The Scary Jokes is the solo synthpop project of Pennsylvania-based queer / nonbinary musician, activist and visual artist Liz Lehman. Along with the release of album track “Magic Hat,” they have announced new Fire-Toolz produced LP, Retinal Bloom, out May 26 on Needlejuice Records.

Like their band name, Lehman’s music hits an oxymoronic tone, with ethereal synths innocently backing deeply personal, often dark lyrics. Scary Jokes explores the dark side of dreamy bedroom pop, with a sound more befitting descriptors like hallucinogenic, surrealist and nightmare pop.

For Scary Jokes’ latest album, Retinal Bloom, Lehman reinvents their sound while maintaining their idiosyncratic edge. Inspired by artists such as Kate Bush and Brian Eno, Lehman sought the warmth of equipment that was new to them—analog synths. “I really love the sound of vintage synthesizers,” Lehman says. “It’s hard to get that character if you’re not using hardware synths. I especially like ’80s art-pop albums, like Kate Bush, so I was interested in exploring sounds like that.”

In another departure from their prior work, Lehman often chose to express the depths of their emotions via animal-like screams and wails, with the lyrics exploring themes like intrusive thoughts, human cruelty, cults (including the cult of personality), and a willingness to protect your loved ones at all costs.

Lehman’s songwriting process is primal and instinctual. To create Retinal Bloom, they experimented with their Elektron Model: Cycles synth, drum machine and sequencer, sculpting sounds in their home studio, eventually combining the best beats and improvising animalistic vocal sounds over them. 

The Elektron Model:Cycles has this great kind of crushed sound,” Lehman says. “The synths on it—you can obviously use the presets or do your own thing, but they have a very spooky quality to them. So I really enjoyed playing with that.”

Once Lehman had established a sound for each song, they fleshed out the lyrics. In this case, the subject matter was largely influenced by the overwhelming global effects of the pandemic, the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, women and people of color, and the protective rage that burns within as a response.

I would say that, personally—and also on a global scale—it’s been a rough few years. I had a lot of feelings that I felt like I needed to express about isolation—not just pandemic stuff, but frustration with how other people can be, both on a personal and a systemic level. In the past few years, I’ve become very defensive over people I care about, just because unfair things happen all the time. Sometimes things are so sad and frustrating, and all you want to do is protect the people around you. And that’s where I was coming from, big time, with this album—almost this feral protectiveness over people.”

Retinal Bloom’s opening track “Our Murderous Descent” was initially inspired by the terrifying awe Lehman experienced in the presence of a massive, powerful waterfall, which became a metaphor for living in a hostile environment and forming a community in the face of crushing oppression.

There’s this big waterfall where I live now that’s kind of a tourist attraction,” they say, “and I started off that song with the idea of writing about the intrusive thought you have when you’re by a huge waterfall where you’re just like, ‘What if I stood under that?’ It’s so powerful. So I was writing about it from that concept. But then I started working in the feelings I was talking about before, about feeling like you’re in a hostile environment with a bunch of people, clearly all under the same circumstances, and what can you do but be there for each other?”

Pulsing, frenetic and urgent, “Uzumaki” delves into having recurring, nostalgic dreams about people with whom you’ve had a falling out, badly wanting things to be okay as they are in the dream (and were in the past), but then waking to the bleak realization that the friendship is gone. “When I have dreams like that,” Lehman says, “all the context for why we’re not friends anymore is inaccessible in that moment. “But as soon as you wake up and have some clarity, everything comes rushing to the forefront of your brain. I often get frustrated by the senselessness of making an enemy. I don’t want to have enemies; I want to be friends with everyone. ‘Uzumaki’ is about those feelings being at odds with each other.”

The song “Riptide” draws from the story behind the Diablo Cody-penned film Jennifer’s Body, along with the exploitation star Megan Fox experienced throughout her career. “I thought it would be kind of fun to write a song about Jennifer’s Body,” Lehman says. “So I included some references to the movie, but I also got caught up in how frustrated I was for Megan Fox during the release of that movie, and also in her whole career, just how much abuse she’s faced, and how she’s been taken advantage of, so I put that same frustration into the song.”

Elephant Foot” provides another clever metaphor. In the song, the Elephant Foot—a mass of nuclear waste leftover from the meltdown at Chernobyl—stands in for Lehman’s complicated feelings about fame. As The Scary Jokes gain notoriety, Lehman faces ever more vitriol from people reacting to them as if some frightening, untouchable thing. In turn, their desire to be left alone grows, as do the parallels to the song’s titular radioactive formation.

While the analog synths Lehman used for Retinal Bloom allowed for a greater depth of control than the sonic tools they employed on previous albums, and while their songwriting method is solitary, they didn’t make the album alone. Lehman worked closely with musician and producer Angel Marcloid (aka Fire-Toolz), who remixed and remastered The Scary Jokes’ 2016 debut, April Fools. Marcloid polished Lehman’s existing material, artfully adding guitar, drums, and distortion to fill in every aural corner and redefine the sound of the album. Marcloid and Lehman’s common vision for Retinal Bloom led to a truly collaborative effort.

When Angel came on, she came to me and said, ‘I really like this, and if I just mix and master it as-is, it would be great.’ But she’s so good, and I really wanted her to have a good amount of creative freedom on it too. So she contributed some guitar, some really cool drums and distortion. She filled in every bit of empty space in the album that existed—just filled up every single corner of it. And that was really, really cool. It defined the sound of the album in a really exciting way.

It’s interesting because I think—even though we have a lot of the same influences—we make very different kinds of music. But with Retinal Bloom we were on the same page with every single decision. So it was really cool for it to be that easy and inspiring and fun to work with her. I thought it was cool that we had such a similar goal in mind for the album.”

***Preorder album here***

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.