Meet DYAN. The buzzy new synth pop act, comprised of film composer duo Alexis & Sam (a.k.a Alexis Marsh and Samuel Jones) and Dan Dorff Jr., has been steadily on the rise since their singles “Days Upon Days” and “Looking for Knives” first lit up the hype machine in recent months.
The duo have worked on the project since 2012, with Marsh writing all of the songs and co-producing alongside Jones. They teamed up with Dorff, who was part of Jim James’ solo band and also appeared on Ray Lamontagne’s Ouroboros, in the final stages of recording at La La Land Studio in Louisville, KY.
The group’s debut album — also titled Looking for Knives — arrives July 29, but today they give Billboard the exclusive first listen, streaming one week early.
We asked frontwoman Marsh a few questions via email about the band’s quick rise, the transition from film scoring and her inspiration for the LP.
How did DYAN first take shape?
The first song was “Chances (Gone Too Soon),” which was written and produced for Jocelyn Towne’s (incredible) first feature film, I Am I. Sam & I were writing the film’s score and wanted a chance to include a song of ours for the main title sequence. It’s on the album as a kind of bonus track because we had produced it long before we realized we wanted to make an album of songs, and also because the tone of the song is so different from the rest of the tracks — so many layers of instruments and parts — I felt like we overcompensated on that first one. Just threw everything we could at it — flute lines, weird synth parts, changing guitar parts every verse — because we didn’t know what we were doing.
And how has the project evolved since its inception?
I kept writing songs for projects as the opportunities came up. Once we had a handful, we tried to find time to produce the album between our film work. I was getting anxious about having this open-ended project so I took some time out from scoring to live in Cincinnati, finish the songs and work with Dan Dorff, whose playing I had admired since we went to school together at the University of Louisville. We mixed the album at Kevin Ratterman’s studio in Louisville, Kentucky, and that was the first time the three of us, Dan, Sam, & I worked together.
How is your collaboration different when working in the scoring medium vs. your own compositions as DYAN?
Scoring is working with/for a filmmaker’s vision as well as the story. It’s a point on the horizon that we can keep our eyes on so we can only obsess over a musical element for limited time before we have to deliver the work. It isn’t different from producing an album in terms of sharing ideas, discussion, experimentation. But without a director to make a call, the schedule can drag on and the project risks fizzling out. Still a lot of tension in not knowing where you’re going but having to get there quickly.
How does it feel now to see the fruit of your labor with all of the success so far?
Thank you for referring to success as the result of the work — it’s hard to recognize it. I’m not sure what success looks like. But seeing the tracks get plays on SoundCloud, shares on Facebook/Twitter, having people post about their experience with the songs — it feels like the best of what humanity can do: create something and have strangers relate to it and feel less lonely. We weren’t sure how to release the album. Initially, we were going to release it as Alexis & Sam. Something about it didn’t click – it wasn’t an Alexis & Sam project. Through scoring Brenda Goodman’s documentary SexEd: The Movie, we met her son, Brandon Bogajewicz – who runs a vinyl subscription service called Vinyl Moon and also heads the music blog, The Burning Ear. Brenda is an incredible filmmaker, mentor, music fan, and has been so wonderful to Sam & me. We sent her the album a week or so before we were going to release it as A&S. Shortly after, Brandon got in touch and changed everything. He signed on to be our manager and set a course for us to release the singles and see where the album could go.
How do your initial demos compare to the final produced record?
Our demos ended up being the songs (which may be the main problem from the driver’s seat question). We started with one idea of how to get through a song (a synth line, guitar part, beat, etc.) and overdubbed the rest of the parts to fill it out — some remotely from Cincinnati, but mostly recorded at Sam’s studio in L.A. This gives you so many options but I was pushing for that minimalism — so we stripped a lot of ideas before the final mix. We’d like the next album to start with demos and then record our playing together in a live room. “Trouble” was the only song we were able to do that with on Looking for Knives.
What inspired you while writing the album?
I took many things from many sources. And most of the songs can be traced back to specific reference – an idea of how to start the song, the time-feel, the space. The main push to consume other’s work was to realize how many ways there are to do this. Any doubt we had about missing whatever element from the production was answered by a musician or artist that made great work regardless of what could be thought of as “missing” — Daniel Johnston without a studio, Joni Mitchell without a chorus, Suicide’s Cheree without much variation or lyrical content. It helped us do what we liked without questioning our decisions.
Who’s on your current playlist these days?
We just heard a TEEN song, “Come Back,” on KCRW, looked up the video, and admired. Metronomy’s Night Owl is a welcome return — not that they went anywhere, just, you know, glad for some new stuff of theirs. Daniel Martin Moore — who played guitar on “Of Love” — is releasing an album of lullabies this fall, and we’ve been playing that constantly at home. Since connecting with Brandon, I signed up for Vinyl Moon and have been throwing on those records, listening to his excellent curation of great bands. The score for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven — particularly the Leo Kottke tracks — has been perfect for ending the day, making dinner, watching the sun go down.
Where were you mentally/emotionally in writing the album vs where you are now in releasing it?
I had thought writing the songs would be a type of exorcizing of memories. In going after what I wanted, I was lost and angry and terrified of disappointing nearly everyone I knew. The songs instead became a way to break out of an unhappy cycle. I did go after what I wanted; I did disappoint people. But at a pivotal moment of anguish, my grandmother told me I didn’t owe my happiness to anyone else. There’s so much freedom in not giving a damn.
Really love the title Looking for Knives — what was your inspiration for it and what does it mean to you/how does it describe the tone of the record over all?
Thank you. I had received flowers in the midst of the uncertainty mentioned before, and I wanted destruction rather than resolution. And really, the resolution came through destruction, but I had been looking at it through a fearful lens — something to avoid. It was pretty dark — as looking for knives is. The expectation of what I felt others had of me was whittling away my soul, but I felt more resentful than despairing. St. James speaks to that, and Looking for Knives is a confession.