Interview Youth Lagoon: ‘The Album Caught Everyone By Surprise’

Matthew Putrino visits Youth Lagoon in his Idaho hometown. Photos: Alex Maddalena. 

Two weeks before my flight to Boise, Idaho I’m watching Trevor Powers and his band Youth Lagoon make a music video. We’re in a small studio in Brooklyn filled with taxidermied animal heads and old Penthouse magazines, and even though it’s just midday, almost everyone in sight is nursing a drink. The band is beat from a show the night before, but spirits are high. Mostly because this is a celebratory trip to New York, and the gig was the official release show - save for a secret hometown warm up gig at local club called Neurolux - for their second LP, ‘Wondrous Bughouse’.

The next time I see Trevor we’re in his hometown at that same club. This is a strange time to talk, and not just because we’re spending the lunch hour in a dark bar. His initial press cycle for the album is largely over, and without naming names, he’s got some frustrations about the tired narrative of being cast as a loner living in an isolated city. After only a few hours I can tell where he’s coming from. Powers is anything but a loner, and the isolated city of Boise is actually one of those overtly friendly places that catches big-city-dwellers off guard, where one can’t walk down the street without greeting half a dozen acquaintances.

What was the first show you saw here at the Neurolux?
I don’t know about the first show, but this was the first bar I came to as soon as I could legally go to bars. I don’t remember what the first show was, but this was actually when Fat Possum came to hang out. Before anything had been signed, this was the bar where they saw the very first show. Good memories. I love this place.

Seems like the people of Boise hold this place in high regard.
They do, it has a lot of history. Supposedly it used to be even more booming than it is now. Back in the 90s, it used to be packed every weekend.

What was your thought process for choosing a label for ‘Wondrous Bughouse’? Was it a natural choice to stay with Fat Possum?
I was on a two record deal with them already, but after the first record we became really close. They’re such a tight knit group. With this record, I wasn’t sure how it was going to come across. There was some… not friction, but everyone expected it to be something that it’s not. I was talking to the main guy I always talk to at Fat Possum, Steven Bevilaqua, and we’re really close. I was talking to him on the phone before going into the studio, and he was like, “Cool, cool,” but it still didn’t click with him that it was going to be that different. So when the record was done and I sent it to him he was like, “What?” texting me all these question marks and exclamation points. But they dug it from the beginning, all of them did. It caught everyone by surprise.

They have a reputation for being a really hands on label.
Super hands on. I’ve flown out to Mississippi multiple times to hang out or for meetings. If there’s a huge thing they want to talk about, they’ll fly here or I’ll fly there. And any big show, any show I’ve ever played in New York they’ve been at. It’s awesome, I love those guys.

Your upcoming tour has an arena show with The National, and festivals like Coachella and Treefort here in Idaho. What’s it like playing huge shows in the middle of a club tour?
Sometimes it affects it in a good way, and sometimes it affects it in a really negative way. Most festivals are pretty unorganised - even down to parking. Some festivals have it down, and some don’t. You’re scrambling to find parking, everything’s stressful. You barely get a soundcheck. It depends. I love festivals when things are set up in a very organised fashion. You would expect that it would be [organised], so much time gets put into festivals, but so many times it’s utter chaos. Especially the parking. Everyone’s always coming and going.

It sounds like you’ve had some traumatic experiences with parking.
It’s a big deal! Especially if you have a trailer. SXSW was madness. There were five showcases, and every single time was so stressful.

For a while you toured with just your guitarist Logan Hyde. How long have you been playing with him?
After ‘The Year Of Hibernation’ was done, there were some shows that followed, some local shows, like the one I mentioned that Fat Possum came to. And there was another guy I’d been working with, Erik Eastman, and he didn’t want to tour or anything. I’ve known Logan probably for the last five or six years from just going to shows in random places. I called Logan up and I was like, “Erik doesn’t want to tour and I really need someone to play guitar.” He was instantly down.

How long did you tour that record? Do you remember how many shows you’ve played?
I don’t remember exactly how many shows, but a little over a year. That’s not that long, but the album’s only eight songs. So to play eight songs for over a year…

You didn’t want to test any of the new material on the road?
I couldn’t. There was too much going on. The way I wrote the new record, it made it physically impossible to do it live with two people.

Ah, I didn’t realise that.
Sometimes there are certain things you can try out before recording, but for me, the way that I was writing it was already so far beyond the capabilities of doing it live, I thought, “After I record it, I’ll worry about [the live show].”

Do you ever want to start playing guitar on stage?
Totally, yeah. Eventually it’s going to happen. Right now there’s not really a need for it. All of the stuff that needs to be covered live now is keys. Logan is manning guitar. It almost happened on this tour, but it’ll happen soon. I love guitar just as much as keys. There was a point in my life where I didn’t touch piano at all. I just played guitar. Then I ended up going back to both.

At this point, ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ has been out for about a month and you’ve done dozens of interviews. I noticed that you approach each one from a genuine place. A lot of bands don’t seem to want to talk about their records and just kinda make jokes.
Because I did so many interviews for ‘The Year Of Hibernation’, I got really sick of the way people already have a preconceived notion of who I am. I’ll talk to someone on the phone for half an hour, and it’ll be this amazing conversation, and then I’ll go back and read it and they took what I said and twisted it into a little mould or their preconceived notion of me. I can’t read interviews after the fact because I get so mad.

You feel like it’s a different person being presented.
Totally. I do take it seriously, there’s a certain way that I’m trying to speak through music. And probably 5% or 10% of the people who hear either of the records really understand it, and the other 90% don’t get it at all.

In that same sense, I can’t imagine it’s fun to read your own record reviews.
Oh I don’t do it at all. Isn’t it interesting though because music is so relative. Same with film or any other form of art. You can say your opinion or give some kind of rating, but you can’t be generalised with it because everyone receives things differently. I think it’s complete bullshit when people want a backstory, and they make that more focus than the record. That’s another reason why I’ve been sick of interviews, the music should speak for itself.

What’s your position on “The Business” of Youth Lagoon? Things like, can I put a track in a commercial, what’s the best time to tour, should I stream my album for free?
I put a lot of focus on that, but when approaching a record, something that’s my art and what I create, I approach that without an agenda. If I feel like I have any sort of agenda other than trying to express myself, then I feel like I’m in the wrong place. That’s when I don’t do it. With this last record, my whole mentality was like, “I want to create something that I want to make. Period.” The whole marketing plan, how many people would buy it, none of that entered my mind. I made something that I wanted to make. After that was done, there is the whole business standpoint where fans are your employer. Fans are how I can do what I’m doing. They have to buy albums, they have to go to shows. In order for me to even keep doing it. But I can’t focus on that stuff first, or else you start to do things for the wrong reasons. I feel like I am very business-minded, but it’s always secondary for me.

That would be a conflict of interest if you were in the studio saying, “Oh I should change the sound of this synth to fit better in a commercial.”
A lot of people do that, and it’s absolutely insane to me. “People responded well to this part of this record, so I’m going to try do it kind of like this…” They go into it with a whole strategy. With me, I would wake up so unhappy if I’m not doing what I want.

Is it way too early to start thinking about the next record?
Oh I’m already thinking about the next record. I see things visually sometimes, almost like movies in my head. I play things out the way I want things to feel, but I’m not ready to talk about it about yet.

This is something phone interviewers don’t get to do, but do you want to talk about your tattoos?
Totally. Which do you want to talk about?

Which ones are the most significant?
I get a lot when I travel. This one [says] “Be Still,” it goes back to my mind being too overactive. It doesn’t really turn off. When I was in Boston, I wanted to get something to always help me remember to be quiet. [Then] I got this skull after I recorded ‘Wondrous Bughouse’. There’s a lot of strong imagery with skulls, and the ideas behind ‘Wondrous Bughouse’, the mortality, and all that kind of stuff. I wanted something really psychedelic, and the colours fade into each other. This was marking the end of ‘Wondrous Bughouse’, so as soon as I got home I got this tattoo.

So that one’s from Boise?
Yeah, this [octopus] is from Boise too. I had done some research and the reason sailors used to get octopus tattoos, is because they represent the unknown. So this was from the first time I went overseas. I got this last year right before I went to Australia.

Australia was the first international show?
Yeah, and after Australia, we went right to Tokyo. Then right to the UK and the rest of Europe. Australia was the very first time I’ve ever been overseas, so I got the octopus. They all mean something different. This one is in memory of my uncle, he passed away from a drug overdose. We were super, super tight, my mom’s brother. It’s a mini journal just to get things on your body.

When did you get your first one?
My first one actually is this one, it says, “The Lord Is My Shelter.” I got this during my last year in high school. I went through this really bad depression, super-bad depression, thinking of all kinds of weird shit. So I wanted something to really ground me.

Do you think you did get a little peace from the first one as a reminder?
Oh yeah, completely.

We’re in Boise, and you’ve got a big show tonight. I imagine a bunch of family is coming out. How many times do you think they’ve seen you perform?
Well, my wife has seen me perform for a really long time. We got married in September, and we dated for six years before that. So in high school I was in different garage bands, and jamming with friends, so there were always shows she was going to. It’s crazy to fast forward years and think about loved ones like that, and think about how many shows they’ve actually seen. My parents are really supportive too. They come to shows all the time, probably most local shows my parents have been there.

That’s awesome. Does your wife ever come on tour?
She goes on like one-off dates. ATP fest outside of London, the one curated by The National, she came to that one. It was beautiful.

Is that where you first met those guys?
Yeah they watched the set and we hung out. That was cool. She goes to different festivals, she went to Treasure Island fest, because that was like four days. She could get off work for that long. Anything that’s like short periods of time, she goes.

But for the weeks in the van…
No way. The way she puts it is, I don’t go to work with her, she doesn’t come to work with me.

Any places you’d like to play that you haven’t had the chance yet?
I’d like to play in China.

Like rural China or Hong Kong?
Everywhere in China. I’ve always wanted to go to China and explore. I’ve always found it fascinating. Eventually it will happen, but it takes a while to go to China. I think eventually it will happen. Maybe.

Youth Lagoon’s new album ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ is out now via Fat Possum.

Taken from the May 2013 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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