Thursday, April 6, 2017

An interview with Saint Motel

photo: Jabari
As Saint Motel wraps the final run of dates opening for Panic! at the Disco this month, here is an interview that I did last month with singer and keyboardist A/J Jackson... 

Los Angeles-based alt-pop band Saint Motel made their full-length indie debut with 2012’s memorable Voyeur, but came to international prominence two years later after putting out the My Type EP via Elektra Records. The jaunty title track went top 20 in Italy, Scotland and Canada and did even better in America. It was followed by another minor hit here, “Cold Cold Man.”

After a stand out main stage appearance at Coachella ’15 (complete with Vegas-style showgirls) that had everybody talking, the foursome unveiled thoroughly entertaining sophomore album saintmotelevision last year. It was co-produced by Tim Pagnotta, best known for his work with Neon Trees and Walk the Moon. Party-minded lead single “Move” channeled KC and the Sunshine Band - in a good way - and became Saint Motel’s biggest track to date at Adult Alternative radio.  

Front man A/J Jackson attended film school with lead guitarist Aaron Sharp in Orange, Calif., where they formed Saint Motel in 2009. Since then, Jackson has put his schooling to good use by directing several of the band’s music videos.

Recently, the band released another 360 degrees interactive Virtualizer video for “Sweet Talk,” with future plans for additional clips, eventually culminating in the first virtual reality album for saintmotelevision.

Q: You’ve been on the road opening for Panic! At the Disco. How’s that been going so far?
A/J Jackson: Great. These are some of the biggest rooms we’ve ever played. Definitely some new experiences for us. It’s been a lot of fun. We’re very happy to be on this bill.

Q: Have their fans been very receptive to your music?
A/J: Yeah. I think we got pretty lucky. Panic’s fans are diehard and passionate and they come early. Even though we’re the opening band, it’s a pretty packed arena. We were chosen by Panic! At the Disco and if they like [them], they’re going to respect the opening band. We’ve been lucky in that regard.

Q: Are you thinking, ‘I could see us headlining these places in the future’?
A/J: Absolutely. There’s so much stuff I want to do. It’s been a nice entry level experience.

Q: What kind of reaction have you received from people that have seen your music videos with the 360-degree virtualization technology?
A/J: We call them Virtualizers. We kind of made it up and our guidelines for a virtualizer is it’s a combination of a lyric video, a visualizer, a live performance video and unique graphics to that song. That’s our criteria. We’ve done four so far. We’re going to do the entire album and we’re pretty excited about them. They’re not trying to replace the music video, which is generally its own separate narrative, it’s a high budget thing, it’s a beautiful art form in itself and I love music videos. This is a separate thing, it’s in between a lyric video and a music video. It’s something more intense, unique and it’s our first experience with virtual reality. Our first step in that direction. We like it. So far, the reaction of people’s first time they’re using it. We didn’t go too crazy. It’s just one location. You’re sitting in the middle of it. Not like a roller coaster, where you have to watch it in the right way. It’s pretty entry level, which I think is good. We haven’t lost that many people who might not like the technology. It’s a light way to experience it. You can watch it on your phone, your computer or a virtual reality headset. The idea is like when you first put on an album as a kid, you lay back on your bed and use your imagination. This is kind of the same thing, you just walk into the song and sit down and experience it. They’re fun. The latest one is “Sweet Talk.”

Q: Is your band the first to do this type of thing?
A/J: I think there’s been a lot of band’s that have done virtual reality music videos. Muse did an epic one. Childish Gambino did a live VR at his concert. A lot of bands are doing their sets with a virtual reality camera onstage so you can watch it. Virtualizers, I don’t think anyone else has done it. We came up with the term for something we did we hadn’t seen anyone do before. I think this is unique to us. It’s the result of a much longer process. We had a big, overly ambitious idea for the whole album. About two years ago, some friends from film school got me really into the art. We were going back and forth for months figuring out how we could do something. The original idea was to do a complete virtual reality music video experience for the entire album with a narrative thread. Like a comedy type thing, where there’s a storyline for every song. It became this really cool idea, but it was way out of our budget as a baby band. Like Beyonce level ambition. So these virtualizers were something we thought we could do with the smaller resources that we had as an indie kind of band. That’s how it all came together. The full album has been a goal for a while, but we didn’t say anything about it until we were a little closer to the goal line.

Q: The regular music video for “Move” is set in a TV news studio. Was that done to tie-in to the whole saintmotelevision title and concept?
A/J: Yeah, it was. We trying to figure out a way to keep it cohesive. We had the album title, the artwork and video. I initially came up with the idea with a friend of mine, Carlos Estrada, who was originally going to direct the video. Then we got Zach and Nick, who took it from there, who also did a great job. We wanted to try and keep it in the world of television in some way. The TV studio ended up being a good fit.

Q: Then you got Reggie Watts to do a quick cameo at the end. Is he a fan of the band?
A/J: Reggie’s awesome. We actually did that with him when we were on with James Corden. We went backstage, put up a green screen and he just knocked it out there. He’s been really cool to the band; so has James. We were one of the first guests they had on the show and I don’t know if they were serious, but they wanted to have “My Type” for their theme song for a bit. Reggie has come to some of our rehearsals and is a super cool guy. James and everyone on that show – the whole staff – are supporters of the band and really nice.

Q: Turning to the album: now that it’s been out about five months, are you happy with how it turned out and has been received so far?
A/J: Yeah, I feel like we’re kind of still at the beginning and I’m excited to move along and have more surprises coming out with the new videos and new ideas with it.

Q: Half the tracks were co-produced by Tim Pagnotta (Neon Trees, Walk the Moon). How was it working with him?
A/J: Tim’s a funny guy. We spent a lot of time with him. He’s a joy to be around. We definitely had a good experience.

Q: When you went in to make this album, was there anything in particular you tried to do differently than on the previous one, “Voyeur?”
A/J: This album was written a lot on the road. “Voyeur,” we weren’t really on tour. It was written over a long period of time. This one was written during the “My Type” EP promo period. Some of the songs date back to when we were making the EP, but a lot of them were during that two year promo cycle. It was a long period of our career. We started in Europe and came back to the U.S. That was a big chunk of time when we were constantly touring and promoting it that we were writing this record. Songs like “Move,” I remember was written in Hamburg, Germany, we were on the way to meet Nile Rodgers. “Local Long Distance Relationship” was written on an airplane. “Getaway” was written in Florida on Christmas Day. “Sweet Talk” and “Born Again” were a little older. It was different in that regard. Constantly revolving.

Q: Sonically, horns are often a big part of the band’s sound. Does that stem from a love of old R&B/jazz from anyone?
A/J: The reason we started utilizing horns, strings and thicker harmonies or percussion that we didn’t traditionally do as a four-piece rock band when we were first starting out was when we were self-producing. Initially, when we relied on other producers, we had a limited time in the studio. We would bang out 9 songs in a day and that was our recording experience. When we started self-producing, we were in control of it, we were recording things, doing what we want and there were no limits. That’s when we started being more free and flexible: ‘let’s try this. Let’s experiment.’ It’s all about having time to experiment. The “My Type” riff was written on piano and became a horn riff. That’s how we started getting into using more synths or strings or horns or things that four-piece guitar band wasn’t doing before.

Q: And you got James King from Fitz+The Tantrums to do some great sax work on the latest album.
A/J: He’s awesome. He laid down some of the sax on the album and on the “My Type” EP. We really like working with James. His solos are incredible. He’s a great all around player. He let it rip. It’s fun to watch him work.

Q: Ever share a stage with him and Fitz?
A/J: We just did in Portland. He came up during “My Type.” We didn’t know he was going to do that. It was awesome.

Q: One of my favorite songs on the latest album is “For Elise,” where you name check all these famous music muses from the ‘60s and ‘70s. How did that come about?
A/J: It started with “Fur Elise” [Beethoven] kind of chords, then from there, the concept was Beethoven’s immortal beloved. How she’s the ultimate muse and a mystery. It inspired an idea: ‘this is a song for the muses.’ Starting with the greatest muse and taking it through rock ‘n’ roll history. It became that song, which was really fun to write.

Q: Another standout for me was “Slow Motion.” Whose idea was it to go the atmospheric route on that one?
A/J: That started with the crazy sound of an arpeggiator. It felt like a natural thing to also make the lyrics slow motion. It felt right. Actually having everything slow down was a fun play on the idea. That was a fast one.

Q: I saw that a mariachi band has covered “Move.” Have you done it live with a mariachi band as well?
A/J: We have. When we did our headlining show in LA in the fall, we had a mariachi band onstage with us. It was actually Mexican Independence Day, so it was a perfect combination. LA has such amazing mariachi bands. We found a great group of guys, who we’d love to have play with us more. Hopefully we will when we come back to LA. They did the entire “My Type” EP and we’re talking to see if they want to do some more, it came out so well. Mariachi Los Toros.

Q: Before the “My Type” single found success at alt-rock and AAA radio in America, you had some chart placings in Europe. What was your first reaction upon hearing it was climbing the charts in the UK and Italy?
A/J: It was exciting. We always fantasized about going over to Europe. It’s easy to fantasize about that when you’ve played Bakersfield for the 17th time. We’ve always secretly hoped to go over there. A lot of bands were breaking in Europe at the time where we felt our band would be appropriate for that. We never had the chance until a couple things went that direction. We said we hope it lasts. We just did a tour and going back there soon.

Q: How were the crowds in Europe recently?
A/J: They get crazier every time we go over there. It’s different in every country. Think we’re doing some festivals in the summer and an actual tour in the fall.

Q: The band has always had a strong visual aspect. In the early days, you used something called a video piano. Do you still?
A/J: Oh yeah. It was a weird unique thing, a combination of these small portable security cameras and DVD players. We set up a screen behind us. We had all these feeds going from all the cameras that we mounted on our microphones and guitars. We had some floating around in the audience. The video piano was these keys that would switch between the various signals. You pressed two keys and it would be this weird analog interference between two cameras. We’d have DVD content playing as well. It felt like what a screen looks like at the Hollywood Bowl or a stadium, where you have all these cameras around. Only we were playing dive bars. It was a larger than the room we were playing experience, but it was fun. Before GoPros. These security cameras were the smallest things we could find.

Q: Are there plans for you to headline in the fall?
A/J: We’re talking about it. Nothing’s official yet. We have some cool ideas. I really hope we do. I want to take the television concept to the next level.  

No comments: