interview by Michael McCarthy
In 2011 I read a review of Puro Instinct’s Headbangers in Ecstacy album that made me curious about it, so I went to iTunes and listened to a couple of the snippets and then, well, I was done for. I simply had to buy it! It didn’t matter that I was completely broke at the time. Fortunately, my checking account didn’t bounce, but I wouldn’t have minded very much if it had. I was in love with the album and listening to it frequently. Although I would call the album dream pop, I actually wasn’t a big fan of the genre at the time. You could say it was too dreamy for me. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. There was something more accessible about Puro Instinct. Perhaps Piper Kaplan (vocals, etc) and Skylar Kaplan (guitar, etc) were more slightly pop than dreamy. In any case, their songs struck a chord with me, Piper’s voice gentle and comforting as silk sheets while Skylar’s guitars weaved me into a state of hypnosis. Suffice to say, I loved the album. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately, too, since it’s the next thing that comes up on iTunes after their brilliant new album Autodrama and I can’t bring myself to stop it once it starts. This time around the duo are definitely more in the pop vein, songs like “Tell Me” and “Six of Swords” evoking Blondie while some songs, like “Scorpio Rising” and “Babylon,” split the difference between new wave and synth pop. They’re as catchy as they are mesmerizing. If you want something with hooks, you’ve got it, but you can easily zone out to the album as well. Working on my new novel, I just let the music take me away whenever I’m stumped. It leads my mind into a magical place, never failing to induce euphoria. I feel like I’m taking a magic carpet ride as it dissolves my frustations and ultimately leaves me feeling renewed and ready to get back to the writing. It’s just what the doctor ordered and it can cure your ills as well. (Just remember who prescribed it!) Not to mention, “End of an Era” and “Autodrama” are prefect tunes for your summer playlist, delicious mid-tempo tracks you can insert between the high energy dance tracks and the occasional ballad.
MM: I was just looking at the Headbangers In Ecstasy album cover, and I’ve seen it a million times from having listened to the album so much, but I only just now noticed the rabbit on the cover. Was it your pet?
PK: No, it wasn’t a pet, but it’s actually a pretty crazy coincidence because we had talked about how we really wanted to have a bunny in the promos because they’re magical animals and they’re good luck, and ya know, the white rabbit takes you into some really crazy places if you let him. But, anyways, yeah, we ended up shooting the cover at a totally different place than we had planned to shoot originally and there just happened to be a cute little bunny hanging at the house. It kind of just crawled onto the bed while we were shooting and made itself at home. [Both laugh]
MM: That’s cool. So, it just randomly ended up in a photo?
PK: Everything is really random with us. It’s never intended. For better or worse.
MM: Headbangers and Autodrama both have a Los Angeles/Hollywood theme. Which one is the least pessimistic? Or the most optimistic, if you prefer to look at it that way?
PK: I don’t really prefer to look at it that way. I would say that both are just a snapshot of where we were at at that time. And I think that life is a nice mixed bag of both negative and positive, optimistic and pessimistic, pleasure and pain.
MM: How has your opinion of Hollywood changed as you’ve gotten older?
PK: I guess I sort of have a better understanding of how things work in LA, and that it’s pretty lawless and whatever you want to do here is essentially ok as long as you stay in your lane, you know?
MM: Yeah, sure. When you think of LA or Hollywood what are the first few thoughts or memories that come to mind?
PK: Angelyne cruising around in her pink Corvette. Dennis Woodruff in his hand painted station wagon that was covered in film reels and other debris from movie sets. Definitely the Shakespeare Bridge, which is in Los Feliz. What else? You know, Sunset Boulevard. PCH. All the hits. Hollywood hits.
MM: I lived out there in Glendale for a few years myself.
PK: Me, too. That’s where a lot of the demos of Autodrama were born in this weird ramshackle home that I was living in in Glendale.
MM: Where do you live now?
MM: Did you ever dream of being an actress when you were growing up?
PK: No. I didn’t. I never wanted to be an actress. [Laughs] I actually always wanted to be a singer.
MM: How old were you when you decided you wanted to be a professional musician?
PK: Um, I still don’t know if I want to be a professional musician. Sounds like a lot of work… [Laughs]
MM: You started recording Autodrama while you were touring in Australia for a month. Was it weird being there in a foreign country and writing songs about back at home?
PK: We actually didn’t start recording Autodrama there. A lot of Autodrama was written at my house in Glendale at the time. We started demoing “Peccavi,” “End of an Era,” “Six of Swords” and then with the other half some of it, like “Tell Me,” I would say maybe came to be while we were in Australia. There were Autodrama melodies floating around our minds in Australia, but all of it started to take shape once we got back home.
MM: How popular are you in Australia?
PK: I don’t know. In what respect?
MM: Well, are you more well-known than you are in the States?
PK: Probably not. I mean, I don’t think we’re known anywhere. [Laughs]
MM: I wouldn’t say that. I think a lot of people are aware of you. What are your plans to tour behind the new album? In terms of the US and anywhere else?
PK: Well, we hope to get as far from Los Angeles as possible and bring our music to as many people out of this zone as possible. So far, we have a North American tour booked and we’re working on getting some stuff going overseas and once it’s a little more set in stone I’ll be able to expound on that a bit more.
MM: Can I just ask you – are you coming to Boston?
PK: We’re playing at Great Scott on July third. We’ve got 19, 24 dates coming up.
MM: Cool. That’s the area that we’re out of. Do you have any particular Boston memories?
PK: Oh, yeah, actually. One time we played – do you know who Bobb Trimble is?
PK: He’s a really awesome outsider fantasy dream-rock guy. He’s made some really amazing albums. One of them is called Iron Curtain Innocence and the other one I love is called Harvest Of Dreams. Really good. But, yeah, we were playing at Middle East and kids were getting rowdy. I don’t know why. We were on tour with Ariel and Bobb Trimble came out to see the band. Some kids got into a fight with the bouncer and the bouncer threw this person straight across the room and Bobb Trimble pulled me out of the way a split second before this guy torpedoed into me. Unfortunately, when I moved this guy flew headfirst into a garbage can. [Laughs] It was pretty insane. It was classic Boston vibes. People getting really hammered and fighting each other. [Laughs]
MM: We do have a reputation for that.
PK: Hey, you know, we’ve all got a reputation for something.
MM: Are you going to be headlining on your tour?
PK: No, we’re supporting a band called Fear of Men. Very stoked.
MM: If you could choose between doing a tour like that or opening for someone hugely popular like Katy Perry or Selena Gomez, which would you choose?
PK: Katy Perry. I love Katy Perry. I don’t agree with everything that Katy Perry does, but I love her music.
MM: I do, too. I went to see her on her last tour.
PK: She’s great. She’s amazing.
MM: Your new album opens with a track called “Panarchy,” which Wikipedia describes as a form of governance where individuals would be able to choose their own form of government without moving from where they were. Is that what you meant by it?
PK: Oh, Panarchy is also like a theory that basically, long story short, kind of favors the most creative and resourceful species. The ones that can adapt to crisis and chaos and unlivable circumstances. I think that was like a central theme of Autodrama. It’s resilience in the face of completely crushing adversity and just kind of being able to smile about it. Having a good time while having a bad time. Thriving in spite of everything kind of working against you and processing it as helpful versus harmful, because it contributes to your personal evolution. Struggle is strengthening. Another thing about “Panarchy,” sonically is that there’s a lot of chaotic panning going on, which was actually the thing that originally inspired me. After Headbangers we were starting to get into production more and playing with the idea of just having everything be like this shambolic, chaotic dreamscape that was kind of more like stream of consciousness and linear or whatever. The line “no stars in the sky tonight to guide me to the morning light” was sort of referential to the notion that we’re all living in darkness and it’s up to every one of us to seek the light that will take us to where we want to be in life.
MM: It kind of reminds me of the philosophy of Viktor Frankl. He was a concentration camp survivor and he basically said that we can choose to suffer in our way, that type of thing. That we’re alone in our suffering but, I guess, to make the most of things. For him, the thing that got him through was that he wanted to write this book Man’s Search For Meaning, and knowing that he had that goal, he was kind of mentally composing the book in his head and that desire to create was one of the things that drove him through it.
PK: Totally. The desire to make the most and the best out of anything that you have [to face], regardless of how hopeless it seems.
MM: The second song on the album is called “Peccavi.” And I looked it up on Google translate and it said it was a Latin word meaning “I have sinned.” Is that what you meant by it?
PK: Yeah, it’s a confession of guilt or sin. You know, “I’m sorry that I tried, I’m sorry that I failed, and I’m sorry that I’m not ready to give up anytime soon” .. The song is inspired by the personal and professional setbacks and total disillusionment with the music industry we were experiencing at the time. There was a lot of strain and pressure and extraneous bullshit to contend with but you just gotta stay in the ring, I guess, right?
MM: The music industry is definitely in a weird state right now.
PK: Yeah, I don’t even know if it exists anymore. Does it? [Both laugh]
MM: It’s bizarre, that’s for sure.
PK: It’s a fantasy. It’s a mirage.
MM: The only good thing about it is that less people are getting super famous and rich, but more people are able to have a voice. There’s so many indie artists now that you can’t even count them all.
PK: Yeah, no, it’s great. I think collaboration is so much easier and creating is easier and that’s a really beautiful thing.
MM: Is that a flute in “Six of Swords”?
PK: It’s a synth pan flute. It’s an old stand-by for me. I’m really into any and all flute-related sounds and I’m hoping that at some point I take it upon myself to learn how to actually play. Our friend Courtney, who designs all of our – I don’t know if you’ve seen it – we have a lot of glass stuff that we wear and she designs all of it by hand. And she’s also an amazing floutist and she’s very punk rock about it, I don’t think she’s classically trained, but it sounds great. I want to have her teach me.
MM: What instruments do you play?
PK: I play synth, mostly, and I sing. I would say my voice is probably my most…
PK: I guess, yeah, probably my most profound, but I do play synth and I’m OK at bass. I can play bass as a means to an end, to write stuff for Puro. I can’t play in anyone’s Steely Dan cover band.
MM: Is “Six of Swords” a reference to the tarot card?
MM: What meaning does that card hold for you?
PK: Six of Swords, to me, is kind of like moving on from a situation that doesn’t really hold any value or is just too painful to maintain. It’s also about seeking something better than where you’re at currently.
MM: Are you very knowledgeable about tarot?
PK: I know a few things. I don’t charge people for readings, but I like to help people figure out what’s going on with themselves if they ask.
MM: I recently saw a psychic for the first time and she did tarot cards and it was unbelievable, the things she knew about me from it. It was amazing.
PK: I know a really gifted woman out here named Ava. She’s definitely someone I’d recommend to anyone looking for a game-changer.
MM: One of your songs, “Stilyagi,” had a Russian title and you have the Latin one on the new album. Do you speak any foreign languages?
PK: No… Sky speaks French really well though! I feel like words kind of find me, and I feel like this must happen for Sky as well. You know like we’ll randomly open a book and find exactly what we’re looking for without knowing exactly what that may be, but being able to identify it very clearly when it appears. Does that make sense? I think with “Peccavi,” I don’t even remember how I found that word but it was totally exactly what I needed to read in order to finish the lyrics for that song. With “Stilyagi,” we discovered this whole universe of Russian rock that was very inspiring because of how dangerously illegal it was to play any music or congregate in anyway that was considered anti-establishment or counter-culture or whatever at that time in the Soviet Union. People were going to jail, getting beaten up, and ostracized socially for making underground cassettes and providing a space for punk youth to congregate. That’s super insane, but also super romantic and admirable to think that people would risk life and limb to create this new scene for themselves. I remember sifting through the punk/new wave music section at this book store in Pasadena in 2009 and finding this book called Back in the USSR and seeing a picture of Viktor Tsoi and his band KINO, and thinking “oh shit, these guys are my people.” I found a lot of the personal values that Sky and I and a lot of our friends admire in the dissident culture of the USSR, and I felt a very strong connection musically as well. There were a lot of surprising similarities between Puro songs we were working on and Ariel Pink’s music and John Maus’s stuff and the music that I was discovering had been made 20-30 years prior by Russian punks on bootleg cassettes in closets and basements. “Stilyagis” actually came before the russian new wave and punk scene happened, but they def laid the foundation for the kids later, but it was funny for me to call the song “Stilyagi” cuz it means “hipster” and was a way of passing off these rebel kids as nothing more than fashionable and vapid. At the time I was kind of feeling a similar sense of alienation and wanted to write a song about this New Wave hero who would blow into town and shake everything up, you know? He’s this visionary guy with the ability to usher the kids into this whole new experience, but he’s getting the shaft because the majority of people are too narrow-minded to see the gift they’re being handed. Anyways, Stilyagi’s still fighting the good fight, and as Freddy K once told me “The war has been won, but we’re still fighting battles everyday”…
MM: I listen to a lot of music in foreign languages myself, especially French because I know some of that, but I’ll listen to stuff in any language.
PK: Same here.
MM: How does the songwriting process usually go with you and Skylar? Where do you usually start?
PK: It really varies. For example, “Tell Me” was like this melody that was kind of floating around in my head for months. Literally, there’s like fifty versions of it that we tried to produce and make sound as beautiful as the message we were hoping to get across. It took a long time to get that to happen, but lyrically and melodically – vocal-wise – the song was there. So, we just built the track around that. Sky programmed the drum machine and added guitar melodies and I did the keys and other soundscapey stuff. Other songs will start with guitar or a beat or whatever, it’s always different. Just sitting in a room and tracking it all that way and then in the case of Autodrama sending tracks to our friend Sam Mehran to co-produce with us. We also got to go to New York to mix this record with Eric Gorman, who was engineering at The Magic Shop. This gave us access to a lot of the same gear that some of our heroes like Bowie and Blondie used, which was pretty fucking unfathomable and amazing after all of the hell that we went through to get this record to exist.
MM: Did you re-record them there?
PK: We actually had him mix what we had already tracked, but he went through and worked a lot of magick on what we gave him. He’s a legit analog alchemist and it was really fun to watch him dial everything in.
MM: So, you and Sky basically produced the new album yourselves?
PK: Yeah, we co-produced it with Sam Mehran. After we delivered something substantial for him to work with and assess the vibe, he added whatever he felt would take it to a radder place. Sam’s a total genius and really tasteful.
MM: What programs did you use when you tracked it and stuff?
PK: I don’t know if Skylar wants me to tell.
PK: We’re down for whatever. Honestly, we wish we’d just gone into a studio and recorded it from scratch with Eric. Had Sky, Sam and I been able to record with him that would have been ideal because it just sounds so much fatter and it’s way more fun to make records that way. We’re still really stoked with how one turned out.
MM: You have a few guests on the album. Ariel Pink, Franco Falsini of Sensations Fix, and Richard “Sax” Ross. What songs did each of them contribute to and what were their contributions?
PK: On “Panarchy,” Franco played guitar. He played one of the leads, but there’s a lot of leads on that, so that probably doesn’t help much. Courtney Garvin plays flute, Richard Ross plays sax, and Eric Gorman played drums on that one too. On “Tell Me” Ariel plays the rhythm guitar. On “Six of Swords,” Sam Mehran added some sick drums. There was a week where Skylar and I just let Sam and Ariel have at it with some of the finishing touches. We’d listen to new mixes and not really know what had been added to the mix but with Ariel you can always tell he’s in the mix because everything he does is so Ariel, you know?
MM: At the end of our interviews we always ask some random questions. Is that cool?
MM: What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
PK: Hmm. Oh, man. Let’s see. [Laughs] This is from Tom Rizzo – he wasn’t saying this to me – he was saying it in general. “By the time I’m done doing what you said I wasn’t going to be able to do, I won’t even let you kiss my ass. You’ll have to kiss my feet.” I think that’s pretty good. Also “hold onto your love”, “keep your dreams” and “let the snakes crinkle their heads to death”.
MM: How popular would you ideally like to be? There’s massive popularity like Adele and then there’s people who are moderately popular like Neko Case. Where on the spectrum would you like to be?
PK: I don’t know. I want to be comfortable in life. Thinking about that kind of stuff gives me anxiety. [Laughs] I hope we inspire people to do their thing and pursue their dreams …
MM: It’s funny you say that because I’m working on a novel right now and I’ve been listening to the album almost constantly while I’ve been writing it. So, it’s definitely inspired me.
PK: That’s awesome. Thank you!!
MM: What was your biggest indulgence this month?
PK: I drank a lot of champagne and negronis this month! I had some friends in town from New York and Paris. Eric Gorman as well as Sébastien Tellier and our friend Marc the owner of Record Makers (who put out “Headbangers” in Europe and the rest of the world) came out to record some stuff for Sébastien’s new record. Sky and I were invited to sing on one of the tracks and ended up drinking a lot more than usual! Was a really fun time and Seb’s new tracks are bangin’!
MM: Last question. If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to a charity or cause and it could only go to one, which one would you give it to?
PK: We would definitely want to do something for the kids, man! The impoverished youth of America need access to free art and music programs. I feel like if you don’t have rich parents or live in a country where they hand out grants like candy, you’re kind of left to your own devices. For Skylar and I, music was a complete savior from a lot of really damaging experiences and I think every young person should have access to that. To be able to just go somewhere communal and pick up a guitar and jam with some friends or paint, or do whatever their heart is telling them to do at that time, and not have to pay to play. I think that’s really important, and we’d love to be involved with creating a space like that for young people.
06/30 – Washington, DC – DC9 *
07/01 – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s *
07/02 – New York, NY – The Bowery Ballroom *
07/03 – Allston, MA – Great Scott *
07/05 – Montreal, QC – Bar Le “Ritz” P.D.B. *
07/06 – Toronto, ON – The Garrison *
07/08 – Chicago, IL – Schubas Tavern *
07/09 – Minneapolis, MN – 7th Street Entry *
07/12 – Seattle, WA – Sunset Tavern *
07/13 – Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios *
07/15 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish American Hall *
07/17 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo *
07/19 – San Diego, CA – The Hideout *
07/20 – Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar *
07/22 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada *
07/23 – Austin, TX – Barracuda *
07/25 – Atlanta, GA – The Masquerade *
07/26 – Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle *
07/27 – Baltimore, MD – Ottobar *
* = w/Fear of Men
Extra special thanks to Piper for taking the time to chat! Special thanks also to Daniel at Forcefield PR for putting us in touch!
Order Autodrama on Amazon. To be released June 24, 2016.