In the conversation, singer/guitarists Jesse & Matt Kivel, keyboardist Ben Usen and drummer David Kits discussed the tour (both headlining & opening – and which is better), their new Cocoon of Love (QRO review), the best record store in the country, what’s up with them & Japan, what’s up with them & the Bloomsbury Circle, getting shit for being smart, the highs & lows of sharing a name (but not being named after) with your interviewer’s hometown, and much more…
[note: this interviewed was transcribed from a voice recording, and twins Jesse & Matt sound a lot alike, so some quotes may be misattributed...
QRO: How was your last tour, with Ra Ra Riot (QRO spotlight on) and Maps & Atlases?
Matt Kivel: We had a great time. Everyone was really nice, who was on the tour. We loved all of their bands. We couldn't have asked for a better bill.
QRO: That tour with Ra Ra Riot was your second - how did you first get in contact with them?
Jesse Kivel: We had played a couple of shows with them; just one-off shows with them in L.A. and San Francisco. I don't remember talking to them very much, but I think they liked our music. We talked to them a little bit, and then they just asked us to come on tour with them. We were pretty excited about that.
And then we just became close friends with them.
QRO: And before that tour, you did a headlining tour, cross-country...
JK: I guess you could call it that...
It was more of a disaster.
MK: It was not a great tour.
Ben Usen: It was eight or nine shows.
JK: It was mainly to get from point A to point B; it wasn't about the shows.
David Kits: We did it with a band called Ice Palace (QRO photos), and they made it fun, the nights where... we might not have been as happy.
JK: They lifted our spirits.
QRO: Did it help that there's a bunch of them? Makes the crowd look a little thicker...
JK: Made the crowd ‘existing’...
MK: Which was the case at many of those shows.
QRO: Which do you prefer: headlining or opening?
JK: Right now, the opening is much better for us, man...
There's something rewarding, when you're headlining, you know the people who stayed later are there to see you. It's more confusing when you're opening; you can tell, some of the fans, if they're singing along, but other than that, you're not sure. But if you're headlining, you know.
But sometimes, you don't wanna know... [all laugh]
We haven’t ever done a major market, headlining tour, ever. So really, we don’t know what that would entail. And I don’t think anyone ever exactly knows, unless you’re the biggest band out, because everything depends on the night you’re playing, or who you’re playing with… All of those things always matter, unless you’re beyond that, which is hard to be.
For us, in New York, we did a headlining show – that was a great show; it was really crowded. Those shows were great, and I wish we could do those everywhere, but the reality is, we’re a pretty small band, and we can only do that in some select cities. We’re working on it…
Right now, I think the opening thing is more exciting, just because of the prospect of playing to new people every night, and getting the chance to win over fans.
QRO: You did the cross-country ‘headlining’ tour, then the tour with Ra Ra Riot, now the tour with Art Brut (QRO spotlight on), and right after this, will be touring with OK Go. How are you preventing ‘tour burn-out’?
JK: I don’t know – it just started! This is our first time ever doing a long tour. We don’t really know what it entails.
The way I see it is that, luckily, me & Matt are sharing the singing duties. So it’s not that demanding, ever night, to go out there. Like Wes [Miles - QRO interview] in Ra Ra Riot, he sings the whole show, and he sings for an hour, and he sings high parts. And we are in the lower range of vocals – all of our vocals are kind of low. So really, unless we make a mistake, partying to five in the morning, talking the whole night, drunkenly, we’re usually okay for the shows.
We’ve had pretty good endurance in terms of ‘show stamina’. I think it’s just, psychologically, you really need to take every show one day at a time. Because when we start to look, "Oh my god! We still have another month?!?" That’s when things get scary. And how long our drives are, coming up – you just go, "Okay, we have four hours, then we’ll be at the venue tonight." It’s a lot more manageable.
But it’s been hard. It’s been tiring…
QRO: Are you going to be playing CMJ (QRO recap), or does the tour with Art Brut get in the way of that?
MK: Yeah, we’re not doing that.
JK: We were gonna have two Cake Shop shows during CMJ, but then we cancelled. And they were going to be in the ‘real’ Cake Shop.
But CMJ is a bust, always, because unless you’re the hottest band out in that situation…
DK: No one cares…
JK: it feels like spend a whole lot of money, and do a whole lot of pointless shows. It feels like a scam.
Sometimes we’ve had nice shows there, but the large majority, I think we were looking forward to making some money on touring, not spending a week in New York, not getting paid for shows, and who knows who’s going to show up?
DK: That’s exactly how we all felt. We were kind of relieved. As much as we all love New York, it’s a little economically unfeasible.
QRO: David, you came late then, and were missing at your first show of SXSW 2009 (QRO recap). What’s up with that?…
JK: He’s all straightened out now…
DK: My situation is a little tricky. I’m ‘technically’ currently a UCLA arts student; I’m in my senior year. And it got tricky. But now I’m taking a quarter off.
QRO: Have you played any ‘regular’, outdoor festivals?
JK: Well, I don’t know if they’re called ‘regular’, but we have played outdoor festivals in L.A. But I wouldn’t call them ‘regular festivals’…
BU: They were very small…
QRO: Do you do anything differently outdoors?
JK: I was looking at this video – we did an outdoor show once, and I like went out into the crowd. I think we get sillier, sometimes, at the outdoor shows.
I think outdoor shows, unless you’re playing- well, even The Hollywood Bowl, they all sound like shit. It’s a shitty place to play. Unless you have twelve people and are playing super-loud, it’s gonna sound thin, and the wind is gonna change all the sound.
Playing outside, for us – I don’t remember ever having a really great show outside.
BU: It also can be a little weird, because, if it’s during the day, I think you make a lot of eye contact.
In [indoor] venues, with the lights on, it’s dark – you can kind of get into your own zone, a little bit. But when you’re playing during the day, you just see everyone, for about fifty feet, and make eye contact…
JK: As a rule, I don’t like playing during the day. I think there’s something kind of intimate about playing a show at night. People pay more attention because it’s the correct hour for people to be listening to music. In the morning, to listen to a live concert, I feel like it goes against what your body’s prepared for.
I could be wrong…
QRO: What was making Cocoon of Love like?
MK: It was pretty… I don’t know; I don’t have too many memories from the process.
We just did what we always do when we’re working, which is just recording in our home. So it’s a pretty natural process, just me & Jesse spent a lot of time, working on songs, individually, and then would have Ben & David come in, and add their parts, like on specific days. And then the other days, it was mostly me involved with Jesse, adding arrangements, or recording arrangements for additional parts.
And then that was it. It was pretty simple. A lot of the songs, we had been at least somewhat familiar with for a long time. We ended up recording twenty-one songs or so, and knocked that down to eleven. I thought it was a pretty easy process. As easy as it could be…
QRO: What have you done on tour for female vocals on "Sadie and Andy"?
MK: That’s a good question. We were on tour with Ice Palace for a while- at the beginning, we’d play that song sometimes where I’d just sing both parts. As we were on tour, as we got more comfortable with them, Amy [Hager] sang with us – she sang twice with us.
QRO: She sang it at the Union Hall show…
MK: She didn’t still know it that well. We had just rehearsed it.
But then, on the Ra Ra Riot tour, the first couple of days, I sang it all myself, and after that, every time we did it, me & Ally [Lawn - QRO interview] sang together. Ra Ra Riot knew our record pretty well. Ally was pretty familiar with the song.
QRO: Speaking of "Sadie and Andy", some of your songs have names in them, like also "Martina and Clive Krantz", and "Sylvie". Are any/all of those real people?
MK: ‘Sylvie’s real – she’s my great-aunt.
I wrote this a while ago, maybe three, maybe four, five years ago. This weird concept about my great-aunt and her husband, Saul; it was a story between them two. I knew nothing about them, really – how much do you really know about your grandparents & their lives? You’re not really interested when you’re growing up, maybe they’ll make you cookies; you sort of think of them as this figurehead.
I tried to make this romanticized of this couple, giving them a love life, and some passion in their life that I was never exposed to. It’s a fictional account of real people.
JK: "Martina and Clive", those are characters. There’s truth in that song, it’s just not based on an actual person. "Sadie and Andy" are, is based in reality, but they’re obviously not named ‘Sadie’ and ‘Andy’. The story is actually all-fictional.
I think what I was trying to do with this record, there were a lot of things that I was thinking about wanting to do in life, or thinking neurotic thoughts in my head about what could happen in my life with my relationships with people, and I think the songs allow me to place the life, just have them realized. Have that neurotic fantasy place itself out…
Not ‘erotic’ – ‘neurotic’. I don’t think any of our songs – rarely is there a ‘hero’s ending’ to any of our songs… [laughs]
QRO: What’s up with you guys & Japan?
JK: Those are all Matt’s songs…
MK: I can explain that. We have that song, "Tokyo, Japan" from [A Case of the Emperor's Clothes EP (QRO review)], and "Left My Heart in Nagasaki". The reason I did those songs was because I had this romanticized vision of Japan, Japanese culture through Asian cinema, American cinema. Things that I had seen that intrigued me, beautiful, but I also had no actual experience or knowledge of.
If you read Marco Polo’s histories, they’re all fabrications, tall tales – there’s so much mythology there.
Sometimes that makes for an intriguing setting for a song. That was it – just the idea of a finding place that I found inspiring, that I didn’t know that much about.
QRO: Why did you make a record based on the [famed 1920s literary group,] Bloomsbury Circle [Bloomsbury EP]?
JK: When we were studying in London, I was studying [author & circle member] Virginia Wolff, took a class on her, was interested in a lot of her works. And Matt studied [economist & circle member John Maynard] Keynes in Economics, so we had these two people. Matt had written a song about Keynes, and even before we left for London, I had written a song about Virginia Wolff, just incidentally.
When we were graduating school, we tried to set a modest goal for graduating. Because, ‘After this, we’re going to be busy, we’re going to be getting full-time jobs. I don’t think there’s going to be time to make a full-fledged record.’
A lot of these songs, we already had. A lot of my songs, we had already, for the album, we just didn’t decide to record them; we decided to make an EP. And Matt didn’t want to make an EP that didn’t mean anything, just four songs that we had randomly written. Matt wanted a concept behind the EP, basically, and we already had these two songs, so I was like, "We should just write a few more songs in this vein, and put them together."
Instead of the EP just being a ‘demo’ really – a lot of people make EPs, then songs get recycled on their album. Our EP, none of the songs are on the record; it’s just a thing, onto itself, which is nice. That was just the concept that we were kind of into at the time.
QRO: What was it like, performing it with dancers at Lincoln Center?
JK: Well, it wasn’t really ‘Lincoln Center’ – it was like next to Lincoln Center. It was in Fordham, they have a theater there, the Frick Auditorium.
It was awesome. That was one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had. Because we never get to do what we really want to do, I think, live. Playing a rock ‘n’ roll club is not like ideally what Princeton, where we want to be. If we had endless amounts of success & fame, then what we’d be doing is playing probably in theaters, with an orchestra behind us, with strings, and making it into what the records are.
– it’s impossible to match our ambitions on recording to our show. So we don’t even try. We just do something that’s a simple rock show, whereas, I think it we had an unlimited budget, we do some of different stuff.
Lincoln Center was a chance. Matt wrote this whole original piece, this orchestral piece, just for that. Matt & [producer] Mock spent a shit-load of time on this, literally just for this one show. We have a rough recording, but we’ve never released it, so it was just for this one thing.
It was really awesome to play; we were all dressed up in suits. It was very professional. It felt like where we eventually wanted to be. We weren’t there yet, but it would be nice, one day, to do this as a show. Where we have this whole thing.
QRO: Speaking of universities, you just played Princeton University’s Terrace Club…
JK: That show was crazy.
QRO: Did you just get booked because of the name?
BU: Kind of. They had sent us a message on MySpace a year ago, ‘Hey, you guys should come & play, in Princeton.’ And we told our agent; we were just trying to fill some shows.
The show was madness – it’s hard to explain.
JK: It didn’t start until midnight.
BU: It was probably the latest show we’ve ever played.
JK: The kids don’t come until then. The promoter was like, "We could start earlier than midnight, but no one will be there."
QRO: Did people know your stuff?
BU: Actually, most of the people that came to see us didn’t go to school. They just lived around Princeton and kind of ‘snuck in’. They’re not supposed to come to shows…
JK: There were definitely people who knew our music. It was fun.
QRO: As I told some of you before, I’m actually from Princeton – I’ve done that before…
JK: The Princeton Record Exchange [which previously you recommended] was just amazing. It’s the best record store in the country. It’s the fucking best record store…
That’s the bar, for the country. I’ve been in many record stores, and just the quality of what they have there is amazing. It’s not a particularly ‘looking’ store – it’s kind of a shit-hole, really – but the selection’s awesome, and it’s all reasonably priced. Go there and spend $100 – you’ll get your money’s worth.
QRO: Other than me, has anyone from Princeton ever asked you about the name, given you grief about not being from the town?
JK: All the time. Every day…
We named ourselves ‘Princeton’ because [it was the name] of our street, and it was also a very benign name, at the time. We had been playing around with this name for six years, literally – there was no ‘Ivy League pop music’, that wasn’t a thing. It was a benign name that nobody could think about. ‘Nice, this name doesn’t bother us; we’ll just use it.’
And now it’s a ‘controversial’ name. ‘What are you trying to do with this name?’ It makes no sense – we weren’t trying to do anything subversive or intellectual with the name, at the time. Now, maybe our music has developed in a way where the name sort of fits the band better than it used to, but still, it wasn’t like we sat around, ‘How can we…’
I can’t believe how many people ask us this, constantly, every show – even during the show, some people yell out, "How’d you get the name Princeton?"
QRO: Usually, I never ask bands where they got their name, but this one time I made an exception [because I'm from Princeton]…
JK: An inordinate amount of people are from Princeton…
QRO: Do you ever worry people will think you’re all hoity-toity, what with a Bloomsbury record, being named ‘Princeton’, etc.?
JK: Yeah, I think we get that all the time, but I just don’t care anymore.
We shouldn’t be given any shit for it. There’s a million bands that are in scenes, that it’s just not an issue. There’s a million lo-fi bands, and no one cares. Maybe some people care, but it’s not something- I feel like, any sort of intellectual, any attempt to make anything lofty or ambitious, is always, people are second-guessing what you’re doing.
Instead of, if you’re just writing a song about smoking or fucking, that’s okay – even though that’s totally derivative & contrived, if you try to do anything ambitious or intellectual, that’s automatically seen as, ‘We need to examine this, how many bands are doing this, where’s the sincerity here?’ Well, where’s the sincerity in lo-fi bands talking about fucking? It’s a joke. The kids don’t even care.
MK: I agree. The problem I have with a lot of the way music is viewed right now, anybody who tries to do anything ambitious has problems being called ‘pretentious’, because, somehow, this disconnects them from the ‘rock ‘n’ roll spirit’ or whatever that people are hanging onto.
I think that people who just go, ‘That’s being pretentious,’ or ‘That’s too precious for me’ – they can have their opinion, but I think that it’s really a cop-out. To be able make simple, primal music, for it to be authentic, has to be made by simple, primal people. Most of the time, these people are intellectuals who decided to make simple, primal music. How is that not self-aware?
We’re doing what inspires us, and other people who inspire us have gone a similar route, in terms of making ambitious music. Scott Walker, David Bowie (QRO album review) – these are guys who’ve evolved in their career, who’ve made things where people said, ‘Wow – I can’t believe you’re doing that. That seems maybe over-the-top…’
But I think that’s the only real way to go. You fuck up some times, for sure…
QRO: So the next step is a ‘rock opera’?… [laughs]
JK: That’s a fake, intellectual thing – ‘We’re going to make a rock-opera!’ That’s something pop-punk bands do.
I think people should make music that inspires them. Whatever that is. Whether that is writing an ambitious record, or a really simple one.
It’s when people are inspired by the success of other bands. ‘That’s not that hard; I can do this, so I’m going to do it.’ That kind of attitude, I think, sometimes slips into music. You can’t really knock the music, because maybe it sounds okay, maybe it’s got the right aesthetic, but it’s all style, no substance.
With any sort of intellectual songs or songwriting, at the very least, like the songs or don’t like the songs. Because, at the end of the day, I think that’s what matters. If somebody relates to a record, and wants to keep listening to it, that’s gonna get them to come back.
But if they don’t, at the end of the day, that’s really what matters. We can write a really intelligent record, but if it doesn’t relate to anybody – it has to work on multiple levels. Sometimes it does for people, sometimes it doesn’t.
People that bother me are not the people that it doesn’t work for – it’s the people who don’t even listen. They just hear a snippet and they go, ‘I don’t like this band,’ or because they don’t like the name. It’s just people being lazy.
QRO: See, I first listened to you because of the name…
JK: You’re the first guy who wanted to listen to us because of the name.
QRO: Jesse, what’s like, having moved from working at music PR company Force Field (Dan Deacon, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Fun Fun Fun Fest) to being one of the bands it represents?
JK: It’s nice – it’s really nice. I really feel proud of myself that I’ve moved from- ‘cause Daniel [Gill, head of Force Field PR] is an honest guy. He wouldn’t have worked our record if he didn’t like it. To Daniel’s credit, he really only works things that he likes, so I knew that if he didn’t feel like the record was right, for them, he never would have done it as a favor to me. Even though we’ve become good friends, he would have never done the record. He would have just said it was a conflict of interest – because it easily was. So the fact that he’s doing it, and I think he’s a really good publicist – we’ve worked with a few, and I think he’s the best we’ve worked with – it’s great.
And I’m really happy to not being doing it anymore, because it wasn’t right for me. I only really cared about working my music, and not-
[laughs] And then, when we get to a point where we can help other bands, I’d love to help other bands, but we’re definitely not at that point. And working at Force Field was very difficult for me, knowing that I should have been spending more time on my band.
But it’s been a great transition. We left on real good terms, and we’re still great friends. I’m just really happy to not be submerged in music PR all day. There’s a lot of anxiety – you’re always hearing about other bands getting features & doing things. It’s just too much. I just wanted to limit how many bands I was hearing about a day.
I think you need to operate in a bubble. If you’re constantly too much involved in the music scene, to a point where you’re aware of everything going on, it will affect your music. It may be positive, but if I had to guess, it’d make you second-guess yourself.
QRO: Are there any songs you particularly like playing live?
JK: "Left My Heart In Nagasaki" – that’s my favorite live.
Just in terms of the crowd, I think "Korean War Memorial" and "Shout It Out", the last two, are pretty fun, just in the way me & Matt-
QRO: What happened with "Shout It Out" at the Union Hall show? Something with the drum machine?
JK: Oh, yeah – it broke.
BU: There were a lot of sound problems at that show. The whole show was feeding back.
JK: That’s venue (QRO review) is too small for us. In terms of our set up, I think we had too much going on for them to handle. Their soundsystem was not working well with us.
And Ben was like, "Fuck it! David…" Or was it me?…
BU: I don’t know. I remember not wanting- when you’re having sound problems, the last thing you want to do is bring another element into the mix.
Princeton playing "Shout It Out", with David filling in for the drum machine, live at Union Hall in Brooklyn, NY on September 9th, 2009:
JK: We did that at Brandeis. You could tell the set-up was crappy, so he was just like, ‘David, just play it,’ not bothering with the drum machine. ‘Cause it can totally kill the song if it sounds like crap. That’s what happened on that song
But sometimes, I feel, mistakes can bring a band closer; that’s what I thought that was like. At Union Hall, I thought the drum machine not working was something that brought everybody more involved in the song. That David picked up where it left off.
QRO: You mentioned Brandeis [University] – do you guys play a lot of colleges?
JK: Just the odd day off.
BU: We want to do more, because they treat you well.
JK: But they’re weird – the thing is, college kids take for granted these shows. They get these big budgets, so they pay you more than you’re worth, but, then, the kids are just like, ‘Oh, it’s a free show, and it’s two feet from my dorm room. I’ll just see the show & go back.’ It’s harder to get real fans, instead of those for who it’s ‘convenient’. No one buys merchandise – it’s a different attitude.
But some of them – the Princeton [University show was great. If they were all like that, I think it would be fun. It feels like an entirely different show, playing at a college, than at a regular venue. The sound is always horrible...
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
JK: We tried to sleep in the van the other night...
DK: We were going from North Carolina to New York, and we wanted to get a jumpstart on the long, long drive the next day. I agreed to drive a few hours that night, and then we'd get a hotel room. As I'm driving, a few hours in, I realize it was not safe for me to be driving - I was falling asleep at the wheel.
So we pull over, we look it up, and there's no hotels in the area, everything's booked - nothing for like an hour-and-a-half. So we pull into a truck stop, and decide we're just going to sleep in the van.
We get our sleeping bags out, and we're all bundled up, recline the seats - and, ten minutes later, we're like, ‘Alright - this isn't working out...’ So we got up, and [Jesse] drove another hour-and-a-half.
JK: And that was the time Princeton slept in the van…
DK: It was the middle of the night, and we were all half awake, half asleep, and very delirious. It ended up being kind of a bonding experience.