Tracking down Saint Motel at the band's recording studio isn't exactly easy. Deep in Pasadena, the entrance to Crown City Studios lies hidden in a dark junkyard alleyway, abandoned and eerie like a CSI episode just waiting for you to stumble headfirst into a nail gun before the director calls "scene."
But past the stacked wooden palates and hanging sheets of plastic, there's a dimly lit stairwell that leads directly into Crown City's multiple rooms -- spacious but homey arrangements of couches and carpets, books, a fish tank, walls hung with framed vinyl, something that appears to be a small shrine complete with burning sage, and more instruments than one can count.
The unsigned L.A. buzz band and KCRW favorite, Saint Motel, has been in the studio recording its second EP with producer Eric Lilavois for three months, including time for rehearsals, pre-production, a short tour, and what the band mysteriously dubs "sushi rehab."
In person, that's the first thing you learn about Saint Motel -- inside jokes run amok between the bandmembers and their ridiculously quick wit is enough to make the most self-proclaimed sarcasmaster stutter and "say what?" to keep up.
The night of my visit the band is mixing its new song "Wall Street," a song that even unfinished is so quick and intuitive it begs for radio play. There's also "Wagon" with its drum-heavy intro that suggests Eagles of Death Metal, and "Robber," a track that singer A/J Jackson jokingly describes as a dedication "to robbers around the world."
Jackson sits huddled over the mixing board talking vocals with producer Lilavois while bassist Dak sits across the room at the kitchen counter with his computer and headphones on, translating the TV show FlashForward into Thai subtitles (his other job).
Has he ever translated Sex and the City? "No, that would be great though," Dak smiles shyly. But he has done Grey's Anatomy.
Drummer Greg Erwin and guitarist Aaron Sharp decide to kill some time on the Internet.
"Now this is how you cut a record," Sharp says as the two burst into hysterics and log onto Chatroulette.com. The band's manager Russell Rubin watches them from his seat at the mixing board. He smirks, then closes his eyes and shakes his head.
Voyeur-exhibitionist Internet sensations aside, over the course of the evening there will be Justin Bieber jokes (mostly about A/J's hair), talk of magic and of sex tapes. But more importantly there will be talk about Saint Motel's highly anticipated new EP.
The as-yet-untitled EP is a followup to September 2009's ForPlay, whose bubbly, Morning Becomes Eclectic-endorsed single "Butch" is currently in rotation on KCRW. Also of late, ForPlay's darker first single "Dear Dictator" was remixed by Grammy nominated, electro wizard Sam Sparro and hit No. 3 on MP3 aggregator Hype Machine's charts.
Saint Motel talked to L.A. Weekly about the new recordings (self-described as "indie-prog"), their handmade audio-visual instruments, and also about the band's must-see gig tonight, July 1, at the Hammer Museum as part of KCRW's "Also I Like to Rock" live music series.
L.A. Weekly: What are the most difficult things about the recording process for you guys besides being distracted by Chatroulette?
Jackson: Things are just heating up right now. We've recorded three songs and are working on a few more. The first couple songs we've worked on are "Wall Street," "Wagon" and "Robber." Making the [ForPlay] EP, over the course of a long time we'd have a song here, a song there, recording in various studios or somebody's basement. But now we can try and bulk up all these songs together at the same time and that's a fun challenge. We're trying to capture a lot of the live energy in the new recordings and we're trying to make them very big and cathartic. Sometimes its a little bit scary. [We want it to be] something where you'll either grit your teeth or smile. Something that gets you excited.
Erwin: Lately it's been good for us to be in our own space. We realized that we're more efficient and more creative writing and recording in our own private space and then taking those ideas and working with the producer. Having everything ready going into the studio seems to be the best way for us to record, rather than piecing it together as we go. It's a lot less pressure. It's been interesting lately. We've been progressing and moving forward with this particular recording process. But there's definitely more people involved and I think so far it's been fairly comfortable for us.
In what sense are more people involved?
Erwin: Just creatively, with a producer and label people, but them not taking control by any means. It's just interesting to have other people involved at all. We've been doing it by ourselves for so long.
Well, there can be a danger in having too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak.
Erwin: Exactly. We've been lucky because everyone's been very respectful of our process and our space and it seems to be integrating okay right now.
Let's talk about performance. You guys work in some pretty amazing visuals into your live show.
Sharp: We have a video piano which is basically an analog wooden piano that, rather than accessing notes, accesses video clips and you can blend the different clips together and create cool analog distortions.
Is this something you built yourself?
Sharp: This is something we made, yeah.
And you have magical guitar too, right?
Jackson: Oh yeah, I made a magic guitar. That's the future. We can coordinate the video piano directly to our instruments. We also have surveillance cameras hooked up to the piano. Sometimes we have cameras mounted in the audience. Some of them are wireless so they can float around. At any given moment you could be watching the [video projections] and it's you all of a sudden. Or there's one in the bathroom and you don't know it.
Well, that might actually be illegal.
Erwin: The pee cam!
Jackson: [Laughs] No, no, it's on the sink.
Sharp: I had a camera mounted on my guitar which was awesome. I don't know what these other guys are talking about; it's bullshit. [Laughs.]
Tell me about this magic guitar.
Jackson: It's something I'll use a lot more in the future -- it's gradually working its way in. Anything is possible with it. On the guitar I can play a trumpet or a flute or drums. It's mostly used in the prog-rock scene. Like, Rush uses this kind of instrumentation. But that's why I think it's so cool because I don't see many bands like ... what are we, indie rock?
Jackson: Indie-prog. It's fun because we don't see many people using it and you can do some really cool things. It's animated and more entertaining than a keyboard ... or a keytar. You're still playing the guitar and it reacts to you bending the strings and doing all sorts of crazy shit. We like to push things. We try a lot of things. Aaron does a guitar technique called "dog piano." It will be unveiled at the Hammer museum.
How'd you hook up the Hammer museum gig?
Jackson: We paid them a lot of money. We traded them our private collection of abstract art, mostly made of toothpicks. [Laughs.] The concert's going to be really fun. Kitten's on board -- cutest little thing ever.
Erwin: A big part of the Hammer show coming together was KCRW. They've been playing our song "Butch" for about a month. It's been really incredible. We get texts and emails and calls every day from people hearing the song on Morning Becomes Eclectic. We also just confirmed this week that in September we're going to be doing a live performance on Morning Becomes Eclectic. Another thing about KCRW, they're making "Butch" the top tune on July 1. They'll play it throughout the day and then it's available on KCRW's website for free download. It's great. We're so happy to be a part of that.
Jackson: We've been building momentum steadily. You get one thing and that'll lead to another, and another ... and then you just release a sex tape every so often and it piques interest and then, forget about it.
More photos from in the studio with Saint Motel:
Saint Motel plays KCRW's "Also I Like to Rock" free music series at the Hammer Museum tonight, July 1, at 8 p.m.