When his face popped up on my computer screen last weekend, Neighbors frontman Noah Stitelman opened with some of the last words you ever want to hear as an interviewer:
“You caught me on kind of a crazy day.”
In my experience, that phrase has almost exclusively preceded rushed, curt, and uninteresting exchanges, and I was a little worried that I was going to have to cobble together a bunch of one-word answers into something readable.
“Well, this shouldn’t take more than twenty or thirty minutes, so I’ll let you get back to it pretty soon.”
Noah’s eyes widened and he threw his hands up apologetically.
“No no no! I didn’t mean crazy busy, I meant… well, you see, this morning I was making an omelet, and I was slicing some cheese to put in it, and I slipped with the knife and sort of stabbed myself in the stomach.”
I furrowed my brow, a little taken aback.
“Yeah. It was bleeding a lot and I didn’t really know what to do, so I called 911 and the EMTs came and took me to the hospital. They stitched me all up, and now, you know, I guess all’s well that ends well.”
Despite being in what I would imagine was a good deal of pain, Stitelman maintained his good cheer and self-deprecating wit throughout our conversation. Late last month, his Brooklyn-based synth-pop band Neighbors (which, at least as far as songwriting goes, is mostly a solo endeavor) released their sophomore LP, Failure. It’s an incredibly catchy album, and represents a much more consciously planned and cohesive effort than their debut. Every song has its place, and though that doesn’t preclude it having some great singles, you’ll find yourself listening to everything in order just to enjoy the fantastic pacing.
I was fortunate to talk with Stitelman for quite a while about his initial forays into electronic music, the creative differences between his first two records, the stories and themes he likes to explore in his lyrics, and a host of other topics.
ThrdCoast: The first thing I usually like to ask people is, what’s your musical background? Do you have any formal training, or are you self-taught?
Noah Stitelman: I’ve been playing music for a really long time, since I was in the fourth grade. I always knew I wanted to play music. Do you remember between third grade and fourth grade, when they let you choose an instrument to rent from the school? I was a hundred percent going to do it, and I really wanted to play the drums. And you know how when you’re a kid, you have these expectations for things that just don’t really pan out. You expect everything to be way crazier than it is. So I just kind of assumed that they were going to give me a whole drum set, you know, and it was going to be really cool and exciting. But then on the day that I showed up to get the rental it was just a snare drum, because obviously you have to start with the rudimentary stuff. And I was like, “what the fuck am I gonna do with this?” So I just banged on that snare drum forever.
But I started taking guitar lessons shortly after. I’m from Vermont, and my teacher was this big country guy, with the ten-gallon hat and everything. And he hated me, because it was the nineties, and he wanted to teach me these country licks and all I wanted to do was play Nirvana songs. And then everything else I pretty much taught myself, like the keyboard. Guitar’s my main instrument, and I feel like once you know one instrument you can kind of fake it on the other ones. I’m still not a great drummer, though.
TC: When did you start getting into electronic music?
NS: I would say maybe four or five years ago. I was in a band that was more of a rock band, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to make my own record. All of the stuff I wrote was a lot of arrangement and involved a lot of really big sound, but the idea of getting, you know, string players and horn players and all the other people you need to make a band full of big sounds seemed really daunting. Around then I started listening to Hot Chip and a few other bands like that, and I really loved it, so I started getting more into dance music and electronic music. I bought a cheap synthesizer and figured I’d try my hand at it, and since then it’s just been a slippery slope of accumulating synthesizers and learning more and more about it.
TC: So laziness was sort of your reason for picking it up.
NS: Yeah, that and sort of a general inability to play well with others. Who needs a ten-person band when you can just get a bunch of synths?
TC: What, from a creative standpoint, inspired you to start Neighbors? What sort of aesthetic and emotional ideas were you trying to express?
NS: Well, I was in a bunch of bands that didn’t really pan out for whatever reason, and I never really thought that I could be… I mean, I don’t sing very well. If you listen to the records, the singing is very distinct because it’s kind of monotone. I never really thought that I could be the singer of a band, but I was in all these other bands, and I came to realize that being in a band is the easiest way to just hate four other people as fast as possible. And I’m very close with the people who I was in those bands with now, but when I was in them we just could never get it rolling. So I just said, fuck, I want to make something, and I want to make it myself. I was in a really reflective period. I always wrote music, I always wrote words, I always wrote full songs and not just contributing parts, but I had always been really self-conscious of being the singer in a band. And so I just said screw it, I’ll figure out what my voice does, and I’ll make it work for me.
So I started down that road. The first EP we put out [Hooligans], I had this idea that I wanted to make electronic music, but I wanted to make it in a more dark and somber sort of way. I wanted to bring the elements you’d use in more personal, emotional types of music into the electronic field. And I actually think this most recent record is the best I’ve done so far at actually accomplishing that, and I think I’m going to get better at it. I wasn’t all the way there with the first record and the first EPs. I guess I was still getting my feet under me with exactly how I wanted the aesthetic to come together, but I think the more I do it the more it’s making sense to me.
TC: What are some of the themes you find yourself coming back to in your songwriting?
NS: I write a lot about getting older, because there’s just a lot there and I think it’s a rich subject. You have a few milestones throughout your twenties that are really heavy and emotional. When I was 24 or 25, maybe 25 or 26, when I was doing the first Neighbors record, that’s kind of the moment in your life where you realize that… you know, when you’re young you sort of feel like there’s some answer waiting for you that you just haven’t keyed into yet, and somehow, somebody knows something that you just don’t know. And you think you’re going to get to a point and figure that thing out and your life will somehow be easier. Then you hit 25, 26, and you say, oh shit, right, nobody knows anything, they’re all just kind of winging this. And that should’ve been obvious, but it wasn’t. So the first EP had a lot of stuff about that.
I just turned 30, and when you hit 30 the big realization people have is that the future kind of starts to narrow. When you’re a lot younger the future seems really wide open, almost impossibly wide open, and it’s going to go on forever and ever. It’s this big space out in front of you. Then you get a little older and the walls start closing in, and you can see a decade out and everything becomes a lot more finite. So I write about that.
I don’t know, I also write about work and what it’s like to fail at stuff. I’m trying to get funnier, and I want to be, but I’m still working on that. James Murphy’s really good at that. He’s really serious and really funny, and I want to be really serious and really funny, too. But so far I’ve only managed to be really serious.
TC: It seems like Neighbors is sort of a fluid project as far as collaborators go. Are there any regulars?
NS: I write and demo everything before we go into the studio to record it, so I sort of make a finished version of the record – rough, but finished – ahead of time, and I do all that at my house on my synths and guitars and drum machines and stuff. And then our drummer will learn the drum parts that I’ve programmed and add stuff to them, and we’ll talk about changing certain things. Then he’ll come into the studio, we’ll lay down the drums on top of the demo, and then we’ll get rid of the demo and the producer and I will build the songs back up off of the new drums.
So the producer is my closest collaborator, he’s Kyle “Slick” Johnson out of Philadelphia. He’s done a lot of great records. I mean, he worked on a Modest Mouse record, he worked on a Wavves record, he worked on a Rogue Wave record, and he just opened his own studio in Philadelphia a few years ago. He works with a lot of the Philly and New York rock bands, like Bleeding Rainbow and those sorts of bands. But we grew up together in Vermont and we’ve been good friends forever, and he’s worked on everything I’ve ever done. So whenever I’m writing all these demos I bounce them off him, he gives me suggestions, we talk about them, and then I go down to his studio and we flesh it out together.
Then I bring the finished songs back to the band, and since we have all the parts and everything all figured out I just sort of teach them to everyone, and then the live band all goes into the studio together. We’ve been pretty solid for about a year and a half at this point, but this is our third bass player, one of our keyboardists is our third keyboard player, and we didn’t have a drummer for a long time. So maybe in total there have been ten or twelve total Neighbors, and now there are six of us. But a few of us, like Brian and Steph have been there since the beginning. So it rotates a little bit, but it’s pretty stable now.
TC: Can you talk a little bit about the different approaches you took to Failure and Good Luck, Kid, and how the albums differed behind the scenes?
NS: Yeah, definitely, they differ a lot. With Good Luck, Kid I just wanted to make a full-length record, and I didn’t have a lot of direction. One day I was going through one of my hard drives and listening to all of these disparate demos that I had made from years and years ago, and I thought, you know, I think there’s a record here. And I picked and chose and put them together, and tried to make them have a common thread. So I just took these ten songs that I had written over a very long period of time… like “Throw Me in the Water,” the last song on Good Luck, Kid, that’s actually a song I had written for another band. “That’s Enough,” which is another of the kind of slow songs on there, I had written years before. So I just kind of mined what I had, and I put them all together.
I’m actually not super stoked on that record, to be honest. Certainly the production quality is really good, Kyle did a great job, but I didn’t have a real vision for it. I was sort of exasperated at that point, and I just needed to do make something, and so that’s what ended up coming out. I’m just going to shit on my own record here [laughs]. There are moments that I like and there are moments that I really don’t like.
Failure is the exact opposite. I didn’t have any old songs left, I’d burned through everything. So every song on Failure was written after January 2013. So I took a leave of absence from work and locked myself in my house for two months, and I made myself sit down and write a record. That was the first time I’d ever really done that, just all in one sitting.
And I had a really good idea in my head of what kinds of songs I wanted to write. I knew that I didn’t want to write any slow songs, no down moments whatsoever. I was thinking about records that you put on and then they just kind of cruise. They’re not very long, but sometimes those are the most satisfying records to listen to. It’s not a similar style of music, but I used Is This It? by The Strokes as an example. You put that record on, and 35 minutes later you’re just so satisfied.
I also felt like I had a lot to write about. I was starting fresh and I had thought out my influences better, so I really felt primed to make something cohesive. Once I had done the two months and written and recorded everything, I mixed and produced it all as well as I could. Because when we were working on Good Luck, Kid, a lot of the songs I went into the studio with were sketches, and we didn’t have as much time as I wanted to flesh them out. So this time I made sure I was really prepared, and when Kyle and I got started it was a really easy process. Whereas Good Luck, Kid was sort of like pulling teeth. We weren’t fighting or anything, but it was a really painful process. Failure, on the other hand, was just a ton of fun to make and it was a really gratifying experience. And the next record’s going to be even better.
TC: Who would you say are some of your biggest influences?
NS: I feel like cherry-picking your influences well is really important, all the people we really like know how to do that. I love Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, and The National, those are probably my biggest influences. While working on the record I was listening to a lot of Depeche Mode and Kate Bush, a lot of these really eighties musicians who have great, weird sounds. There are a lot of other influences, too. The song “Long Time Gone” has this little whistle in it, which is directly based on a sound from the soundtracks to Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. If you watch Kickboxer or Bloodsport, there’s this amazing eighties pan flute that I loved. And I loved all those Van Damme karate and action movies when I was a kid, so I had to use it [laughs]. So, yeah, I get different things from different people.
TC: Are you guys touring now that the album’s out?
NS: No, touring’s pretty hard for us because we all have jobs. Most people in the band have more real jobs than I do, since I try to keep myself a little bit available, but touring is one of those things where I feel like we can’t just easily play house parties and VFW halls and all that. I’d love to do that, but just in terms of equipment it gets really complicated really fast. We play a lot in New York and we do pretty well here, and we’ll probably go to Philly and Boston this year as well. Certainly if there ever arises an opportunity to do a tour that’s more our speed I’d love to do it. But we’ve put out two videos for the new album, and there’s another one on the way. We’re also putting out vinyl on this record label in Minneapolis called Blood of the Young, which I’m really excited about.
TC: Any last things you want to talk about?
NS: I guess one thing worth mentioning is that we’re playing with Alex Winston on May 31st at Le Poisson Rouge here in New York, and that’s going to be a really fun show. I hope you’ll all come out and join us.