Interview: Pacific Air

Pacific Air press shot promo image interview

Brother duo Ryan and Taylor Lawhon first caught our attention in a big way earlier this year, with a three song EP under the name KO KO, which had us calling them Ones To Watch. Then, we found out they signed to Universal, changed their name to Pacific Air, and feared the worst. Fortunately, not much has changed for them, especially not in the musical department.

Their debut EP as Pacific Air, titled cheekily Long Live KO KO and containing the same three songs that were on the original KO KO EP as well as a new song titled “Roses” was released last week on the new label. You can stream it below, and really should because it’s one of the better ones we’ve heard this year.

Because we’re such big fans of the music we decided to give Ryan a call and chat about the project. We discussed the name change, how being on a major label has hardly changed the way they work, the band’s brother dynamic, what to expect from the new album, their tour with Passion Pit and much more. He even got attacked by a squirrel.

You were very successful with the originally EP and then obviously the new label had you change your name. What made you settle on Pacific Air?

We settled on Pacific Air, although we have a lot of name choices. We settled on Pacific Air, because it was something that it wasn’t trying too hard to be anything other than fairly obvious. So many artists right now are trying to be so clever in different ways that they do things. We thought, ‘Why not do something a little more obvious?” We are from California so we are scared that it was too obvious.

Then, our producer Chris Zane – who produced Passion Pit and The Walkmen – actually brought up that maybe that maybe that was little bit egotistical on our end because the Pacific Ocean is a lot bigger than Southern California. That got me and just got me realizing that we can represent something that is both native to us in the Southern California landscape and something that’s bigger than that, where we really love which is the Pacific Northwest, so I was really excited about that. That being said, I really like the name KO KO. That was a name I was bummed to get rid of, but…

We did too. As long as the music stays the same, I think that’s what important. For you guys, it definitely has. Speaking of the new EP, it’s obviously mostly a reworking of your previous tracks. Three of four songs are the same, and you brought the new one in, “Roses”. Yet, you kept the name [Long Live KO KO] – is that kind of just like celebrating your old name?

Ryan: It was. It wasn’t so much of like stick it to anyone, though we made jokes about it. We just really like that name and “Long Live KO KO” was actually our URL for our Facebook and all our social media for a while. It kind of took on new life when we had to get rid of the name that we really liked, so we thought it was very fitting. The Chemical Brothers did something very similar when they changed their name from the Dust Brothers a good amount of time ago and I was really inspired by that.

I really like that we can really respect the name. It’s not so much of a marketing thing, it’s more of my connection and my kind of thing by viewing the project that I had started that was KO KO and reintroducing Pacific Air. I’m actually very happy we recorded these songs in the studio, because we didn’t change much about them, but they do have new life under Pacific Air. Then, they’re not the same songs that KO KO released, so we’re not doing the same exact thing. It’s a complete new entity which is something that I’m excited about.

I was just wondering, since the label has given you the ability to have better production values and work with Chris Zane, who’s obviously a very big name, if there was anything that maybe guys indulge in, so to speak, since you have the bigger financial ability or just the bigger studio and the higher quality equipment and everything. Was there anything that maybe you were unable to do before that you are doing now?

The greatest thing about having the studio, and more specifically having Chris Zane, is we actually fought very hard to work with Chris Zane, because he wasn’t going to change our music. I was worried when we went to re-record anything. Re-recording anything is tricky at best, because you’re comparing it to something that you already love. So to try to improve upon that is nearly impossible. I wasn’t trying to improve upon anything. I was just trying to get higher fidelity in parts that I was unable to record before.

What was great about Chris is that Chris gave me that opportunity to not change anything compositionally on the entire record. Prior to releasing “Float”, “So Strange” and “Intermission” [under the KO KO name], I had a full album done and ready to go. So we just when in and actually just recorded that album. Despite having a big major label budget and pressures from different angles, we’ve done a really great job in my opinion of keeping our artistic, [sorry, there’s squirrel which just jumps on me. I’m at Union Square Park.]

Despite having the big major-label budget, we’ve been able to keep our creative heads about us and make sure we’ve maintained one-hundred percent creative control. Chris has really allowed us to do that. We talked with a lot of bigger name producers who wanted to come in and change tempos, change arrangements, change things. We weren’t interested in that – we were really happy with how everything sounded. Chris just wanted to come in and pretty much make the drums sound better, which is the biggest difference between the demos and the newer released songs.

Was there any part that was maybe a little bit harder as you transitioned into working in a bigger setting and working with a bigger label, or even with the producer? Was there anything that you found a bit trickier?

Yes. I can’t tell you how tough it is trying to make sure that you can keep creative control over what you want. I was lucky with Chris, because Chris and I have very similar ideals on what we wanted for both the songs, and artistically for the project.

After signing with management, label, agents and all of the above – instead of how it was before, when I would write something, I would record it and I would put it out, I was the first and last person to – I was the only one who made decisions. Now, it goes through a committee and making sure that that committee sees what I want and make sure that everybody agrees is much more difficult.

But I think it helps us make better songs, and I really do. It’s great to work with people and the only reason I was suspect about signing with a major is they tend to churn out very major-label-sounding songs. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. I think this record is going to be really great. I think, I’m going to be really happy with the creative direction of it.

Speaking of the album, are there any crazy ideas that we haven’t heard before in your songs? Or is it all sticking to generally the same sound palette as we’ve heard on the EP?

I’d it is the same palette, but at the same time it expands upon that. We actually chose the songs we did – we choose “Roses” to be on the EP, because “Roses” fits very well with the other three songs. It ties in where “Intermission” and “Float” don’t work together necessarily, right after one another. “Roses” kind of ties that in artistically, and the rest of the albums does the same. In my opinion my three favorite songs are not on this EP. They’re all in the album.

We pick up the tempo a bit on a lot of the LP, which I’m pretty happy about – it’s a lot more fun to play live and so that I’m excited about that. It does stay within what we’ve been doing. We didn’t want to change too much; we really like what we have going. We just wanted to fully explore an idea instead of move on to a bunch of different ideas. We wanted to take that idea and look at all different sides of it, to make sure that we have a fully formed the one for this album and I think we’ve accomplished that.

Speaking of “Roses”, I found it had a bit of a Latin or Hispanic influence, was that something conscious, or is it something just happened, or do you not see it at all?

We don’t listen to a lot of pop music. We listen to mostly world music and new age, for the most part. We listen to a lot of a Latin, a lot of Mariachi inspired music. I wouldn’t say that song was a direct pull from any of that, but we definitely have that have inspiration and we have the knowledge of that music and we want to display that, just kind of a flare. We grew up all over California, but we went to high school in San Diego, which has a decidedly Mexican population and Mexican culture. I kind of wanted to display a little bit of that with both the way we present ourselves – I really respect like the Spanish architecture of the Mexican cities down there, it’s pretty fantastic – but I wouldn’t say “Roses” is a Spanish song, by any means, no.

“Float” is the song that I’ve read that you made your project for. And it’s obviously – or it seems to be – your most popular song, it was the first single, it’s very catchy, it’s very good. How do you feel about it in the context of the rest of your material? Because, it’s also very different, it’s a more upbeat and cheery and summery. Do you think that maybe it will be a song that might eventually come to haunt, in a sense? Like the band that has that one breakthrough song that makes them popular and just kind of struggle to move away from that?

You’re essentially asking if it’s going to be our “Creep” [by Radiohead]?

Yeah…

I was worried about that for some time, because it is so cheery and happy and that’s tends not to be the music that I listen to. But I’ve listened to it a lot and I’ve had that song now for about a year. I got the ideas for that song and I’m still very happy with them. When I write music I don’t try to look forward and see how I will like it in ten years, because I’m pretty sure I won’t like any this album in ten years. As an artist and as a musician I strive to grow.

When you grow you tend to look back and think that everything you did is bullshit. I’m saying in ten years, I’ll probably hate the entire album, but where I am as a musician right now, I’m incredibly excited about it. I think it pushes forward what I’ve ever done, and “Float” I’m very proud of. It is a straightforward pop song. Two years ago, I would have been ashamed to say that I wrote a straightforward pop song, but I’m pretty proud of it right now.

KO KO, and now I’m assuming Pacific Air too, is you and your brother. I was wondering about how the brother dynamic goes – because we obviously have bands like Oasis with brothers that can’t be with each other. What is working with your brother like? How do you complement each other? Are you too similar at times? Do you ever have struggles with that or is it all very smooth?

I’d say more so than working with anyone else. It’s very harmonious. We found a really nice balance of writing and communicating. Every song we approach differently, which is something that I really admire. Taylor tends to be more rhythmically inclined and I tend to be more melodically inclined, so we really paired nicely with that. As far as touring and working together, we do fit well. I mean, we’re brothers so we tend to get in fights every now and then.

What I’m most impressed with Taylor about is – I tend to be very bipolar in how I react to certain things and he really keeps me level. I don’t think I’d ever worked with anyone but him – I mean anyone if he’s not involved. He keeps me level in so many different ways, that I can’t say enough for. What he doesn’t do musically, he does there and it’s really amazing. I really love working with him, probably more so than most sibling duos.

So I assuming, then, that it’s something that happened naturally? It wasn’t like you two thought, “Let’s make a band and just start writing songs.” It was just something that happened or…?

Yes. Actually, I’ve been in previous bands in Southern California. When he was 15 he actually started playing keyboards for one the bands, just because our keyboardist left. That was kind of his introduction to music. Since then we’ve been working together and we haven’t like – like you said, there’s been no “let’s make a band.” We just – we write songs. We write a lot of music for commercial purposes, like permission to work as well, so we both collaborate on that. We started focusing more on writing songs for us, and songs that we would enjoy listening to. That’s the Pacific Air project.

You were just on a tour with Passion Pit. I was just wondering – because that was your first tour, right? – how it went. Being with a band like Passion Pit, who’s obviously got a very big fan base, I would assume it was beneficial for you.

Yes. It was really fun. It was really nice, because obviously from a fan perspective, we, being a very new band, it was much bigger shows than we have ever played before. We played shows as KO KO before, but this was our first real tour as either KO KO or Pacific Air, so it was exciting playing for five, seven, ten thousand-person venues. I think was very, very well received. I usually don’t go out and talk to fans afterwards, but just crowd response – I was happy with it. I don’t think I can ask anything more out of an opener.

I believe that openers, when I go to shows, should be there to support the headliner. They shouldn’t try to up-stage or anything. Whenever openers bring their own production or anything like that, I see it as disrespectful to the headliners that invited you and are giving you the reason to play. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t up-stage. We did our job as far as gaining a large fan base. In my opinion we put on the best show we could every night, I don’t have any shows that I regret any part of, so that’s a good.

There’s definitely a common space for Passion Pit fans and for fans of Pacific Air. Though, I can’t quite see the comparison that I’ve read about you guys sounding like Passion Pit. I guess people that like Passion Pit will probably like Pacific Air, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you guys are all that similar. Do you see the connection at all?

You’re asking my comparison to Passion Pit musically?

Yes, mostly.

I don’t see them. I’ve gotten a couple of question about it. I do see the production qualities because we recorded with 90 percent of the same equipment with the same producer. But as far as the song structures go, we structure them fairly differently and my voice is nowhere near as high as Michael’s – he can belt out falsetto like no other. I’ve been exploring falsetto, but it’s not where I live, like he does.

Are you fans of the band?

Yeah, they’re all really great guys. I love Michael and Nate, those people are great. The rest of them are cool too, those are just the ones I know they’re best.

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