The PV Q&A: Young the Giant's Sameer Gadhia on their Surreal Journey to 'Mind Over Matter'

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Interview by Tom Lanham

The ink blot pretty much said it all. There was a time during the conception of Mind Over Matter – the new sophomore set from SoCal alt-rock outfit Young the Giant — when singer/lyricist Sameer Gadhia would stare down at the ballpoint pen in his hand and realize with a start that he’d made nothing but a jet-black indentation on the blank paper before him. He’d been sitting in his room in a spooky mansion where the band had isolated itself, just waiting, waiting for song ideas to come, but he hadn’t written a single line. Even when he did manage to conjure up some verses, he instantly doubted himself, telling himself the words simply weren’t good enough. He calls that blue period “the days of despair,” when his group was furiously trying to top its self-titled 2010 debut, and breakthrough hits like “My Body” and “Cough Syrup.” But he made the sophomore-jinx mistake of overthinking the whole process, sending him straight down the writer’s-block rabbit hole. Finally, the ink began to flow again, once he and his chums nailed the carnival-festive title track by, as it implies, putting mind over matter. Effusive potential hits came tumbling, like “Crystallized,” the funky “It’s About Time,” and the rah-rah rocker “In My Home.” Produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, the disc is a chiming success, and Gadhia hasn’t stared at an inert writing implement ever again, knock on wood.

PUREVOLUME: How surreal did the past two years get? You've toured all over the world.
SAMEER GADHIA: You know the last two years have actually been strange and surreal in a different way, I think. With the band, we kind of isolated ourselves in the middle of nowhere for a while. And a band without context, not in its natural habitat of the city and people? You begin to start questioning a lot of things. We lived in Palos Verdes together, which is about a 40 minute drive from pretty much anything, and 30 minutes away from any major freeway. You have to take a really winding road along a cliff that is continually shaking because of the plates underneath — they're doing constant roadwork there. So it takes about 30 minutes just to get off the freeway, off San Pedro, and get on that winding road. So we were very, very far away from most people.
But you guys have all lived together before this, right?
We have. We've lived with each other in many different places, like Hollywood for a bit. But for this record, I think there was kind of this feeling of seclusion. I don't think it was a conscious decision; we came to that place because we wanted to be able to work in an environment free of distraction. Because we lived in Hollywood for a while, and we had those distractions. And we actually lived in Mt. Washington for a couple of months, as well, in this weird haunted house up in the hills of East LA. And we wrote some of the music there, but a good majority of the record was written at the other place.
But the Palos Verdes location was sprawling?
You know, the place was pretty large, most definitely the most palatial of the places we'd ever gotten. And we thought we'd lucked out, really found a good spot, because at first, it was very surreal, this place. It felt like a strange porno vacation — not to say we were doing porn! But we lived there for about 10 months, and ended up having a strange relationship with the place. I think it's one of those places that you come back to after a long day's work and be like "Okay, I enjoy this. I know why I'm here." Plus, all of us come from middle-class families — my parents came to America with nothing — so I think there was a little bit of guilt put forth on me a bit. Like "This house is so ridiculous, what am I doing here?" And we were really trying to get away from all that stuff. But we recorded demos at this place. And not just demos, but I would say very strong working drafts of each of the songs. So there are a lot of strong memories in that place.

And now you understand that you can over think a great idea to death.
Yeah. Most definitely. At a certain stage, we were becoming way too philosophical about the stuff that we wanted to get done, instead of actually doing it. It was this crazy expectation that we had made into this full-fledged monster. And it wasn't even the material, because some of the material was getting the initial spark, and we had it. But then we'd just go down this hole with the composition. We'd start off with something really pure and good, and then we'd get so sick of it at the end, because we'd spend hours and hours trying to make it something else instead of just having it be this. Itself.
But sometimes it's good to overwrite, then edit it back down to perfection.
Most definitely. But when it comes down to a specific, nebulous art form — which can be music sometimes — there is no word count, there is no limit. Obviously, you don't want to be making a 30-minute song. But there is this general idea of "anything really goes." And something that was very, very important to us this time was that we had full control. As you continue to get so close to anything you’re creating, you really lose full sight and you fail to observe certain simple things that I think other people would see. But there are ways to get out of that. We practiced some strange, weird techniques. I’d do this meditation process and just sit for a while and try and listen to the song with fresh ears. Or we’d share it and play it live.
The song “Firelight” sounds like it might have started out bigger, more convoluted. But you pared it down.
Yep. It was definitely one of those tunes. We wrote the material in this weird, nebulous time, so it’s hard to remember the exact order of things. But that song started out in a couple of different incarnations, sometimes with a full band. But one day Jacob (Tilley, guitar), Eric (Cannata, guitar) and I were in the studio together, and we just decided "Hey – let’s keep the song as it is, right now. Just guitar and vocals." And initially, the demo itself didn’t have anything, no percussion. So we found it a….a natural thing. And working with Justin, I think that’s what he really taught us – to just really follow your natural tendencies. And I think we are all the stronger for it now.

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