Welcome to the Jungle: the letlive. interview
For someone as much in love with the romance of pop and rock music as the occasionally grubby and dispiriting reality, I've always had a fondness for acts who, by design or accident, find themselves somewhat off the beaten track when on tour. Perhaps it's because I grew up in a small, rural town where no bands ever played, I have a grudging respect for those who stop off in the one-horse towns and pit villages and put on a show.
Acts often find themselves in these places once the tide of public opinion has turned against them slightly, the town halls and arts centres providing a crust from the one-gig-per-year brigade. Occasionally, you get someone like Morrissey who builds his entire tours around those provincial towns that someone forgot to bomb. Other times a band will just get booked because they have a hole in their schedule on their way to somewhere else.
Ever since the late 1980s or so, Cumbria has been on the fringes of the rock circuit, with no mid-sized venues of note. In previous decades, the likes of The Beatles and The Who, The Ramones and The Smiths all stopped in Carlisle at least, but the county also has a hidden musical history, one that throws up all kinds of curious nuggets of interest. Who the hell turned up when Crass played the small fishing town of Maryport in 1979? Or what about when they returned to play a village hall in Cleator Moor a couple of years later? Maybe it's just me, but when they're writing the official history of rock 'n roll, these gigs will seem infinitely more interesting than the run-of-mill mid-week shows in front of jaded big city audiences. Make memories. Make history. Change lives, says I.
letlive. (the punctuation is important, apparently) are a post-hardcore crew from Los Angeles. They're officially a 'buzz band', fuelled by their reputation for incendiary live shows and the idea that letlive. is a project, a philosophy of sorts that's bigger than just the music. Thoughts turn to Nation Of Ulysses, Refused or the aforementioned Crass collective and the heart beats a little faster - anything with a spark or intellect beyond the ability to throw out some riffage.
I meet up with them in Carlisle, just prior to their show at the city's Brickyard venue, with its street-end view of a real-life English castle. The previous night they played in Inverness and, in true rock 'n roll style, they have van issues on the way down. We spoke with Jason Aalon Butler (vocals), Ryan Jay Johnson (bass) and Anthony Rivera (drums).
You're from Los Angeles and, to be honest, my knowledge of the music scene there stops about 1988...
Jason: As it should!
Is LA still somewhere kids go to make a name for themselves. Does it still have those magnetic qualities?
Jason: Yeah, I think so. I think Los Angeles will remain the main, centralised hub for music given everything that's gone on over the years. For ourselves, we've tried to carve out a space musically and culturally - although that might be me being very conscious of being an LA native.
Is there a sense that you're part of that ongoing musical narrative?
Jason: We're all very proud of being from Los Angeles, given all the bands that have come out of that scene. To be associated with that in any way would be cool.
The album got a new push in the Spring, but it's actually your third full-length.
Jason: Well, it's the first one with this group of gentlemen. Before then it was just Ryan and myself, stuff we wrote as kids and we kept the name because it was like an idea. And for that idea, I'd say this was the first real actualisation.
Anthony: It's probably the difference between trying to be the hometown hero and trying to reach for something else and it's taken maybe five years to do that.
Bands don't really get time to develop now - their stuff is all over the internet before the record is out. Have you benefitted from those years away from the glare?
Jason: Although we're plugged into the technology, we're still more about the organic nature of the performance. This band came together because we wanted to do something that was a little more personal and raw, a bit more humanistic.
You clearly have an idea, a philosophy that you want to communicate. Is it something you're likely to expand upon or will you leave the lyrics, the artwork to do the talking?
Jason: Whether a person is an artist or a philosopher or a mogul, all you can do is be a catalyst for people to extract what they want and make it their own. As long as there's a basic infrastructure, I'm not going to be didactic and tell people what they should think letlive. is, or what the idea is. We'll put it out there and see where it goes.
Who do you feel an affinity with in terms of that kind of aesthetic?
Ryan: Talking Heads are important to me. The way they balance the art with the desire to be normal people.
Jaon: Bob Dylan is like a good example. I didn't grow up on him but now I have a better, or more mature understanding of his work, I think that aesthetic shines through. Not the best singer, but what he was singing and circumstantially how he was saying it, it was perfect. That's what I admire. And personally again, James Brown, the all-time greatest thing to ever happen to musical performance. For me, it's quite black-and-white about what's useful.
Is this a hard thing to do, being in a band?
Jason: Yes! No!
Anthony: You have to sacrifice a lot of your life in order to continue. But at the same time you get a lot of gratification in just being able to play music in front of people. But it is hard; it can be exhausting.
If you're a poet, you write poetry. If you act, you act. But being in a band calls on a many talents - and it's rare to hit on them all. So when the wheels come off from a band, maybe people don't understand just how hard it is to keep it all together.
Jason: There's certainly an ambivalance about being in a band compared to those other things you mention. I actually had this conversation with my Mom last night: it's what your intentions are and what you want to get out of it, and it's an outlet that 99.9% of the world are not privvy to. This is like a deviant choice in life you make because it's not very popularised. The appeal is not apparent until you finally, wholly give yourself into it.
Anthony: It's something you can be afraid of, 'Oh, it's too hard to tour' or 'It's going to cost too much money.' With this it didn't feel too hard to do and we just did it. Playing the music is not a hard thing to do. But some people are scared to just make that leap.
Is your decision to do this something your families supported?
Jason: My family wasn't, at least in the beginning, because my Father played music and it got a bit crazy for him. But now they see how things are progressing and the gratification we're getting out of it emotionally, they've begun to nurture it and see that it's more than just a career.
What do you know now about the UK that you didn't the first time you came over?
Anthony: We discovered doner and chips the other day! That's delicious! The garlic sauce and the spicy stuff ...
Ryan: I've begun to embrace what the landscapes are like, the things you overlook the first time. You see past the kind of shock factor that comes from being in a new place for the first time.
Jason: We know now that there are more cities to play; cities we've never heard of and yet there are 100, 200, 300 kids who'll come out to see you play.
Anthony: Yeah, we played in Inverness last night and had the chance to find out more about how the UK is put together - I'm just an ignorant American! (laughs) I thought maybe Scotland was this independent thing! Are you local to here?
No, I'm actually Scottish...
Jason: Yes, you certainly are! (laughs)
'Cos you have some Scottish connections...
Jason: Yeah, my Mom came from Glasgow, well, Edinburgh originally.
We're pretty much on the border here. Are the audience slightly younger over here than what you might play to at home?
Anthony: Maybe a little, what with the difference in drinking laws. We still do all ages, 14+ shows.
Jason: It can be hard to tell. I just look to see who has a beer bottle, or receding hairline, crows feet... [laughs] Hey, you look great!
If you could go back to meet your 14 year-old self, what would you say to him?
Jason: I'd hope he didn't have too much to say to me about what I'm doing now. I'd hope he'd be OK with where we are. I think he would. I think for the most part I'm still my 14 year-old self minus the sexual restraints, plus a bit of maturation and learning. But at 26 this is what I wanted to do at 14.
Anthony: I think I'd give him some more romantic advice. And I would give him fifty bucks because that was a fortune. Two twenties and an ten - that would last me a month!
Later that night, to say letlive. tore the venue a new sphincter would be a considerable understatement. The music I can mostly take or leave: almost ten years ago to the day I saw At The Drive-In on the cusp of imploding, torn apart by personality and staring into the abyss of mainstream success that was there for the taking. The genre hasn't changed much in a decade beyond get more technical; letlive. ramp everything up but eventually it can become a little wearing.
But there's something there. Butler defines charismatic; within seconds he's throwing himself around the stage furniture, beer cans exploding against walls. He finds some height: scrambling atop a corridor roof, picked out by a spotlight, he's alone with whatever drives him. Set-end finds him astride the PA, dropping into the darkness. If I was 14 I would've found my band, my meaning. But I'm not, so you hope they find a way to channel some of those other influences, to bring James Brown's swagger and sense of what's right to the punk scene, and to bring David Byrne's art and quiet decency to metal. That would be something, that would be worth it. That might change lives.
Fake History is out now on Epitaph. letlive. play the Kerrang tour in February 2012 with New Found Glory, Sum 41 and While She Sleeps.