Finding Beauty In The Breakdown: A Conversation With Lucius
Originally published on Slant.
I was introduced to Lucius by accident.
I was obsessed Milo Greene's self-titled first album, and saw that they were playing for $12 at a tiny Charlottesville, VA venue called The Southern, about 45 minutes from Harrisonburg, where I was a student at JMU.
While Milo Greene played an amazing set that night, my memory of that evening will always focus on the mod, colorful, Jetsons-meets-Pleasantville matching outfits, the propulsive, but understated rhythm section courtesy of Dan Molad's simple, stand-up drum kit, and the soaring, "take-it-to-church" harmonies of the band's frontwomen, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig.
At the climax "Go Home," I was hooked and grew quite certain that this band was on the cusp of playing much bigger rooms.
After the show, I snagged a physical copy a of their self-titled EP (one of the last compact discs I ever purchased) and wore it out, with songs like "Genevieve" and "Don't Just Sit There" becoming a part of every playlist I made.
They upped the ante with their first LP, Wildewoman, filling out their sound and gifting listeners with both the anthemic ("How Loud Your Heart Gets") and the delicate ("Two of Us on the Run"). They spent years on the road, booking major festivals and selling out theaters.
Fans and critics have raised their expectations for Good Grief, the band's sophomore release for Mom + Pop Music. The record, which drops March 11, is intensely personal, showcasing madness, mania, insanity, and ultimately, joy.
I had the opportunity to talk with Jess Wolfe about the upcoming record, Spotify and "finding the good in the grief."
SD: How have you grown personally and as a group since releasing 'Wildewoman' a few years ago?
JW: We’ve been touring for the past two-and-a-half years pretty much nonstop, so the amount that you see and take in and process is wildly overwhelming in the best and worst ways.
In the best ways, because you get to see the world and you get to take in so many different cultures, and you get to connect with people from different parts of the U.S. and and different countries. It’s also incredibly incredibly difficult and you realize what it is that you’re missing, what it is that you need I should say. You know, alone time is few and far between and you’re spending a lot of time having to be on and having to be present. As much as you’re seeing, and as wonderful as these opportunities are, sometimes you don’t even have a moment to step back and process or have some perspective or be able to acknowledge that something just happened that was amazing because you’re on to the next one.
I think we’ve definitely grown in realizing the things that are really necessary in order to stay present and be focused and enjoy ourselves. With so much travel and growth as a band, as a unit, you realize your strengths as a musician, as an individual, and that only helps you for the next time around, which is really exciting. We get to do things again, but hopefully this time we’re a bit more prepared, whereas before we had never really toured, we’d never really experienced any of those things. So we were kind of going into it blindly.
SD: How does that affect the writing and the direction of what you were trying to get across with 'Good Grief?'
JW: It’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of heavy subject matter in there. I guess because we didn’t have a moment to process much, we’re just going, going, going, going. I think by the time we were ready to sit and write, even though we had collective thoughts in our journals and voice memos and all those things, by the time we were actually able to sit and write and process it, the two of us we were basically about to explode. There was just so much that needed to come out and I think it overwhelmed even us.
At some point, I remember Holly and I having a talk saying like, we’re going to need some songs that relieve the listener. We’re going to need some songs that aren’t just so dark and heavy. There’s going to need to be like a sigh in there.
We kind of were making fun of ourselves with the title Good Grief and with a lot of songs following that theme. Making the light of the difficult times by infusing some moments of humor and playfulness. And also, fully embracing the grief. You know, finding the good in the grief.
SD: I think one of the stand-out tracks for me was "Gone Insane." It has such a breakdown and it’s so raw, especially at the end of the song. What was the recording process like? What was it like actually putting these emotions on a record and trying to represent of what you wanted?
JW: There’s a story behind the recording process.
Holly and I have been working together for like 11 years now, and I think we said the other day that we’ve had three real fights. We just don’t fight for whatever reason. I mean, we get annoyed at each other and stuff like that as anybody would spending that much time together, but we’ve got complementary personalities.
We knew we were going into the studio that day to sing that song, and I had sort of the opposite of my normal disposition. I was really feeling internal and not wanting to talk about my feelings and where I was at in that moment. Holly was the opposite. She had a lot going on and normally she holds it in, but this time she was wanting to talk about it, so what are we going to do for this part? She was very vocal and I was overwhelmed by the amount of expressiveness she was putting out there right before we’re supposed to sing this intense song and she’s like, "You’re not listening to me."
So we started fighting, and I was like you can’t yell at me. Then she stormed out. We were cursing at each other at one point, which is crazy. That’s never happened before. Ten minutes later, she came back and she’s like, "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, I’m overwhelmed," and I said I’m sorry.
And then we went into the studio and we have one mic that we sing into, and we decide that we were going to extend the end of the song, because emotions were high, and we were singing together mostly in unison for the whole song. So, at the end of that intense meltdown, the breakdown was all very much improvised, even the way that we like fell out of time and came back into time. Right at the moment when the bass was going to drop we had no idea, or the drum was going to drop I should say, we didn’t know how long we were going to be going at the end it was just all kind of a like a mess.
SD: You had a pretty awesome opportunity to work with Shawn Everett and Bob Ezrin. What was it like working with those two guys and what did they bring to the record?
JW: Bob was really a part of the early stages of the record, helping us decide which songs we were going to put on the record, narrowing down what we were going to do, what kind of edits needed to be made, and where each song should go.
Shawn’s this sound wizard. He’s an engineer and he's very creative. One’s kind of like the doctor and the other’s kind of the mad scientist. And so, they had worked together once before, but not on a complete record. They were familiar with each other and we liked the idea that Bob’s sort of this legendary dude and Shawn’s this young, vibrant, very expressive producer and engineer. So we thought it would be a nice mix, but we spent most of our time with Shawn. He’s a very dear friend of ours.
When you’re a band and there’s five strong, creative minds and each person has a very strong point of view and wants their vision heard and expressed, it takes a very particular personality in order to nourish and enable that, and he’s definitely that type.
SD: A lot of my close friends have found your music through Spotify originally. What are your thoughts on streaming in the music industry?
JW: It’s sort of a twisted thing because on one hand young artists like us need to be heard and we need any opportunity to get out there. Unfortunately, one of the only ways to do that, other than touring relentlessly, which we do, is to be available in all platforms. Sometimes that means sacrificing monetary value and it’s a shame that it has to be that way.
If Taylor Swift wants to remove herself from Spotify, it’s a huge deal, but she has millions of fans and those millions of fans are going to find her music and buy it elsewhere. Lucius, I mean we’ve maybe had a few million listeners on Spotify. We wouldn’t have had those millions of listeners otherwise because it’s so accessible to everyone. We don’t have the access to as many people as her, or Radiohead or any of the other people. It’s just the fact that they can make big statements like that, they can disconnect from these services, because they have millions of fans who are going to buy millions of their records regardless. Radiohead, Taylor Swift, all these people.
But we don’t have that kind of audience and we don’t have the means to be seen and heard yet. We’re kind of in a position where we have to make ourselves available so people can discover. Obviously, Spotify is one of those services that allows that to happen. There's a love/hate thing at this point.
SD: What were you listening to while writing and recording 'Good Grief?'
JW: The way that we recorded the record, Holly and I wanted to bring Shawn a housewarming gift because he had just moved into a new studio in downtown LA. So we brought him this very strange boxed-art with a man’s face. The painting on the box kind of looks like John Waters with a hairnet on or something. It’s this sort of androgynous, thin-mustached person.
We sat down the first day of recording and we started talking about how we’re going to go about the recording process. Everybody had a different idea. Where to start, what to start with, how we were going to record. In order to please everybody and make it so that everybody’s voice was heard, Shawn had the idea for each of us to put a song of influence for that particular song we were about to record into a box.
We blindly would each put a song that we felt either was inspiring in tone, or that we liked the drums, or the way that the vocals were recorded. Whatever it was, it could be any reason, but blindly a song from each of us was put into this box. And then, one by one, Shawn would pick out the songs, pick out the pieces of paper with the song on it. We’d listen to the song, write down all the things that we liked about that recording or what it was that we thought could inspire this particular recording. That’s how we went about the whole entire record. It was a perfect way for everybody’s voice to be heard.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Piper Ferguson