On the eve of the release of their sophomore album, I sat down with the trio from Sir Sly at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles to discuss their excitement about the new music, the breakout success of “High,” the personal events behind the album, and why they never want to be outworked.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How’s album release week going?
Hayden Coplen: Busy.
Landon Jacobs: Yeah, prerelease week has been buuusy, with like nine u’s. We’ve been doing production rehearsals, a lot of running around town, and meetings and interviews. It’s been great, though. Hayden put it best a minute ago. He said, “It’s absolutely worth putting all the time and energy into supporting the album, because it wouldn’t feel right not to.” We put so much energy into making the album that it would be completely wrong to not put all that energy into supporting it as well.
Coplen: Did you see the Radiohead oral history that was out?
The Rolling Stone one? Yeah, yeah.
Coplen: There’s that one part, I can’t remember if it’s Jonny or Thom, where he says, “We had to earn the right to go away.” That was their goal as a band, which I thought was really interesting. Now you think of them as a band that is very picky, says no to a lot of stuff, but they were saying we said yes until we had earned the right to say no. That’s a fair approach. I like that approach.
Does it feel a lot different than when you released your first album?
Jacobs: The excitement surrounding this album release has felt very different, even from things like radio interviews and stuff. The people asking us questions, there’s that intangible feeling people care more this time around. Maybe that’s because it’s obvious we care more.
Coplen: I think there’s more to grab onto, honestly. Showing personality can be hard. To be candid, we felt that on the first album in a lot of ways.
Jacobs: It was easier to be mysterious than it was to come across as confident, normal folks who are just pursuing what we love to do, which is making music. The making of the second album, there was no way we could come out on the other side and not feel confident about what we did, because we spent so much time on it. Even to make the songs the way we did, for me to write about the things I did lyrically, I had to take a leap of faith in some ways.
The fact that Jason and Hayden were so supportive and confident in me throughout that time too did wonders for us feeling like we could really step out and do what we want to do in music videos and talk about ourselves the way we want to be able to talk about ourselves. It seems the excitement that people have waiting for the album to come out, or the questions they have about it, is a little more earnest. It seems that everyone is a little more excited than they were for the first album.
Does Chase Kensrue still tour with you guys?
Jacobs: He does not, unfortunately. There’s a hole in our heart that we filled with a giant plush brain, and some lighting and some gear. That’s maybe the easiest reason.
Coplen: We wish they were here. Touring is hard.
Jacobs: There’s a big gap in between.
Coplen: Yeah, there’s a big gab between being a small band and being a band that can adequately support everyone.
Jacobs: That first album cycle we were not quite kids, but I don’t really feel like I was an adult, though. This break of two years since we last toured in earnest is that exact timeline where if we’re not on the road, it’s time for us to move on and pursue other things. So we gave them a pat on the back and blessings. Hopefully we can keep on getting more gear to fill that hole in our hearts [laughter].
You’re originally from over there in Orange County, right?
Jacobs: Yeah, so we grew up listening to Thrice.
Jason Suwito: We grew up in Mission Viejo and Irvine.
Jacobs: I remember the first time I met Chase. I was like, “You look eerily familiar.”
Coplen: I was inner fanboying when Dustin was at the show.
Jacobs: We went and got Mexican food with him one time, and I was like, “Dude, I saw you guys at the Wiltern!” It was Thrice, Brand New and mewithoutYou. Those were like my three favorite bands in one concert back then. I was like, “Oh my god!!” And then I’m sharing nachos that were made on Doritos with Dustin. Dustin was like, “You gotta try these [laughter].”
Coplen: In between talking about C.S. Lewis.
Jacobs: I was like, “Sure, I guess I’ll try some Doritos with cheese melted on top of them.” It was insane.
So I know you went through some stuff in between records, which shows up on the album a lot. What was it like putting that into words and writing about it?
Jacobs: A lot nicer than living in it. One of my favorite quotes about songwriting is Bjork saying it’s like exorcising demons, which doesn’t sound like much of a choice. Either you live with demons inside of you or you have to figure a way to get them out. The moment I read that I was like, Yeah, that’s exactly what it feels like. If I let these things sit and fester, I don’t find a way to creatively work through them. I like to categorize things in that way.
So the album and writing these lyrics was one part necessity and another part a fun adventure of figuring out how to repurpose all these really shitty things that happened in my life into something that felt like I had purpose in. Loving music as much as I do, I wanted to make something I was so proud of that every night on tour I could go back and be thankful for the fact I get to repurpose three really difficult years into what I feel like is an amazing album.
In one of your other interviews I was reading you said you wanted to write about tragedy but still have it be a fun album.
Jacobs: Yeah. Similarly as I was going through when my mom died and as I got divorced, I was living alone for the first time ever in my life. I was also going out in L.A. and stuff. I was beginning to really love certain types of dance music, and dancing myself. We would go to Funky Soul Night at the Echo or whatever it was. Or I’d be alone in my apartment, dancing to Prince.
I realized I wanted something that was fun for people to come and see live. We all wanted that because life is equally serious, and should be. People are always striving to have that levity, to be able to turn something tragic into something positive. The fact that we’re all still here is cause for celebration. That was kind of the thing. I have to sit and take a mental image when I’m getting stressed or getting anxious, like when we had a really difficult travel day. But at the end of it, I’m like, “Wow, that was a nightmare. But nobody’s sick. Nobody’s hurt. Nobody’s going to die. We all made it.”
That’s something I’ve been constantly reminding myself of. This album, because of that, I wanted to have cause for celebration. If you come out to a show, we’re not here to weigh you down. We’re here to commiserate, to share what we’ve been through, and then hopefully to uplift each other. That’s the goal of the human experience.
Coplen: I think the truth is, too, that there’s been a lot of joy. As we’re preparing for this, we’re working harder than we’ve ever worked, but we’re humming along. I have this visual like we’re above the fray. It feels really good. There’s not a lot of resistance. Everyone is in lockstep, from the band members to the team. It’s a really rare feeling. I think a lot of it stems from the record ultimately being a bit of a celebration.
Jacobs: There’s a bit of magic to not taking yourself so seriously that it’s like, My mom died, therefore I have to be a sad, sappy sack of shit for the next album. There was a freedom in being able to say I still like having a good time. I miss my mom, but my mom wouldn’t want me to wallow away and make the equivalent of a Conor Oberst, drinking a gallon of vodka a day, weeping alone in my room record. That’s not the way I want to look back and see how I handled these past couple years.
And, yeah, getting divorced is sad, but it’s also freeing. So there is a bit of that, too. There is the juxtaposition of the depth of grief, but I was living in a pretty free situation as well. We all wanted to reflect that accurately through the making of the record.
What’s it been like seeing “High” get as big as it’s gotten so far?
Jacobs: Magical. It’s the best. Apart from writing the song in the first place, and apart from making the album in the first place, the best feeling in the world is having people appreciate what you do and take it into their own. People don’t listen to music lightly. Some people do, but a lot of people are very specific about the kind of music they choose. It means a great deal to them. People are proud of their music tastes.
In order to break through that barrier and have so many people love the song, it’s even nicer now that I stop and think. Everybody has their own unique taste and it’s really cool to be accepted that way by so many different people. It’s great.
Coplen: Today I was doing an interview on that same point. We ended up talking about people disliking songs. When we wrote it, we all had a very good feeling about “High.” I brought up the example of Landon’s brother, who heard it and was like, “Oh, I don’t like that song.”
Jacobs: He got through the first pre-chorus where it goes “Feels good to be…” and then the chorus came on and he turned it off. We were driving in his car. He turned it off and was like, “I don’t like that one.” I was like, “OK, let’s go into Walgreens.” He was like, “I don’t mean to be a dick.” And I was like, “No, it’s good.”
If we can make something that some people don’t like, hopefully it means that other people are going to love it. Instead of it being in an acceptable middle range where everybody goes, “Eh, that’s OK music.” I’d rather have some people go, “I hate that. It reminds me of this other thing I hate.” And then somebody else goes, “I love that for these reasons.” I’d rather be polarizing than be the lowest common denominator that everybody can enjoy.
Was the video fun to shoot?
Suwito: Yeah, that was the funnest one.
Jacobs: It was one of the hardest days. I’ve never seen a group of people work that hard just in general, from the people part of set design to the choreographer to the crew to Kevin, who directed it. All these people were running around on set, working crazy and so hard. But at the end of the day, it seemed like everybody was energized. They were either friends of friends or people who’ve worked together before. It was a really fun, open environment. And also they saw how hard we were working, too.
It’s nice when everybody is in that same space together and you can look around and see everybody working hard. Nobody is slacking off or not giving a shit. Even at the end of a very long day, which was at the end of a very long week and after a couple long months of making this music video, it was nice to feel like everybody had given 100 percent.
We had all worked tirelessly and it didn’t seem like there was any bitterness across the board from anybody that had worked on it. Which is a testament to hopefully the fun we wanted to have making the video and our resolution to never have anybody work harder than we work on our own stuff. I don’t want anybody to ever put us on their back and to look back with any bitterness. I want to know we gave it our all and everybody else is happy to work on the stuff we’re working on, because we care more than anybody else possibly could.
What’s the story behind getting the Donnie Trumpet sample on “Change?” How did that idea come out?
Coplen: That was me. There was a time where we were like, “Why did we ever do that?” And then we cleared it and were able to release the album, which is amazing. They were actually really gracious. But that one, I was on a plane. It was in the middle of writing. On a plane I love to mess with stuff, but it’s really hard to actually write. So I’m just manipulating different sounds or messing with cool drums. I was like, “Ah, let’s try to sample this.”
“Miracle” is this amazing song that has such a unique feel to it. It’s very optimistic, and at the same time very morose and washed out. I ended up grabbing a piece of the end, pitching it up and using this guitar sample. In my head, it was a little bit like College Dropout-era Kanye. I don’t think it ultimately sounds like that, but that was something going through my head. Like, how warm his beats would always feel. They were so comfortable and nostalgic. It was like hanging out with an old friend or something. That’s what I was going for.
Jacobs: Ironically enough, I don’t know if originally it was the pull subconsciously, but the lyric is something along the lines of “It’s a miracle to be alive.” We all knew the song, but it had been a while until I had paid attention to the lyrics. We had just been hearing that sample over and over.
So the other day I went back and listened to it again, and it was so crazy. Sometimes there’s those little serendipitous moments, like that lyric is so close to what this album was for me lyrically. So to go back and hear that, I was able to go, “Yeah, that’s exactly why that sample was chosen. There is that feeling in that song.”
And that goes for all the samples we use. There’s an immediate sonic and emotional pull, like, That’s this album right there. That’s that song. And we’d build from that moment. We’d never used samples before, but at the end of the day, it feels like we’re right at home using samples as a part of making an album. I think it’s something we’ll continue to do in the future.
How about “Altar?” What was it like writing that song?
Jacobs: That was one that started from a sample as well. Jason had made that instrumental flute thing.
Suwito: Yeah, it was from an old TV theme.
Jacobs: The chord progression he ended up making by repitching it brought out a really strange melody, something I don’t think I had ventured to do before. I actually had written this poem, a long metaphor using worshipping at an altar as a euphemism for oral sex. That was how it started. The poem is like three times as long as the lyrics are in the song.
It turned into I had put her up on a pedestal, or the idea of love and marriage or whatever it was. I was raised very Evangelical Christian. My parents got married when they were 18, and her parents had gotten married when they were 18. My grandparents had gotten married when they were in their early 20s. It was what everybody in my family did, and has continued to do. I had put it up as this finish line, this point where you get there and coast through the rest of life because you’ve found the person you’re going to marry and be with forever. That song was the product of that disillusionment.
The starkness of the lyrics informed the way we built off that original instrumentation. The ending with the tones of gospel music comes from a place of Hayden and I growing up and playing music in church. It works really nicely with the sample. That last bit of lyrics is probably my favorite moment on the album lyrically, using my mom’s voice as a monologue telling me how to weather the storm.
We originally started making this album all about my fear and anxiety. We had really minimal electronic songs and these very scared and afraid lyrics. That moment is the exact opposite. It’s me talking to myself through my mom’s voice. It’s kind of like the voicemail on “Oh Mama.” I’m always worried that will make me cry every time I hear it, so playing it onstage can be a little rollercoaster.
Let’s close with “Oh Mama” then, since that’s one of the centerpieces on the album. Did the idea for that song come first? Did the music? How did you pair the two together?
Jacobs: That was a song we started writing shortly after my mom had died, which was March 2016. It was totally different. It started out with a different instrumental that Jason had been working on. It was much faster. Then we ended up writing a chorus for that song, and the verse and the chorus didn’t feel quite right. So we scrapped that whole song, but I knew I always wanted to come back to working that chorus out.
When Jason showed us the new instrumentals, I had also recently had a dream about my mom. We were in San Francisco. It was me, her and my dad in this apocalypse type of setting. There was all this weird stuff happening, and it stuck with me. I was in the dream telling her how difficult life has been ever since she died. She was sitting, listening, but I wasn’t explicitly saying since you died. I was saying life has been really hard.
She wasn’t talking, and I was like, Oh. Maybe she doesn’t know. She had brain cancer, so she couldn’t remember things very well. She had no short-term memory, so then she couldn’t form long-term memories. In my dream, I was thinking maybe she forgot she’s supposed to be dead and that she’s not allowed to be here visiting me. That was how those verses ended up getting started, and then we took that chorus and repurposed it into the song.
Did you use an actual choir for the end?
Coplen: Yeah, they were awesome. They did “Altar” and “Oh Mama.” We had them for a taped live performance at one point.
Jacobs: That was another really interesting thing. We used a sample from the famous movie The Color Purple in “Trippin.’” There’s that gospel line from a scene in the movie, and one of the singers was actually in the movie and a part of the recording. The choir director also co-wrote and worked on it. He was like, “I know that.” We were like, “How do you know it?” And he’s like, “I worked on it.” We were like, “Oh!” [laughter] So that was another strange, serendipitous moment.
It’s been really fun. When you work as hard as we did on this album, you end up running into all kinds of strange little fun coincidences. It makes the world a lot smaller when you extend your inspirations and extend the musical boundaries. You end up running into all kinds of things like that.