Local songwriter pens synthpop dance music LP about alkyl nitrites | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Local songwriter pens synthpop dance music LP about alkyl nitrites 

click to enlarge Phil Ortmann - CP PHOTO: JARED MURPHY
  • CP photo: Jared Murphy
  • Phil Ortmann

Country music and Phil Ortmann’s first full-length album, POP — an electronic, synth-soaked collection of songs about poppers — have more in common than meets the eye or nose. 

“When I started [writing the album], there was a risk of it just being sort of a breezy ‘let’s party tonight, let’s do poppers or something,’” says Ortmann, who releases music under the moniker Ultravapours. “And I tried to force some themes on it that didn’t really work. I ended up, in a lot of the songs, kind of treating poppers the way that a lot of old country musicians would treat alcohol, as like an attempt to escape regret, pain, for a brief period of time, whether successfully or not.”

A liquid chemical sold in a small bottle, poppers are historically linked to the LGBTQ+ club/rave scene. When inhaled, users feel an instant, euphoric head high. Effects include dizziness, warm sensations, tingling, and an increased heart rate. Poppers are also used to aid in sexual acts. The chemical, often amyl nitrate, dilates the blood vessels and relaxes the anal sphincter. The high, however, is fleeting, only lasting a few seconds to minutes. 

“My friend texted me once as a joke and said, ‘You should make an album about different poppers brands,’” says Ortmann. “I took it as a joke, but also at the time I was reading Peter Hook’s memoir about New Order. So, I just went with it.”

Because poppers are sold recreationally, they come marketed as video head cleaners, polish removers, or room deodorizers. This makes way for a plethora of poppers brands. Each of the songs found on POP — “Amsterdam,” “Flexxx,” “Locker Room,” “Hard Wave,” “Pig Sweat,” “Jungle Juice,” “Bolt,” and “Plain Brown” – is named after a different brand of popper. For the album, Ortmann tried every kind except Flexxx.

“In a lot of cases it didn’t influence the song that much,” says Ortmann. “But in a couple cases, it certainly did.”

Like with “Pig Sweat.” The track ends with the lyrics, “The pop was slow / the pop was long and smooth / and I’m living in its ghost.” Ortmann says those words were directly inspired by what that popper feels like — the high was long-lasting.

click to enlarge music2-popalbum-21.jpg

Mostly, however, POP’s overall theme is regret and longing. When Ortmann started working on the album he was going through a breakup. 

Once he realized the theme that was emerging, Ortmann just went with it. But while the album is, on the surface, about a drug, he doesn’t intend for POP to act as an advertisement for poppers in any way. 

“I hope at least lyrically speaking that [the theme] comes through,” says Ortmann. “It’s a little more nuanced than just go out, have fun, do poppers. That said, it’s far from an anti-poppers album. When Merle Haggard or some country music star from 40 or 50 years ago talks about drowning their sorrows in whiskey or something, it’s just a story. It’s not an endorsement or saying it’s the wrong thing to do.”

While POP was intended to be a one-off project, Ortmann realized that he enjoyed making electronic, synthpop dance music with poppers as the focal point. About five songs were cut from the album for length reasons, and he has many more written. POP is just the first of more popper-related tracks coming from Ultravapours.

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