Lonnie Angle and Thomas Dutton discuss the beginnings of Cardiknox, making their debut album Portrait, managing new transitions, and exploring personal avenues through music.
Last month you wrapped up the Carly Rae Jepsen tour, which is the biggest tour you’ve done so far. How did that go?
Lonnie Angle: It was amazing. We were out on the road for nearly three months, because we did back-to-back tours. We were out first with the Knocks, and then we were with Carly Rae for six weeks. She’s a total sweetheart. We had so much fun with her, and her band and her crew. They’re just nice people.
The shows themselves were killer. They were great audiences, people that are true diehard Carly Rae Jepsen fans who get there early, wait in line outside, rush the stage the second doors open. Ultimately, you got to win them over, but it was this crowd to be won over, in terms of our music, so people got really into it. It was really, really fun for us.
One random question I had about that is I’ve read online in a few places, and I noticed it too at the L.A. show, that a lot of the time her shows are like three-quarters guys, which is kind of an unexpected thing. Is that something you noticed, too?
Lonnie: She has a really strong gay following, which is amazing because that crowd is so fun. They have a good time, and like to dance and party. I would say, yeah, for a lot of the tour. Middle America is a bit different, but certainly on the coast I would say 50 to 60 percent of the house is fabulous gay men, and then a smattering of other people as well.
As a Forgive Durden fan from back in the day, I never would have guessed this is the same person behind both these bands. So the obvious question is how did you progress from there to here?
Thomas Dutton: The shortest answer possible is my taste in music and the bands I was listening to changed and progressed like most people. The things I wanted to create and was inspired to create changed. The longer answer is we released Razia’s Shadow, which is this musical rock opera, big project. Lonnie’s background is musical theater, so after we toured on Razia’s Shadow I wanted to adapt it for the stage. I got hooked up with Lonnie and we started working on that. We ended up getting interest from a producer and a theater in New York, so we moved down there to really focus on it.
All the while Lonnie was really into music and performing, all through her childhood and everything. We went in the studio and were messing around a little bit, but we weren’t taking it seriously. After we were out in New York for about a year, we were pretty burnt out from working on the musical. We wanted to switch gears creatively and work on something totally different. We decided to write some electro, 80s-sounding pop songs. That’s kind of how we got there. We put a few up online and everything. We got what we thought was a great reaction. We were really surprised by that, and yeah, that’s when we decided to really focus on Cardiknox.
When you were at that initial stage, figuring out what you wanted to do, was this a natural direction you decided to go in, or did that take some going back and forth with different ideas?
Thomas: Yeah, I think it was very natural. It was something we both were listening to, and inspired by and drawn to as fans. We just wanted to make that kind of music. We didn’t have like a marketing meeting and say this is going to be the musical theme or whatever. It was the music we wanted to make.
Then as you said, you self-released a few songs three years ago online, and here we are now and you have your major label debut album out now. Can you talk a little bit more about what the process was like of getting yourself out there and getting to this point?
Thomas: So yeah, we put a few songs out there on our own. We were hustling our way, doing little shows in New York here and there. A good friend of mine from back in the Forgive Durden days, this guy Evan Winiker who played in this band called Steel Train, had since become a manager. I sent some songs to him and he was interested. He said, “I want to see the live show.” We were like, “Oh, we’ve never played a live show yet.” And he was like, “All right, well get it together and I’ll come see it.” We found a guy to play keys with us, and put together a little light show and everything. He flew out and saw us. He was like, “This is awesome. Let’s do this.” That was really reaffirming for us. Like, all right, this is real now.
We started playing shows around New York and everything. We went on tour with Betty Who and did a few festivals like Lollapalooza, Firefly and Sasquatch. We were taking these steps and we developed. Then when we started working on new material, we were coming up to L.A. a lot to work with different producers and writers. Eventually, we got matched up with John Shanks, who ended up producing Portrait. It started as a few days writing session and that went really well. It just multiplied from there. Two days turned into four, turned into eight, and then all of a sudden we were working on the whole record with him.
We still weren’t signed yet, but having somebody like him, who has such a notoriety, put his stamp of approval on us was really huge. We were able to feel good and not have to worry about the label, that that would come. Sure enough about halfway through recording with him, Warner Bros. came into the picture. They were really interested and supportive of what we were doing and the direction we were going. It happened really quickly and organically. We just continued on and finished the record, and then it came out.
Since this is obviously a different genre and scene than Forgive Durden was, you had to build this from the ground up again. What were the challenges and differences of starting Cardiknox than what you did with Forgive Durden?
Thomas: They’re very different in my mind. They obviously sound very different, but even just building them as a band and a brand and a company, really, they’re very different. With Forgive Durden, I could kind of just do whatever. If I had these crazy ideas, I could do anything. Not that I feel like I’m tied down by limits with Cardiknox, but there’s more focus in Cardiknox. We know exactly where we want to go and we’re going there.
With Forgive Durden, it was like, oh yeah, I’ll do this song, or I’ll make this weird record, or I’ll make this musical and have these guys sing on it. I was much more free to go in any direction I wanted to go. With Cardiknox, we’re much more determined to get to one place. There are people who are huge fans of Wonderland and Razia’s Shadow who are like, “Oh, why don’t you make music like that still?” But there’s been a lot of fans too who have been really supportive and come along for the ride, even though they’re totally different projects.
Lonnie, this is the first time you’ve fronted a band like this. What has that transition been like and has there been a learning curve you’ve had to go through?
Lonnie: Yeah, like you said this is the first band I’ve ever been in. I grew up playing music, but not writing music. I grew up playing the classical piano. I was very into musical theater and studied theater in college, so the performance element is not new to me. The biggest thing with Thomas was becoming a songwriter and diving into that whole world. That has been the biggest challenge but also the most rewarding, because it’s been so fun to get to tell my story, our stories, through song, and collaborate with Thomas and with our producer, John, another cool songwriter. Songwriting has been the biggest, most fun challenge.
The performance piece of it is where I can tap into all my years of performing and come alive. I love performing. I love the live aspect of it. Then you throw in the business side of it, because ultimately being in a band is like owning your own small business. That has been a huge learning curve, too, getting signed and management and all those things. I think that’s also a place where Thomas and I excel, because we like to keep our hands in all parts of the project and understand it all. Basically, it’s like getting to build your own brand and own your own business. It’s been really cool.
Then as you were saying, Thomas, you have a very different role in Cardiknox than you had in Forgive Durden, where you’re more of the sideman this time around. What’s that been like for you to go through?
Thomas: I enjoy it a lot more, actually. I enjoy being onstage and everything, but I’m a little bit shy of the direct spotlight. Lonnie is much more comfortable in that role. I really like being up there but not being the main person, being more of the supporting role and being the band leader, so to speak. I really enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s a good complementary dynamic we have that works well.
This 80s-infused pop sound is very popular these days, which on the one hand is really cool because those sounds and textures are so much fun to play with, and you can come up with some really catchy stuff, but on the downside there’s always that risk of oversaturation and a lack of originality as a result. What did you want to do with this record that was different that maybe you weren’t necessarily seeing anyone else out there doing?
Thomas: One thing while we were recording the album that John Shanks was really wise to keep reminding us was don’t listen to what’s popular right now. Don’t draw inspiration from a song that just came out this week that you really like, because these songs that you are writing are not going to be out for a year, or two even. If you write to chase a trend or what’s hot this second, by the time your song comes out it’s going to feel dated and stale.
It was really about focusing on writing a great song and not relying on any kind of gimmicks. Not even gimmicks, but sonic or production tendencies that are popular or happening on the radio at that current time, because trends obviously change quickly and often. It was really about writing great songs. John and I both being guitar players, most of the songs were written with the three of us sitting around playing guitar and singing. That’s literally where we got the bones of most of the songs.
Then when you get into the production phase, we wanted to keep things a really nice hybrid balance of classic and retro stuff with some modern edge to it. We leaned heavily on 80s stuff, and even some 70s and 90s stuff. Then the percussion was a healthy mix of 80s stuff and more modern sounds, even like trap and drum samples and stuff like that. We tried to keep a really nice, lush spectrum of sounds and textures.
You two are both originally from Seattle, then lived in New York for quite a bit before recording the record in L.A. for six months, which are three of the more musically rich cities in the country. How much do you think geography has played a role in the band and what you’ve done so far?
Lonnie: New York is probably the biggest influence there of our sound. That’s where the band was really born. We were living the grind in New York City when we started writing these songs. New York is such a character and I think it really is like a character in our music, especially our early stuff. That city, like you said, is so rich and so full of different people. It’s intense. It’s overwhelming and frenetic and colorful. It never stops. That’s woven into the songwriting we were doing.
L.A. certainly holds a special place for us, because we basically tracked and wrote the whole album here, but it doesn’t feel like the city itself was influencing the sound so much as this magical recording studio that we were in. New York really was the biggest influence there. It’s funny because Seattle has such a rich music scene, but for me that’s not where I started writing. Thomas can maybe speak to Seattle a little bit.
Thomas: Yeah, we were so focused on the musical when we were there that the Seattle scene didn’t really take part in Cardiknox. Like Lonnie said, the band was really started in New York, and now we’re out here. Another thing I was just thinking about was when we were in New York, we would be recording in a bedroom or a living room and there’s windows. You’re seeing out into the city while you’re writing and recording.
When we were up here in L.A. working on Portrait, you’re in studios where there’s no windows, because you’re in a real studio that shouldn’t have windows [laughs]. We were kind of isolated off from the sunshine and the palm trees and the tan skin and everything. I think we were able to keep the New York vibe that we had started intact, even though we were out here. That was important, too.
Lonnie, how did you like writing the lyrics for this record, since that was also your first time playing around with that? What was that process like?
Lonnie: It was a journey. Lyrics are tough to tell the story you want to tell and not be super on the nose about it. It’s certainly a collaboration between Thomas and I, but it was therapeutic in a way. That’s good for a lot songwriters because in many ways we were telling my story of heartache and heartbreak with my family and my parents getting divorced in my early adulthood. A lot of that experience is drawn on. It’s usually not directly, but it’s through the lens of my parents, through the lens of my mom or through my experience with my dad.
It was cathartic almost, specifically like the song “Shadowboxing.” That’s very much about the relationship with my father and not speaking to him for a year after he left my mom. We spent maybe a week, a week-and-a-half, really carving that song out. It was an emotional week, learning to tap into that place, going back there and referencing it and finding a way to tell that story in a way that hopefully other people can relate to. Listening back to that song for the first couple weeks after we tracked it always hit me heavy. It was an interesting process, to get to tell your story through song. Yeah.
Could you see a growth in yourself, from the beginning when you put out those first songs online to finishing the record?
Lonnie: Yeah, absolutely. I was thinking about this when you were asking about the difference for Thomas in writing and his experience between Forgive Durden and Cardiknox. I think there was a big learning curve for Thomas, too, which he really enjoyed, because he was discovering programming and working within Pro Tools in a totally different way than tracking guitars.
Those first songs we were both learning and trying to figure out what we were trying to create. We were trying to make music, like Thomas said, that we enjoyed listening to and that we would hopefully be fans of. The more you write, obviously the better you get, as with anything. So over the course of the next year-and-a-half, as we continued to write and write, and did some co-writes with other people, we learned a lot.
Ultimately, it felt like the puzzle pieces came together when we met John Shanks. As Thomas mentioned, we originally went in to do a couple days of writing with him, which turned into him doing the album. He was the best coach you could ever get. He’s somebody who comes in and helps you recognize the areas you need to work on, pushes you harder to do things better than you ever thought you could do, and ultimately heard things that Thomas and I couldn’t hear. He would say, “This song is great, but it’s missing this little piece.” Then, watch, we’d throw that little piece in and suddenly the song completely opened up into a different thing. Having John onboard was that missing piece to really get our sound to where we wanted it to be.
I was a big fan of the “On My Way” video, which I thought was very creative and you pulled off really well. What have you been thinking about for the follow-up now?
Thomas: Thank you, I’m glad you liked the “On My Way” video. We’re actually working on finalizing concepts and stuff for a video for “Wild Child.” We definitely feel the pressure in a good way to try and beat “On My Way.” The last thing we want is to come out with a video that is a dud or doesn’t stack up to this bar we’ve set for ourselves, in terms of creating a captivating video. The pressure’s on a little bit, but we got some cool ideas we’ve been working on, so we’re excited about it.
You’ve both talked a little about wanting to leave people with the music of feeling hopeful and empowered, and trying to instill a meaning behind the catchy hooks and stuff. I was wondering if you could unpack that a little bit and how that ties in with the vision you see for Cardiknox going forward.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s interesting. When we were in the studio, we never all sat down and said, “Let’s make this a really hopeful, motivational, uplifting record.” I think it’s just where we were and the circumstances of we needed to hear those messages. We had been doing our thing independently. We played showcases for different labels and stuff like that for important people. It felt like it wasn’t coming as easy as we had hoped, as far as it catching fire and taking off.
Once we got in with John, like I mentioned earlier, he was that stamp of approval. He was like that light at the end of the tunnel for us. Like, OK, we’re on our way now. The songs really came from that time period so specifically. We felt like we had been, not knocked down so to speak, but on a long journey to get there, and finally we were starting to see the fruits of our labor. If anything, the messages were coming out because that’s what we needed to hear.
Now that the record’s been out and we’ve been talking about it, doing interviews and everything, we’ve definitely realized the songs are obviously super hopeful and uplifting. It’s weird because we didn’t set out to make that record. It’s just what happened to come out.