Les Savy Fav - London, UK - Autumn 2007
16 Oct 2007
"i used to think, 'if only people could hear us, they'd know we're good', but now with the internet if 100,000 people listen and they all think 'you suck' then obviously you have to have your artistic integrity - but you might suck! but that blissful ignorance of not knowing that you suck is how so many original things get made..."
It's OK folks, everything's going to be alright - Les Savy Fav are back.
'Let's Stay Friends' is their first album of completely new material since 2001's peerless 'Go Forth', and the Brooklyn quartets' return has rightly got the indie-rock world rather hot under the collar. It's their first recording to get a proper UK release (via Wichita) and to celebrate they're bringing their post-punk carnival over the Atlantic for a handful of much-anticipated dates very soon. We met up with remarkably bearded singer, lyricist and live-show mayhem orchestrator Tim Harrington on a bench in a leafy London square to discuss extended hiatuses, new albums, the state of the music biz and Prince.
Rockfeedback: It's been ages since 'Inches' (the band's 2004 compilation of songs from various 7" releases - RFB), even longer since 'Go Forth' - what have you been doing in the interim?
Tim Harrington: "After 'Go Forth' came out and we had toured a lot, certain people were asking, 'When's your next record out? You gotta start working on the next record now - you need to get your audience bigger. People are interested - there's a buzz, you need to follow it up!' We just were like, (laughing) we're really happy with the number of people coming to see us play, so to put out a record just because that's what you do just wasn't us.
As a band we never thought of ourselves as professional - even though it's a huge part of our lives. Some of the motivations for touring and recording are financial - if you need to pay the bills you need to have your band doing stuff that people want to pay for - but also maybe you get off on having more and more people like you, you want creative satisfaction and you want to have a good time. The first two of those four didn't come into play for us at all. We had worked extra hard to make the band something we were never dependent on for money. Keeping the band in a weird space where you never have to answer to the band and you never get hooked on anything about the band except the static and pleasurable things was always really important to us - wanting to take the band and make it something that works within our lives so that we're not dominated by this Frankenstein creation. We wanted to make it so the members demanded stuff of the band, and the band answers to us rather than us answering to the band and the public.
I think everybody in the band has lots of passions and talents - we bring those talents to the band but the band has never felt like the thing we want to put those talents exclusively into. After 'Go Forth' we continued to do stuff for the band but spent a lot of time retooling the world's - and our own - expectations of how much time the band was demanding of us. Syd (Butler, bassist - RFB) spent way more time running French Kiss Records, Seth (Jabour, guitarist - RFB) finally treated himself as a real designer and art director, I focused more on my design and Harrison (Haynes, drummer - RFB) worked more on his painting.
After 'Go Forth' we were like, 'We don't want to do everything the way that professional bands do it - this band doesn't make any money, this band is exclusively for our pleasure - it can be whatever we want it to be.' I think if you're the kind of person who's like, 'I hate my day job, so the more I do the band the less I'm doing something I hate,' then that's cool - we love music but we also love the aesthetics and the scene that goes with the music we play.
I don't know how to play any instruments - technically I play keyboard but it's two fingers max! I'm not gonna be the kind of person who when I can't move and my joints are tired is still gonna be playing my harmonica and my acoustic guitar. There's more to my life and passions than that. Staying in a band and doing just a band can be a form of being conservative - you can become just as bad as your friend who became a lawyer in some law firm they didn't like because they were too scared to do anything fun.
A defining aspect of our new record is that, being a band for as long as we are, we're not just going to make a clean break - we're going to make it the kind of band that feels to us like it can go on longer without us becoming jaded or serious musicians and without being like, 'We are a ten year old band, we deserve gravitas!' We want to remain casual and enthusiastic in spite of everything."
RF: Have you been in bands before with people who were over-focused on making a career of it?
TH: "No - I was in a very short-lived, arty, actual art-rock band when I was in school which made the other guys think I could be the singer for their band. My entire experience of music was really innocent - maybe not now that I've seen more seedy shit. It never occurred to me when I was just a fan that a band would do it for their own ego or for money. I thought, 'You're just doing this 'cos it's fuckin' fun, the same reason why I'm here!'
When you start a band no-one likes you and no-one's heard of you - you play shows and no-one goes, but you don't care - you still do it. Then when you're successful but the success goes away you're burned! You're like, 'Where's everyone gone? Fuck I feel bad!' But if you really struggle to keep the idea of doing it because you love music so, shit, maybe you should make some! Then you'd love the music you've made and it'll be even more fun! To keep that flame burning is the most important thing - if that was gone then fuck the band!"
RF: How do you think the music scene has changed since you started out?
TH: "The main difference is that the alternative touring network that we were taking advantage of was still a really fragile thing, and now it's really slick and robust and it's kind of a machine - I guess I'm precious and sentimental about that scene. For professional, real talented musicians - people whose lives are disasters apart from when they play music - it's great for them to finally not have to do everything themselves - they can follow well-maintained paths. But for a band like us who maybe sucked at first, having easy access to all that might mean that if you don't get it then it's a really bad sign - whereas back then things went shitty for the best band and the worst band because it was just rough going. Also if today we didn't get media attention I'd be like, 'We might suck!' Because before we would have thought, 'If only people could hear us, they'd know we're good', but now with the internet if 100,000 people listen and they all think you suck then obviously you have to have your artistic integrity but you might suck! But that blissful ignorance of not knowing that you suck is how so many original things get made - like the Talking Heads thinking they're making latin-influenced music, and you're like, 'Huh? It came out really good, whatever you guys thought!'
People are so much more sophisticated now and that sophistication has given indie music a lot of the tools and techniques that used to be just for shit pop bands. To think back, to generate hype was impossible - you had to get in your van and go on tour. But now you can generate hype in shallow ways that were only previously available to those with money. Bands seem to come out of nowhere in crazy ways that before were just impossible. It may sound cool, it may smell like a home-grown thing, but it's not home-grown, it's popped out and declared fully-formed.
But then again some bands pop out fully-formed and are awesome - I try to stay non-judgmental on these things because I think being a hater on something you don't know very much about is wrong. It's a super-conservative instinct to think that the new thing is the wrong thing. Whereas before there were a lot of excellent bands that no-one ever heard, now there are just tons of bands that everyone hears. That doesn't mean there's not the same ratio of good bands, it's just that now there's a lot of debris around!"
RF: Let's talk about the new record, where does the title originate from?
TH: "We played some secret shows where 'Let's Stay Friends' was our fake band name - same initials obviously - and that's where the phrase came from. Then we were talking about 'Why are we doing this?' and the point we kept coming back to was that we don't care about anything except wanting to make music that we like! It probably sounds egotistical or like I'm being a dick, but I mean it in the nicest way - we just like it, we like each other and the friends we've made through music and we want to hang out as friends, so that's the title!"
RF: How do you think it compares to your other records?
TH: "Syd was saying that each of our records has been a little less controlled - some people might hear that and think I mean 'more chaotic'. I actually mean 'more organic and less conscious, less thought-out' - trusting our instincts more. I think this record was really about not second-guessing ourselves. In the past we would work and re-work songs so much but this time it was much more direct. We were like, 'If we start something and it seems good, then it's good - we don't need to analyze it'. That directness is what we always wanted to get in the studio.
What makes this record closest to our live performance - even though it doesn't sound like it - is that you feel like it has a life of its own - it's alive. Nobody understands this thing or what's good about it, but we know it's good. We made it, so it must be good! I feel like when we perform live, which we have a reputation for, that's like first nature - there's no time to question it, we do it and it's done. For this record we spent more time in the studio, it sounds more polished than our other stuff, but the heart and soul of it is based on that same instinct.
One of the things with 'Inches' that helped was the process of recording two songs at a time. Going into the studio and doing these tiny things was a way of rebuilding ourselves - like, 'Go in and try this. Now try this.' On 'Inches', there's a lot of stuff, it's 18 songs long and it spans and encapsulates everything about the band - seeing that all laid out in one place definitely informed 'Let's Stay Friends'. We also really liked 'ROME (Written Upside Down)' (their five track EP from 2000 - RF) - everyone was really excited by that and we all thought it had directness and immediacy. That happened by circumstance, we had just moved from a five piece to a four piece and we wrote and recorded it really fast, and since then we've been like, 'That's great but how do we make that happen on purpose?' Turning into the Hulk is exciting but it's really only exciting if you can turn into the Hulk when you want to and need to, and can do what you want with it! I think 'Go Forth' has a lot of awesome songs and is a really good record but it's too controlled - it doesn't let the Hulk out enough."
RF: You're lyrical style has always been a vital part of Les Savy Fav's sound - what topics do you tackle on 'Let's Stay Friends'?
TH: "There are two kinds of songs - some are story-songs like 'The Equestrian' and 'Pots And Pans' that maybe have some parable elements to them and then there are songs that are more like theses. I try lyrically not to tell a point of view but I always try to work from a point of view - I want there to be something specific I'm writing about rather than just evocative poetry. I like to model something that is not judgmental but that has the details of real life so you can see it - but as apposed to real life, I'm the creator!
One of the most important themes in all my lyrics is the idea of embracing what you don't know - embracing chaotic things. The goal is not to understand things but to just get used to always being completely confused. I really like the study of religion - the formal study of something that by definition is completely unknowable - that's like the best thing to me; to work those muscles against an infinite force is really awesome! Like the cover painting of 'Let's Stay Friends' with Adam and Eve fighting the animals - to try and think about what happened to these people that didn't exist...that's the goal of all fiction and all art. That's what's cool about parables and bible stories - taking the unknowable and saying 'We can't know it, but we can get the vibe of it' and the vibe can be right and can be accurate! You take the vibe and start fixing details onto it. It's really, really neat.
There's a song on 'Let's Stay Friends' called 'The Year Before The Year 2000' which is about '1999' by Prince. Before I wrote the lyrics I was obsessed with this idea that it's easy for Prince, or anyone, to say 'Party, and enjoy pleasure with reckless abandon' if we know the world is going to end, as there'll be no consequences. To party like it's 1999 is a much more profound challenge after 1999 than it is before - can you still bring yourself to have that innocence, passion and enjoyment? I feel like the whole world is in a post-millennial slump right now. Everyone was running a marathon towards 2000, and there were really good vibes then, but now there's harsh vibes. It's because people were like, 'Oops, now there's a whole mess of time out in front of us!' To demand that we maintain innocence and enthusiasm in the clear vision of infinite is really interesting!"
RF: I really like how you get these complex ideas out of things that might seem to be 'beneath' analysis...
TH: "Have you heard the Smog song, 'Prince Alone in the Studio'? Bill Callahan is singing that Prince is all by himself in his studio, it's 3am, his food has gotten cold, the sexy girls that came up to fuck him have all gone home and all he's doing is working on that last guitar track - and implicitly that's the exact same thing Bill Callahan's doing at 3 in the morning. The idea of taking something that's poppy and casual and giving it that level of thought is really cool, and that's what got me thinking about Prince.
To have those two levels is totally awesome. Like, this is totally fun, you don't need to analyze anything - this is direct, emotional, just a good time. But if you wanna get into it, I'm game! We've thought about it, we're not just a party band - but we're good for partying to."
RF: I don't think many people would deny that! On that note, are you really the best live band in the world?
TH: "Yeah, pretty much. But I think anyone who says their own band isn't their favourite band is full of shit."