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Mark my words, dear readers, Latchkeys is the best band you’ve never heard.
Last October I was invited to a private Halloween party that included a three-band lineup. This was an important event for two reasons: One, I rarely get invited to parties this hep (and hep it was). Two, the evening marked the first public performance by Latchkeys, a New York-based electronic indie band. Even though they performed with a skeleton crew consisting of singer/songwriter Thomas Gilbert and keyboardist JaKenna Gilbert (a brother and sister duo), they were one of the most captivating bands I have ever seen live.
The worst thing about pop music is that after you listen to it in large quantities for 15+ years, you start suffering from chronic ennui brought on by the insipid sameness of everything. Even indie bands that eschew commercial success readily exhibit interchangeable identities and sonic attitudes. And once you have this dis-ease and reach a point of sheer boredom, you stop listening to music for its innate enjoyment and become obsessed with finding the rarest of exceptions in the biz: a credible band whose accessibility never diminishes, but grabs you with every listen. Pop hooks with substance. Glitz without the sham.
As a band still in its infancy, Latchkeys don’t have an album I can review or a history I can chronicle, but what I’ve heard in a handful of demos (recorded mostly, I think, in Thomas’s bedroom) is a sound that manages to be everything at once: minimal and expansive, humble and resplendent, original and pastiche. The droning bass rhythms and stylish synthesizers combined with Kevin Abbondondelo’s inventive guitar and James Buonantuono’s acoustic drums produce dynamic layers that pleasantly contrast with the vocals. Lyrically, Thomas understands that a good song has to be both unexpected and honest. In "Lovesick
," Thomas sings, "When the hallways crumble in / between my heart and your skin / maybe we're lovesick 'til the end." In Dylan's "Lovesick," the speaker wanders a romantic wasteland before realizing he still pines for his lover. But this speaker seems to want the sickness more than cure. I think we all do.
It’s easy to spot the Latchkey’s influences. They make dark, danceable music reminiscent of early Cure or Joy Division or any of the new electronic bands, such as M83. But the thing I feel most acutely about Latchkeys is that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. While they may not be reinventing the wheel, they've somehow made themselves undefinable. In an age of mega-brands, hashtags and ridiculous subgenres (we now have to add “chill-wave” to the roster), we rarely find a band devoid of predetermined outcomes. The result is a sound that’s every bit as smart as it is catchy—an approach that works because they don’t overthink their arrangements, and, wisest of all, they leave all that ironic self-consciousness by the wayside. It’s this quality that makes Latchkeys wildly infectious. Here are four people playing for the moment, unconcerned with expectations. Question is: Can they keep this momentum while maintaining their candor? For our sake, I hope so.
: Did you choose the name Latchkeys as a play on "latchkey kids"?
Thomas Gilbert: I definitely grew up as a latchkey kid and so did JaKenna to some extent. We had hard-working parents, so we usually ended up on our own from dawn until dusk—roaming the countryside or riding bikes around our small town or doing crappy chores like laundry and the dishes. I named this project after that feeling of freedom and adventure that comes with spending a lot of time alone from a very young age. That independence was essential in shaping our childhoods and adult lives, but it also led to an inevitable solitude that underlies much of the material we write.
: How long have you and JaKenna been playing together musically?
TG: Not long. Our Halloween show was our first time playing...that and a couple of practices, but that’s pretty much it.
: Have you played in bands separately before?
JaKenna Gilbert: I haven’t. The Halloween show was the first time I’ve performed publicly since eighth grade when I played the flute in middle school. Of course, Tom had several projects.
TG: I played in a band in L.A. for a while called The Cartographers. And I’ve been recording mostly by myself—bedroom recordings—since I was 21.
: Is the material you play born out of the love of experimenting?
TG: Completely. Most of the songs we’re playing I put together in my bedroom from the past year, year and a half. Although Kevin’s parts are mostly his own.
Kevin Abbondondelo: Half.
TG: Half are his own; half are parts I wrote that he made better. It’s more fun because the band’s a collaborative effort now, though I can’t stop writing and recording songs on my own. Latchkeys is definitely born out of bedroom recordings, but with a full band, it’s going to be so much better.
...when I’m sitting down and have an instrument in front of me the only thing I can do is write what’s in my head...and I have to figure out how that sound translates to whatever instrument I’m playing.
: Your sound definitely has a throwback to 80s synth music, but there’s also a minimalism aspect. Who are your influences?
TG: Minimalism was definitely a part of the way I started writing and recording. I did everything lo-fi when I recorded the demos. JaKenna plays a little Yamaha PortaSound synth; I trigger samples with an MPC-1000. Everything started pretty small with basic drum beats, and then I built and built and built, and now these guys are helping me build more. I’m always looking for a sound that’s small and big at the same time.
But as far as direct influences go, we’re all fans of M83. My influences were much more minimal before I got into M83, and then I started using more synthesizers and more layering. We’re also into a lot of 90s and early 2000s indie rock. Engine Down is a big influence. Denali. A lot of the Lovitt Records and Jade Tree Records bands.
JG: Tom took me to a Denali show when I was in high school, and they turned out to be one of my favorite bands.
TG: One of my other big influences is Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, which is also pretty lo-fi and minimal. Definitely New Order. I used be a little more Joy Divisony and post-punky, but I’ve transitioned more into New Wave.
TG: Definitely Kraftwerk—especially in terms of our synthesizer parts. That’s another band that’s so good at being minimal but still feeling full. You never feel like something’s missing. Sometimes you listen to minimal or low-fi sounds bands, and you feel like there’s something missing, but with Kraftwerk there are no wasted notes. That’s one thing I try to make sure is present when I write songs—nothing’s wasted and every note counts.
: Speaking of M83, there’s sort of an 80s revival thing going on at the moment with bands like M83, Twin Shadow, Ford & Lopatin, etc. Though your music in many ways breaks from traditional and even revival molds, do you see yourself as part of a new wave, much like how the late 90s/early 2000s were, in certain corners, dominated by a garage rock revival bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes?
TG: I think I'm too much of an M83 fan to feel at all comfortable with this question! The music we make has a lot in common with M83 and other 80s style bands—we all have synthesizers and drums awash in reverb and emotion—but at the core of our own music is really simple song writing. I write many of the songs on an acoustic guitar before we get together and build them up into the final product. It is my hope that, no matter how big the songs get, they still maintain the simplicity that makes acoustic singer-songs so compelling. So, are we part of a new wave of 80s influenced bands? Maybe a little. But our songs all begin as small and simple. And once we've thrown in some distorted guitar and 909 drum beats, the music probably starts to veer more early 90s.
: Do you labor with your writing process, or is everything produced frenetically?
TG: I don’t do anything fast, but some songs flow easier than others, that’s for sure. I think the genesis of songs for me run a pretty wide range with starting points. Sometimes I’ll just hum a tune in my head until I get home and sit down with an acoustic guitar and bang it out. Other times, I’ll just start with a drum beat. I think the songs generally turn out in the end pretty similar, but most of them start in very different places.
: Yeah, even when the songs sound like they’re written during the same time period and have similar overtones, they still sound like individual pieces.
TG: I’m glad you say that because they really do come from a different part of me, a different place. I don’t know how other songwriters operate, but when I’m sitting down and have an instrument in front of me the only thing I can do is write what’s in my head and what’s coming at me at that moment. In some ways, the songs take longer to write or can be more labor intensive because I have to play it like it’s in my head, and I have to figure out how that sound translates to whatever instrument I’m playing.
: Part of what makes your vocals great is that you actually sing on these songs, and your voice sort of has its own melodic structure to it that contrasts in an interesting way with the minimal sounds. How do you approach vocals?
TG: It’s definitely a part of making the sound small and big at the same time. I’ve always wanted to walk that line between effort and non-effort. When I first started playing and recording, I tended to over-sing like most people. Now I try to settle into a comfortable way to sing that matches what I’m writing about. I don’t really think about the vocals much anymore, which is nice. When I began I was obsessed with it because when I started, I started from scratch. I had never taken vocal lessons or sang anything before. It was all trial and error. If there’s one constant feeling throughout the songs, I want it to be the vocals.
JG: I think it also has this polarizing effect. One of the things we’ve talked about before in relation to his voice is that people really are drawn to it. But I think some people could be like, “that sounds weird or off or awkward, but at the same time, I respect it.”
TG: It’s true! It’s the only way I can sing.
: Do you both play multiple instruments?
JG: Right now Tom writes the keyboard parts, and I memorize and play them. I think as this project grows we’ll be able to work more together, and we’ll feel more comfortable writing our own things. But right now it’s Tom’s brainchild—the parts are in his head—and I want to play them as he envisions them.
TG: I play all the basic band instruments and write all the parts. I’m technically best at the bass. I’ve never been a killer guitar player, but I kind make the guitar work in the way I make drum parts work. It’s ends up being minimal, but it also ends up being a pretty good reflection of what I’m hearing in my head. It’s only been in the last two years that I started programming a lot of pulsing, continuous synth/bass parts, which has ended shaping a large part of the music.
: Kevin, now that you’re in the band, when tom hands you a minimal bass line, how do you add to it? What's your goal?
KA: I overload until Tom tells me not to.
TG: Yeah, I have to reign him in sometimes.
KA: I come from a fairly different background than Tom. For me, it’s always been "more is more."
TG: There’s a lot of guitar stuff in Kevin’s old projects. That’s exactly why I asked him to pluck because he’s the guitar whiz.
KA: I just throw it out there, and when he says it’s too much, I pull back. That’s it.
TG: We have an old music connection between us.
KA: Yeah, we come from generally the same place, so it’s fairly easy to know what’s in the right ballpark.
: I guess you’re able to translate ideas across each other.
TG: Exactly. We know each other pretty well musically.
: As a new band, is your main goal recording or just doing live shows?
TG: My short-term goal is to play as many quality shows as we can in the near future.
KA: It’s still early. It’s only been a couple weeks. We’re still trying to get these songs in shape.
TG: For 2012, we are looking to play some more shows in and around New York City and try to build a local following. We are basically just starting out so making new friends and new fans is both the challenging and fun part right now. We are also trying to find the right someone who can help us produce a proper EP so we can get some legit recordings out in 2012. The band’s so new, I don’t really know what’s going to happen.
For more information, follow Latchkeys on Facebook
All photos by Hailey King
Volume 2, Issue 1
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