Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man, or maybe it’s both, but Youth Lagoon’s third album, Savage Hills Ballroom, has a touch of existential spookiness about it. The title alone brings to mind a scenario straight out of The Shining — that scene where the folks in the ballroom are whooping it up while an underlying evil lingers. And indeed, it seems comparing Savage Hills Ballroom and Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s thriller is apt to some degree. “It’s funny you say that, because it was influential,” says Trevor Powers, a/k/a Youth Lagoon, calling in from his native Boise, Idaho. “I love The Shining and watch it at least once a year. The ballroom scene was what I had in mind, that thing of how they’re all smiling and laughing but below the surface there’s something dark. Aspects of that visual of the ballroom scene are related to some of the album’s themes.”
There’s a day-to-day-life allegory in this idea of superficial smiles, Powers thinks: “The way people seem like they have it all put together and you ask them how they are, and they say everything’s good — but under the surface they can be going through horrible stuff. So it’s satire, I guess, blowing existence up into this picture….We do hide behind smiles and laughs, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Putting on a brave face isn’t important, even if you’re dealing with intense shit.”
Intense shit on a personal level comes into play on the record. A few years ago, just as he was touring his second album, 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse, Powers lost a close friend he’d known since childhood. It was a sudden tragedy, an event with no explanation, and he heard about it when he was far from home.
“I was in London, at my hotel, right after a show. My wife called and told me our friend had drowned in the Boise River. It was so jarring,” he recalls. “I was numb. I didn’t know how to feel; I still don’t know how to feel.” Some tour dates were canceled and Powers flew home immediately. This time, there was no hiding behind smiles. “I started seeking out people in Boise to share feelings and stories about our friend. That death influenced the album in ways I don’t even know about yet, and it’s influenced my life in ways I don’t know about. The connection to people is important in life, and being transparent is important sometimes.”
When it came to making the new record, Powers took a step farther away from the electronic bent of Bughouse and over to organic indie rock, and he chose to share this creative experience with friends, too. “It works better when I work with people I know well. My friends understand that I’m very particular. If I want something done over, it doesn’t cause any awkwardness. It can be frustrating in the studio when you want another take. To my buddies, it’s not a big deal.
“I can be very impatient,” he continues. “I’m already writing new songs. I’m never content to sit back, and I began coming up with ideas a couple of months ago and started writing. I constantly seek change; I constantly seek progression, but it’s natural to me as a person to speak in different ways, musically, and find new ways of expression. I never feel like I want to stop in one place. I’m confident in where I can go next, and I’m very proud of that kind of success.”
Even after three albums in less than five years — his debut, The Year of Hibernation, came out in 2011 — Powers talks about success as an internal thing, not as a certain number of albums sold. “Music is something I’m enthralled with and everything revolves around it,” he says. “If I don’t sell lots of records, I don’t see myself as any kind of failure. It’s more important for me to be satisfied with what I do than it is for other people to be satisfied with it. The question I ask myself about making a record is, did you say everything you wanted to say? If I can answer yes, then I am excited and proud of what I’ve done.”
Youth Lagoon plays Rough Trade NYC on September 21. The show has sold out, but you can find tickets on the secondary market.