The National’s Matt Berninger on Struggle & Regret, Embracing Failure, and ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

Last month, Brooklyn-based indie rock band The National released their sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me—which has since been met with both widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. A month prior to this, Mistaken for Strangers, an entertaining and heartfelt tell-all rockumentary-meets-mockumentary, helmed by frontman Matt Berminger’s brother Tom, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. And tonight, as part of their world tour, The National takes the stage in their very own borough at the Barclays Center

Though at one time they played to scarcely populated venues, over a decade later The National’s at the top of their game, garnering the recognition that for years they worked towards securing. Matt Berninger and band, comprising twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, continue to wow crowds, but getting bigger comes with its own set of challenges. So, too, does letting your brother make a movie about you.
Last week, Matt took time to chat with me, discussing topics from filming Mistaken for Strangers, creating Trouble Will Find Me, and much more in between. He openly addressed subjects like struggle, failure and regret, unfiltered lyrics and stealing lyrics, as well as expressing to me his concerns for the future of his signature audience walk—where he performs “Terrible Love” while winding his way through a sea of people—and admitting to loving their recent MoMA PS1 appearance, where for six hours straight they played “Sorrow” without stopping.  
First of all, congratulations on Trouble Will Find Me. Secondly, congratulations on Mistaken for Strangers, which is where I actually want to start. It proved a fairly incredible feat indeed. The Post-it Note scene alone made me anxious on your brother’s behalf.
I’ve made a lot of records—and it was mainly my wife and Tom who were able to shape a story, an hour-and-a-half-long actual movie. But this was by far the most daunting creative endeavor I’ve ever been a small part of. It was kind of amazing. I don’t think I ever want to make another movie. I don’t know if Tom does—he might, but it was a huge creative mountain, so I really respect him and my wife for seeing their way to the top of it.
Also in the film, there’s a telling line from you about your early experiences as a band playing at an empty Mercury Lounge and how you used that pain to fuel your work. Does that struggle still motivate you?
We’ve become a better band since those early days, but tension and anxiety are still present when we’re making records and playing shows. We’ve gotten better at both but mostly I’ve learned to respect failure. So many of our songs are about social anxieties or romantic insecurities—the things you lie awake at night thinking about. Every time we go on tour and endeavor to make a record, there’s a whole lot of failure that comes with it. We write more bad than good songs, and it’s just to respect that process, and understand that failure is part of anything. You have to keep working and leave failure behind. But, it’s still a part of our band’s DNA.
Have there been any mishaps or funny stories from tour so far?
There aren’t major mishaps necessarily, but it’s just sometimes a show can go south. Some shows have gone well, some have gone badly. You feel filled with performance anxiety or something like that. I definitely have a healthy amount of that. That stuff can just grow up inside you. You can have an awful experience in your own head. Performing live, we get better and better as the tour goes on, especially at the beginning, it’s a lot of stumbling and tripping up. When you feel like a show isn’t connecting, that can make you want to crawl out of your skin and under the stage. I usually just try to move on to the next song or show and try not to let it bother me. As I said, I’ve learned to respect that process of finding your comfort zone. Now these shows are getting much bigger. It’s not fear, just tension and anxiety, panic attacks or panic swells. That’s happened to me a lot, so I’ve figured out how to deal with it. It’s like jumping into ice-cold water and figuring out a way to keep swimming.
Do you have a pre-concert ritual that helps prepare you to take the stage?
I drink wine. That’s about it. Our band has never been one to do any kind of group huddle or anything like that. We each do our own thing. I try to find a spot where I can relax, drink some wine, put on my suit and steel my nerves. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. You never know when a show’s going to go well. Every show, we do everything we can to deliver, but sometimes we fall on our faces. I don’t think our audience can tell the difference, and I don’t think we can sometimes either. Sometimes the experience on stage is very different than what the crowd is experiencing. Some of the shows I mentioned, where I felt awful, I’ve been told were really good. So, you have to trust it’s going better than you think.
You’re about to perform at Barclays Center. Thinking back to those empty venues like Mercury Lounge, playing Barclays must feel pretty triumphant but also kind of distant from where you began. 
We are really excited about that show. The weird thing is, I don’t do much different. It’s the same mental space I get into, whether it’s in a little club with nobody there or a big arena with thousands of people, we do the same thing: get inside the songs and try to deliver a great show. 
The final scene of Mistaken for Strangers uses “Terrible Love” quite prominently, including your walk through the crowd. That moment was a high point of many shows on the last tour, but is it something that’s getting harder to pull off successfully the bigger your shows grow?
Yeah. The first time I did it was a really cathartic experience and connected the whole room. But now we’re going to all these festivals and stuff. I’ve done it a bunch and it can get really strange in the pit, especially in the U.K. For whatever reason, theirs is a drunker, more aggressive attitude and many times people have been trying to undo my belt, looking for souvenirs. I guess my pants would be the souvenir! Also in these big crowds, it gets dangerous for people. I’m a little nervous about somebody falling and getting stepped on. I’m trying to figure out different ways to do that. I love doing it, but I can’t promise I’m going to be able to keep it up. With the theater shows it is easier, but in the festivals it gets scary, so I don’t know what I’ll do. I think I’m going to stay on stage and hope that’s not a huge disappointment to people, but we’ll see. 
Trouble Will Find Me has been very well received. Lyrically, there’s a rawness to it. I’m wondering if you’re more comfortable visiting those areas because your life and career aren’t quite so precarious anymore?
This record I was less concerned. I’ve always been pretty unguarded in my lyrics, but this time, the image of our band is not that important. I don’t think any of us were thinking that way this time—not that we’ve ever thought that way much. But this time less so than ever. We were just trying to chase the songs that were moving us in some sort of emotional and visceral way, and we wanted to write songs that would make a record that was going to last, something broader and more timeless than High Violet. I don’t know if we achieved it, but that was the sense of what we were going for in this one.
Do you ever have regrets about any aspect of what you put out?
I never do, actually. If we master a record and it’s finished and there’s nothing you can change about it anymore, I usually let go of all those little things that were in my head. I love that moment: it’s a year-and-a-half or two years you’ve been working on something and thinking about it. Then, that moment arrives where it’s sealed and delivered. I can finally listen to it and enjoy it. Most of the things that bugged me along the way I end up loving, the little flaws here and there, the awkward moments. Once it’s out, I fall in love with it on its own terms.
Do you listen to much music when you’re writing?
I listen to a lot of music when I’m writing. This record I even let a lot of the stuff I was listening to come into it. There are lyrics that are just stolen—there’s a Violent Femmes lyric, an Elliott Smith lyric, a lyric from “Blue Velvet.” I was also listening to a lot of Roy Orbison this time and was trying a lot of things I was dazzled by that he does: all the different octaves he could sing in—he had a huge range. I was trying to sing outside my normal comfort zone, range-wise. Also, he does things with melodies, where he just takes left turns, songs that go through eight completely different melodies. I was inspired by that and copying him in some ways. This time, more than ever, other records were swimming around in my head a lot.
You chatted recently to the Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden Desser about how one of his albums had been like a friend to you during a difficult time. Is that what you’ve wanted your own albums to be?
You connect with records in very personal and very meaningful ways. All my favorite records are those that, for whatever reason, stuck to my soul. They helped me through something. Hayden’s record, The Closer I Get, is definitely one of those. There are records that you just sink into. They coincide with what you’re going through and become an ally. If our records do that for people, that’s the greatest compliment I could ever receive. That’s one of the reasons making music is so important to me, because there’s a very strange emotional reach. For me—more than books or movies or other things—music is like a mainline to your heart.
Speaking of, what do you feel you gained from playing “Sorrow” so many times at MoMA?
That was an amazing experience. It’s not about endurance necessarily, but reaching a euphoric Zen state, almost like a prayer or mantra. By doing that—we played it 108 times—it became very enjoyable. I broke down towards the end; around 96 or 97 I got all teary eyed and found it hard to sing—but it was a really beautiful thing. It was a bonding, between us and the 50 people who came and stayed for all six hours, one of those exercises of the soul that was really healthy. We feel happy for having done it. Now we know that song better than any other. People keep asking if we’re going to take it out of the set, but now it’s the one we do best!
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When Saints Go Machine Unleash ‘Infinity Pool’

Copenhagen-based electro-pop outfit When Saints Go Machine returns to record store shelves today with their second full-length, Infinity Pool. And it’s awesome.

A sonic departure from 2011’s Konkylie, their latest effort sees the foursome—comprising vocalist Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild, Jonas Kenton on synth and backing vocals, Simon Muschinsky on keys, and drummer Silas Moldenhawer—paying homage to ’90s rave as well as hip-hop. Despite the audible shift, which features songs significantly more electronic than tracks past, Vonsild’s signature falsetto remains an obvious constant, luring listeners in with its velvety, tremulous sound.

The album mesmerizes, with standout numbers such as the percussion-heavy “Iodine,” the ominous and eerie “Mannequin,” and the hard-hitting rapper-tapped “Love and Respect.” The latter contributes something unexpected to the mix, namely Atlanta-based artist Killer Mike, whom the Scandinavian dudes were stoked said yes to their request for a few bars.

I caught up with Saints’ sweet-as-can-be 32-year-old lead Vonsild last week, an overseas call that revealed several interesting tidbits about the unique group. Read on for more and, come June 24, catch them live in the U.S. for the first time ever at Brooklyn’s Glasslands.

Congrats on your second record. How does it feel to finally share it with the world?
We’re excited. What are people going to say? It’s a bit nerve-racking. Now we can go play a lot of gigs.

How do you like life on the road?
I like touring, but you don’t have any privacy. That’s the thing. If you want privacy, it’s a set of headphones and a computer. But, we love playing concerts. And, as long as there’s good food, it’s cool. [Laughs] As long as you get your vegetables, that’s okay.

Have you always wanted to make music?
Yeah. I don’t remember ever wanting to be a fireman or something. I wanted to make music from a very early age. First I played bass, but I never rehearsed. At some point my teacher said I had to rehearse, or she wouldn’t teach me. So, that stopped. Then I got into early ’90s rap music. I had this friend—we were making music together—and I asked if I could use his equipment. He said I had to get my own. I was like, You fuckin’ asshole. [Laughs] You know? So, I got my own. That got me started. I have him to thank, maybe.

Blessing in disguise. What rappers were you into?
Souls of Mischief, Nas, OutKast, Goodie Mob, N.W.A, Scarface, Geto Boys, Del the Funky Homosapien, Bone Thugs … almost everything.

What inspired Infinity Pool?
To us, it’s reminiscent of ’90s rave culture. We grew up during that era, so that’s a big part of our music. We try to do something else with it. Lyric-wise, everything I’ve experienced the last couple years; personal experiences and what’s going on in society. But, the greatest inspiration is just working with each other.

Aw. What was the process like and how long did it take?
Around two years, a year-and-a-half maybe. When we finish an album, I start writing the next one right away. Only because I’m afraid I might forget how to write. It feels like you have to keep working, so I keep working. And then, at some point, the rest of the band takes it up as well. Then we work together on finishing it. And, when we make music, we produce the record as we’re recording. More than anything, we’re producers. We don’t sit down with a guitar and write songs.

So how exactly do you write songs?
Sometimes it’s just a thought, something I thought about for a week or a month or a year-and-a-half. [Laughs] I sit down in front of my computer and start playing with chords. I start producing while I’m writing. I’m always sitting with a microphone beside me. I like to put down lyrics and start producing at the same time.

How do you collectively select songs that make the final cut?
We don’t all have to have the same understanding of a specific song. As long as we all have a strong feeling for a song, that’s what we want. We have a lot of discussions, sometimes arguing, because it’s so important. But, that’s what ends up on the album: stuff we think has a special sound. An original idea. Something we think has a classic signature or something you would pick up in five years and say, I want to sample this. If we think a song has [these elements], then it’s on the album.

I expect it’s still difficult to narrow down. Who in the band cracks the whip?
All of us. We’re all cracking the whip. We’re all perfectionists. We just keep working. We don’t stop. That’s why it’s so hard to make an album. We’re all hard on ourselves. We have the goal of making something we think is special, that we really feel for. We like to stay inspired and, to do that, we have to keep moving forward.

What would you be doing if not this?
I would be a chef. That’s meditation to me. Listening to music and cooking. We eat a lot of food in our band. Every time we play a concert outside Denmark, we try to figure out what restaurant we’d like to visit and what kind of food we’d like to eat.

How long has it been since you’ve been to New York?
We’ve never been with the band! But my brother used to live in New York.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re here?
I used to like sitting on the stoop in Bed-Stuy by my brother’s apartment. That’s the best thing to do in New York. I eat a lot of food when I’m in New York, always. And go to a lot of concerts. Everyone’s playing there.

Your songs are frequently remixed, often to great effect. What’s your take?
It’s makes you see your own music in a new light. People listen to a remix and they go back to the original. It works to our benefit.

You must feel blessed to be able to earn a living making music.
We do feel blessed. We’re fortunate. We have a lot to be happy about. I’m just glad it’s possible for us to keep working and to live off what we do.

Any expectations for Infinity Pool, reception-wise?
We were really surprised by how people reacted to the [first] album. Now, people are calling it a breakthrough album. But, when it came out, no one said anything. For us, it’s a natural progression, like making music: slow and then it takes shape. Hopefully people will like this album, get something from it. Or a lot of people, hopefully, will think it’s a good album and it will make them feel something. That’s what I hope for, at least. 

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Actor David Call Talks Shop, Sex & Hypnotizing Chickens

David Call is on the cusp. You may recognize his handsome mug from the hit TV drama Gossip Girl, where he enjoyed a recurring guest role as convict-meets-teacher Ben Donovan and could be seen opposite Blake Lively’s Serena van der Woodsen (or donning all orange while plotting her demise from behind bars). He may also ring a bell as the skeevy Keith, with whom Lena Dunham’s Aura has some seriously sketchy sex in her first flick, Tiny Furniture. (Yes, there was life before Hannah Horvath.)

The Issaquah, Washington-born actor has appeared in a number of films and TV programs since breaking into the business eight years ago. Most recently, fans can catch him in Dead Man’s Burden (opening tonight and screening through the weekend at Village East Cinema in New York). And, believe it or not, he even turned up in a few episodes of Smash last month.

Call currently has several projects in post-production and, though he jumped coasts for a little R&R—“I came out mostly because I’ve been in New York for the past six to seven months working and I just got sick of winter”—the 30-year-old Leo was happy to chat.

We caught up while he was driving (cliché for LA), talking to me through his headset and generous enough to gab for an hour. We covered a lot of terrain, including pre-acting gigs (none of which were in an office), dream roles, riding horses, hypnotizing chickens, and striking a balance between commercial moneymakers and indie passion projects. He also touched on the craze surrounding Girls, and how he was originally written into the much buzzed about HBO show. We both agree he should swoop in and sweep Marnie off her feet now that Charlie’s flown the coop. For more from the affable David Call, who gets recognized “occasionally," read on.

Sorry I kept canceling and we weren’t able to get together before you escaped to LA. I’ve been temping as a copyeditor at an office for the past few weeks, working late, which bumps everything else to the weekend. You ever work in an office?

I’ve actually managed to avoid office jobs. I’ve worked lots of random jobs, lots of labor and service, but I avoided offices.

Service, huh? Like escorting?

Yeah, yeah, let’s get into my history as a male escort. That sounds a lot more fun than bartending, waiting tables and making lattes. Which is mostly what I did.

Fond memories?

Oh for sure. My first real job I worked at a dry cleaner. I was 15. It was horrible, but …nice. I was also a maintenance man for a housing project.

Did you always know you wanted to get into acting?

I grew up doing a lot of snowboarding and skating. I was pretty hardcore. Then, when I was 14 or 15, I basically broke my arm skating, like, three times. After the third time, the doctors were like, You need to stop that. Then I discovered acting. I was at a new school and no girls would talk to me. I got up and read Shakespeare in English class. Then girls talked to me.

In my high school, the theater kids were the dorks.

I was pretty dorky. I wasn’t super dorky. I was kinda dorky. Nobody could figure me out. I knew I wanted to go to New York when I was, like, 15. I was like, I’m out of here.  [Laughs]

In Dead Man’s Burden you guys are sort of savage. How did you prepare for the role?

It was a multipronged preparation. Growing up in the west, I was raised on Clint Eastwood movies. I went to ranches. It’s just sort of in me. The character’s from the Missouri/Kansas border. My mom’s side of the family is from there. They were there during the Civil War. So, a lot of it was figuring out where the character resided within myself and my family. Also, just doing lots of research. I’m a history nut. I love history, especially American history. So, I devoured books on that time and place. Also learning to use the weapons. I’d never fired black powder guns before, so I got trained in those. It takes, like, 5 to 10 minutes to load the thing. And a lot of it was spending time with Clare Bowen, my wife in the film. When she signed on to the production, I decided I was going to drive from LA to our location in New Mexico. She came along so we could get to know each other. In the film, we’re two people who live in the middle of nowhere by ourselves. So, Clare and I took a little three-day trip.

Sounds fun! What was it like on location?

Absolutely stunning. We were basically next to Georgia O’Keefe’s land, shooting adjacent to where she painted. We actually got permission to shoot there, which was pretty cool.

Where did you stay?

In a house used for Christian couples counseling, owned by some wealthy minister. It’s this huge house with all these bedrooms in it, but no one lives there. It was big, but sparsely furnished. And it was just me, Barlow [Jacobs], and Clare knocking around by ourselves every night in this gigantic house. It was kinda weird.

What did you enjoy most?

We had horses on set. So, if I had down time between scenes, the wrangler let me go riding in the mountains, which was an awesome way to kill time. It was a dream come true. Coming to work every day and getting on a horse and putting a gun on your hip? It was like heaven for me.

Were there other animals on set, too?

There were goats and chickens. I learned how to hypnotize a chicken. If you put them on your lap, pinch the base of their neck and just rub it—almost like you’re giving someone a neck rub—after a while they basically go to sleep. But, the chickens would often cluck in the middle of a take. At one point a chicken jumped into the window in the background of this very intense scene. We had to cut because there was a chicken in the window. And a goat got on the roof once. We were shooting in front of the house and the DP looks up from the camera: Guys, guys, cut. The goat’s on the roof. And everyone looks up and he’s just standing on the roof, chillin’. Once he discovered he could get on the roof, it became a constant. But, I liked that goat. We got along really well.

Back in New York, you were on Smash last month. I have to admit, I don’t watch the show.

Neither do I.

What drew you to the role?

Umm, paying the rent. [Laughs] I’ve been very fortunate the last five or six years. I’ve been able to strike a balance between doing a recurring role on a TV show—working for several months, making some money—and then going off and making movies like Dead Man’s Burden and Tiny Furniture.

Speaking of TV shows, I was mildly obsessed with Gossip Girl. Did you watch the episodes you were in?

I have to be honest with you. I’m not a huge fan of watching myself on TV. I’ll watch a movie that I’m in, but not TV shows. I tried watching the first episode I was in. Thirty to 40 minutes into it I was like, I can’t do this.

I know you’re not on Girls, but you’ve worked with Lena Dunham before, so I’m wondering if there was ever talk of you being on that show?

Lena and I talked about me being in the first season. I think as she had originally conceived it there was going to be a character I was going to play. And then, once the pilot picked up and they hired more writers and producers, that character was eliminated. One of the story arcs changed. Originally I was, and then for various reasons I wasn’t. That’s sort of where it’s at.

You should just swing in, in the place of Charlie’s character, since Christopher Abbott left the show. You should be the new guy to date Marnie.

I agree with that. I think I should. But I think they’re already onto, like, episode five now. So, I’m not sure that’s in the cards. 

Sorry to bring up a show you’re not on.

No, it’s fine. I’m very happy for her. It kind of blows my mind that that show has become a “thing” that people write about.

Do you watch?

I watched the first season. I haven’t caught up with the second. It’s weird. The show has such an obscene media presence. It feels like, even though I haven’t been watching, I’m totally aware of everything that happened on it. The media’s obsession is pretty mind-blowing.

It is. But, you’ve got to tune into season two. There’s a sex scene that rivals your sex scene in the pipe with Lena’s character in Tiny Furniture.

The one with Adam?

No, the one with Booth Jonathan and Marnie.

I just remember everybody got all upset about that rape-y scene with Adam.

That’s Adam. Some people are more adventurous in bed.

Exactly. It sounded like it wasn’t that big a deal. Did they have sex in that weird TV box of his?

No, they had weird splayed-out sex on Booth’s bed, next to that weird TV thing. And a doll. Anyway, did you know there’s a tumblr in your honor, entitled Fuck Yeah David Call?

I’ve been turned on to that. It’s really funny to me. I’m a huge fan of that title, by the way.

It’s a good title. They could update the design.

Yeah. And it’s a lot of Fringe gifs. I’ve been on a lot of random TV shows and Fringe, there is a passionate following for that show.

Do you ever get recognized?

Not a lot, but occasionally. It depends on the state of my facial hair. If I’m clean-shaven, I’ll get recognized for Gossip Girl. Recently, in the past six months to a year, I’ve been getting recognized for Tiny Furniture more than anything else.

It’s Girls fans going back and checking out Lena’s previous work. What’s the state of your facial hair right now?

Right now I have a very short beard, but that’s more a product of laziness and the fact that I have to play a meth head at the reading I’m doing tonight.  [Laughs]

What would be your dream role?

I have a lot of dream roles. Dead Man’s Burden was definitely on the list. Badass dude in a Western? I’d really like to do a World War II movie. There’s a part of me that would like to play someone very evil, like a serial killer. I always wanted to play a flamboyant gay character, too. To sort of subvert expectations. And I’d love to do a Sam Shepard play.

You’re all about diversity. So, you’re from the West Coast, you’re currently in LA for some R&R and auditions, and you’re based in New York. Is there a place you prefer?

It’s a question I ask myself all the time. I love New York. I love working there. I love the energy there. I feel much more productive there. I’m part of the filmmaking community, which I love. But, it does get a little exhausting sometimes. There’s a part of me that likes the LA lifestyle. A backyard, being outdoors, driving a car. But, it’s also a very settled lifestyle. You can’t go out until 5 AM on a Tuesday night in Los Angeles the way you can in New York. I think once I’m ready to settle down, I’ll probably move back out west. But I ain’t settled yet. I’m just getting started. 

Photo: Cinedigm

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Synth-Pop Singer-Songwriter Charli XCX Talks True Romance, Tasting Sweat, & Lena Dunham

Charli XCX is no newbie to the music scene, though her age might indicate otherwise to those not in the know. The 20-year-old Brit, born Charlotte Aitchison but recognized by her hotly debated stage name, has been making people move since she was an adolescent.

At 14, XCX was already on the radar, albeit far from mainstream, discovered on MySpace and invited to play raves at the weekend. An only child, her parents would drive her to and from performances—sometimes staying, watching on like ever-adoring chaperones—then take her to school come Monday. What might have remained a fond memory or a passing phase, however, evolved into a career, with a capital “c,” her warehouse party past giving rise to a girl who knew her pop hooks and dance beats.

The past half-decade has seen her morph from girl to woman, as well as release several solid songs, among them one of her best, “Nuclear Seasons.” At 16 she signed a record deal, catapulting the former club kid from promising act to legitimate artist with a single signature. For the past four years she’s worked towards today, which sees her major label release of True Romance. Her lyrical prowess and knack for catchiness continue to impress with this sweeping and anthemic debut, a 13-track album featuring favorites like “Lock You Up,” “What I Like” and “Cloud Aura.”

XCX, who also co-wrote Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” (which, if you’ll recall, was a huge hit following a particularly entertaining episode of HBO’s Girls) is currently touring Europe and the U.K. with Ellie Goulding, and will touch down in the States come May. New Yorkers can catch her supporting Marina and the Diamonds at Rumsey Playfield on May 29 and alongside Little Daylight on May 31 at Glasslands Gallery.

In the meantime, hear from the hard-hitting goth-pop princess herself. She’s got plenty to say, from her outlook on love (which she’s in, with Ryan Andrews) to her fantasies surrounding calling all the concert shots (think outlandish creative direction as it pertains to set design, à la Girls dreamboat douchebag Booth Jonathan).

You titled the album True Romance. Is this record the embodiment of “true romance,” to you? It’s such a bold statement to make. To say, like, Here it is. This is the definition.
This record is, for me, what true romance is. I’ve been writing the record for the past two to three years, but one song I wrote when I was 16. So, I feel like I’ve been writing this album as I’ve been growing up. Your views on love and life change over time. You experience different relationships, that kind of thing, and I think the record is kind of about that. It’s about love from different angles. Different periods of your life. There’s a bratty breakup song, when you went out with a bad boy. Then there’s a song about falling in epic, amazing, real, true love. And I feel like that’s what happened to me during the process of writing this album. I feel like I’ve fallen in love, massively. I feel like the record looks at how you can be on this love trip, in this dream state, but at the same time you can feel lonely and isolated. I think it’s interesting how schizophrenic love is. And that’s what the record is to me. It’s schizophrenic. It sounds that way. It sounds like love.

Did the title come at the end?
The title came last, actually. It was kind of, like, a reflection. I never wanted to make a concept album and come up with the title track and write songs around the title. I wanted to write the songs as naturally as possible and as naturally as they came to me. It just so happened they were about love. Once I started writing them, I supposed that was an appropriate title.

Makes sense. Can you tell me a bit about being so young coming up in the music scene?  
It was kind of crazy. At the beginning, I was very, very excited about everything. I was 15, signing a record deal. I was so elated by it. So, whenever there were highs and lows—which there definitely were, and still are—I took them really personally. It was a quite traumatic experience making this album, especially when I was younger. It can be emotional making an album, putting all your thoughts and feelings on a CD. I found the industry very difficult. There were so many expectations I thought I had to live up to. I was unsure who I was. I wrote the song “Stay Away” then. I began to find myself and what kind of music I wanted to make. I feel like I’ve changed a lot. I realized I don’t have any criteria I need to meet. I’m just doing my thing. I’m not feeling like I have to please anyone.

Even with the tumult, it had to have been a blast.
It was really fun. When I was younger, I’d go to raves, and that was crazy. Then, I’d go to school on Monday, and that was weird. But, it was cool. I kind of feel like I got sucked into that. I’m glad I left that scene and started making real music on my own.

Oh, yes. You’re talented, your debut’s a gem and, on top of that, you’ve traveled the world touring in support of Coldplay, Santigold, Ellie Goulding. Was it difficult to adjust to the limelight? MySpace and late-night raves are one thing, but stadiums are another thing all together. That’s rock star status.
For me, I can’t think about going on stage as the “limelight.” I think about it as playing my songs for people and losing my mind. When I’m on stage, I feel completely free. I feel completely inspired. I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m getting lost in the moment. It’s like one big trip.

Speaking of trip, do you have a favorite place to play?
I love America. I love L.A. and I love New York. And I haven’t been there yet, but I know I’m going to love Tokyo so much when I go. It sounds so magical.

It does. So, which one: New York or L.A.?
I don’t know. People compare them, but they’re so different. It’s so difficult to compare the two. I feel like L.A., maybe, for me, just because it’s so different from London. Whereas New York is so similar.

Aww, shucks. So, do you have any down time when you tour?
Never. It’s constant. But, that’s fine. It feels good to play shows and have people come listen to my music. That’s really nice. I mean, it’s weird doing promo every day. You have to talk about yourself all the time, and I don’t really like doing that. It’s just strange. I’m starting to get used to it. It’s all right.

You’re adjusting. How’s tour going so far with Ellie?
It’s fun. The crowds are big. She’s cool. I think I managed to convert her into a platform shoe-lover. She tried on my Buffalo platforms and was like, Oh my god, these are amazing!

How would you compare the experience of performing at big venues versus small?
Playing big venues is always less personal. Like, when I was doing the Coldplay tour, there were, like, seven screens. Only the front, like, five rows can see you up close. But, in a club it’s wild. You can taste everyone’s sweat, which I really like. I feel so much more alive. You can really get in touch with the crowd and make it, like, an apocalyptic, end of the world party. So, I really like that. Obviously, it’s a dream to play in front of as many people as possible, so big stages are good. But, when I have my own massive shows, I want the walls and ceilings and floors to be made of screens. So you’re in a screen box. And it’s, like, my favorite videos and mash-ups of my favorite movies playing. It’d be a mindfuck.

Do you watch Girls?
Yeah! Like that artist [Booth Jonathan]’s thing. Exactly like that, except on a massive scale.

That’s also, as you know, the episode featuring the song you wrote, performed by Icona Pop.
That was really cool. I’m a big Lena Dunham fan. I feel like she’s this sexy, hilarious, fierce super-girl. So, it was really cool seeing her singing that song. It was quite funny.

Is Hannah your favorite character on the show?
I don’t know. I also really like Adam. And I really like Shoshanna. And I love to hate Jessa, because I know so many people like that and they’re so frustrating.

Do you have a lot of super-fans?
I do, actually. They’re all sweet, but they’re crazy. It’s cute, though. They’re all young. They message me all the time. Like, everyday. It freaks me out that my music can mean that much to someone. I didn’t have that. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have had the power to tell them, because I didn’t have Twitter. Now, everyday, you can build up this false relationship in your mind. It’s scary. It’s mad.

I’d agree with that. After all this, the journey so far, what do your parents think?
They’re proud. Whenever I’m in London they’ll come to my show. They’re really supportive. They took me to the raves when I was younger, came with me and were really cool. I’m really thankful for that, actually.

That’s awesome. I imagine a lot of parents wouldn’t be as nurturing when it comes to their young daughter rocking the sometimes seedy rave scene. You also dress pretty provocatively. From where does your aesthetic sensibility derive?
I’m really inspired by movies. The Craft. Clueless. Empire Records. I just love that nineties aesthetic. I like basics, grungy stuff. I’m a big fan of the Spice Girls. Some of their music videos are my favorites. Like, “Say You’ll Be There.” I feel like I came through the third wave of the club kids in London. I was watching Party Monster, finding out who Michael Alig was. Part of me will always be interested in that world. DIY, but high fashion at the same time.

So, do you have a dream collaboration?
I’d love to work with Bjork. She’s incredible. I admire everything she does. Her voice is like butter. So angry but so sweet and beautiful at the same time. I think she’s wonderful.  

Whose music are you really into right now?
Jai Paul. I’ve always been a big fan of his. Kitty Pryde. I think she’s really cute. I love her lyrics. I always listen to the same stuff on repeat. Like, Uffie, Kate Bush, The Cure. Robert Smith is, like, my hero.

Last but not least, what would you be doing if not this?
I’d be crying probably. 

The Virgins’ Donald Cumming on the Band’s Comeback, His New Sound, and Being a Life-Long New Yorker

Donald Cumming has led and continues to lead quite a life. From the trials and tribulations of his youth to those that accompanied signing with a major label, the 31-year-old born-and-bred New Yorker has no shortage of stories illustrating his hustle, his hang-ups and his regrets.

Cumming’s cult band The Virgins—which loosely formed in 2006, was signed to Atlantic in 2007, experienced a meteoric rise in 2008, and continuously toured the world after that—has kept somewhat mum for a few years, but returns today with their sophomore album, Strike Gently, out now via Julian Casablancas’s indie imprint Cult Records.

In the interim since his debut, Cumming has overhauled his sound—essentially morphing from shiny pop to folk rock—and begun playing with three entirely new “dudes,” as he is wont to collectively identify his bandmates. Max Kamins (bass), Xan Aird (guitar), and John Eatherly (drums) round out the updated ensemble, which last month played an intimate set at Soho House and tomorrow plays SXSW. The remainder of March and early April the foursome will tour the US, and they can next be enjoyed in NYC at Bowery Ballroom on April 1.

Connecting with Cumming, who I’d feel more comfortable calling Donald, was particularly special for me, as The Virgins was the first band I ever interviewed. Last time, we crouched together at Highline Ballroom in the designated “VIP” section. Five years later we could be found at his studio space in the East Village—walls lined with blankets in an attempt to muffle their rehearsals—sitting on his beat up sofa beside an open window while he basically chain smoked. “It’s, like, my shame,” he told me, explaining that in part his shame stems from the fact that cigarettes are tested on animals and for the past few years he’s been vegetarian-turned-vegan.

He seemed to me to be in a better place, and said so. Married for two years to Canadian visual artist Aurel Schmidt, Donald, the only child who dropped out of high school, ran away, and did odd (and undisclosed) jobs to make ends meet, seems to have found his footing again. He was gracious and humble and open to talk. We caught up for an hour and a half, and what follows is the most meaningful, entertaining, and informative aspects of our conversation. Donald discussed a number of things, including his take on The Virgins’ audible departure, what he’d do if he didn’t have his music career, and how, despite a challenging childhood and professional woes, he feels ever so fortunate.

Tell me a bit about this switch. New members, new sound…
It’s been a minute. The dudes [and I] wanted to do different things. I love those dudes, those guys are like family to me, [but] we were ready to move on. We changed a lot. These guys, I’ve known them a while. We played together in a country cover band. When I was writing new songs, I started playing with these guys, and it felt really good. It just made sense that, since we were friends—we’d been hanging, playing music—they would be the dudes I worked with. It was a cool vibe; when we started writing new stuff, the songs grew naturally. It worked right away. I love these dudes and the way they play. We don’t have to tell each other much. Everybody does their thing.

What was the process of bringing the album together?
We’d been writing songs, started playing around the city. Because we had an opportunity to do a one-off, we had a single. We had, like, half this record written and started recording. We didn’t know who was going to put it out. We probably thought we’d end up putting it out ourselves. Through a mutual friend we found out Julian [Casablancas was] interested. We played him songs, talked about what [we] wanted to do, and he [told] us about the label. It felt really cool. The vibe was good right away.

Sounds pretty painless.
It was. This experience has been amazing. A lot of painful shit happened with the last album, with the label we were on.

What compelled you to maintain the name while transitioning the style?
The first thing I ever made was a demo in my room. I started giving [it] out and put “The Virgins”—I thought it would be cool to be in a band. Then, when I got a deal really quickly, I didn’t have a band, so I put the band together [and] made the EP. Things were progressing logically, except we had [signed with] a major label. When we went to make the record, a lot of stuff didn’t fit for me. It changed our direction, without us having control. We started having to deal with the business model and projected earnings and all the things that come with being on a big label.

It’s the name of my band. It was my name before the label, before the record and, after, it’s still the name of my band. When we started making this record, it was like going back to when things flowed naturally. We made what we felt like making. It didn’t feel like a change of direction. It felt like getting back on track. Personally, [“The Virgins”] doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s a name. I don’t have any attachment to it, emotionally or aesthetically. It just seemed like it would be more trouble changing it than leaving it alone.

Why the aesthetic shift?
For me, the music isn’t different. It’s just songs I believe in. I was deciding whether or not I even wanted to make music anymore, the conclusion I came to was, I’m not interested in doing anything I don’t believe in. It wasn’t a decision to change the style. I had to make what I wanted to make. I couldn’t have done anything else. If it throws somebody off, there’s not anything I can do. There might be fans that are like, “Oh, this sounds different.”And I understand. It definitely does. But, it just sounds like the way we play. We’re just doing it, and it sounds different. It’s not an ideology where we have to present a new thing. We didn’t say, “Let’s do it differently.”

Can you share a bit about your uncertainty surrounding continuing to make music?
Making the record with Atlantic was kind of crazy. I don’t want to go into it, but we all felt [that] wasn’t what we were trying to do. It affected all of us. Then we toured extensively. It was a strange experience. It wore away at me. I couldn’t identify with the music [anymore]. It got to the point where I was like, “I hate this. I hate this whole thing and I don’t know how to fix it.” So, I guess I had a bit of a spiritual crisis. [Laughs]

That was 2008?
’08 through ’10. Maybe ’11. It went on and on because we just kept touring.

Did you do anything else between then and now?
A ton of shit, but I needed to get my brain together. Besides getting married, finding out what means most to me, follow[ing] goals to their logical conclusions. There’s always somebody with an opinion, a reason you shouldn’t do what you want. Most times in my life, when I haven’t done what I wanted, I’ve ended up regretting it.

When I saw you perform last month, I kept thinking about Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Have you gotten that before?
No. It’s great to hear. Everybody has their own take. So far it’s been stuff I like. It’s cool with me.

So, where do you like to play?
I love Mercury Lounge. I’ve enjoyed every show we’ve played there. It’s my favorite spot in the city. It sounds good. It feels connected. You’re sharing an experience with a room full of people. Obviously it’s cool when we play bigger venues, but the bigger the place the less personal things feel.

Do you become homesick pretty easily?
No. I really like traveling. It’s one of my favorite things about being in a band. Making records is amazing—it’s its own special thing—but the fact that you get to travel is quite cool.

And you grew up in Manhattan.
I grew up a few places, but I lived on Canal and Greenwich when I was a kid and, when my parents split, I [divided] my time between [there] and Astoria, with my mom. I’ve probably moved 10 or 11 times.

You have a favorite neighborhood?
I love Chinatown. I don’t live there anymore, but it’s peaceful and I like that. It’s gentrified, but doesn’t look like a mall. It’s heartbreaking to walk around the city and see how fucked it is. But, I love New York.

You’re a lifer.
Oh yeah, for sure.

Me too. So, of course this city influences your music.
Of course. All my memories are here and all my friends are here. Every place reminds me of somebody or something. It has an affect on me.

You didn’t finish high school, did you?

And no college.

You’re self-taught. How many instruments do you play?
I attempt to play the guitar and the piano. That’s it. I’m not that guy who masters instruments. I get by. Shit’s not sounding so crisp anymore, you know what I mean? It doesn’t have that pop. I’m not the world’s tightest rhythm guitarist. Any little addition to my repertoire feels like a big achievement. [Laughs]

What’s been the biggest challenge?
Getting back to a place where I [can] express myself and feel like [I’m] making music for reasons valid to me. I didn’t know if that would happen again and was prepared for that not to happen. I feel grateful to have had the experience [of] making this record and excited to make more and play with these guys. I just feel really fortunate.

Do you do anything else apart from this?
I mean, I’m not really qualified to do anything else.

If you couldn’t make music, what would you do?
Honestly, without wanting to be overly romantic, washing dishes. That was [a] job I had that felt pretty all right. But you can’t support yourself doing that. Well, obviously people do. I don’t want to sound flippant. I’m lucky to make music for a living. But, when I washed dishes, I had some good friends and some good times. That’s a job I look back on without frustration or anger. A lot of things I’ve done for money in my life I really regret.

[Deciding] to do something because I needed money, as opposed to believed in or wanted to, that stuff stayed with me. I’m not resolved. I needed money, so it was good to alleviate whatever problem I was having. But, I don’t have that money now. And those things are indelible. So, is it worth it? I don’t know. When I was younger, I avoided all work all the time. I was always broke. Beyond broke. No money whatsoever. I would paint myself into corners. If an opportunity came up to [make] money, I had no choice. I feel like it was cosmic punishment for not working. Like, you do shit for money you don’t want to do. I’ve got hang-ups about this obviously. [Laughs] I’m grateful to be a professional musician, to support myself with music. But washing dishes was a job I don’t have bad feelings about. I just got into tight situations. You do what you gotta do.

Did you receive monetary support from your family at all? Were you “privileged,” as they say?
No, not at all. My dad had a liquor store, my mom worked in an office. My dad was an alcoholic and basically went bankrupt. Closed the store. Moved in with his boyfriend. He was a committed alcoholic and died when he was 41, 42. I was maybe 11 or 12. My mom worked in Jersey, I went to school in Manhattan and we were living in Queens. She would take me, then get on a bus and go to work. It was tiring for her. When I was, like, 14, she met this guy from Florida and moved there. I went with, but didn’t get into it. My life was here. So, I ran away. I left home and moved back when I was almost 16. I had a little bit of money from social security—from my dad dying—and I started renting a bedroom from my friend’s mom. I got a job working at a coffee shop and was trying to go to high school. But I stopped going to school. I stopped working. That led to figuring it out. I wouldn’t trade it or change anything.

Wow. So, no regrets?
Only petty stuff that fucks with my ego and shit. I regret not going to school. I regret not going to college. I’ve always had to do shit on my own. It might have been cool to have a professor and be with other students, finish an assignment, and get feedback. I would have been down. But, I was way more focused on the opposite of that. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Switching gears, you’ve got a certain look. Can you comment on your personal style?
I only buy used clothes. I don’t believe in manufacturing clothes. It’s a drain of resources, putting all that shit into the world. I believe in secondhand. I’m vegan. I don’t wear animal products that are new. There’s definitely enough clothing on the planet, not only to clothe everyone, but [also] to stop fucking with animals, stop polluting the world, stop using plastic, stop exploiting people—all that shit. Like, I’m just not down. I could go on and on.

Didn’t see that coming! What prompted the veganism?
I bought The Animal Rights Handbook: Everyday Ways to Save Animal Lives by Linda Fraser at a secondhand store, because I liked the cover. I was already vegetarian and it was on my mind. I felt super guilty eating cheese and was like, “Fuck, I know I shouldn’t be doing this.” I didn’t know what was going to be “the thing,” but I knew it was coming. I started reading this book and that was it. I have never thought about going back. It’s not difficult at all. It makes perfect sense. It’s quite strange how willing people are to not give a fuck. 

Stars’ Torquil Campbell on Touring, Loving and Hating New York, and the Cult of Larry David

“Ask away,” says Torquil Campbell casually to me on Monday after our long distance call is connected. Ultimately, the lead singer of Canadian indie pop band Stars proves disarmingly entertaining. Between his tweets and his demeanor during interviews (at least ours), there’s no lack of laughs. A few questions in, the line cuts out. Upon being reconnected, he teases, “I just gave, like, a ten-minute answer and, at the end of it, there was nobody there. You missed some amazing shit, man. Never to be repeated. That’s too bad. That’s it.” I like this guy. (And, for the record, I got some other “amazing shit,” so not to worry.)

The forty-year-old singer-songwriter and actor, perhaps best known for his membership in Stars, but also other notable ensembles such as Broken Social Scene, is gearing up to tour pretty consistently through most of next month. He and his fellow bandmates—comprising Chris Seligman, Evan Cranley, Amy Millan, and Pat McGee—who released their seventh album in September, kicked things off on Wednesday and make their way to New York City today. Catch them in Brooklyn, to be exact, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where tonight and tomorrow they’ll split the bill with L.A.-based band Milo Greene.

In the half-hour allotted to talk, Campbell didn’t hold back, opening up about making music, growing up, picking battles and taking revenge. From his distaste for touring to his stance on fame, his love of Larry David to his dream of limo driving, this Vancouver-based artist bears all, including the fact that this path is not technically what he wanted.

Did you approach The North differently than past albums, or is it sort of a consistent process?
It’s both. After 13 years and so many records, we definitely have a method and a system that works. It changes a little bit every time, but now I think we’re pretty set on the way we do it together. In terms of the methodology, it wasn’t that different. But every time you make a record, you choose different gears, different places to record, and different things are happening to you in your life. You’re a different person. So, those three things always inform the same methodology and that’s what changes: the filters through which the work passes. Sometimes they bear a striking resemblance to the last time, but, this time, I knew it was 180 degrees [different]. This was definitely the most fun, least painful project ever.

The most fun and least painful?
After 35, or after you have kids, it’s like, “Well, who really gives a shit, ultimately?” Am I really going to go to war with this person I love and lose sleep and have fucking anxiety attacks just because we can’t figure out what bassline works? As a young band, it’s the only thing that matters to you. Then, time passes, and so many other things mean so much more. It’s not that the work isn’t important; it’s just that it’s in the context of the rest of your life. You learn how to calm down and get on with it. So much of life is learning that you lose about seventy percent of the battles you choose to fight. That’s the average. There’s no point getting upset about it.

Going back to your time together, what’s that kind of longevity like? And what do you foresee for the future?
It’s amazing. I think it’s something we’re all very proud of. We’re proud of the music, but I think we’re prouder, in a way, of this co-existence we’ve built together. All the things we’ve been through together. [Laughs] It’s an endless parade of bad decisions and big mistakes, and yet nobody pulled the plug. Nobody ever did that. At one point or another, every single member of the band has had a right to do that or been the cause of someone else having a right to do that. And yet we haven’t. In that respect, it’s a lot like marriage. It’s hoping for the best. [This is the point at which we were disconnected.] As for the future, we’re going to keep going and probably play fewer shows.

But you love shows.
Oh yeah. I love playing shows. If everyone could just come here, to Vancouver, I would play, easily, 300 shows a year. No problem at all. But, I think being on the bus and being away from my family and that aspect of it, it’s fun for, I don’t know, let’s say ten years. And then, after that, it’s like, “Okay. This is a fuckin’ ridiculous way to live my life. I’m spending an hour-and-a-half looking for my sock. Where am I going anyway? Why do I need socks? It’s not as if anybody knows whether I’m alive or dead, until 9 PM tonight. So, why don’t I just not wear socks?” It’s just a pointless way to exist. And then you play a show and you’re like, “Oh, life means something and, god, I love my job and it’s so great and aren’t we lucky to have people cheering for us?”But, then you wake up the next day and you’re in the middle of nowhere without your family. So, that aspect of it is getting old, for sure.

I hear that. Makes sense. So, how do you feel about fame?
Ever since I was a kid, people have been telling me I’m going to be famous, all my life, and I never have been. I’m not famous at all. Nobody knows who the fuck I am. I’m nobody. First of all, obviously—it goes without saying—I’m in a tiny indie band [that] nobody gives a shit about. But, even people who give a shit about us, I’m just some forty-year-old guy. The only time I’m famous is when I’m singing those songs. Other than that, I give myself a solid 4.7 out of 10 on the human impact scale.

If you say so! How do you like returning to New York?
Well, I lived in New York for ten years and the band started in New York. I like coming to New York like a New Yorker likes to come to New York. There’s a part of me that loves that place and it’s very deep inside me. To this day, my wife still says that, even though I was born in England and I grew up in Canada, I act like a New Yorker. That was where my personality came into full fruition, where I found 11 million assholes just like me. [Laughs] I feel very at home there. On the other hand, I hate New York. Like everybody does. New York is a reflection of you. It’s whatever you imagine yourself to be. On a bad day, New York is a bitch. And, on a good day, New York is an angel, I think. I like coming to New York and having something to do. I like the fact that I come to New York and play shows and people come to the shows. There’s an element of revenge I enjoy. I think a lot of people end up living in New York to try to get revenge on New York for all that New York has done to them over the years. People are motivated by revenge. I feel that. It’s satisfying to come and get a little revenge on New York every once in a while.

Revenge, huh?
It’s about my personal relationship with New York. The experience of ten years trying to make it work there. Sometimes it did work, but a lot of the time it doesn’t work. New York is so tiny and there’s so many people doing amazing things; if shit isn’t going your way, it’s very palpable, and you feel very much left out of the shit that is going right. It can be a cruel place. I love it.

Ditto. What do you get into when you’re here?
Well, we work most of the time. I’m a person who just goes to the same place, no matter where I am in the world. In New York, I still go to the bars I went to in 1996. I have no idea what’s happening in New York. I just go to New York and I recreate 1996.

In another interview, Amy Millan claims Stars is like Seinfeld. She says, “If you really looked into the deep psyche of Stars, it’s like Seinfeld, but Larry David is actually in Seinfeld instead of behind the scenes writing it. That’s my life. I swear to God we are a Seinfeld episode in normal life, like there’s the glamorous aspect of getting up on stage and writing amazing music, but then there’s the daytime stuff that’s pure Seinfeld.” Can you speak to this?
[Laughs] All I can say is, I think Larry David is a big person in all our lives. I have a t-shirt with his face on it. That’s how much I love Larry David. I suffer from anxiety. When I’m in the throws of anxiety attacks, I don’t have a prescription for Xanax—I just watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or sometimes I just listen to it on my headphones. I’m obsessed with Larry David and the work of Larry David and I think everyone else in the band is pretty obsessed with Larry David. The thing about Larry David is, he’s a dark motherfucker. Like, he doesn’t care how dark it gets, as long as it’s funny. I think, in Stars, that’s the kind of people we are. We really don’t care. There are things we would never say in public, obviously, but there are jokes made in our band that are truly morally reprehensible. But, if they’re funny, everybody has a good laugh. At least half the reason we’re in the band is just for jokes, just to hang out and wait for punch lines. The one thing we all have in common is, we share a fucked up sense of humor. And our cult leader is Larry David. We would follow him anywhere. We’d do anything for him. We worship him. We think he’s fucking genius.

Oh, we’re not alone. We’re among the legion.

What would you be doing if not this?
The only job I can think of that I would actually be able to do would be driving a cab or, like, driving people to the airport in a limo. I could do that. And I would like to do that. I really would. People think I’m joking and I’m not joking. I think it would be awesome. You just put on the soft rock station. You have water bottles—my car would be fucking awesome. Like, I’d have Evian bottles in the back, maybe a couple of newspapers to read. If you want to talk we can talk. If not, I’ll leave you alone. It’s fine. We don’t have to talk. And I would drive very smoothly. If you’re in a rush, I’ll drive fast, but I’m not going to go crazy. I’d be really good at that. Wouldn’t that be a great job?

[Laughs] Can you please make a music video where you’re the limo driver and the rest of the band’s in the back?
That’s a great idea! Actually, that’s a very good idea. Yes, we can. I’m going to do that for you. I’ll get right on that. I’m going to steal that from you.

Yesss. [Laughs] Lastly, have you always wanted to make music and act?
No. I’ve never wanted to. I’ve never wanted to act and I’ve never wanted to make music. I just had to. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t want to do anything else. So, by elimination, that’s what happened. That’s what I am. It’s what everybody in my family is. It’s what my father was, what my mother is, my brothers, my sisters, my wife, my child. Everybody in my life is obsessed with art and is a performer of one kind or another. There’s not a single person I love who isn’t in that field or doesn’t have that within them. Even the people I’m close to in my family who are not performers, that’s our religion. We’re fundamentalists. I was raised in a house where groceries were bought [with] money made from art. Art was the Bible and art was the devil and art was everything in between. I was told art could change people’s lives and you could change the world and you could start revolutions with it. That’s my fate. I have never wanted to. It’s what I am. 

Photo by Kevin Barnett

Local Natives Keep the Beat, Back With More Music

L.A.-based indie band Local Natives returned to record stores two Tuesdays ago with a follow-up to their wildly successful 2009 debut, Gorilla Manor. Their sophomore effort Hummingbird in several respects proves an audible departure from the previous release, with songs that are a tad darker and, at first listen, not as easily distinguishable from one another as their predecessors.

With that said, the music is pristine, the harmonies heavenly, the songs elegantly and eloquently delivered, and at every play they become more and more their own—tracks I can sing and often dance (or at least sway) along to. Hear: the pulsating “Black Balloons,” the melancholy yet twinkling “Bowery,” the head nodding “Ceilings,” and the raucous hand-clapper “Heavy Feet,” among others. Bottom line: it’s deliberate and seriously blemish-less.

The foursome, who pared down from five in March 2011 when bassist Andy Hamm agreed to take another tack, has been playing pretty aggressively the past couple weeks with three sold-out shows in New York and many more engagements to come in the year ahead. As Ryan Hahn (guitar, keyboards, mandolin, vocals) said during our interview, they’re basically booked ’til Christmas.

I was sorry not to catch the crew before the album dropped or at least in advance of their NYC dates, but they’ve been busy and hard to get a hold of. At long last, Hahn and I settled in for a chat while he and his fellow Natives (Taylor Rice, Kelcey Ayer, and Matt Frazier) drove back to Manhattan after a performance for Philly’s WXPN.

Hahn was sweet as can be, approachable and accessible. We talked touring, New York’s drastic temps, their meteoric rise from roller rink gigs, living together, and how they arrived at the bird-inspired title.

I’m really enjoying getting to know the new album. It’s growing on me every day. As for the aesthetic shift, what inspired that?
It happened in a really natural way for us. We knew we wanted to do something different, but weren’t exactly sure what that meant. It was just a bunch of experimenting, trying new instruments, writing songs. Slowly we started seeing a pattern and everything started to come together. We just didn’t want to repeat ourselves. I think that’s cool you say it’s growing on you every day. A lot of the records we love are records that take time and each time you listen to them you find something new.

For sure. How’s tour so far?
It’s been great. We love touring. A lot of bands have a hard time with it and we really enjoy it. We did it for so long [for] the first record. Now we’re ready to get back out there. We’re basically scheduled for the rest of the year, until, like, Christmas.

Damn. So, what’s life been like since the disc dropped?
It’s been a crazier [time] than we’ve ever experienced. We did three shows in New York, three shows in L.A. We’ve been playing every day and, when we’re not playing, we’re traveling. It’s been nonstop. Playing Amoeba [Music] in Los Angeles was probably my favorite show. We were looking forward to it for a really long time. It exceeded everyone’s expectations.

What’s the greatest challenge of being on the road so much?
Staying warm. We’re from California, so everywhere else in the world right now is damn cold. It can be exhausting. [We toured] a lot before we found success with the first record. We really tried to get out there and honed our craft and got used to being a touring band. So, we’ve had a lot of practice. I think we’re more equipped to handle this rigorous schedule.

When I interviewed the band Milo Greene last year, I told Graham Fink that their music reminded me of yours. He then shared a hilarious story about touring with you guys and playing in roller rinks.
Oh, yeah. Totally. He used to play in this band called The Outline. Both our bands were in high school. We tried to book a tour. It was our first attempt. We borrowed Kelcey’s dad’s van. I think our first show was at a roller rink. There were, like, three people there and they were all probably in the opening band. We laugh about it now, but that’s how a lot of the early tours worked. It’s crazy.

Going back to cold temps, when exactly were you in Brooklyn living at Aaron Dessner’s (of The National, with whom they worked on Hummingbird) studio?
I guess that would have been May, June and the early part of July.

So you endured the nasty summer months in New York.
Yeah, it was really intense, but I definitely prefer it to the nasty winter. It was cool because we lived in his house, so we could just walk around that neighborhood, go to the park. It was so different from being at home, but really cool to be able to experience New York for more than a few days.

I bet. So you guys all lived together for three months. You’re not used to living together lately, I presume.
Well, we used to. It’s pretty hilarious to think about now, but for a while we lived together when we were writing Gorilla Manor. That was our first attempt to be a band full time, so we lived together. We were obviously with each other every day on tour. But, when we got back, we got our own places, moved out and gave each other the necessary space. Then we wanted to get out of L.A. to record the album, to get away from distractions and focus. We all lived in a house together again in Montreal. And then again at Aaron’s. It was a lot of fun.

Fun, huh?
I mean, it’s obviously not all good times. We definitely fight like brothers. When you’re working on something that everyone’s so passionate about and everyone’s so opinionated on and you’re as collaborative as we are, it definitely can get really tense in those moments where you wish you could step back for a moment. But, yeah, it was really enjoyable. I’m glad we did it the way we did. It [took] us back to our first record when we were all all in and all completely focused on it.

Apart from the weather, how would you compare New York to L.A.?
It’s hard to put a finger on it. It’s funny, though, because we were like, We’re going to get away from all these distractions. Next thing you know, in New York there’s always something going on and we ended up knowing just as many people out here. There’s always something happening. But we did end up missing L.A. Going back home felt really, really good. We all really love living in L.A.

Switching gears, you called the album Hummingbird, after a lyric in the heartfelt and luminous song “Colombia.” Was that arrived at easily, as an homage to Kelcey and his late mother, or what was the impetus for that title, which doesn’t derive from the title of a track, but instead is hidden within?
I’m sure we talked about it forever and probably fought about it and hashed it out. That song’s very important to us, obviously. Very personal. In a lot of ways it seems to kind of encompass the whole record. The album is so much more expanded. There’s more bombastic moments than the first time around. A lot more aggressive, energetic moments. And then, on the other hand, there’s [this] more spare set of intimate moments that are quieter than the first record. In a lot of ways we felt like hummingbirds represented this dichotomy. This fragile little creature beating its wings, like, 1,000 times per second and always on the move. It just felt like it fit [for] this album. It’s symbolic of everything we’ve been going through.

Do you listen to your own music?
I really don’t. I haven’t heard Gorilla Manor in years. Once we finished working on this album, I put it down for a few months. I wanted to step away. I don’t have any perspective on it, to a certain degree. We’d been working on it for so long. With this album we didn’t really write it with the live show in mind. It’s been nice playing [the songs] live, because they take on a whole new life. I’ve been able to appreciate the record more and more and I’m really proud.

Who do you like listening to?
A lot of Bowie. Probably too much. And [I’ve] been really enjoying Leonard Cohen. Neil Young. A lot of New Order lately. Our sound guy, Jeff, got me into a lot of dub and reggae music. He’s been sending me albums and I’ve been devouring [them]. I’m really enjoying discovering new music.

You once told me the music video for “Wide Eyes” was "…a play on [your] ridiculous fear of sharks.” What inspired the music video for “Breakers”?
The truth is, we had another video in the works that fell through and it was like, Well, okay, we’re either not going to have a video or we’re going to go crazy in the next few days and do it ourselves. So, in typical fashion, we took it upon ourselves to do a video, something we’d never done ourselves before. That song in particular is about the conversations you have with yourself, almost trying to talk yourself through something. I have a close friend who this song was inspired by, and they deal with anxiety a lot. Just trying to look at it through their eyes and their mind, how they deal with talking themselves through situations in their life.

Interesting. It turned out well. Also the last time we talked, Kelcey said to me, “This band has always been about longevity.” Can you elaborate on this statement?
It comes down to all these decisions we have to make. We really like to be hands-on with everything, making sure we’re earning every step and looking at the longer-term picture. It comes up time and time again: what kind of music do we want to make? We want to be truthful and honest with ourselves and put stuff out that we’re proud of. We want to keep challenging ourselves and not fall back on what people expect of us. If we can keep pushing ourselves, that’s our goal. We want to be a band that’s evolving.

You were playing together for a while before you shot to the top. Can you comment on your success trajectory?
For us, everything has been so gradual. We try to earn every step. We’ve been together since we were in high school. We’ve been working on this for so long. We’ve had our heads down, just working at it. Other people’s perception is going to be what it’s going to be, but we’re going to keep working hard and keep having a good time.

Robert DeLong is an EDM Artist on the Rise

Seattle-born, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Robert DeLong has a flare for the alternative. In a good way. The 26 (soon to be 27)-year-old EDM mastermind, dubbed a Young Artist to Watch by MTV, has the music scene in his hands—quite literally. Indeed, among the myriad instruments he manages to maneuver during performances are Wiimotes and Joysticks, rigged like MIDIs and adding edge to his already memorable brand of booty movin’ tunes.

Seriously, though, this whiz kid’s got the chops and multitasks better than the best of us—in front of an audience, no less. He’s a one-man-band who sings, drums, and fiddles with game controllers and keyboards, sometimes going so far as to incorporate guitar, too. His live set is something to behold, a sweaty mid-twenties talent, hair slicked down in an exaggerated comb-over, putting every effort into churning out original numbers while keeping the beat.

“I’m always writing songs,” says DeLong, whose debut album, Just Movement, drops today. Makes sense, since he constantly rocked out in bands back in high school. Now he’s signed to Glassnote, label to the likes of Phoenix and Mumford & Sons.

Recently, DeLong released a video to accompany his catchy track “Global Concepts.” The visual rendition of this f-bomb laden rhythmic ditty features a foggy interior, warehouse-like, smoke somewhat obscuring the agile dancers in the background. Tube lights suspended from above flicker and flash whilst DeLong engages in various aspects of performing, most notably wandering around and gesticulating with Wiimote or drumsticks in hand, or hitting his steel drum to excellent tribal effect as he marches subtly in place. Towards the end, the space is overrun with revelers, morphing into an all-out party you wish you’d been invited to. (The platinum blonde mop you may glimpse amid the shadows belongs to talented dancer James Koroni, the individual responsible for my introduction to and fast fandom of DeLong.)

Another nuance unique to DeLong is his affinity for orange, which he wears with pride in the shape of an “x,” big and bold on a classic black tee, as well as painted with precision on his cheekbone in the shape of a lightening bolt. More on this defining aesthetic to follow.

New Yorkers can catch DeLong in action on February 15 when, as part of a greater tour, he plays The Studio at Webster Hall. Festivalgoers will have several opportunities to indulge as well, from SXSW to Coachella, Ultra to Governors Ball.

Not long ago I sat down with the confident up-and-comer at The Commons Chelsea, one of my favorite neighborhood haunts, where over iced tea we discussed the multi-instrumentalist’s inspiration, interest in hacking HIDs, and what it all means.

What’s it like being dubbed a Young Artist to Watch?
It’s great. I grew up watching MTV, so it’s cool. Wild ride. Exciting. Surreal.

How have people reacted? Any super fans?
Nothing too weird so far. But, it’s definitely getting weirder. After the video came out, all of a sudden friends from high school started reaching out, sending messages. It’s fun to hear from people I haven’t heard from in years. But, it’s just funny.

I bet. Did you always know you were going to go into music?
Near the end of high school I knew I was going to do music. I started out thinking I was going to be in science or something. But, I was better at [music]. I think people knew I was a musician, but I don’t know if people knew I was into electronic music and that I was going to go that route.

What would you be doing if not this?
Since college, all of my jobs have been music related. I taught drum lessons, so that was my thing. If it wasn’t music at all, I guess I’d be going to school.

To become a scientist.
Yeah, I guess. [Laughs]

So, tell me more about this Wiimote rewiring…
You can hack [a] human interface device, anything from Gamepads to Joysticks, and turn it into a MIDI. Basically, the idea is you’re just sending information to a computer and can turn it into whatever you want. It’s the same thing as having a knob, slider, drum pad. It’s all the same if you can hack it and make it work for you. I found out you could do it, it seemed interesting and it’s cheaper than buying a bunch of expensive musical equipment. And it’s fun, people like it.

How many instruments do you have up onstage with you?
Three different electronic things, two computers, game pad, Joystick, Wiimote, six pieces of percussion, drum set, keyboard. Like, 15-20 things. Sometimes I’ll have a guitar. Oh, and two microphones.

Wow. That’s a lot for one guy to keep track of. So, are all your shows like the last time you performed in New York? No pauses between songs, stuff like that?
The show is always continuous and flows together. When I do a longer set, there’s more drumming. I play guitar sometimes, too. It’s high-paced. Jumping around doing a lot of different things.

I’m getting that vibe. You sampled Moby when you last played live in NYC. Have you been a long time fan of his?
When his album Play came out, I was probably, like, 12. That was when I first started experimenting with making electronic music, because it was kind of accessible, mainstream electronic music for the time. It was kind of something I grew up with.

Aww, an audible homage. Thoughts on our fair city?
I love this city, but Manhattan is a little terrifying. And it’s a little colder here. Do prefer the warm. Other than that, it’s beautiful. It’s awesome. Good people.

Who else besides Moby inspired or inspires you?
The songs on the album especially are an amalgamation of a lot of songs over the last four years, so it’s a wide variety of things. I grew up in Seattle, so there’s the whole indie singer-songwriter vibe that I kind of grew up with, like Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service, Modest Mouse. I think you can hear that whole Seattle sound in the way I write melodies. As far as things I’m listening to a lot right now, I’m listening to Lucy and Sports. I also grew up listening to a lot of Beatles, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Talking Heads. Those are some of my constant jams.

Can you tell me what inspired the lyrics behind “Just Movement”?
“Just Movement,” the first track, is sort of the thesis statement for the album. It was written right after college, a time of mental exploring. Just movement: the idea that, if you take this reductionist perspective, everything we do is just atoms moving around. It’s all meaningless. But, once you break it down, where do you go from there? Just movement, the double entendre. Dancing, philosophy. Take it or leave it.

Have you yourself always been into dancing? I’m thinking, too, of “Global Concepts”…
I go out dancing a lot. Do a lot of jumping around on stage. I think that’s an awesome thing. It’s the oldest response to music that human beings had, so it only makes sense to think about that. For a long time I was in the indie scene and no one dances. Everyone looks at their feet.

[Laughs] Shoegaze. How would you describe the music scene in L.A.?
It’s actually pretty cool. There’s definitely a burgeoning DIY electronic scene in Los Angeles. L.A.’s big. There’s always something happening. You can always see new music. It’s good stuff.

So, how did the face painting start?
The whole thing was a group of me and my friends called the Tribe of Orphans, a bunch of people who hang out and go to dance events and stuff. It kind of just evolved over time. My girlfriend Heidi face paint[s] at shows.

So she’s your professional face painter. Does she paint in real life?
Besides face painting she does studio painting and stuff, so it’s great.

Why orange?
Initially? That’s the color paint that shows up the best under black light. It glows the brightest.

Has anyone ever said something to you about your “x” symbol? How it very much resembles the “x” symbol of The xx?
Yeah, people have said that before.

Does it piss you off?
It does a little bit. It doesn’t really. I didn’t even know about them, that that was their symbol. The “x” just was kind of an organic development. My girlfriend had painted it on my headphones probably three years ago or something, so it was before that first The xx album came out. It was just kind of a simultaneous [thing]. We both did it. And then they became famous first. It’s just an “x.” It is what it is.

Emblem wars aside, what’s the greatest challenge of all this?
I think the greatest challenge is to not get sick all the time from running around. But, I have a lot of energy and this is what I wanted to do, so it’s all working out. So far. I get to do what I love. I love playing shows. That’s what it’s all about.

Photo by Miles Pettengell

Stage and Screen Actor Lee Pace Talks Shop

Lee Pace had me at “Hello.” Or, rather, the film equivalent, which was 2006’s The Fall. Spectacularly strange and visually arresting, that movie made an instant devotee out of me. Though the tall, dark, and handsome actor had been in the biz for a few years prior to this weird and wonderful discovery, I’ve followed the 33-year-old’s trajectory ever since—and re-watched The Fall more than a few times.

Fast forward to 2012, which has been especially packed for Pace, featuring roles in Lincoln, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Indeed, it’s safe to say that he’s had a good year, especially considering all three titles hit theaters (for all intents and purposes) simultaneously. This triple whammy of sorts simply must bode well on the success scale. 

From indie flicks like A Single Man and Ceremony, to blockbuster franchises, this guy’s got that special something that attracts casting directors and keeps crowds captivated. Beyond the big screen, New Yorkers can currently catch Pace as Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini in Terrence McNally’s Golden Age, a play directed by Walter Bobbie with performances through January 13 at Manhattan Theatre Club. Age audiences are granted a backstage pass to listen in and look on, taking in behind-the-scenes goings-on during opening night of Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani, at the ThéâtreItalien in Paris. Part comedy, part drama, the two-and-a-half-hour-long performance paints a living picture of what it might have been like to be there. 

The charming and approachable Pace was sweet enough to take time before taking the stage recently to talk about a few things. From his privileged yet hectic career to memorable moments, from his stance on New York to his “heartthrob” status, Pace provides a refreshingly sincere look at his life. 

So, you’ve had a super busy year…
It has been a busy year. I’m really feeling it now that the year’s coming to an end. These movies came out this past month and now we[’re] doing eight shows a week [for Golden Age]. It’s been a lot of work, so I’ll to be looking forward to a quiet new year. But, it’s been great. It’s good to be busy. There’s nothing I like more than being busy. Good characters to play and good people to work with. There’s been a lot of that this year, so I couldn’t be more grateful.

Is there any reprieve during the holiday?
Theater schedules through the holidays are relentless. I guess I figured we’d still be doing eight shows a week, but it’s tough. There’s so many shows. But, it’s good. It’s a privilege to be able to do the show for people. That people want to come is awesome.  

Given your recent roster, are there any standout moments of 2012?
Shooting scenes with Steven Spielberg in the Congress (sic) [for Lincoln], that was pretty incredible. Big scenes, lots of extras, a couple cameras moving. You really feel like, Wow, I’ll remember this. It kinda doesn’t get better than this. Then, I went to New Zealand to work on The Hobbit for a couple months. To be on those sets, which [were] equally incredible, and to collaborate on and play a character that is the product of so many people’s imaginations—Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and the costume designers—[was] very, very special. 

Any funny stories that you recall?
Funny things happened, but I always forget them. I am such an idiot. 

[Laughs] Okay, any instances on stage where you feel compelled to burst out laughing?
We really like each other a lot. All of the guys [in Golden Age] shar[e] a dressing room. We have so much fun during the half hour, talking. Ethan Phillips is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and he keeps us going all through the half hour, so there are times I’ll look at him on stage and remember a joke he told and I have a hard time not laughing. 

I can imagine. What’s it like portraying a real life character versus a fictional one?
Both Fernando Wood [of Lincoln] and [Bellini of] Golden Age are based on real men. You want to have a certain respect for who they were. You want to find a connection to the real person. Understand them from an actor’s point of view, which is different from a historian’s point of view and different from a writer’s point of view. 

For sure.
In Golden Age, it’s a character. It isn’t a biopic of Bellini. This is a work of art. Terrence McNally is using the character to tell a story. I see it as my job to connect the dots between Terrence and me and Bellini, who wrote this beautiful music. I tried to figure out what it was about him, who he was, the details. There’s so many things that go into making a character.

I bet. Your Bellini also displays distinct mannerisms, tending to twitch and putter a bunch…
[Laughs] Twitch and putter. I’ll remember that tonight when I’m twitching and puttering. [Laughs]

It’s not intended as an insult!
No, he is very twitchy and putter-y. Where I started with my research was listening to the music and really trying to understand that music and believe that that music was coming out of me, that I’d written it. Before I started, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to create something like that, to write music as complicated as this music. Just trying to get myself into that headspace, being backstage listening to it, that’s where I really started working out the physicality and how I moved. It kind of grew from that, so that the nervous energy finds its way into keeping the beat with the opera. He’s not a neurotic man. He’s concerned about how this artistic effort is going to be received by a discerning audience of people that he respects. He wants to do something that will be meaningful to them. It’s all about the music. He takes this opera that he has created extremely seriously. 

As you do your own work…
On the good days! No, I do. When you work with people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, you see how they take it seriously. It’s meaningful. They’re so talented. On set with Steven Spielberg, everyone felt how much that story meant to him, the story of the 16th president. Everyone on that set felt it and [was] inspired by it. And that’s how we all found ourselves on his page, because he’s inspiring. 

Wish I could have been there! So, theater versus film? Is there one you prefer?
They’re very, very different. I can’t say I prefer either one because I love both for different reasons. In film, you have very little time to get it right. And it’s not even about getting it right, because it’s important to let go of that way of thinking about it. You get what you get and move onto the next setup, onto the next scene. On stage, George C. Wolfe, who directed me in [the play] The Normal Heart, called it the actors’ revenge, because you have to step onstage every night and tell the story yourself. You just have to do it yourself. 

In a movie, you turn over your performance to the director and the editors to edit and to layer in sound and everything else that makes the performance emotional or funny or whatever. In theater, you have to land the jokes yourself. You have to understand what’s funny about it. You have to kind of feel the audience. What they’re about on any given night. With a movie, you don’t have that. You can’t do that. In The Hobbit, we can’t feel what the house is going to be like before we do it. 

Of course not. So, onto something still loftier, what’s been the greatest challenge of your career?
If I could name a challenge, it would be laughable compared to the challenges so many other people face. It’s the “funnest” job in the world. I guess the biggest challenge I could say these days is just taking it seriously. When you’re in your thirties, the parts get good for men. You get really interesting characters. That’s what I’ve noticed. Complicated men dealing with complicated things. Seeing that there’s so [much] more to investigate about the way people are, and communicat[ing] those things to an audience, that’s the challenge. You want [the] stories to be good and you want them to be truthful and that’s a challenge. 

Seeing as this is an NYC-centric outlet, where exactly are you based?
I’ve been living here while I do the play. But, I live outside the city now. I live up in the country. It was a new move. I’d lived [in New York City] for a long time, since I was 17. 

How do you like living off-island?
I like it a lot. I love New York City. I’ve spent my adult life in New York City. I have a really complicated relationship with New York City, as every New Yorker does. You can’t go through almost 15 years [here] and not have a complicated relationship with it. Part of that relationship is, I’m going to take a little break and live in the country. [Laughs]

I hear that. Lastly, any thoughts on being considered by some to be heartthrob, a sex symbol?
Oh god no. What does that mean? I have no comment about that. I don’t know what to say about that. It’s news to me.