Classic rock revivalism is en vogue at the moment. The Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, Alabama Shakes, Foxygen. The thing is...90% of these bands want to emulate the cocksure swagger of hard rock. Everybody wants to be Robert Plant or Pete Townsend. A trend of folks that want to channel Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham is arriving and that warms my Fleetwood Mac loving heart. But you rarely hear about artists that are inspired by The Kinks. Ray Davies and company were gods amongst men in blurring the line between pop and rock, and on his self-titled concept EP, Thin Lear, pays gorgeous homage to the Kinks while also positioning his sound as a fresh fusion of baroque instrumentation and rock sensibilities.
We had the chance to chat with Thin Lear's Matt Longo about this new project, his single "Second Nature," his love of Ray Davies, and the Shakespearean origins of his band's name. I've gotten a bit burned out on this classic rock revivalism as of late. As more bands start embracing these sounds, the more polished and manufactured each new entry becomes. But Thin Lear immediately brought me back to those days when I ravenously devoured every record in my dad's collection, and I'm not sure if I can pay a higher compliment to an artist than that.
There are folks for whom King Lear is a pretty easy choice for Shakespeare's best play. Why did you decide to go with the Lear homage as the name of this project?
Thin Lear: While mixing the record, I went through this long period of insomnia. I was hell-bent on getting the right sound, and my brain just didn't shut off at night. So I started taking melatonin to put myself down, and it worked, but I had these disturbingly vivid dreams. I'm such an uptight person that my equivalent of an acid story is the time I took an over-the-counter sleep aid.
But anyway, the cover image came to me in a dream, with the character of Thin Lear essentially just sitting across from me on the subway, looking pretty depressed. For whatever reason, the dream itself was absolutely terrifying, but when I woke up, I just found it hilarious. Like, what an absurd image: an emaciated king, despondent on the subway. I immediately came up with the name, because Lear is one of my favorite plays (and just stories in general), and I reached out to a graphic illustrator (Jenny Fine) who does a lot of great stuff for Nerdist. She did a fantastic job depicting what was in my head. If people find the cover off-putting, or incongruous with the dark, baroque-groove of the record, I'm good with that. I just knew this image had to be the cover.
You explicitly namedrop The Kinks' Village Green on "Second Nature." Was there something specific about the Kinks and other similar bands from that era that influenced you as a musician?
Ray Davies turns small moments into jaw-dropping beauty; "Waterloo Sunset" is still the ultimate people-watching anthem. Since so much of this record examines those small moments of nostalgia and anxiety, Ray was just on my mind during the writing process. And the arrangements of bands like The Kinks and The Zombies, those psychedelically ornate productions, move me. I love that fussed over, but still organic, sound, and I went after it here.
And, even at 71, Ray could still murder me with his bare hands, so hopefully he wouldn't be upset if he heard the namedrop.
The sax bit towards the end hits us right in the "we're not ashamed to admit we love Steely Dan" pleasure centers. What was the inspiration for that smooth sax outro?
Good! I'm glad those centers were activated. I just kept leaving that section blank in rehearsal. I wanted something striking there, and I really try to avoid guitar solos. I think I always knew it would be a sax, but I was just self-conscious about it. I didn't want it to come off as ironic or knowingly cheesy or something; I wanted it to sound genuinely fitting. It didn't hurt that the player, Dan Fagen, knew what we were going for. Come to think of it, he shares a last name with Donald, so it's bizarre you brought up Steely Dan.
People don't do concept albums anymore but your new EP is a concept record. What made you decide to resurrect that type of album experience?
Similar lines kept popping up in the songs. I try not to fight myself while writing, so I just let it happen. But then I ended up with this EP worth of songs with a bunch of melodic and lyrical references to one another (and one straight up reprise). There was no way around it: I had written an abstract narrative with the tracks, no matter how pretentious that sounds. Sue me.
For everybody that loves "Second Nature" as much as we do, what else can we expect from this EP when we can hear the rest of it?
Hopefully, people hear the EP as a genuine, darkly comic story about a pretty anxious person coming to terms with the weirdness of aging. I really pulled out all the stops with the production of the thing, from piecing together a DIY orchestra for the closing song, to hunting down David Byrne's pedal steel player for another. It's the most ambitious thing I've done, and that's definitely one of the reasons I decided to release it under a different name. I don't think it's a straightforward singer-songwriter-y affair.
The goal was to get people to drop to their knees weeping upon hearing the record in its entirety, but, short of that, if strangers can see themselves in the lyrics, or find a melody pleasantly stuck in their heads, I think it's a success. I could definitely be content with that. That's sort of like human interaction. I have a hard time being upfront with myself and the people I love, but that's what the songs are for, right?