Will Shenton

WE.ANIMALS., the sophomore LP from Oakland-based dark pop artist Lila Rose, is certainly an ambitious project. It's a concept album of sorts, focusing on the interconnectedness of life and displaying a palpable rage at environmental atrocities. In Lila's own words, "it is a call to action, it is a plea, it is a lullaby, it is a love story between my heart and all creatures everywhere."

But despite dealing with such heavy political issues, the album never feels preachy. It engages with the listener on an emotional level rather than a purely intellectual one, making it far more approachable than most other music with a message. On top of that, it absolutely rocks. Her album release show is tonight at The Independent in San Francisco, and we can't recommend it enough.

Last week, I headed across the Bay to meet up with Lila at Awaken Cafe in downtown Oakland. We talked about the personal struggles she faced writing this album, the visceral symbolism in her music videos, and the enigmatic roots of her passion for environmental activism.

Lila Rose: I was actually just in San Francisco, but by the time I realized I could’ve met you over there I figured you were probably on BART.

ThrdCoast: Yeah, probably better not to get my hopes up. What were you doing over there?

LR: I was doing some work for this guy, singing. It’s a really cool gig. It’s my longest-term job ever, actually.

TC: It’s a studio gig?

LR: Yeah. It’s really weird music, pretty freaky, but I love it. Kind of like circus-electronic-gothic, I don’t really know how else to describe it. But he writes everything and I just show up to sing various parts.

TC: Now, you’re from Toronto originally, right? What brought you out to the Bay Area?

LR: A small tour brought me out here actually, I guess it was 2008. It was a really weird, really small gig, just me on my guitar with a rack of loop pedals and everything. The whole tour was pretty horrible, but on the last day when I was out here I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is amazing!” It was everything I was looking for, and I was ready to move out of Toronto — it’s crazy cold, like, nine months out of the year there. But I had this list, because I’m a list-maker, of all the things I wanted in a new place and this checked all the boxes. Beaches, ocean, it’s creative, it’s supportive…

TC: It’s not hard to like. I guess that’s why rent’s so high.

LR: Yeah, sorry.

TC: Oh, don’t worry, I’m part of the problem. Too many of us trying to get out of the cold. Anyway, what’s your musical background? Do you have formal training?

LR: I do, actually. I started really young, but it was never really my plan to do music as a career. My parents put me in an Orff music class, so lots of recorder and percussion, that kind of thing, when I was about three. Then I moved on to violin, cello, viola, eventually guitar, vocal classes and choir. I was definitely in the thick of it, but theater was actually my first love. I ended up doing musical theater for a while, but then after I gave up acting there was this big, empty void. I was about nineteen when I discovered that I wanted music to be my path.

TC: How did you get together with Daniel Garcia? Did you guys work together back in Canada?

LR: No, he’s actually from Guatemala. I met him about three years ago now, he was a fan and he’d been following my music from Guatemala. He started hitting me up online, but I didn’t really know what he was up to. I started writing the album — or, rather, the songs that would become the album, I didn’t know they were going to be an album at the time — and when he came to the States he got his hands on them and we got to know each other and became friends. He just started working on it and I was like, actually, that’s pretty fucking tight! I like that better than what I was doing with it!

TC: Was this Heart Machine?

LR: No, this was for WE.ANIMALS. He heard Heart Machine before we met, that’s what led him to get in touch with me. But yeah, he started working on the song “WE. ANIMALS.,” and then the next one, and the next one, and we ended up renting a studio cottage in Santa Cruz together to record the rest of the album.

TC: Who else is in the band with you?

LR: We actually had a recent change, which is crazy. So, Daniel is insanely talented, which you’ll see at the show. He’s our drummer now. He was originally doing electronic drums, and guitar and bass — not at the same time — and then we had a drummer and a piano player. Our drummer was killer, but he just got swooped by Cathedrals. Do you know them?

TC: Yeah, they’re all over the place these days.

LR: Yeah, our drummer is the sweetest guy in the world and I love him, but he got swooped. I knew it would happen, he’s so fucking good. So we were auditioning drummers, and Daniel said, “Actually, my first passion is drumming.” I said “Fuck no, we’re not making any more changes,” but he wrote all the parts on the record so he knows them inside-out, and when he played them for me I had to acquiesce. He had them all ready after a week of practice. So then we brought in Andrew Mastroni on guitar, and he’s only been with us for about a month. He’s totally kick-ass. I gave him a week to learn the parts also. So it’s just the three of us, but we’re also playing with Squid Inc, the string quartet, who are going to be at the show. They play with us whenever we’re local enough. And then whoever else we can pull in. I’m trying to keep things compact, because it’s really expensive to tour with a large band.

TC: Can you talk a bit about WE.ANIMALS. as a concept album? I know that it’s tied together thematically, but a lot of times that also implies some kind of narrative structure.

LR: That’s a good question that I was thinking about recently, actually. What concept albums mean to me and what they mean to other people. It’s not really run-of-the-mill in that sense, because the sound changes quite a bit throughout the album. And there’s not necessarily a story from start to finish, it’s more just different perspectives on that central theme. Other songs I’ve written for other albums are a little more all over the place, but this project was very directly focused on a single theme. We wanted the flexibility to do whatever we wanted genre-wise, which is kind of terrifying because people love to put things in a box.

TC: You’ve talked about the fact that this was a pretty difficult project for you from a creative standpoint. I think in another interview you said that inspired your choice to be pointing a gun at your head on the album cover.

LR: It was, and it still is. I don’t catch all the reviews, but I catch the bigger ones and the ones that my publicist sends me, and I caught a bad one last night. Well, not horrible, but not great. But yeah, it’s been difficult for a lot of reasons, particularly because it deals with things that aren’t as easy for people to grasp on an emotional level. It’s very emotionally driven for me, but it isn’t necessarily a subject that people connect with right away unless they’re already environmental or animal rights activists. This review talked about that, the fact that the political themes were hard to engage with, and it really touched on that fear I have that people aren’t going to be able to connect with it. But there are a lot of other good reviews, so I try to focus on those.

TC: I guess if a medium-bad review is the worst you’ve gotten you’re doing pretty well.

LR: Definitely. I’m kind of over the fear of the album cover bothering people at this point, too. Most people don’t even notice the gun, which was purposeful. I wanted it to be darker and not the first thing people see, which is what I was going for with the music as well. I want the first experience to be of the music itself, and then if they do some digging they’ll see that the subject matter underlying it is really crucial to what’s going on in our world today. But I think it should stand alone as good music first and foremost. I try not to be too in-your-face about the message, like, [doing her best impression of a tween pop star] “Please stop hurting animaaaals, don’t eat that cheeseburgerrrr” [laughs].

TC: Speaking of which, where does your passion for environmental and animal rights activism come from? Has that always been a big part of your life?

LR: It’s pretty mysterious, actually. My parents are really caring people, and it wasn’t like I grew up in bumfuck nowhere without any exposure to environmentalism. My dad was an immigration lawyer, so he was really invested in social issues, but neither of my parents were really big environmentalists. I think their compassion came through, but I also think something must have happened in a past life or whatever [laughs]. Basically since I was six years old I can remember being really sensitive about animals and the environment. In grade five, my friends used to torture me by taking this fresh, white paper and ripping it up in front of me, and I’d freak out, like, “Nooo! Use recycled paper!” It was important to me for some reason. Maybe I was a tree in my last life. I also remember, when I was six, my brother told me what hot dogs were made out of.

TC: That’s right up there with finding out Santa Claus isn’t real.

LR: Right? And I think it should be traumatic. So starting then I became a vegetarian. It was really weird for my family, because they eat a lot of meat. When I was fifteen I started getting more into animal rights activism, volunteering and going to protests, and when I learned more about animal husbandry and the fact that dairy and egg production can be just as cruel as meat production, I became vegan. So, yeah, that’s how it all started. At this point in my life I’m a lot more flexible than I used to be. To me, it’s not about a dogmatic idea, and I don’t think we should all be vegan, not at all. The world is full of different personalities and different needs. But it’s about fair treatment of animals. On occasion, I’ll ask a ton of questions — I’m like the chick from Portlandia — and have some eggs or cheese once I know that they came from humane producers. It’s delicious and it’s wonderful, but it’s a big responsibility to let something suffer for your needs or enjoyment.

TC: Tell me about how the creative process differed between Heart Machine and WE.ANIMALS.

LR: Heart Machine was all about heartbreak. I wrote most of the songs on my guitar and piano, and then I brought them to David Earl, who produced the album with me. The process was more, here are these songs, let’s finish them up and polish them, whereas with Daniel on WE.ANIMALS. it was more like I wrote the songs collaboratively. I wrote the lyrics and the music, but we really did the instrumentation together. That was the biggest difference. It was much more analog, and much more focused on what we could perform live.

TC: Do you typically come to Daniel with a complete song idea, or do you start from scratch together?

LR: There were a few songs that I brought to him with the idea pretty well fleshed out. “WE.ANIMALS.” was the first one, like I said. Ninety percent of the record, though, was just the two of us sitting down in the studio together. But every song was different. We both love live instrumentation, but we also love dark, heavy, electronics. He’d be playing around with a synth and I’d suddenly say, “That’s it! That’s the song!” But yeah, it was very much a joint effort. You can hear the combination of our energies on the album. I’m a little sweeter [laughs], so Heart Machine was a little softer. He’s definitely more a fan of Tool, Nine Inch Nails, that kind of darker sound. I’m more CocoRosie, Björk, Portishead.

TC: How has the Oakland scene been treating you since you moved here?

LR: It’s goin’ off. Oh man, it’s so good. I’m sure anywhere you go you can find good stuff — well, maybe not everywhere.

TC: Definitely not everywhere.

LR: But I just keep discovering so many great new musicians. My jaw is just constantly dropping at the quality of the artists out here, it’s wonderful.

TC: Before I forget, I wanted to talk about your music videos a bit.

LR: Ooh, yeah.

TC: “World On Fire” has some pretty in-your-face imagery. I mean, there’s a pregnant woman being crucified, floating babies maybe also being crucified…

LR: [Laughs] Okay, the babies are not being crucified! I guess it looks that way, a few people have told me that. It’s also not really supposed to be religious symbolism. We researched the cross quite a bit before making the video, and it was a pretty secular thing for a long time. Jesus’ cross in particular was the kind with the longer top segment, unlike the one we used. We specifically wanted to pick one that wasn’t exactly the same, so maybe we could avoid the religious connotations. We probably weren’t totally successful, and that’s fine. But the concept for that video mostly came from Daniel. He suggested that we film the underwater segments, because so much of our planet and ourselves are composed of water. We’re just a big fishbowl floating in space. So that was our opening shot, the planet standing alone. But the pregnant women and the cross were the only parts that were my suggestions. I saw them in the lyrics, “Holy holy mother sold we / Pinned her to the cross.” We pinned the earth to the cross, we’ve put her in a position where we’re potentially murdering her. But she’s also our holy mother, she gives us life.

TC: Is that shot of the embrace in the tea lights at the end supposed to be optimistic, or is it a consolation?

LR: No, it’s supposed to be a sweet moment. Because even among the intensity and the four-on-the-floor stuff, it ends softly. It would be corny if I tried to do it lyrically, so I tried to calm the noise of the instrumentals down to a place of loving respect. But, again, like with the gun to the head on the cover, I was worried about that imagery of a pregnant woman on a cross. I mean, first of all, where the hell am I going to find a pregnant woman willing to go up on a cross? Luckily, I have a really cool friend. She was like, “What do you need? Do you want blood between my legs, too? I can do that.” And I had to say “No, no blood” [laughs]. She was willing to do anything, she was awesome.

TC: Had she done this kind of stuff before?

LR: A bit, yeah. She’s an activist, but she could easily be an actor. Especially on the underwater parts, she had to coach me through that because I was terrified. I thought I was going to die, like, every time. You have to get really far under and stay down for a while, and you’re wearing weights and you have to open your eyes with all the dive-pool chemicals… anything for the message of art, though, right?

TC: So what are your plans for the future now that the album’s out?

LR: Well, I’m already writing a new album. I have the first song done. It’s strange these days, because we very much live in an age of singles, so I’m probably going to drop a bunch of singles until I know exactly where I’m going with the album. The first one will be out in a few months.

TC: Any new videos from WE.ANIMALS. on the way?

LR: Oh yeah. There’s one that’s done already for “It Could Be Ha,” and then we’re going to do them for “Nothing To Lose,” “Stars,” and “Tracking” as well. Lots of videos coming up. We’re doing this really cool 3D mapping thing for the live show, which we’ve been working on for a while, and that includes a lot of video content that we made exclusively for our performances. The album release show will be the first time we do it, and we’re really excited.