West coast duo prepare a new electronic message for the world from their underground base
Last year, Los Angeles vocalist Saro broke onto the scene with his debut EP, In Loving Memory. Now, after a year spent in the underground studio space he shares with producer Dave Burris, the singer-songwriter is preparing to release a follow-up, the Boy Afraid EP.
During the process of recording, Saro and Burris began focusing more on the craft of songwriting, rather than getting too caught up in the minutia. This has resulted what became their most composed work year.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with both of them at that studio in downtown Los Angeles to discuss the new EP, what has changed since the release of In Loving Memory, and where they look to grow in the near future.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are preparing to release a new EP in December. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Saro: I think it’s a bit of both. Anxious because it’s not finished yet, but excited because it’s not finished yet. It’s so fun working on it, but it’s a rollercoaster some days, like, “F*** I don’t want to work on this now,” because we’ve hit a wall or something. And other days it’s like I don’t want to leave this room ever.
Dave Burris: We’re definitely both excited to wrap this up because then we get to spend time writing new s***, which is the most fun thing.
CF: You recently released “Eyelids”. The track seems to be about rejection…
S: It kind of became about that. The way that I write lyrics is kind of like a patchwork thing. For that song I did the freestyle melody approach, and some lyrics might have come out and they stuck, and then once I throw a bunch of lyrics together, it will make me think about something, and I’ll elaborate on that.
It was written from the perspective of being rejected and rejecting someone. And I do that a lot in the songs, like I’ll have multiple perspectives because I can just think of more concepts that way. It was kind of like telling a reminder to not let rejection stop you or f*** with you, just keep working through it. But then it was also a reminder that I have been the rejector plenty of times, and how I didn’t mean for that to happen.
CF: As an artist, that rejection is something you deal with constantly. How do you take that and turn it into something useful for your creative process and motivates you?
DB: I think it’s a balance of letting things like rejection motivate you and drive you, but not to let it force you to make compromises, to not change your sound or alter your voice or mission just to get on the right playlist or appeal to the right supervisor, whatever the myriad balls you have to be juggling at once – it’s important to not let rejection impact your unique point of view.
CF: Your work seems to be somewhat cathartic. You started to tell me a bit about your patchwork process before, can you take us through your songwriting process in full?
S: I think I was telling you earlier that it is always different. For example, “Blue” was like I was driving and I thought about the lyric, “The sky doesn’t blue like it used to” and I wrote it in my notepad and then I was in the shower the next day – I write a lot in the shower – I was in the shower and I started singing melodies, and I was like, “The melody is dope”.
I just came up with, I’m gonna look in my notepad and see if there are any words that could maybe fit to it, and I saw that was the top line, “The sky doesn’t blue like it used to”, and then I just went on that riff. Then I took my phone and recorded it and then I literally got out of the shower, sent it to Dave and the rest of our team, and it kind of just chilled for a couple weeks, and then I kind of took it one day, listened to it and was like, “I need to finish this song”. So I just wrote the rest of the lyrics at home.
Then there are other times when I’ll come in here, we’ll put me in the pitch-black photo booth… we’ll come up with a couple chords together, then I’ll go in and just sing, and then sometimes lyrics will just stick from the freestyle, sometimes they won’t, but most of the time it’s just me in an introspective place coming up with whatever is in on my mind. The darker the place I can get into, the better for my lyrics because I like to write brooding stuff.
CF: It’s been less than a year since your last EP, can you tell us a little bit about Boy Afraid, how it differs and what you have learned?
DB: I’d say the first thing we’ve tried to learn is to be more direct and try to trust the song more maybe than we did in the past. I think a lot of our workflow on first EP, and before that was about really keeping our universe wide open and keeping everything, from every minute texture, just hyper-detailed and focused on that, and maybe now we’re more song-centric. I think that’s probably in my opinion the biggest change. And I think we work a little more efficiently now because of that because we trust the song more.
It’s tempting because we opened this place three years ago and that’s when we were writing the first EP, and we went from a situation from where we working in someone else’s space nights and weekends to suddenly having our own room full of everything 24 hours a day, so it’s really easy to get sucked into certain track details or things that maybe are exciting to us during the production process that are maybe not as important to the message that we are trying to get across.
On this EP, I think we’ve been a lot more direct and the sound has gotten a little poppier, which is just kind of a thing that happened. I don’t personally project it continuing to get poppier as time goes on. I think that is a thing that has happened with this EP that we’re at peace with, but we’re not planning on confining ourselves to much to that palette in the future.
S: I think another one is that we kind of realized that when we have a song that we like, we’re going to be able to get it to a place that we really like it and are happy with it, so we don’t start quite as many ideas as we used to. We used be just throwing darts everywhere, like, “New, new, new, new, new,” which is really fun, but it obviously takes so much longer to get to that end goal of having another body of work, which is the best feeling ever, to put something out into the world.
It took forever to put out the first EP, and I thought it was never going to happen, like I literally thought it was never going to happen, and now it has been out for almost a year, and now it’s like, “Holy s*** we did that; Next!”
CF: Other than your own music, can you describe something in art that you use as a point of reference that also offers an enduring perspective of quality and substance?
S: I love working with him (Dave) so much because we have very different things, but then we have a lot of overlap as well. He’s very into EDM, dance music that I don’t even know that world that much, and then I’ve done a lot of pop writing and stuff, so I have a lot of pop sensibility when it comes to melodies and structure and stuff, and then we both love bands like Radiohead and just darker more melancholy stuff. So kind of all those things coming together is what this project sounds like, and it’s become kind of a cool thing to see what we can play with and how each song kind of teeters in one of those lanes, but each song kind of has all the ingredients.
My biggest influences… lyrically are Morrissey and then Thom Yorke, him [Dave] and I just love Radiohead so much. Then, vocally I grew up learning how to sing from Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross because that’s what my parents listened to.
DB: You brought up longevity, and I think the thing that we love in the acts we really look up to – I know we’re both obviously huge Radiohead fans and we love people like Bjork and Trent Reznor – people like them, the practical elements of their records change throughout the years. Not that they all follow trends because I don’t think any of those artists do, but they do evolve, but in an unmistakably ‘them’ way.
I think it’s going to be interesting as we continue writing music together over the next few years, I mean there are definitely threads between these two EPs, and I don’t think those things are going to go away. We are both attracted innately to the same types of chords, the same harmonic colors, the same textures. I think as we grow and get better at what we do and continue learning about what we want to say, I would look to those pillar artists that have 20 or 30 year careers and are still putting out the best s*** there is, and kind of emulate or see how they grow, and stay unmistakably themselves.
CF: You’ve already received a lot of praise from critics. Many people would consider this to be successful, but how do you measure success for yourself?
S: To me, it’s always the music first. It’s like, are we pushing ourselves musically, and are things happening? Is there a flow of stuff happening for us? And that has been the case since we put out the EP. So I think we definitely have had some success, and I think that it’s just the beginning, and it’s about to get really intense, and it has and it is, but the fact that we are still able to do what we’re doing is success to me.
CF: You are about to go out on tour. We know what a good show is from the perspective of the audience, but can you tell us about what an ideal show is from your eyes?
S: Minimal f*** ups. A lot of alcohol after [smiles] For me, and I think it’s something I’ve been getting better at, it’s to just try and connect with the audience as much as I can, but if I’m not getting that energy, then just getting lost in the music myself, and then they’ll really feel that and then I’ll start to feel them. So just having a good energy, and just giving the best performance I can, is a good night for me.
DB: It’s just that old, inexplicable feeling of connectedness. Everything is interrelated whether it’s the mix in your wedges or someone’s mood, these are all things that kind of add to this, but there are nights when you just feel electric, and I could be standing on the opposite side of the stage from Nicole, our keyboard player, and there’s just an absolute feeling of synchronicity.
If there are songs where there are no drums or anything and we’re just sort of riding this same silent rhythmic wave together, there are time when I just feel like we just bounce of each other beautifully, and those are the kind of nights where I won’t be able to fall asleep because it’s so exciting. Or Sean, the drummer, every little nuance of every groove feels like that is how it is supposed to be. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does happen that’s the s***!
CF: Throughout your career so far, is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
S: It actually happened the other day. My friend came to our show that was two nights ago, and I dedicated – and this has happened a couple times, but not as direct as this – where I’ll sing a song and dedicate it to my friend Simone who passed away, and then it really touches someone and they’ll come up after and say something, and my buddy, who I have been friends with for awhile, and I didn’t know this, but he was like, “Hey, I lost it because my mother passed away and I just really resonated with that song, and it felt therapeutic for me to hear you talking about those things.” And I was like, “Holy f***!”
That’s the best thing anyone could ever say to me because I wrote that song in a therapeutic way for myself. That song healed me a bit from the loss than I endured. So hearing him say that hearing me sing it gave him that solidarity feeling – that’s like the most I could ever ask for. So I think that is one of the major moments for sure, just knowing that the music could affect people in positive ways like that…