Artwork by Martha Davis

New Wave Noir Meets Technicolor: An Interview with the Motels’ Martha Davis

On the eve of the Motels' first new album in ten years, The Last Few Beautiful Days, founder Martha Davis talks "Hollywood 101", the machine of celebrity, and why the Motels are like a thrift store treasure.

The Last Few Beautiful Days
The Motels
Sunset Blvd Records
30 Mar 2018

“This is the best Motels ever!” That’s the unanimous response from anyone who sees the Motels in concert these days. Motels alum Jeff Jourard, who co-wrote the band’s first hit “Total Control” with group founder Martha Davis, has even stated as much. Their strength onstage is a combination of unbridled energy and laser-sharp focus, topped by Davis’ opulently expressive voice, an instrument that merits its own emoji, if you will, for the feelings it conveys.

The Motels have channeled the intensity of their stage show into The Last Few Beautiful Days (2018), their first album of new material since This (2008) and easily one of the most cohesive musical statements they’ve ever made. Nearly 40 years after the Motels’ self-titled Capitol debut, Davis, bassist Nic Johns, guitarist Clint Walsh, drummer Eric Gardner, and the band’s original keyboard master / saxophonist Marty Jourard still give the Motels an impressive currency that’s rooted in experimentation but delivered in tight, tuneful melodies.

Produced by Johns, The Last Few Beautiful Days puts the exclamation point on the group’s resurgence, propelled by constant touring, the 2011 release of Apocalypso (1981) after 30 years in the vault, The Motels Live at the Whisky a Go-Go 50th Anniversary Special (2014) concert film, and a two-disc compilation of demos and unreleased songs, If Not Now Then When (2017). When the band premiered “Lucky Stars” last year, they unveiled a modern Motels classic, capturing the qualities that distinguish The Last Few Beautiful Days from some of the group’s latter efforts on Capitol.

However, the Motels’ creative triumph on The Last Few Beautiful Days also follows a season of loss for Davis, whose eldest daughter Maria passed away in 2016 after battling addiction to opiates. Davis found refuge in songwriting, creating alternately bittersweet and cathartic moments through songs like “As Long As” and “Tipping Point”. “There’s a lot of thought on this album about what’s no longer there,” says Davis. It’s a sentiment with personal and universal undertones, whether the singer’s addressing the transitions in her own life, the evanescence of fame, or the repercussions of a world in peril.

The brilliance of the Motels is how they explore darkness, toxicity, and insanity without residing there full-time. Even their biggest hits “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer” translated longing and loneliness into pop hooks and soaring melody lines. The Last Few Beautiful Days achieves the remarkable feat of both naming the poison and serving its antidote.

There’s a vibrancy to The Last Few Beautiful Days that suggests these are far from the last few beautiful days for the Motels. The “film noir” sensibility of the group’s signature new wave sound is there, amplified in vivd musical Technicolor. On the eve of the album’s release, Martha Davis speaks with PopMatters about surviving “Hollywood 101” and counting stars, both “lucky” and otherwise.

Congratulations on the “Lucky Stars” video! When I first saw you and the band perform that song a few years ago, it instantly became one of my favorites. It has hooks all over the place. The lyrics are packed with visuals. There’s an infinite number of ways you could have translated “Lucky Stars” to film. How did you conceive the video?

Let me start off by saying that the film was made by Anna Logg. I am not listed anywhere on this video. I think I’m going to come up with some little interview with her. I’ll be in disguise!

It started out with, “We need a video! We need a video!” They cost money. I thought, I’ll animate a video. I’ve been doing a lot of artwork lately. I used to paint, but all of my energy transferred into music.

“Lucky Stars”, basically, is about insanity, the insanity of thinking that you’re going to be able to be in the music business and actually do that for a living. For every line in the song, there’s a painting. I started painting like crazy. Trying to make the artwork and make it into old-fashioned moving pictures is way harder than you could possibly think. It took up 24 feet of space. It was all-consuming.

The images go so well with the lyrics. I remember the first couple of times I heard “Lucky Stars” in concert, I connected with the melody . When you released the single last year, I spent a lot of time with the lyrics. I realized, This isn’t the fairytale I thought it was, especially because of lines in the chorus like “One by one they lead me here / One by one, they disappear”. You’re counting stars but they’re actually leaving you!

Now when I listen to the chorus, I think of David Bowie. I think of all the great ones that led me down this path of music and now they’re gone.

The thing that’s really resonated with me lately is when I write, I just basically get the hell out of my own way. Whoever’s in charge in the song department takes over. It’s so stream-of-consciousness. There’s not an intention there. Unless I’m writing a musical, the song sort of goes wherever it’s going to go.

I feel like adding parentheses: “(Not So) Lucky Stars”.

[laughs] I don’t think there’s anybody that gets into this business where it’s all just bubblegum and roses. It’s hard. My law of everything is the law of the universe, which is no free lunch exists. You’re not going to get any fancy career and not have to pay for it. That’s the way it goes. There are great sacrifices and I have felt them in my life, more so now. You don’t really feel them as much when you’re in the heyday. You have to be so self-absorbed to do it, but you can’t do it any other way, really.

(Still from “Lucky Stars” official video)

Let’s go back ten years ago to the last Motels album, This, which showcased the band after you regrouped with new members. How has the band evolved since that album?

We were starting to get it then. It was a little bit of a different lineup. There was another member in the band, Jon Siebels, who was in Eve 6. He went back to Eve 6. Even though you were starting to get the essence of what this new Motels was about on that album, The Last Few Beautiful Days is where it’s really coalesced.

The band is a real unit. I can’t describe how rare it is to have five people that get along that well and love each other that much. It’s a great family. We have so much fun. The only problem is that we’re not big social media people. I like the challenge: how do you come up with something that’s creative enough where it’s going to entice people, but not do that game?

Exactly. It’s expected that artists and bands expose aspects of their life that were once so private.

I remember my daughter Maria telling me, “Mom, you have no mystique” because she figured I was too forthcoming all the time. In the old days, a star was a star because they were unattainable, untouchable. You didn’t know what they ate for breakfast. You didn’t get a little snapshot of that waffle from wherever. It’s kind of like sex. Sex is always sexier when you don’t see everything. It’s the allure.

To me, it’s a game that’s going to jump its own shark pretty soon. It’s not a lasting thing. It doesn’t have any inherent value. You need relationships, real people, real experiences, real music, and real art.

That’s what The Last Few Beautiful Days feels like — a real album. There is definitely a tone that runs through the whole set. Sonically, how did you achieve that cohesion?

I think we’re wise enough to know that you don’t make art, it makes you. The very first recording sessions for the album were a few years back. We had some gigs up here in Oregon. I fixed up a new studio. I had these weird little snippets of melody ideas that were for another project called “Casiology”. I wanted to make everything out of battery-powered instruments. I just thought it would be so much fun. For three days, we jammed and made music. The guys took over and I just sat in the corner and started writing lyrics.

Every time we got together, we would either come up with new stuff or I’d bring something in. Even though it sounds cohesive, there were a lot of times that Nic, who produced the album, would send me stuff, then I’d come down to L.A. We’d all get together and play.

I decided the direction of the album was going to be about the woes of the world. I was looking at everything going, Oh man, there’s so much wrong right now. I decided that everything had to be first person. “Criminal” is probably as far outside of that as I got. I realized that even though I was singing every song first person, I didn’t hear my voice singing it. A lot of times I heard men’s voices singing it. I was still singing “other”. I wasn’t singing “me”. I was actually singing characters.

We’d gotten to the point where I was making a song list for the album’s sequence. All of a sudden, this old song that I hadn’t heard in a long time popped up. It just started eating away at the back of my mind. That was the song “Light Me Up”. I put it in the very first spot in my sequence. When I put “Light Me Up” in, everything became about my story. It wasn’t about the way the world is, it was about all the stuff that had happened in my life, basically throughout the journey from “young mother” to “rock ‘n’ roll” to where I am now. All of the songs, even though they were written about different things, all came home to roost.

I often think of your lyrics as being very bold. In the same way that you opened This with “All the Rage” and the line “I was born the day the earth died and I’ve never met my mother”, The Last Few Beautiful Days begins with “Punchline” and the words “I know you hate me now”. I can just imagine some record executive saying, “You can’t start an album with the word ‘hate’. That’s going to alienate people!” Why was it important for you to open the album with “Punchline”?

“Punchline” was written when Trish, my remaining daughter, and I were still talking. Opening the album with it was not a bold move on my part, let me tell you. I basically was very uneasy about it. I had a totally different track listing. I started the album with “Light Me Up”. The guys thought we needed something more uptempo and suggested “Punchline”. By this time, Trish and I were no longer speaking. I really did not want to start the album with it, thinking that if Trish ever heard it she would think I was trying to use the album to get to her.

The funny part about “Punchline” is that the chorus has been around for a million years. I’d always loved that chorus. When we were on speaking terms, I remember Trish saying, “I really like that.” “Punchline” was going to be about her somehow. It went through a lot of different lyrics before it settled there. She has told me, “You got to write the truth”, so there you go.

“As Along As” has such an eerie atmosphere, but then the lyrics are so touching. These lines in particular move me: “As long as I believe, I know you’re true. As long as you need light, I’ll hold the sun. As long as you need stars, I’ll bring the night. As long as I’m alive, I’ll live for you.” What did you draw from for inspiration to write that song?

The thing with Maria was really hard and I think that that had a lot to do with it. You say those words because you want to believe that it’s possible that you can make a difference, that you can change, that you can do something, when in reality, things are way beyond your control … but you’ll try.

“As Long As” encapsulates that so beautifully. I was wondering if that song was about Maria, and all that you did to help her.

When you’re young, you think you can take on the world and conquer everything. Then you go down the road awhile and you realize you can’t control much of anything. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of guilt. “Why wasn’t I there?” Then again, it was almost impossible to do just what I did with two kids and nobody else. My parents were dead. There was no easy way to do it. It’s a big, sad, beautiful story.

As sad as it is, there’s beauty on this album. For me, when I first listened to “Look at Me”, the combination of the music and the lyrics evoked an android discovering the ability to love and to feel … but then it gets devoured on “Machine”!

[laughs] That’s funny! I love that. “Machine” is so sci-fi. I was at Nic’s loft and I found this arpeggiator and I made this crazy arpeggiator pattern. It’s really fast.

“Look at Me” is how I felt as a child. In reading my mother’s diary, apparently after a couple of years my parents were not very happy with each other. They tried for 11 years to have a baby. They couldn’t have a baby so they adopted my sister. Then ten months later, I was born. By then, they probably hated each other’s guts.

I was born into a situation where my sweet sister — we’re very close — was the adopted one. My parents made sure we knew as soon as we could understand. It’s a difficult thing because you don’t want to upset the child that’s adopted. I kind of felt like I should always be quiet. I was always shy. I was always scared.

How many musicians have you met that have all said the same thing? Why do we want to be loved so bad that we have to get in front of people and have a whole bunch of people love us? I guess because when we were little we didn’t feel that we got that. That was something that I always felt and I guess that’s what drove me to this insane job that I do.

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Would you say that “Machine” is a reflection of where we are culturally, being so dependent on machines and devices?

It can be a lot of things. A lot of times as the record was evolving, I was thinking about the machine of celebrity and the machine of the music business. “Am I what you want me to be yet?” That’s the thing that you fall into in the business of any kind of celebrity. The music business is very flavor-of-the-month, throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. It’s all a machine that takes you in. In life, the hardest thing to be is an individual that can stand up against the machine, not by throwing a wrench in it and breaking it, but by actually teaching the machine something new.

Just as you were talking about the machine of fame and celebrity, I was reminded of our interview about Apocalypso when we discussed the song “So L.A.”. You said that L.A. is very much a city that grinds people up and spits them out. So many people perish because of that.

Now it’s very interesting, because with Harvey Weinstein we’re seeing the level of craziness. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, you’re supposed to be young and sexy. There’s predators out there for both. When you’re young, beautiful, and sexy, you’re also vulnerable and scared, and not sure who you are, so it’s very easy to be preyed upon. The whole machine can gobble up so many souls. Once they’re gobbled, they get broken really easily.

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have created a national conversation about sexual harassment and sexual predators in Hollywood and entertainment, especially. Throughout your career, how have you navigated harassment and chauvinism?

I definitely went to “Hollywood 101”. This producer said he was going to make my album. I had no money, but I had some inheritance from my parents. I gave him $1,000 or $1,500, which he promptly put up his nose.

In the beginning, on the first couple of Motels records, I wouldn’t allow them to use my picture. Now when I was young, I was cute — most of us are — but I didn’t want anybody to buy the album because there was a cute girl on the cover. I said to myself, If I’m a sexist, and if I saw a pretty girl on the cover, even if her name was on the song as a co-writer, I’d think she wrote the lyrics …

… and not the music.

I knew how people thought. I’m not going to be a pretty girl on the cover. I just knocked that stuff out of the way so it wouldn’t be a problem … and pissed off Capitol. Oh my God! They kind of liked me so they went along with it. Then when I decided to do the cover for Apocalypso, I went all-out. I said, “I want one of those Roxy Music covers, where it’s all sexy with these alluring women.”

The question I would always get in the ’80s was, “How does it feel to be a woman in rock?” I guess it feels like being anybody in rock. The only thing I have to do is write the best songs and convey the stories the best way I can. If that works out, and if I’m good at that, then I’ve done my job. Am I good? That’s the question. That’s how I always kind of approached it.

(Still from “Lucky Stars” official video)

There’s actually an older song of yours that keeps surfacing in my mind these days, “Where Do We Go From Here” from Little Robbers (1983). I’d love to know the impetus for writing that song, initially, but also how do you think it applies to 2018?

Oh boy, I’m trying to remember when I wrote that song, but every generation will say, “What the hell is going on?” I haven’t written the song yet to describe where we are right now because I haven’t written my absurdist album yet … but I think it’s right around the corner, because I have never seen such absurdity.

Well, “Machine” definitely hovers on the outskirts of absurdity. “Light Me Up” follows “Machine” on the album and brings back some warmth. You mentioned earlier that you’ve had “Light Me Up” for awhile. Why do you think it was right for this album, in particular?

I think it was meant to be. I have so many songs, Christian. I have iTunes and all it is, is my songs. Somehow I just clicked on the song. It was a live version of “Look at Me” from the ’90s that I had with the band. There was just something about it. I sent it to Nic. The album was pretty much done. We weren’t looking for anything new. I said, “Let’s try it and see what you can do with it.” Of course Nic did his magic. I love Marty’s sax on that in the intro. It’s so amazing.

One of the other new songs that really strikes me is “Imposters”. Stylistically, it’s along that continuum of what you’ve often described as the “film noir” sensibility of the Motels’ music. What is the root of that sensibility?

I think it’s because I’m visual. I want everything to be a movie. I want the music to take you some place. I listen to so much classical music, not that I’m a big classical buff but I have my favorites. The ones that I love are more contemporary like Ravel, Stravinsky, and these more modern composers.

The first music that knocked my little socks off when I was five years old was Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. That music is so powerful and so evocative to me. Even as a little child, I remember listening to the second movement, that really dreamy movement, and feeling like I was falling in space.

I like “Imposters”. Lyrically, I think it’s funny … and sad, because it’s kind of true. “Blink, we’re gone.” It’s very descriptive of the attention span now.

When I listen to “The Last Few Beautiful Days”, the song itself, I hear this interesting dichotomy between a beautiful waltz and these foreboding lyrics. What’s the genesis of that song?

I love that song. Do you know the author T.C. Boyle? He writes for The New Yorker. He wrote The Road to Wellville (1993). He wrote a book called Friend of the Earth (2000). It was about global warming. A rock star’s trying to preserve these animals. It just rains constantly. Everything’s wet and moldy. It’s like the planet’s screwed. After I finished reading it, I wrote “The Last Few Beautiful Days”. I’m kind of holding him responsible for that song.

“The Last Few Beautiful Days” was actually living on the still-unreleased jazz album for the last few years. I thought, You need to come along and be on this other album. Now the jazz album’s down to a nice, reasonable ten-song album.

Yes, in fact one of the questions I have for you is about the jazz album. When is “Mr. Grey” going to get his closeup?

I don’t know. I want it to come out soon. I actually would love for This and Beautiful Life (2008) (Davis’ solo album) to be really released, not the way I released them where they never got any attention. I think they deserve another crack at it. A Beautiful Life was one of those rare ones where I just sat down at the piano. I don’t play piano that much so that was a pretty cool thing to come out of the piano.

(Still from “Lucky Stars” official video)

In 2011, Marty returned to the Motels for the tour that accompanied the long-awaited release of Apocalypso. What do you attribute to the fact that your friendship with Marty has endured over the past 40 years?

First of all, Marty’s hilarious. He’s a very funny man. He’s a very brilliant man. We’ve been through a lot. To be able to go through a lot and still be good friends and be able to have wonderful intellectual discussions on it, and then make some very bad jokes about it, all that stuff makes for something that lasts a long time. He’s a dear friend. At this point, we know each other and our stories so well, it does get to be like family. Since I did run short on mine, it’s nice that I have this extended family.

With this album, I looked forward to hearing all the “Marty Jourard” moments and he absolutely delivers. The whole band delivers. It’s a cliché to say “It’s the best Motels album since (insert whatever Motels album is your favorite)”. In a way, The Last Few Beautiful Days is in a class of its own because it’s the Motels now.

Everybody in this band loves this album. It’s amazingly cohesive. We’re all very proud of it. It’s just a good album. Those are actually becoming very, very rare in the sense that a lot of the record companies will no longer put out albums. If you’re going to put out an album of singles, then just put out a single every couple of months. An album is a story. This is a journey. It may not have been a journey in the complete sequence that I saw, but it gets you there the same way.

I love thrift stores because I love to look for treasures. I don’t know if I’ve done it on purpose, but I may have mysteriously made the Motels an entity that’s like a thrift store treasure. You might have to hunt a little bit, but when you get it and you take it home, then you’re very happy that you have it!

Let’s close where we started and circle back to your artwork, which is such a part of the “Lucky Stars” video. Thank you so much for creating some “Martha Artwork” for PopMatters. I love that people can actually buy your artwork on the Motels website. I must ask you about this image, though. The eyes, in particular, are so striking. What was the impulse to shroud a photo of the band with faces?

I’ve always loved to draw eyes. With the simplest of lines you can change what they convey. Everything I attempt to do artistically is basically the same, whether it’s music, graphic, lyrical. I try to not think about it, try to allow it to happen because I know that I don’t have the artistic skill to truly control what I do. Technique is not my forté. As I like to say, I try to get the fuck out of my own way. Keep it subconscious.