We Ought to See Them Now: An Interview with the 88
They recorded the theme song to "Community", recorded an entire song through an iPhone app, and even contemplated changing the band name at one point. Yet The 88 have preserved, and they speak to PopMatters about their latest album and why it's their freshest yet.
The 88 has been churning out the alt pop songs since 2003, with a sunny California vibe from their L.A. roots that seems infused in everything they do. Named after a song by the French Kicks as well as the fact a piano has 88 keys, the band's hits such as "Coming Home" and "Go Go Go" are infectious tunes featured in commercials, TV shows, and films that instantly get stuck in your head. With a new lineup as a four piece, they just wrote and recorded the opening theme song for NBC's Community and went on tour with the iconic Ray Davies. Their strong presence on screen just seems to fit in with their proximity to Hollywood, which is why lead vocalist/guitarist Keith Slettedahl recently called in from there to talk with PopMatters about their new, self-titled album out now.
The new album is self-titled -- why choose to call it The 88 now?
It's so different now... I think the only alternative is to change the name of the band. Everything feels the most complete it's ever been and the most fun it's ever been, so it seemed like a new beginning too. To just give it name and lump it in with the other ones wouldn't feel so right. Todd [O'Keefe, the bass player for the band] came into the studio when we were recording it and said he had a name for the record, but he wanted us to guess. We were like, how are we going to guess? But he said, "No think about it." And we all knew that it was the right thing to do.
Your band wears the alternative mantle well, yet you're masters of catchy tunes. Underneath the surface are complexities that require serious musicianship, are there classical or jazz training in the band's background?
No, the guys are just really, really good. The music that we like is older music, when the musicianship was probably a little bit better. But I still like all kinds of music as well -- it's all relative. When The Beatles came out, people thought they were terrible musicians but by today's standards they are incredible! But I think it's from the bands that we really love and we're influenced by.
You and keyboardist Adam Merrin went to high school together -- a classic band story -- are those days filled with happy memories or were they more trying times?
Well they were fine, but actually we weren't really close friends in high school. We knew each other and we were friends but we really didn't start hanging out together until the last day of high school when we did the first song together. He was a little ahead of me as far as his rebelliousness and I was still a really good boy [Laughs]. Adam was more of a wild card; he was already ditching school and doing other stuff. I wasn't ready for that yet! We always had the same taste in music and we would have little competitions here and there about certain bands, although we never really hung out that much till the end.
Another classic band tale is how you got noticed -- a demo found its way into the hands of a music supervisor which led to a song on The O.C. so how exactly did this happen?
It was at Spaceland in Silverlake and Supergrass was playing -- must have been a secret show or something. I didn't get to see the show ... I would have liked to! So we passed one out to this guy, Danny Benair of Natural Energy Lab [an independent licensing agent] who started all that TV stuff for us. He's a great guy and we've worked with him for a long time now.
In the past you've said that all the musical styles for the band have not been a conscious decision to go one direction or another. Is this still true?
Yeah, I think so. Especially with this record more than ever, there was never any discussion about what kind of record or even types of songs or what we wanted to do. It's all very natural and that's the way the band has to function for all four of us or we just won't do it anymore. We've been doing this for a long time and a lot of the stuff that we thought we had to do before or worried about or thought about doing, something like "what will this person think of it" or "what will happen after we do this" doesn't happen anymore. I may think that stuff from time to time but as far as the band and the group consciousness, there's just none of that.
We just got together and started making songs, with no intention of even making a record. We didn't know what we were doing, we just wanted to get together and play music again. For a couple of years, we really weren't doing that -- so that's how this record came about. But to say that we didn't talk about styles of songs would be an understatement, because we weren't even talking about making a record. We were just getting together to have fun, and then all of a sudden songs started to accumulate. It was really done in the right way, really naturally. And that's another reason to go back to the self-titled record, because this whole process was different than anything we had ever done before.
About a year ago, you recorded the song "Love Is The Thing" entirely on an iPhone application and now it's on YouTube with almost half a million views. How did that come about and where was it filmed?
It was filmed at Anthony's [Zimmitti, the drummer] house and the idea came partly from us and partly through a friend. I had seen the app and we were curious about it, talking about it and wondering about it. We were traveling when we saw it, so we tried it out as something to do when we're on the road. Right after that a friend of ours contacted us about it -- he works for Apple so he had mentioned this 4-track app and asked if we would like to do a song on it as a band. And we were like, "Yeah" it sounded fun, especially because I really like the thought of recording simply -- it reminds me of how I used to do stuff at home. We had just done some other recordings that were the total opposite of that, so it was a lot of fun. We didn't even realize how the whole thing was going to work. We were experimenting with it as we went along. For example, if we wanted to record drums we have to set the tone using a pillow because you can't control the volume of what goes into the mike.
More recently, you not only opened up for Ray Davies on tour but to be his backing band must have been amazing. He even sang on one of tracks on the new album [the lead single "They Ought to See You Now"]. How did that all come about?
We were contacted by a booking agent that we used to work with that Ray was looking for a band to do a month in the States and would we be open to being put up for it. And we said of course, but what are the odds of that actually happening? Then as the weeks went by, we were contacted again and they would keep asking for stuff (website, pictures) and then he wanted to hear us do a few Kinks songs live so we did that, sent it to him and he chose us to do it. It was great -- kind of amazing as it was out of nowhere. We were in the middle of making the new record when we got the call to do it, so it was really exciting.
Ray's a great guy and really fun to work with, especially getting to record with him. We just asked him while we were on tour. We said, "Hey Ray, would you want to sing on a song?" Just the fact that he took the time to do that is really kind of him. He's really humble in that way. He'd ask our opinions while we were recording and definitely wasn't domineering in any way. He's just a really, really nice guy. And obviously he's one of my all time heroes. His music was a big reason I wanted to play music and write songs in particular. For me, it's a super personal connection -- ask anyone who knows me what kind of music I like and they'll say The Kinks. Back when I first met my wife I gave her two CDs by The Kinks. They're huge to me, beyond famous. The other day I was listening to a Kinks record and I thought to myself how I can't believe I know that guy!
Did all the touring influence any creative decisions when you went back to finish the new album or was it business as usual?
Well, we were almost done and we were really prepared when we went into the studio, probably more than ever because we really wanted it to be a live record as much as possible. We had rehearsed a lot so we were pretty sure of what to do and everything was easy. By the time we got back we had written all the songs plus most of the parts were done. So it went quickly and smoothly.
Your band seems to embody a sunny California vibe -- after all this traveling can you imagine living anywhere else?
I don't know... I feel pretty set in my ways at this point. Because I grew up in Southern California, I'm obviously accustomed to the weather. That's what I keep coming back to, the weather! The thing is I've never really lived anywhere else. I've lived in Northern California for a while, and my wife's from Georgia so there are things I really love about that but home is home. When I was younger I could see myself living somewhere else but now I have a daughter so we're kind of settled, but I'm open minded about it.
Looking ahead, what's next for the band?
Well we're trying to continue to have fun, that's for sure. And we're getting together, rehearsing and making up new stuff again since that's real important for us, because that's where the real satisfaction comes. You got to feel like you're being creative and enjoying each other -- not trying to get satisfaction over something you did over a year ago. Playing shows is one thing, that's awesome but it's about being vital and excited. We're much more in the moment than we've ever been, so as far as plans I don't know. I'm sure we'll do a little bit of touring but beyond that I don't know. We made the record the right way, which was the important thing, so whatever happens beyond that we're really open minded to but hopefully not stressed out about the future. We're not trying to manipulate things to get somewhere; we're already there. There's nothing worse doing something the wrong way or making something the wrong way and being stuck with what you did. We took care of what we could take care of and now we'll see what happens.
It's important for us to be true to ourselves and be real about where we are... the whole idea about plans is we just don't make them much anymore. It's not a negative thing; it's a really great thing. We just feel really good about right now. Usually, when I get asked that question I'll list twelve things but right now I just don't know. We're doing some local shows for the record release and I'm sure we'll be doing some traveling, plus continuing to get together and make up some more songs. I'd love to do some more TV stuff too. Touring was a lot of fun but I love being home too, especially with a two-and-a-half year old. Our lives are different than when they were when we made the first record and certain things are more important now.