Just as often as people proclaim that rock ’n’ roll is dead, so it’s claimed that genre is over. Unlike the former, however, there’s an element of truth to the latter. Technology is such that more music than ever before is accessible—borderless, if you will—and so disparate elements find themselves in closer proximity, something bands often take advantage of (subconsciously or otherwise) when crafting their own sound.
Washington, DC’s Bottled Up are one such example, blending a wide variety of influences to make something that’s both uniquely their own as well as a reflection of everything that’s out there. On new album Grand Bizarre, the multi-membered band blend elements of glam, punk, funk, jazz, pop, R&B, post-punk, and everything in between to create 10 tracks of sparkling musical magic that truly takes you on a metaphysical and emotional journey into the heart of their world.
Here, frontman Nikhil Rao, together with Michael Mastrangelo (vocals, guitar) and Clo (vocals, keys), reveal the essence and story of each of those songs.
Nikhil Rao: “Levitate” is about how easy it is to float on our own clouds of delusions, for the sake of self-preservation. I wanted the song to reflect the chaotic and seductive dance we have within ourselves and within others. It’s an introduction to what this record is about: complex personal experiences, cognitive dissonance, alienation, and a brute fury simmering underneath it all.
Clo: It evokes the feeling of anticipation—feeling that something exciting or new is just around the corner. It captures an infatuation with newness and the desire for fulfillment, but what you actually end up finding is brittle and momentary. I think the build toward the end of the song really elicits that “can’t stop won’t stop” feeling that this frantic search for instant gratification can elicit.
2. “Heart & Soul”
NR: While writing “Heart & Soul,” I realized that we were never really a rock band but something more. The group's control over so many rhythmic components and vocal-forward ideas really set a standard for what we can achieve by harnessing elements of electronic, rock, new age, world music, and many other genres. It was liberating to learn we had sonically broken out of these constructs.
MM: It started with the squishy, weird guitar riff I wrote, and then Nikhil added this key change chorus so we could drop in and out of the strummy groovy verses. The lyrics are about climate change and living in an increasingly dangerous world while being expected to act totally normal and not show signs of trauma. The video takes this concept even further, where Nikhil plays a children’s playtime show host who is on the edge of insanity and self-destructs while filming.
3. “Do You Remember My Name”
NR: I’ve been trying to write a song since I was a teenager about how I physically exist and interact with the world around me, but never feel like I belong. My medicine has always been to throw myself recklessly into the loudest and weirdest shit to shock my system and feel alive. As of late I’ve decided to not be scared, and become one with my outsider mentality. I smile now, understanding that my differences are what gives me strength to take control of the chaos the world throws at me. Every part of this song is the emotional journey I get when I have this feeling, starting with a light-hearted search, then slinking through paranoia, then a breath of relief as I imagine all the walls falling down that I created for myself. I love that we were able to finish this song, as it’s a great showcase of how the band can distill such a complex personal experience into a song.
4. “Simple Things”
NR: This is where the record starts to reach the darker parts of my psyche. Sometimes it feels like I fight so hard to be compassionate to those around me, as the world takes a giant shit on us all. What if I gave into my hate? What kind of person would I be? Maybe there’s another version of me where I throw away all my humanity and become a martyr for the pain that I suffered through life. It’s a guilty, euphoric feeling, maybe because it feels forbidden. The songs on this record are almost like scenes from movies in my mind, and we’re scoring them. In this song, I imagine a bizarro evil prince version of me floating on clouds in the heavens, a god that can do whatever he wants without consequence. How great would that be?
C: This song really morphed into something sonically unrecognizable from its original arrangement. It’s purely chaotic energy that’s been cleverly channeled, but certainly not tamed. I remember being in the studio when our producer D was first taking a stab at organizing the many different drum parts, and they decided to have me take a couple vocal passes. That’s actually me with my voice pitched down on the second verse–makes the song even freakier in all of its juxtaposing elements.
5. “Something Smooth”
C: It really was something that this song turned out smooth, because Nikhil essentially just left me with this idea that only had a bit of guitar, synth, and drum machine. He left the studio for an hour or so, and came back to the exact vocal melody and lyrics you hear today. The whole process was kind of a blur, and the product is sporadic in structure—yet it works. I kind of expected this song to get cut, because what came out of me was so all over the place. Then a month or so later D and Nikhil rediscovered it, dropped the funky and it became this electronic body music banger that’s hard to pin down, but really makes you wanna shake it.
NR: Clo’s vocals here are so slinky, slithery, and really playing against the beat. Then D broke out the wavetable and synthesized some really fresh sounds on top of the gliding Prophet 6 synth I had originally laid down. The end result is so artistically fulfilling and, most importantly, like nothing I’ve ever heard. I can’t wait to make more.
NR: In “Seeker,” you’ll really start to hear how the instrumentals, arrangements, and mix of Grand Bizarre acutely transform with the vocals and lyrics of these songs. Angry and even brutalist at times, yet still seductively smooth and intentional.
MM: The song is the story of a homeless person who is in love with a rich woman. He’s in admiration for all the things they have, the stuff that makes them look and smell nice, but hates what it took for them to get there. The conflict is tearing him apart, and the song’s arrangement evolves as his rage consumes him. I guess you could say it’s our “Uptown Girl.”
7. “Livid Moods”
NR: When we took this song to the studio, I wasn’t sure what this song was supposed to be. At the time, I was listening to a ton of Patrice Rushen, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Talk Talk as I was gardening at the community plot every day. After tracking dry disco rhythm guitar, a ripping Wurlitzer solo, lots of synthesizers, and a combination of a drum set and a Roland CR-78 drum machine, we got stuck at the chorus for about a month. Clo swooped in with this beautiful psychedelic melody that had alluring danger to it. We then trimmed the fat of the arrangement, and distilled it into a glistening evil bottle of absinth. I want the listener to get drunk off this song, acknowledging and accepting negative emotions in their life instead of ignoring them. Just because we’re all searching for reasons to live, doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the ride.
C: When Nikhil shared the first version of this song with me, I really liked it, but told him we had to rewrite the chorus into something more distinct. Its first form was more disco, and it was cool to witness it turn into this dark-psych, poppy ear worm. I really wanted to pull out this imagery of the good life in the chorus, hence the lyrics “baccarat bubbles” and “holy in halcyon.”
8. “Italo Love”
NR: This was the first song I wrote for Grand Bizarre. I had just borrowed the Prophet 6 from Gideon Jaguar of Priests, and decided that I would write the foundation of all of Grand Bizarre with synths and drum machines. While writing “Italo,” I was thinking about how people perceiving music becomes warped from the reference point of the listener. I wanted to write a song that transcends that. No matter who was listening, or how they heard the song, they would come out the other side feeling triumphant, glorious, ecstatic without really understanding why.
C: The chord progression in the chorus is almost doomsday-esque, yet it has this eerie cheerfulness running throughout its entirety. It’s kind of sugary and campy, while staying complex in its musical foundation. I have this strong image in my mind of a multiverse version of Nikhil writing this love song for a version of the West Coast completely submerged under water.
MM: Lyrically, Nikhil is using pure imagery to mimic Italian disco songs and what it would be like to Google-Translate a song from Italian to English; kind of what some D-beat and metal bands do when they write in their non-native language.
NR: Punish actually went through a few mutations before we even hit the studio with it—at one point it was much more restrained and sounded almost like a Stereolab song. It was the lyrics that really made this track evolve into something completely new and modern. I was remembering this scene of myself walking through NYC, taking in the cesspool of the city with joy. It felt religious, and as I kept writing the song, I learned more about how I process my trauma by choosing to exist in places most wouldn’t want to be. We then used the lyrics as a guidepost for the arrangement, following the erratic and destitute walk of pleasure and denial. You’ll hear Mellotron, organs, and granular noise—and the guitars chirp and swell with sin to make this song sharp as a knife as it follows the narrative.
10. “Midnight Star”
MM: If Nikhil’s original version of this song is “Midnight Star,” what we have now is like “3 a.m. Star.” D took what Nikhil had written and made it grimy, dark, and sinister. We layered the piano, sax, and trumpet like crazy here, which makes his duet with backup singer Shayla all the more intimate when that all peels away. Beth Cannon from Elizabeth II actually plays that Mayer-esque guitar solo which brings the ’80s vibe to the max.
NR: Most of these songs I demoed at home with Shayla, and the best ideas that I ended up writing around were hers. She brings classic ’90s R&B and pop ideas to what otherwise were my deranged compositions. She grew up dancing with groups like The Jabbawockeez in San Diego, so stuff like Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, and Ace of Base were all in her repertoire growing up. It was amazing to give her an esoteric instrumental and see how she would find the perfect vocal idea that made any of these songs work. It was usually so enlightening that I would then rewrite everything to that vocal idea.