On Friday 10th February, I was given the chance to sit down with Jesse Lacey from Brand New, before the band played at the Southampton Guildhall, part of a string of UK dates that marked their first return to our shores since their sold-out headline show at Wembley Arena in January 2010. Having the hard-earned and I’m sure highly cherished position of being in my own, personal ‘top five’ list of inspiring musicians in existence, and someone who has, over the course of the band’s unique twelve year journey, attracted one of the largest cult followings in modern music, it wasn’t an opportunity I took lightly. I certainly didn’t expect the man to give me forty-five minutes of his day, and the chance to have such an honest and frank discussion about a wide range of subject matters varying from the position the band now find themselves in, to dealing with fame, the state of modern culture, and life ethics, was for me personally, a great privilege, and the sort of opportunity that I know, even at the humble age of twenty, I may never get to experience again.
Anywho, here goes! Due to upload limits, only the first half (20 mins) of the interview could be uploaded in one go, the second half can be found here.
All copyright rights for this interview are reserved.
How’s it been playing in the UK again, and do you think it differs much from playing elsewhere?
Every place has their own little things about it, the way the venues are styled, or how it is travelling from place to place. England has always been very original, it definitely has its own identity about itself, and the audiences here are great too, it’s really exciting playing UK audiences, I don‘t know if it’s because we don‘t always get over here as often as some other places, or if it’s just in the water.
We always have some anxiety about coming back to a place we haven’t been to for a while, there’s always something in the back of our heads that there won’t be as many people, or that people would have forgotten about us, especially somewhere overseas where we can‘t keep as close communication with our audience here as we do in the states. So it’s always a great relief when we get here and the shows go how they have gone, it’s been great start to finish.
So you started writing new material about a year ago?
Well we probably started writing new material as soon as we were done with the last record, it’s just lately we’ve all been exploring our peripheral projects outside of Brand New. It’s been nice to get back together again, because you’ll hear something that Brian’s done, or Vinni’s done, you almost get jealous of it, because you wish you had been part of that, so we’re definitely excited to get back in the studio together. We have studio time in April but we’re not really sure how that will turn out, unfortunately for our fans, it’s really ‘see how it goes’ for now. But we are intent on getting music out, we’d like to do it before the end of the year.
Do you find that, as the band grows over time, it becomes a lot harder to define your goals?
I think so, because other life goals begin to take precedence, and as you grow older I think we’ve all realised that there are other things we may want to achieve, outside of what we’ve accomplished musically. There’s a still a list of things we want to do as a band, but you start to juggle these things with family, or other things you may want to accomplish in life. When you think about all these other things, and you realise you’re getting older and you may have less time to do them now, sometimes the band may take a back seat every once in a while.
What do you think your life would consist of if you didn’t have Brand New, and what do you look to get fulfilment from outside of the band?
I have thought about that, and it’s a scary thought, as far as what my life would have been if this didn’t happen and I hadn’t met the guys I’m in a band with, I could have become a very ‘unsuccessful’ person. When I was younger, I never had a very clear idea of what I wanted to be when I was older, I just knew that I didn’t want to become miserable. Especially as I associated that misery with some sort of daily grind, of going to the work in the morning, sitting at a desk or selling things to people, and then coming home late, trying to fit in a little time for yourself, and then going to sleep and doing the same thing the next day, similarly to what my father did, and what his father did. That never appealed to me, it really scared me actually, because it would only lead me to becoming older and more miserable. But luckily this happened, if it hadn’t, I probably would’ve been a really lazy good for nothing, because I wouldn’t have enjoyed what I was doing, but might not have had the motivation or creativity to do something outside of music. I count myself very lucky, and I think everyone in the band does.
Going back to the new material for a second, do you see it as a continuation of ‘Daisy’ or something different?
I think a large part of us writing a record has to do with this time before we actually record music, where there’s a lot of this sort of cerebral conceptualisation of trying to understand what the record might sound like, and I think this feels different. I think that ‘Daisy’ was like the end of a road, and I get the impression we all feel like we might need to back track a little bit and find another place where we could’ve gone off. I don’t think we’ll go into writing this record from the standpoint of coming out of ‘Daisy’, and into the next thing, it will probably be more around album number two or three, where maybe we had another conception then of where we could have gone off, and maybe we‘ll try to re-discover that.
When you came round to writing ‘Daisy’, was there a deliberate attempt to make it less comfortable, and less polished?
Yeah, without a doubt. I think we physically were feeling very uncomfortable, and creatively we were feeling uncomfortable, we felt a certain commotion in our lives that we found very bothersome, and we wanted to express that in that record. The problem was that when we were done with it, it was a lot more chaotic than we thought it was, we laugh about it now, just how tiring that record is to listen to, it’s exhausting.
For me personally, I’d say that the second and third album are just wall-after-wall hits, but ‘Daisy’, you couldn’t list as many ‘big’ songs, but, conceptually its just as valid as the rest.
Did you find it less immediate also? I would definitely agree with you about that, to take one or two songs off that record and compare them to, especially your favourites, off another album would be a difficult comparison, but on a whole I think it stands up to the others. I think there’s a lot less reprieve through the flow of that album also. Usually, we try to create some kind of dynamic, a little bit of up and down, but there’s not on that album. But, from what I can tell, it’s still something that people want to make it through, because it’s almost like a challenge. Plus, I think it’s short enough that I don’t think it crosses the line of being impossibly un-listenable, but we completely understand that it is, as you say, an uncomfortable record to listen to.
I suppose that whilst it may not yield the same immediate pleasure, it makes you feel that you’re getting further somehow, in some abstract way.
Yeah, I think that with a lot of the songs on, and not even released, for ‘Devil and God’, we knew we could make a really accessible record, not necessarily in a radio/pop way, but just in a more listenable way, but then at the same time we still had this anxiety of having this other thing we were dealing with. So I think that the anxiety that you can very much hear on ‘Daisy’, is us having to forego those more obvious conventions, which could have worked great, just so we could deal with this other thing, almost like therapy in a way. So I think we were glad to be able to do it, but felt a bit upset that we had those feelings in us. Another thing is that we were on a major label at the time, so we had issues with that as well, we weren‘t sure what kind of band we should have been then, so we thought it‘d be more interesting to put a very un-commercial record out on a very commercial label.
As each album goes by, do you find your writing becoming more fluent, or that it becomes harder to write something completely new?
I think you fall into a lot of conventions, it does become easier in some ways but I think what becomes harder is keeping the fearlessness of writing. When you’re young, you’re not very critical of yourself, and so you’re more willing to run with new ideas. As you get older you learn your instrument better, you listen to more music, you become more familiar with certain conventions of song-writing, and not only that, but become more comfortable with your own particular niche, and voice. In some ways it makes you a better songwriter because you are able to cultivate yourself and grow when you understand what it is that you do well, but then you lose that other element of being someone who is just willing to trying anything.
Do you think the methods that you guys use, collaboratively, maybe more on the instrumental side of things, have changed much over time?
Yeah it’s changed a little bit, but I think we’re at a point now where we’re hoping it’s going to change more than ever. I think we’ve taken what we do and taken it as far as it can go, in terms the way we build a song, the way we layer our instruments and arrange everything, and the way I do my vocals, and even the more technical side of recording. We’re not very excited about going back into the studio and trying to find those sounds again, we are interested in being Brand New, but writing, recording and structuring songs in a way that we haven’t done before. I’d like it if, on the next thing we release, if someone who was familiar with us were to walk into a room, and it be playing, I’d like them to not know that it was us.
Not even one part to keep, and connect it all together?
I think that the identity of us as songwriters is always going to be there, there’s just some things you can’t shed. Most Brand New songs, I will write them and then Vinni will add his bit, but whenever he adds to my song, it’s never something I would have come up with, it’s something that’s very much him, and it always makes me feel uncomfortable, because I didn’t hear it that way at first. But similarly, whenever he writes something and I’m putting something over it, whether its vocals or guitar, it’s always something that he didn’t intend the song to be, so that collaboration right there, that dynamic, is the identity of us as a band, and is at the heart of who Brand New are.
You’ve mentioned in the past, with your use of art-work in album covers and such, trying to expand Brand New to something that is ‘more than just music’. So how might you go about incorporating other art forms into the music, and in the band in itself?
It’s a hard thing to explain because I think it’s quite a natural, arbitrary process for us. It’s not necessarily an obvious thing to see, but when we’re writing, the things we’re discussing are rarely music, we’re always talking about a book, a TV show, a movie, or an art exhibit. So its undeniable that those are the things that motivate what we put out musically, because that’s what we’re putting into our brains. And especially these days, the way the music industry has developed, it used to be that what would sell a band would be the record cover and the record, but now you’re able to have a presence that is far wider than that.
Yeah, especially when you look at the last ten/twenty years, the way really big bands like Blink 182 have gone about getting their fame, it’s by releasing videos and sharing their personalities, as well as their music. Though obviously that’s one extreme that you might not feel comfortable pushing yourself to.
Right, because I think that’s very driven towards a marketing/financial push, but if it’s your career, then that’s a completely acceptable way to go about things. I don’t think Blink 182 really owe anyone anything, I think they’ve put out a lot of good records, especially for what they are, they’re kind of top of the heap. But there’s just so many different ways to be heard or be seen, or express yourself in a very visual way these days, especially with most albums that are released immediately being on YouTube now.
Yeah, and you see a lot of YouTube videos of really well put together live recordings/sessions these days too.
Yeah that too, after ‘Daisy’ was recorded our friends filmed us recording different versions of the songs in this studio in Brooklyn, and we’re usually quite timid, as far as being filmed, but I really enjoyed watching that and seeing us in that process, and it connected to the fans too. I think Bjork just put out a record where each song is an iPad app, so as you’re listening to the song it has musical instruments on the screen, all in the same key so you can play your own parts to the music. Obviously that’s to one extreme now, but who’s to say that if you release a record in 2030/2040 and you don’t have an iPad app for it, that you’ll be in the minority? It’s just scratching at the surface, everything’s changing so rapidly now. However, for our band, a lot of our passion lies in where we started, and it was a very DIY hardcore punk scene, so it was a very physical, tangible thing, so I think we’d always try to keep it like that.
Do you see it as a good thing or bad thing, because obviously it does expand it into a bigger art-form, but then when you start talking about iPad apps and such, it kind of threatens the, organic, as such, nature of writing music?
I do have a lot of thoughts about that, and my first thought is always that, it doesn’t matter what I think about it really. I’m thirty-three now, and I always have this thing where I think I’m on the forefront of where things are going, and then I think again, and I think no, the twenty year old is at the fore-front, and then I think again, and I think the thirteen year old kid right now, that’s what’s going to be cool in two or four years. Even at twenty, you’re already past the age where you can set any sort of trend! So I think that all that can anybody can do is just follow what they’re passionate about, and express themselves in the best way they can, and not be bitter about what the youth decides is going to be cool. Because just because you don’t think it’s cool, doesn’t make any difference. As soon as you decide that what young people are doing isn’t cool, or that it’s not hip or whatever, that is the moment that you confess to everyone that you’re old! And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t ever want to be that person getting down at people for things being shit, because they’re not, it’s just that I don’t understand it, in the same way my parents didn’t understand certain things that I would have died for when I was sixteen.
And as you were saying, technology’s come so far, there’s just so many more mediums for things to be released, and that can be frightening and you can argue that it’s threatening, it is, but it also re-validates all the things that, as you said, used to be organic about music. At one point, a home-made paper ‘zine, everyone had one, and now no one has one, so now, to see one, is a great thing. It’s the same thing with vinyl, as soon as you could share files over the internet, people forgot CDs because it offers you nothing as far as being something that’s interesting to hold and look at, so then people bought vinyl, because it re-validates that purpose of music.
Then, have you not got some sort of weird paradox between either being the corporate, spotify, iPad app junkie or pretentious vinyl listener?
Haha, I don’t think they have to be exclusive to each other, I don’t think that I’m either, I like to enjoy music in both ways, and I try not to be snobbish about it, and I try to understand that if I’m listening to an mp3, and I want it to sound better, it’s up to me to find a better format to listen to it in.
Also, I think that compared to before, we have a lot more music open to us, and because of that people often take a sense of ownership over music, that isn’t theirs.
In what way?
Because people can go on spotify and listen to whatever they want, they kind of expect to be able to find something, they don’t expect to have to pay for it, and there is less of a journey to find something now. Similarly, I think that live, really, organically, the way bands perform should be of the artist’s own accord, but this modern demand for music in such a highly produced and immediate way, puts a lot of demands on the band that can limit and restrict how they go about playing music live, and what they play.
That’s true, so do you think that the audience feels that their idea of the music they listen to, or the shape they’ve made it into, they feel owed that the band should present it to them in that way, because that’s how they’ve chosen to consume it?
Yeah, I mean for example, with poetry people will always ask, ‘but did the poet really intend that?’, but it’s irrelevant, even if the poet wasn’t even aware that he used this particular word in this particular place, it’s that there’s a shared experience between writer and reader. But similarly, you might not like a word a poet used because actually, for whatever reason, it doesn’t resonate with you in the same way. So a fan could listen to one of your songs and it could mean something so profound to them, and they’ll think ‘I have such a connection with Jesse Lacey’, but actually it’s completely different to how you feel about it, so you may to go and perform it live and do it completely differently, and they’d be furious, because they’d feel that you had stolen it from them.
I see, I think that may’ve been going on for a long time though. I definitely feel that way about certain pieces of art myself. I don’t feel that my connection to the art should supersede or surpass that of the artist, but at the same time, it doesn’t really matter what they intended, because it was so profound to me, and I did find something in it so particular to me, and my life, and my experience, that when I do hear other interpretations of it, or their interpretation, god forbid, I ignore it, and I find it easy to ignore, because I don’t want to know that. But that’s not something that I feel, as a consumer, is my right to hold against the artist, so whenever I do get that kind of expression towards me, yeah, it’s strange to say the least. I understand but I’d rather you kept it to yourself, let me enjoy what I’ve created in my way, and you feel free to enjoy what I’ve created in your way.
I think I saw someone on some programme the other day, complaining that they had gone to see, someone like Elton John I think, and he said when you hear this song on the radio it’s three or four minutes, but he went off and did some massive half hour inlerlude, went of on all these different tangents, and he said, ‘Well why couldn’t you just play it the way I’ve always listened to it?’ But he’s just trying to offer the audience something new, exclusive and rare, and what the guy in the audience is being so stubborn about, I think, is demanding that it be presented to him as it had been a million times before.
Yeah, always, I think there’s probably different motivations for doing something like that, and I think some of those are probably more admirable than others. If you take someone like Bob Dylan, or Neil Young, who are two of the most prolific musicians ever, I think you’d hear thousands of stories, I’ve heard dozens, of people who went to see their shows and couldn’t spot the song they were listening to until half-way through, because it was presented in such a different way. But as someone like Bob Dylan playing ‘All along the watchtower’ for the millionth time, how could you not expect him to play it in a way that makes it more interesting?
It’s difficult though I suppose because the audience member’s paying for the ticket, so it’s difficult not to have certain expectations.
Right, but it depends on who you’re going to see, and I think that’s the interesting part of being a fan, is that when you’re paying for that ticket, there’s no contract that’s being signed that they’re going to play this record. What you’re doing is choosing to go see an artist express themselves, and the way they choose to express themselves that evening, might be disappointing, but it’s not invalid.
If you were absolutely pushed to it, what would you say your proudest achievement as a band was?
It probably wouldn’t be some big achievement, it might be a cliché answer, it might not be, but really the biggest achievement, and we talk about it a lot, is how content we are as people now. We’ve been in a band with each other for twelve years, and we love each other more than we ever have at this point, and connect and understand each other more, and every day that continues is a massive accomplishment to us. It is, in some ways, unprecedented in terms of a lot of the other people, and bands, that we know. It’s really satisfying, and… I can’t think of the word, man, I wish I could use it right now. We feel right about the decisions that we’ve made, even though they were hard decisions that other people didn’t agree with.
So, you wouldn’t say you have any regrets?
There’s definitely regrets, but all the regrets are things that we’ve learned from, and the mistakes we’ve made, we try not to make again.
If you could go back, would you do it how you think it should’ve been done, or can you sort of leave a certain amount of distance with it?
I think that the whole idea of ‘no regrets’ was always a silly idea to me, because of course I regret all the places I went wrong, but that’s what creating anything, and being human, is all about. Of course if I could go back and knew what I know now, I absolutely would do it differently, I’d do it the right way, but part of being human is that we can’t go back, we can only hope that if we come across that moment again we’ll do it the right way.
Do you think that there is a right way about everything, a one hundred percent right thing to do?
Not all the time, but I think humans are instilled with knowing, at any given moment, what the right thing to do is, especially when it concerns the wellbeing of someone else. I think doing the right thing for the person next to you is always the right thing, arguably.
We’ve made bad decisions, and have things we regret, but we’ve learned from them, and we’re four people that are connected in a way that I would find it very hard to explain to anyone in words, so that’s our biggest accomplishment at this point, is that a good ending?
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