Seismic Sound Interview: Blake Madden of Hotels.
Following the success of Hotels’ 2009 album, “Where Hearts Go Broke”, the Seattle-based sci-fi pop band released its third album this week. “On The Casino Floor” is a cinematic concept album of futuristic proportions. Seismic-Sound sat down with Hotels’ front man Blake Madden on the eve of Hotels’ cd release show to discuss the band’s exciting new album.
SS: So, Blake, tell us a little bit of your back-story. The band’s originally from New York…
BM: Hotels began in New York around 2005. My previous band had just broken up, and I was working the graveyard shift as a night auditor in a chain of dubious hotels in the city. It was a dark time literally. But I had hours of nothing to do at a time and no supervision, so I would bring my bass to work and write songs in the lobby. I always had a thing for hotels, I was working in them, and was writing new songs for an as yet unformed, unnamed band, so I figured why not just go with it. Most of those songs ended up on Thank You For Choosing… After a few years, I moved out here to Seattle, and tried to maintain an ill-fated long distance relationship with my New York band, even while cheating on them with a new West coast Hotels lineup. The East/West thing survived long enough to make Where Hearts Go Broke, but I can no longer regularly afford plane fare, so we are now permanently officially located here.
SS: It’s a very exciting time for Hotels. Your album just released this week. So there is an amazing CD release show planned at Columbia City Theater… First, let’s talk about the new album. It’s definitely got a cinematic feel. What’s the story? Tell us about the concept? How did that come about and what was the inspiration behind it all?
BM: It is actually a concept album something I’m sure I’ve sworn at some point I would never attempt. Movies inform everything we do in Hotels (wait till the next album!) and I’ve always loved Bond films. For years, I’d been imagining and writing short stories about this character; a secret agent named “Smith”. On one hand, he’s an unbeatable Bond-esque super agent, but on the other hand he also goes against a lot of those clichés he gets lonely, misses his friends and family, and sometimes longs for the life of a civilian. I started to think of what ‘Casino Royale’ would have been like if we had written, directed, starred in, and scored it, AND it was set in outer space (for good measure). The answer is “On The Casino Floor”.
SS: On The Casino Floor is a bit of a departure from your last album. While a couple of songs retain the pop feel of WHGB, some of the new songs are heavier. “Sleep In Fame”, for example, has a more serious feel. It’s pretty epic.
BM: Well, as you said, the songs are more cinematic and that’s by design. Of course, there’s the notion that it’s a soundtrack to an imaginary film, but I’ve also just been influenced more by film soundtracks in recent years than actual pop music stuff like Elliot Goldenthal, Angelo Badalamenti, and of course the late great John Barry. For some reason, film music almost doesn’t exist for most people outside of the film it’s featured in; it’s an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ sort of thing. But what if film music was also pop music? Pop songs often make it into movies, but film music rarely ever makes it as pop. Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack is one of the few exceptions I can think of. The new songs you’re hearing are our attempt to make ‘film pop’.
SS: I heard the first single off your new album on KEXP – The Bat Watusi. Great song but what the heck is the “Bat Watusi”?
BM: Technically speaking, The Bat Watusi was a dance Adam West did in the old Batman TV show in an episode where for some reason he had to dance in a nightclub. In regards to the album, though, it’s the codename of the Smith’s mission. His agency doesn’t do things ‘by the book’, so they delivered his mission directives in song form, in the lyrics.
SS: This album is a bit shorter than your last, almost an EP. Why a shorter album?
BM: We wanted to do a compact suite of songs that all fit together without any filler. First rule of show business is ‘always leave them wanting more’, no? Or was it ‘never trust a producer who wants to audition you in his private office’?
SS: You’ve released your last two albums through Hidden Shoal Recordings. How did a local Seattle band get signed to an Australian indie-label?
BM: The credit goes to Hotels alum Rich Bennett. He found Hidden Shoal online when he was looking for someone to release an album by his band Monocle. He recommended them, we exchanged some emails, and the rest is intercontinental history.
SS: What is your earliest memory involving music? When did you decide you wanted to become a musician?
BM: Probably listening to Louis Armstrong records with my grandpa. Other than that, I was painfully clueless in regards to any popular music for a good chunk of my youth. I think up until about 12 or 13 the only music I owned was an En Vogue cassete single. The funny thing is that I didn’t seriously want to be a musician until a few years after I was already playing music. I started playing guitar in junior high because it was cool, and when I got asked to join my friend’s pop-punk band I thought I was the hottest shit on the planet, but really had no clue what I was doing or why, a fact highlighted by my ousting a short time later. In high school, I had some great older musical mentors who taught me to look deeper; to really dig in to music, and by the time I was 18, I felt like I actually ‘got it’. I was hearing things in music that other people weren’t hearing, and caring about things that other people weren’t caring about; stuff deeper than ‘this song rocks’ or ‘this song sucks’. I wanted to get to the heart of things, and I’m still digging.
SS: How do you approach writing songs? Do you write a song start to finish? Do you have to be inspired or can you just sit down and knock ‘em out?
BM: No, I can’t do it ‘business-like’ like Prince, who blows his nose and a song comes out. I write in bits and pieces, and then look for ways to smash those pieces together later. I read somewhere once that the bass line to The National Anthem was something Thom Yorke wrote when he was 13 and I thought it was crazy at the time, but now I find myself doing that fitting together melodies that are 5 and 6 years old with stuff I just came up with. It feels kind of cool actually; a combination of black magic and time travel.
SS: Now that you have three albums under your belt, how would you say your music has evolved over the years since Hotels first began?
BM: We used to wear our influences on our sleeve, and perhaps that sleeve was all black, attached to a shirt with a skinny tie, and on an arm that was only reaching in one direction. As a musician and a person, the older you get, (hopefully) the more you expand your vision and scope of influence. The key word you mentioned is ‘evolved’, because some bands don’t evolve at all and are even proud of it. There’s a conscious effort with each album to evolve, and I think with On The Casino Floor, it’s probably the first time we’ve put out something that really can’t be pigeonholed as any one thing, but is also distinctly our own sound.
SS: In terms of influences, there’s definitely a Joy Division/New Order vibe to your music. I imagine you’ve been compared to them time and again. Does it bother you? How would you describe your sound or characterize the band?
BM: File this under “lying in the bed we made for ourselves” category. Joy Division will always be one of my favorite bands if not my favorite band and when we first started out, we used to say things like “We’re the bastard love child of Devo and Joy Division!” because a) they WERE huge influences b) we were looking for an audience and thought we knew where to find it and c) we own a billion synths and I enjoy hanging myself. But if you listen to the first song on our first album all the way through to the last one on Casino Floor, I don’t think you can ignore the evolution of the music and the fundamental shift in songwriting. If people want to keep hitting those go-to comparisons without bothering to check if they still make sense, they should probably lock themselves in a room with our first album and pretend we broke up in 2006. But as I said, we did it to ourselves a bit, and the only thing we can do is keep making more and more diverse records. How many uber-soft hits did the Goo Goo Dolls have to make before people stopped considering them a punk band?
SS: The Alt-country/Folk sound is really popular right now, with great artists like the Head and the Heart, Campfire OK, Fleet Foxes and The Moondoggies capturing the charts and playlists. Does that worry you given Hotels’ sound is nowhere near country or folk?
BM: In Seattle, I think it actually helps us. It’s still a guitar and vocal driven music scene, and I think we’re one of the few bands that doesn’t quite fit that mold and actually goes in the opposite direction a lot of the time.
SS: What is the ultimate direction for Hotels? What constitutes success for the band?
BM: The direction is up and out. I think we make about as much sound as four people can make when we play, but I’m curious to see what happens when we add even more elements. Strings. Horns. Guest vocalists. More electronics. This Saturday will actually be our first foray into playing with an extended lineup. If it works out, I could see us doing more of it in the future. As for success, our measure is somewhere between ‘paying my rent off of music’ and ‘arena show with twirling drumset and flaming gong’.
SS: I’m really looking forward to Hotels’ CD release show. What can we expect for the show this Saturday?
BM: You must expect the unexpected! First, there’s the extended lineup I mentioned. Our old drummer Max Wood is returning on percussion, Gabe Mintz will be playing acoustic guitar and singing backup, and Kim Miller from Mono In VCF will also be singing. The whole night is casino themed. We’ll have baked goods, a signature cocktail, burlesque dancers, a prize wheel to win merchandise, a costume contest for the best-dressed, and we’ll cap it all off with a dance party spun by KEXP’s Marco Collins. You will also lose far less money attending our show than at a real casino.
SS: Sounds great!! Thanks for taking the time to talk to Seismic-Sound.com
Hotels new album On The Casino Floor releases this week. They’re playing the Columbia City Theater this Saturday, February 26th with The Royal Bear and Devil Whale, co-sponsored by Seismic-Sound. Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/153571