You’d have a pretty tough job trying to sum up the musical direction and musical interests of the now expanded five-piece, The Royal Arctic Institute. You might start with the original trio’s inklings, “an eclectic mix of Post-Punk, Cinematic, orchestrated Jazz”, but that doesn’t capture the musical backgrounds of all involved and what they’ve brought to the table with 2021 EP, Sodium Light, or with their upcoming 2022 EP, From Catnap to Coma, arriving on February 4th from Already Dead Tapes & Records (in digital and cassette formats). For the full experience, you also really need to hear them live, but that can be arranged, because their Northeast Tour kicks off on Saturday, February 5th in New York, and continues throughout February.
The five-piece includes drummer Lyle Hysen (Das Damen, Arthur Lee), guitarists John Leon (Roky Erickson, Summer Wardrobe, Abra Moore) and Lynn Wright (And The Wiremen, Bee And Flower, Shilpa Ray), bassist David Motamed (Das Damen, Two Dollar Guitar, Arthur Lee, Townes Van Zandt), and keyboardist Carl Baggaley (Headbrain, Gramercy Arms). From that roll-call, you can glean that the music which the band members are capable of crafting together could take on many forms, but with From Catnap to Coma, there’s a particularly atmospheric feeling of exploring another world for a short time and coming back haunted by its particular moods.
I spoke with John Leon about how the band reached its current incarnation, but also a lot about their motivation as musicians and how they managed to put together two albums during the pandemic period. For Leon and also for the other band members, it all comes down to joy and the joyful contribution that creating music together makes to their lives.
Hannah Means-Shannon: How has being in the New York area impacted The Royal Arctic Institute?
John Leon: Well, the band would not have existed if I hadn’t lived in New York. We were originally three people. Our original bassist, Gerard Smith, was someone I met through a mutual friend. He had known our drummer, Lyle Hysen, for years and years, so that’s how we all met. Under that lineup, we put up two full-length records and a couple of singles. Around the end of 2019, we felt we’d hit a wall, so we kind of broke up.
Then, right before the pandemic, Lyle had reunited with Das Damen to record one song for a Flamin’ Groovies tribute. That was the first time that he and Das Damen’s bassist, Dave Motamed, had played together for a long time, though they had remained friends. Lyle realized that he wanted to play with Dave again and called me. We did it as a trio for a little bit, then came the pandemic. We are very lucky because we have a very big rehearsal space in Hoboken in the Neumann Leather building. Our space there is big enough to all set up in opposite corners and use masks. Then we expanded to the five piece, bringing on Carl Baggaley and Lynn Wright. I’ve known Lynn since the early 90s when he was in Orleans. We all got together and it clicked, giving us a reason to live through the pandemic.
HMS: Was there a core thought there to expand, or did it just naturally happen because there were people in orbit who were likely candidates?
JL: It was the latter. Going into it, we didn’t have a clear idea of things, we just wanted to play music. The five of us really enjoyed playing together, and we’re all really close friends. At this stage in our lives, we have no business playing with someone who we wouldn’t want to have dinner with.
HMS: There’s a context here for readers to keep in mind, which that all of you have years and years of experience playing music. So this was a way to use that ability and a natural thing for you to do. You must have been aware that this was going to change the music considerably to expand in this way. Did you have any notions of what might happen?
JL: It has all been a real discovery. The way that we typically work, historically, is that I am the one who brings in music that I’ve written at home. But we are very much a band once I bring a piece in. I record it in my home studio, I send it everybody, then we meet at the rehearsal space and completely deconstruct what I sent them. More often than not, it ends up not sounding anything at all like the original piece. That is so exciting, to experience how these five people get together with an idea and turn it into something completely other. That’s been really awesome.
HMS: Traditionally, songwriters are more precious about sticking to a demo, but more and more I hear from people who are more willing to collaborate and build. Can you give me an idea of what usually happens with deconstruction? Is it a particular sequence getting pulled out, drilled into, and taken into other directions, and then that gets repeated?
JL: There’s that. Also, Dave Motamed, the bassist, is a master arranger. He’s really good at taking a piece of music and coming up with where the parts should be, how long the parts should be, and engineering that. But it’s not just him, and it’s not just a one-day process. We’ll record, then we’ll take it home for a week, and then the next week, we’ll bat more ideas around until it feels good.
HMS: Are live shows a totally different scenario, where you might be jamming on your own songs and taking them in different directions?
JL: Anything that we play live is pretty much set in stone, though it’s not robotic. There’s room for interpretation but the structure is pretty much there by the time it makes it to the record or the stage. I love playing live. That has always been one of my favorite parts of being a musician. But it’s really fun for me, especially now, to watch the process of stuff coming to life at home and in the rehearsal space.
HMS: Is it just a mutual feeling that arises that a song is finished, and then you consider it complete?
JL: Yes. It rarely happens, but if there’s a part that someone doesn’t like, we keep working on it, because we certainly won’t force them to do it. As you brought up, we’ve all played professionally for years, but this is a totally different beast. Speaking for myself, I don’t have any expectations at this point other than it has to be good and we have to enjoy playing together. That has been so wonderful.
Over the years, so many musicians when they are really hitting it hard and trying to figure out how they can make it work to sustain themselves, oftentimes they end up second guessing everything they do. More often than not, your success depends on so many factors that you have no control over at all. I’ve been in situations in the past where that stomped all the life out of it and it kind of became drudgery. With this, and I think I can speak for everyone, we’ve never felt that. We all have careers outside of this now and that’s wonderful because this isn’t about livelihood.
HMS: In the scenario where musicians are trying to achieve a degree of success dictated by society rather than their own feelings, there are also so many voices trying to tell you what the combination is and how to crack that goal. I’m sure even musicians who don’t mind that as much can relate to some of what we’re saying, because taking the joy out of music affects you as a human being, not just as a professional.
JL: You used the perfect word there, “joy”. I can honestly say that playing in this project is so joyous. We really just have fun and laugh a lot. It never feels like work.
HMS: There’s probably a relationship between that and the way that these songs feel, particularly with this EP, From Catnap to Coma. It feels like another reality that you all are creating with these songs, which the audience can inhabit for a time. It has its own moods and ideas. Do you think the mood or tone of the collection was influenced by all the craziness in the world?
JL: God, how could it not be? The last couple of years has turned every aspect of life on its head, so how could that not come out in whatever art someone is making. It’s there. Two of us in the band work in hospital settings and have during the pandemic. I’m a shrink by day. Watching people completely fall apart has been something I can’t find the right adjective for. It’s been horrific but wildly interesting to see how it’s impacted people. All of that is totally in the EP.
HMS: Do you view of music as a therapeutic artform, given your profession? I know for a lot of musicians, making music has been very therapeutic for them during the pandemic.
JL: I think any artistic process, not just music, gives everyone a means by which to channel emotion. It gives people a channel for collective trauma. For people who are not necessarily “artistically inclined”, something that becomes useful for a lot of people is journaling. It becomes a very powerful medium for us to experience those emotions in a different way. But yes, absolutely, even if it’s something as simple as staying home and finding some inkling of joy in a record that you love, music is therapeutic. Sitting down and allowing yourself to get lost for a couple of hours playing an instrument, or even learning to play an instrument in quarantine is, too.
HMS: Do you have any idea of what kind of impact listening to the EP might have on an audience, or what impact you might hope it would have on them?
JL: If you listen to the record itself from beginning to end, my hope is that someone experiences what it might be like to be in a fever dream, or to be in slow motion. It’s almost like being sucked underwater. Not to be morbid, I hear that when someone drowns, and when their lungs fill up with water, they get a sense of euphoria. So I hope there’s a sense of being underwater and being in slow motion.
HMS: I did get that sense from listening to the album, particularly the presence of water, and possibly the way that light moves on water and underwater. Would you hope that people listen to the EP in sequence to catch these relationships?
JL: I certainly hope people will. In the age of streaming, people pick and choose for their playlists, which is great, but I would love for people to give it a spin all the way through at least once. I just hope people like it, however they decide to listen to it. We did spend time deciding on the sequence, but all I can tell you is that we came to it by what felt natural in terms of flow. Now I can’t imagine it being any other way.
HMS: You’ve got a fairly big tour coming up in the Northeast. Are you going to be taking snow shovels in your cars?
JL: I’m excited. It’ll be a lot of fun even if it’s the Northeast in the middle of February. Getting to do this in this capacity goes back to this idea of it just being really joyful. I’m looking at it as going on a great vacation with my best friends in February and just getting to play music while on vacation. It’s great!
HMS: How do you choose your setlist?
JL: We try to change it up every night. We’ll also be playing material from our last record, Sodium Light.
HMS: That’s the thing, you haven’t gotten a chance to play that one much yet! The band has been so productive lately there’s a lot to play.
JL: That record was written during the pandemic, too, when we came together. We recorded it really fast, with Tom Beaujour, who we’d worked with extensively before. But for From Catnap to Coma, we worked with James McNew, from Yo La Tengo. We recorded that live in the Neumann Leather building in a very different way. That was a really great process as well, with very minimal overdubs. That came together really fast. For some reason, it was a magical day, and for each tune, we only did two or three takes. We really tried to make the pandemic work for us the best that we could. We’ll be playing all the material off of both of those records.
HMS: Having listened to the new EP, I was so surprised that it was recorded live because it feels so smooth. Music with this many parts is usually tracked separately, so this is really impressive.
JL: It was weirdly magical. The whole time we were recording, we were practically playing, saying, “This is a really good day!”
HMS: Since I don’t come from a Classical or Jazz background, I have to ask how you came to work in such an unconventional way in terms of genre, and your decision to create music without vocals. Though I’ll note that instrumental Rock bands seem to be on the rise.
JL: I’ve always listened to a lot of instrumental music. I love Jazz, though I can’t play Jazz. Lynn Wright can play anything, though. I grew up listening to The Ventures, and then there were other guitarists who I really love who do pretty much all instrumental music, like Bill Frizzell, and Nels Clein. Instrumental music is always what I’ve tended to write on my own. I have played in so many backing bands over the years, especially when I lived in Texas, where the singer or primary songwriter was the main focus, but it has never really occurred to me to have vocals. I’m open to it. Maybe one day down the road we’ll get ambitious and find some vocalists who we like. Never say never. But what we have works and there’s a part of me that thinks, “Why fuck with it?”
HMS: How would you feel if someone came you and said, “We’d like to use three of these songs on our short film?”
JL: I’d say, “Let’s do it!” I’ve contributed music to soundtracks in the past, and commercials. I’d be over the moon if someone wanted to do that with this music.