From what I hear, L.A. is a strange city; superficial and over-polluted, and devoid in some ways of normal human activity. But I’ve never been, so how would I know?
Mondo, the debut album from Electric Guest, has given me pause about that perception. Danceable and at times strangely beautiful, the music paints its location as kindly as Motown did Detroit or old school hip hop New York. The brainchild of San Fran transplant Asa Taccone, and supported by mega-producer Danger Mouse, Mondo is the year’s populist indie pop record.
I recently phoned Taccone during some touring downtime to talk about his music, lyrics and a life-changing high-speed car chase.
Is leading Electric Guest the first opportunity you’ve had to see the world?
Yeah, yeah. First time out of California for the most part. All the other guys have been in bands before and everywhere we go – Chicago! Paris! – makes me realize how I’ve been a California dude forever.
Were you primarily responsible for getting Electric Guest off the ground?
I don’t know about “getting it off the ground.” I still don’t know how it ended up getting heard by human beings. In terms of the actual music, that just came from me working away in my room for years, surrounded by a body of friends and people that just didn’t do shit. Super stagnant.
One night I was out with a group of friends and we saw this girl getting beat up at the side of the road and tried to help her. In some weird twist she got really angry with us. I dunno if [the attacker] was her boyfriend or something, but he got some friends and started following us in a crazy high-speed chase. They smashed our windows with a hammer. The next day I thought, “Fuck this, I’m not doing this for the rest of my life.”
All the while I’d known Brian [Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse]. His career was taking off at this point, so I moved in with him. His friend had a proper studio in his basement. Saved a bit of money and wrote for a few years. After some time I met Matt [Compton, drums]. Brian encouraged me to sing and agreed to produce for us.
I find that odd, considering your voice is pretty striking. I could imagine a major label from the ‘50s or ‘60s getting behind it.
Shit, man, thanks. I go back and forth on it. I sing in falsetto because of that, because I hate the sound of my regular voice but I’m getting more comfortable with it.
Does each show improve your faith in it?
I think so. It’s almost like each crazy situation on tour that we overcome [improves my confidence.] Before we played Letterman I’d woken up that morning without a voice, no falsetto. I went to a private doctor, cost me $400 just to walk in the door. Got a B12 shot to free up my voice. I had no [perspective] on how the performance ultimately went, but the next night I watched it in a bar after a show with some fans and I was freaking out. But I was so surprised, we pulled it off! Little things like that. Even in less-than-good health, I can still do it.
As a Canadian kid I only hear horror stories about L.A. Has it inspired your music in a positive way?
It’s a place that can live up to its stereotypes. It’s taken me a while to feel comfortable here. It’s more like the way I dealt with it inspired the record. The songs “Awake” and “Control” are California songs. Brian and I had taken a trip to San Francisco where I’d grown up. Got super inspired, came back and wrote “Awake.”
In some interviews you’ve expressed ambivalence about your lyrics. How important are they to you, in terms of the impact of the songs?
That’s interesting. To me they’re probably the most important part.
Maybe more so explaining the meaning ...
My mom came to one of our shows and on the way home I found she’d printed out all the lyrics and was like “Explain these to me.” We went back and forth, she saying what she thought I was going for and me offering my own explanations. Some of her ideas were just way different. I don’t want to take away anyone’s interpretation.
Have you heard your music accidentally yet?
I haven’t heard the record played too much, just through some local radio stations. I’ve heard “Troubleman” which is a nine-minute song. What the fuck? A friend of mine told me, “Man, I love that song, they play it in the morning but it takes up my whole drive to work!” Where you guys located?
Man, I just bought a bunch of records and about half were Canadian. Two Grimes records, Mac DeMarco. Really into that shit.
Do you listen to a lot of contemporary music? Electric Guest has an old-fashioned quality.
It’s so easy to say, “No, just late ‘60s, early ‘70s”, the golden age for everybody. I can understand that; lyrically I take a lot from that. Unfortunately, irony and apathy have dominated our generation and made people insecure about being more overt lyrically. There was more meaning and humanity back then. That said the contemporary music I do love can be pretty obscure [lyrically], like the first MGMT record.