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LA Priest walks us through each track of his homemade, immersive new pop album Gene

World traveling, childhood werewolf dreams, and one very special drum machine all went into Sam Eastgate’s excellent sophomore solo project.

June 17, 2020
LA Priest walks us through each track of his homemade, immersive new pop album <i>Gene</i> LA Priest by Isaac Eastgate  

The best place to start with LA Priest, the circuitous pop project from Sam Eastgate, is the music video for “Beginning.” The song itself sways like a sea anemone at a funk disco, and encapsulates the rich vein of personal and iconoclastic ideas that Eastgate brings to the music. But it’s the visuals that are as close to a literal depiction of that vibe as he’ll likely ever release: Eastgate stars in the 16mm-shot video, and wanders solo around the English countryside dressed like a cross between Sun Ra and the pope. He plays an outsized guitar on his trek, a Pied Piper for no one, or perhaps for things or creatures we can’t yet see.

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Eastgate has a talent for fitting transgressive music into of-the-moment styles. His first band, the hugely underrated Late of the Pier, were the enfant terribles of the 2011 microgenre “nu rave.” Soft Hair, a collaboration with Conan Moccasin, subverted the lounge-y R&B sounds of the mid ‘10s, while LA Priest could be conflated with the psychedelic revival led by Tame Impala. But put almost any Eastgate-led track on a playlist of his contemporaries, and it’ll stand out: he makes niche electronics teem with life, and almost kitsch guitars sound revolutionary. On LA Priest more than anywhere else, Eastgate is less concerned with justifying his style’s eccentricities than with letting them flourish.

“Beginning” is a single from Gene, the second LA Priest album and the long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s Inji. Eastgate has enlisted Erol Alkan, the producer behind Late of the Pier’s first and final album Phantasy Black Channel, as well as a homemade drum machine called Gene — named, he tells me over the phone from a cottage in rural Wales, after a dream he had about Willy Wonka star Gene Wilder. “To actually have that connection with a machine, where you've built it around your own mind [and] it's based around your own thoughts, that's really rewarding.” He doesn’t consider himself a professional electronic instrument designer, he says, or even particularly skilled at using synths or drum machines; getting in the deep end works best for his creative process: “I tend to do best when I just go into the unknown,” he says, as birds tweet in the background.

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Gene is a captivating record full of well-conducted emotional ambivalence, and a highlight of the first half of 2020. Eastgate’s lyrics, more concerned with texture than meaning, seem to cradle the songs tenderly, whether they’re upbeat and groovy (“What Moves,” “Rubber Sky”) or grey and reminiscent of solo Thom Yorke (“Kissing of the Weeds,” “Black Smoke”). Breaking down each song on the album, Eastgate reminisced about writing the record all over the world, resisting didactic songwriting, and childhood dreams of becoming a werewolf.

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1.”Beginning”

The FADER: Your lyrics have never followed a conventional narrative.

LA Priest: I think what I did is I recorded myself twice and sometimes if you just sing two totally different things and sort of double-track it, then you end up hearing the best. And sometimes you construct words with two different words, [and] you kind of make a third word. So I did have the luxury of just being able to pick the best sounds. And that's what your brain does anyway when it's just given this garbled mess of sounds. It makes sense of it.

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So, I never had to write those lyrics apart from the chorus. The weird thing is that the only lyric that I had to actually think about and write was the word “beginning,” because I had three syllables. It just took weeks and I still wasn't quite sure about it. And I think it's still kind of like... “Beginning what?” There's a question mark for me, but at least I don't have to think about what song to start the album with. It's a classic case of a songwriting itself. And you feel like it's not you dictating this stuff. It's something or somebody else, where you just have to listen.

The FADER: So not quite a stream of consciousness, but stream of who knows what.

Yeah. And I think that's the beauty of it. I used to have a problem with that kind of art, because I was like, "Oh it's not sincere," or something. But then the more that I've tried to do different types of writing, the more I realized that actually when you're trying to write lyrics as if you know something and you're trying to send a message, that's often just a really good way of exposing your own badly thought out worldview. You actually learn a lot more about yourself looking back on the subconscious outpouring. I have had that with songs [written years ago] where I've just gone "Oh all right. That makes a lot more sense than I probably knew at the time." So it's not so dumb after all.

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2. "Rubber Sky"

To me, this song sounds suspicious of the outside world.

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It always has the potential to come across like that. I think some of the first descriptions of it I heard from somebody else, was “a loner anthem.” I just never felt that was what I was saying. It's weird because obviously the lyric is “on my own,” but I was actually not talking about proximity or anything like that. I think it’s just the ability to motivate yourself or something along that line.
There's a magic, there's a spark, and it helps everybody around you. Even if you're stuck in a room with five people and it's getting claustrophobic, if everybody's actually got their own imagination and their own thing, that actually feels a lot healthier than if people are feeding off each other or waiting for the other person to lead. So I suppose that's really what “On My Own” is about. Perhaps I was at a time in my life where I felt I had been waiting for other people. I can't remember exactly when that lyric was written, but it would have been at least five or six years ago. It fit with the rest of the song only at the last minute [during] the last week of recording this record.

How do you keep track of smaller musical ideas and determine what can possibly be in larger songs that you’re writing?

I've got a terrible memory for normal things in life, but I do actually keep song ideas for a long time. One of the ideas that I recorded [for this album] for that was something that I've never written down or recorded. It's just been in my head for about 15 years. And that was funny because it just hadn't popped back in there for probably 10 years or so. So I can do that, but I like to be safe and for the last 10 years, I've had the same Dictaphone recorder and a ridiculously oversized memory card. It's got about 11 hours of just little tiny demos that might be about 30 seconds long. The thing is if I am lacking an idea, it takes a whole day to troll through. But I knew I wanted to use that idea for this record. It was quite clear to me that it was the missing piece for this record.

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I really like in this song, how towards the end the pronouns at the beginning of the lines shift from “they” to “she” and “he,” and then “zey.”

That was, again, just a weird thing that came out of the recording process. I had only written it down as “they,” I think, and I had the microphone really close to the speaker and I was getting this high-frequency feedback — you're not really supposed to do this, but it just added this finish. And it just seemed to help the feedback sound to use more s's and z's, just kind of just exciting the treble in there. And I listened back and I just thought “Hey, that's pretty inclusive.” Yeah. As with all my lyrics it was pretty utilitarian in a way. Sometimes I use a word because of its sound more than its meaning.

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3. "What Moves"

That tenet of appreciating sound over meaning applies to the lyric “What moves you to be a jubi wamb,” right?

Yeah. I tried to translate that into something because I thought it would just do it justice. And I just couldn't find anything that fit with that. But I suppose that's what you are if you beat each other down, then you are a jubi wamb. So deal with it.

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It sounds like a song about performing actions with intention or just being mindful of what you're doing.

Yeah. That's it. I think it's probably one of the few attempts on the record to say something useful. The feeling that I had around that time was I felt that people were acting and speaking without thinking about it. Not in my life, but just in the world. I try to not really pay attention to things, but it was just coming into everyday thought at that point. And I thought I don't need to give anybody advice apart from to actually think about their own motivation. I think that when you break things down it's so helpful. You can avoid so much unnecessary conflict in your life when you just think, “Why do I want this? Why am I going to tell this person this or why do I feel this way?” When you actually are really honest with yourself and you kind of work out your own motivations, you often realize there's a much easier solution or you think “Actually, that's not a good enough motivation to do what I'm doing.” It's just a useful thing, and it was as much an instruction for myself. A note to self.

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4. "Peace Lily"

A peace lily can symbolize rebirth, and can show up in memorial services.

I really didn't plan that one out. That's one of the beauties of art. The first thing I wrote down on the demo was the letter P. And then “slilly,” So S-L-I-L-L-Y as one word. I thought it was quite funny and I was going to just call it “Pslilly” if it was a pseudonym or something on the record. But I just thought it's actually not that funny and it's better just to call it “Peace Lily.”

I only took three instruments with me when I went to live in America: my homemade drum machine, a tiny mini keyboard that fit in the suitcase, and my guitar. And that song idea was just from the limitation of a tiny keyboard where you can't really move your hands around it that easily. You kind of fumble. So the keys are fumbling. And so the melody itself has a lot of overlapping notes. When I was finishing the record I just transcribed it onto guitar. And it ended up somewhere between a soul and a disco tune, but not in a conventional sense of either.

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It serves as a transition to me between the first portion of the album and the next one.

Yeah, and I think that it wouldn't work in any other context. I nearly left off the record. It was only just a family member that was just like “Yeah, you should definitely [keep it].” I was surprised how much they loved it because they're mostly into Kings of Leon and I thought it was kind of an insignificant little idea. Yeah. But I'm really happy that the symbolism works so well of the peace lily.

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5. "Open My Eyes"

Here’s where the album gets a bit more downcast.

I ended up feeling that as well, even though when I started “Open My Eyes” it was one of those bittersweet emotions. It was just immediately that way, where it felt like an uplifting song that had a sort of sadness to it. And I don't know where the sadness comes from. The lyrics came right at the end and I did actually struggle to pull them together. I think that was one of the longest lyric writing processes, and it's not like a meaningful thing. It's just that I had to make it have an arc and not just be on a single level. I wanted the words to sort of tumble together and build towards the chorus. And that's quite tricky when you're dealing in what I realized was going to have to be kind of abstract as a song.

I don't have any memory of writing that song. It's very strange. I was in this log cabin in Northern California, a little town called Pollock Pines, which is en route to Lake Tahoe. I think the main profession around there is logging and things to do with the forest. The guy next door, his job was to measure the snowfall. So he got up every morning at four or five to just go out and measure how much snow there was in the mountains, which I just thought was amazing. And yeah, that song just came out of the atmosphere of that place.

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Who are some artists you admire who also have a rhythmic relationship with lyrics?

I [initially] wanted to achieve something lyrically a bit like an early Pixies' song [like] “River Euphrates” or “Bone Machine.” There's a magic to the lyrics on that album [and] an imagery that I'm not really sure what it's all about. I know that Francis Black may have had some crazy experiences, but he doesn't have to be explicit about anything; it's always just this word soup. And I remember having looked up the words in the songs and I tried rearranging them; it doesn't matter what order you rearrange them in, you still get the imagery. And I realized that I needed to have a selection of words and then find how it worked rhythmically. There are a lot of other bands that I think influenced that way of doing it, [but] Pixies was probably the main one. [But] I just took a slightly different approach at the last minute, I think, because obviously whenever you go in thinking that's how I want to do it, if you're any good at creating your own stuff you realize you can't just take a formula.

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6. "Sudden Thing"

This sounds like a love song until the last couple of verses which contain imagery of getting annihilated by parasites.

It's one of those things where you realize that the most romantic or the most emotional aspects of your memories of life are infused with the scratchy, uncomfortable surroundings. I think of these hot summers where you have these emotional memories, and then you also have the blisters on your feet or the mosquitoes [that also] made it into this song.

With my childhood and teenage years, I did a lot of just walking around on my own, just trying to work out my own head. I lived in an industrial town, but it was in the middle of the countryside, so I'd just walk out and see the town disappear and turn into dust. [I’d] go over the railway tracks and go down and walk along these overgrown riverbanks, and I think that memory of just being out there, out in nature where you see life and death around you. It may be kind of morbid, but if there's a dead animal in the path, it's teeming with life as well. I never really had a fascination with that kind of side of things, but it certainly has a weird way of mixing in all of those kinds of things with your kind of emotional memories as well.

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7. "Monochrome"

”Monochrome” has a sample of a thunderstorm at the song’s beginning, which gives it a much more immediate sense of place than the other tracks. What’s the story behind that decision?

When I moved back to the UK a friend offered me this place in Pool, right down on the South Coast. You get thunderstorms out at sea, right out just behind the sea wall. You can see a thunderstorm coming for about an hour before it finally hits — it was as I was recording that song that you could see a storm coming, and I just carried on recording bits of that. And I think it was just directly recorded over some of the instruments at the start of the song. So I didn't have to decide to put it there, if you see what I mean. You can hear a woman in the street screaming as a lightning bolt hits nearby like “Wah!” It was happening just outside the window of my studio. I really liked that.

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8. "What Do You See"

I love the vocal effects on this song. I feel like they just embody what makes the album such the success, that it's just LA Priest turned up to 11.

I thought it was high falsetto when I first recorded it. I didn't realize, but I pitched it up five notes higher just to get the instruments sounding right. And I was horrified when it came to doing the vocals and realized that I'd recorded everything five notes higher than it was already. I just didn’t think I could sing that high, [but] then I just realized I can do the extremes fine. But yeah, I think it probably turns heads. It's not intentional, it just sounds good to me. But I think for other people it's probably like “Ok mate, what’re you doing that for?”

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Nothing about LA Priest sounds quote-unquote-weird. There’s a naturalness to it.

That's a relief because it would be a shame for people to think that it was just sort of attention-seeking. I don't even think of it that way, but then when I play it with people, I get embarrassed because I suddenly realize all of the oddities of it. [But] it’s the opposite of a gimmick.

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9. "Kissing Of The Weeds"

I feel like this is the most recognizably psychedelic song on the album because of the way the guitar plays with your voice.

I don't think I would have written it if it wasn't for the influence [of] being on a ferry to France. [For] the wakeup, instead of having an alarm or something they have, I believe it’s Celtic music, folk with harps and flutes. The alarm call on the ferry at six in the morning was this kind of haunting acoustic guitar thing. And then a few months later, I just thought it would be really funny to pick up this acoustic and try and play it. I was drunk with some friends in this kitchen of this place in France, and we were just kind of making each other laugh, and I just started playing the ferry wake up call, or my approximation. I haven't heard it since, and I've no idea how you can even search for that. I hope it's not too close, but I really think I didn't play it right. So the whole basis of [the song] is just this haunting, but quite tongue in cheek, acoustic guitar, and then singing over the top in a more sincere way, I think.

It's interesting to hear you say that because I wouldn't describe anything on the record as immediately tongue-in-cheek.

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It's interesting that I actually say that about probably one of the more conventional things on the record. I don't think that would stand out to people as being humorous or tongue in cheek at all. I suppose that says something about the record that I reserved that kind of attitude for some more conventional things on there. Some drum placements, some little drum fills are more of a tongue in cheek thing, but they're not things that you would notice. I suppose they're like a joke that I can enjoy.

10. "Black Smoke"

The lyrics here have a strong sense of upheaval.

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The whole structure of the record came out of this idea of kind of going from light to dark. I played with the idea of going up and down, but it felt like it was better just to transform and go off into the chaos. It was trying to be a bit like a tornado: you've got this beautiful weather and then you can see a tornado in the distance, and then at the end of the record the house is missing. So yeah, I think it did work for “Black Smoke” to feel that the foundations were tearing off and that you didn't really know where you were going.

The lyrics actually came from an experience that I had when I was about 12 or 13, where there was an earthquake in my town. That's a very uncommon thing in the UK at all, but especially in my little hometown in the Midlands. I was in bed, it was a summer night, and I had the window open. I woke up and everything was shaking. I looked out the window and the moon was shining directly through this open window onto me. And I thought, my first thought for some reason was “This is it. I'm turning into a werewolf.” I thought the shaking was just part of this transformation into a wolf or something. I suppose, half asleep, it made sense. And the lyrics are just about maybe what would have happened if that was actually true, maybe not about a wolf, but some sort of transformation.

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11. "Ain't No Love Affair"

What you said about the tonal journey of the album makes sense for the final notes of “Ain't No Love Affair,” where it's very dreary compared to the opening notes of the album, which are bright and more poppy.

I think one way of doing it would have been to reward the listener at the end of the record. You've come this far. Here's your ending on a sweet jam. But it just didn't turn out that way. I just ended up testing people more. If you do make it that far, the last song really is just for the diehard, the really curious, so if they've made it that far, they're going to get something out of it.

For me, the value of “Ain't No Love Affair” is that it is based around the first recording of the drum machine, the first prototype that I put together. It was the moment that I turned it on and pressed record. And these sounds came out of it as I was playing around with just a pile of wires at this point. And the song built on top of it. It's just trying to find out how you could go about writing a song on this weird kind of backbeat, this really unconventional backbeat of zaps and squelches and odd sounds that it was making. So it has this historical significance as well as being very vaguely, barely melodic. I like that about it. It's more interesting to me to hear that than something that I've carefully crafted.

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When the first LA Priest album came out, you said that the project's identity was still being formed. Do you have a better sense of what that identity is now?

That's a really interesting thing for me to have said then, because it kind of implies that I thought maybe that it would develop a clear identity. Now that I've been doing this for so much longer, I feel like it's maybe a bit naive to expect that. I wonder how many bands really know what their identity is. I think that I always have a melodic thing that joins everything together, and I don't know where it comes from really. It fascinates me because I don't understand it. I actually understand things like rhythm pretty well. I understand that it's about the movement. A lot of that is to do with dance or breathing. Things like that are a lot more easy to understand, but melody itself is something that I think of as a bit kind of mystical, I suppose. I think the ultimate goal is to try and find the exciting melody, so I think a lot of people aren't as serious about that. But something drives me to kind of pick out the notes that kind of bend and expand for the song. I probably don't do that all the time, and I'm certainly not the best at it, [but] I think that's some part of my identity, that people can kind of rely on me for.

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LA Priest walks us through each track of his homemade, immersive new pop album Gene