What fun is music if it’s not fun itself? Saint Motel, the rollicking indie pop band from Los Angeles, could render this their official motto and not one of their fans would be surprised. Having made a name for themselves as something between a party band and the arbiters of a modern-day funk throwdown, Saint Motel has been challenging the conventions of live music for seven years, culminating in the breakthrough success of their single “My Type,” and now with their most recent release saintmotelevision, featuring a suite of 360° videos that immerse the viewers in a manner that’s not unlike their live shows. No one can call Saint Motel unimaginative. PureVolume spoke with vocalist A/J Jackson about the band’s past, present and future.
PureVolume: What are some hallmarks to Saint Motel’s trajectory that you can look back and recognize as a big moment for the band?
A/J Jackson: Our first late-night performance, Coachella was a big deal for us, the first song that went gold, the first song that went platinum, the first time charting, the first time playing overseas. It’s all these little bits and events that have kept us going as a band. Especially when you’re a struggling indie band, that’s all DIY, it’s the little things that keep you going even when you’re down.
PV: It’s tough being an L.A.-based band and doing the club circuit — there’s a lot of market saturation. What seemed to set Saint Motel apart from other L.A. club bands when you guys started to find success?
AJ: I think we did get a reputation as a band that did really crazy, weird live shows, and that’s because we’d do these pretty intricate events where people would come wearing a certain thing and the room was set in a certain way, with the whole idea for the night — there would be Father’s Day or zombie prom, these weird things in the back of trucks, playing in warehouses or on rooftops, churches… we were always trying to make the experience of a show different. The first show as Saint Motel, we brought lamps onstage, hung artwork, mounted a deer head above the drums, and turned off the lighting in the venue and made it feel like a living room. You’ve been in that club a million times but we wanted to take you to a different place. We flirted with the idea that the olfactory glands are the most powerful memory triggers in your body, your sense of smell, and I don’t know if we actually did anything with smell triggers but that was definitely not off the table at a Saint Motel show.
PV: What would you guys even do for that?
AJ: Well, our album cover and a lot of stuff we’ve had come out is water-themed, so the ocean mist or the smell of fresh pine trees could work; it doesn’t have to be something dirty, it could be something beautiful. That smell could trigger something in your brain, more so than any other scent. It’s a whole, untapped aspect of the concert experience.
PV: “My Type” has had this widespread success, so has having had that commercial appeal played into the writing process of your new album?
AJ: It hasn’t as far as the writing aspect. I don’t know why it hasn’t, but it hasn’t. Before “My Type” and since “My Type,” because [writing] is one of the my favorite things to do, it hasn’t affected it in a way that’s straightforward, like ‘“My Type” had a lot of fifths, so let’s do that.’ It has affected it in the way that we’ve visited a lot of countries that we’ve been to for the first time, we’ve experienced a lot of things and seen a lot of other bands play, been exposed to different instruments since then. Being on tour constantly affects the writing process in the way that you’re always on planes, trains and automobiles unless you’re in a studio. There are ways that are less obvious that affect it. We make the kind of music in Saint Motel that we like, and we tend to gravitate toward fun, melodies and strong, crazy lyrics.
PV: Even when listening to the My Type EP, there’s this real Talking Heads sense to it in the best way possible, and I read that when you guys were writing this record that you were trying to get away from that chugging guitar, that rock sound. When you’re talking about experimentation in your work, what are you guys trying to achieve in terms of standards, what are you trying to accomplish there?
AJ: Well, first of all, thank you for the Talking Heads reference, that’s one of the highest compliments you could give us, I love that band and everything from their music to their live experience. Is there anything that we’re trying to gravitate towards? I don’t know, at the end of the day you can get really deep into strange rumba or Caribbean sounds or certain African guitar playing, but it’s going to all filter in in a way that we write for Saint Motel. If anything, it’s that you try to throw yourself some curves and see how it affects the music. I think we’re trying to find this thing that goes across all of our songs and I think we’re getting closer and closer to honing in on it. It’s a sound or a vibe that people think of when they think about Saint Motel. I think we’re closer to it with every album.
PV: It’s been seven years that the band has been together now, so how do you define success? Is there any echelon that you would like to reach, aside from hallmarks like gold and platinum-selling songs, radio play, charting, etcetera?
AJ: I don’t think we’re ever quite satisfied, and we always feel this need to be better. I think that kind of has always driven the band, all the guys just get restless and need to creatively expand or just kind of keep moving to function. More simply, I think Coachella was a big goal for us a couple years, ago, so I think we have goals where when we hit these things, we have a pizza party for all our friends and everyone that’s supported the band, so I think we’re on to try to have another pizza party here for a while. I certainly don’t think we’ve made it, whatever that means. We have a long way to go.