In a quaint yet clearly popular cafe in Los Feliz, California, staff writer Heather Allen got to sit down with local indie-pop band Smoke Season for an insightful look on who they are as artists, who they strive to become, and what they believe the next generation of musicians will look like.
MEB: What initially inspired you to become an artist? More importantly, a group?
Gabrielle Wortman: As a kid I remember falling asleep with my clock radio on and I kept having these dreams that I was playing piano or I was playing guitar or I was singing and stuff and then I think it all just bottled up and I just started playing. I must have been in second grade when I started taking lessons, so I blame it on a clock radio (laughs).
Jason Rosen: For me it was kind of in two waves. The first was when I was six years old and I remember hearing The Beatles for the first time. My dad was a huge Beatles fan and I heard “Don’t Let Me Down”. That song just has such an indelible mark in my mind and made me want to play music. The second wave was when I heard Nirvana for the first time. That music really just spoke to me and made me want to play music again. So there’s two waves (laughs).
Awesome! And what made you guys want to start the group and everything?
G: Well, Jason and I are both New Yorkers that ended up in LA, so we both kind of experienced our own Manifest Destiny. California has really left a mark on both of us and especially on us both as writers, we appeal this sort of like desert-ridden fairy tale, but also partial nightmare. (Laughs) It’s like a folklore, a desert folklore. There’s a little bit of magic in it and it has inspired the way that we write.
Who are your personal musical influences and who are your band’s influences?
G: Artists like Bessie Smith and Nina Simone left their vocal chords and their guts all over everything they sang, and that type of free-spirited vocal release has personally impacted the way that I sing. Actually I love Other Lives as well and have always really loved Turin Brakes and Doves. I guess I have a bit of a British influence. As a band, we love songwriting, like brilliant songwriting, and we really love brilliant production because a lot of our live set is influenced by the way the drums are produced. Like, we’ll have our drummer play electronic drums. Or the way the vocals can be produced and then I’ll process my vocals live. A lot of times we love listening to stuff with great effects on it and be like “how do we replicate that”? A great example is Tame Impala, who has like so many layers and everything when you listen to it and you’re just like “how do they do that”? (Looks over at Jason) Who else do you think comes to mind for the band?
J: I mean, Radiohead is probably my ultimate favorite band ever. The spectrum of music they’ve produced like Kid A, Ok Computer obviously, and even In Rainbows, all of these albums are just incredible albums. The songwriting, the production, the musicianship, everything.
G: We have a really big crush on Glass Animals right now and it helps that I actually met the band backstage at Coachella this year. They are the nicest dudes ever and you just want to like them even more. They’re brilliant and they’re just humble.
What other bands do you have a “band crush” on besides Glass Animals? That’s kind of like a fun term to throw around.
G: (Laughs) Yeah, definitely Glass Animals. I think we have more than a crush, like a secret love, for Alt-J.
J: Yes, yes, yes.
G: The harmonies and the fact that they’re pretty fearless about making music that they feel are just them but not necessarily commercially friendly. I have a crush on Haim because I went to school with Este Haim and I just actually have a crush on her (laughs).
J: For a while I had a crush on this band called Snowmine out of Brooklyn. I listened to their album so much that I had to stop listening to them (laughs). I listened to it on repeat for a few months much to Gabrielle’s dismay, and then I saw them live and they’re fantastic.
If you could pick any three bands to create a tour with which bands would they be, and what would you name the tour?
G: Hmmm. I think that we would need Peaches on the tour.
G: Yeah, what I’m thinking is that it would be Peaches, Fatboy Slim, then us, and we would name it The Shitshow Tour (laughs).
J: Whoa. That’s pretty wild.
G: What’s your vote?
J: I like those. I’m trying to think. Like bands that we know or just bands in general?
It can go either way. Whichever you prefer.
J: I might have to say Royal Blood.
G: Oh yeah, Royal Blood! They would be fun.
J: They’d be pretty awesome. We could also have Moby come out.
G: Oh no, you know who we would want is Mo!
J: Ah yes, Mo.
G: We need Mo’s dance moves on that tour.
J: Mo would be awesome.
Would it still be the same tour name?
J: Yeah, we should get Mo and Grimes.
G: And we could name it “How To Dance Well” (laughs).
J: (Laughs) I like it.
Hopefully one day that tour becomes a reality!
J: We’re gonna make it happen!
I’m going to be like “I remember when they were talking about that tour and look at them now” (laughs)! Speaking of tour, you just wrapped up a pretty big tour. Are there any fun stories you would like to share with us from the tour?
G: Well, on this last tour everything went wrong. I think it started when we decided to clean the tour van because it was still dirty from the last tour, so we brought it to a car wash in North Hollywood. We called our drummer and we were like “Are you ready? We’re going to be at your house in like 15 minutes” and he’s like “Well, actually there was a shooting at the car wash so the car is locked up in a crime scene” and we were just like “Haha, very funny. That’s super funny. We’ll still be there in like 15 minutes” and he was just like “I’m not kidding”. We get there and there was red tape all around it and the cops were like “You can’t go in here. This is actually a crime scene” and we were like “Umm, how long is this going to be?” and they said it could be up to 24 hours and pretty much said “Don’t be a jerk, it’s a crime scene”. We were just like “We have to be in Fresno in three hours. What do we do?” and were like “Everyone take your own car”! So we all took our own cars (laughs).
J: And that set in motion
G: This terrible chain of events. Our drummer’s car’s back window shattered when he was trying to get gear out so the back window had duct tape on it and our tires broke and our brakes broke in every one of our cars.
J: And then we got pulled over on the way over there.
G: Oh yeah, we got pulled over and it was just a vehicle disaster! It all started because the tour van was locked up in a crime scene.
J: Yeah, it was a domino effect.
G: No one believed our drummer. We were like “Good one, Chris” (laughs)!
Getting away from the tour for a bit. What do you hope your audience takes away from your music, especially when you perform live?
G: When you see bands live, sometimes your attention drifts. You look down at your phone or you start having a conversation and you tune out for one song. I think that what we hope for in the way that we design our set is so that doesn’t happen and that people stay engaged the whole time. So when we go into building a set, like, I’m quintessentially ADHD and if I get bored playing it, then we probably need to spice things up. We just want people to stay captivated and I also think that we want them to be amazed because bands can’t really replicate the vocals or drum effects that they have on their album and stuff. But we try really hard to maintain that level of authenticity where the drums are effected and the vocals are effected and the guitar lines are just as dense and effected to show that we can preserve that sound even in a live atmosphere.
J: I think we always strive to take people on a journey, so we do a lot of live scoring. We’ll project a video, like a video montage, and we’ll watch it so we can do a live score to the film as you’re watching that. We like to try different things that bands wouldn’t typically do and just take people on this journey with us. Plus the set kind of evolves where it’ll get, like, dramatic and sometimes it’ll be like serene and sweet and we sort of go back and forth and end it with a bang.
G: And we’re really DIY about stuff. We have programmed all of our own lights. We’ve created my actual keyboard stand with LED lights that we’ve made and programmed and stuff. We take so much time on it where the equipment that we use is our craft so we hope that people notice those things because we’ve put so much energy into making, like, every little thing have our own signature on it.
Do you kind of change up the set with every show? Or do you kind of stick to just one kind of setup and then switch up in the next couple shows?
J: It varies. I think tour to tour, though we’ll have it set for the most part and maybe we’ll change it a little bit, but once that tour’s done we completely re-imagine it and change it up and add new songs. We’ll be like this next tour we’ve got two new songs that we’ll integrate into the set.
Awesome! I also wanted to get a little bit of a background on you guys so we can get an idea of who you are as individuals.
G: Well, I’m from Connecticut and he’s from New York. I started playing when I was in the second grade, I was classically trained as a pianist, and then took gospel lessons, blues guitar. I started playing around with Garage Band in the eighth grade and just kept on adding instruments and the production realm onto my musical education. Now, I think I’m a combination of all of those things. I think that I get bored extremely easily, which has created this general temperament in our band and artists that we are constantly evolving as a result. I always thought I would be a solo artist and then I met Jason and he vibes and meshes with me so well musically that I was put in my own place (laughs). It’s great!
J: Two heads are better than one (laughs).
G: Jason, what’s your background?
J: Well, I’m from the east coast as well, from New York, and from as early as I could remember I always had music around me. I was singing and started playing piano when I was six years old. There was this piano at my house that my grandmother bought for us so I started tinkering around and from there I sort of self-taught myself. Up until around 12 years old, I started taking more formal lessons and I started playing guitar and from there I started to evolve. I started hitting things with like pens and stuff so I was like “I really wanna play drums”, so then I got a drum set and started playing drums around junior high. Then I started playing bass in high school, like, my dad always loved the bass and I remember having that conversation with him and he said “Oh yeah, I wish I could’ve played bass” and I was like “I can probably play bass”. And I REALLY got into bass for most of my high school career and was in conjunction with playing guitar and I took lessons with this local legend that my friends took lessons with. He was teaching college-level guitar for high school kids, so I kind of got this great wealth on knowledge that I took with me because I ended up going to music school to study guitar more and piano. So long story short, I play a lot of different instruments and I love that I get to jump around and bounce around to different instruments. I wish I splice myself or clone myself so I can play a bunch of different instruments at once. I guess that’s kind of narcissistic (laughs), but it would be cool to do a gig like that.
G: John Ryan pulls it off.
J: He does and I am very jealous.
You recently released your new single “Bees” and you just released the music video for it. Kind of wanted to get an idea of how you came up with “Bees” and then we’ll get into the music video.
G: “Bees” is kind of about the love scene in Los Angeles or lack thereof. It’s basically about your twenty-something hookup culture and that everyone is skating on the top of having actual feelings so it’s the anthem of that. Not necessarily a bad thing, just an anthem of that.
J: It’s the surface level of how people are.
It’s definitely relatable since you mentioned that you guys like to play around with other things in terms of your music so as to keep everything modern. It’s good that your guys are staying relevant on the topics of what’s going on now in modern society.
J: Most definitely.
I also wanted to ask how you came up with the concept for the music video for “Bees” as well.
G: Well, the music video came about because we wanted to juxtapose nature and modernity, so we were like “we should take these gorgeous, natural scenes and project on to them”. We went to Big Bear and we went to Red Rock Canyon and we went to Topanga and to Malibu and we had this high powered projector and projected all this imagery live onto nature. So it’s this combination of man and geography and we wanted to tell this kaleidoscopic view of LA because ultimately “Bees” is an anthem to LA. There’s always this stunning geography, but at the same time there’s this very urban influence over everything because we’re in a city, a city full of strip malls, so we kind of just combined the two metaphorically and in a lot of ways.
That’s awesome! And it really showed that you guys love your city.
G: Well the city has such a profound impact on the art that we make. Just California in general because we were two fish out of water, but now we’ve been here for decades between the both of us.
J: So we’re like fish with water splashed on us.
G: Yeah! (laughs) We’re flopping fish.
J: We’re still flopping but we’re kicking (laughs).
Or you guys are like bees just flying around the city.
G: Exactly (laughs)!
This can be separate answers, but what keeps pushing you to be an entertainer?
G: You know, that’s a funny question because sometimes I have to ask that of myself when I’m touring a lot, but it’s honestly the energy of being on stage and that nothing feels like work when you’re in the studio. Like, when you’re working really hard and have 12 hour days but it doesn’t feel like work, it’s not a job. But really what keeps me going is the energy that you feel on stage and when you experience making music with a bunch of other people listening to it. Together, you and the audience are experiencing the same song at the same time and it’s just an unbelievable feeling to be a part of. It’s, like, you just have to feel blessed.
J: Yeah, I think it’s similar for me. It’s kind of that inner urge that we have from when we were really young. It’s that same fire that burns and makes you want to play and makes you want to create something. I always thought it was so amazing to create something that doesn’t exist, like, all of a sudden an hour later you have a song. You just made something like the Earth’s sudden vibrations. So it’s like that inner urge is still there even when it’s tough when you’re on tour and you’re exhausted and the last thing you wanna do is play a show. It’s sound crazy, but then you get on stage and instantly…
G: It’s crazy how the second wind comes on when you’re on that stage. You can be so exhausted and you’ll still want to be up there. Literally the last tour we were on, Jason drove through the night back from San Francisco and we played The Roxy the next day. So we both got like two hours of sleep and we were, like, backstage at The Roxy like “Can you stay awake” ? and he’s like “Barely”.
J: Yeah, and you’re like that for 45 minutes to an hour.
G: And then you just crash (laughs).
J: And that’s it. And you repeat again (laughs). But it’s exhilarating to be on stage and playing music.
G: It’s not for the faint-hearted, though. Touring at least.
We’ve also talked about how you guys go through the songwriting process, but I just wanted to ask how you guys come up with the songs. Is there a specific process that you guys go through to think of the concepts? Do you kind of just throw out ideas to see if one sticks?
G: We just start I think. We’ll pick something to start with like a guitar riff or a chord progression or it might be Jason beatboxing. Sometimes we’ll say “let’s start with a beat this time”, and then we’ll develop a song that’s heavily progressive or heavily danceable. Other times it’s a guitar riff that we build the whole song around or a vocal line – anything like that. What I’ve noticed in this band is that whatever our mindset is at the time that what the lyrics are, the winding road of the song with take on in that form. So we’ll start with the musical element and then it will manifest itself emotionally into a full song. So I think that emotional comes out as a step two.
J: I think the formula is this most of the time. It’s not really a formula, but I’ll start playing something, like, a riff or whatever and then Gabby will come up with some chords. Usually they won’t even be the chords that I was thinking or where I would go with it, but many times the Smoke Season sound is two different chords happening at the same time. Much like the chagrin of our bass player, it’s like “Wait, you’re playing a A, she’s playing a C-sharp, what’s going on”? So literally these sonic textures happen because we’re not really thinking of what the chords are supposed to be, we’re just feeling it and a lot of times how her brain works with music is different than how mine does. It’s great because it creates this amazing tapestry of sound that happens so that’s kind of the Smoke Season sound.
G: Yeah, it’s funny because both of us are trained enough to be able to play by ear so we’ll be playing by ear and then try to complement it with some type of different note or harmony. It’s not like “I’m playing an A are you playing an A” it’s more like “I’m hearing what your chord progression is and I’m gonna move this way”. It’s nice to have somebody else that has that level of virtuosity to spar with that way when we’re writing.
J: We push each other.
G: The weird thing is that with the lyrics though, I’ll sing gibberish and make up the vocal mind and then after a couple of hours all of a sudden I’ll realize that I’ve been singing words and that they make sense. It’s really weird that the stream of consciousness with our songwriting that happens and it’s just become a pattern.
J: I always say that Gabby has this real knack for pulling words of out the air and saying things in a way that no one’s ever said it before and it’s pretty amazing. I’m always in awe of that and just being involved in it because she’s the chief lyricist so she’ll be coming up with these lyrics and it’s just like “woah” It’s amazing, it’s deep and a lot of the times I wouldn’t have said it that way. I might have been able to come up with something but she has a distinct voice with her lyrics.
G: I think it’s because I don’t like to say things straight out. I’d rather talk in circles around what I was trying to get at and then see if you arrived in the same place I arrived in. Like, let me talk around this spot on the table and if you end up in this spot then we’re on the same page. Or maybe you’ll end up in like left field and that took you on your own emotional journey, but I don’t want to tell you where you should go.
J: That’s the wonderful thing. It’s that you put it together and draw your conclusions and emotions and feelings from it. You impart your own sort of feelings about it.
Yeah, it sounds like you guys have like a natural chemistry when it comes to writing the lyrics, finding the music, and learning a little more about yourselves in the process. Is there any advice that you would give to newer artists or groups that are barely laying their feet into the ground or trying to discover their sound?
J: I think you have to listen to a lot of different types of music, not only what you like but maybe what you don’t like too because you can learn from that as well. Also transcribe songs so you can play them, figure them out, see what’s going on there and then dissect it so you can then turn it into your own. Just have fun and play. For me, it was because it was so steeped in jazz that I loved improvising. That’s just my favorite thing in music, just, coming up with something on the spot. That’s what writing music really is is improvising and coming up with something. So I think just improvising and trying different things and not being afraid if something sounds like shit. Be like “All right, that’s fine. Now move to the next thing”. Just experiment.
G: I would say have confidence in your voice when you find it. I’ve noticed that a lot of artists that I love have a voice, but then new bands in a certain genre will release something years later and it’ll sound like that wave even if that wave wasn’t their voice. But have confidence in your voice because there is a reason we need to keep diversity in music. You can love music without becoming it. And then also to play a lot of shows. It’s makes you such a better musician and such a better singer, such a better player in whatever instrument you play. Live performances are THE best way to earn your chops in anything.
J: Cut your teeth as they say (laughs).
Awesome! And my last question for you guys is since you were already talking about incorporating new songs into your guys’ set on the next tour, are there any other big plans should we be looking forward to from Smoke Season in the near future?
G: Honestly, we are working right now on the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done. Easy to say that when we approached our producers and the music video director that we’ve worked with for a couple years now they all were like “Well, shit! This is what you wanna do? Let’s do it”! (Laughs) We’re lucky to have an amazing team around us, but we can’t say much more than that it involves videos, film and a new album in a very untraditional way. We’re going to have a lot of sleepless nights coming up while we prepare it (laughs).
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