Their new album, Celestial Electric, was a bi-nation love affair in its making. They have traded beat skeletons via email and have taken time, Lee in London and AM in Los Angeles, to flesh them out into fat and lively golems , have zipped them into a 15-pack under the title Celestial Electric. You will meet all of them in September, but for now you can enjoy cuts like “Dark into Light” which are out and about—tracking well at radio stations you know and love. Magnetic put a few questions to the duo, not that you aren’t already familiar with the multi-instrumentalist and the tunemaster; but as we often find in life, a little more knowledge never hurt, eh? We broke bread in an airport longue in Amsterdam. It was a haggard morning, for me at least. Drizziling and desultory, when I arrived onlyuy AM was round about. Look out for Part Two when Shawn Lee, who I inferred had previously been servicing his human parts, makes his triumphant return to The Number Nine Longue. But as I said, in the beginning… there was only the AM. Let’s begin...
PARTE THE FIRSTE.
If you were able to bottle your sound and sell it as a fragrance, what would your tagline be?
I think the AM & Shawn Lee project is worthy of a nice 70’s musk… maybe Brut. “Splash it on all over”
Discuss a musician or an era which has influenced you. Why is what you like the best? Or at least worthy of your time.
Shawn Lee said it best. ’67-’73. Those are perhaps the richest years for recorded “popular” music. Even the most popular music was still interesting. Not to say there aren’t great records from other periods. Tons of amazing stuff in the mid to late 70’s, early 80’s… and certainly many great songs written from many different decades. Jazz is obviously a whole other thing, classical works, et cetera. But yeah, I spend 95% of my time between ’65 and ’82. Lately I’ve become obsessed with ‘70s library music. Someone said it was one of the most undocumented form of music next to field recordings. I think that’s true. It’s mostly instrumental, soundtrack type music and just amazing. So mysterious.
How do craftsmanship and style come up against the importance of emotional conveyance in your work?
I think the sound of a recording is just as important as the song itself. There are tunes I love just as much for their “timbre” as I do the melody or the song. Older recordings, say pre ’82 or so have that sound I like. I know it’s dangerous to be nostalgic, but I just feel we moved too quickly through that period of music of ’65-’82. Progress is not always better. Recordings of that time were like a girlfriend we took for granted and only now realize it was the best girl we ever had.
Take us along on a creative arc.
Well with the AM & Shawn Lee project it was all about restriction, which I think is really important especially today. I don’t have Pro Tools and millions of plug ins for that reason. I have a few amps, a handful of acoustic and electric guitars, a couple ukuleles and other stringed instruments, a bass and a handful of mostly cheap keyboards. I don’t record at home. I record with friends or at other studios because I don’t want the endless possibilities in front of me when I’m writing. When Shawn started sending me beats I let the beat determine where the song went. So in that sense I was also “restricted”. But what really ends up happening is that you make decisions and move forward. That’s the problem with a lot of the digital technology. The possibilities are endless and you just get paralyzed.
I gave this word a crucial dose of pointed poignancy and I paused here and gazed over at my midget manservant Adolfo who was eating a baguette, as he does when we are in Europe. I knew we had none.-von P
I hate Monday morning quarterbacking as it were because that’s kind of like torturing yourself. I’d like to think I’ve made the best decisions I could with whatever knowledge I had at the time. Sure I made some mistakes, but that’s all part of the growing process. I think for me the one thing I feel I have done and hope to keep doing is to give less and less of a shit about what people think and become more trusting of my intuitions. This record with Shawn happened so fast and mostly because I made quick decisions…and he’s an insanely fast worker. I didn’t hem and haw over tones and all that. When I was looking for a keyboard tone, when I hit one I liked I used it. I didn’t look back. Same thing with most of the instrumentation. Vocally too. I totally trusted Shawn to do his thing with my vocals. I wasn’t sitting in the room with him going “Nah, try this, try that.”
Have you ever met with anything that goes bump in the night or moves faster than light?
No, and I wish I would because I’m starting to feel left out. I mean there are all these reality shows about people that see this or that, UFO’s and stuff… and I wouldn’t actually think anyone would lie about something like that just to have 15 seconds of fame on television or anything. So c’mon! Give me some supernatural experience already!
Is there anything other people think, or hope, to be true that you KNOW is not?
Hmmm. I kind of like Woody Allen’s quote: “Everything your parents told you was good for you growing up is actually bad. Milk, red meat, college.” Nah, but I actually do eat red meat and I went to, and enjoyed, college. Whether or not things are “good for you” is sometimes irrelevant because sometimes you have to do things that are “bad for you”, but that you enjoy. For instance I think stress is just as dangerous as alcohol when it comes to your health. If having a drink reduces your stress is that bad? Plus a lot of these “studies” come in and out of relevance. In the 70’s no one touched those black mussels. Now they’re a delicacy. The list of contradictions goes on and on and a lot of it depends on who conducts the study. You gotta be careful where you get your information.
How… or perhaps more interestingly why did you get your start? Is there anyone you owe “big time?” Does it involve your unborn children?
I grew up in and around New Orleans and played music all through high school and college. Some cover music and instrumental compositions. It wasn’t till I moved to LA that I actually considered “singing” and writing “songs.” I had kind of abandoned the electric guitar for a while and concentrated on just writing songs on the acoustic guitar. Gary Jules, a fellow songwriter and friend really encouraged and helped me out early on. Jamie Myerson too (he produced my first record). KCRW here in LA have always been good to me and very supportive. They were a big reason a lot of TV shows and films started licensing my music which then led to some small record deals and allowed me to make music full time. I’ve now totally abandoned my older way of writing songs. I hardly ever pick up an acoustic guitar anymore to write a song. I play bass, synths and much more electric guitar. Much of that process was realized with the AM & Shawn Lee record. I let the restrictions of Shawn’s drum beats help dictate the song structure... writing through limitation. I’m also way more focused on groove these days. I’m still writing songs, but in a different way. I’m also writing more and more instrumental music. It’s been liberating.
Where on the planet Earth do they love you most? Failing that, where do you?
I feel they’re always changing. My most recent best touring memory was touring the south of France opening up for AIR. It was June which is the most beautiful time to go. They were awesome enough to throw our gear in their pimped out bus while the band and I drove a little euro car from city to city…seeing the French countryside. The venues all treated us so well and the food was insane…definitely a highlight for me.
I blanched. The French. Every single where. All of the times. Yet they leave no trace. –von P
What’s the next big paradigm shift in the world o’ music?
I think the cloud is the next thing. It’s kind of in it’s infancy, but I feel before long we’ll all have the same record collection… which will be nearly everything recorded. The problem is people will still need direction. When you have everything you can sometimes be paralyzed. It also kind of minimizes people that have spent decades building up insane record collections. What does that mean for new music? It’s gonna be harder and harder to stand out because you will not only be competing with the millions of bands already out there, but you’ll be competing with the past. Older, and often better and more interesting records that are now as available as anything else. Hopefully it will inspire artists to do their best work. If I have one complaint about a lot of new music it’s that I feel people are writing music before they’re really even listening to very much of it. You can hear it in the production and the songwriting.
UNTIL WE MEET IN PART TWO.