When Lemonade relocated to Brooklyn, the challenges of being musicians in New York clearly pushed the trio to discipline its creativity. That sense of purpose can be heard throughout Diver even as the music embraces the rich colors and celebratory moods of dance culture. Backbeat recently spoke with Lemonade's Ben Steidel, former bassist and current synth player, about the history of electronic dance music as the band attempted to leave Manhattan during a typical New York traffic jam.
Westword: Did you play in other bands in San Francisco before you started Lemonade?
Ben Steidel: We all have some history playing in hardcore and punk bands and stuff like that, but nothing that anybody would really know. Alex [Pasternak] also played in a lot of jazz and international music groups.
What got you interested in playing bass when you were starting out?
I was playing bass in a punk band, and they wanted a bass player in this band, so they asked if I wanted to do it. I'm not even playing bass in this band anymore; I'm playing keyboards. When we made this new album, we had to re-do our whole set-up to play the new songs.
So you play synth bass and other kinds of synth now, too?
A little bit of everything, yeah. It's different for each song. There's some true MIDI, so we have tons of little pads we hit that make all sorts of sounds -- sometimes drum sounds, sometimes bass sounds, sometimes a chord or whatever. I play a natural synthesizer as well. For live I bought a Nord Wave because it's really versatile. We used a whole lot of synths on the record, some vintage stuff, and I didn't want to take that stuff on the road so I went for something that was going to be versatile as far as either being able to recreate a patch or, if necessary, sample it. I do a little bit of both. Our whole set-up uses Ableton to host the session, and then everything is mapped. Even within the song, certain triggers will switch their roles. It's all very complexly laid out. It's a lot of music to make as only three people. Everything is kind of framed in one computer now. We have four other controllers on stage, so it's a lot of cables. It's a lot less stuff than we used to carry but a lot more cables.
Why did you move out of San Francisco?
We all grew up in the Bay Area. Callan [Clandenin] and Alex grew up kind of south of San Francisco, and I grew up east of San Francisco in the suburbs. We'd all been living in the city for quite a while, and it's a great place that we all really love. But we were craving something that was going to push us a little harder as a band, as a working group of artists. It's very easy to chill out really hard in San Francisco. New York is definitely the place to go if you want to feel like what you're doing is totally insignificant and you should definitely be trying a lot harder.
Why did you want to feel like that?
We needed something to give us that push. You come here and you're like, "Oh, these people actually have their shit together and are doing things all the time. We better step our game up." It really works like that. You come here and it's crazy, and it did good things for our band because it pushed us to a level of work and professionalism that I don't think we ever would have found in San Francisco because it's too mellow there. [New York] is more challenging, more energized, more competitive in a healthy way.
Coming from a hardcore background, what got you into music that seems almost a polar opposite from that?
Hardcore and punk was definitely the music of our youth -- being angsty and being a teenager or whatever. When we started this band, we'd already moved on to all sorts of other stuff. Part of it was because we had moved on. Besides listening to post-punk and weird dance music, we were also listening to old acid house and a lot of dancehall reggae and dub reggae and having that moment of really broadening your horizons. Alex has been into international music for a long time having studied [North African and Latin music]. We would always be listening to that kind of stuff with him and it was kind of this epiphany that we could make a band where we could incorporate any of those influences if we wanted to.
It kind of continues to be that. Even though our early stuff is really different from our current material, the running them of it is anything we want to bring into it is fair game. If we want to clean it up and make pop songs, we can do that. If we want to bring in whatever sort of funny percussion sounds or funny synthesizer sounds, anything that sounds good to us is okay. It's a lot less limiting than being in a band where there's a more defined, canonized form. If you're playing in a metal band, you're probably not going to have a bunch of Latin percussion parts, or maybe you are and you're going to be a really progressive metal band. But whatever. For us, anything goes. We don't have to worry if something is going to turn people off because it's not like the old stuff. We're not limiting ourselves. That's what makes this such a pleasure and so freeing to just be making music without being too hung up on genre or whatever.
As far as dance music, it's been a huge thing. It was a thing we all found simultaneously and learned to love. Growing up and coming from a background in angry guy rock music, it takes a minute to break through and realize, "Oh, this music is serving a whole different purpose, and it's about people having fun and about release and freedom and all those things. And realizing it's not just shallow music for clubbers; it's an amazing, liberating, beautiful thing and that really energized us at a point where maybe we were burned out on rock bands and being sad guys with guitars and stuff like that. That was a really exciting thing for all of us and it remains a really exciting thing.
More than anything, we listen to a lot of contemporary electronic dance music, a lot of stuff out of the UK -- what might be described as UK bass or post-dubstep or something like that -- also American house and techno guys. There's a label called Dirtybird, and we're always keen to know what they're doing. We listen to house and techno and bass music. We're picky, but we're open-minded. I listen to a lot of '90s jungle and stuff. We love rave music and anything that sincerely captures that kind of excitement that dance music has with it is something we're excited by. There's a whole history of it that's so exciting. I like early '80s, post-disco dance stuff, too.
Click through for the rest of the interview. Some people who mostly know punk and don't know a lot about the history of that music may not realize that it has a rebellious side to it going back to at least the '0s. After all, part of the appeal of raves were that they were often illegal parties that you needed to know someone connected to.
Oh, absolutely. Raves were an extension of a dance music history that goes back to music that was coming out of kind of oppressed minority communities all over the country. House came out of disco, which was such a gay, black thing that was about finding safe spaces where all sorts of different kinds of people could come and feel free and just go crazy, which was a beautiful thing and it continues to be a beautiful thing. It can get corrupted by all sorts of commercial aspects but, at the heart of it, that's what dance music is to us: music that's freeing and liberating and beautiful and rebellious and exciting. In any way we can, we try to bring that energy into what we're doing. We also obviously love lots of other different kinds of music, but understanding that was huge for us.
What artists did you get into early on when you were getting into making dance music?
When we were first starting the band and getting really into it. Prior to that we'd been listening to the post-punk dance stuff like A Certain Ratio and Talking Heads and that kind of stuff, then discovering early Chicago acid house like Adonis and Frankie Knuckles and those kinds of people. At the same time the early grime was starting in the UK before it had really splintered, and there was a difference between grime and dubstep. It was all this bizarre, British, super underground urban music from the UK. People like Wiley and Digital Mystics and all those people were just making this music that was so exciting at the time. Even when I go back and listen that stuff, it's some of the most exciting music around. Even stuff a little more pop like the first Dizzee Rascal record still sounds so crazy and great to me.
That stuff was kind of our gateway into a whole world of contemporary house and techno. We've followed the UK continuum both forward into the present and how grime came to be out (of) UK garage and rave stuff from the UK. We've done our homework, for what it's worth.
Do you try to recreate that environment in some fashion when you're playing smaller places?
You know, we love when a show feels like a party. When we started playing, it was weird because we would play a show that was at a rock venue or whatever, and it often turned into a party, but it didn't necessary feel like it. But the best shows we played were always ones where we were one band with a bunch of DJs and stuff like that. Those shows were great. We've played at straight-up illegal warehouse spaces and raves and stuff like that, and that was something we could do and was a big part of our early time as a band -- that, and bringing a lot of our friends into that environment for the first time also.
Now, it's like,"Yeah, we want our shows to feel like a dance party and feel like fun." Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. We just wrapped up a tour where we were supporting Neon Indian, and it was not like that at all. It was a show every night and they were early on a big stage and crowd of kids who were very excited. It was a great tour, and it was a lot of fun. It didn't feel like a dance party every night, but it felt great anyway. I certainly hope that some of the spirit of that shows up in our set either way, but we still love playing a sweaty dance party.
You mentioned your last album sounds significantly different from Diver. What kinds of changes did you want to make? Was it even something you consciously tried to change?
The only thing we were consciously doing was to make an album that sounded cohesive as an album and wasn't just a collection of whatever we had written up to that point. We actually threw out songs that didn't feel right for the album.
As for a change in direction, it was just not letting ourselves get hung up about it and not worrying that we were writing music that was a lot more pop and a lot more refined and less crazy and psychedelic. Our older music had an element of really kind of rough, wild psychedelia to it. We wanted to write some stuff that sounded really clean and, for lack of a better word, really pop. We knew that that was a change, and we didn't want that to limit us at all. We chose to do that.
As far as the actual process of making a record, in the past we would write our songs and figure out how to play them live and essentially make a recording of what our live performance was like. On this record we didn't really hammer out the live stuff prior to making it. We just made the record in the studio. We played live stuff on it but we weren't practicing the songs as a band. We were writing the record in the studio, and once it was finished, we figured out how we were going to incorporate that into a performance. It was a pretty big difference there.
In terms of following our instincts and following our hearts as far as what sounded good and what kind of recorded we wanted to make, we didn't limit ourselves at all, and we're pretty proud about how it came out.