Q&A: Lisa Savidge
Phoenix-based noise pop practitioners Lisa Savidge got their start when frontman Dan Somers tired of his days working as a government assassin (yes you read that right–take that with a grain salt or not) and decided to channel his energy to create music with a larger-than-life sound. With two full-length LP, Stolen Sounds and Lisa Savidge, full of tracks that are equal parts pummeling guitar fury and Pink Floyd style cinematic darkness, he seems close to achieving his lofty goal.
In a Q&A with Indies and The Underground, Somers talks about why he had to leave his government gig, the Boy Meets World-inspired origins of Lisa Savidge, plans for an elaborate stage show and why he thinks Lady Gaga and Kanye are just playing it safe.
Where did the name Lisa Savidge come from?
Way, way back in the earliest days of the band – back when it was just Ellery and I with a couple of laptops – we needed a name so we could get the tracks we were making online, but we weren’t quite settled on what kind of band we were. Everything we came up with seemed too constricting, so we decided to go with something that we aren’t in order to be able to write freely. A solo female singer-songwriter straw-(wo)man seemed to fit the bill nicely, so we started kicking names around to find the most absurd, contrived folk-singer name we could think of.
For whatever reason Lisa Loeb sprung to mind, so that’s where the “Lisa” came from. The “Savidge” was a combination of child actors (i.e. Fred) and certain music groups having used “Savage” inappropriately in their names (I’m looking at you Savage Garden). That and Ellery proclaiming that “we should spell it like ‘fridge!’” It works out: If there’s one thing I would want to communicate with the name of the band, it would be to expect the unexpected, since we’re a little hard to pin down genre-wise.
Plus, it helps me identify the million or so con-artists out there who blast bands with offers for BS showcases and production deals. If somebody addresses the letter to “Lisa” and then claims to be a big fan, then I know that they’re full of shit.
How did you go from working for the government to starting a band?
My last post in the government days was primarily in “targeting,” which is to say that I created and maintained a list of names – knowing that adding a name to the list had a pretty good shot of resulting in the untimely demise of the corresponding person. I’d pulled enough triggers on enough people personally to have a sense of what that was like, and in retrospect it’s pretty horrifying how casual it all became. Like, in the last office I worked in, one of my responsibilities was to correlate the intelligence to give the go-ahead to hit someone with a missile (we called them “kinetic strikes”). We would all gather in the main office where there was a big display of the overhead surveillance, make some popcorn, and watch the screen. When the rocket would hit, we’d all jump out of our chairs like our favorite team just scored a winning touchdown. Killing and destroying had become a way of life for a lot of us.
Anyway, I couldn’t do it anymore – I had to get out with some kind of humanity intact. Unfortunately, this left me unemployed and without any skills that would be useful to anyone other than the mob. I’d basically been killing or working towards killing people my entire adult life. So, I turned to the only other thing I was ever any good at – writing and performing songs. I had a little bit of money saved up, so I figured maybe I could work on creating full-time. And, I don’t know, maybe find some balance? Like, push the polar opposite of my old life as hard as I could until – on balance – I’d created more than I had destroyed.
Plus, having “stared into the abyss,” so to speak, I had a lot to say. The whole world takes on a different character once you’ve seen the bottom of it, and I figure that’s what art is all about – taking someone out of their usual circumstances to show them a new angle on things.
What were your early musical influences?
Hahaha! I used to get made fun of all of the time in school because practically the only bands I listened to were Pink Floyd and The Beatles. Everybody would say things like “The Beatles!? *Scoff* That’s sissy music. Why not listen to a REAL band, like Bush?” WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, DAVE JOHNSON!? WHO’S LAUGHING NOW!?
Ahem, sorry about that. Anyway, there was this great depth in all of that classic rock – like, none of the songs on their albums sounded frivolous. Everything was so serious and real and it took you places. I used to listen to The Wall on my walkman every single night as I fell asleep.
Also, what I didn’t admit at the time was that I’ve always been way into classical and baroque music. I still listen to Bach and Beethoven on a regular basis, making them two of the four artists I could say that about (the other two being the aforementioned Floyd and Beatles).
What impact did they have on you?
Well, for starters I would say that they set the bar pretty high. I wanted everything that I made to have the same depth and weight of those symphonies and concept albums. It was an absolute must, and I hope it isn’t too arrogant to think it’s pretty apparent in the stuff I write/arrange/produce today. I mean, you can dislike the songs or the way that they’re put together, but I really don’t think you could accuse us of not trying.
See, all of the music that was really influential seemed to be produced by kids in candy stores – constantly trying anything and everything that comes their way to see how much they could get away with. From that perception, I came up with our band motto: ”We can never go too far enough.” That’s the first thing in my mind every time we start to work on a new song, and I get the feeling that Roger Waters was thinking the same thing in ’72.
How would you describe the sound of your latest release Lisa Savidge?
Huge. Some parts are mellow, other bits cross over into downright metal territory; some parts raw and some parts polished; but the one underlying factor is that we were making everything as big as possible. I once heard Bob Boilen of NPR describe The Polyphonic Spree as making “Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ look like Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge.” I distinctly remember thinking “Oh, I can beat that.”
That and emotional… Dark. I wish the term “emotive rock” hadn’t become glued to a particular style and sound, because I think that would describe Lisa Savidge quite nicely. If something doesn’t get a strong emotional reaction out of me, whether it be screaming or crying or laughing hysterically, I don’t write a song about it. I think the band does a great job of fitting a sound to those feelings.
How does it differ from your previous LP?
For our first LP (Stolen Sounds) we worked with a producer who didn’t necessarily share the same vision that I had for the group. He took it in a very raw, grungy direction, which I didn’t initially like very much. Lisa Savide, on the other hand, was self-produced and I think it captured more of the prettiness and weight that I was going for.
Oddly enough, though, I recently listened to Stolen Sounds again, and in the context of being the lead-up to Lisa Savidge, I found that I really liked it quite a lot. There’s a certain unrestrained mania to Stolen Sounds that I think acts as a great counter-balance to Lisa Savidge‘s deliberate depression. I’d love to remaster that first record some day (and maybe redo the vocals, since I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better since then) and reissue it as a double album with the latest… A ying/yang kind of thing.
There seems to be a lot of symbolism, dark metaphors and other cryptic writing techniques in your lyrics. Where do you get songwriting inspiration from?
From a lyrical perspective, I tend to draw a lot more inspiration from books than I do from music. There’s bits of Steven Jesse Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson, Neitzche, Yeats, Ayn Rand (no, I’m not an arch-conservative), Shakespeare, Joseph Heller, Anthony Burgess, Dostoevsky, and even the bible sprinkled all over the place. Oddly enough, I don’t read a lot of books (especially fiction and poetry), but I guess the ones that I do read had quite an impact.
I’ve always hated it when I hear some lyrics in a song that make a big impact on me, but then when I go to tell someone else about it later, it doesn’t have the same impact without the music. I suppose that is why I try to draw inspiration from words that stand on their own. Go read “Me and Her Outside (No-No Man)” by Bernstein (which I aped a bit of for Xmas Pt. 2) – it’s better than any song I’ve heard, and certainly any song I’ve written.
As far as songwriters go, the only people I’ve seen even come close to something like that would be Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I’d love to write as well as either of them some day.
What is the band’s creative process usually like?
Both very controlled and very free-form at the same time. Most of the time, I (or Ellery) will write a song and pretty much put all of the parts together on my computer (playing everything I can play and programming the rest) and then distribute copies to the band. Then, we’ll play through them together and each member will experiment with different variations until they’ve all found something better to play than what I initially came up with. Over time, we come to a kind of unspoken consensus about how the song should sound, then we record that, go through it in detail (making changes as necessary), THEN learn the song again and head to the studio. It’s pretty involved, but with things as complex as they are, it’s critical that we’re all doing the right things to complement each other and play to the strengths of each individual.
What are your top 5 favorite songs on the radio right now? Why?
Hmm, this one is tough. We don’t really have a radio station in Phoenix that I care for much. Like, there is literally not one full-power FM station in Phoenix metro that plays anything new outside of the more popular genres. Nothing experimental, underground, or indie gets on the air here… I think I maybe heard Arcade Fire on the radio once, and that was the day after they won that Grammy.
I’ve been making a concerted effort lately to force myself to listen to top 40, though. My “day job” is in a recording studio where I’m sometimes called on to produce for other projects, so it’s sort of important for me to keep some idea of what is popular at the moment. Pretty much everything I’m hearing these days sounds like 1980s pop vocals delivered over 1990s house music, and then auto-tuned (autotune is the gated snare of the 2000s).
All of that being said, I think that “All The Right Moves” by OneRepublic is a genuinely good song with genuinely exciting production, and the Eminem single “No Love” is probably the best rap track I’ve heard since the 1990s. Both of those strike me as songs that are really meaningful to the performers, and that is pretty much all I ask for. I guess I’m supposed to like Lady Gaga and Kanye West in the pop and rap genres respectively, but I just don’t hear much besides some really good publicists and some really safe tracks.
What can fans expect next from you?
A lot. We live in a world where there is so much new stuff coming out all of the time that you are either moving forward or sliding backward – and I’ll be damned if I’m crawling out of the gutter again. It looks like there are some changes going on internally for the band (the recession has hit some folks especially hard, and they’re facing some tough choices), but whatever happens, I (and others) have got piles of songs that need to get out there and are better than ever. We’re considering going to more of a rotating lineup (a-la Bright Eyes or Pigface) in order to extend the range we can cover musically, release more songs more often, and do more touring.
It’s still a bit murky, but like I said, we can never go too far enough. It takes a certain courageous attitude to take a chance on an emerging artist like Lisa Savidge, and I think that we owe it to those who do as much as we possibly can give. I will say for sure that two separate records that take the sound in two separate directions are written and in the production phase, plus some possible crossovers into other mediums, and a stage show that is going to be a unique work in and of itself. In other words: More of everything – to include some stuff that will probably go under a different project name.
It was years of 112 hour weeks that got us this far, and now that the cat is out of the bag, you can expect to see a lot more of those hours turning into things you can see, hear, and experience.