Lead singer Sameer Gadhia talks about Young the Giant’s third album Home of the Strange, narrating the American immigrant story through music, and the impossible goal of striving for perfection.
Real quick, how was your vacation? I hear you just got back.
Oh, it was good, man. It was a bit of relaxation, a bit of stress. I was looking for a wedding location, which can be very stressful sometimes [laughs], but it was good.
When we were still Absolute Punk, I remember we covered the Jakes a lot back in the day when you were first starting out. I was re-listening to that EP again last night and it still holds up really well. What stands out in your mind the most about that early period?
The first album for any band, or just like EP or effort, is extremely exciting because it’s an open palette. You can do whatever. To a certain extent, our mantra has always been to challenge the listener, but on the first album you don’t have any of that. You establish what you start with, and I’m happy we started with that. It goes off into a lot of different genres and worlds, and those are genres we still are fascinated with to a certain extent and go in and out of.
Your first full-length I think of as like an indie pop-rock record, especially if you take away those first two singles, and then on the second album you definitely wanted to expand on the sound and take it into some bigger places. This album seems you really gravitated towards dance rock and getting some good grooves on it. What was it like figuring out the direction you wanted to go in and then playing around with it?
I think it’s usually a product of what we’ve been listening to and at the same time where we’ve naturally been going. This third album to us, and to some other people it might seem completely disparate, still branches from the foundation of the first and second albums.
Even going back to the Shake My Hand EP, we’ve always been enthralled with a backbeat and being able to dance to something. The first music that I loved listening to was Michael Jackson and the stuff that just got you moving around. At live shows, that’s the stuff that I really resonate with, but there’s also a softer side to us. This album was really trying to sonically figure out how to achieve that.
What we wanted to do was have that live band, old school record sound, but at the same time make it contemporary and use all the modern tricks of technology to record and write. We didn’t necessarily do everything at super big studios. We did some of the tracks in bedrooms. Some of the stuff was like little sound bytes from our iPhones that we recorded or voice memos, but we ran everything through tape. We really used the process and respected the process, but at the same time wanted to deconstruct it in a certain way.
One of the big themes of this record is the immigrant story. The first song, “Amerika,” is from that perspective, and then it shows up a little bit more, too. I know that’s a theme that really personally resonates with the band and your families. What was it like writing about that and setting it to music?
It was the most natural thing that I think I’ve experienced as a songwriter, because it’s really who I am. At the end of the day, people hear my voice and sonics are raceless. You don’t really know the story behind it.
I’m an American, so a lot of people assume we have this American story, which we do, but our story is a little different. I’m a first generation American. My parents are Indian. Some of our listeners don’t know that at all, so it’s an interesting way to tell our story. It feels natural to describe and maybe put ourselves in the shoes of our parents.
We’re trying to pay homage to our parents, and the stories before us and the generations of stuff that’s happened to get us here, to get us all to meet in Southern California of all places, and all from different places around the world.
It’s something that always fascinated me, and then for the first time setting that to music feels like me. I want to be able to embrace that part of myself. I feel proud that we’re able to do that on this.
Did you happen to watch that show Master of None from last year?
Yeah, I did.
That reminds me of that episode where Aziz is hearing his dad’s story and stuff, and you’re able to put that in a song, which is really cool.
I feel like there’s a bunch of other ideas and concepts beneath the surface on this record, too. Can you talk more about what some of the other ideas are on this record?
Yeah, I think at the end of the day, some of these songs aren’t meant to have a topical matter. Some of them are just love songs. That’s something that’s proved to actually be difficult for us as a band to write. Even “Cough Syrup” and “My Body,” those two singles on the first album, they aren’t love songs.
It’s interesting. We’ve been able to be on the radio and not necessarily write about love, because it didn’t necessarily feel like it was what we wanted to talk about. Love is such a timeless thing and has so many layers to it. I think a lot of these songs at the surface are love songs about yearning and stuff, but beneath that there’s a lot.
That same idea of that immigrant story weaves itself in and out. There’s certain songs like “Silvertongue,” which is a party song. We wanted to challenge ourselves to write a party song. We wanted to put ourselves and limit ourselves in certain ways to potentially move it forward.
Then there’s a song I feel like is of the time like “Mr. Know-It-All,” which is essentially about the disparity between your online self and your real self, but not necessarily being condescending about it. It’s just that everyone has that side. That’s what I feel like is unfortunate sometimes, a lot of the discourse of an older generation talking about Millennials and technology.
That song is interfacing, because it’s saying everyone has issues. People point their fingers at little kids on their phones, but at the same time you see men in their 50s and 60s on their phones all the time. It’s a universal thing, and that storyline weaves itself in and out. For us, it was focusing on writing the best album that we could write, which is obviously obvious, but we wanted everything to fit with itself and fit with each other.
One song I wanted to ask about is “Titus Was Born,” where you play around with third-person storytelling. How did you like doing that and writing from that perspective?
That’s something we used to do a lot and I liked utilizing it again. I like writing stories as well, fiction that’s separate than lyricism, which is most of the time first person. Sometimes it can be really freeing to separate yourself and create a character, and that’s kind of what we wanted to do.
Titus, in our minds at least, and it might not be as conscious to everyone else, but the way the music flows for us is Titus is the character through all these songs who experiences all these things. He’s in opposition towards or in love with Amerika with a “K,” who is this Lady Liberty essentially. It’s his story, journeying through the album and trying to find his place.
I really love utilizing that writing style. It’s fun for me to almost bridge the gap between magical realism writing in fiction and moving that to writing a song. It’s a lot of fun.
Another of my favorite songs is “Jungle Youth,” which I read was actually a name you considered for the band when you were thinking of renaming it, right?
Right. Yeah, it was. Our touring entity is called Jungle Youth, so it’s still something we identify with really strongly. We always think about, well, what if we were called Jungle Youth? But it finally made it onto a song that is really fitting for this album.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Young the Giant are the “In the Open” sessions, so I was really happy to see you continuing on with that for this record when you released “Something to Believe In” last week. Are those as cool to put together as they are to watch?
Oh yeah, they’re so much fun, especially that last trip. We had some shows, and then we took a week and brought the “In the Open” crew. We kind of camped and traveled around Colorado. We scouted locations and were up at four in the morning to shoot for some of them, up until the very end of sunset to try and get that perfect shot, scrambling to get there.
You really only have one or two takes when the light is perfect. I think we were really trying to be picky with the lighting, so it was actually really challenging. It was extremely tiring, because we traveled so much and were getting up so early, but it was completely worth it.
It’s always fun for us to be able to do different renditions of these songs, and I think people will be able to see that more in this “In the Open” series more so than any other. We really tried to change the arrangements, to still have it be the song and recognizable as that, but really working to make it just an acoustic song.
Do you have a favorite of those that you have done so far?
I’m really excited for “Art Exhibit,” because that song already is acoustic and I think what we did with it is really cool, and “Amerika” as well. I’m really excited for that one. That was one I was a little skeptical to people about at first. There’s this organ element in the back that’s the spine of the whole song, and it’s like this hip-hop feel. How is that going to rectify itself in acoustic? But it actually really works, and I’m excited for that one.
You also wrote more together as a band on this record. Can you talk about how that process worked out and how you liked doing that?
I feel like we always have worked together, but we divided the work amongst sectors. Like, I’ll handle the lyrics and melody, and so and so will handle the guitar part whatever. The second album we slowly started to switch positions, and this is the first time where really anything went.
Sometimes someone who had never written lyrics for any of our songs could pitch in for a phrase. I’d be able to play a little bit of guitars, or drums or piano or organ, or something like that. We’ve always done that. We’ve always written together, but this is the first time where we truly were in everything together.
When you were writing online about the song “Amerika,” you were talking about how that song is about the American Dream and how sometimes when we realize that when we achieve our goals, they often leave us more hollow than before. You as Young the Giant have probably already achieved most of those goals that you set out for or were just pipedreams in the early days, so then how do you walk that balance that you’re talking about there? How do you keep that spirit alive?
I think since we’re so young, a part of us really tries to be as open to change and new things as possible. When you’re open to things, I think there’s always something to continue to strive for. By no means do we think that we’ve figured it out. I think this album is still a stepping-stone towards something, but we don’t really know what that tangible thing is.
At this point, all of our goals are intangible goals. We’ve done a lot of those physical bucket list things already, but there’s still more. We want to be able to master our craft as songwriters and always strive for something close to perfection, which is impossible. That always keeps things a little bit fresh.