Saint Motel: The Interview

1 Jul

Photo: Diana King

The tunes of the Yellow Magic Orchestra boomed in the background as singer A/J Jackson and guitarist Aaron Sharp of the “garage glam” indie band Saint Motel walked through the Hollywood Bowl and tried to find a quiet place for our interview.

The quartet, including but not featuring bassist Dak and drummer Greg Erwin, recently played the SXSW festival and are known for their over-the-top high-concept performances like their annual Zombie Prom and their traveling Rock and Roll Circus.

As they passed a bottle of Jim Beam back and forth, the two caught up with OCMM discussing their current southern California tour, how their film school backgrounds have contributed to their success and of course, groupies.

You were all in film school together – what inspired you to form a band?

A/J: Sharp and I were in both in bands all the way through school and Sharp started out as a classical guitar major. I didn’t want to study music – I wanted to make music and the music I wanted to make wasn’t taught in school and Sharp felt the same way.

I saw Aaron and he was pretty renowned as the best guitarist on campus and I wanted to meet him. “Hey, join my band, man,” (AJ reflects, in a mocking tone.) So we exchanged credentials and I had to woo him.

ASharp: You had to woo me? Is that what you said? I had many suitors at the time… (Sharp quips) no, I – once I saw them perform I knew that there was good songwriting and a good foundation for everything that I wanted to do in music so I joined the band and a couple of bands later we formed Saint Motel. We met Dak our junior year and Greg our senior year.

Why the name Saint Motel?

A/J: We were a different band in college but when we graduated we wanted something new. We went through about a thousand names, I’d say, and Saint Motel was kind of a hybrid of some of those names. Really, we just liked the dichotomy. We wanted something where the two words don’t necessarily fit together but they felt right together. And also we wanted something that had negative and positive connotations that balanced somehow. Our comic board was just full of political…

ASharp: Yeah and we’re not a political band at all, that’s not our agenda, so we just decided: we’re having a good time right now, let’s just change the name. So then, we did. We knew we wanted the name to be really powerful and that’s why we took our time with it, I think, instead of settling for something along the way.

You guys are known for your theatrical performances and visuals. Can you tell me how that got started and what goes into creating these events?

A/J: Around the same time we became Saint Motel, we decided we didn’t want our shows to be like every other show. We wanted the experience to be different. By this time, we’d been going to a lot of shows and when we started out we made the concert room like a living room or a study. We had lamps on our amps and we had taxidermy heads mounted to the walls and all sorts of trees in the “living room,” the “sex den”. We experimented with a lot of different lighting and makeshift ideas of what an entire show could really look like.

Since we’ve always been live thus far, out of necessity I think, we had to be kind of creative. But then we started doing video stuff with our live shows, like we did the video piano that we still use today and that just keeps getting crazier and crazier. And that led to having live cameras mounted on the stage so it kind of felt like a stadium concert show in a small venue because there was a whole lot of action going on and it’s a little bit of a sensory overload but we like that. There were a lot of people jumping around and jumping off things, cameras mounted on the stage, in the audience, light shows. We want as many things as we can.

ASharp: And the Go Pro show…

A/J: Yeah, we had cameras mounted all over our bodies and on our heads and Go Pro sponsored the event and we wanted to see if it looks cool or not and they all fell off our heads.

ASharp: It’s pretty funny because I told them that was going to happen but they wanted to do it anyway.

A/J: And also we like all our shows to be events. We’ve done a lot of pretty high-concept things. Rock and roll circuses in New York, and the Zombie Prom in LA and Vegas and the Kaleidoscopic Mind Explosion in 3D, the Future Father’s Day concert, all kinds of things. We do it mainly because it’s fun but also because it keeps us interested.

So did your background in film contribute to this? Because you’re almost building sets on stage…

A/J: Yeah, 100%. We make posters and trailers and it’s very much like a film. We’ve had new actors and hosts and surprises every time and it’s usually some sort concept behind the event. It’s very, very cinematic and I think our music is too.

What’s been your favorite show so far?

A/J: I had a lot of fun at Make Music Pasadena.

ASharp: Oh yeah, Pasadena was great.

A/J: We don’t play favorites. Every show is our favorite.

ASharp: Well, I mean, every show we do what we do. If we play in a backyard we’re going to put on the same kind of show as if we’re playing at the Roxy. If we’re in a stadium or the back of a Dodge Caravan…

A/J: Oh yeah, in the back of a U-haul, right?

ASharp: Yeah that was a fun show. We played in the back of a U-haul in a parking lot, totally illegal to chill with a generator. People were jumping inside the U-haul and outside. That was crazy.

A/J: Yeah, that was so dangerous. We played underwear/panty parties. We should play more of those, don’t you think, Aaron?

ASharp: Definitely. Here, here! I second that notion, Sir!

Because of these elaborate performances do you prefer performing at intimate venues where you have more control or are festivals just as fun?

A/J: I think it’s about the energy of the crowd. You play better.

ASharp: And if we’re all in a bad mood before the show because we’re tired or whatever and 300 kids came early just to see a rock band, that’s going to cheer us up instantly. I love shows like that, when you get the vibe off the crowd and you get happy. It’s really a great experience.

Your behind the scenes videos make the filming process of your music videos look like a blast. What don’t we see?

A/J: Well, a lot of times they’re pretty low budget so you don’t see that everyone on the set is pretty much doing favors and you don’t see that everyone in the band is wearing many hats. We all contribute and get everything ready. It looks like we’re chilling, kicking back while it’s getting made, but that’s not how it is.

ASharp: We have too many thank-yous that we need to send to all the people that have helped us behind the scenes. Like my family has helped a lot with all the gear and you don’t see them.

A/J: You probably do see a lot of our friends on set.

That was my next question. It seems like you know all your cinematographers, producers and choreographers. Or do you just get close while on set?

A/J: We only work with friends at this point. If it wasn’t directed by a band member, it was directed by a friend.

Did you decide to give away the free download of Puzzle Pieces to combat piracy, get your name out there, or are you guys just generous?

A/J: We wanted to put out some new music and we’re still working on our next release. We thought it was a good way to put something out before the album comes out. It’s tempting… you’re sitting on this big pile of music and it gets kind of frustrating sometimes. We have a lot of new material; we’re just trying to figure out a way to release it that makes sense right now. The Puzzle Pieces download for free was just, we were really excited and anxious to put something out there because it had been so long since we released anything.

ASharp: And ForPlay, we put that all out at once, we’ve never experienced putting out a single so it was pretty cool to see the response.

What inspires your songwriting and who writes the songs?

A/J: It’s a collaboration. Usually I start out with the basic idea and then I bring it in and then we all just build on it from there but it’s usually about whatever is going on in our life at that point. Usually it’s more focused, like there’s this one song called “Skullet” and we wanted a song called that so it was, what does that sound like?

ASharp: Normally they just build on themselves and some stuff you’ll never hear. Not that you’ll never hear but they didn’t make the cut.

A/J: Yeah, we try to record our rehearsals and ideas as much as possible because any idea can become something, even out of context. And a lot of the basis of our music comes from messing around, like between rehearsals and we’ll go back to it a few years later and record it. That’s what happened with Puzzle Pieces.

ASharp: Puzzle Pieces is an old song from when I was in middle school. I used to play piano as a kid and then I tinkered off of it and started playing saxophone and bass and guitar and Puzzle Pieces was what I always did on piano and it was like, oh shit, let’s make this a song.

A/J: Yeah, and there’s a few things on the record that are old like that. (Sharp hands him the bottle of Jim Beam) Thank you, sir. (He takes a swig and passes it back) But yeah, it’s fun right now we have about a week’s worth of free time, play time for us, before we go back on tour and it’s pretty much time to play out new ideas.

Now for the question on every girl’s mind: Do you have girlfriends or are you dabbling in the groupie love?

(They laugh)

ASharp: Saint Motel is single. The entire band is single.

A/J: You can ‘friend’ us. (We all laugh) I think this is the first tour we’ve all been single on. We’re in a relationship with each other.

ASharp: Kind of the way I’ve been seeing it recently is I kind of already have three other girlfriends that I have to deal with and I don’t need another thing that’s going to stress me the hell out. I need to focus on…

A/J: What about love, Aaron? What about love?

That’s why I asked about the groupie love…

A/J: We don’t really have groupies, we have lovely people that are interesting and that we have conversations with.

Mm hmm…

CDs, MP3s or vinyl? What’s your medium of choice?

A/J: Cassettes, yo!

ASharp: Floppy disks, old floppy disks.

A/J: I think all forms of music get the point across but nothing compares to live. That’s the trick behind Saint Motel. We need to figure out how to put the live experience on record and it’s really hard to do that. That’s a constant struggle for us to keep recording new tunes and get the sound we want. It’s daunting sometimes, but fun all the time.

What was your favorite band in high school?

A/J: I don’t know, I went through a lot of phases. I was really into Ween. A lot of my friends were really into Fish but I was still in my punk phase. I listened to a lot of my parents’ records – Jim Carroll Band and Blondie, everything that I love today.

What do you expect from your current tour?

A/J: Ideally, we’ll be playing shows that are really fun and therapeutic and finding some good music out there and meeting a lot of interesting people and going to a lot of interesting places we’ve never been to before.

What’s next for Saint Motel?

A/J: More touring, abroad. Hopefully we’ll go to Canada again soon. A subsequent album that will be dropping at some point. New music, new videos, I don’t know… there’s always something new for Saint Motel.

(Originally published in OC Music Magazine)

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