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The Academy Is…

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This article appears on Subba Cultcha.

The Academy Is are living in fast times. Returning with album number 3 in 3 and a half years, the high school inspired ‘Fast Times At Barrington High’, the Chicago boys followed recording in the the city that never sleeps with a summer on the breakneck, alt, summer juggernaut  The Warped Tour before bringing their summer hair to good old Blighty. Catching up the day after their uproarious Islington Academy show the band cut a frenetic bunch, wired with the departure hall clarity of the constant traveller and an engaging eagerness usually reserved for bands on their debut turn of the promotional roller coaster. With ‘Fast Times…‘ only days old in UK stores there’s a genuine hunger to discuss what exactly the academy is right now and where they are headed in the future.

“It was a great show, we had a lot of fun,” exclaims front man William Beckett looking back to the previous nights exertions, “We’re playing a steady mix of songs of all the records, and it’s fun to play the new songs. Some of the new songs  the energy was actually higher than of some of the older songs, which was very exciting for us.”  ‘Fast Times…’ is very much a coming of age record for The Academy Is, they’ve steadily built on the pop punk foundations of  debut ‘Almost Here’ and follow up ‘Santi’ to flesh out their sound. The songs are up another level, Beckett and co choosing to deal with their own personal coming of age to soundtrack the bands, taking themselves back to the cusp of the real world and those heady last days of school with songs such as ‘Summer Hair=Young Forever’ and ’After The Last Midtown Show’ perfectly sound tracking the fall of youth and that last summer of true freedom. The energy levels are ferocious and ’Fast Times…’ packs a punch like a Chuck Palahniuk script, that in no small part pays tribute to the surroundings in which it was created. “For ‘Almost Here’ we recorded in St Cloud Florida, which is where all the old folks go to retire,” recalls Beckett eliciting a discussion about Cocoon and Cocoon 2 that somehow triggers the age old Gofather vs. Godfather 2 debate, “then for ‘Santi’ we were in LA, but for the whole vibe of ‘Fast Times…’ we wanted to be somewhere more high energy and New York is definitely like that, especially as we were right in the hub of all the movement.” “New York is a very cool experience, it’s a lot like London where you can walk down the street and  hear all these different languages being spoken, much different from Los Angeles,” adds bassist Adam T Siska, “I mean I like Los Angeles as a place to hang out but New York proved to be a more exciting place to get creative and make a record.” It’s certainly a decision that has paid off and the energy that bubbles on New Yorks streets has seeped onto tape and helped fulfil Becketts statement that the most important thing for this record going into the studio was “to create an energetic, dynamic, fun record.” For a band who count 2 countries and four US cities as their hometowns this nomadic existence seems to fit perfectly and the band have no plan of deviating from this notion that they will travel wherever they need to go to capture each record as they hear it inside. “It was perfect making this record in New York, but for another album it could be perfect to record in Chicago, or even here in London I mean that’s been spoken about too.  It all depends on the type of record we’re setting out to make. These days you can pretty much make a record anywhere but we were lucky that we found this great place that had a drum room that we really liked and also another that had some guitar rooms that really captured what we were looking for, but it was a great thing that we got to make a record in a studio like that as day by day these studios are disappearing and folding, so we made an album in some great studios that may not exist next year,” laments Beckett.

It’s never really been in doubt that one of the key differences between UK and US bands is the sheer audacity of the work ethic that US bands have impressed into them from inception. Whilst many UK bands know that if you conquer London you conquer the country US bands are faced with the sheer scale of their own country from the off. The Academy Is are no exception and they have set a blistering album, tour tour album tour album tour tour tour schedule for themselves that they have thrived under, yet for all this they still seem to be able to write progressively developing albums. “Well we had some ideas kicking around after (‘Santi’)…and Michael had a bunch of music floating around, were any of those musical demos from before, before?” Enquires beckett swivelling round to guitarist Michael Guy Chislett. “No, I don’t think so, ‘Automatic Eyes’ we’d had around for a while,” notes the affable Aussie guitarist. “It’s crazy to think back that far, like some of the early demos Michael would send me a music file,” enthuses Beckett before cracking a wry smile, “not like a manila envelope!” “The thing about ‘Fast Times…’ is that whether a song was a result of a musical idea that Michael had or Butcher (Drummer) had or I came up with on my own, regardless we stripped it down to acoustic for the song writing for melodic purposes. I wanted to make sure each song could stand on it’s two legs, alone as acoustic tracks. Which is pretty similar to how ‘Almost Here’ was written where as ‘Santi’ was a more jammy album,” continues Beckett, “this ones more focused, not to say anything bad about ‘Santi’, just this in it’s nature is a more focused album, and the songs from every guitar note to every drum beat, it’s all very much intentional and we spent a lot of time having those conversations and perfecting our own parts separately. There was a lot of trust on this album as far as how much we trusted each other as musicians.” Asked if they feel that ‘Fast Times…’ is a step closer to a perfect album in The Academy Is collective head and Beckett quickly responds, “absolutely, yea,” before Chislett explains how the band are already well into the process of creating ‘Fast Times…’ successor. “We handed this in like 4 months ago now and so we’ve already been  talking about it (Where to head next) and there’s already a whole bunch of stuff I’d take to another level if I had the chance. It’s funny because we started the initial ideas of  or at least conceiving the ideas of this album maybe 2 or 3 months after ‘Santi’ came out There are so many good bands releasing albums once a year now that it’s very important for us to keep in that creative mindset. But, yeah, I definitely think that we are getting closer and closer to what we’re trying to ultimately achieve musically.”

The band have spent 3 moths on the Warped Tour carousing across the States for a relentless schedule of shows, but this year like 2004 before it is election year and whilst not overtly a political band The Academy Is, like every US band currently touring are almost obliged to confirm their opinions in regard to the upcoming election. In 2004 there was a massive groundswell of musicians trying to energise the young vote against the Bush regime spearheaded by Warped Tour associates such as Green Day and Blink 182 and whilst they did encourage more young people to the ballot the ultimate result is recorded in the history books. On the cusp of one of the most divisive and important elections in history The Academy Is got to observe the mood across America. “Well there wasn’t much support for the Republican candidate,” says Beckett, “I mean you pretty much only say people openly supporting Barrack Obama. I think most young people are rallying behind Obama.” “I think just creative people as well,” notes Chislett. “As a musician I was reading the article about whats on their iPods, and Barrack Obama talks about how much he loves that song ‘Maggies Farm’ by Bob Dylan, and you know I’d much rather vote for guy who’s the Bob Dylan fan and a fan of Rock and Roll,” adds Siska before Beckett sums up why the mood of hope is back, “it was difficult in 04 because there wasn’t really a candidate. I mean John Kerry, are you really going to get behind John Kerry? The thing about Barrack Obama is that he’s such a symbol for youth and for change, I think it’s very important that people are hopeful  about the future and it’s very hard to be hopeful about the future when you have the potential to have what would be the oldest President in History coupled with the most conservative people period in Sarah Palin, and there’s such  contrasting opinions on so many issues it will be interesting to see what happens, and we can only do as much as we can to influence that. But overall with our album and everything we didn’t want to talk about politics because it’s such a fleeting thing. All we can do is stay as well informed as we can, it’s so far beyond our control that all we can really do is try and stay focused on the things in our own lives that we can control and we can deal with and that’s what the album is really about.”

As far as those things go for The Academy Is they include such activities as filming videos at the same High School as movie namesake ‘Fast Times at Ridgemount High’ and maintaining the vital and intimate relationship with their fans through their websites brilliant vidcast TAITV. With their most accomplished album to date in the bags and the seeds of the next record already in play there’s no danger of the times slowing down for The Academy Is.

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Pop Levi Interview Full Transcript

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A version of this interview appears in the september issue of Beat Happening.

Pop Levi, raconteur, philanderer and explorer. Resembling a sonic Dorian Gray in the process of administering Purple Rain era Prince a Droogesque kicking the ex Ladytron man has been busying himself around the mansions and streets of LA concocting material for the follow up to his 2006 solo debut ‘The Return To Form Black Magick Party’. Recorded in the studio Quincy Jones used to walk Jacko through ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ Levi has returned with a shimmering, groove addled, pure pop dirty bomb, tracks ‘Wannamamma’ (surely a noodle advert waiting to happen) and ‘Semi-babe’ providing perfect sun dried pop intelligencia. Here he offers a little insight into the mechanics of the Levi mind.

Ok to get things started can you set the scene by telling us how this new album came into being? How did recording ‘Never Never Love’ differ to ‘ The Return to Form Black Magick Party’? From writing to recording? Was it a more arduous process or did you find this album easier/more organic?

I made ‘The Return To Form Black Magick Party’ entirely on my laptop whilst I was traveling in America and Europe. Recording was done on trains, in planes, in warehouses, on the top of Cathedrals, at the beach, in bathrooms, hotel rooms and tombs. I made sure to capture the first take of everything I recorded and then took the tracks to Sacramento to be mixed. Then I wanted to make a record in a very different way and so ‘Never Never Love’ was recorded at Westlake in Hollywood, where Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson laid down Thriller. I wanted this record to sound like Japanese toys falling in and out of love with each other so I spent four months making sure to comb almost any human element out of the music until I ended up with some kind of automatic, artificial soul.

When you approach the recording do you go into the studio with the material 100% finished or is there a lot of studio evolution?

The songs are always finished. I write the music and lyrics for my songs in my head, with no accompaniment. Years ago I thought about the idea of using the memory as a quality filter – I figured that if I could remember a song six months later then there must be, by definition, something memorable about it. And that’s what I’m looking for in a song. Once in the studio, I have a very clear idea of how I want to produce the song, what sounds I want to create, how I want it to feel and how I’d like people to feel when they hear it. But, of course, there are always surprises that happen along the way and I like to keep these, too. Surprises make intention more real.

You’re quoted as saying, “It had blue skies, palm trees, and they’ve made some serious records here”, about LA when you visited with Ladytron and realised you wanted to live there. Did that inform your choice of studios for this record and did you feel a sense of that tradition and legacy when you were working there? There are definite Jackson and Prince-esque inflections to this record production and sound, alongside the Brian Wilsonisms.

I love Los Angeles. It’s a truly weird place. And in so many ways. You’d have to spend a great deal of time here to really get to what’s good about it. But ever since I was a kid it was a dream of mine to make a record in a famed Hollywood studio, and this time I did it. I don’t think that any particular way of recording is better than any other – it’s just makes for a different approach and therefore a different outcome. Never Never Love was made with the same microphones, the same mixing desk, the same speakers, the same piano and in the same room where they made the most successful record so far in history and that made a marked impact on how I put the record together.

The video for Semi-Babe, where you worked with Aaron Willmer & Martin Dobson, is something a little different. Can you talk me through how that came to be and what you try and achieve with videos for your songs. It reminded me of the Flaming Lips Album where you have 4 discs you are supposed to play simultaneously!

l’ve known Martin Dobson for a while now and when he and his cousin Aaron Willmer approached me with the idea of shooting a dual-screen video for YouTube I jumped at the chance. I love ideas like this and was sad I didn’t come up with it myself! I flew to London from LA to shoot this and we completed it in an hour. I always like my videos to have a very simple premise – this way the spotlight is on the performance, the clothes, the look.

On the video note, you have always been very hands on with your YouTube site, updating regularly and you’ve talked about a desire to make films before, is that something thats still very much alive and could you see yourself moving from music into film in the future..and in what capacity? Directing? Writing? Acting?

I moved to Los Angeles to make film as well as music. I like the idea of becoming a cult film director out of a singer and music producer. It’s not a move many have achieved before. I’ve been making short films for years now and have maybe 100 in my catalogue right now. I’ve been developing cinematic techniques that incorporate a DIY mentality – I’m in love with the fact that with a laptop and a point-and-shoot camera you can make cinema that people all over the world can view in their own homes with-in the time it takes to upload. That is the future of artistic freedom right there.

You once penned that blogging and the boxing career of Miles Davis were all you thought about… but what’s preoccupying the Pop mind currently?

The boxing career of Miles Davis, I told you already.

How are the songs translating live? I know you’ve been playing a few solo acoustic sets how have they been. What’s the scene like in LA right now?

Pass.

You’ve picked up some pretty eclectic celebrity fans and plaudits along the way.. do you get starstruck?

Not yet. If Bob Dylan gave me a kiss I might be for second, though.

Was there any particular music flying around or albums that soundtracked the recording process? I was listening to a Ninja Tune podcast from 2007 where you selected tracks and you were pulling out a lot of old records, old Bo Diddley, congas.

Bo Diddley, congas. These are just two of my favourite things, she said. When I was recoding ‘Never Never Love’ I was listening to a load of Missy Elliott and Timbaland tracks. ‘Let It Bump’ is a serious jam, for sure. There’s a bit at the end where Timothy thinks it’s ok to start rapping about how long his engineer has been mixing for and how they’re sitting on something that’s black on black. Get to it – crucial shit.

Outside of music what’s geting you fired up right now? What was the last movie you saw? Book you read?

‘The Holy Mountain’ by Alexandro Jodorowsky. If you haven’t seen this film, get your ass to YouTube and watch the trailer as soon as is humanly possible. I was made in Mexico in ’73 by Jodorowsky and features some truly on-it scenes. There is a moment where Christ, having been drugged by an obese transvestite, wakes up in a vast room full of life-size statues of himself nailed to the crucifixes. And another where an army of toads are dressed in full Aztec warrior uniform.

Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future or who you would particularly like to remix your work?

I want to sing with Bob Dylan in a cave on Lanzarote.

What’s the next 6 months hold in the Pop Levi universe?

Writing, playing, recording, meeting, flying, lying, feeding, listening, filming, counting and praying. Same as the last six months.

If you were to take a Pop fan record shopping this afternoon what 5 records would you not let them leave without?

1/             Sun Ra – Night Of The Purple Moon (1970)

This is one of my favourite albums of all time. No matter where I am or what I am doing, if I put this record on I am instantly a new man and in a mood that no other record can induce. It’s mainly a quartet performance, which is a small ensemble for Ra, and the pieces are recorded in a very intimate production that sounds deeper and deeper with each listen. Truly music for soul dance!

2/             Herbie Hancock – Future Shock (1983)

I was turned onto the track ‘Rough’ the last time I was in New York City. My friend Anahit has the Future Shock vinyl in her apartment and I must have played the record for days on end. Check out the sounds on this – produced by Bill Laswell – drums and bass by Sly and Robbie and it all sounds computerised, yet so alive.

3/             R Kelly – Double Up (2007)

R Kelly has quickly become my favourite singer of the moment. I love this record more than any other record I heard in 2007. He’s created his own world where he writes and produces everything himself and makes these songs about hyper-real life. Songs about ringtones, about the internet, about drinking to much Patron at the club, about being a flirt – I love all this stuff – he’s like a modern Marvin Gaye, a modern Smokey Robinson.

4/             Prince – The Jewel Box

For every prince fan that has all the official albums, check this out if you get the chance. I bought this bootleg in England when I was 15 and have loved it with a passion ever since. It’s a compilation of unreleased tunes from 1980-1992, but the early tunes, the first disc, is the best. Check out ‘Lisa’, ‘Extra Loveable’ and ‘Purple Music’ – these are classics that will have you writing to Warner Bros. to release the full quality versions.

5/             Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger (1963)

And this is as serious a pop record as you ever gonna hear! I mean, it’s all here – girls, sadness, madness, cars, guns. The guitar sounds that Bo gets on here are some of the best of his career – and to think that The Beatles’ first album hadn’t even come out yet! Check out ‘Doing The Crawdaddy’ for some kind of African R&B groove-out and ‘Googlia Moo’ for the best song about being in love with an invalid.