Youth Lagoon's Trevor Powers: "I Could Never Do the Same Thing Twice"

Trevor Powers debuted as Youth Lagoon in 2011 with the gorgeous indie-pop minimalism of The Year of Hibernation, a calm, poetic and endearing trip through the anxiety, curiosity and lament of the then-21-year-old Boise State University student. Powers, who looked even younger than 21 in press photos surrounding The Year of Hibernation, has since become a worldwide phenomenon, touring with Death Cab for Cutie and performing at every major festival from Pitchfork to SXSW.

Admirably, the vast critical success of The Year of Hibernation — which was followed in 2013 by a powerfully psychedelic left-turn called Wondrous Bughouse — resulted in a quick, and stunning, evolution.

The ghostly video for the stark, ambitious electro-pop tune “Highway Patrol Stun Gun” — from July’s Savage Hills Ballroom — shows Powers (looking considerably more grown up than the fresh-faced, adorably goofy hipster who emerged in 2011) wandering New York with a man in a gold mask. The images are nearly as thought-provoking as Savage Hills Ballroom’s dark lyrics, from “Everybody wants to think that their luck will change / when there’s no such thing” to “We’re gold that’s as bright as hell’s own flame.”

We caught up with Powers by phone from Boise just before his ongoing tour — which stops in Denver at the Bluebird Theater on Friday — began.

Adam Perry: Will this be the same band we saw at the Fox in 2013?

Trevor Powers: Different band. The way I work is hired guns and stuff. These guys are two of my friends from Boise and then a buddy of mine from Los Angeles. Whenever I collaborate with people I always prefer them to be buddies, because it makes it a little more enjoyable. It’s so vital because you want to be on stage with people you’re comfortable with, especially live, because songs change from night to night, which makes it a little surprising. When there’s people on stage with you [who] you really know, you can really read each other and where you’re gonna go, and it makes it easier to direct a band.

Before you started touring for Year of Hibernation you’d seen very little of the world outside of Boise, right?

I hadn’t seen much. I was born in San Diego, but my family moved to Boise when I was three or four. We did some small trips but for the most part I really didn’t do much traveling until I started pursuing music.

Did that change you?

Oh, definitely. It can’t help but change you, because I think when you’re in situations where you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable—you don’t know a soul; you’ve never been to a certain city—you’re just pulled in different directions. It ages you a shit ton, but in a good way. The more miles you have under your belt the more you have to really learn from.

There’s this great quote from Nelson Mandela: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” What’s it like going back to Boise after seeing so much of the world?

To me, it’s kind of that sort of place where if you stay here too long it can be destructive, because it’s too easy to live here. You’re not pushed in different ways. With how much I travel and tour, coming home to Boise is absolutely perfect, and that’s why I stayed here. It’s an easy place to disappear, especially for writing. There are so many spots. You’re just surrounded by people you know really well. It’s a nice place to call home.

The song “Rotten Human” is intensely personal, almost like those old Daniel Johnston songs that are so painful but beautiful. You’ve discussed problems with anxiety in the past — has having an audience, and being famous, been therapeutic?

I’d say it’s a little bit of both. When you start realizing that when you’re writing a song there’s actually gonna be some people who hear it, it can be a bit daunting. But I approach things from a vantage point where I just try to not even think about it. I’ll write from sort of a subconscious place where I don’t know what’s going to come out and I just start working on beats or guitar lines or whatever, and ideas just come out all messy and I go back later to shape them up. “Rotten Human” was one of those where I got all this stuff off my chest, but everyone’s gonna find a different meaning in it, and I’ve learned to be OK with that. After I release something I can no longer be possessive of it. My ideals for what I’m trying to express are gonna change from person to person, so I’m always curious to see what people get out of a certain song.

You said recently that with Wondrous Bughouse you lost touch with what you were trying to communicate.

I think that’s been a little bit skewed, because there’s nothing about that album I would change, looking at it now. It exists in the realm that it’s supposed to exist in. I don’t think I ever lost touch; I think it’s just…from album to album I can’t help but make myself approach things differently and put things in different environments. I had a really close friend of mine pass away when I was touring Wondrous Bughouse. I was in London at the time and I ended up getting a call from someone saying that my friend had drowned in the local river and he had been stuck under water for twenty minutes. I’ve lost close people before, but he was like a brother to me, you know? So I canceled the tour and I flew home to be with friends and family. It’s one of those things—you can’t put your finger on how it changes you but you know it does. So with writing music and that being how I communicate, there’s not a certain thing that I pinpoint on what it shifted, but it definitely shook me traumatically.

When I first heard that the album was titled Savage Hills Ballroom I immediately thought of The Shining. What does it mean to you?

That’s amazing—it’s funny that you said The Shining, because that was one of the influences in sort of the visual aspects of the album, and the elaborate goals, just thinking of an iconic ballroom. Where that phrase comes from is, I kept thinking about how people are so consumed with looking perfect, putting off this vibe that we’ve got things figured out, when no one really does. We’re in this mess together; we’re all trying to figure out what tomorrow looks like, or what today looks like, and I think there’s something about [Savage Hills Ballroom] where I was sort of thinking up these mental pictures and how I wanted to express that. I had the idea of almost making a mockery of it, so that’s why the art is centered around gold and why I’m wearing makeup in the press photos. It’s all sort of satire, taking those ideas of trying to look flawless and blowing them up, exploiting them and showing how ridiculous it really is.

When you were making your first album you were basically a kid, and Year of Hibernation’s charm was that you wrote it in your bedroom, and it sounds like you recorded it in your bedroom. Did you have this eventual sound in your head back then? A horn section and rock drums?

Yeah. I’m always thinking ahead to what I could do next. I’m already on to the next thing mentally, brainstorming about where to go from here. Even when I had first started the Youth Lagoon project I was like that, thinking ahead. I think a lot of it comes down to resources. If you want to have a horn section or implement strings or whatever, you have to have the resources to be able to do that, and back then I didn’t. Also, I think you just change so much as a person every day. I could never do the same thing twice; I could never just regurgitate shit just to do it. If I’m gonna sit down and write an album I’m gonna make sure it’s something worth saying.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry