Locals: Emily & the Complexes enjoy exploring life’s underbelly

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From the August 14, 2014 edition

Emily & the Complexes frontman Tyler Verhagen has a thing for dirtballs.

The standout tune on the band's 2012 debut, Styrofoam Plate Blues, paints a portrait of a shiftless character who refuses to brush his teeth, comb his hair or even change his socks.

“I won't stop you loving me,” Verhagen sings atop an equally grimy stew of guitars and drums. “But baby I'm gonna make it hard.”

The same grungy dude appears to make a cameo on the band's new self-titled EP, which the quartet will mark with a record release show at Rumba Cafe on Thursday, Aug. 14, bumming pain meds off a lady friend, crashing on the couch and generally making a nuisance of himself on the suitably scruffy “Yer Boyfriend (Is a Cheapskate).”

“I guess I’ve always been drawn to skeezy people, you know?” said Verhagen, 26, in an early August interview at a Downtown coffee shop.

A desire to explore life's underbelly is part of what led the Cincinnati-native to spend nearly two years hitchhiking the country following his 21st birthday, and he said he spent a bulk of the time drinking in seedy dive bars and chatting up the various shady individuals that crossed his path.

“I didn’t want to go into the wild,” he said, making reference to Christopher McCandless' solitary (and ultimately fatal) trek into the Alaskan wilderness. “I wanted to see other cities and people and the underside of different cultures in America.”

It's an underside that surfaces frequently in Verhagen's songs, which have a tendency to gravitate toward life's darker moments. The band’s latest EP opens with the narrator searching for any substance that can help numb the pain — “Rubbing alcohol or Scotch, I don't care,” he slurs — while another tune finds the singer taking bitter shots at a former running mate who had the audacity to grow up and leave his carousing ways behind in order to carve out a life with a pretty girl in a new home.

“A lot of [the record] is about being in your mid-20s, which is kind of a dark time,” Verhagen said. “You start to know all these people that are getting married and having kids, and they’re the same age or younger than you, and it makes no sense whatsoever. In just a span of a few years everyone can be on a totally different level, and it’s weird to navigate.”

While certain songs are borne of his own experiences (see: the embittered “Joshua”), Verhagen has more recently adopted a story-based approach, crafting elaborate character sketches that allow him the freedom to take on myriad perspectives.

“It gets boring focusing on yourself all the time,” he said. “There’s so much out in the world, so how can you focus on one little corner of it your whole life? I want to get out and experience things, and then turn that into [music].”

Photo by Meghan Ralston