Pretty Little Empire Marries Live Intensity with Refined Sonics on New LP
Pretty Little Empire performing "Something More" at the Carousel Lounge in Austin, Texas, on March 15th, 2013.
It's been five years since the band has been together. Can you talk about how the band has changed in terms of playing together, or in the way that you write a song? When I heard your first record Sweet Sweet Hands, I put you more in an alt-country vein -- it reminded me a lot of those Theodore records. Listening to you now, that's kind of gone away.
SM: Man oh man, did we like Theodore.
SJ: When I first came to St. Louis, it wasn't my intention to make music. I was in Texas and came back to St. Louis. Sean and I were playing in a weird garage-rocky thing. I started working in this coffee house and Andy [Lashier, ex-Theodore, current Demonlover] and he invited me to come see his band. I went to see Theodore and was worried because I worked with him and thought, "Oh, what if this band sucks?" But then they played and I thought, "Are bands in St. Louis this good?" So I had a couple songs that were already written, but at the time, Theodore was our favorite band. I went to a ridiculous amount of Theodore shows. That band was a huge influence on that record, and probably we hated that fact after. We tried to intentionally distance ourselves from that fact.
SM: that record was not a response to Theodore, but that album wouldn't have existed if Theodore didn't exist. But the second album [Reasons & Rooms], when Evan [O'Neal, drums] joined the band, we could have kept the Sweet Sweet Hands sound, but Evan is such a great drummer and brings so much else to it. He's probably the best guitarist in the band, and he can play keyboards. If you've seen Amadeus, he's like Tom Hulce and I'm like F. Murray Abraham. I'm like, "You fucking bastard!"
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the last song on the record, "You Are the One." It's almost your simplest song in terms of construction, but it carries the most emotional weight on that album and in concert. What's the duality between that simple setup and a very potent result?
JJ: My wife will love this. [Laughs].There have been times where I've written songs and people have told me that it's a little close to the bone. My songwriting is pretty spontaneous -- it's a result of whatever is rolling around up there. That particular song was the sort of thing where my wife said that there wasn't a song about her. Some people hear it and say it's kind of a bittersweet song, but it's not really. It more came out of, like, I really want to write a simple song and play it for you. But then when we started playing it in the practice room, and, live, it became a more emotional song. So many people talked to us afterward -- live, I get more into it because I'm emotionally attached to that song. But in the studio, it wasn't captured. Even David, right off the bat, didn't see it being the big song on our record. We added more and more to it -- it didn't have that emotion. When you're in the studio you have your headphones on and you're in front of a mic, and that's always been my biggest problem. That song came from a very simple place -- writing a song for someone I care about.
SM: I remember working on that song session after session -- that one probably has the most amount of tracks on it. I think it just comes short of going over the top. It skirts that line, but that was the most fun song to work on. It probably took us the longest, too.
That calls to mind the dichotomy between being a live band and being a recording band, wouldn't you say? Seeing you live, you are an emotional singer and it's a visible experience to watch you sing, versus hearing it on record. As the frontman, with the focus on your words and your voice, that there's something different about making that recording in a room versus in a club?
JJ: It's a wildly different experience. I am the least skilled musician in this band. When we play live, I get lost in it. We can play a set and an hour feels like ten seconds. When we're onstage, over the course of four or five years I've been able to command myself. I can let go and it can be this raw, off-the-hinges moment.
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