Exclusive Interview

Melody in the Chaos: Letlive.'s Jason Butler on His Troubled Youth and 'The Blackest Beautiful'

The supercharged frontman spills everything about his band's new record, their drummer situation and how they try to break through the bullsh-t in the scene
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Ariel LeBeau for Fuse

What can we say about letlive. that they aren't already showing you themselves? 

The self-denoted "Soul Punx" quintet out of Los Angeles is one of the most in-your-face groups on this year's Vans Warped Tour, from the raging intensity of their live performances to the intimate insanity of their new record, The Blackest Beautiful

That new record has been the subject of much conversation during the last few weeks, since it started streaming online courtesy of Epitaph Records. The band's follow-up to 2010's Fake History is embedded with frontman Jason Butler's straightforwardly confessional lyricism; while one song may reveal a peek into Butler's troubled youth, the next track may be vitriol spewed in the faces of governments and corporations.

There's a lot going on in the letlive. world right now and the band's career is moving at a whirlwind pace. Lucky for us, we were able to hop on the phone with Butler during the Warped stop in Washington, D.C. for a wide-ranging conversation. From discussing the album's production to its cover art, from stories of his childhood to his stage presence, our interview covers all the bases...there's even an unexpected reveal of who letlive.'s new full-time drummer is!

Ariel LeBeau for Fuse

You guys dropped your new album The Blackest Beautiful on July 9, but it’s been streaming online for a few weeks already. How happy are you with the reaction so far?

People have received it so well and the things that everyone has been saying make us feel really humbled. There’s a laundry list of things that people have shared with us; it’s been really, really flattering. To say the least, we’re extremely pleased, flattered and feel very accomplished having put this album out.

A lot of people are talking about the production on the record. Is the album intentionally underproduced?

With the album and the production, we believe[d] in being organic and authentic. So for us to write a record that not only wouldn’t sound similar live, but also wouldn’t be performed [in the studio] as it sounds on the record...at this point in our career, it would be untrue to who we are as a band. 

The records that we love and listen to all the time, a lot of those records were recorded with real microphones, recorded on first takes, recorded in a live setting. We’re living in an age where it’s more standard to hear these over-produced, quantized, autotuned...I mean the list goes on about how records are being made now digitally.

“No offense to anyone who listens to our band, but we’re completely unapologetic.”

We tried our hardest to make a record that was honest to us, as a band, as musicians. When we were mixing it and mastering it, we took an analog route...when we heard the test mix, it spoke to us and made us feel something. No offense to anyone who listens to our band, but we’re completely unapologetic as far as the mixing goes. Because to us, it’s what we want it to sound like. 

It’s also our testament to saying that things don’t need to sound the way they always sound on every record that every kid has heard by all the five producers that are putting out these rock albums. 

We never worked like that and we never will. And we thought the people that understand letlive. and want to understand letlive. will feel the same. They just need to give it a few listens and digest it fully.

Every new record you hear is always so perfect-sounding...so listening to something like this, you get all the noise and chaos and melodies hitting you at once. It hits you differently than you’re used to maybe, but it doesn't make the listening experience any worse.

Yes, thank you. I’m not just saying this because it appeals to the fact that we wrote the record. That is it exactly. We wrote a record that we want to play live. We wrote a record that sounds like we’re playing it – not computers, not a f-cking grid on a ProTools screen. We wanted a record that we wrote that is very obviously human. 

We made that record; our guitar player engineered it and we only listed a couple people for the post-production stuff. We did everything on our record and we’re very proud of it. 

Also, it’s about the music and the things we say and the way we play. Not so much the sonic representation on a CD or MP3. I’m not saying that later on we won’t explore those realms [of bigger production], but right now that is not the band we are and we have to make that clear to people.

Ariel LeBeau for Fuse

This record has a lot more tempo changes and slower parts than Fake History. The genre-melding is sort of at an all-time high too; I wouldn’t know what genre to put your band in. Does that speak to how you've matured as songwriters with three years between records?

Absolutely. That’s a representation of us as musicians and as individuals. We’re grown-ass men now. We’ve always enjoyed certain types of music and have taken cues from all different types of music as tastefully as we could. That is what made us this band. In the end, we as people have developed and evolved in such a way that needed to be represented very particularly on this record, and that’s kind of what we did. 

Again, we don’t want to present a front or seem like charlatans in the music world. We very honestly believe that this is the music we’re supposed to be playing. Also, the experiences that we've been granted as a band, because of the music we've written [in the past], have made us the people that we are now. All those things considered, and all those things integrated, created The Blackest Beautiful.

It’s a much more introspective and personal record for me, too. Speaking for myself and my dimension on the album, I was able to be first-person, as opposed to an observer of things. I was able to be as candid and outwardly emotional as I wanted on this record, which was dangerous and difficult for me, and for all of us, but in the end it afforded us a product that we wanted.

I was in Pomona for the two Warped Tour dates there, those are almost hometown shows for you, and that was the first time I saw you guys play. You just spoke about being more personal on this record and I remember a story you told on stage...something to do with your sister when you were younger?

When I was younger I quickly and unexpectedly had the idea of an ideal family structure ripped away from me. I was upset and I was unsure and I was uncertain and I was perplexed by those things as any young man would be. But the story was about me and my sister kind of bonding together and helping each other survive for a while, when we had no other choice but to do that. I did the best I could to raise my sister and become a man at the same time. I sort of accelerated or expedited my maturity as a man because I felt I had to. 

In the end, I don’t regret and I try not to be contemptful or lament the things that happened to me. I actually try to embrace and be thankful for every piece of adversity, every wrongdoing that has happened. It’s what created the person I am today on all levels.   

“I did the best I could to raise my sister and become a man at the same time.”

I feel like when you were telling that story, you connected it to how you act on stage. Which is to say – pretty unpredictable and fairly violent.

I think when I’m on stage, it’s poetic license to truly be the person I am inside that maybe I suppress in everyday life. I try to keep quiet when I’m not on stage. And I think it translates because there are things inside me that if I did not have this outlet – music, and people who care, who allow us to be who we are as a band, and allow me to be who I am as a man and performer – if I didn’t have this outlet then I really don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be doing. 

It’s very fortuitous, the way that all of this kind of comes together. The way I act on stage may seem reckless or like self-abandonment but it’s just me allowing myself to feel something that I wasn’t ever able to feel growing up.  

Do you ever think about what you’re going to do on stage before you do it? Or do you kinda just do whatever the f-ck comes to mind?

I feel as though any sort of premeditated act would not only seem contrived, it just wouldn’t go over as fluidly as one would like. And I think that the visceral nature of what I do and what letlive. is, that’s sort of what takes the wheel. So I never really think too much. I just go with whatever presents itself or however my mind or my body is feeling at the time, and hope that it works out for the best, that I come out of it as unscathed as possible I guess.

I think this applies both to your live presence and the new record. Even in the fastest, most chaotic moments, you have a melody or chorus that you fall back on and the chorus is usually somewhat catchy. Can you talk about finding melody in the chaos?

Oh, absolutely. That’s actually pretty poetic because that’s exactly what all of this is. To me, that’s what life is; it’s something attainable, something palatable, something melodic in all of the chaos. There’s so much going on with the music and we’re trying to advance ourselves musically and lyrically, and honestly, I think the best way for us as musicians to get people to listen is to appeal to them. Appeal to the natural rhythm of the head bob, the beating of the heart, the tap of the foot; just find that area and utilize it properly and say something. 

What I’m saying [in the songs] might not be the most easily digested subject or instance or scenario, and the way that I say things may be brash or even crass at times, but what we’re trying to do is fuse the idea of the bitter truth with the easily accessible end of music. 

That’s a real big thing for me, with letlive., is always trying to find that melody. Because I’ve always been a fan of melody and catchy tunes, and that doesn’t mean it has to be sung, or it doesn’t have to be on the Top 40 hit scale. It just has to be something that sticks; something that has substance.

“The way I act on stage...is just me allowing myself to feel something that I wasn’t ever able to feel growing up.”

When I watch you guys, I imagine that your presence lends itself to tinier club shows. So why did you choose to get out on Warped Tour all summer?

We feel that any forum, any vessel that you’re granted to speak to people, as a band you should take it. And we used to have some sort of righteous, bullsh-t, elitist kind of opposition to playing certain things when we were younger, but now we don’t feel as though you should ostracize people.

We feel as though if anything, if you’re offered a tour with a band that maybe has fans that don’t understand what it is you’re doing, that’s your opportunity to share with them something new. Something that they may not only like or enjoy listening to, but in fact maybe something they need. 

This tour, and those types of tours in general, are another way to be exposed to people who would otherwise never hear your music and never feel the feelings that they feel when they hear you or see you. That’s not to say that everyone here likes us. That’s very much not the case. For those that do, we are simply here and remaining as accessible as possible, always.

I’m sure you guys try to hang out a lot after you play your set and meet new people every day. Do you feel like you’re reaching a lot of new people on Warped?

I do. Honestly, more so than any other tour we’ve ever done. Because of the multitude, because of the attendance, obviously those are numbers that are undeniable, but I feel as though the connection we make on an emotional level with kids is something far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced as a musician and as a person. 

Being able to get this exposure and play and present ourselves to these people has been nothing short of incredible. It’s inspiring for me to know that people are still there and still open and very omnivorous. These kids are very omnivorous, they are eager and willing to attain something new and something that they can actually feel; something that’s poignant to them.

Let’s talk about The Chariot, who are playing Warped Tour with you guys. I saw a picture of their guitarist, Stephen Harrison, the other day hanging from the rafters like 40 feet in the air or something insane like that. What do you think of them?

I love them to death. As far as performance and music and their ideas and as people; everything about them is very right and very necessary. The risks that we run as musicians that may seem progressive or out of the box, if you will, you run the risk of never really making it out of that first layer of the box that you were initially trying to get out of. You run the risk of being a cult band.

But you know what, everything in this scene, in this realm, is holistic. It can’t exist, nothing can exist, without everything else. Even the bullsh-t, the things we despise, are actually quite necessary to help us recognize the things that we enjoy. And things that we enjoy are things like The Chariot; that band is pushing forward, and they are doing it from their hearts every single day. There is no other motive other than being creative and being free, being expressive, and loving people and music simultaneously. So that band is necessary in all of this, especially at Warped Tour.   

With three years between the past two records, I think it’s pretty safe to say that you guys are going to be supporting this one for a while. Are there any plans for the rest of the year for you guys?

Absolutely. Following this, we go home for a bit and then we will return to mainland Europe and the UK for a headlining tour with some friends. Then we return back Stateside, and will be playing a tour with some very good friends of ours, but unfortunately I can’t tell you who just yet, but we’ve toured with them before. We’ll be directly supporting them on their U.S. headliner, and following that I can almost guarantee that we’ll be touring interminably in support of The Blackest Beautiful.

'The Blackest Beautiful' Album Art

What is your drummer situation like? I know Loniel Robinson is with you guys filling in for Warped Tour. Have you filled that spot permanently yet?

Loniel is a godsend. Quick story: I have a friend and he’s in this band that kids love, but before he was in that band, he took our CD and he gave it to a record label called Tragic Hero. They released our record Fake History, the original release with the blue cover [before Epitaph Records re-released it with a red cover]. Fast forward a few years later, I hear that there’s this very handsome, very talented, very capable gentleman by the name of Loniel Robinson who is the drum tech for my friend that got us signed to Tragic Hero. So I called my friend and I told him, “Hey, I’m thinking about stealing your drum tech, because I hear he’s the man.” 

And he actually comes to practice and he is, in fact, very much “the man,” and we’ve been playing with him for a little over a month now. 

I haven’t told him this yet – he’s actually sitting right in front of me – but he’s not leaving the band, ever. There’s no way. He’s stuck with us forever.

[Loniel in the background: “Woop woop woop!”]

I think that's the first time a band ever made a lineup change while I was interviewing them. That was awesome. I only have one question left: The album cover is a very striking image. Would you mind talking about it and what went into it?

The art being a striking image was the first thing we put on the table. We wanted to put something out there that is provocative and captivating, not so much for shock value but for thought value, some food for thought. When we were doing it, we were discussing us as a band and where we were and where we’ve been. 

I personally write a lot about the prosaic nature of our society and the world for that matter. I feel like there’s a strong sense of homogenization. People are trying to make everything so still and bland...everything is getting stale and old. 

So we thought the idea of black and white American flags could represent a much bigger idea of the sterilization that we are experiencing.

The cover is supposed to make you think. It’s supposed to make you ask the question that you just asked me. And I want to answer that question every day, if I can. That’s what it’s supposed to do; it’s supposed to provoke the thought.

You can follow letlive. on Twitter and Facebook. You can also stream The Blackest Beautiful on YouTube or Spotify. If you like it, you can purchase it digitally on iTunes or on CD/LP in the band's webstore.

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