My print-edition feature on the Rapture is up now, and I’m really amped that I got to do this one. I like the band a lot, and I’m hoping their new joint doesn’t get too lost in the flood of fall releases; it’s not quite as good as Echoes, but it’s really fucking good. I had a really good interview with Matt Safer and Luke Jenner. I met them at a cafe in the East Village a couple of days after I’d seen them play an in-store show at the Apple Store in Soho, and they were both completely cool, relaxed dudes. They had a lot of interesting things to say that couldn’t fit into the article, so here’s the uncut Q&A.
What took three years between records?
Matt Safer: The first year of it was touring. The way that we write, when it works, we all write together. So we just didn’t have down time where we were sitting there, going in and practicing together and writing. Then we took a break for a little bit just because a year of touring makes you want to not be in a band. And then we got to writing. We wanted to write a lot of stuff. We wanted to be happy with what we were doing; we wanted to be good, and we didn’t feel like there was any real purpose to trying to rush out a second record, rush that process.
At the show the other night at the Apple Store, something I was noticing hearing the songs next to each other was that the older ones were so much thicker and darker and more desperate, and these ones are more about clean lines. It’s more fluorescent.
Luke Jenner: I mean, for me, when I listen to Echoes, it just reminds me of being hung over everyday. The state of mind that I was personally in when I was writing that record was that I didn’t like myself that much. Even the songs like “Open Up Your Heart” or “Love is All,” things that are trying really hard to be overtly positive, don’t come off exactly like that. They still have a real kind of twist to them. And this record was made in really good circumstances. I mean, I think part of what took us so long to make the second record was we didn’t know how to be a band, really, to the level that we know how to be a band now. We had to tear everything down at the beginning when we first started writing songs. We had to operate under the old model, which was basically to argue your point at all costs until you win, which was how that last record was made. This time, we had to take a step back from that. We had a couple of false starts.
MS: Creatively, rather than everyone focusing on their own shit being good… It was all about, like, different single visions of where the song should be, and it bummed me out in the past. So this time, we put a moratorium on that, focusing on what Vito’s doing on the drums or focusing on the bass or vocals. We just got out of each other’s way and, through doing that, we discovered what was good about us in the first place. We had room to stretch out a little bit more. It’s maybe more fluorescent in the sense that everybody’s operating at 100% of their creative capacity.
Yeah, everything seems to interlock more. There’s parts where you can’t tell which instrument is which and everything is weaving in and out of everything else, like on “Get Myself Into It.”
LJ: That’s where the effervescence of this record, the good times, come in. In Echoes, there’s a sense of the instruments pushing against each other and almost being at odds with each other; there’s a sharpness to the vocals and guitars and even drums. Everything feels like it’s in an argument with each other. The last record was made under a reductionist construct; a lot of the things that worked together and could’ve been something just got chopped off. I feel like on this album, it had a sense of growing, from the time when we all started listening to each other and working together to the time we got done recording the last note on the album to mixing the record, at every step of the game, it didn’t feel like we were really lopping off big parts of it. It just felt like, “what can we add to this to make it better?” as opposed to “what can we take away from this?”
MS: We just had a chance to individually take more chances, like if I wanted to try putting backing vocals on “WAYUH” and got on there and pitched my voice up, everyone let me run with that, and that made it work.
LJ: Yeah, I used to find my way into songs by telling other people what to do or taking away their part or trying to influence their part as opposed to trying to have a synergy with what they were doing, which comes from being hung over and being lazy. When you’re hung over, you have a really short attention span, and you just get snippy with people. When you’re not hung over, that’s not your only option.
But that hung over aesthetic really worked for Echoes.
LJ: Yeah, we really nailed it. But I spent from when I was 17 to when I was 27 being hung over every day. Even more than music, my M.O. in life was to get fucked up.
How old are you now?
LJ: 31. And I felt like I had a solid ten-year run of really doing it. And I loved it; I was great at partying. You can ask anyone that knew me; I really enjoyed myself. I went to see Beerfest a couple of days ago, and I wouldn’t trade those times for anything. But at the same time, I felt like after ten years of nonstop partying and touring and having a great time, I wanted to experience something else as well.
How was Beerfest?
LJ: It had its moments; it had some really funny moments. It’s just an oddball comedy. All of those movies are kind of similar; you can’t go in there with a really critical eye or else you’re just not going to enjoy it. But it was good. I enjoyed it, definitely. More than anything, it reminded me that when I first put the reins on partying, I was really cynical about it, and I was really judgmental about my own partying and all that shit. But I’m actually at the point now where I can look back fondly on it and be like, man, I had a really great time, putting on a helmet and running into walls and fucking drinking to the point where I couldn’t stand up. It was great.
Why do you feel like Echoes was more reductionist?
LJ: Like I said, it was the nature of how it was made and the nature of how we worked with DFA. It was a struggle within the band and with DFA. It would be “I want to do this,” but someone else wants to do this, and the way you decided if you got to try out your idea at all was you had to be mean to somebody else, basically, and be like, “No, fuck you, my idea is better than yours.”
MS: But there’s no reason none of these ideas could work together.
Is that why you split with DFA?
MS: No, it’s not even so much about us. It was actually more of an internal thing. What they did more than anything else was probably more facilitate those arguments to the best that they could. But we just tore each other to shreds; it was horrible. Their great accomplishment with us was not like they introduced the Rapture to the cowbell; their great accomplishment was getting a band that at various points wanted to kill each other to finish an album.
Now with the producers this time, how was the process different?
MS: Paul and Ewan worked together. They had met once but never worked together, so that was kind of interesting. We spent so much time writing and producing our own demos, really, that we had this record mapped out in terms of knowing more or less what the good songs were. Everyone was already happy with their parts individually and with the songs. There wasn’t any going into the record; nothing needed to be fixed. We felt like we had done everything we needed to do going in, so we just followed those maps and got everything laid out the way they were, and then what both Paul and Ewan and Danger Mouse did for them was help accentuate some of the things we wanted to do for them and what works, bring them out more and retool the arrangements. That’s something we did a lot with Danger Mouse.
With Danger Mouse as a rap producer, a lot of what he does is make beats. But obviously he’s not making the beats on those songs.
MS: There was a question in our conversations with him where he was like, “I’m not sure how what the things are that I can do best for you guys.” A lot of the songs where we didn’t work with him, part of the reason that we didn’t work with him was he was like, “This song is fine; I don’t know what I’m going to bring to it.” Which is great. But I think what he did for some of it was arrangement; he has a very interesting ear for being like, “Something needs to change here; we need to lop that.” One of his philosophies is that he always listens from the beginning of the track, and then just stops when something’s wrong, goes back, listens from the beginning. He doesn’t leave shit for later. So he works through kind of the way you write a song. We sort of had this idea of what we wanted a song to be beyond the song that it was; we wanted to get more rhythm in there.
LJ: And this is sort of a more Led Zeppelin classic-rock kind of a thing, but Vito viewed it as he wanted it to sound like War. There was an emphasis on this record to make it sound contemporary, whatever the reference was.
With “WAYUH,” is that a Goodie Mob interpolation?
MS: Yeah, it is. I ran it by Cee-Lo. More than anything else, I think he was really surprised that anyone, but especially me, him being like, “Oh that dude’s in a rock band,” which is not really what we’re about. But especially Cee-Lo not being part of our thing, I met him. I was with Brian while we were making the record, and Brian was like, “I told you; these guys know their shit!”
LJ: We get that a lot; people don’t expect us to know about anything. That’s a fun place to be, though.
MS: It’s such a producer-driven thing, the way people think about it. Pop music right now is big with music nerds; people are more excited about the new Christina Aguilera thing than they are about the new indie thing. Part of what comes is that there’s an emphasis in the mind; people think that producers are the geniuses behind everything. With someone like Christina Aguilera, I don’t know how much she had to do with her songs; maybe it’s true in her case and maybe it’s not. But people just generally assume that bands are dumb and don’t know about what they’re doing. The press has all been really nice, but so much of the focus has been on this being a party record and this being a record made with Paul Epworth and Danger Mouse and all that. And a lot of that, you could read it and there’s not a single reference to the songwriting or the drumming. They’ll talk about the vocals, but that’s the same thing with Christina Aguilera. They’ll talk about her vocals, but they’ll talk about Preemo’s beats.
But if they’re looking at you like Christina Aguilera, is that a bad thing?
MS: No, I’m happy with that! But it’s just an interesting time. I don’t listen to a lot of bands myself.
I have to say, I think it’s kind of perfect that your album came out the same day as the Justin Timberlake album.
LJ: We’re not that far apart in a weird way.
You’re very close together in a weird way!
LJ: I’m glad you see that because most people don’t. It’s not like we set out to make a pop record, though. We made Echoes like we were trying to make a pop record.
MS: I thought Echoes was the poppiest shit I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard the same thing about Suicide.
LJ: The first Suicide record, they were really confused when they didn’t go to number one. They were like, “This is weird! This is contemporary pop music!” I think a lot of the greatest music is made from that fractured viewpoint; it’s like this skewed perception.
MS: What happens is when you really love your band and you really love the records you’re making, it’s this culmination of everything you love about life and music and all that, so it feels like the best thing. So it’s really easy to be like, “Wait, why do you feel like that about it?”
LJ: I’m more interested in the current state of pop. If I am going to listen to contemporary music, it’s not going to be the Canadian indie-rock scene. I’m more interested in DJ Premier and Christina Aguilera than I am in any contemporary thing.
MS: With Echoes, a lot of it came out of a frustration with how shitty the state of New York and I guess world punk and indie music was in 1999 and 2000. They were horrible years.
It’s only gotten worse since then.
MS: Well, I like the Liars and I like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Those bands weren’t around when we were first playing in the city.
LJ: It was us and Black Dice when they were an angry hardcore band, the opposite of what they are now.
I think it’s interesting; you guys are one of the last bands standing from this early-00s indie scene. Like the Convocation Of… does not exist anymore, or if they do, you guys are in completely different worlds now.
LJ: You know, I think the Convocation Of… does actually still exist. But I don’t think Guy [Blakeslee]’s in the band anymore. We have managed to navigate a lot of difficult little things. I get kind of sad when I think about how few people I still know who are still around from all the different times we’ve been through. I feel like we’re almost the last survivors of everything we’ve been through, weirdly. I wouldn’t want to say that and bum somebody out, but it feels like that sometimes. I see somebody from five years ago, and I’m just like, “Man, it’s really great to see you; I haven’t seen you in forever.” I totally forgot about that part of my life because I don’t exist in that way anymore.
MS: When we were talking about differences on this record and stuff, Gabe joining the band and being there all along is a really big change to the creative process, first because there’s suddenly a fourth person who’s writing the songs. And also, having that fourth instrumental voice really fills things out and allows us, writing-wise. We can all move around a little more freely.
Yeah, you’re singing more now. Is that a part of it?
MS: A lot of it just has to do with writing more songs.
Luke, I met you at a show in Baltimore a few years ago, and you were saying something about how you might be doing something with Timbaland. Nothing ever happened with that?
LJ: We met him. We went to his studio and hung out, but sadly it never made sense.
MS: He liked our band and wanted to do something. If you look at what he’s been coming out with recently, it makes sense. There’s an unfortunate reality that the economy of a rock band, for lack of a better word, and one of the world’s biggest hip-hop producers, his cutting you a deal is our album budget. Even if he cuts us a great deal, it’s still more than we’re able to afford, which is a shame.
LJ: We’re still in a ghetto in a sense. We’re still on the lower side of major-label bands. We don’t have any proven hit singles; therefore, the record label’s not going to be like, “You need a million dollars to make this record? Cool!”
MS: I think it’s a shame. I’m sure that it would’ve been a lot of fun. It’s a shame when something comes down to economics and what someone could be making doing a lot of pop shit gets in the way of what could be a really interesting collaboration.
Lyrically, especially on “WAYUH” and on “The Sound,” there’s almost like a happy discontent there, like you’re pissed with how the culture surrounding music is but you’re still having fun with it.
MS: Yeah. I’m a cynical dude, but I’m happy being cynical. I’m not an angry young man; I’m a sarcastic young man. Sometimes I get angry, but usually not about music.
I wanted to ask you about the in-store show. How did that come to be?
MS: Apple begged us to do it.
Did you get big money for it?
MS: Um, yes.
LJ: To be honest, the record label just wants you to do something different that makes an event. It’s better publicity to do an in-store like Apple than it does to, like, play Bowery Ballroom. I always enjoy shows like that more personally because basically we were set up on like a classroom stage, and you have to figure out a way to make that work. I’ll remember that way longer than I will playing just some rock club. I think when Echoes came out, I would’ve been miserable doing the Apple in-store and hated it. But we’ve already done everything else, so why the fuck not do Apple?
MS: But I like the story, though, that maybe for this story you can say that Apple begged us to do it and paid us big money. I prefer that angle on it. You can question your journalistic integrity and make that call.
Do you want to talk about Cee-Lo at all, having him on the album?
LJ: To be honest with you, Matt and Gabe are the big Goodie Mob fans. I went out while Cee-Lo was in the studio and went to a record store and bought a Goodie Mob album.
Which one did you buy?
LJ: The one Gabe told me to buy.
MS: It was probably World Party, which is not really the good one.
LJ: I don’t think it was World Party. But anyway, I didn’t really know who he was, and Gabe and Matt were all nervous and shit.
MS: It was really neat. “Neat” is kind of a geeky word. I was trying to be cool. But at the same time, I had met him the night before and hung out with him, and he’s a really nice dude, really normal and easy to talk to. He’s got a big watch. I tried his watch on.
Was it heavy?
MS: It’s really heavy.
LJ: He’s really huggy.
MS: He just did some backing vocals, and his voice really helped fill the chorus out.
You guys don’t really have guests on albums the way some people do.
LH: I think Cee-Lo just meant a lot to Matt and Gabe. It wasn’t like, “Let’s go out and get X and Y.” On the album, it’s not even like “featuring Cee-Lo,” and that was on purpose.
MS: We didn’t want to have some part we couldn’t do onstage for the next year and a half.
LJ: And there’s a real sense that we want to make it on our own terms. We don’t want to, like, do a cover song. We’re kind of understood for what we do as opposed to getting somebody to make our record important for somebody or whatever.
There’s this kind of culture surrounding indie-rock now. It seems to have changed a lot in the last couple of years so that it’s more about MP3 blogs and these bands that seem to have their entire career over the space of like three months.
LJ: It’s this hyper-NME culture. I think that just comes from the nature of when you download music for free or not for free, you don’t have a hard copy of it, and you might just erase it off your computer. I got really into Uriah Heep a while ago, and I don’t have any of their songs on my computer anymore; I can’t find them. You’re just digesting things so fast. When you have to go to a record store and buy a record, you’re invested in a way different way. You might not listen to it for a year and then listen to it every day for a month.
Everybody’s processing stuff more quickly.
MS: Processing but losing.
When Echoes came out, there was already the beginning of that with people saying that your window was closed after “House of Jealous Lovers.”
LJ: I’m always amused by that sentiment. We never made Echoes so it would rule 2003 or whenever it came out. We made it as a record that we hoped would be good in ten years. We felt like it would still be good by whenever it came out.
MS: Yeah, we’ll always have work twenty years from now on the reunion circuit. Us and Miss Kitten and Fischerspooner.