An Interview with Jessie Stein of The Luyas 3/7/2011

A version of this interview first appeared online at Inyourspeakers Media.

Sometimes you encounter something with a creative spark and a magnetic energy, something new and unique that impresses you and sends your head spinning into a flurry of curious questions. You wonder, “What is this, and where did it come from?” You want more. That was my experience when I encountered The Luyas opening for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart last fall.

I was impressed with their varied instrumentation–including French horn, bells, and a colorful sort of electrified zither called a Moodswinger, their unconventional song structures and syncopated rhythms, their mysterious and at the same time smiling and playful stage presence, and singer Jessie Stein’s bright, slightly off-kilter woman-child voice. I left the show thinking of their performance, of their songs, and of how I could hear more and find out more about them. Upon the release of the band’s second album, Too Beautiful to Work, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Jessie about the band’s story, their ongoing growth, their creative process, and their many connections to the broader arts community.

Inyourspeakers: You guys have described yourselves as a “weird band,” and you have a pretty unique sound. How did you start playing music?

Jessie Stein: As a teenager I loved alternative radio rock, and I guess I just was the right age to get into some pretty brutal post-grunge stuff, and Radiohead, which is still great, and a bunch of other terrible commercial bands. I listened to the radio a lot as a kid and ended up starting to go to shows as soon as I could and trying to teach myself guitar in high school. I got it in my head pretty seriously that I was going to start a band. It’s kind of organic. I used to play in rock bands. I moved to Toronto when I was 18 and started playing in an indie rock band that was basically obsessed with Pavement. I moved back to Montreal eventually and started collaborating with people that I play with now in the Luyas.

IYS: Can you tell me a little bit about their backgrounds?

JS: Everybody actually liked Radiohead a lot. We’re all the right age to have really fallen hard for them as teenagers. Piet started playing French horn in an orchestra and then went to jazz school and ended up messing around with his instrument and kind of starting to make weird noises with it because he’s sort of a rebellious person by nature—in the most loving and wonderful of ways. Mathieu studied jazz piano and grew up in Ontario, and Stef studied jazz drums. Those guys are all sort of from a jazz background but in different ways.

IYS: Were they playing professionally in non-rock bands before they started playing with the Luyas?

JS: Yeah, Stef played drums in a jazz band. He was just telling us about how when he was really young and in school, he played jazz drums on an Alaskan cruise ship. All of them played in different groups, some of which were instrumental, some of which were pop bands. Mathieu and Pietro played in a group together called Torngat, who were an instrumental trio—a really beautiful trio, who made some really great records. Pietro and Stef also played together in Bell Orchestre, which is another instrumental band—a little more swoony and a little more rock influenced. This band happened pretty casually. We just started playing together when I moved to town and kind of tinkered at it, made a record pretty early on. We just got more and more deep into playing with each other. It’s almost five years now we’ve been a band.

IYS: Was that record that you were referring to Faker Death?

JS: Yeah. We made Faker Death after being a band for just a couple months. We wrote a bunch of songs and quickly recorded it just for ourselves and for our friends, and then we didn’t end up having much time for a little while. We didn’t finish recording our new record until about a year ago, which is par for the course for first time releases with new labels. Once you finish the record you have to find someone to put it out, and it takes a long time. Everybody gets antsy—classic complaint. We didn’t set out to create something for sale. We just started off playing music together because it was interesting and what we were coming up with was sort of intriguing.

IYS: How did you meet them?

JS: I met Piet and Matt through seeing them play in Torngat and they were fans of my old band, and I was a big fan of their band. Originally I wanted to do a collaborative record where I would hand over all of the arrangement duties to Torngat and I would write the songs and they would try and organize them musically. I wanted to have a bit of a divorce from my aesthetic, my zone of 90s revivalism. And that didn’t really work out. Their drummer was busy and I ended up just collaborating with Pietro a lot. He ended up telling me that we should play with this guy Stef. He played with him in Bell Orchestre for a couple shows. It sort of felt right, so we kept doing it. It was a really organic formation. The same system applies to the way the music has turned out. Everybody just sort of follows their intuition and it just comes out that way without working too hard at crafting a sound.

IYS: Where did the name The Luyas come from?

JS: It doesn’t mean anything; it just came from my head. I didn’t want to have a band name with any literal connotations. I just wanted us to be called something that was like a person’s name. So we just made up a word and that sounded cool.

IYS: There’s something oddly appropriate about it related to your music. It fits somehow.

JS: Yeah, I think it was sort of a fortuitous choice. I think it has managed to follow us very well. I like it.

IYS: So, you’re living in Montreal right now (well, not RIGHT NOW, since you’re in a van).

JS: I’m living in a pile of filth right now. (laughs)

IYS: Montreal is known as having a thriving creative community and, in particular, a thriving music community with a lot of interconnections among different bands and artists. Can you talk a little bit about what role it plays in The Luyas to be living in and working in Montreal?

JS: It’s definitely true that we have a great creative community. A lot of the people that play music that gets out to the world in Montreal are not actually from Montreal. Most of the native population of Montreal are Francophones and the native Montreal artist population is part of a completely different scene of Francophone music that tours a totally different circuit and has a whole other standard of things. I think that it’s a cool place. It has that sort of same temporary thing that Berlin does, because a lot of the people who move to Montreal to be creative, to live somewhere cheap and beautiful and weird—and especially cheap—end up feeling like they’re there for only a little while, maybe not working that much. I think that inspires people to be creative and to participate and really to work on what they can because—especially if you don’t speak French, it’s harder to get a good job and to become really invested in a pragmatic life. Everything has to be self-created. That said, for us it’s a little bit different. Two of us are Montreal natives and the other two guys are from Ottawa, which is really not far. We’re all fluent in French and have access to different communities other than just the English-speaking Montreal artist sect. All of it’s great. I love English Montreal—there’s lots of great stuff going on. I don’t know how much it influences us, I guess, is my answer. It’s a good place to live. We have a good standard of living and nice infrastructure. I think that when I was younger it was pretty exciting and now I take it for granted a little bit. But most of all it’s home, and it’s good to have good friends and a nice place to eat your cereal in the morning. (laughs)

IYS: A number of different people have contributed on the new record. Can you talk a little bit about some of them?

JS: Sure. Owen Pallett is the most significant contributor. He did orchestral arrangements on a bunch of the songs. I know Owen from when I lived in Toronto, actually. We were roommates and really good pals, so it was really natural to ask him to step in with his violin. We’ve always been really supportive of each other in our musical lives, so it was good to get to do some stuff together. And Sarah (Neufeld) and Colin (Stetson) we know through Bell Orchestre. Sarah and Colin have been playing with Stef and Pietro for years and years and years, so there’s a longstanding history of musical partnership there. Dan Romano was my boyfriend when we were making the record and he’s a great musician. He came up with some awesome bass lines. There’s a bunch of other people that were friends of Owen’s in Toronto—the classical musicians that came and helped us realize his master plan for the arrangements.

IYS: Listening to the new record, Too Beautiful to Work, to me the development in your sound both in terms of songwriting and in terms of production is really evident. Could you talk a little bit about that development?

JS: I can’t really stress enough that we’ve been a band for a long time. When we made Faker Death it was almost just a project where the idea was that I had these songs that I needed to get off my chest, and everybody sort of helped me. We didn’t put a lot of time or money into it. I really like that record because it’s really honest, and it was just a good document of a moment, and that’s what it was intended to be. Then we played music together for two and a half years, on a regular basis, which I really think is an under-championed thing in this day and age—just playing a lot together as opposed to touring only or trying to submit the perfect product. We just messed around a lot and wrote a bunch of songs. They got better and better—or more and more interesting to us as our interests changed, as they will over years. Just naturally we’d grown. We understood each other more and we had been composing together more and the initial ideas would be much more skeletal. We would flesh them out together. We developed a working dynamic for doing creative thinking, and that’s pretty critical in any sort of team effort. I could be talking about a job or something (laughs)—team development—but it’s totally a huge factor. When we went into the studio, we just went at it with the same attitude that we went at the first record, which was let’s try and make something that sounds special and rings true to where we are right now. We were just at a different place, and maybe had decided to put a little more energy into crafting it and giving it a little buff at the end, whereas with our first one we just mixed it quickly and threw it up into the world, because we decided that we wanted to share it with more people this time. I’m really proud of it. I’m proud of us as a group of people, for being okay with changing slowly. I think that’s fun. A lot of my favorite bands are like that.

YS: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to writing lyrics?

JS: It was really different this time. It can change. I go through periods where I write a lot. On our old record and in the past I’ve written much more literally, or tried to make things very concrete. This time, I think we decided it would be aesthetically suitable to write in a way that was a little more abstract. At the same time, all of the songs are about specific things, and I know what their meaning is for me. Some of those things are very concrete. A lot of the record is about mental illness. Some of it’s about living in modern society (laughs)—as terrible and pretentious as it may sound to explain that. I think both of those topics also make sense to be expressed in slightly more ambiguous terms, because they’re the kind of problems that don’t really have concrete answers. Sometimes the narrator in the songs is meant to be a bit of a confused person. I was playing with it. I feel really excited, actually, to get into a new mode of writing. I’m trying to work on that right now. I’m going to be reading a lot of books on this tour. I’m trying to figure out something to say.

IYS: I’m curious. What kind of books do you mean? Fiction or essays or…?

JS: Well, both. Right now I’m reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

IYS: Oh! Good book.

JS: It’s a really beautiful novel by Carson McCullers. I also brought a little bit of Derrida, a little bit of philosophy on death (laughs). So we’ll see. That’s just my first round. We only left home yesterday. I’m gonna take that with me and then try to find my way into some used bookstores, maybe trade some books with some other guys in the band. I just feel like keeping your mind active and keeping yourself dealing with words and the way other people express can be really exciting and inspiring in terms of songwriting, even though it’s a different form. Due to the fact that songs are such short forms compared to books, you can’t really necessarily convey the same kind of bigger picture. Well, you can convey a big picture topically, but one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do that I still have not figured out how to do is… I like the idea of being able to write a song that achieves the same things that the best magical realist writers are capable of pouring out in a chapter of a book. I want to figure out how to create the effect of that moment in One Hundred Years of Solitude where that little girl ascends like an angel into the sky because she’s so beautiful, and have that actually come across the same way—that kind of impact in a short form like a song or a poem.

IYS: I was going to say, it sounds like poetry.

JS: I’m still working on my craft.

IYS: Some bands don’t really do a lot of creative things on the road. It sounds like you want to keep the creative juices flowing all the time, which I think comes across. It’s what I would have expected.

JS: (laughs) Well, we’re trying. It’s a part of survival, I think. We’re a pretty healthy crew. We try to keep each other alive. I’ve played in bands before where you just feel like you’re dead after you go on tour. I’m pro-actively trying this time to keep my body and my head going somewhere. Not just getting older.

IYS: I’m sure you’ve been asked about this before, but I have to ask about the Moodswinger.

JS: Sure! Totally. I love talking about the Moodswinger.

IYS: Not so many people have adopted it, so I’m wondering how you found out about it, how you got it, and how you chose to start incorporating it into the band.

JS: It was a bit of a flight of fancy. I was on tour with another band. This was a couple years ago. We were playing in Amsterdam at an event—I believe it was curated by a wonderful group of people called Subbacultcha that put on free shows in Amsterdam and they have a great magazine that’s really cool. It’s a rad magazine and they’re great people and they curated this show, and the opening band was a lecture by this wacky Dutchman, Yuri Landman, and I didn’t understand anything he said because Dutch is, to my ears, really indecipherable. I’m working on it, but I find it really difficult to pick out any words, but I did understand the sound of this instrument. After the show, we sat down and he tried to explain to me his concept of sound and what he was trying to do with his instruments. The one that really resonated with me was the Moodswinger. It’s got this beautiful, kind of ghostly sound. It kind of sounds like if you play the inside of a piano. And I wanted it. (laughs) I didn’t really have any money, but I decided to get it anyway. So, we kept talking and he redeveloped the instrument. He invented that instrument for one of the guys from Liars, and then he rebuilt it for me, and I’m really glad he did, because having gone back and tried to play the one that he built for the guy from Liars—my instrument’s way better (laughs), and lighter.

IYS: You got the second generation, new and improved.

JS: Yeah, totally. It’s the Moodswinger II. There’s only maybe 3 or 4 of them out there. Yuri doesn’t mass produce instruments. He makes them on special request. He’s been great. He’s been such an awesome supporter of the band. I guess at the time I was looking for a new sound, because I was getting sick of my guitar and I didn’t want to fall completely out of love so I took a lover.

IYS: You anticipated a few of my next questions. Does having that new instrument change your approach to songwriting at all? And you said something on Twitter at one point about getting tired of the sound of your guitar.

JS: Oh it sounded so bad that day. (laughs)

IYS: So, do you stick with the guitar because it has its uses, or are you really continuing to move more in the direction of finding alternate instruments?

JS: I love my guitar. Guitars are amazing. They’re so well designed and they’ve been so perfected over so long. When you take a raw, virgin instrument like the Moodswinger where there’s only been a few of them, it’s a great idea and it’s a really cool concept, but it’s difficult. It’s not a perfect instrument in that it’s really hard to play. The spacings aren’t perfect. It’s hard to keep in tune. The guitar is amazing because it’s so playable, it’s so portable, it’s so fixable.

IYS: More people know how to fix it!

JS: It’s really easy to develop literacy on it. I don’t speak music the way someone who’s studied classical or jazz or folk music even does. I’ve always played really intuitively, and I find that it definitely influences my writing because there’s something to me that’s really exciting about being naïve on an instrument and not really being able to premeditate my moves. As I’m writing I’ll make a decision by accident and end up in a different place melodically than I thought I was going. We all have melodic conventions embedded in our heads from all the music we’ve listened to over our lives, as evidenced in how people in the Western world have the Western scale normalized in their minds. It’s difficult to write a melody that diverges from that, whereas if you grew up in India maybe, or in another part of the world, you might have a different palette of not only timbre, but also tonal options when you’re trying to come up with a way to sing a sentence. The cool thing about being naïve on an instrument and why I sometimes really enjoy being new to something is that you can put your foot in a place that wasn’t what you thought it was going to be and steer yourself out of your trends. But that is a bit of a cop-out, because if I would be really brilliant at guitar, I would be able to do that, but I’m not a brilliant instrumentalist. I’ll leave that to the other Luyas. (laughs)

IYS: Well, if you’ve managed to make anything happen with the Moodswinger, you must be doing something right.

JS: (laughs)

IYS: I imagine a lot of people can’t figure it out.

JS: It’s easy to be the first.

IYS: There you go. You get to decide how it works because you’re the pioneer.

JS: Totally. Godmother of the Moodswinger.

IYS: Awesome. Given your unique sound and the fact that it seems like you’re always seeking out new things, I’m genuinely curious to hear what sort of music you listen to.

JS: A lot of stuff. Lately I’ve been really into some old British stuff. I really like Anne Briggs. Anne’s a beautiful singer. I really like the Watersons. What have we been listening to guys? We just listened to a Sam Amidon record. I recently re-fell in love with the Cocteau Twins.

IYS: Oh! Love the Cocteau Twins. Huge fan.

JS: I also just discovered Fleet Foxes three months ago. I don’t know where I’ve been. Their songwriting’s amazing and Robin’s singing is perfect. And we’re about to listen to Portishead because Diego, our sound dude is buddies with ‘em. So that’s a lot of indie rock and house music. I love listening to weird compilations of stuff that maybe I don’t have as much of a vocabulary for. I love Bob Dylan. He’s my favorite ever of all time. Desire by Bob Dylan is the best record ever. Nina Simone, Billie Holiday.

IYS: I love Billie Holiday, too. Good taste!

JS: She’s so awesome. The production on those records…you always feel that sort of ghost in the room thing, and that was definitely something we were trying to do, without invoking any nostalgia or trying to cop the aesthetic. I think the sort of ambiguousness and really roomy sounds on a lot of old vocal jazz records were an influence on our production on Too Beautiful to Work for sure.

IYS: You’re embarking on playing some shows again. You’ve done some unusual shows in the past where there were costumes, or props, or dancers… there was a secret venue show.

JS: Yeah. We did some funny things a few times. (laughs)

IYS: Are you thinking you might do some of that kind of thing again this spring? Is that just a way to keep yourselves from getting too bored—keep things lively?

JS: Well, we can’t fit anything else in the van. We don’t have any crazy props or anything right now. Unless we get a roof rack, I think the show is gonna be about the music this time.

IYS: Maybe someone will hand you something before a show?

JS: Yeah, totally. I mean, I can hold stuff. (laughs) We’ll see. I want to do more collaborations with artists in the future. I really want to do a piece of work with my favorite dance choreographer, this woman Katie Ward, who is an incredibly underrated poet of a choreographer. She’s a really amazing Montreal artist. We’ve been talking about doing something together for a long time. I also collaborate with these two visual media artists, Ruby Kato Attwood and Derrick Belcham. Sometimes we do videos together or build weird lights or play with mechanics and stuff. They helped us build a big show that we did last October at Pop Montreal called Everything Is Out of Sight. We spent a month in a gallery turning it into a paper forest.

IYS: Oh awesome. Are there pictures of this somewhere?

JS: There’s some pictures on the internet. It was hard to take pictures, unfortunately, because we packed the room so much that nobody could really get far enough away from the trees to get really good pictures of them. (laughs) We’d made all these amazing internally lit globular fruits and it was really quite an endeavor. It was a really fun show. We did another show where we hung about a thousand paper cranes from the ceiling all around the room. We blindfolded people and walked them around and brought them to our jam space. So we’ve done some funny things, and I love the freedom as a musician to do things with different kinds of artists and to recognize the performance aspect of being a musician and the potential for that to be another fun way of playing. Every time I get an idea, then I usually want to do it. So, the next time one comes and I have the means and the time, I’m sure I’ll do something else equally ridiculous, hopefully moreso.

IYS: On one of your internet presences you mention something you call Schtuff. Is this related?

JS: Yeah! I haven’t finished that part of the website, but basically Schtuff is what me and Ruby and Derrick do together, so the Everything Is Out of Sight show, the video for “Tiny Head,” the video for the blindfold show… just little projects we do—these two artists and The Luyas combined making weird ideas, doing schtuff together.

IYS: Sounds like a wonderful thing to be able to spend your time on.

JS: Yeah, it’s really fun. It’s a lot of papier-mâché. (laughs)

IYS. You’re probably getting really good at it. So, the shows you’re doing now are leading up to SXSW. My impression is that you’re not super keen on these big industry events. Would you say that’s true?

JS: (pause) I would say that’s true and I would try not to say much more. (laughs)

IYS: Well, I mean, there are good and bad things about it, right?

JS: Yeah.

IYS: These things can be extremely busy, but do you think you’ll be able to meet with or see other acts performing there, and if so, are there certain acts that you’re interested in seeing?

JS: Totally, I’m trying to get a good attitude. Of course, people are people. I like a lot of people who work in the music industry. I work in the music industry, so I have to take responsibility for that. I just find those environments are kind of stressful and not ideal ways to present your music. But we definitely want to make the best of it. And I’m really excited to not be in minus-twenty temperatures. We’re driving south right now—we just passed where the snow stops. We’re starting to see a little bit of green grass, and it’s really making me feel more positive about SXSW and the possibility of even greener, less brown-y grass. It’s gonna be good. I want to see Cass McCombs really badly. I’ve loved him for years and I’ve never seen him play. I think he’s a fabulous songwriter. We’re playing with a bunch of our friends. I’m interested to see Suuns and how awesome they must be now that they’ve been on tour for so long.

IYS: I saw them play with Land of Talk and I thought they were amazing.

JS: Oh rad. Yeah, I haven’t seen them play in years, but I know those guys, so I’m curious because their record is really cool. I really want to see Lower Dens.

IYS: They’re at the top of my list of people to see.

JS: Yeah, they’re so good. That record is so beautiful. It’s great. It’s kind of wrapped in a blanket. The bass playing on that record is amazing. Also, I’m pretty excited because we haven’t been signed to a record deal for a very long time, and we’re in a family of record labels with tons of artists I’ve never seen and I’m really curious to see a lot of them. I think SXSW is going to be a really good opportunity to check a bunch of stuff out. You know, also eat some tacos.

IYS: Lots of free stuff, right? Free food, free things you don’t have to take with you in the van since there’s no room.

JS: Yeah, totally. Maybe we’ll develop a stage show based on swag.

IYS: That’s a wonderful idea. Now you’ve had the idea, you have to do it.

JS: Uh-oh. I think I had sufficient sarcasm in my tone to be able to oust me from that one.

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