This might be their first tour together, but Jesse Clasen and Jacob Michael have seen it all before.
The duo’s latest project, synth-pop band Foreign Air, marks a new stylistic direction for both of them, after spending the majority of the last decade playing around the country in more “conventional” rock bands.
Despite (or maybe because of) the novelty of their current sound, Clasen and Michael are raring to get back on the road and in front of live audiences. The songs might be new and relatively green, but at its core, the elements of an engaging performance remain the same, as lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Clasen explains:
“Everyone we tour with has been playing live for a long time and feels comfortable making things work in a live setting.”
Clasen and Michael have known each other for a while, a friendship forged over years spent in each other’s orbit within the rough and tumble world of touring musicians. While they haven’t quite thrown out their guitars to buy turntables, the tools of their trade are slightly different from past incarnations – synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines drive the groove this time around. Sitting in their rehearsal space in Charlotte, North Carolina when I reach them, they are putting the final touches on translating the sounds from their latest EP, For the Light, into a compelling live experience.
“That’s definitely one of the benefits of our experience playing in live bands,” Clasen continues, assuredly. “We can take the electronic elements that are new to our world and marry them to the traditional live show.”
If their experience and track record is anything to go by, it’s safe to say that audiences are in for a treat.
Foreign Air play Washington DC’s U Street Music Hall on October 27, and New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on October 29. For the Light EP is out now on Spotify and Soundcloud
Brightest Young Things: How are things going as you prepare to head out on your first tour?
Jacob Michael: Well, the tour starts on Monday, but we’ll probably leave on Saturday. It starts in Minneapolis, then goes to Chicago before we come down to D.C., New York, Philly, and then Boston. We’re pretty busy for the rest of the year, and we’re heading out to LA for some recording before linking up with Aurora. The plan is to do a little West Coast run with her to wrap up the year.
BYT: For the Light EP has been getting quite a lot of positive attention. Do you guys plan on incorporating the songs from that into any upcoming album, or are you recording all new material?
Jacob: I think it’s gonna be new material. We’re not sure if we’re doing another EP or an album next, but it’s not planned that we’ll put out a record and have half of those songs on it already out.
BYT: Tell me a bit about the genesis of the band. How did you two link up originally?
Jesse Clasen: We met about ten years ago in North Carolina, when we were both playing a show on the same bill for different bands we’d been in for a long time. We sort of kept in touch, and helped each other out. Whenever I was coming through DC Jake would help my band book a show, or we’d play together again, or offer a couch to crash – you know, as most people do in that touring life. Eventually, both of our projects were slowing down and I’d been sending him some demos over Dropbox.
We ended up getting together in North Carolina because Jake wanted to see what would happen if we were in the same room and working on some of the ideas I had been sending him. We kept meeting up in different places and the project formed naturally – we didn’t have any initial plans to turn this into a live band, or even something we would necessarily release.
BYT: What changed for you that made you want to release it?
Jesse: I think songs just started to pile up – we were up to like 18 or 19 ideas, and we realized there was a vibe here. We realized we had all this material and a sound was coming together in a cohesive way. We put some stuff on Soundcloud, and a friend heard it and sent “Free Animal” around – and shortly after Billboard wanted to premiere it. So we made social media pages that same weekend, and put it out the very next day. [Laughs]
BYT: You were both touring musicians for a long time. What lessons would you say you learned in your previous lives or projects that you’ve brought with you to Foreign Air?
Jacob: Probably a little bit of everything, to be honest. Both of our bands were really self sufficient and started out really small, doing a lot of things by ourselves and booking our own tours, recording our own music, self-releasing – all of this things added up to where we are now. It was interesting to fly out and meet with labels and them not knowing our history, but trying to get us ready for the next step. But we’ve already done that and beyond on before our own, without a label or a team. We kind of fell into this. Jesse, do you feel the same way?
Jesse: Yeah, I think with bedroom music making culture a lot of people are self-sufficient in producing music on their own, and when it comes to performing it live it can be very difficult to figure out how to incorporate and have a live show when there are a lot of electronic elements. You see different artists approach it in so many ways – some bands are basically DJing, and using Ableton Live.
Since we have a background in more traditional rock bands for the last decade we try to bring that element to our music, and play with a live drummer. We’re still figuring it all out, but I think the experience helped us, for sure. Our current lineup is the two of us, a drummer, and a guitar player.
Jacob: Jesse does a lot of the vocal looping live, and it’s a big element to the show. But yeah, it was hugely important to us to have a live drummer.
BYT: Who would you say are your primary influences, sonically? Are there any artists you look to as reference points?
Jesse: There are so many different things. I feel like every decade has its moments. This project was really focused in finding inspiration in the tools, and Jake and I hit it off through a newfound love for samplers and drum machines and synthesizers, whereas we weren’t using that very much in our recent projects. It was very much a gear thing. Looking back in history and checking out the first albums to use an 808 drum machine – Yellow Magic Orchestra records, or Talking Heads records, Marvin Gaye.
For me, vocally, I really like the production on some of those older Kate Bush records, which was more about the way reverbs were compressed. Obviously, the bass in hip hop and that whole mindset of sampling in the 90s plays a big part, as we were both born in the 80s. And you know, modern pop music, with all the synth tones in there. But ultimately, I think it’s more of a love for gear. There’s so much music it’s hard to pinpoint specifics.
Jacob: Yeah, I’d say it’s music in general and the desire to create something new. Music is really exciting right now, and some of the stuff our peers are putting out is fantastic. We want to do our own thing.
BYT: You guys have had songs featured on Shameless, on a Nike commercial – do you think this sort of high profile placement is necessary for a band to breakthrough in 2016?
Jesse: I think for us it works really well, because not only is it exposure, but it’s money coming in the door. We are doing this independently and haven’t signed with a label yet. This has really let us go on tour and create a sustainable business. These are more like collaborations than endorsements, but they’re another way to get the music out there.
BYT: What show would you like to produce the soundtrack for if given the chance?
Jesse: Interesting. [Pause] Maybe the new Twin Peaks that’s supposed to be coming out? Yeah, I think that would be a lot of fun to be honest, to do our twist on it, using some of the instruments from the era. I support that decision one hundred percent. [Laughs]
BYT: Next thing you know, you’ll be getting a DM from David Lynch.
Jesse: [Laughs] Highly doubtful, but you can dream.
BYT: You guys both live in North Carolina now – what do you think is North Carolina’s best contribution to the United States?
Jesse: Off the top of my head? Nina Simone.
Jacob: I still live in D.C., by the way. I’m just never home, but I still live there. [Laughs]
BYT: Oh. Never mind that, then. All the info online says you guys are living down there.
Jacob: Yeah, everyone’s been naming a different hometown for us, and we decided to stop correcting them and just go along with it. [Laughs]