At the moment when you think of Philadelphian music, you’ll think of two artists: Kurt Vile, and The War On Drugs. Both are behind some of the best music of the past year or two, and you’ll probably know that Vile spent some time as a guitarist alongside Adam Granduciel in The War On Drugs. What you might not know, though, is that Granduciel played alongside a man named Shai Halperin in another Philly band called The Capitol Years, and Halperin also played as part of an early version of The War On Drugs with both Granduciel and Vile. Halperin now has a project under the name of Sweet Lights, and just released an album of the same name.
Now, you might be expecting something similar to Granduciel’s motorik Springsteen or Vile’s virtuoso guitar playing, but Halperin throws something of a curveball by giving us an album of sweet and melodic (soft) pop music heavily influenced by a love of the Beatles – George Harrison in particular – and the wide-eyed innocence of Daniel Johnson, topped off with Halperin’s gently sighing vocals and ear for a killer tune. Sweet Lights is a truly lovely record, and we caught up with Shai recently to find out a little bit more….
Is Sweet Lights a Shai Halperin solo project or a band?
It’s both. I was able to record the album alone and have had a surprisingly decent time performing alone, but in the near future friends will hop on board and join in at random shows, as a band.
Where does the name come from?
The name… as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in doing lights at shows. When I was a child, instead of enjoying myself at a high school party I would be flicking the lights on and off for everyone else to dance to. Fast forward to a few years ago when I worked at a venue here in Philadelphia, I began working the lights some nights, and many nights I did so surprisingly decently and at times we all described them as “sweet”!
You used to have a project by the name of The Capitol Years, so is that all over? Is Sweet Lights a fresh start?
I began The Capitol Years in ‘one-man-band’ mode, and then it was an amazing band for some time. Now we’re taking a break from those songs, but I’ve got some Cap Yrs playing in Sweet Lights as well as other talented Philadelphians.
You can hear the classic pop influences right from the start, with the Beatles – George Harrison in particular – looming large. Does this reflect your music influences or heroes?
The Beatles screwed up my head in so many odd ways for so long. I got obsessed around age 8 or 9. From there I moved on to explore everything else under the sun. I moved as far from them as possible at one point. But everything levels out in the end.
I never had a particular conscious affinity for George, though perhaps temperament-wise that’s where I would fit in. Even still, I’ve heard the George comparison since the first Capitol Years album so there must be something to it. Well, this song probably had something to do with it.
There’s even two titles (‘Here Comes the Son’ and ‘Are We Going to Work It Out’) that give a large nod to the Beatles….
I like the idea of responding or building on songs from the past. The former very clearly has a George melodic reference, but the title came to me because I was actually welcoming our amazing son, Elliot, into the world. His favourite songs, other than mine apparently and foreign children’s songs, are off the White Album. ‘Helter Skelter ‘included! As for ‘Work it Out’, it’s always been a reply to Sir Paul’s original, with more to come.
Tell us about working with Daniel Johnston, how did that come about and what was he like? Is he another influence on your music?
A series of chance events lead me to feel like recording a cover of ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’ in my bedroom. I proceeded to set that recording to footage of our fat cat and the rest is history. As a band we went on to open for him and then have a great run as his backing band on a few short tours. Working with him and his family has been amazing and we’re doing so again as Sweet Lights. He has a great sense of humour and loves the Beatles, so we have a particularly good time doing some covers as well as 5-10 of his own classics. There’s footage online from backstage in 2008 when we had a bit of a piano Beatles sing-a-long. That was one of the most amazing moments I’ve ever experienced with music. Nice to have it on tape.
You’ve played with Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel in a version of The War On Drugs, and Kurt Vile is mentioned in a song title on the album [‘The Ballad of Kurt Vile #2’]. Have you known both guys for a long time; are you all supportive of each other in your various endeavours despite all leaving the various bands at some point?
Yeah, I’m actually mentioned in a TWOD song title as well, ‘Needle in the Shai #16’, unreleased though. Both of those guys are mindblowingly great and we’ve been playing near or with each other in Philadelphia for a very long time. I’ve yet to find any recordings with KV, AG, and myself all in the lineup, but I’d like very much to hear one. Want to see if I messed up any chords on keys, guitar, or even drums. I played each of those at some point. I did sweet lights for them at Johnny Brenda’s [a Philly gig venue] once, it was awesome. You can hear Adam on The Capitol Years’ last album as well as some clips online. There’s a lot of inbreeding in the Philly music scene.
A song like ‘Endless Town’ seems to be a homage to a home town, mixed with a yearning to escape the pull of it, and this seems to be a occasional recurring theme in the music of the bands in which you’ve played (The War on Drugs for example). Is place an important influence on the music from your part of the world, has an emotional bond that’s not quite unbreakable been formed?
The song began as nonsense, but of course a certain feeling runs through it. We all get bummed out and might blame anything or anyone at any given time. Either way, Philadelphia is partly beautiful and I live down the street from a singing fountain and lots of Italian restaurants. You could do a lot worse.
Can you recommend a band from Philadelphia that we might not know so much about?
What made you decide to cover a Traveling Wilburys song [‘Handle with Care’, from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1] for the B-side to the single?
It was a random inspiration; I saw a version by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on some live special. I ran upstairs and started. Challenging, but has some nice parts.
Tell us about the album, is there an overriding theme?
There is, but it’s just one that I imagine after the fact; it’s nothing too lucid. I’m hoping others will do the same.
What were you listening to when making the record?
What music first got you interested in making music and being in a band?
What made me finally think I could make music and be in a band was seeing an awful jam band in college. It was at a hippie frat and I remember looking around and everyone was making out. I was watching this dumb band thinking, “I could do this….”
Will you be touring this record for the foreseeable future, and do you enjoy it?
Yes, a good amount of touring in the near future, I plan to enjoy it immensely.
Sweet Lights is released on 30 April through Highline Records.