Songwriter Interviews

A/J Jackson of Saint Motel

by Carl Wiser

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"My Type" gets our vote for song of the summer: it's delicious fun with a clever lyric, sweet horn grooves, and a video set in the best-ever '70s party.

The song comes courtesy of Saint Motel, a Los Angeles outfit fronted by A/J Jackson, who also directs their videos. Their 2012 independent release Voyeur got the attention of Elektra Records thanks to "Benny Goodman," a song inspired by the famous bandleader, and they signed to the label two years later. Their first Elektra output is the EP My Type, which in addition to the title track, contains three other wild and wooly songs that benefit from a little explanation, which A/J was kind enough to provide.

Right now, Saint Motel is in that creative happy place where the focus is on originality and fun. A/J calls it "instinctual," a state where the critical mind gets out of the way and lets the mystery and excitement come through.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): A/J, you have a wonderful line in your song "My Type," where you say, "You're just my type - you've got a pulse and you are breathing." Can you talk about coming up with that line?

A/J Jackson: When I write lyrics, in general I like stuff that's a bit tongue-in-cheek, and this concept was initially based on a fight I was having with a lady friend at the time. It kind of stemmed with the idea that I'd never really thought too much about my type. And her idea was, that's because everyone's my type. I thought that was kind of funny.

I like songs where the lyrics, you listen to it maybe a couple of times and you're like, "Oh, okay." You listen to it repeatedly to get the concept. And it was just a fun lyric.

Songfacts: When you talk about the concept, does that extend to the other three songs on the EP, as well?

A/J: I think that translates to all the lyrics I write. It's not always something that I accomplish, but I always set out with that goal.

Like, there's a million different ways to say you love somebody. You don't always need to have songs that are like "ooh, baby, baby." There's so much of the same, and it's not love's fault. It's just people are lazy about how to describe something like that. That's one of the most complicated emotional things in our lives, and it usually is a mixture of positive, negative, and just weird experiences. There's so many unique ways to express that, so I'm always attracted to that kind of thing.

I guess in relation to your question, how that relates to the rest of the EP, "Cold Cold Man" is to me another way of saying "I Love You" with more of just "I don't always need to tell you I love you for you to get that." Which I've experienced, and I'm sure a lot of people have experienced.

Sometimes it just rubs me the wrong way: People are too saccharin about everything, and with, "I love you" after every phone call, it just seems like if you always express it too much, throw it out there cheaply, it loses a little bit of the value when you use it.

Saint Motel is:

A/J Jackson - vocals
Aaron Sharp - guitar
Dak Lerdamornpong - bass
Greg Erwin - drums

A/J and Aaron met at Chapman University in Orange, California. They formed the band in 2007 (Greg went to a different college; Dak was a chef at a sushi bar), and played lots of local gigs before getting some airplay on the radio station Indie 103.1. Their first EP, ForPlay, was released in 2009.
"Midnight Movies" is a bit of a weird one, because that song is kind of a duet and more of a concept song that I don't think anybody really understands [laughing]. It's not very obvious. It's a very loose lyric idea of domestic fighting, and this kid is interpreting it as his midnight movies when his parents are fighting downstairs, or the man that his mom is dating at that time. But that one's pretty abstract.

Songfacts: The other song that you have on there is "Ace In The Hole," which strikes me as some of your very cinematic songwriting where you set the stage and you throw a line out there, and a lot of it is left up to the interpretation of the listener. Can you talk about that song?

A/J: Yeah. That song started when we were playing outside of Vegas, and I was listening to a slot machine winning noise. And I was like, "I want try to recreate that on piano." That piano riff was me experimenting with making it sound like a slot machine.

In the initial song, the demo had a slot machine opening and looping in the intro, which we later cut out for time reasons. But that's how that song came into existence.

I felt like I wanted to stay true to the form, so the title "Ace In The Hole" came after the vibe had already been established: it feels like we're gambling here, it feels like a slot machine. I wanted to tie that into a lyrical idea.

Songfacts: Tell me about the line "She treats her man like Hall & Oates."

A/J: She eats up men like Hall & Oates.

Songfacts: Because she's a maneater!

A/J: Yeah.

Songfacts: Shoot, brilliant. That was going to drive me crazy, A/J. Thank you.

A/J: [Laughs] No problem.

Songfacts: So, you direct the videos, as well. And when I was watching the "My Type" video, I was shocked by how beautiful you made the '70s look when everybody thinks of it as being such an ugly fashion decade. Can you tell me about that video and if or how it relates to the song?

A/J: Yeah. We had a very short period of time to turn that one around, so I came up with an idea that was a bit more introspective and closer in people's eyes. And one location.

It was something we could accomplish quickly and still convey a story. The idea was a love triangle that's so bizarre and over the top, it's more like it's a love dodecagon. It's just very complicated and out of control.

We wanted a timeless feel to it. A lot of the references we were bouncing back and forth were early 1970s Cadillac advertisements, classic car ads, and cigarette ads. And the pool, which later became a big element of the EP art, and the diver and the vibe that we're going with now. All these things mixed together with this mansion we found in Los Angeles that just is amazing. It really looks like that.

So just being in there gave it a certain vibe. I know the lady that lives there. She has a collection of Architectural Digests from 1959 that went through to 1976, so there was an almost 20-year timespan of stuff she collects and built in her house.

We didn't want to do a period piece, and we're obviously not - if you watch the video, we have a lot of modern stuff there, too. But the vibe we wanted to feel timeless, like it's a party that you could find yourself at today. It's something that you think existed in the past, but it might not exist. Kind of like fantasy nostalgia. It probably never existed, but if it did, it was back then.

Songfacts: Is there any significance to the pineapple?

A/J: Yeah. Our production designer didn't bring that much stuff, and we ended up thinking, OK, just put the pineapples on the table. And then it ended up being a sexual innuendo: the dancer played around with them, and it actually worked really well for video. But it was very not planned and spur of the moment.

Songfacts: What is the songwriting process for Saint Motel?

A/J: It's changed a bit throughout various EPs and albums, but normally I'll start with a song idea, flesh it out a bit and bring it to the band, and then everyone will spin it around and make it Saint Motel. That's typically how it works.

Sometimes the song ideas will come from soundchecks, sometimes it's when I'm using my iPhone Dictaphone on the plane or something. And sometimes it's just a lyric idea that will start a song. Sometimes it's a concept: like I'll hear something and I'll want to try to sound like a slot machine.

When I'm writing music, I like to think of it as a beautiful mystery, because I've never really known where or why I go certain directions, and I like that. I never really even know where a song's going when it starts, and it's the quickest, most gratifying form of creative expression for me.

It's been that way since I was six years old. I took piano lessons for years and did recitals, and one day I hid from my piano teacher, and she asked my mom, "What's going on? Does he not like playing the piano?" And she said, "No, he plays it every day."

The teacher tried to coerce me out of hiding and said, "Well, what do you want to play?" So I started playing some stupid songs that I wrote. Then she started encouraging it and was writing harmonies and accompanying parts. And then I started writing stupid songs and playing them for music class in school, and I just never lost that excitement.

I think that's why initially I studied film in school instead of music: because I was worried that I would ruin the mystery. I was worried I'd ruin the excitement if I dissected why I do what I do and why I like certain things as much as I do. I didn't want it ever to feel forced or designed. I wanted it to feel instinctual, because that's what makes it so fun.

Songfacts: This is starting to make a lot of sense. In order to focus on creativity, you decided to study film rather than study music technique, which would have been studying other musicians that came before you. It seems like that has allowed you to open up into something completely original.

A/J: Yeah. I'd hope so. I think that definitely makes sense. That's probably a bit of a byproduct. I was always much more interested in just jumping into a song than in studying the technique and everything behind it.

I would say that, personally, I'm not a very talented musician. I think the other guys in the band are much more proficient. I'll play the piano or guitar, bass, synth or sax or whatever. But to me they're all equal, they're all tools for me to achieve what's in my head. They're all just different ways of getting it out there.

So I feel like as a result I've learned more. I think now I identify more as a songwriter than as a proficient musician.

An intriguing Saint Motel song that has been floating around since 2011 is "Puzzle Pieces," which tells the story of a woman who looks like a Picasso, but not in a good way:

Face of puzzle pieces
That don't fit together

In Los Angeles, where plastic surgery is common, folks like this are easy to spot.

The video goes in a completely different direction, however, and as A/J explains, the lead actor went on to big things with Sia.
Songfacts: Did you have a specific person in mind when you wrote the song "Puzzle Pieces"?

A/J: [Laughing] Yeah, well, that's kind of funny. I used to assist this photographer here in LA doing high-fashion shoots. One day, we were discussing this model. She was pretty, but there was something about her that just didn't quite work together. Her facial features, there was nothing wrong with them, but something was off. The most beautiful eyes, the most beautiful lips, most beautiful ears, but for some reason things didn't fit together. And I thought that was a really interesting idea.

But that's a good example, too, of a song where maybe you might have to listen a couple of times before you pick up on the subject matter. It's loose enough where it can mean all sorts of different things to different people, but at the same time, it's not the happiest lyrical idea, even though the music's so happy. So it gives this nice contrast that only people that really are paying attention will notice. Most people just think of it as a happy, summery pop song.

Songfacts: What about the video? It doesn't seem to have much to do with the song.

A/J: Yeah. When I was making that video, we wanted a POV camera, so we built this helmet rig using a motorcycle helmet and strapped an SLR camera on it. I gave myself a neck brace because it weighed so much. At the end of the shoot, my neck was just destroyed.

But the video doesn't always need to be spot on with the idea of the song. Sometimes you cover your eyes and you listen to the music and you see stuff, and that's how it worked with "Puzzle Pieces." Although it wasn't the first thing that came to my mind, which was, for some reason, boxers. The buildup was them dancing and then whenever they hit, it was like a punch to the face.

But I don't know why it went the way it did. But interesting fact, the male dancer in the video, the guy who twists his ankle, he's also the choreographer of the video. He's the choreographer in that Sia video "Chandelier," the biggest choreographer of the last year. [Ryan Heffington]

Songfacts: That's incredible. Another one of your songs that has a dissociated video is "Benny Goodman."

A/J: Yeah. [Laughing]

Songfacts: First of all, "You strike like Benny Goodman," what's going on with Benny Goodman there?

A/J: Well, first of all, that song started with a sample, a Benny Goodman sample. I wanted to find something that I could connect with the Benny Goodman story, and base the lyrics around that. When I was doing research into his life, I saw so many parallels with this guy, and especially him sticking through the darkest period when it was pretty much the end of the road and by all means, he should have given up. By chance circumstances, he ended up becoming the King of Swing.

It's a pretty interesting story. I'll summarize it real quick: Benny Goodman, after years of being a session player and a live player in people's bands, started his own group, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and his manager got him a slot on a radio show. But they got the worst slot, so he was on in New York late at night. Nothing too great.

They had a summer where they played fairs and stuff like that, so they went on the road, and they went to the Midwest. No one knew who they were, they just wanted to hear the same old standards, so they arranged it into Benny Goodman music.

They got to California, it's the end of the tour, he can barely afford to pay the musicians. Everyone's at wit's end and ready to explode. There's fighting and everything, and who knows exactly what happened, but I can imagine it wasn't pretty.

And then their show in California is a crazy hit. It's packed. People are going wild. And they're like, "What? Was that a fluke?" Next night, they're somewhere else and it's okay, not so great. The next night they're in LA and it's packed again, and people are going crazy. It turns out that radio show with the really bad time slot in New York was prime time on the West Coast, so all these people heard it and he developed this crazy fan base before he even got there. So they stayed in LA and they did a residency at the Palomar Ballroom, and just blew up. It started here in California, and they were able to move back to the East Coast and Goodman became the King of Swing.

As for Saint Motel, I think we identified with the idea of "keep going even when it doesn't really make sense." Because we've been independent for so long and doing this all on our own. For us, it was something we could relate to: just holding in there, hoping someone will care enough someday to take a chance on it.

Songfacts: What about the video for that song?

A/J: Oh, yeah, the video. There's a video for our song "1997." We shot that and "Benny Goodman" the same day at the same location. It's called the Dresden Room in Los Angeles. We shot "1997" in the bar, we shot "Benny Goodman" in the restaurant. We didn't have much budget, like always. We never have budget for these videos, so it's making the most of what we had.

So I took that concept of no one believing in you and then you becoming the king, and I changed it to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The idea was that no one believed in young Michael until he could show them what he could do.

So it's a very loose concept from the song presented in a different way.

Songfacts: You mentioned "1997." What's the significance of that year with the song?

A/J: Well, that song is based around the idea of the Heaven's Gate cult. That's not very obvious either, but if you listen to it, it is pretty morose and it is talking about the end. But it's also talking about people this character met, as some of the best friends he's ever had. And in a way, that's not such a bad thing, even though it is a cult and it ended badly. It's almost endearing in a way.

Songfacts: I'm getting a sense with you that no good idea goes to waste. So if you get a lyric or a visual idea, it's going to show up in some of your work whether it fits the theme or not.

A/J: That could make sense.

Songfacts: I just have two last things for you, A/J. And the first one's really easy. Why the slash between the A and the J?

A/J: [Laughs] Well, I switched to A/J from Alexander when I was in second grade. Just kind of randomly the first day at school the teacher said, "What's your name?" And I said, "A.J." And he said, "Oh, okay." And for some reason it was okay to change my name, so I stuck with that.

Then I never really felt attached to the periods between the name, I didn't feel they were necessary. I felt like if I could have anything between the two letters, it was a slash. Initially because the slash was also the top of the J, and it looks to me like it's a slash at the top of the J. For a while I was doing A...J, or A!J! I just felt like it was the two letters and I could play around with the punctuation however I saw fit. It's kind of silly.

Songfacts: My daughter stylizes her name, too. She's in first grade. She puts an exclamation point at the end, and I think it's wonderful.

A/J: [Laughing] How nice, dude. Well, there you go.

Songfacts: So, the last thing I have, you've been talking about how these music videos, you make them on the fly, you've got to do them quick. But the darn things are beautiful. I'm wondering if you could explain what your general idea is for these videos and what you have to get right to make it work.

A/J: Well, for me personally, I have to visualize the entire thing ahead of time and go in with a clear picture of what it's going to be. And since I edit a lot of them, I kind of know.

I used to edit a lot, so knowing how it's going to work in the end helps clear up the way you're treating it, to just focus on getting better performances rather than figuring out how it's all going to fit together.

When I direct a music video for my band or for anybody's band, or even a commercial or whatever it is, I tend to get really invested in it - almost obsessed. I'll do an animatic storyboard, I'll animate the characters, I'll put it together and edit it into a timeline and make sure the timing feels right. I dive in pretty deep, because if I can't see it clearly in my head when I'm going in, I just don't feel like I can do as good of a job.

July 1, 2015.
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Comments: 1

  • Rick from Campo Torres, Baja Malibu MexicoMy Type hooked into me like a three prong fish hook the first time I heard it. I pulled over and listened, only to have the DJ give it a passing glance, of course, this is San Diego, home to the top 3 lamest FM/AM radio stations on Earth. I got home to my Baja Malibu beachfront home, ( ok, I was born in point loma 60 years ago, you think I would be stupid enough to LIVE in SD now?) and started researching Saint Motel and once found, listened to Official Video My Type, trying to play along ON MY SIX STRING, ONLY TO BE MESMERIZED BY GIRL IN POOL, which only accents and puts an exclamation point to A/J Jackson's videography. Who is the actress? So I forwarded video to friends in NY, CA, RI, and Australia- they ALL liked Saint Motel, then came Coachella, which I missed, so thanx for this interview 2015.
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