Spelled as one word with no caps and a period at the end, letlive. has more than made a name for themselves. Breaking out in 2011 with the re-release of their sophomore album, Fake History, the post-hardcore quartet has absolutely dominated the scene with their genre-smashing music, spontaneously frantic live performances, and DIY punk ethos.
I recently had the chance to talk to bassist Ryan Jay “RJ” Johnson about what they’ve been up to. Between recording a new album, preparing for tours, and working with an updated lineup, the group has been pretty busy, and Ryan had a lot to say:
Both Fake History and The Blackest Beautiful have been regarded as modern classics. Does this turn the pressure up for the next album?
I guess to some degree we’re a bit cognizant of that, but at the same time, we’ve always kind of just written music that this collective does. I think with this record, we explored more to make things sound what we perceive as larger. We tried to accomplish that as much as possible, and the record just has this weight to it that we’ve seen unfold as we complete it now, and I think I’ve never really experienced what we did before and none of us really have; it’s extremely exciting, it’s very, very exciting. As far as taking into consideration any type of merit we have before, I don’t think it really dawned on us because I guess we just had a good time working on it.
How has the general process been in regards to the past two albums?
Compared to the last two albums? This one, we gave ourselves a dramatic amount more of time. The last records, we did in between tours or were building off of random ideas that each of us had and sussed it up together in the studio. With this record we took about, almost a year, kind of writing and recording and figuring out the best way to possibly accomplish what we wanted to do, which gave us a perspective and really pushed it to a point where we felt comfortable and excited in what we were doing. Since we’ve recorded so many times, this final, final process of printing it for the album is that much bigger and that much more exciting.
From your previous music, it’s very apparent that soul and funk are huge influences to your sound. What does that mean for you as a bassist, especially when you combine them with punk and hardcore?
For me, I don’t know, it’s been something that’s kind of intrinsic in everything we do, a rhythm quality. This is the first time we had Loniel [Robinson] as a drummer, coming in for the recording process, and he’s been with us a little over two years, three maybe, but yeah, he came in right after we finished the last one and since then we’ve been figuring out each other, him and I, for the rhythm section of the band and he’s incredibly talented, very, very capable of so many different rhythms. We’ve explored a lot of different things, some kind of Afrobeat-y, there’s a lot more groove. It’s really easy working with him; I think a lot of my stuff is reliant on where Loniel pushes me. It’s cool to add both that punk essence and whatever soul we possibly could within it; it’s amazing, it’s really, really cool.
Speaking of a different lineup, you guys currently have Kenji Chan on guitar, right?
Yeah, he’s basically just an old friend of ours, he’s touring with us right now. We’re just trying to figure out, I think we’re, for the most part, moving forward as a four-piece and trying to figure out who can switch out with whatever […] The new record has a lot of different qualities we want to be able to accomplish live, we might even add more for a live setting, so we’re kind of figuring out as we go right now.
As Bruno Mars’ former touring guitarist, what has he [Kenji] brought to the table?
Well, he’s very knowledgeable. I mean, in general, he kind of came in at the end of this whole process, so a lot of it was kind of completed, but yeah, as of right now, we’re still kind of sussing it out, seeing exactly where his place is, whether it’s gonna be on this record or not. It’s not definitive just yet, I think we’re getting very comfortable with just the four of us.
Now, you guys are known for your stage antics. In a previous interview, Jason said that he doesn’t plan anything beforehand, but what about the rest of you? Do you have any idea of what you’ll be doing before the set starts?
No clue whatsoever. I think that’s the beauty of it all, just the energy, or whatever you want to consider it, that runs through us all. It’s pretty cool, it’s nothing that we’re able to replicate or preface with anything, or understand a preconceived idea before we go onstage, so yeah, it just happens naturally (laughs).
Musically, I’ve also heard you guys do a lot of improv. How do you decide what gets extended, what gets shortened, or in regards to “Pheromone Cvlt,” what gets completely rearranged to a different sound?
I think we start building sets before we leave. We kinda feel out where to add different dynamics to the flow of it all so it’s not too dense. “Pheromone” was just kind of a moment that we were in the studio and it evolved, and it wasn’t a specific idea beforehand, but us playing songs and getting to a point in the set where we figured we’d have the room for us to explore that; it just kind of ended up that way. It’s that kind of strange chemistry that you have with people that you play with.
After recording is done, you guys are going to embark on tour in support of Rise Against with Killswitch Engage. How are you feeling about it?
It’s great. We’ve toured with the guys in Killswitch before, well, most of the guys, in Matt [Bachand]’s side project, Times Of Grace, back in the day. They’re amazing dudes, really fun to tour with, and we’re really close with them, all individually. The Rise Against dudes, we met just recently, playing two festivals. Yeah, it’s seems like it’s our pace, where everybody’s relaxed and everyone knows what they want to do and kinda hang out, be dudes together (laughs).
Speaking of tours, you guys have toured harder and longer than most bands out there. What kind of experiences has that yielded you?
Patience (laughs). I think the biggest thing is us enjoying what we’re doing and it keeps you going and it really doesn’t matter where it’s moving. Everything plus your happiness and what you do, everything beyond that is extracurricular and it’s welcome and you’re always excited to see progress, seeing the way things grow, but y’know, you can’t predict or anything. I mean yeah, for us, it’s built a lot of patience, a lot of character, and a lot of strength within us, which is pretty essential to have in a band.
Can we expect another headliner in the near future?
Absolutely. Once these tours are over, depending on when this record’s released, around whenever that is, which I’m sure will happen to be soon, we can think about when we’re doing our headliner.
One last question. At the beginning of 2014, you announced Renditions. How has the progress been on that?
As of right now, it’s been on a little bit of a pause, just considering the fact that we’re working on the new material. I think we’ll complete it very shortly before this next one comes out, with maybe just a track or two more and try to get whatever we can involving the fans that we have and the whole initial idea; suss it out and move forward from there. It’s been a bit of a difficult thing for us to juggle that, between working on this record and making sure that we keep our focus over there as well. But absolutely, we’re going to be completing it all and making sure that we move on to the next page without unfinished business prior to it.
letlive. just started their tour with Rise Against and Killswitch Engage this past Monday. You can catch them on July 22 at Festival Pier in Philadelphia, July 26 at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and July 28 at Central Park Summerstage in New York City. Although Renditions and their new album do not have release dates yet, you can go to youareletlive.com and facebook.com/theletlive for more information.