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De Lux’s Sean Guerin and Isaac Franco talk about friendship, crepes and synths as mighty as the Powerpuff Girls. Their new album “More Disco Songs About Love” is out Friday.
The notion of “dancing your way through life” sums up the way De Lux’s Sean Guerin and Isaac Franco traverse their existential crises with disco pop. Out this week on Innovative Leisure, the duo’s third album, “More Disco Songs About Love,” deals with personal struggles, creative anxiety and that persistent silly need to find purpose and meaning in things we do through the hurdles that fall on our path. On the music side, a trip to Del Taco inspired the guys to approach their rhythm sections like Michael Jackson, while their love of video games gave them the idea of taking a focus-group approach to crafting songs.
For the most part speaking as one — because at this point these two old friends are psychically synced — Guerin and Franco answer some questions about their lyrics and songcraft. Read on to discover how many layers it takes to get to the bottom of a De Lux song, the beauty of filters that mimic prehistoric animals and how making crepes is a useful analogy for understanding music taste.
Buzz Bands LA: I read that the writing process for the album began with “experiments.” What kind of experiments?
De Lux: Experiments being a couple different things. Like the idea of writing music under a focus group with friends. But also in the recording process. In some songs, the drums were recorded separately and used as samples. Would record just the kick drum, then the snare, and then the hi-hats and toms and piece everything together. We never really did that before. Used a bunch of different effects on certain instruments to make them standout more. Like on “Music Snob,” the hi-hats are going through this filter that makes it sound like a saber-toothed tiger.
Typically how many layers ended up in a song? With so many possibilities available in the recording process, how do you pare it down to what’s essential to the song?
Typically, on the program itself (we use Pro Tools), there might be anywhere from 30 to 60 different layers of vocals, sounds and instruments. Each song differs obviously, but for example on “Keyboards,” there are maybe five different hi-hats going throughout. Each of them mixed in lower or higher and EQ’d slightly different to blend in accordingly. We do strip away from songs, though. The idea is to create a ton of different ideas or layers, then from there get rid of what we don’t need. Sometimes it’s difficult to do. We had a harder time stripping away on our previous records, so this new record feels somewhat even more refreshing.
The lyrics to “Keyboards Because We’re Black And White” are very heartfelt. What situation with a friend inspired this song?
The song is about our friend Ben we used to skate and write random songs with. He’s this tall skinny black dude from London, came here when he was 14. We’ve known him since high school. Rummaging through old hard drives, we found an old project called Keyboards Because We’re Black and White, that we had with him. It was a sort of messing around, raw, funk, hip-hop thing. He had the craziest lyrics on these songs. Fast-forward to right now, he’s dealing with minor schizophrenia for the past four years. We visit him from time to time because he’s in and out of either a ward or halfway house. The song is a reminder for him, and us, to not give up on friends.
There’s some existential crises running through the songs, some relating to life events and others to being an artist. … What kind of hurdles were you going through that inspired the lyrics?
Yeah, every song has its story or struggle. We started writing it in 2016 after a show in New York we had. But we were going through a couple different situations. One being that we got kicked out of our studio because the manager thought we were sleeping there, but we were just up until 8 a.m. on a lot of mornings writing the record, hah hah. We had issues with money. And it sort of drew us apart for a second. It was like that was taking priority over the record and it led to us having stale sessions. But the real reason is we couldn’t find the right direction until we wrote “875 Dollars.” That song sort of gave us something to go off of. Gave it purpose and motivation. And it was really only just the chords, rhythm and synth on a loop that did it for us. The song wasn’t even a song. Most of the time it’s really easy to envision the rest of a song when the foundation feels good. The lyrics are always the hardest. I was writing the lyrics to “These Are” since 2014 in an airport in France. But a lot of these songs stem from personal everyday life thoughts. Having conversations about music with friends and hating on each other’s taste or thinking about age and getting super nostalgic depression.
||| Stream: “875 Dollars”
What’s the story behind “875 Dollars?” Did someone lose their house?
Sean Guerin: “875” is about my childhood home. It’s about the house, and the idea of how it could be saved and lived in with my three best friends. This is fantasy. Currently, it’s still in the process of being sold. But at the time when we wrote it, it was looking grim. My parents have had it for 20 years. So the song is a fabricated version of the real story. But the amount of emotion is real.
Did you write “Stratosphere Girl” with The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart in mind to sing on it? How did that come about?
Originally, no. We jam-recorded an instrumental maybe three years ago. But they got in contact with us about Mark putting vocals on the album and we were ecstatic about the idea. He is on the same publishing company as us. So we searched for the right song and it ended up being that jam. But he actually only recorded vocals to bass and drums. Ended up re-writing guitar sections. And it was weird at first, because his vocals are all over the place (in an awesome Pop Group way) and constantly changing. Thought it might be interesting to make a ton of different guitar sections to compliment that.
It’s been so long since we were guys who just listened to music and not created it.
Can you explain how video games inspired you to get friends and family involved in giving feedback about your album while you were working on it?
On our previous records, we always kept the writing to ourselves. Sort of like a “We don’t give a shit” what anyone else thinks attitude. And since it’s only two of us, whenever we had a writing disagreement, we would call up our friend Austin to get his opinion to get a 2 on 1. But we would end up just dismissing him every time anyway. He acted as a musical therapist we didn’t listen to. Anyway, on this record we decided to embrace hate and criticism. Started to realize that as video game lovers, we have a consumer’s point of view. But with music, we have a writer’s point of view. It’s been so long since we were guys who just listened to music and not created it. With video games, they have a focus group process. They have play-testers. They have people come in who play and don’t create. It’s hard to be objective. So we would send some of the songs to friends and get their opinions. And most of our friends like our music, but are honest enough with us to tell us if the song sucks. And we like that. So we really listened this time. Because if you can write music through the lens of a listener, all the while sustaining your artistic integrity, you wind up with something very satisfying and reassuring.
Like the Powerpuff Girls, we got three unique special abilities
How many different synthesizers appear on this record? Do you have a favorite?
We honestly don’t have many. We use a Yamaha DX7 FD II, a Juno 6 and a Moog Voyager. The DX7 is the weirdo one, the Juno is smooth, and the Moog has power. Like the Powerpuff Girls, we got three unique special abilities. If we were to choose, the DX7 is our fave. Makes up 80 percent of the sounds.
What aspects of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson influenced the way you constructed your rhythm sections?
Isaac Franco: While we were in the drive thru for Del Taco, Michael Jackson was on the radio. And I noticed that the rhythm section was so steady. The drums really didn’t do many fills or be flashy. It was the production around the rhythm section that provided variation. And that concept made it on a lot of the songs like “These Are Some Of The Things” or “Writing Music For Money.”
Sean Guerin: As far as Stevie Wonder, this was a big change and an interesting one. I was 21 when I really listened to Talking Heads. A lot of people compare my voice to David Byrne, understandably so. And it’s actually an amalgam of me, sounding like my brother, sounding a bit like Prince and David Byrne. I grew up in high school hearing his voice at shows or on his recordings. And I look up to my brother, so I had adopted that tone. Not knowing until later that Byrne was a voice I had taken on, to an extent. But listening to Stevie Wonder on drives I would sing along. And never would I ever be able to sing like that or sound like him. And singing along to him, I realized I naturally would sing in my own way as much as I possibly could. So I feel like my voice has taken new shapes on this record without really realizing it. Think it has room to grow, but I like where I’m at. As far as production, we wanted to let the vocal melody drive the song rather than the rhythm. Now the rhythm supports the vocals. And Stevie Wonder does just that. I’m an atheist, but he’s so magical I almost believed God was real.
How did Sean’s mom end up on the album talking about crepes?
Sean Guerin: There was a missing piece in “Music Snob” between the two choruses. I tried guitar lines or weird synth sounds but nothing was coming across as interesting or snobby. And the choruses sing “I guess I wouldn’t know how to show you what my taste is like.” So I got my mom on in French to explain that making crepes can be different for everyone. Essentially saying you can’t teach the right way to make crepes, everyone’s taste is different. And that was the right snobbish attitude I was looking for.
A vacation has consequences
On “Writing Music For Money,” are you saying that the prospect of vacation motivates you to do things for work that you would otherwise find unbearable?
Sean Guerin: Sort of a double-edged sword here. On one hand, I could write music for money and end up with a vacation. Or I could write music for money, to write more music. The point being that a vacation has consequences. As an artist a vacation means less struggle. And the more I write, the more I realize, having it easier leads to a creative block. Less to write about. Less emotion or motivation. At least for myself. But using that money to keep writing more music has always been the goal. It’s sort of this never-ending circle where I accept bad or interesting things into my life, only to use them for good or interesting creative output. So in this case, I can wait for the vacation.
||| Live: De Lux celebrates the release of “More Disco Songs About Love” on Friday night at the Regent Theater. Tickets.