California ‘soul punks’ letlive. have just let loose one of the most anticipated albums in rock this year with If I’m The Devil…, and it’s unsurprising why they’re becoming one of the most loved bands under the ambiguous umbrella of punk in this generation – Their music is politically-minded, but they aren’t afraid to bare their souls. Their first proper album, 2010’s Fake History, saw them gain a cult following whilst their infamous live act and 2013’s The Blackest Beautiful transformed the band into the cream of the crop within contemporary punk.
Prior to the release of the new record Audio Addict caught up with singer Jason Aalon Butler in Shoreditch with the intent to talk about the new album, but with politics and protest in the states, the lines that divide us in society, and Kendrick Lamar, all integral to If I’m The Devil…things get deep…
How did you find the reception to the first single ‘Good Mourning America’ considering its heavy political message?
I think it’s been cool! To be one hundred percent honest I expected it to be a little more polarised, but from what I’ve seen a lot of people have been really receptive, and those that aren’t, most of the reason why they aren’t is about the message. I think they’re not willing to invest in that idea, which is fine. I don’t expect everybody to feel the same as I do, but a lot of what i’m saying is based on fact, it’s not conjecture or just my experience, this is actually statistically factual. That’s where that comes from, it’s a representation of a reality from a first person’s perspective.
Did the message to society come out naturally in the song writing or was it an intentional change?
It was much more deliberate because at the time when I wrote my part of the song I was actually returning from protests and I was actually reading a lot of literature on current events. These are just things that I was experiencing so the song does have a much more direct and deliberate delivery than say some other things, it’s still dressed in literary devices and different approaches and it’s a little less cryptic if you will. In my other stuff I use metaphors in order to explain things but this one is more direct.
If you’re surrounding yourself with stuff like the protests and literature then it’s gonna come out in your writing isn’t it?
That’s what I think too. Being hit with the reality that these issues were abounding and ever present, after these events repeat themselves so many times, especially where I’m from [California], I’ve been dealing with policies that disservice a demographic since I was born… After so long, after so much of the same thing happening, that these unwanted scenarios keep happening eventually something’s coming to a head, there’s going to be a boiling point, and things are gonna boil over, and that’s where we’re at.
You’ve labelled yourself with the term ‘soul punx’ before and one of the most intriguing things about soul music is that it can put a powerful message over feel-good music, is letlive. doing this another way you wanted to bring the soul influence out?
Totally, one hundred percent! I think that with messages, if you can hook people in sonic-ly then you can deliver your message in toe and people will be a little more susceptible, a little more receptive, and a little more willing to listen to that message.
I grew up listening to soul and funk and R&B, those are my first loves, and I wanted to touch on that a little more personally as a singer and a writer for bits of songs I wrote instrumentally. A lot of that was certainly intended and it’s really cool that you notice it and that it seems to be a little more obvious. I think with letlive. The one thing to expect is never to know what to expect, I think it’s part of our game to keep changing and see if we can do it forever.
Do you think that accessibility of a political song helps get that message to more people? Is that the ultimate aim?
Yeah. I have a, not a mission, but there is an objective with these messages, and I want to get them to as many people as possible. Not because I want to see success or monetary gain but I think that these are things that need to be heard, not because I’m saying them but because so many other people that don’t get to be heard, whether their voices are either muted or lowered or not considered by popular culture or mainstream music or media. I’m in a position where I might be heard because of music, because of the art that we do, and I would really like to say these things on a larger level, and it’s not to hear myself talk or because I wanna be heard, but because these are things that people have been saying for decades now at least in America. All over the world a lot of progressive thought has been baited and kept quiet for so long I think it’s about time we speak up.
What other themes do you explore on the album? Your previous album The Blackest Beautiful had a good balance of personal and political stuff.
For the most part there actually are my own sort of ironic versions of love songs on there, the idea of emotion is always going to exist within whatever letlive does. I guess, it’s part of our essence and attitude. I think that on this record the ideas share the same qualities – they’re ardent, or they have a sense of immediacy and urgency and everything we’re doing right now. The first track on the record actually sort of encapsulates what’s going on and it’s about perception for me. The title If I’m The Devil… is about perception, and we perceive people and what those perceptions have lead us to do as a society or as a emotional, emotive beings. These ideas have become divisive because of how we’ve created them and how we’ve carved them out. There’s a broad sense of ideas on the record but for the most part I think they’re pretty clear on this one I think.
Is there anything on the record that will surprise the hell out of people?
I think so, we explored a little more ambient elements which just kind of run through a lot of the songs, different percussive elements we’ve put in. Just again like an evolution of us as musicians which some purists that think that we shouldn’t share the same qualities or you know ‘rock music shouldn’t have this’ or ‘ambient music shouldn’t have this’ or what have you. We definitely honoured various types of music that we all listen to, and I think that people will be surprised whether in a good way or a bad way they will be surprised.
Ambient influences, sounds exciting!
Yeah totally! I listen to Whirr and Sunn O))), that’s my shit!
What’s the meaning of the red thread on your social media, on the music video, and on the album artwork?
The cover is actual red string that makes our logo and that red string runs itself through the artwork in the record, and it will continue through our aesthetic for this cycle I believe. On a physical, very literal level, in America there was done called ‘red lining’ and it was where we carved out jurisdictions and regions in neighbourhoods where if say for example a black person lived within these regions, well then you were excluded from bills that were created by the FHA, the GI bill, the new deal, so it was just before the 1940s, so that’s a very literal interpretation. Then I’d say metaphorically because of those ideas that red string is supposed to represent this sort of tenuous, small piece of our history that could so easily be broken if we just wanted. It’s funny how we are held behind these lines that are so tenuous and just drawn in the sand, and that’s what the red string is supposed to represent. That too, when it was tightening and loosening on the video it’s supposed to represent again the tenuous nature of these lines that we’ve drawn, whether they be boarders, or race, or sex, or gender, all these things, again they’re just ideas. To me I find them to be pretty superfluous they don’t hold much weight.
Do you think those line are blurring in our culture?
Absolutely, I think there’s really no other direction it can go. Eventually what I’d like to see is those lines completely obliterated and eradicated and removed. A world sense, a collective sense of globalism would be cool as well as sexuality, identity, gender identification. All these different things I think eventually, if we can make it that far as a species then we should see each other as – it sounds so cliché – but human beings.
It’s a shame that’s become a cliché thing to say.
Yeah right isn’t it?! It’s even worse that it’s idealistic and Utopian but that’s just how I see it. But is it though? Because if you can think it can happen!
What’s with the open ended album title?
The title is an offering for people to finish it. I know what I think, I know if I’m the devil… then I’ve got an answer to that. It’s also supposed to represent my thoughts in a very large section of my life where I felt I was being seen as that, as the devil for whatever reason whether that was emotional or romantic, societally or politically, whatever it is. There are times where you feel like the adversary, the evil do-er. When you think about that if you’re a representation of something negative or bad then what are the things that are actually bad, and creating harm and doing harm to others? That was my take on the title and then leaving it open ended that way is so that others get a chance to finish it.
What artists should people listen to before they hear this record?
Kendrick Lamar. He’s just on some other shit, just totally on some other shit. And this isn’t an artist, – well he is an artist to me – but like a literary artist, a man named James Baldwin. Then I’d say Saul Williams, and maybe just because recently I’ve gotten into this but The Rolling Stones, because I recently kind of felt their funk and I kinda like it now. And of course people wanna hear some rock stuff right? I’m just gonna say this band cause I fucking love them, a band called Dangers, they’re a punk band that I still really enjoy and I think they’re out there flying the flag of progressive punk both ideologically and sonically. I don’t know how similar they are but I just kinda wanna shout them out. And people should listen to Bowie, just because that will open their minds. I think that he, on so many levels, he blurred those artistic lines so many times that you can’t deny him, and he had some really punk moments too!
Suffragette City sounds punk as fuck
YEAH DUDE, THAT’S MY SHIT!
‘If I’m The Devil…’ is out now via Epitaph
Words by Jack King