Music News

Back of a Car Looks to Islam, Politics on How to Cook Your Soul

Kelley Williams, left, is the primary songwriter for Back of a Car and its lone continuous member.
Kelley Williams, left, is the primary songwriter for Back of a Car and its lone continuous member. Katie Volz
Denver band Back of a Car’s full-length album, How to Cook Your Soul, sounds like all the slower, anthemic songs on a pop-punk record from around 1997. And that's a good thing.

The album premieres digitally and on cassette tape on June 24.

Kelley Williams, the sole continuous member and primary songwriter for Back of a Car, says previous records were more heavy and conceptual, and lacked any discernible pop sensibilities. But by the time he wrote “I Wish My Hands Were Your Bra,” the opening track on How to Cook Your Soul, he felt he’d reached the level of pop-friendly that he’d been searching for.

“I just wanted every song to feel like a consolidated single,” he says. “The chorus comes in early. I tried to be just as catchy with the verse as the chorus. I enjoy those sorts of sensibilities, but also retaining the unconventional lyricism of previous records.”

The guitars are heavy and fuzz-laden, while the lyrics beckon you to forgo slam dancing and listen. Williams says he has been heavily influenced by a lot of ’90s music, specifically bands from Tooth & Nail Records, a Seattle-based Christian rock label, and its noise pop/shoegaze outfit Morella's Forest.

“I’m really into a lot of Tooth & Nail bands from the ’90s,” he says. “That record label was putting out unique bands that probably wouldn’t have gotten any attention or any sort of distribution had Tooth & Nail not been involved with them.”

Williams adds that he likes to address uncommon topics in his lyrics, and describe them in a way that won’t leave people scratching their heads. “I don’t like vague lyrics,” he explains. “I like very direct, straightforward lyrics, but at the same time I want it to be very interesting to think about.”

He’s always been interested in religion and spirituality, and while “I Wish My Hands Were Your Bra” is a love song of sorts, it also addresses the concept of original sin and a desire for a religious innocence.

Williams, who converted to Islam about fourteen years ago, is particularly drawn to Islamic history and spirituality, and he explores it on numerous songs. The album’s second track, “Rabia’s Sleep Song,” takes inspiration from a story attributed to eighth-century Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabia Basri. In the story, Rabia is holding a pail of water in one hand and a pail of burning coals in the other. When asked where she’s going, she replies that she is going to drown heaven and set fire to the gates of paradise, so her fellow Muslims don’t praise Allah out of fear of hell or a desire for heaven, but out of faith.

“I’ve always been interested in religion,” Williams says. “When I was a kid, I tried to get interested in church, tried to get interested in Christianity, but the theology of Christianity I never jibed with. Islam, for me, is more like an interpretation of a bunch of beliefs I’ve had since I was a kid.”

The album also touches on political topics. “MAGA Killer$$” details William’s response to the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He thinks the previous presidential administration wasn't too far outside of the norm for American history. The January 6 attack was certainly abhorrent, but shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, according to Williams.

“I don’t want to have a pearl-clutching view of it and say this is the worst America has ever been, sort of a liberal approach,” he explains. “This isn’t the worst America has to offer. If you go back to the nineteenth century, all these things are a very common current in American politics and culture.”

Williams grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico, and has also lived in Las Cruces and Tennessee. He’s performed under both his own name and the Back of a Car moniker; he reconstituted the band’s lineup after moving to Denver about a year ago.

On Friday, June 24, Back of a Car is also taking pre-orders for a collection of music videos to be released on VHS, a once-dead format making a comeback among the younger crowd. (And everyone over forty is just saying, “But why?!”) The obsolete medium is suddenly showing up again, with tapes reappearing on shelves outside of thrift shops.

“VHS [is attractive] for a lot of people [because] the aesthetic of it feels nostalgic,” Williams says. “It’s sort of like a visual nostalgia no matter what it is. There’s something that’s sort of a relic about VHS.”

Williams, who is 33, says he grew up with VHS tapes and still likes them because of their size and bulkiness. He extends those inclinations to his music gear, as well.

“When I think about guitars, I like Les Pauls and I like jazzmasters with humbuckers,” he says. “I like full stacks and vinyl records because the art is big. … I like things that are old, too, but media that’s larger feels great to me.”

He adds that while the band is releasing the album on cassette, he’s not as big a fan of that medium as he is of VHS — and neither is anyone else who has had to go out and buy another copy of their favorite album after finding it melted on the front car seat — but he does love 8-tracks. His first record player had an 8-track player attached to it, and a nearby Salvation Army thrift shop boasted an excellent selection.

“When I hold an 8-track, I’m like, ‘8-tracks are sick,’” he says. “But it’s probably different for everyone else. For some people it’s probably technical. For me, it’s probably more shallow — just that it’s bigger.”

How to Cook Your Soul premieres Friday, June 24, on Bandcamp. Check out Back of a Car’s Bandcamp page for more music.
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