Interview: Alex Kerns (Lemuria)

featured / Interviews / News / Special Features / February 2, 2018

Since the release of their full-length debut, Get Better, in 2007, indie-pop trio Lemuria have treated listeners to amazingly catchy, energetic songs (“Pants,” am I right?). The band — made up of singer/guitarist Sheena Ozzella, bassist Max Gregor, and singer/drummer Alex Kerns — put out albums on Asian Man and Bridge 9, along with a slew of singles to keep fans satiated in the breaks between LPs. In addition to all of this, Lemuria has kept up a steady stream of self-released records.

Their secret releases, in particular, have become an annual tradition, bringing everything from tour-only screen-printed b-side singles, to clear 12″s customized with the purchaser’s name. For this year’s holiday mystery package, however, fans got a true surprise: the band’s brand new full-length, Recreational Hate, on Lemuria’s very own, brand new label, Turbo Worldwide.

A brilliant collection of songs, it sees the band keeping their melodic hooks intact, but enriching the melodies even further, and spreading out sonically, courtesy of some artfully applied pedal steel. Producer Chris Shaw (Weezer, Cheap Trick) takes the band’s formerly scrappy sound and brings it up to fighting weight, resulting in Recreational Hate being the sort of album which retains everything that made Lemuria so good, while offering a glimpse at what might make them great.

Those who slept on the mystery package have been able to listen to the record’s 10 songs via streaming sites or purchase it digitally via Bandcamp, but the retail release of Recreational Hate happens on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, with distribution via Asian Man in the United States and in Europe though Big Scary Monsters.

Starting a new label and surprise-releasing a full-length LP is a big deal, and we were lucky enough to speak by phone with Kerns, all about Recreational Hate and the band’s plans for 2018.

Modern Vinyl: The new album is really striking.

Alex Kerns: Thank you. Striking in a good way or striking in a bad way?

MV: Good way. Like, for example, the pedal steel on the album is so cool. Who was that?

AK: This guy in Austin. His name’s Don Don [Pawlak], and he’s just such a great player. It’s really hard to find a good pedal steel player, and since we were recording in Austin, we were just like, “Well, we’re here and we know this guy who is really good at this,” and we had these songs that were kind of like, the right mood for a pedal steel.

He came in, and honestly — every take that he did — it was really hard to choose. We were just like, “Wow, this is perfect,” you know? We’re really happy with it.

MV: It’s obviously a Lemuria album, but there’s this sense of — “growth” is such a simplistic reduction — but the band sounds so much more full. Like, am I mistaken, or am I hearing Max [Gregor, bass] sing more on these songs?

AK: Yeah, Max is singing a lot more. He’s doing a lot of back-ups and stuff, especially on “Wanted to Be Yours” and a few other songs. For this album, we did a lot more demos of the songs than usual, [so] instead of just writing a song, doing one demo, and giving it to whoever was recording, like, “This is an idea for a song,” then [we would] come in and play it.

With this, since we didn’t have any deadlines, we just kind of sent songs back and forth a lot, and it was a little more interactive. Everybody had a little more time to really think out what they wanted to do, and that meant a lot more harmony options and stuff like that.

MV: Was the plan to surprise everyone with a new album in the cards from the beginning, or was that something that developed?

AK: That was something that developed. When we recorded the album, we didn’t really know what we were going to do with it. We were thinking about shopping it around and stuff like that, because we were finished up with Bridge 9. They were great, but we knew we weren’t going to be putting this out with them. We wanted to try something different.

We self-funded everything ourselves, and we spent a little more money than we normally would [by] going to a more notable producer [Chris Shaw]. Also, the studio we rented was a little bit better and a little fancier than what we’ve worked in. So, we all became invested in it and attached to it.

It was such a long process of making the album, and a lot of our personal time had gone into it, too, so when we were done, the idea of just throwing everything over to a third party was not something we were excited about.

I used to run a record label, Art of the Underground, so I was like, “I know how to get a record pressed,” and Max does a lot of stuff in Austin that’s music-related, like PR. He’s really good at like, budgeting things. I’m not good at that. So, we were like: “We can just do it. Let’s just do it this way.” The secret bundles we’d done in the past, like the demo and the Get Better outtakes, had always done really well, so we could do it that way, and it would fund the pressing of the record itself. We’d already paid for the recording.

We were like, “I think people’s expectations will be exceeded,” because the ones we did before — they were probably expecting some shitty live tracks, or even more outtakes. We thought people would be excited to hear new stuff and that it would be the next step for the band, but it just kind of developed over time.

MV: When did the recording take place?

AK: A lot of it took place in February of 2016, but we finished a lot of it earlier [in 2017], and the mixing process kind of took a while. We went back and forth a lot. But, we’ve been working on it for about two years, and even before that — before we went in the studio in 2016 — there was a lot of demo’ing.

The band never really officially took a hiatus — we were doing shows and stuff — but I got married, Sheena got married, I moved twice, there was just a bunch of big changes, so we just ended up working around not your typical kind of band schedule of keeping the momentum going.

We were just like, “Let’s make the album we want to make and take our time.”

MV: Where’d you end up recording in Austin?

AK: It was actually two different studios. We did all the instruments at Arlyn Studios, which is Willie Nelson’s old studio, and it was beautiful. I mean, the place is just gorgeous, and the rooms just sound so great. We went and did the vocals at Chris Gage’s house, who is the guy who plays a lot of the piano on the record. He has a home studio, and the Arlyn Studios are kind of an expensive place to book. Chris Shaw, who was engineering the record, was just like, “There’s really no reason to spend this much a day to do vocals here if you can just go do it at your friend’s place.”

MV: It’s cool that you recorded in a big, famous studio, but also in your friend’s house. That’s a great contrast.

AK: It was nice to do it in the house, because while it was nice to be in the really cool, crazy-expensive, nice studio, it’s hard not to think while you’re there: “Time is money. Time is money” (laughs). When we were doing the vocals, it was just like, we can just settle in and focus on getting the mood right, and getting the sentences and the lyrics saying what they mean. Do you know what I’m saying?

MV: I imagine that would be very important, especially on the album’s last track, “Best Extra.” The lyrics on that song — the first time I was listening to it really closely, it was really quiet at my day job, and I was just like: “Oh, man. That is just spot-on for right now.”

AK: (chuckles) Yeah, it really was the first time I’ve ever recorded and just felt comfortable while singing. Almost like how I really would sing, you know? And, just like, it had a lot to do with Chris Shaw and how his headphone levels were or whatever. The atmosphere was just right, and it was like I felt like I was singing along to a band, and not just hearing myself awkwardly singing over a CD.

MV: Every Lemuria album sounds good, but this one sounds especially warm. Like you say: it’s as if you’re sitting there, listening to a band play.

AK: I like that you think it’s a good headphone record. A lot of the panning stuff was really important for the songs, especially “Want to Be Yours.” When I make demos, I’m not really like, a good production guy. I’m not good at recording demos. When I send songs over to Sheena and Max, it’s like, “Here’s a crappy recording of a song idea,” but we sent those over to Chris Shaw, too.

When he was going over them, he was like, “I noticed that some of your lyrics are panned hard left and right, and some are right up the center: do you want them that way?” I was like, “If you want? If you think that sounds good.” I think he was like, “I don’t think it sounds good in the demo, but we can take that idea and make it sound good,” so that’s what we did.

The only reason I did that in the demo was because I was singing everybody’s part in the demo, so I’ll sing Sheena’s parts and Max’s parts in higher ranges than I would feel comfortable myself, but I’ll just pan things differently so that it’s distinguishable. That panning, though, makes it a good headphone record, because you can hear where it’s going left and right.

MV: That really helps capture the chaotic aesthetic of a song like “Kicking In.”

AK: That takes a little 180, where it’s got the little intro. The idea with that was to have a jarring beginning and then the remainder of the song is so out of left field from everything we normally do – it’s quirky and dreamy – that it felt like it needed…I don’t know how to explain it. It didn’t come out of the gates right, and if you just had it without the intro, it would just be kind of weird, coming out of left field. The intro kind of validates it to fit in with the rest of the album.

Recreational Hate is available on vinyl from Bandcamp.

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Nick Spacek
Nick Spacek was once a punk, but realized you can’t be hardcore and use the word “adorable” as often as he does. Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with four cats and usually goes to bed by 9. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online.

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