Interview: Kills Birds, on origins, neuroses and finding punk rock via ‘American Idol’

Kills Birds (Photo by Jenna Putnam)

In the Buzz Bands LA interview, Nina Ljeti and Jacob Loeb of Kills Birds talk about how their rock band got ready to fly. Their debut album takes off Sept. 20.

Kills Birds derive their name from the first verse on their album: “This flower / kills birds / When she dies / she rots like flesh.” It’s the whole album in a couplet — beauty, peril, mystery, anxiety — conveyed over throbbing, then exploding, post-punk/noise-rock primitivism.

The narrator is Nina Ljeti, a self-professed outsider, a filmmaker and a Bosnia-born Canadian whose parents fled Sarajevo as the city was on the precipice of war. She eventually matriculated to NYU to study drama and then to L.A. to further her film career. A few years ago, she befriended musician Jacob Loeb (of the band Golden Daze), and they intermittently began collaborating on music, at first with no serious intentions.

When the project did get serious — and bassist Fielder Thomas and drummer Bosh Rothman came on board — things did not immediately go smoothly. There was an ill-fated recording session, which fostered doubts. Then producer Justin Raisen, founder of KRO Records found them. “Kills Birds,” which comes out Sept. 20, was recorded in virtually one eight-hour session.

The album is 26 minutes of exposed nerves. Ljeti’s speak-singing builds to primal caterwauls, then recedes again. The music’s paroxysms open a vein to her inner frustrations, even if they are only opaquely described in the lyrics. It’s visceral and physical music — as led by somebody who didn’t know punk rock until one fateful night after she watched “American Idol” (stay tuned for that story).

Buzz Bands LA got together with Ljeti and Loeb in Silver Lake to talk about origins, neuroses, bursts of creativity, going crazy and watching your parents cry:

Buzz Bands LA: How did you two get together and when did you decide there was some kind of musical bond?

Ljeti: We met in 2013 when we were both working on a film together, and we became friends. There was a time a few years ago when we were both really frustrated at where we were in our lives. So we started getting together and, as a joke, we would make these songs — R&B tracks, disco tracks, whatever we could think of at the time. We realized that we were actually pretty good at writing music together.

Loeb: We wrote a couple songs and thought, “Yeah, this is interesting.” We’re the kind of friends that if we’re hanging out, something’s going to get created. It’s how we relate.

Ljeti: I had written a few songs while I was in Toronto on a job, and I brought them to Jacob. We started experimenting with them and ultimately that became the song “High.”

Loeb: I think when we wrote “High,” there was a moment of, “There’s something here, something we want to explore.” As Nina mentioned, we were trying a lot of different genres and things in sort of a half-assed, joking way. Just fucking around, like friends do. When we wrote “High,” we landed on solid ground, not just in terms of our musical interests but what we wanted to say. It became our starting point.

Ljeti: A whole year went by before we decided to actually start a band, to bring some people together and try it out for fun.

Did you guys have any outside input during this process?

Loeb: No, it was super-private. … It was never a real “secret,” but it was just how we hung out.

I get the feeling, though, that this wasn’t terribly structured …

Ljeti: No. After “High,” we wrote “Volcano” and then “Ow,” all in very chaotic ways. Jacob would just incite me to go crazy. I was going through a very difficult time emotionally, so Jacob would just say, “Fuck it. Fuck being constructive, fuck verse-chorus-verse, just say what’s on your mind.”

Can you elaborate on the difficult time?

Ljeti: I’m an immigrant. I’m not from here. Around that time, I was at a standstill with my film career, fearing that I would not be able to find work and have to go back to Canada. And that the life I built in the States would just end. I was seeking security in unavailable people, and I felt very lonely. Very agitated, very frustrated. There’s a certain kind of person that I want to be, but I’m not really capable of being that kind of person — the kind who just relaxes and has fun and lets things happen. All that was at a boiling point when we wrote “Volcano” and “Ow.”

I came to L.A. from New York, where although I was living in a studio apartment I could look out the window and see the whole world was there. I come here and I look out my window, and I see nothing and nobody. I’m not in any clique, I don’t know the right people. … That’s what “Volcano” is about: “I wish I was a volcano / but I think I’m just a rock …” Like all these things that I want to be that I’m not. We wrote that together, very quickly, in like 20 minutes. When you’re sitting there for a long time trying to figure something out, that’s when you lose your passion for it. I’m a believer that when something comes out, it should just exist, as is.

Really? That song came in a 20-minute spurt?

Loeb: Some artists talk about it like, “I didn’t write those songs, they just wrote me, man,” and I think there can be truth to that. I think that our best work often unfolds that way. But what gets you there are the hours you spend just trying things. There’s a lot of toil that goes into those “Holy-shit-did-we-just-write-that” moments.

Ljeti: When the moment’s there, you feel it. … When we wrote “Worthy Girl,” we were mad at each other and not talking. I came to his house to write, but we literally sat back to back.

That’s the song that starts, “This flower / kills birds” — the lyric that begins the whole album. Are you the flower in that song?

Ljeti: No … There’s a specific flower that song is written for, but it’s not me.

Loeb: (Laughing) No one is ever gonna know who that flower is.

Jacob, this music is so much different than the music you do in Golden Daze …

Loeb: I’m interested in a lot of different things. When I’m collaborating with somebody, which is certainly the case here and in Golden Daze, I love thinking of myself as in service of somebody else’s voice. I like that process, including the search for common musical ground. I have a vast number of influences and I consider myself very flexible. That manifests differently with different people. I just never envision myself as a person who writes in one voice or in one genre or from one perspective. I get totally different experiences from each band, as I do from the work I do on my own.

Does this music resonate with what you listened to when you were younger?

Ljeti: No, I got into punk music a little later. Growing up I listened to a lot of hip-hop and Bosnian music. And pop, like ’N Sync, Britney Spears. I didn’t have the luxury of having an older adult or sibling to introduce you to what you might like. …

Funny story, I got into punk music because of Nirvana. And the only way I got into Nirvana — I’m gonna be open about this — is because I was sitting with my parents watching “American Idol” and a contestant covered “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. I thought it was cool, so I looked it up online to find out what else sounds like Pearl Jam. And that was how I discovered “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

There’s the headline: How American Idol led me to punk rock!

Ljeti: (Laughing) When I finally got into the Misfits, I started wearing punk-centric clothing like every teenager does. And when I moved away, my mom threw all my clothes away because she couldn’t understand why I would dress like that. … She’s understanding now, and supportive. But at the time, it frightened her: You know, new country, you want your kid to grow up with some semblance of the way she would have if you were still back home.

How old were you when your family settled in Canada?

Ljeti: A year and a half. My dad was a Bosnian Muslim in the Army when the war started, and he knew that if we stayed we would have been persecuted because our last name is Muslim. So my dad went into his general’s office so he could call my mom and make plans to escape. The officer refused, so my dad took out his gun and threatened to shoot the guy. He got to make the call, then escaped the barracks he was in and eventually we ended up in Canada.

My first memories of Canada was my parents watching the news, watching Sarajevo, where we lived, get blown up. And they’re crying, because you’re far away and you can’t do anything. That’s the first memory I have as a kid. That essentially defines me in many ways, and it’s the reason I have anxiety all the time.

That certainly plays out in the way the band performs …

Loeb: One of the things that I think is essential to us as a band, and a reason that people have responded to us, is the athleticism of the live performance. It’s a physical thing. It’s real.

Was this album really recorded in eight hours?

Loeb: Except for minor over-dubbing.

Can you describe those eight hours? Had the band been in a recording studio before?

Loeb: Oh yes, we had some negative experiences going into a studio.

Ljeti: Previously, we had found ourselves in a situation where a producer wanted to manipulate us.

Loeb: It was in the really early stages of the project, and there was a really big ego in the room that actually damaged our band early on. After that experience, it was pretty dark for us. The heartbeat of the band had to be resuscitated. And that’s when we developed a relationship with Justin.

He saw you open for Lawrence Rothman (at the Lodge Room), right?

Ljeti: That was one of our most intense and personal shows.

Loeb: It was also weird and awesome.

You felt you had more simpatico with Justin?

Ljeti: I think he instinctively knew what we were doing. We didn’t really care about what anybody was going to think, we just went in and tried to be ourselves. What’s really great about Justin as a producer is that he really doesn’t try to alter the course, he just heightens what is already there. … He’s also a very emotional and sensitive person, like we are, so the vibe just worked. He knew what to do to capture who we were.

Loeb: He’s like your biggest fan, he’s just hyping you. The previous producer was in every way compressing our band — sonically and everything, making it sound like every other rock radio band. Justin literally and figuratively released the compression. He let us be dynamic, violent and emotional. And because it was just a one-day thing and we thought there was a chance that nobody was ever gonna hear it, the attitude was like “Fuck it.”

Ljeti: We never expected any of this. We had accepted the idea that the record just might come out and that’d be it. We did not expect that [booking agent] Tom Windish would wanna rep us, or that [management company] Monotone would want to come on board, or that we would get the kind of attention we got from Kim Gordon [who called “Worthy Girl” “hot as f*ck”]. Those were all surprises.

Loeb: Especially in the age we are in rock music, we felt we were swimming upstream. So anything we’ve gotten feels like such a joy, because we’re going against the grain of what is hip right now.

How did that Kim Gordon endorsement make you feel?

Ljeti: It’s hard for me to say, because my family raised me to think that when something good happens, you have to shut it down. No celebrating. It doesn’t matter. Maybe five years from now I will look back on that and brag about it, but right now I’m still living in the keep-working-hard, you-don’t-necessarily-deserve-success world. I think Jacob thinks that way, too, which is why we work well together. It’s a very socialist way of thinking.

It’s certainly a working-class way of thinking …

Loeb: It’s true. My family were Jewish farmers from Wisconsin. When something good happened, it was like, “Yeah … We’ll see … Let’s get back to work.”

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were disillusioned with the Los Angeles scene. Was that because you were truly disillusioned or was it because you just hadn’t found your niche or your comfort zone?

Ljeti: It’s more feeling inept and insecure, because a lot of people we were surrounded by have so much privilege by birth. Which is not their fault, but it made me feel insecure that I couldn’t fit in in that way. You know, be able to let things go … We’re also living in a culture now where image and popularity are monetized, and if you don’t achieve that right away, you feel left out. You have a sense that you don’t belong somewhere. I felt disillusioned because I didn’t want to be part of that scene, but I did want to be part of that scene. I mean, everybody wants to fit in. I was somehow incapable of doing it. I became frustrated and angry. I’m still angry that I can’t go into any group of people and just blend.

Loeb: Coming from the Chicago music scene where I grew up, there is a real sense of music community. It’s a cliché, but there are people who are going to be for you, who will watch you grow and help you grow. Coming out to L.A. starting to play in bands, it always felt really hard to garner a real sense of community.

Is there a specific song on the record that speaks to those frustrations?

Ljeti: “Jesus Did” is the most obvious one. You know, “Pretty daughter / famous father / rockstar husband / my dead cousin …”

Loeb: It addresses a lot of those things in a very combative way. There’s a challenge in the song.

Ljeti: To admit that something like that frustrates you is to open yourself up to the audience and admit that you are insecure. Which I’ll readily admit.

Does this music in any artistic way parallel what you do or love in film?

Ljeti: Not at all. For me, film is about how I can stylize something. The band is no filter, all visceral, even if it’s not always pretty.

Loeb: This is definitely Nina, out of the director’s chair.

Have there been any other promising signs?

Ljeti: I saved a hummingbird the other day. It was laying on the ground face up. I picked it up and put it in one of my mom’s gypsy scarves. Then my neighbor brought some nectar and it ate it, revived itself and flew away. And it was the same day as our Echo Park Rising show.

||| Live: Kills Birds celebrate their album release with a show Sept. 19 at the Bootleg Theater (tickets). They also play Desert Daze in October.

||| Previously: Live at Echo Park Rising, “Worthy Girl”