Written by Christian Bischoff
Atlas Genius burst onto the music scene in 2013 with a spectacular debut album and their hit single “Trojans.” Now, brothers Keith and Michael Jeffrey have returned with their sophomore effort, Inanimate Objects. We spoke with frontman Keith about everything from his writing process to his Chipotle preferences. Read on below.
You took almost a year and a half off from touring to record Inanimate Objects. Did you have songs written going into that break, or were you writing on tour?
There was one track that we finished at the end of the tour in 2013. Everything else we did from scratch starting at the beginning of 2014. And that year and a half off felt like about 10 years off. It was, like, the longest break.
What’s your writing process like? Do you and your brother write separately, or together as a band?
It’s pretty eclectic. Every so often you’ll get a song that will come out really easily, and you’ll be there within a day. You’ll have some chords on a synthesizer or a few guitars and write lyrics there at the top. But for the most part, it’s a kind of drawn out process. I’ll give you an example. I must have had maybe three or four hundred little ideas that were potential starting points for songs for the album, and certain ideas would stay inspiring for long enough to stick with. It’s a labor of love, when something gets boring… I guess that’s the danger as well. Quite often you can be inspired, but if you get bored with it along the way it might not get finished. There were so many different ideas that we started with and we whittled them down. We finished sixteen tracks, eleven of those made the album, but there was a whole bunch of ideas that didn’t quite get done.
So is there going to be a B-sides release in the future?
Yeah, definitely. The problem was it was really hard to choose which eleven were going to make the album, at what point were we going to make the cut? The five that didn’t make it, I have moments of “I wish they made the album.” So we’ll definitely release them as B-sides or bonus tracks later this year or early next year.
I know you built your own studio at home in Australia. How was recording this album different than When It Was Now?
We built the studio that we did the first album in back in Australia, and we started to do this new album there as well but the isolation of being in a small surf town, which is where we grew up. It’s on the coast in South Australia and it’s a beautiful spot, but what we were doing in that area, there just wasn’t much of a community we were able to be involved in. We ended up moving to Los Angeles, where at the moment certain bands that we’re friends with have all based themselves there.
One of the singles of the new album, “Friends with Enemies” is a big departure from the tracks on When It Was Now. It’s slower, darker, and almost has a mournful tone to it. Did you have any sort of direction or theme in mind when you were recording Inanimate Objects?
There’s definitely a darker vibe to the majority of songs on this album, and I think that’s just mentally where we were at making this album. Like I said, it felt like we were away for ten years even though it was only a year and a bit, so just going from touring incessantly for eighteen months to being in a studio, it’s a bit of a hard change to deal with. It was such a dramatic change in lifestyle, from traveling every day to being back in the studio. I’d gone through a few breakups during that period as well so that did inevitably get into the music. It’s definitely a darker album. That song… there’s definitely a sound to that first Atlas Genius album. We’ve got a bunch of departures on this album. There’s a particular moment on the second verse in friends with enemies where it’s literally just my voice, all the music falls away, and it’s about as tiny and intimate as you could possibly get on a recording.
A good amount of your songs are very synth-y and have a lot of guitar, and “Friends with Enemies” in comparison is very stripped down, it’s a lot more atmospheric, if that makes sense?
Yea, we wanted to go for a more cinematic sound on that song.
What kind of pressure were you under to overcome the sophomore slump after your debut album exploded?
It was a lot of internal pressure, knowing what you want to achieve and then knowing that actually achieving that, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. You can have a vision, especially with art but I guess with anything in life, you have a goal and can see in the future it takes a bit to get there, and also just navigating the day to day bullshit that distracts you from doing that. It’s one thing to sit down and try to write a song but the in this day and age especially there are so many distractions, whether its business concerns or friends or all sorts of stuff. It can seem like such an easy path, then all of a sudden you find yourself out in the wilderness. How did I get so distracted from what I was doing? We got there, but it was definitely a journey.
Do you find yourself having to turn off your phone and put the computer away and go away from social media for a while when you’re writing and recording?
Absolutely! I find that my life now has way more of that information than when you’re a kid, especially when I was growing up. Now we have smart phones that are constantly getting hit up. You’ve got your friends, and you’ve just got random reminders coming to you from some push notification or some app that you ended up downloading. There’s just so many distractions I have to actually turn my phone off and disconnect the Wi-Fi connection. If I get the phone for more than a couple of minutes, something’s constantly distracting me. That’s why I think things like meditation are so important, because they give you time to focus on your creativity.
With social media, it’s tough. We’re in the generation of being constantly connected.
And it’s not even stuff that you want to be informed about! You start looking at a photo, and then we inevitably find ourselves going down this rabbit hole of information that isn’t very relevant and is a total time suck. But you still do it. It’s like an addiction, really. In an effort to keep myself focused on writing during this album, I actually downloaded this self-control app that blocks any websites you find yourself drawn to (like Facebook, etc.), and I’ll set that for four hours or a day or whatever so no matter what I can’t access these sites, and that helped.
You’ve got some dates with Passion Pit coming up in September and October. How did you get involved with them? Did you know Michael earlier or did he reach out to you?
Actually, we just have the same booking agent. We played some shows and festivals together a few years ago, but I haven’t personally spoken to him. It just worked out that we’re touring together, and we’re definitely game for that. I’m looking forward to the shows.
Is that usually the case? Do you not usually know the bands before playing with them?
Actually, it’s kinda 50/50. Sometimes you either request a certain band to come tour with you or your request because you’re friends with them. Sometimes that happens, other times it’s more of a booking agent thing, where it makes sense because you have a somewhat similar demographic.
Are there any bands you’d particularly want to tour with in the near future?
There’s a bunch of bands! I love Joywave. We’ve actually done a few shows with Joywave. Love their music. They’re great live. There are lots of bands I’d love to do some more shows with. Last year I really got into Phantogram a lot, but I haven’t had a chance to see them. I’d love to see a bunch of their shows.
You’re headlining the Chipotle Cultivate food festival with Walk the Moon next week. What’s it like to share the stage with a band you came up with around the same time, and how excited are you for what I assume will be an excessive amount of free Chipotle?
(Laughs) Well I’m vegan, and so is Michael, but they do have the sofritas which I love. The sofritas bowl gets us through. It’s funny because there are so many bands that, when we started touring when “Trojans” was just a brand new song, I remember we were doing shows with Walk the Moon and a little band called Imagine Dragons at one point and they ended up being the biggest band in the world in the following years. It was really interesting because growing up in Australia, the bands that came were already the biggest bands in the world before they made it to Australia. It’s fascinating to see the way things played out from there [the band’s early days touring]. On the other side there’s certain bands that we toured with that have broken up and it’s really sad to see that. There was a band we toured with early on in the UK called Wolf Gang and they broke up a month or so ago and so I was kind of bummed. Sometimes things go great as a band and other times they don’t. It’s always interesting to watch how it goes.
Atlas Genius are currently on tour. Check out the dates below to see when you can see the band live.
September 9 – The Joy Theater – New Orleans, LA
September 12 – PNC Music Pavilion – Charlotte, NC
September 13 – Walnut Creek Amphitheatre – Raleigh, NC
September 15 – The National – Richmond, VA
September 16 – The NorVA – Norfolk, VA
September 19 – Rochester Music Hall – Rochester, NY
September 20 – The Waiting Room – Buffalo, NY