Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
TLOBF Interview // Les Savy Fav

TLOBF Interview // Les Savy Fav

27 October 2010, 11:00
Words by Matt Conner


The latest release on French Kiss Records happens to involve the guys that run the whole thing. So while Syd Butler and the rest of Les Savy Fav prep their own new album, Root for Ruin, they’re having to wait in line behind the artists they’ve signed — acts like Passion Pit, Local Natives, The Dodos, The Antlers and, most recently, Young Man. It’s a tension that Butler says he’s quite happy to deal with given the success of both his own artistry and the ones he’s launched.

The guys have been busier than you may think with with only three proper albums this decade (which includes their new disc), but Butler is quick to correct that myth as well as explain the goings-on behind Les Savy Fav.

There’s a lot to discuss with the new record, but I want to start with the incredible run that French Kiss is having. Passion Pit, Local Natives, The Hold Steady, The Antlers, Freelance Whales, The Dodos. It just seems like you can do no wrong.

I say this with some sarcasm, obviously, but we keep surviving. That’s what we tell people. But yes, to answer your question, we keep having a good run. A year ago, with The Dodos, Antlers, Passion Pit. We’re having great luck this year with Local Natives, who are just killing it. We can’t seem to quit. We can’t turn this machine off. It has its own life now.

Obviously you want the bands to be successful, but does that cause any tension with not being able to get to your own music?

I think those things are intertwined. I think Les Savy Fav and the fact that I want to be in a band, and play in a band and write music with the band allows me to relate to the bands that we work with a lot. I don’t know many other labels where the guy who runs the company and is active with the label is also in an active band. So when I’m communicating or talking with another band, I totally get where they’re coming from. It’s really nice to have this community. Even the bands who have graduated and moved on to other labels still help take care of the French Kiss family.

Are all of the guys in Les Savy Fav involved with the label?

I definitely lean on my band mates. Tim is definitely creative and Seth is a really good designer and Harrison is a good visual artist. He did the cover for Root for Ruin. Andrew’s a video editor and I definitely rely on them for creative things. But for day to day French Kiss stuff, that’s me.

You have two other studio albums out since 2001. Is that a sign of French Kiss being a presence or is that just the way you work?

No, with Les Savy Fav, I think we just take things at our own pace. We did Go Forth and then we did Inches, which is funny to us because people don’t think of it as a record, but we think of it as a record even though it is that collection of singles. The singles didn’t exist and then we wrote them and put them on the singles record. It was a project we started when we first started the band, so for us it felt like Inches didn’t get its own recognition. We wish it did, because when we play live, the songs people love are from Inches. But then we have Let’s Stay Friends.

So you’ve been busier than people give you credit for?

Exactly. We do play shows. I have kids and Tim has kids and we stay busy.

That creative process that takes a while, do the songs just marinate for a long time?

They really do. The gestation process keeps changing as we go. We keep finding ways of playing a song differently. We’ll want to change this or that or we’ll say, ‘Oh, this sounds better over here.’ There are some songs we’re playing now from the new record and we were just talking last night about, ‘Oh, I wish we would have put this part here.’ So we’re all learning how we write. We’ve written very differently over the years. Every time we’ve gone to write a new record or write songs, we approach it differently so that we can have a new experience.

Is it hard to hit the stop button? Because at some point, you have to quit tinkering and put it out there.

Well, yeah, with Root for Ruin, it was last summer, I guess, and we set a studio date for six months down the road. So we knew we could take five months or one month, but we had this deadline and we had to work toward that deadline.

That has to help being able to set your own deadlines being on both sides of the fence.

I have to say that it is a lot of freedom. You just choose the release date and work backwards. You don’t have to answer to anyone. You just talk to the people at the label and ask, ‘Will this work for you guys?’

Do you ever struggle then with serving the other bands on the label and their releases and release dates versus your own?

For sure. We were releasing this guy named Colin who goes by Young Man. He’s a sweet kid and I really like this guy a lot. We’re really excited about him. But we don’t have the same pressure for him, since he’s putting out an EP. So he’s entering this world and we’ve been around it for a while. So when we sat down with him and his management team, we just said, ‘It’s going to be competing against the new Les Savy Fav record, just so you guys know that.’ We were pretty open and up front right away with the bands that we work with.

You said you approach each album differently, so is that a cognizant thing where you try to write a certain way or is it a hindsight statement?

No, we definitely head into it with that in mind.

So how did you approach Root for Ruin?

Well, Tim had a very funny quote, He said, ‘With the previous record, we were like a married couple that wanted to try swinging. We had an orgy with all of these other people coming in to help us with the recording.’ We learned a lot in that process from how they do it and that was exciting. But when we came back to this project, Tim said that we actually learned we like to have sex with each other better.

That’s a great line. Did you enjoy keeping things in-house?

I did. I really enjoyed both experiences. There were some artists I really enjoyed playing with. That was a lot of fun for me. But with this one, it seemed to be more specific. We had a cohesive idea going in of what music we wanted to write for it. There was no room for anyone else.

What do you learn about yourself in that process?

It was interesting when it comes to Root for Ruin in that we also got along in the writing of it. On previous records, there was always this big fight. Someone always storms out or his ego gets crushed or toes are stepped on. But on this one, there was a lot of, ‘Yeah, that sounds good’ or ‘Oh, I like that.’ For me personally, it was great to be a part of a more positive recording experience with my own band.

When you shut out those outside influences, how do you grow as a musician?

On other albums, as a bass player, I would try to do more dance-y stuff or more dub or reggae influenced stuff. This was a little more rock influenced and straight-ahead. That was both a blessing and a curse. There was a part of myself that wanted to challenge my creativity and my songwriting to come up with cool or dance-y bass lines. But it was also freeing to know that I didn’t have to do that. I could just play these riffs. I can just play G to D, you know? So there’s a freedom in that, but it was also a bit nervous because I was out of my element.

Is that a live show thing? Do you make that decision to more straight-ahead rock influenced stuff because of the live setting?

In the past, it’s worked because Harrison and I have similar music tastes. So we would connect when we play live. A lot of those beats that he would play, I would really try to connect with him and give musical notes to his drums. I think the bass player should be giving musical notes to the drummer. So when you play reggae or dub or sort of broken down, it helps create more space in the song and live performance. It gives room for Tim and Seth to be as creative and spontaneous as they need to be for their own live experience.

But for these songs, we really have to be tight because it’s all so driven. If someone fucks up, it will really stand out. Whereas there was a little more leeway with the former writing styles. For example, there’s a song called “Who Rocks the Party” that we play at almost every show because it brings us back to our roots of what the band is. That allows us to play as musicians at every show. We usually play the songs just for us, not so much for the audience.

Do you end up serving the audience in that way if you put your own interest first?

I think it’s definitely mirrored back and forth. We look for the audience to bring us to the show and the audience wants us to bring them to the show. It’s that ping-pong game that’s going back and forth that instantaneously makes every Les Savy Fav show a neat experience because we are learning and adapting as they are learning and adapting. There are certain songs that we just play whether the audience is there or not, because it becomes a musical lesson for us on how to be a band. You learn how to change these songs.

It’s like that documentary The Aristocrats where the comedians told the same joke again and again. It’s like that where you learn how to present it differently every time. It’s the comedians telling the same joke and yet having to learn how to present it differently. So when we play ‘Rome’ or one of those songs, we’re playing those songs for us and hopefully the audience will be, by that time, into the show and involved in our own space. It’s not something like, ‘Here’s the set list full of all of the hits. Thank you and good night.’ We like to be a part of the show as well.

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