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INTERVIEW: Leon + the Fantastic

Pic by Jared Swanson

Hi Leon, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Its been good. Just enough drama lately to keep the muse going. And it’s great to be speaking with Vents!

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Grieving Friend of a Superman”?

We recorded this one at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco, Rob Shelton produced. I like blending styles and genres. Its Indie Rock, but its got a little prog, a wee bit of New Orleans, some jazz, lots of synths. The tune originally had this second line beat, kind of a Brazilian marching band feel, but Jason Slota our drummer took that and modernized it, made it rock, and man I love it.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

I always try to engage in a dichotomy between a song’s lyrical meaning which should be clear enough to tell a story, but vague enough for the listener to find their own story in there somewhere. Japhy Riddle did an amazing job of creating our music video, and in that same spirit kept plenty of room for interpretation. But in this case, the reason I’m vague about this song’s meaning is because its a little silly. I loved comic books growing up. I pretty much just played music and read comic books. Later in life I ended up getting caught up in a very insular world, the Hassidic Jewish community in Jerusalem. I dropped out of music school in 2004, The New School Jazz program in NYC and became a hassid. I was in that world for about 6 years, during which time I had missed out on just about everything in the west from 2004 to 2010. I began to move a little away from it. Once day I learned that you could pirate TV on the internet, and so I started watching the show “Smallville.” It was Friday and the sun was going down. (Jews keep the Sabbath and turn all electronics off). I  could not bring myself to turn off the next episode, I stayed up overnight and into the next few days. I loved Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor, and I wrote “Grieving Friend of a Superman” for the character. You love him and he’s bad and its great. He wants to do the right thing and he wants power. I felt like that’s a lot of where I was. It’s a little silly, but given the context and history, it makes sense. After that, I quickly began to return to the world. I realized how much time had passed, but I wanted to get to music. I made the lyrics vague but I tried to encapsulate something about my experience. This love between Clark and Lex as they grew closer, as they separated.

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

Japhy Riddle directed the video. He and I sat down and hashed out all the layers of meaning and played with different scripts. But in the end, I wanted him to do the film and take his genius and layer it. I believe that collaboration works best with trust. If you don’t trust someone, don’t work with them. I only micromanage with album covers and designers. I am unbearable for designers. Japhy had free reign, with one little exception – no bugs, no creepy crawlies, no gendered or racist iconography.  He animated everything using a combination of Stop Motion/Traditional animation, and contemporary digital work. Then he brought me in and we did a shoot day, he directed me to play the character, and later he stitched me into the footage. It was pretty fun. He did the entire movie in his room.

The single comes off your new album Let Me Cool – what’s the story behind the title?

When I lived in New York, going to the New School for jazz piano, at a certain point I had my friend come crash in our apartment, for which we got evicted. I didn’t find a place so I hoboed and kept going to school. I figured out a way to sneak in at night to my storage locker and often slept in there. I left a little wedge in the lock so it looked closed. Other times I was on a park bench: traditional. I spent a lot of nights just wandering, walking. When you hobo, you walk. I think that’s an important thing to know. You walk, or you sit. But you can’t sit too long, so you walk. One day I’m on the phone with my actor friend Paradox, who at the time was shooting that movie I Am Legend. He told me “Sometimes, just empty your pockets out onto the street, and just spread out everything out. Just be there.” That stuck with me for years. I was looking for a phrase that could encapsulate that. I sat down at the piano, improvising and singing and “Let Me Cool” kept repeating in my voice. And there it was. It became the title track. The phrase Let Me Cool is also about the earth and the reality of the devastation we are causing to all life on the planet. She is saying yo! Let Me Cool. So, it works.

How was the recording and writing process?

My best songs I write in one go. Virtually this whole album was written right before recording, except Grieving Friend, which has been in my pocket for a while. Usually I start singing with some chords, first gibberish lyrics, and then I settle on certain sounds and vowels.  Often a hook appears. I sit and work out real words which match the sounds, drawing illegible arrows and cross-outs on paper. I need a physical pen.  We recorded to analog tape. Rob brought in solid session musicians, let them have a go. He is great at keeping things true to concept, and keeping things moving forward.

What role does San Francisco play in your music?

“San Francisco” can go to hell. I was born and raised in this town. It has not been San Francisco for a very, very long time. Whenever I’m in town walking around it just makes me sad or mad. During the 1990s, there was a moment, we had a chance to save it. We lost. San Francisco was ground zero. We lived right in front of the aftermath of the mainstream Dem third way supply and demand demolish everything bullshit. San Francisco is barely interesting anymore. It’s a lot of cars and heavy sweat, aggravating sun. But there are still moments. I love it in my memory. It won’t ever be what it was, but I suppose the way it became how it is now inspired a lot in my music and life.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Man I try to stay naive. When you are naive, life hurts. Then you’re real, then you write. I get cynical and then I have to break myself again, then I can write.

Any plans to hit the road?

Man you know I’d love to tour.  After all these years I decided to commit and dive into my own music about two years ago, and its building. I’m so excited. I want to do tours and shows in a way that fits my vibe and that’s the hard part. But yes, I’m working up plans now. First up is our release.

What else is happening next in Leon + the Fantastic’s world?

Our album release! A glorious release show Thursday May 17th Above DNA Lounge in San Francisco. I can’t tell you how excited we are. We’re going to flip! We pressed a commemorative edition 180 gram color vinyl of the album and it’s going to be crazy. Things will happen fast and I’m a bit scared, but we go with it. I’m late to a very important date.

With a moniker like Leon + the Fantastic, one can’t help but be curious about the artist behind the name. Now back in his hometown of San Francisco, Leon + the Fantastic is currently preparing for the release of his new album Let Me Cool this May. Touching upon themes like justice, passion, and the glorious chaos of daily life, the 6-track collection is contemplative, forward, and raw and finds Leon joined by a brilliant team of musicians who helped him bring his vision to life. Let Me Cool drops May 18th, 2018

For fans of: Nick Cave, The National

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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