP, I called it Introduction [No. A]…also I did the make-up myself but…yeah, so Intro [No. A] was sort of supposed to be that, like an intro into my sad gay life, and I was thinking about if I do another EP—that was so much fun, I’d love to release another one in the next year—what should it sound like, what should I do? And I was like, literally, my first idea was to make another EP, call it the Blue Sides, and make it even sadder and gayer. I think maybe there’s a place for…I mean obviously not everything’s sad and gay, but right now I’m pretty sad and gay so you gotta go for it while the iron’s hot, while the depression comes, before I move out of the snow…so I was thinking more ballad-y, poppy stuff.
Introduction [No. A] is available on Spotify, Apple Music, and other platforms.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dani Smotrich-Barr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.