Your last album was partially inspired by your move from Brooklyn to upstate New York, and Rebound was also influenced by a change of environment, right?
Yeah. I mean, before trying to sit down to write anything I think it’s really valuable to immerse yourself in a new state of mind. Having a different country or city certainly helps. So I spent about two months in Athens last year.
Did you head there specifically for inspiration?
No, I went because after the presidential election in the US I really wanted to get out of the country for a bit. (Laughs) I mean, I wanted to go somewhere else to start writing and I had always wanted to spend more time in Athens. My mother’s Greek-American and I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece, but mostly on beach holiday-type visits, and when I’d arrive into Athens it would usually only be for a night or two. I hate using such a generic word, but there’s a very special atmosphere and energy there. I wanted to take some Greek lessons, which I did, and I thought that I would also write songs for the album. It turns out I didn’t do much writing but I did a lot of research, and I also met a bunch of musicians and formed a band while I was there, and played a few shows, which was very valuable.
It’s interesting you say you left after the presidential election. Were you surprised by the result?
Yeah, I was definitely in that camp of total shock and horror. I had been travelling so much that year and I was away the night of the election – I was in Tel Aviv in Israel, of all places, doing a gig, and then in Rome the day after that. It was such a strange feeling to be so far away from home and yet still be so upset. I felt incredibly alienated, and I wanted to try to capture that feeling somehow on an album.
You’ve described your trip to Greece as a reconnaissance mission. How so? What did you take away?
Well I have a few specific anecdotes, like going to this nightclub that was called Rebound. For me it encapsulated all the problems, and then also the glamour and ruined fabulousness, that is Athens to me. The neon sign, with the lightbulb that’s been out for God knows how many years. There’s a no smoking sign but when you go downstairs everyone is smoking. There’s music that you think is familiar that could be The Cure or Joy Division, but then you listen more closely and you can’t understand any of it...
I also met a lot of Greek musicians, and it was a nice treat to remember that you can just form a band with anybody. But I also felt a particular sense of pride getting to play with other Greek people, because I’m half-Greek. It was funny to suddenly to be in a band and to look around onstage and see people that could be my brothers and my cousins. (Laughs) It made me feel a sense of belonging in a very foreign place. And Greece for me has this perfect balance of foreign and familiar.
In terms of taking something away... I grew up in Chicago and I went to university in Austin, Texas, so for me that was almost as far away as I could go in a sense. It was like moving to another country. And then I moved to London when I was 22 and again that was a huge change. I try to do that sometimes. It’s just the feeling that you get from going somewhere with just two suitcases and feeling like you’re a foreigner in a strange land, and then how quickly you assimilate to that place and how quickly you can make that place your home... That process is really exciting to me and I would do that every couple of years if I could.
You left the US because of political turmoil, but the political climate in Greece is hardly idyllic.
(Laughs) No, in fact it’s far more complicated and worse in a lot of ways. But because this is such an ongoing crisis, economically speaking, things had actually settled down a bit when I went there. But still, I went to a place where there are protests and marches certainly every week, if not sometimes more. I think a lot of people find [protests] just part of the daily fabric of life there in a way, which is kind-of comforting in a weird way. But you’d see instances, like a garbage collectors strike happening during a heatwave, like, literally just piles and piles of garbage on a 100 degree day, for days and days. Those are stark reminders, like, “Something’s not quite right here.”
Speaking of protests, did you attend any of the women’s marches?
I did. During the first women’s march, I met up with another American woman who I’d just met in Athens and there was a very small gathering outside the US Embassy in Athens, but I’m glad that I did that. It was really funny because we didn’t really know what we were doing, and moments later there was this very well organised march of Greek people just protesting the election of Trump in general. (Laughs) So it completely superseded us. But then this past year when it was the one year anniversary of the initial women’s march, I was in Los Angeles and I was glad that I got to attend that.
So what was your starting point for Rebound?
For me it was an instrument I bought. I kinda got it as a joke: I just walked into a music store and there was this late 70s Casio keyboard that was really beautiful and I just turned it on and messed around with it for five minutes, and thought, “Oh, I’m going to buy this. Even if I write one song with this it will be worth the price.” And I took it home and it became my new best friend, and I ended up writing loads of songs on it. It had a built-in drum machine with different drumbeats, and you could also use the automated basslines, so I ended up making up all these songs, writing melodies on the keyboard with my right hand and then making up lyrics after the fact. And I would just build these parts of songs and put them together.
Did you have any musical reference points?
Mostly as a reaction to my last album, I wanted to make something where it sounded like I was taking my time a bit more. I wanted to make something that sounded kind-of cinematic and meditative, and more like a soundtrack to an unmade movie or something. And have it be more artificial-sounding, in contrast to my last album which was really warm and organic, and about five people playing in a room together.
I mean, originally I thought I wanted to make something that sounded really harsh and angry and aggressive with loud guitar feedback and me trying to scream. But maybe I’m not capable of that kind of music? It’s interesting as to what you set out to do and what comes out. It’s like, I always think about copying certain things and then in the process of copying something you come out with something totally new and hopefully unique.
Recording this album was a more solitary process than previous records. Was that challenging?
Well the challenges are that it’s only up to you, and you can only do as much as you’re capable of doing, but the rewards are, “Oh my god, listen to this f**king guitar solo I just played! I didn’t even know I could play guitar.” Playing guitar leads was the most exciting thing to me, and that’s the kind of thing that I would never have given myself. I have no problem paying someone to play on my record, saying, “Can you do something like this?” I enjoy that process of producing and directing someone else, but I would be embarrassed to get someone to record me trying to play the same thing on the guitar 50 times, which is maybe what I had to do on some of these songs.
Do you have someone you use as a sounding board?
Not really. By the time I show songs to someone I’m pretty confident about them being right, though obviously things will change. But actually when I was long-finished with the demos I played them for my friend Bradford Cox, who’s in a band called Deerhunter. He did say, “This is s**t,” about one song in particular, like, “Nobody needs to hear this.” Which I took to heart. (Laughs) I mean, he was also playing me some demos and I would say, “I don’t like this, I like that.” To be fair, the first thing I played him he was like, “This is perfect. You don’t need to change a thing.”
You said you wrote music first and lyrics second – is that different to how you’ve worked previously?
Yes, for me that was a big difference. Normally I start with all these scripts almost, and then set them to music and this was the opposite. But I went through a similar process when it came to actually writing the words, which was just several months being conscious of writing things down that interest me, whether that’s something somebody said or something I see on the street, or a text message, or something in an email. With the title ‘Nice To Be Nowhere’, someone said that to me about four or five years ago, and I was like, that’s gonna make a good piece of something some day.
On ‘Make Me A Song’ you draw on an encounter you had with a born again Christian, right?
I think that song is about a lot of things, but mostly about having expectations and then having them be completely turned on their head. I think it’s always really interesting when you think somebody is one thing and it turns out they’re something completely different. And in that case, I was in a foreign place and I met someone new and I’m having a nice time and then suddenly they’re telling me, “I love Jesus. Jesus is my best friend. I write songs for Jesus.” And then they try to convince me to do the same thing. And I don’t mean to say it as a judgemental thing. I was trying to keep an open spirit to that, but of course I did think, “This guy’s a f**king freak.” But in hindsight he helped me write a song. (Laughs)
Four albums into your solo career, do you think you’ve learned anything new about your outlook or your capabilities?
I would say it’s always little by little, you know. I definitely feel more confident in knowing what I’m doing, but at the same time because this album was done so much by myself – and then I went to Clemens Knieper’s studio in the end – I’d never second-guessed an album as much as I did this one. I feel like the more you know, the more critical you are so there’s that double-edged sword of being more competent but also being less secure in a way. Sometimes I think it’s a sweeter spot to be naive.