Frontman Keith Jeffery chats about aiming for a bigger sound on Atlas Genius’ sophomore effort Inanimate Objects, being overwhelmed by the whirlwind touring and success of the first album, and writing songs that always contain a glimmer of hope.
How’s the tour and the new shows been going so far?
The shows have been great. We have two new dudes in the band, so the vibe onstage has been feeling great. It’s a really great energy and the shows have been great. It’s nice to have two albums to pull a set from, you know? It’s a really nice thing. After touring for so long on one album, it’s really good to piece together a set where you’re not just locked into a small set of songs. So that’s been a great change for us as well.
You toured for a couple years off the first record, and that was your first real experience touring like that. What were you able to learn and take away from that experience that has stuck with you?
There’s a bunch of things. Life lessons, like you have to be super healthy when you’re on the road, which is difficult, as you can imagine. Musically, the biggest lessons were sonically there’s certain things that work so well live. There were certain things that we stumbled upon when we tweaked the songs live. We changed things up as we were touring, and certain things worked.
Then also we toured with so many great bands. Bands like Phoenix and AWOLNATION, in my mind some of the best live bands in the world, we got to tour with. Certain things worked so well, like having those big dynamics, we built into the architecture of the new album.
The first album had a certain vibe throughout the album. There’s a charm to doing that on an album, but I felt with this album we wanted there to be certain moments where it was really delicate and really intimate, and then other moments where we just kind of let loose in a wall of noise.
That’s what I think we did on this one, which we didn’t do on the first one because the first album was done almost in a vacuum. We were in a studio in Australia, it was a studio project, and then we started touring. In essence, we were a studio project that became a live band. This time around, it felt much more like we were a band and we knew what we wanted to do.
This record sounds quite a bit different than the first one, and I know you had a lot more time to work on this one so you were able to make it more textured and dynamic. Can you talk about that and what you were going for there?
I think we got better in the studio. The more time you spend doing anything, the better you get. With the studio stuff, we created all the sounds ourselves in the studio on the first album, but you just get better at it. You find better sounds. You get closer to the vision in your own head, and you know how to execute that better the more you do it. That’s what we did.
There’s certain drum sounds on this album that we were really happy with, and we worked really hard to get them. There’s certain synth sounds and guitar sounds that we stumbled upon over the last couple years of experimenting. I think that’s one of the biggest differences.
Sonically, I feel like we really stepped it up with the sound of this album. I wanted it to sound bigger, but without it sounding Top 40 big. There’s a certain glossy sheen you hear quite often on all the pop stuff, which is impressive but can get a little saccharine sweet. You feel like you’re going to get diabetes when you listen to it. We wanted to get a bigger sound on this album without it turning into a pop album.
You’ve also gone through some lineup changes over the last couple years, so now it’s basically just you and Michael as the two official members. What kind of impact do you think that had on the record?
The way that this album happened – what I’ll say is, it wasn’t an easy process. On this album, the first six months it was us trying to find our feet, working on where we wanted to do it, how we wanted to do it and who we wanted to do it with.
After hanging with a bunch of different people, we found a co-producer in Los Angeles. He is this Danish guy called Frederik Thaae. He was great because he comes from a different world. He is more of a pop guy. Scandinavia is known for its amazing pop. You got Max Martin and all these guys. There’s that culture where pop is not a dirty word and they’re not ashamed to be pop.
I think that was good for us because I come from this alterative world where as a kid growing up, if anything was overproduced or anything had synthesizers on it, I really shied away from it. Over the last few years, I’ve really opened up to that.
Then having a guy who will unashamedly go pop, and has also worked in hip-hop and R&B, that was good because he brought a whole separate bag of tricks and skills to the party. We didn’t have that the first time around, so that’s why I feel like this one’s a little bit more diverse than the first album.
One of the interesting things I found about the album is lyrically there’s a strong relational aspect to it, but then there’s also this philosophical, scientific thread that runs through the album as well. What were you trying to do with that and how did you like tying those two things together?
I was actually just talking to somebody about this a moment ago. In school, I loved science. I was more a science and math dude than I was English and drama. It was only after that I really started to discover my artistic side.
For me, the way I look at the world and this planet that we’re on, like in the case of “Molecules” what I’m trying to say is that we are all just matter. We do have control over what we do, at least I think we do, and our actions, etc.
It depends on the scale that you look at the Earth. If you zoom out and look at the Earth from outer space, or if you zoom right in under a microscope, it’s very hard to differentiate us, our molecules and our atoms, from a tree or whatever.
There’s something liberating in the fact that even though we feel like it’s really important we make the right decisions in life, we don’t say this or we do this, that it’s actually we’re here for a brief time and a lot of this is out of our control. If there’s an earthquake, or there’s a bushfire or whatever, that’s out of our control. All the time I spend worrying about inconsequential rubbish is pointless. We’re here, let’s enjoy the moment, and let’s also be nice to each other.
You’ve also described this record as a little bit darker than the first record. Can you talk about why you feel this way about it?
Yeah, I found myself trying to process a whole bunch of stuff at the end of our touring that we did on the first album. It was so full on, emotionally and physically, that there wasn’t really time to think about what had happened. It was such a whirlwind.
It’s a cliché thing to say, but it really was. Everything was a first. We were doing late night TV shows, we were doing festivals, we were touring the world, and normally on about four hours of sleep a night.
It was only right at the end of that, when I went back to Australia to start working on the album, that I really became overwhelmed by all this emotional stuff that I hadn’t really dealt with. I had two relationship breakdowns, because long distance relationships are not easy.
There was the reality of my career and the excitement of what we’ve done, but then faced with, OK, now it’s time to do a new album. Those are pretty weighty subjects, at least for me they were. That dictated where a lot of these lyrics came from.
I thought it was cool, too, where you have something like “Balladino” with the line, “I believe that there is light up ahead.” So it sounds like you were able to make it out of that dark place.
Yeah. Actually, it’s funny. I remember an interview Chris Isaak did once over in Australia years ago when I was a kid. I like Chris Isaak, but I’m not like a mad fan or anything. “Wicked Game” is a great song.
I remember reading an article where he was talking about how when he’s writing songs, even if it’s the saddest of country songs, there still needs to be this glimmer of hope. That really resonated with me, and I’ve always remembered that.
When I’m writing a song, if it’s a song that totally devastates your positivity, I don’t tend to listen to it. I like stuff that’s weighty. I’ll put on something that’s going to make me think, and maybe is going to take me to a dark place, but I want to be taken out of that dark place in the end. I don’t want there to be no hope left.
I think with every song, even if it does go to that dark place, I still want to have that chance that life is going to get better. At least for me, that’s my take.
One other line I thought was interesting was on “Friendly Apes,” where you close that song off with, “We’re all born as friendly apes.” That’s more of a relationship song, but what were you going for on that one?
I feel that there’s an innocence when we’re born. All animals have this innocence, and then human beings have this ability to really become twisted and vindictive or malicious, more so than a lot of animals. Even though we’re probably capable of more compassion, or at least we think we are, than most animals on the planet, we’re also capable of more vile behavior than any other creature.
It’s just a little reminder that we were born as friendly apes, and then what happens after that is almost anyone’s guess. We can become anything.
I know you live in L.A. now, which as you were saying played a big part in making this record. How do compare living here with living in Australia? Are there things you still miss about Australia?
Yeah, I miss friends and family, of course. It’s a beautiful place. Where we grew up was this coastal town, so we used to surf a lot. I think Australian food is some of the best in the world. We don’t put corn syrup in everything. It’s expensive food, but it’s really high quality. So I miss things like that.
But overall, I love living in the States. There’s such a good community of creative people in Los Angeles. You sort of have to seek them out, they’re not going to come and find you, but they are there if you want to find them. In Australia, we do have that as well, but it’s on a much smaller scale. There’s just more opportunities for co-writing with other people and other projects.
Even while we were doing this album, we did a bunch of co-writes with other people and for other projects. Actually, last night I just did a top one for quite a big remix out here in the States. The thing is you can come across that kind of stuff in Australia, it’s just harder. I feel like it’s a golden age in Los Angeles at the moment for music.
Most people are still going to be most familiar with you from “Trojans.” Looking back on that now, that must have been an incredible experience seeing your first song blow up like that. Are there lessons you were able to take away from that experience? Did you see that song open a lot of doors?
Yeah, of course. It opened a thousand doors. It was amazing. It totally changed our lives. As for lessons, that’s a lesson in taking your time and just doing something because you love it. There weren’t any commercial aspirations with that track.
There were no expectations, actually. It was, what do we want to hear? When we’re writing music, I write stuff that I’d want to hear. What am I not hearing on the radio right now? What’s going to satisfy me if this was somebody else?
That’s what you try to do, and that was one of those songs. It was a mix of all the stuff that I love, talking about some of the stuff that was on my heart at the time. I think that’s why it resonated with people, or at least that’s my guess.
So where do you go from here now? What does the next step look like for Atlas Genius?
Well, we’re on tour at the moment. The album just came out a couple weeks ago, so I guess we’ll be touring for a while. In any spare time, we’re doing a bunch of writing as well. Like I said, there’s a few artists we’ve been collaborating with for some of their projects.
I like the idea of just really diversifying with the writing. It’s really nice writing with other people, because you learn their process, but also if you get the right matchup you can do some great stuff that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m looking forward to doing a bunch of that over the next year or so.