Henry Oliver talks to Eddie Johnston, the man behind Lontalius, about living and working in LA and his first new music in two years.
Eddie Johnston, who makes music as Lontalius (and also as Race Banyon, but that’s another story), grew up as some sort of Wellington indie rock prodigy – going to cool shows at a ridiculously young age, recording music in his bedroom and finding a dedicated audience on SoundCloud.
He became sort of blog-famous for his covers of contemporary, top 40 pop and R&B songs – Beyonce’s ‘XO’, Ciara’s ‘Body Party’, Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ – stripping each down to a Casio drone and a minimal metronomic beat, finding whatever melancholy and loneliness lay within and bringing it to the fore, making, for example, ‘XO’ a song of helpless longing and ‘Happy’ an ironic ode to adolescent sorrow.
In early-2016, Johnston released his debut album, I’ll Forget 17, a lush record of teenage longing, which surprised many with the layers of guitars and relative relegation of synths and drum machines. It was more indie rock than avant-R&B, but took his songwriting to new levels, having seemingly internalised the emotional efficacy of the songwriters whose work he’d been turning inside out for years.
While the album was a critical success – it garnered exclusively positive reviews and was a finalist for the 2017 Taite Music Prize – it did not immediately turn Johnston into the star many thought he would soon become (see, for example, Troye Sivan, who Johnston has worked with). The release was not followed by a tour and international accolades, but by moving to LA to pursue the opportunities in the contemporary pop-industrial complex – writing songs for others and, hopefully, having songs written for/with him.
But things didn’t exactly work out that way. He found he wasn’t the kind of songwriter that could produce ideas quickly, on-the-spot, in rooms full of people. He struggled with the direction of his new music and split with his label Partisan Records, who had “different ideas about what was going to happen in the next few years,” he told me over Skype last week. “I’m an independent artist again, that’s kind of different for me.”
He may have stopped releasing songs almost as soon as they’re finished, but he has not stopped writing and recording, and on Friday he released his first ‘proper’ music since moving to LA, the double-single ‘I Wanted Him’ b/w ‘That Includes You’, two gleamingly-produced songs showcasing Johnston’s distinctive take on indie-pop and his growth from awkward teen into fully-formed adulthood. And, hopefully, it’s just a glimpse of what’s to come.
The Spinoff: You used to release a lot of music constantly. I imagine this is the longest you’ve not released music.
Eddie Johnston: Oh definitely. It’s wild – I got so used to finishing a song and then uploading it twenty minutes later and seeing what people react to. I think that’s the thing I miss the most. I’m trying to use my own judgement better, but I liked when I would like put something up and no one would comment on it and I’d be like cool maybe it sucks…
Has it been hard to adjust to a new way of working?
It has been, but I wanna do it properly now, you know. SoundCloud’s dead. I’ve done it…
So what does doing it properly look like for you?
I’ve done an album cycle before, I guess, but it’s now more like just trying to play it as it goes, so I’m trying to kind of marry both worlds at the moment. But I’ve spent a lot of time on this music, it’s been mixed and mastered properly, it’s got artwork and whatever. So that’s doing it properly. But then I do want to just go with the flow a little bit. At the moment I have a lot of music that represents a bunch of different roads I can go down, and it kinda depends what happens with the new songs. There’s a place I want to be but if people react badly to these ones then you know I can course correct a little bit.
So this isn’t necessarily the first single from a finished album.
No, it isn’t. Um, I guess there’s an album, but I don’t know, it’s not really focused. About a year ago there was an album there. What happened with the last one it was we had built up to it, then as soon as it came out, I didn’t have anything else to follow up with. I didn’t have shows to play. As much as I still believe in a good album, I think at this point it’s not really in my best interests to be spending two years working on the perfect ten songs.
So what’s the alternative to that? What’s in your best interests to do?
I guess it’s singles. The thing I’ve been thinking about is it’s okay having a cohesive – I don’t want to say brand, but – brand. A Lontalius brand. Like, this is my aesthetic, this is what I’m doing. It’s ambitious and it’s leading to a place but it can kind of go anywhere. Anything I do – if I do Race Banyon or if I do features, it all kind of contributes to the same thing.
Were these songs just the first two that were done?
It was more like this is the right way for me to return. I think both these songs kind of existed for a while, in different forms, and fairly recently it was like ‘oh actually this would be a really great way to like reintroduce myself to the world’. Because this really is like my debut project, because the other one – [the way] I explained it to people, it was like an after-school project. It was like my last year of high school and I was like ‘I want to make an album’, so I made an album, then I signed to a label and finished it properly. But this time it’s like, Okay music is what I do this is all I’ve been doing for two to three years – how do I reintroduce myself into this world?
How long have you been in LA for?
Exactly two years I think.
What does making music in LA look like for you?
My dream for coming here was I want to write pop music – I want to work on everyone’s music, but when I got here I realised that wasn’t my vibe. I have a lot of respect for people who can do it because I just couldn’t make music very quickly in a room with four other people. I found that really difficult. I still want to do it but I worked out the things that I’m good at are having different ideas and being the outsider and that’s something that’s not very LA. So I ended up doing my own thing. I’ve done sessions like that but I’m the artist and they’re a writer who’s going to help me write my songs.
A big part of it has been working with other writers and producers but also I have a great A&R here, through my publisher, who is properly critical and gives me good advice. So a big part of me being here is understanding that, like, okay, I’ve written a song that’s five minutes with no drums and that probably won’t do well on radio or whatever. That’s been a big thing – realising that the music that I love and the music that I loved when I was a kid was very accessible. I’m a big U2 fan, a big Coldplay fan – these bands that make pop music, but it’s also not LA songwriter pop, it’s just great songs with big choruses that a lot of people can relate to. And so I’ve been trying to get a little bit more of that into what I do, instead of just having ‘vibes’.
How’s it been working with other contributors?
It’s been really good. The people that I’ve been working with more often are people that I really connect with. Om’mas Keith was a good one – we’re obviously both very different backgrounds but we found the middle ground was in ambient, droney music. My worry going in was is he just going to put a bunch of R&B beats on my sad guitar songs, and I’m not opposed to that, but that’s not really me. I’m not here to make an R&B album. But it was actually super great. I was playing guitar, making drones with a bunch of pedals and he really loved it and we created all these great soundscapes. It’s been super cool. I worked with Jim Fairchild, he started that band Grandaddy who are before my time and he plays with Modest Mouse at the moment. So I’m kind of indulging both sides of my brain. There’s the part of me that just wants to play guitar in an indie rock band and the part of me that wants to write and produce R&B songs. Then try to work them together, it’s been really fun.
Is playing live part of your life over there?
No, I’ve only done a few shows here, but that’s another thing that I realised I really wanted to do. Because I haven’t been releasing music I realised that what I was getting out of putting songs on SoundCloud and looking at the comments [was like] playing music to an audience and seeing how they react. A core part of me wanted to play music for people and for me that happened on the internet but for a lot of other people, it happens in real life. I never really got that chance because of how the world works. But I think now I really do want to play a lot of shows and do that thing.
What’s it been like trying to express your adulthood as opposed to your youth?
I realised that honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing in terms of what I’m writing about or whatever but the one thing I can do is be honest about it. That’s the thing that I’m proud of myself for doing on I’ll Forget 17 is being super honest. I want everything I do to be embarrassing in five years. That’s how I know it’s real. When I listen to I Forget 17, or the stuff I did earlier, it’s hard to listen to because I was being super genuine and being an annoying teenager. And that’s fucking great – I love it. I remember when that band American Football got back together, 15 or 20 years after their album came out and they said it was just the funniest stuff to sing because it was them at 19 is sad. I love that. It’s super cool. It’s like a time capsule.
You bring up American Football, how do you feel being mentioned as part of this emo revival, which is a revival not so much of those big, third-wave emo bands like My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy, but 90s emo bands. Is that something you’re happy to be identified with?
I’m happy to be a part of it. It’s not really my background – I have friends that are more into emo music than I was but I think it’s been super interesting. I put out this song ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms’ a few years ago, just as a demo but it really took off in that circle, the Lil Pweep emo rap thing. It’s probably my most popular song now. I get messages on Instagram saying ‘Are you the guy who did ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms?’ Which is weird but I kinda love that because it’s a different crowd that I’m used to but it’s also no different in that it’s honest music that people relate to and find something to really connect with and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And now I want to relate to people the same way Coldplay does rather than the way American Football did in that bigger way.
It’s super weird to me because that song is in 3/4, it’s like me playing guitar and then a little Casio bass sound – to me, that’s not got anything to do to what they’re referencing, the emo rap thing. That was me being a sad, bedroom pop, BandCamp lo-fi indie thing, but I think that’s my favourite thing about it – it doesn’t matter. That’s the same reason I wanted to world with Omas – genres don’t mean anything anymore. It’s just completely pointless. I listen to Drake as much as I listen to Coldplay or The Smiths. And it’s all the same.
Is that as easy to output as a songwriter as it is to input as a listener?
No, it’s not. That’s a hard thing especially now I’m thinking about how I want to play shows and how I want to play music as a band, I find myself wanting to put in a lot of live drums and a lot of live instruments which sometimes works really well but sometimes maybe I’m just making something uncool for the sake of it. So that’s been tough – I’m trying to wrestle with that.
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So what happens now?
I have no idea. I have some other songs I want to put out. I want to play shows and all that stuff but I have no idea, which is a really fun place to be in. I really have no expectations. I don’t really understand how the world will react to it but… it’s fun.
I try to think of it like I’ve just been to university. I’ve spent two years in LA, I’ve spent too much money, had a lot of fun, owe my label a lot of money, but I’m in a place now where I have a lot of knowledge and I’m a better songwriter and better producer and I understand this industry a lot more, and now I get to use all that.
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