A tour bus conversation with Atlas Genius and Skylar Grey
An unlikely pairing of music acts, Atlas Genius and Skylar Grey joined forces in a North American tour, sponsored by the clothing store Journeys. Both artists have shared in success from their respective freshman albums.
Atlas Genius’ “When It Was Now” catapulted them into the indie scene with their confident and infectious first single, “Trojans.” Meanwhile, Skylar Grey became known for writing one of the biggest hits of the past decade, “Love The Way You Lie,” performed by Eminem and Rihanna. Her first album, “Don’t Look Down,” an experiment in angsty pop and hip-hop, reached No. 8 on the Billboard 200 chart.
I spoke with each Skylar Grey and Atlas Genius’ Keith and Michael Jeffery in the comfort of their tour buses as they got ready for their show at the Firebird in Midtown St. Louis. Each act reflected on its personal journeys and shared its musical influences.
Student Life: How’s the tour going? I know you’ve been touring with Skylar Grey for a few weeks now.
Atlas Genius: She’s pretty awesome. This is very different than what we do. Normally, you tour with bands that sound kind of like you, but she’s very different. I think that actually works because you get different crowds, so her crowd gets exposed to us and vice versa. So that’s been good. Last night, Chicago was massive. St. Louis is quiet tonight, I hear. [The] tour has been great—we’ve been touring for what? Two weeks now? Almost two weeks. The first nine days we did nine shows in a row, so we were pretty trashed, but we get a day off in Nashville [, Tenn.] tomorrow which I’m very excited about, and [we’ll have a chance] to do nothing.
SL: Your single “Trojans” became a huge hit. Were you guys expecting that song to get the response that it did?
AG: No, we had no idea. It was a complete surprise.
SL: Following the success of your first album, did you approach the music process differently or were you pressured by that success going into [your] second album, “Inanimate Objects”?
AG: It was inspiration more than anything else. It changes because you no longer have no expectations. All of a sudden, you have expectations of yourself, and people have expectations of you. Before, none of that existed. We were just doing it because we just loved doing it, and we didn’t think people were going to hear it. And then all of a sudden, you have a hit. And then, [for] everything you do after that, there’s more anticipation, and you compare [what you’re doing now to] what you’ve done in the past. So yeah, it’s a whole different thing, as opposed to when you put out a song like “Trojans,” which we had no expectations about. We just said “Okay, this is cool.” Whereas, if you hear something and you know [an artist’s] past, then it’s going to get judged and ranked against that, so it’s a different kind of pressure.
SL: You guys toured quite a bit for your first album. How do you compare that tour with your current tour with Skylar?
AG: We’re a much better band. Before, we were just running on adrenaline; we were excited because we never toured the states before, so we were really pumped to be doing it. We played a lot of shows back in Australia but all of a sudden, we were doing festivals and late night TV shows, which is a whole different level. We weren’t prepared for that, but it was fun. We are a much better band than we were three years ago. This time is the second time around, so you know what to expect and you know what to do differently and what you want to continue to do, so we’ve matured.
SL: You are from Australia and started your band there. Did you expect the success to be here in the United States first?
AG: You would think it would happen in Australia first then spread, but it just happened in America because [of] the Internet. It was a surprise, but a nice surprise, because it’s a much bigger market. There’s three-hundred-and-something million people here in America, and in Australia, we only have 26 million, or something. So, nothing. We come here, and we can tour almost endlessly because by the time you finish the tour, it’s time to go back and start again because there’s so many cities in America. You can’t do that in Australia—an Australian tour takes about a week. Then, you have three months to rest and sit around.
SL: How did you both decide to make music, and what was that moment like?
AG: It was an organic thing, since we are brothers. So, we heard a lot of music and were always really passionate about it at a young age. And I was kind of bossy, so I ended up commandeering my brothers. Since I was the oldest, I bossed them around and told them what I wanted them to do and what I didn’t want them to do, for better or worse (laughs).
SL: How was the process of producing the sound for your first album? It feels very cohesive in that there’s certain influences that tie the album together.
AG: It was all about having firm ideas about what you like and don’t like. We go [to] the studio, and [I] know what sounds turn me on musically and other sounds—we just really don’t like [them]. There were certain things from the music I was exposed to while growing up, like the minimalism of Nirvana when there [was] just drums, bass and guitar. Then, I loved the songwriting of the Beatles and the organic sound of Death Cab for Cutie. We were always drawn towards more organic sound. If something is purely electronic—some stuff I do like—it turns me off. Naturally, I think I’m drawn more towards a natural grit [where] you can hear musicians play their instrument. I think bands like Phoenix do well on that. When I first heard Phoenix, it was like the Strokes meets some 80s new wave band. It had the grit of the guitars, but there were also some modern synth elements to them as well, so that was really intriguing. There was a Swedish band called Datarock, and they have a song called “Fa Fa Fa.” The drums in that song were the blueprint of what we wanted the drum sound in “Trojans” to sound like. If you listen to that song, you can kind of hear it—probably a little bit rawer than what we ended up going for. There were all these different things and stuff that you love, and you filter through that. When you’re making your own music, you gravitate towards that. You hit a chord and that reminds you of something you like so you do that. Or if you hit a chord and [it] reminds you of something you hate, then you steer away from that. I really hate commercial punk rock and pop punk from the 2000s, so if I hit something on the guitar, and it reminds me of all of that, then I’m just going to run away from it.
SL: Are you in favor of experimenting with new sounds and techniques, or do you prefer the process to be more organic?
AG: We’re always experimenting. There’s not one song that sounds like the next, for better or worse. I’m proud of that. Some people would probably like it if we wrote 20 versions of “Trojans,” but we’d be bored. So, we always try to push it. Once you’ve done a song that sounds like a certain sound then you always want to move on and explore new territory.
SL: What’s your favorite song to perform live?
AG: I like playing a song called “A Perfect End,” from my new album. “Stockholm” is a lot of fun—the ending of that song is a lot of fun to play.
SL: What did you guys grow up listening to that you would consider to be your influences?
AG: So much stuff. A lot of George Harrison solo stuff and Paul McCartney solos. A lot of Beatles influence in our house when we were kids. There’s definitely Jimi Hendrix. The Eagles, too. Some people love The Eagles; some people hate The Eagles. I got a lot of respect for The Eagles. What they did was flawless. Those recordings were insane. They’re one of those bands where it’s become almost a secret shame to listen them. But it’s not—I’m proud to say The Eagles are f—ing great.
Student Life: Your latest single, “Moving Mountains,” is a lot more stripped down and uplifting than your previous songs. What influenced you to write this song?
Skylar Grey: Well, I grew up a lot in the past few years. I moved to Utah, got a dog, bought a house—that whole thing. The song was really inspired by my view, first and foremost. I wake up every day, and I see this gorgeous sweeping mountain view. No matter what is going in my life, my career, anything—any negativity is automatically just gone from my mind at that moment when I see that beautiful view or when I’m playing with my dog. So, I really learned how to be present, and I didn’t really understand the importance of being present until recently. I’ve heard it for years, people saying “depression is caused by living in the past, and anxiety is caused by living in the future, so if you want to be happy, you have to be present.” But it didn’t sink in until I lived in this environment.
SL: Has the writing process for your upcoming album been the same as [the one for] “Moving Mountains”? Will the album have the same feel as the song?
SG: Actually, no. “Moving Mountains” is what I like to call the “ear-break” of the album, so you get a break from drums. Most of the album is drums. Ironically, “Moving Mountains” had drums originally, but I thought it took away, so I pulled the drums off last second for the mix. Mike Elizondo and Mark Batson are two of the producers of this album, and they are known for a lot of their hip-hop producing, and they produced “Moving Mountains,” too. So, it’s kind of like a mix of genres that I love in the album.
SL: You cross over between genres in many of your songs.
SG: I came from a really folk background. When I was growing up, I played folk music with my mom. But then, in the 90s, I got really into grunge. Then, a little bit later, I got into hip-hop. It’s this weird mixture of things. And I also grew up in a very eclectic musical family. And then I worked with people like Kaskade [and] David Guetta in the dance world. I pretty much worked in every genre, so it’s really hard for me to land on one sound. But this album, aside from “Moving Mountains,” the rest of the album is really cohesive and trying to find a sound that is unique to me and tries to combine all those elements in a way that’s kind of its own thing.
SL: Your first album, “Don’t Look Down” dealt with some dark themes.
SG: You think so?
SL: Yeah, I feel like some of the songs deal with heavy subjects.
SG: Yeah, there’s definitely some darker songs like “Final Warning.” So, yeah—they’re dark. But this new album, I feel, is actually darker. Not in like an “emo” dark way. It’s more positive—lyrically, it’s more positive but sonically, it’s darker.
SL: You’ve worked with a lot of high-profile artists but have managed to stay away from the spotlight through it all. Is that something you do intentionally?
SG: It’s funny that a lot of people ask me that question. I don’t try to stay away from it but I don’t reach for it, either. I just do my thing and work on my music and whatever happens, happens. For some people, that means getting followed by paparazzi and for some people, that means having a private life.
SL: Do you think living in Utah now has helped maintain this low profile as opposed to living in California, for instance, where the music scene concentrates?
SG: That was more of a personal reason. I live in Utah because I need to be away from people to be creative. It really stifles me to be surrounded by a lot of opinion, and so when I can be free and be out and create freely somewhere, I feel like my art is better because of it. That’s why I left [Los Angeles].
SL: You’ve also had a long relationship with hip-hop. You’ve worked with Angel Haze, Nicki Minaj and Eminem, of course. Has that left a mark in the way you make music as a signifying influence?
SG: Yeah, I think so—originally, when I was a little kid, I didn’t really understand hip-hop. And as I grew up, I became a lyric lover. So, I became jealous of rappers because they can say so much in a short amount of time. When you’re a songwriter, you have to be confined to a melody, and I always found that I had so much more to say, but I couldn’t because I was confined to this melody. That’s why I love working with rappers. But, also, I started rapping a little bit. There’s a little bit of rapping in the new album—nothing crazy, I’m not saying I’m a rapper now—but it’s nice to be able to have fun with words in a more complicated way than usual.
SL: What’s your favorite song to perform live?
SG: I love performing “Straight Shooter.” It’s always my favorite to sing.
SL: You have mentioned in other outlets that Bon Iver is one of your favorite artists. How has his music influenced your own?
SG: Yeah, what I’ve been trying to do is come up with a sound that is unique to me. Like I said, that uses a lot of the genres that I’ve worked in. Bon Iver, for example, does this beautiful vocal layering with harmonies. And also, the harmonic structure of some of his chords that he brings into the vocals is really unique. That type of stuff really influenced me. On the other hand, I’ve worked with a lot of hip-hop music. One of my favorite artists right now is Kendrick Lamar, and so I’m trying to find a sound that’s almost like Bon Iver and Kendrick Lamar—but the female version. So you get these beautiful layered vocals but then hip-hop beats underneath it. That’s where my heart is.
SL: You also learned how to produce your own music. Are you doing that for your upcoming album as well?
SG: Yeah, I always do my own vocals, pretty much. Not always, but a lot of times. I was kind of forced to learn how to produce my own music because, for a while, I couldn’t afford studio time. So, I had a little studio set up and was able to do it myself. I wrote “Love The Way You Lie” in my s—ty studio, and that was a huge hit, so I really think it’s not what you have but what you do with it. You can have a s—ty camera but if you have a good eye and find the best shot—you know what I mean? Or you can be the dude that buys the most expensive gear but still has s—ty photos.
SL: Do you still write songs for other artists, and do you enjoy it?
SG: I turn a lot of stuff down nowadays because I have to be really inspired to be able to work on something. I used to do it because I had to pay the bills, but now I can afford to say no. I definitely learn something new every time I work with an artist, but I prefer to only work on stuff that really inspires me. Usually, it’s my stuff but sometimes, it’s a movie or some type of project that would come to me that’s really motivating to me creatively, so I’ll say yes to that. I have to love it.
SL: “Cannonball” is one of your latest songs, in which you collaborated with X Ambassadors. How did that collaboration come about?
SG: X Ambassadors and I are label-mates. We are both signed to Alex da Kid. We were working in the same studio a lot. We just thought it would be to cool to work on this song together, and we wrote “Cannonball.” We weren’t even in the room together—that’s just how the industry works. He wrote the hook, Alex made the beat, [and] I wrote the verses. We worked on it at different times, but it came out great. The X Ambassadors guys are so talented—and so sweet, too.
SL: Do you have a favorite song from your new album that we can look forward to when it’s released?
SG: I have so many; I really love this album. From an artistic standpoint, I really love “Picture Perfect” and “Jump.”
SL: When you compare your first album “Don’t Look Down” with this new album, do you see big differences or a progression?
SG: It’s an evolution, for sure. I think the new material is a little more mature. In my first album, I was talking a lot about my childhood and having a little bit of that teenage angst, even if I wasn’t a teenager, but I had to get that out of my system. Now, this one is a little more enlightened.
SL: The list of artists you’ve collaborated with is very long, but do you have an artist that you would like to work with?
SG: Kendrick Lamar. He’s my number one, right now.