Interview: Little Joy, Part 1

Los Angeles’ Little Joy has garnered a substantial amount of buzz throughout the blogosphere over the past few months and seeing as their calypso-flavored samba rock is the result of a collaborative effort between Rodrigo Amarante of Los Hermanos, Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes, and comrade Binki Shapiro, the buzz is fairly understandable. However, let it be known that the hype is not without merit, as their self-titled debut is nostalgically soothing, painstakingly authentic, and without a doubt one of the easiest listens of the year.

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Los Angeles’ Little Joy has garnered a substantial amount of buzz throughout the blogosphere over the past few months and seeing as their calypso-flavored samba rock is the result of a collaborative effort between Rodrigo Amarante of Los Hermanos, Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes, and comrade Binki Shapiro, the buzz is fairly understandable. However, let it be known that the hype is not without merit, as their self-titled debut is nostalgically soothing, painstakingly authentic, and without a doubt one of the easiest listens of the year.

This November we sat down with Rodrigo (R), Fabrizio (F) and Binki Shapiro (B) in the green room, hours before their show at Nashville’s The Exit/In and discussed Bukowski, Vonnegut, The Bees, Devendra Banhart, Vampire Weekend and Bob Marley and The Wailers, while tour support The Dead Trees sound checked in the background.

I know you guys have told this story a million times, but give us a synopsis of how the band was formed.
R: I met Fab touring with my band from Brazil, Los Hermanos and we were playing with The Strokes at a festival. We met and got a long and were like, let’s write something someday. Then I went to Los Angeles to record with Devendra Banhart and that’s when I met Binki and Fab, and started writing with them, and that was…last year. He [Fabrizio] was taking a break and I was taking a break from my band and Binki was-she’s from L.A.-so we just started hanging out and writing songs together with no idea of producing an album or making a band. And it was just fun writing songs together. It worked really well. So after a month-and-a-half, or two we decided that we had enough songs to do a recording.

When you guys finally set to fleshing out the song ideas, what did that look like? Did you develop a sort of format?
B: I think it sort of started with Fab having a bunch of songs that he had been working on, and sort of coming out of his shell showing people that he was writing songs and playing the guitar. I felt very happy that he showed them to me; it made me feel comfortable to sort of show him some things. Rodrigo had a couple songs, and I had a couple songs, and Fab had a whole handful of songs, lyrics, melodies, instrumental parts and all this stuff. I think we started working out these songs, and what came with that was just adding our own sprinkles into the songs.

F: It was different between every song. Most of the songs start off with melodies and chords. I find myself not knowing what one song is ever going to sound like until I try like every song with every part, and we switch and say like, “I feel like this chorus would do better in this song”. Once you can play the song start to finish on an acoustic guitar then we start arranging it. The lyrics don’t come until right before-

B: But a lot of the times when you had written something, like a melody and a guitar part-and I don’t even know if you’ll notice-but you have words that you sing a long to with these things. Sometimes those words that just came to him, ended up being the chorus.

F: It’s funny because I don’t ever realize that until she tells me, “That line was way better before when you were singing so and so”.

When you are all collaborating together on a song, how is that different from how songs are written when you are writing with Los Hermanos or The Strokes? Especially you [Fab] being out from behind the drums?
F: There are several different changes. I can remember one particular day going out to dinner, or lunch-actually it was like a late breakfast with Rodrigo and sitting there talking about lyrics and explaining to each other what the lyrics meant to us. Which is very different from what I am used to. Also, being that we don’t have a full band together in terms of performance, we think outside of just the three of us because we know that we can play all the instruments within the three of us. We never restricted ourselves to playing like a garage band style. If we wanted strings or something like that, we’d go and get strings.

And having that instrumental versatility within the band must have been really beneficial to the songwriting process, having that broad pallet to work the songs out.
F: You should see this guy [Rodrigo] pick up a bass. I think he wrote every single one of the bass parts on this record minus “Don’t Watch Me Dancing” and “Shoulder to Shoulder”.

R: Which he [Fab] did.

F: Actually I never finished a song on the bass because if you think about it, on “Don’t Watch Me Dancing” I did the verse but you played the end with me. Then on “Shoulder to Shoulder” I had the verse but you came up with that whole end part.

R: On “Shoulder to Shoulder” Fab had an idea for a bass line, which was very complex, very complete. Then when we went to play I would play it because we would try to record it as live as we could. Which wasn’t very much-like drum, bass then guitar and piano-as much as we could play together. Then we would do the overdubs and Binki would play the glockenspiel or the organ. Then when we started switching, like I wrote some part that Binki would play on the organ or Fab would write a bass line that I would play and then it starts to become everybody’s part.

How much did the songs begin to change when you started working with (producer) Noah Georgeson? Did you come to the table with completed songs?
F: Some songs we had pretty close to being done. I remember him sitting there thinking of what this song reminded him of and then going and listening to how they treated this song, in coming up with drum beats and stuff like that. He came up with drum beats, he came up with intros, and also gave the colors and textures. We all kind of co-produced with him although we don’t like to say it so much because he was the spearhead of it. He is a fantastic producer.

R: We felt like he was in the band. We felt like he was one of us because we had developed a friendship that was something very professional from his side. He is such a nice guy and very talented.

F: I just thought of something I wanted to add about the writing process. Something that was really great that I experienced that I hated while it was happening, just because I’m so stubborn was coming home and with every idea, lyrically for example, I would share it with Bink because we are . . . lovers. She would say, “No I don’t like that. How about this,” or “How about that?”

The record seems to be a fine tuned balance between this tropical Brazilian samba type feel and modern indie pop. Was it ever difficult for your guys to stop yourself and say, “Oh this is starting to sound like Los Hermanos or The Strokes.”
R: No. We never had that, and in fact, the one song that sounds more of a blend between the two bands is the rock song called, “Keep Me In Mind”. When we where playing we kind of felt that it did sound like that and we said well he’s in The Strokes, I’m in Los Hermanos and we didn’t want to run away from who we were or deny anything.

F: For example they say there are similarities in melodies to The Strokes in “Keep Me In Mind” but he wrote the melody for “Keep Me In Mind” and I was playing the guitar, and there was this line that he had written, and I was trying to write two parts at the same time which is very Los Hermanos and it was almost like we were having a conversation where we swapped roles.

R: If you stripped down, and knew exactly what each one of us wrote… That’s even beautiful to me. When we started getting together to work on these songs, Fab had these bunch of songs and I had these half ideas, and Bink had this idea, it was like getting from each other, the stuff that we had kept to ourselves. The songs were quite different from each other. That was kind of fun thinking, “Oh what are we going to do with this one?” It was not like we did the song and said, “Oh this is how we sound.”

Well it came out sounding very cohesive; nothing seemed to come from left field. Looking back, was it very surprising to see how the songs developed from the initial ideas that you had been talking about?
F: It’s hard for me to particularly remember even how they where meant to be.

B: I was thinking about that the other day like, I wish I had all those bad lyrics.

R: I found one yesterday. It was fun to see because we worked a lot.

F: It’s good to have that filter because – I hate to sound pompous or entitled or anything, but I feel that our best asset is our ability to look in the mirror and say, “This sucks. We have got to fix it,” and have the gall to actually go through with it.

There is a lot of that critical honesty missing today.
R: If your magazine is about songwriting, there is something I’d like to say. The difference between this and what I had before in songwriting was I had written songs with people before and it was a little bit of a cold process. Meaning, someone would say, “Oh I have this. You go on,” or “This song melody for this part,” and I would contribute that specific thing. The way it worked with us was whoever would bring the first thing for one particular song, we would all sit together and we would be open. I didn’t even know I could do that. To be able to say, “Why don’t we change the last note of the melody?” Then Bink would say, “Oh I like that but I think this last verse…” we would be open to present and to criticize. I feel that’s very rare and it takes a lot love in the sense of being open. Putting the ego a little bit to the side and trying to make something good together.

B: I have some fond memories sitting around the dining room table drinking beers and throwing ideas off each other.

R: We all lived together.

That reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you. The band is named after a cocktail lounge Little Joy. What would you drink while you where there?
F: I’ll be honest with you I have lived there for about a year-and-a-half and went to that bar about five times. I think Bink was the first one to say it out loud. She drove passed it and said-I mean don’t get me wrong I love that bar and the owner is a great guy, it was just that we were too preoccupied during the time we were living down the street with our record to actually go out and have a beer.

B: We’d go to the cheese store and get Portuguese wine and bring it back to the house and stay up all night.

F: I would remember thinking when I would drive past it, “Little Joy, what a weird name.”

R: It’s like a tiny dive bar. What I always thought was beautiful about the bar, is that it’s just a door in the corner all full of stickers and you see a very mixed crowd hanging out there-hipster kids, old Chinese men from the restaurant across the street-all kinds of people. There’s pool and they play good music . . .

F: The funny thing about their music is that their sound system is so shoddy that it makes every song sound like it was recorded in the ‘60s.

Looking at the album in retrospect what influences, musical or otherwise do you hear in the album?
F: I don’t know if we can specifically hear things, because we tried our best not to copy-

I know the influence question is kind of worn out, but I think it’s something everyone always thinks about.

F: We were listening to a lot of Bob Marley. A lot of Wailers.

R: When they were still like a vocal group. They sounded sweet and raw-

B: It was very raw.

F: And drenched in reverb. You know that Wailers compilation Destiny, it’s like listening to music inside of a football stadium.

R: Fab always likes to make harmonies. He was pretty much the harmony master on this. He had more of a Beach Boys type harmony mixed in with The Wailers and The Fleetwoods. Then there’s a lot of like ‘60s gospel oriented stuff and Brazilian music like Os Mutantes, they were always an inspiration to me.

F: And Nina Simone . . .


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