Like another recent Breaking artist (Kindness), Lemonade pulls many of its sonic cues from the lesser traveled environs of the ’80s. Not new wave or post punk so much as new jack swing, steely pop singles and Rhythm Nation R&B.
“I am hopelessly controlled by my emotions,” frontman Callan Clendenin admits over Instant Messenger. “I have never said that about myself, so it seems almost artificial, but I am noticing that it’s true right now.”
As will anyone who cues up the Brooklyn band’s new album Diver, a marked move away from the manic dance music of their self-titled debut, chased with lots of melancholic hooks and misty-eyed melodies. In the following exclusive interview, we discuss everything from Dischord-era emo to slow dances to Bobby Brown. And if you want the Lemonade live experience, be sure to check out their record release show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Saturday night, right alongside such s/t favorites as Teengirl Fantasy and Elite Gymnastics…
self-titled: Hey Callan, ready for our not-at-all-awkward IM interview?
Hello? Did we do it?
Yep, we’re on. So how are you doing? Are you psyched at the positive response your record’s gotten so far?
I am too sensitive even for good responses, but I will say this much: I have read much more of the chatter re: Lemonade this time around than ever, and it feels pretty good so far.
So in the past, it was not at all, and this time, it’s one bit of press a month or something that you’ll actually look at?
Yeah, that’s about right. I will read intelligently written pieces on us, but the Twitter and stuff just sorta makes me nervous.
Are you anxious because you worry it’s too much of a departure? Because it sounds like a very natural extension of Pure Moods to me.
Not so much that; I am just always sorta anxious about the way my music is interpreted. I think that I don’t want this recorded to be too heavily analyzed…I just want people to attach to the melodies and the emotions.
You want people to be swept up in the melodies and hooks first, so they don’t have to necessarily connect with the lyrics?
Lots of records’ strengths are on their sounds; this record’s strengths are the songs and the melodies. I think so, at least. So I want people to just feel the song—humming in a ‘these melodies live inside me now’ way.
I’m trying to remember—was your self-titled record self-produced?
It was, but we recorded with Chris Coady. It sounded SO close to our live set. That is what Chris wanted to do—the vox are all through pedals, etc.
I’m asking because it sounds very ambitious, like you were trying to cram so many disparate influences into one space.
Yeah, for sure.
I wonder if it’s been all about learning to strip things back with this record, or streamline things…
When we started, we were kinda spiraling out of control—too many ideas, like all music at the time. We had become so immersed in electronic music and the culture, and we had to decide if we wanted to be producers and keep pushing new sound ideas, or if we wanted to write songs where I could actually sing. The early music doesn’t have a lot of melody to sing to. We decided to make songs—love songs mostly, cuz that is all I really like.
Let’s step back for a second actually…You were all more into indie/punk music when you were kids right?
Yeah, I got into hardcore when I was about 13. Same with Al [Pasternak]. Ben [Steidel] was more of an indie rock kid, but that is splitting hairs really.
San Francisco has such a strong rave/dance culture, so you must have had an eye/ear opening moment that made you suddenly embrace that scene, especially since hardcore is all about listening to nothing but hardcore.
Oh yeah,. Well in high school, all the girls that the hardcore and punk kids dated were ravers. There is always that ‘epiphany’; mine came way later.
So what was it for you?
I was turned off by trance and jungle as a kid. Though fascinated, I thought it was shallow. I think that the timeline of it was a little off. I may have missed the really ‘meaningful’ years. I got into house music very slowly as a result of IDM. I had some friends who played me Autechre and some things like that.
Shallow meaning it wasn’t angry or political; I had an angry political phase when I was in high school.
Like the whole sXe/vegan thing?
Yeah, that whole world—the tribal late ’90s.
Yeah, in one. The bands we liked were more ‘emo’: Portraits of Past, Chokehold, One Eyed God Prophecy. Eventually bands like VSS and the Gravity bands got me out of my ‘angry’ phase, and I started getting into experimental music. Suicide and post punk and all that. It was probably my love of Liquid Liquid that got me into dance [music].
Emo as in Dischord-like emo?
Yeah, like Rites of Spring. I got those records really young at a place called the Epicenter in SF. [It was] very influential. I gotta be careful; I could really tangent into that. In an era when nobody really values the timeline on music you have to be careful with words like that.
That relates to what you’re doing now in a roundabout way no? In how personal your lyrics are at least?
Yeah, I think so. I just couldn’t write lyrics like I used to. All the abstraction and visualization felt really tired.
So how old were you when you first started to really get into experimental/electronic stuff? And were you already friends with the other guys in Lemonade then?
Well with Autechre, Mille Plateau, etc., I was 18. I have been friends with Alex since we were in middle school. He was the ‘musician’ in my town, revered for his abilities. I got into music more accidentally. I just loved it. I never intended on playing it; never studied jazz or anything like that. Ben I met at a party after high school. He played with some Half Moon Bay (Alex and my hometown) musicians.
So you didn’t really get into this kind of music until right before Lemonade formed almost?
Yeah, like maybe two years [beforehand] or so.
So what was the original concept/aim of the band?
As my friend LILINTERNET said, “The only rule is no rules.” That sounds kinda cheesy, but we really wanted to depart from everything we had done. We all really like No Neck Blues Band and artists like that. It was so inspiring to see people doing whatever they wanted, so we made it up as we went along—lots of improvising, total freedom and confidence. We kept blowing up rooms from the very first shows. And it was such a rush. I became insecure and humble later.
When did that happen—the insecurity? When you moved to Brooklyn and people outside of San Fran started paying attention?
Yeah, exactly; never had a bad SF show or anywhere really in that period. When we moved to Brooklyn, we had a brief honeymoon with all of that too. It was after that. We were kinda disappointed with [our EP] Pure Moods. We never demoed the songs, and they felt rushed. We knew we should have done better. And it came out almost a year after we recorded it. In those years, we kinda unraveled. I haven’t even listened to it since it was released.
Weird, because you can’t really tell listening to it. Again, it sounds like the beginning stages of the new record…
That’s good. I wanted to put more songs on it and Dean (who runs our label) was like, “NO! these songs are an EP, a stepping stone. You guys have bigger things to do.” Something like that; meaning, he felt like we were on a precipice, but we needed to clean out the attic a bit and start over.
Well then maybe it’s all for the better.
While you haven’t listened to it much since then, what are some main things you wish you’d done differently?
When we demo, we rewrite lyrics, restructure songs, rebuild synths; it’s kind of a total overhaul. The first record was very impressionistic. [Pure Moods] was in between a ‘proper record’ and first impression.
So it was more like one session, bam, you’re done?
Yeah, just like two days recording, and a handful of all-night sessions with Chris Coady. We didn’t demo Diver that much, but we did just enough to get an idea of where we were at. The “Neptune” demo may have been better.
How far back do some of these songs go, writing wise?
The oldest songs on Diver are about three years old, but some were written just a month or so before we went into the studio. In the interim, we wrote like 35 songs that we had considered for the album, but we lost a bunch on Alex’s laptop when it was stolen from a show. So we rebuilt what we felt was necessary.
Most of the songs still start on your laptops then?
Oh yeah—all of them. That’s why we had so many songs. I would write three a day sometimes.
Do you have a good space for working out the ideas together?
We have a studio, so to speak, in Alex’s apartment. It’s not a good space. And often times, I will send songs to one of them and they wont even open it, so the idea vanishes and we all forget about it. We have a very clumsy writing process, and we are busy or out of the country to a disheartening degree. But when we get together and write it feels so amazing. I never have to explain to Ben or Al why something isn’t working. It is clear to all of us.
Does everyone have other commitments to balance with the band right now, hence not always being able to bounce ideas between one another?
The commitments are just New York, and paying rent, and the endless pursuit of fun. No real commitments, no kids, no mortgage. I don’t even know how to spell that…but we lose sight. That’s why the album took so long. That, and I needed to learn how to sing.
Given all of those factors, it must have been hard to make Diver sound like a cohesive album.
Well we had a bunch of songs to choose from.
So this record has, on and off, taken about three years?
So some themes, lyrically and sonically, kinda emerged organically?
Yeah. I mean, they are the same themes since the inception—transcendence, water—just now we have love songs. The reggae and grime influence has been there since the first demos, as well as the New Age.
Yeah, I noticed strains of all that in the older stuff…
It’s sneakily still hanging around.
What IS the deal with the water themes, and the fact that people cant write something about you without mentioning how ‘tropical’ you guys are? Because when I think San Francisco, I think fog, not sunshine and such.
It’s like Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love.” Not to reference Shai too much, cuz we did that cover, but it is transcendent and New Age-y. Nobody thinks that; they just think ‘love song’. That is the ultimate goal of Lemonade…
Well i think that the passion is the centerpiece. A lot of bands would be happy to use marimba and write an abstract song. We use the marimba, but it’s about the passion. The tropical thing…I like music that feels ‘warm’, like the molecules are moving
and water is evaporating. Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a [Real] Train” sounds warm and effervescent, and the imagery for so much of that music is of blue water and warmth. I think that the water in our brain likes that warmth; it makes us feel light and transcendent. The other side of it is that I need transcendent spaces like being underwater.
So I’m sure you don’t want to keep talking about how emo you are; what were some records/artists that really got you excited to make music in the past couple years, new or old?
I thought about Talk Talk when we made this record. I thought about Duran Duran’s “Come Undone,” PM Dawn’s “I’d die Without You,” and other songs I used to slow dance to. I thought about Hi Five, the R&B group from Waco. I saw myself as like the young, romantic pop singer, but time and experience pushed out something else.
When I was 13 years old, I was losing my shoe in a mosh pit, and then [I got into] noise, no wave and everything else, so I had to reconnect with pop.
You came full circle then?
Yeah, the only vocalists I really liked were from when I was a kid listening to new jack swing and falling in love to pop songs—Madonna even, lots of female vocalists. I loved Bobby Brown as a kid; I think I still kinda feel like him when I sing
Not just his Ghostbusters material then?
Ha, no. I loved Michael Bivens. My babysitter listened to New Edition. I learned to dance to new jack swing at summer camp…just childhood stuff crawling out of me. [It] makes me feel like I am helplessly doing the Saturn Returns thing.
Hey, it happens to all of us. How old are you?
Oh man, that stuff—I don’t need that anymore. I will listen to Portraits of Past when I am old and cry. I don’t need the angst, but I still need the love. I am not angst-y at all; I worked that way out.
Were you a ‘bad kid’ at one point?
I liked to be with bad kids, but I always kinda kept it clean and never got caught. I liked graffiti but like…my friends who got really into that went to jail and stuff. I was ‘punk’ or whatever it meant. We had to rebel; it was the time. It was me being angry that nobody told me that everything was wrong.
It always makes me wonder how bands like Sick of It All or whatever are still doing it at 50…
Oh yeah, I know some old hardcore guys. It’s like working at a tattoo shop for them—just what they do. The influences I gave you were all old, but really, my style of production comes from being obsessed with grime and dancehall a few years ago, and my fondness for people that make house but come from rougher backgrounds.
So more like classic house from the ’80s?
More like people that were into jungle and now make acid house.
How ironic considering you said you thought jungle was a little vacant when you were younger…
Acid was the first ‘house genre’ that I was obsessed with. It was so sinister; I could not get enough. I love jungle now.
Lots of hardcore kids get into jungle eventually for some reason.
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of crossover. So many artists are looking at the ’80s now—Girl Unit, Julio Bashmore (kinda), Hyetal.
Which facet of the ’80s?
Freestyle, and M1 synths, bell tones, voice tones. I don’t know if people will see it but we were kinda moving in the same pack as them. Artists like Scuba made early dubstep when we were messing with it, like in “Sunchips.” And now [Scuba] makes freestlye and progressive house-sounding stuff. Somehow we were on that same trajectory; we went tropical at the same time as UK bass guys did. I dunno. We aren’t copying; we are just moving together. It’s just a feeling that you all get…but we are a ‘band’, so I get to make them into love songs.
Well, that’s the major difference, yeah, and in the simplest terms possible, I’d consider Diver a pop record, one that’s informed by experimental music and is genuinely out to capture something emotional or deeper.
My goal is that people who don’t like the music I like, and just like pop, will still connect.
No more seven-minute songs then?
Ha. No. Again, like that Shai song but really New Age-y—effortlessly transcendent, but you can slow dance to it, as I did in middle school.
‘But you can slow dance to it’—that should be the title of your next EP…
I always forget my clever little titles.
Well write that one down.