“Sing songs of purpose/Ones they feel in earnest/Long after the furnace claims you.”

So intones Tilian Pearson in the first few moments of his new solo album, Factory Reset. At first, a sentiment this thoughtful and heartfelt may seem out of place for the silken-voiced singer of Dance Gavin Dance. After all, the band’s lyrics often careen from tongue-in-cheek to completely nonsensical: “Riding a rhino, pico de gallo/Rooster’s beak, I’ll sleep when I leap that Jeep!” Jon Mess caterwauls on “Chucky Vs. The Giant Tortoise.”

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But Pearson is a man who thinks and feels deeply, and while we all love a touch of absurdist humor, sometimes a chaotic world demands a more meaningful response. So in the wake of the upheaval brought on by the pandemic, Factory Reset finds Pearson grappling with self-doubt and the nature of truth, all while channeling the flavor and insight of the transcendent experiences he had as he wrote the record. The result is a major high point in an already remarkable career. 

You released a killer album in Factory Reset. When you first started working on it, what was your goal?

After our tour got canceled in 2020, I just had a bunch of free time, and I wanted to make another solo album. But getting together with people was a bit difficult, so it’s the first album that I produced and recorded myself. I sent the tracks to Kris Crummett, and he played drums and mixed it and tightened everything up. It was a fun process and pretty rewarding. I’m really proud of the first track, “Holy Water,” in particular. It’s not really like anything I’ve done on my own, and it has a vibe that’s thrown back to my time in Tides Of Man from 2008 to 2010.

How do you think writing, recording and producing the record changed you as an artist?

I think it was a cool experiment, and I’m definitely proud of Factory Reset, but I want to collaborate again. I think that’s how it changed me — I got that itch back.

Aside from the album, what has been another major highlight of 2021?

Getting back to touring with Dance Gavin Dance was definitely the highlight. I had missed the friendships with the guys in the band and the shows — Salt Lake City was a surprising rush. It has always been a down city for us; we’ve canceled more shows there than anywhere else, just for lack of interest. But this time was so enthusiastic and so much bigger than we predicted. After that, I made a point to be like, “OK, I’m going to live in the moment on this tour, really soak it up and appreciate it.” Before all that, I had been feeling a little bit lost, to be honest. Then touring came back, and it was like, “Oh shit, this is what my purpose is.” It reinspired a lot of confidence.

Tell me more about that sense of lostness. What did that feel like for you?

I think that doing music and touring covers up a sense of, “OK, so what else is my purpose? What else am I doing?” I was thinking about that way too often. Even when everything comes back — if it does, or if it comes back differently — I still have that lingering thought of, “What is it all building toward?” I got stuck in that headspace: “Do I want a family? Do I want to build another career? Do I want to have a spiritual awakening?” All of those things crossed my mind pretty consistently.

If you were to try a different career, what would that look like?

I like flying — that’s what I was doing before music, and I’ve been procrastinating getting back into that for a long time. I got my pilot’s license at age 17, so I can fly single-engine prop planes. But when I flew, it wasn’t as rewarding — it was a little bit lonely, maybe. Though I’m sure that could have changed if I stayed on that path and built it out.

Looking back on the year, have you experienced any disappointments or made any mistakes?

I think the isolation forced even more isolation, to where it became unnecessary. I definitely spent too many days not responding to people or not growing my relationships. The lyrics of Factory Reset actually have a hint of isolation. It just snowballed — that’s something I definitely want to look at changing next year.

But I feel like I’ve always had that in me. Even as a kid, I would run away from school, run away from home. I would just walk or hide in the bushes and spy. I think it was a mixture of wanting to be a secret agent and not really relating to people right off the bat. Who knows where that comes from, but in the last year, I’ve realized that that’s definitely still in me.

Were things kind of rocky in your home life back then?

No, it wasn’t angry or violent or anything. Although we did grow up in a very weird religious circumstance that I was never really into, and I felt pressure from friends and family to be interested in it.

I also wanted to ask about the new Dance Gavin Dance record, which I know you guys have been working hard on. What have been the highs and lows of that process?

It’s been mostly highs. We spent more time doing it, and we were in a really good environment. Jon, Andrew [Wells, vocalist of Eidola] and I rented an Airbnb and just chilled — probably for over a month for me and Jon. Because of that, we didn’t take any more time on any songs — we just wrote more. It was mostly a positive experience the whole time. Jon and I collaborated more than we usually do, and that was nice. Andrew and I, too — he’s on this album a lot.

Andrew officially joined the band in 2021, right?

Not yet — that’s something that might happen in 2022. But he’s definitely on a lot of music now, and we knew he was going to join the band. He was just at the end of a contract that we had already done, and we haven’t created the new one yet.

Do you think the success of your work with Jon and Andrew was because of that itch you got to collaborate more?

Possibly, yeah. I was definitely more comfortable in general, just being in an environment with Jon that might have been awkward in the past. I think he was in a really good headspace, too, and he spent a lot of time writing. He usually writes quite a bit before we even get there, while I tend to procrastinate more. I think it’s because I don’t like writing the demos — I like to hear the album recordings, and DGD almost always does instrumentals first. Next time we’re going to probably spend even more time in between tracking the instruments and the album because it tends to work out pretty well.

Are you happy with how the tracks are coming together? Are fans going to like them?

I think so. It’s definitely not as left field as Afterburner — there are no songs in Spanish or anything. It’s a bit bigger-sounding than usual for us. It sounds a little more like our live set than the clarity of Mothership, where you can hear every single note the guitar is playing. There’s a little bit more of a togetherness to the sound. And because we had the most time to work on it, it’s our longest album — I can reveal that.

Both visually and lyrically, it seems like DGD often have a thematic focus on robots. And the same now seems to be true of your solo work because you titled the new album Factory Reset. What do robots mean to you?

In DGD, that happened before I got there. But with Factory Reset, I didn’t look at it like an electronic thing. I knew it had that connotation, but it was more like resetting your mind and the way you think. That came with several trips out to Joshua Tree while writing and being in a much more meditative space than usual.

“Resetting your mind” makes me think of psychedelics, especially with the trippy album cover. Was that a component of your creative process?

Yeah, there’s definitely a psychedelic element to it — it’s probably the most psychedelic-influenced thing I’ve ever done, both lyrically and musically. I’ve slowed down on that front since then, but I would be having a trip, write in my notepad while it was happening, then read it the next morning and start writing.

The song “Anthem” is actually based on a trip I had. It made me think that there’s more out there, more to consciousness and more to life than I had previously thought. It made me interested in looking into that more.

You mentioned that early in your life, you felt pressure to conform to certain religious beliefs. Did that experience change your views on religion?

Absolutely. As a young 20s person or even a late teenager, I thought it was all bullshit that I didn’t subscribe to. I thought people were just lying to each other and lying to themselves, and then having the placebo effect and spreading it around. But later in life, I’ve come back around and been like, “OK, it’s not all just predatory — there’s something to this.” If for thousands of years, people have believed in the same themes and talked about them, and they kind of formed the world, there has to be something more to it.

That’s really well said. So what did that psychedelic experience feel like in the moment?

That specific one was almost like a communication between me and some ancient entity. Like a communication from… who knows? It’s hard to put my finger on. “Ineffable” is the word that always describes those experiences. I can’t really explain it. It was just a feeling I had.

A picture was also communicated to me. This was shortly after the George Floyd murder, and I saw this picture of humans holding hands with each other. Pain is way too much to carry by yourself. It won’t ever heal. You have to pass it on to the whole group. That was something I was struggling with around that time.

Then there was a moment — this is in the lyrics for “Anthem” — where it was like, “OK, my consciousness is definitely separate from my body.” That’s not something I had ever believed in before. That’s not to say it really happened — I don’t know. But that feeling...

Many artists feel that their public persona is different from their private self. Is that true for you?

Definitely. I’m very confident onstage and nowhere else. Public speaking would be tough — I actually don’t talk much onstage because of that. I just show things with body language and then create interludes. Those interludes were my idea, mostly because I don’t want to have to give a speech after every song. I value that in other people, but it takes me out of the flow, and I’d rather stay in it.

I’m glad that you brought up self-confidence. In “Caught In The Carousel” off Factory Reset, the lyrics keep circling back to the question of, “Am I good enough?” Is that inquiry coming from a personal place for you?

Yeah, a lot of it is. Maybe not all of it, but probably the majority. Sometimes a line just works and makes sense in the context of the song, and it’s not 100% personal, but mostly. Or I see things in other people that I relate to — that’s what my lyrics are often about. “You’ll Forget Me Soon” on the first solo record was about my friend’s divorce. Jon and I wrote “Doom & Gloom” about a breakup that Will [Swan, lead guitarist] was going through. We just had empathy for it, so we wrote about it. That happens a lot.

In past interviews, you’ve talked about major life events — like getting on DGD’s radar — as happening by pure chance. Looking back on 2021, did anything important happen that was a matter of luck or chance?

When I listen to the new Dance Gavin Dance, I don’t really remember coming up with any of the parts that I made. You just put yourself in front of the computer or pen and paper, and it just... happens. So I feel like writing music is chance — it’s not really in your control. It’s just whatever comes.

Do you think of writing as being almost like a psychedelic experience, where you’re channeling some sort of consciousness beyond yourself?

Yeah, I think most artists would probably agree that it’s some other consciousness feeding the creativity, unless you have a big enough ego to think that you’re somehow responsible for it. That’s what’s fun about being in the world of artists — you know that they know, too, like, “This is just something that’s coming to me in a stream. It’s not really intentional.”

Interesting. So do you think of yourself more as a vessel than a creator? Or maybe a bit of both?

Yeah, definitely. In some ways, I feel like I’m sacrificial to myself, just to be delivering and performing. There are those nights or even weeks on tour when you’re like, “OK, we’re pushing through, but we’re all dead. We’re all tired.” It’s obviously rewarding, but you have to do it for the audience — I mean, that’s the whole point. When I was growing up and watching shows, that’s what I felt, and that’s what inspired me. And today, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

This interview appeared in issue 401 (the AP Yearbook), available here.