Billboard spoke with the impressive duo about their Rockaway Beach bungalow, their writing process and surfing with MGMT.
Tell me about the setting in which you guys wrote and produced the EP?
Danny Miller: It’s a two-room bungalow, with a living room studio and Max’s bed lofted above. We’ve been really close friends for a long time now. I think there’s a very short list of people who I could live in this situation with.
When did you move out to there?
Miller: A year and a half ago. We’re from D.C. originally. Max and I have been best friends since we were nine. We grew up making music together, and before we moved out here, we spent three years on the road in a garage-y DIY band, just grinding it out and sleeping on floors, self-booking tours. We were spinning the wheels very hard and we weren’t working very smart. So we came here and it was sort of just for mental clarity.
How do you think the environment played into your sound?
Miller: For us, the Rockaways really worked into the aesthetic of the project and the music. We had to live it to make it come to life. It was a sacrifice because we have no friends out here. [Laughs] We’re really far away, but the isolation is a lot of what bred the sound.
Max Harwood: In this process of self-discovery we decided that what we really wanted to do was retain some of the rawness of the previous blues-rock band that we were in, in the sense that we wanted to have live drums and acoustic guitar on every track, while incorporating industrial, sampled sounds. When we came out to Rockaway, we were on the beach but the subway and the grit of the city was right there. It’s like the natural world meeting the industrial world, and it kind of embodied what we were going for sonically.
Do you write everything collaboratively?
Miller: It’s vey hand in hand. When we were first figuring out the sonic identity and landscape, it was really collaborative at every single juncture. We were sitting with “Loud(y)” for a year before it came out. I think that once we found out that that sound was working, we were able to begin working in a little more individual capacities. What’s so nice about working with your best friend is I can always trust his input. And I’m not guarded around Max and he lives in my head in the same way that I do. It’s a dark place. [Laughs]
Acoustic guitar is very important to the sound – was that always the goal?
Miller: Where I lived in D.C., it was next to a big radio tower. I couldn’t play electric guitar in my house, because there were signals coming out of the amplifier, so I just always played acoustic. Back in Middle school, some of the first songs I started learning how to play on guitar were Jack Johnson songs. We always say Lewis Del Mar should be like Jack Johnson on his sixteenth album after he’s taken a bunch of LSD. [Laughs] Like if Jack Johnson called up Kanye and asked him to produce his next album. They go off to Hawaii and trip on mushrooms and come back with this crazy record.
I think that’s very accurate. And how did mixed media come into play?
Harwood: I was always into hip hop, and when we started this project, I was still trying to figure out ways to use sampling in our sound. It 100% came to the forefront when we moved to New York because it’s ground zero for hip-hop. We started listening to J Dilla, Madlib, and “Paul’s Boutique” by The Beastie Boys, and we really wanted to bring some of that in. I started doing sampling from vinyl of different Latin percussion ensembles, and taking little recordings of performers on the subway and that kind of stretched into just recording sounds all over New York City with my iPhone. I chopped them up, and wove them in and out to create atmosphere.
Loud(y) hit No. 1 on Hype Machine last year, and I imagine that was a pretty insane week for you. Were you prepared for that reaction?
Miller: I think the short answer is absolutely not. We had no idea. Max and I lived with the music for so long, we felt good about it, but to have the first thing you put online, like ever, go from zero to 100 in 6 days was just the kind of shit you can’t ever expect. Prior to it being on Soundcloud and Hype Machine, a total of six people had heard that record: me, Dan, Andrew Maury, our mixing engineer and co-producer, and our girlfriends – that was it.
What about Columbia made you sway that way when signing?
Harwood: They gave us a hot tub. [Laughs] No, it was two things – one, it was Isaac Green, founder of Startime, which is an imprint under their label. We’re technically signed to Startime, and they have independent roots, so we felt more comfortable going through them.
Miller: Isaac to us was one of the most honest people we met throughout the entire process. You can tell when you click aesthetically with somebody, and really have a shared viewpoint of what works. We had been independent for a long time, but signing felt like the next logical step. We had done this alone our entire lives, and to grow this in the right way, we need people that have more experience than us.
Did their roster have an impact as well?
Harwood: It speaks to what we're trying to do. Having bands like MGMT makes us feel more comfortable. They’re making music that’s more accessible and popular but on their own terms. We surfed with MGMT on the Rockaways. We literally met them in the water, and were all sitting on surfboards. We were like 'aren’t you the dude in MGMT?' We hadn’t signed yet, and they were giving us advice on surfboards, like ‘well, what do you like about Columbia?’ They have such a rich history of capital 'A' Artists and that’s what we really hope to be. We have a long way to go but knowing that there are people like them on that roster, it gives you something very tangible to aspire to. When you go into the office and look at the wall of platinum records, it’s Dylan, Springsteen, Beyonce, Frank Sinatra. Everybody wants to be a heritage artist like that and have a life long career.
And in your live show, you’re a five-piece?
Harwood: Yes, that was very intentional – we have fairly produced music. We didn’t want backing tracks and loops. We were really inspired by James Blake – he has a vey produced, stylized sound, but when he’s live, he does it with a three piece, and they’re all actively playing all of those parts, it’s such a produced sound, but feels so real live.
Are you finishing up the full-length now?
Miller: We’re deep in it. [Laughs] We had a lot of stuff ready because we’ve been working on it for so long. So I think it’s been nice to have the luxury to write more material and have stuff already in the tank when it started moving forward. We want to keep that moment we had here intact, I think a lot of the full length will include material from that time.
Catch their debut, self-titled EP out January 15 on Columbia/Startime and available on iTunes and Spotify.
Lewis Del Mar Tracklist:
03. Malt Liquor