Last year, DC-based group Le Loup released their debut album, The Throne Of The Third Heaven Of The Nations' Millennium General Assembly, one of 2007's criminally underappreciated albums. Interestingly, the band's frontman, Sam Sitkoff, wrote it long before he even had a band, not knowing it would eventually become a public work. Since then, Le Loup have become known for their bombastic live performances and incredible energy.
Before the band's show in San Francisco April 4, I sat down with Sam and discovered a great deal about the story behind his project's unusually cohesive album, how he found his bandmates on Craigslist, and how they can never hope to be as weird as Animal Collective.
The album's very long title shares its name with a piece of art in DC. What is that piece of art, and why did you choose it as the album's namesake?
It's a piece of art by a man named James Hampton who never really intended it to be a piece of art. He was a janitor, and he would collect bits of trash and broken furniture and take them back to his garage. He would spend all night covering them in gold tin foil and assembled them into a very delicate shrine. At the end it was over 140 pieces. He died before he finished it, but it was intended to be a testament to the return of Christ to earth.
There's a piece of it in the National Portrait Gallery in DC, and it was first thing I saw when I went there. To me, it was the most compelling piece in the museum, especially because it's part of a beautiful kind of story. This man was buoyed by his faith and worked tirelessly for 14 years until he died. It was a complete labor of love, but there was a very fine line between his artistic genius and flat-out insanity. On a very simple level, I could really relate to what he'd made, because when I started the album, I wasn't expecting it to become a big thing. It was pure luck that someone noticed it. And I was making it from things I found, instruments that were lying around and my computer and some other stuff. It was personal and something I'd made for myself.
The band was initially just you. How did you form a recording and touring group?
Well, at the beginning it really was just me and my best friend. I would come up with songs on my computer and then send them to him over email. I wasn't planning on making anything of it. I put it up on MySpace on a whim one day and it got a really good reception. The people from Hardly Art and Sub Pop contacted me, at which point I realized I wouldn't get any farther if I didn't have a live show.
I put up a Craigslist ad. All it said was that I was looking for a band and I needed it fast. A bunch of people showed up to the first audition, and by audition I mean “Come into my living room and talk about shit.” Those are the same people who are now in the band. We had about two months of practice until we realized we needed a bassist and a drummer, so we sent out another ad. A month later we had our first show and two weeks after that show, Hardly Art signed us.
Bigger bands seem to be more numerous these days. What do you like about having a large group?
It's very much about theatricality. A live show should be visually arresting and overblown; that's why you go and see music. When bands just sit there and play what's on the album, I'm left feeling that I could have stayed home listening to their record and felt just as satisfied. Being up on a stage is theater, and I think I should act like it. So getting that many people on stage is a very easy kind of quick and dirty way of achieving kinetic energy and making it captivating.
The other element is that the album was super-layered. Every song had 30 or 40 tracks. I knew that if I wanted any sort of fidelity to the original music in the live show, I would need a bunch of people. Originally I wanted 15 people, but seven people showed up initially, and it turns out that organizing practices for seven people is about as much stress as I can handle. I would not wish a 15-person band on anyone.
One thing that's very evident on the album is a theme of apocalypse. Where did that come from?
It's funny because I didn't even intend for that to happen and still, to a certain extent, I don't see it as much as other people do. There are definitely a few songs where it's apparent, the most obvious being “Outside of This Car, the End of the World.” That song is actually based on a very simple experience I had driving through this really industrial town late at night and feeling kind of alone. It wasn't supposed to be a very literal translation of the world ending, so much as an interpretation of something I saw.
Those themes do crop up, though, and it's due in a large part to how personal the album is. I was dealing with a huge transition – getting out of college and into the real world – and not really knowing what to do or where to go. So my way of dealing with it was blowing it out of proportion in my head and hyperbolizing it. The music was my way of turning it into a form I could handle.
Another thing about the album that's very apparent is how cohesive it is, both lyrically and in how the songs are ordered. Was that intentional?
Most of the songs were written spontaneously. I'd feel the need to write something, and it would just come out. Once it became clear that it was actually going to be an album, I got more deliberate about bringing back themes and variations. A few musical and lyrical phrases come up throughout the album. It's mainly because I think an album ought to be more than a collection of songs, even if they're really good songs. It needs to be a cohesive unit. My favorite albums are the ones that bring back certain ideas and play around with them a little.
What are some of the albums you think fall into that category?
SMiLE by Brian Wilson is one of the main ones for me. Yellow House by Grizzly Bear. Pretty much everything Sufjan Stevens does. Animal Collective is probably the band that most consistently impresses me in that way. And of course In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Do you look to take inspiration from that music?
I try not to. When I was younger, there were times when I would hear an album and I'd say “I want to make something that sounds exactly like that.” But then I realized that you can't be creative with that attitude because it invariably ends up sounding like a crappy version of the original album at best. At worst, it just sounds like shit. But I can't say that I don't draw from that -- everybody does. I try to keep an objective stance. Listen to it, love it, but try your damnedest to go your own way. That ends up being a lot more validating. Unfortunately, I can never hope to be as weird as Animal Collective. But that would be so awesome. It would probably take pounds and pounds of mushrooms and constantly talking to God.
Are you classically trained in music, or has it mostly been something you do for yourself?
I studied classical piano for 13 years, but I don't play it much on-stage because I like to be mobile when I'm performing. I spazz out and jump around, which is impossible to do if I'm stuck behind a keyboard. Instead, I sing and I play banjo very poorly.
Do you use your classical training consciously when you're writing music?
I can't really escape my training, so I still approach music the way I was taught. But I also haven't practiced piano or read music or had lessons for seven or eight years, so I've been able to get away from the classical approach a little. It helps when I'm writing songs on instruments I'm unfamiliar with.
So you write all the parts for the songs.
For the album, I wrote all the parts because I had most of the songs already finished. But with the new stuff, the process is more collaborative. What I'll do now is take a very rudimentary skeleton of the song to our practice and I won't give much direction. The band messes around for a while with rhythms and atmospheres and we see where it goes. It's a lot more spontaneous.
How's the new stuff coming along?
Very slowly. We quit our day jobs to go on tour, which feels great. You should try it sometime.
Unfortunately, right now I don't have a day job to quit!
Oh! Well, then what you should do is get a day job and then quit the next day just to know how it feels. It's amazing. Going on tour, we get to see all these amazing places and meet new people. It was also nice to play in Portland, which is where I grew up. But... what were we talking about?
The new stuff, quitting day jobs...
Right. For now we're musicians, which is an impressive way of saying we're completely unemployed and kinda broke. I guess it's a little rough. But I wouldn't have it any other way.