Backstage with Indy-Rock Sensations Glass Animals
You show up at the Village Recorder, barely making it on time to interview Glass Animals for their new album
How to Be a Human Being
—a title you realize perfectly captures the existential funk of rush hour traffic you just endured.
The Village Recorder is a recording complex in West L.A., whose landmark prominence is eclipsed only by its occult aura. Originally erected as a Masonic Temple in 1922, it later became the American headquarters of the Maharishi. In the ‘60s, it finally settling into its role as a pivotal recording space, chockfull of enshrined specters whose clout you can feel within its ancient walls (ancient for L.A. anyway).
You feel it walking past the huge mural on the side of the building that depicts a desert highway ruin: forced perspective juts a collapsed freeway over the line of Glass Animals fans already snaking its way down the sidewalk. You feel it walking through the entrance threshold, even if you are just making a beeline for the toilet. Wooden floors creak under your footsteps; light from the stain glassed window spills onto gold records ceremoniously hung along the walls.
Roadies and venue staff set up equipment in the theater space for tonight’s concert, brought to you by Tumblr IRL: a platform that forges collaborations between musicians and visual artists. The aim is to dissolve the barrier of the virtual world, and multimedia designer Ashten “Whoopi” Winger is orchestrating tonight’s ambitiously immersive experience.
A rep leads you to Studio V, where you meet core band members Dave Bayley (lead vocals, guitar) and Joe Seaward (drummer) hanging loose by a piano. You’re told you’ve got all of fifteen minutes to probe the world of Glass Animals.
At first listen, you may write their sound off as something saccharine, but you’d miss the darkly undertones and poetic rendering. Their alt-pop approach includes elements of R&B, psych, trip hop, and even found sound. But more than its soundscape is its distinctive storytelling that’s been lacking in pop music for some time.
How to Be a Human Being pulls its audience out of the matte neon jungle that was their debut LP Zaba, and into the civilized game of modern life. They not only bring the dance beats, but engage the human story—rather than offering some banal escape from it.
You ask about the genesis of the new album, wincing as your voice echoes through the high cathedral-like ceilings of the studio.
“It seemed very natural to do something that was about people,” Bayley tells you. “We had gone from making a record in the woods in Oxford to very quickly being [on tour] in a huge city every morning. You wake up and there’s fans, you go in the venue and there’s the crew, the people who run the venue, then there’s the after parties. Just people, people, people, always meeting people. I had this weird fascination with people’s stories and I started recording. It started to makes sense, that this would be the way to write about people. To make up all of these characters and tell stories using the ideas from what I had heard and recorded.”
Distilled from these tales on the road, the eleven characters posing on the album cover (like the best awkward family photo you’ve ever seen) loosely correspond to its eleven tracks. Between the art direction, the music videos, and the engagement on social media, there’s plenty of room for theorizing and stitched logic. Comment sections alone tell you the audience is already creating a mythos.
“We might return to the narrative. I think we’re going to veer away from it for the next [video],” Bayley says. “There’s a collection of characters in those first two videos. The video for the next single won’t involve one of them. We might go on a tangent for a bit.”
They perk up when you bring up Jim Jarmusch’s chaotic film Night on Earth,and the nomadic documentaries about stories from the fringe by Les Blank. You follow by saying, “It seems like you’re not trying to thread some cohesive narrative, but you’re simply allowing these characters to breathe, and to breathe life into our world.” You’re not sure if that’s a question or an opinion.
Dave Bayley affirms your suspicions, stroking his chin, “That’s good, that’s the idea, yeah…” as if realizing it himself. “To me, and I think to us, they practically do exist. Hyper-analyzing them, you know everything about them. So hopefully these websites and things that we’ve made for them will allow people to see some of that.”
You discuss how the albumseems to pivot after the seventh track, “[Premade Sandwiches],” a 36-second synthesized speed rant about our consumerist circus. The songs that follow, particularly “Take a Slice,” take on even more bold and bizarre arrangements.
Bayley is elated when you nail the F. Scott Fitzgerald reference in “The Other Side of Paradise,” a song told from the POV of a small town girl in love with a boy who leaves “out west” to be a famous basketball player, chasing a life of “sunswept poolside riches.” “Yes!” Bayley says laughing, “you’re the first person to mention that!”
And with that, the rep comes back into the room. Time’s up, kid.
It’s now dark, and you walk back outside for a guilt-free smoke, noticing the line to get in now extends clear down the block. As you light up, you see the Basketball Player from “The Other Side of Paradise” walk by. You recognize his #11 jersey from the album cover. You stop—double take—making sure you’re not hallucinating. He’s dribbling a ball in one hand and holding a boom box in the other. People in the crowd see him too, and seem just as mystified. Some start to catch on, dancing with him and taking pictures.
Entering the theater space, you quickly realize the IRL Basketball Player was just a teaser. It turns out at several of the characters are there, unshackled from their virtual constraints, inhabiting the venue in the flesh.
You grab a “Pork Soda” at the bar (a specialty pineapple jalapeno margarita named after the song), admiring the 8-bit projections on the walls by pixel artist Mykola Dosenko.
To your left you see the quirky and stout Fortune Teller. In her pink gown and sandals, she sits at a small table with a crystal ball, animal skull and deck of tarot cards. People have already lined up for free readings.
Wandering confidently through the crowd is the delicious and greased-up Guy in Speedos (“Cane Shuga”). Even the Sweet Little Boy (“Youth”) frolics around, and ends up sitting on the shoulders of the Basketball Player most of the night.
To your right is the TV-binging Hipster Girl (“Season 2 Episode 3”). She’s sitting on the same couch from the music video, playing Mario Kart on an old staticky tube television. You can tell the diehard fans apart by the way their eyes light up, as if to say, “oh my god, they’re really here.” Time’s up, kid.
There’s an extra controller, and she invites one of us to play with her. Everyone maintains a timid halo around the couch, treating her like the living art project she is. Out of nowhere, Chuck the Scientist (“Life Itself”), clad in his custom cosmic jumpsuit and horn-rimmed glasses, plops down next to her and starts playing. Everyone’s loose in an instant. It’s not long until kids are calling dibs on next, while broadcasting brag selfies back into cyberspace.
Freaks, weirdos, hermits, social outliers just trying to connect. However eccentric, it’s their uncanny relatability that grabs you; like the visions of Wes Anderson injected with a lurking sense of dangerous fun.
You drink another Pork Soda, trying not to stare too hard at Guy in Speedo. You ask Hipster Girl if the characters are going to accompany the band on tour. “I wish,” she says, bitter-sweetly. “Tragically, it’s a one-time thing.”
Glass Animals finally takes the stage, adding fuel to the crowd’s fire. They erupt in song with tons of energy, already sweating; polar opposite from the soft-spoken gentlemen you interviewed an hour earlier. The audience sings along to pet idioms already in play, i.e. My girl eats mayonnaise/ from a jar while she’s getting’ glazed or Pineapples are in my head/ Got nobody ‘cause I’m brain-dead.
In between songs, Dave Bayley takes a beat and thanks everyone, acknowledging the night. Sweaty euphoric, catching their breath, the band is just as overwhelmed and floored as the crowd. They’re as free as their own creations, who at that point, jump onstage and dance to “their” songs. Though their wild idiosyncrasies are undeniable, these characters, these people, are wholly kindred, bonding with each other over some self-reflexive revelation. And now they were bonding with us. Lines blur and beats keep you moving. Before long, you forget what’s real and what isn’t—and you don’t seem to mind.
Time’s up, kid.
Written by Brent Smith
Photographed by Kiu Kayee