Just because a band uses synthesizers and plays pop music doesn't necessarily make them a synth-pop band. Saint Motel leader A/J Jackson, for instance, typically starts out with singer-songwriterly piano demos, which are then augmented by funky syncopation and swing-driven horns.
You can hear it in their Starbucks instore staple "Benny Goodman," which incorporates a clarinet sample from the big-band legend, as well as shout-outs from an old-time announcer. But the lyrics themselves — with lines like "You'll take a breath and curse what you're breathing / You'll swear you taste me in the salt of your skin" — show no obvious connection to the bespectacled bandleader.
"With the lyrics, I wanted to parallel Benny Goodman's rise to fame with where our band was at that point," says Jackson, explaining how the New Yorker jazz artist's 1930s radio broadcasts aired after midnight, and largely fell upon deaf ears. Goodman's subsequent national tour was a disaster, with sparse audiences demanding the same old standards instead of original material.
"By the time they got to California, he could barely afford to pay his bandmembers," says Jackson, picking up the story's thread. "But then it turned out that the radio show, which aired so late in New York, was heard during prime-time on the West Coast, and everybody was going crazy for them."
Jackson's trajectory hasn't been quite so dramatic, but it has definitely been on an upswing. Saint Motel performed twice at this year's Coachella while the Jackson-directed video for their latest single, "My Type," recently surpassed 4 million views.
Like Goodman, Jackson has been determined, ever since his grade-school years, to play his own music. "I hid from my piano teacher one day, and after she coerced me into the open, I played her some silly songs I'd written." Soon, his teacher was sitting down with him at the piano, showing him how to write harmonies and accompaniment.
Jackson later went on to attend film school, after which he and classmate Aaron Sharp moved from Orange County to L.A.'s trendy Silverlake District. Once there, they began performing as Saint Motel with bassist Dak and drummer Greg Erwin.
"Silversun Pickups were just blowing up and were one of the biggest bands on the East Side, which is where we all lived, too," says Jackson. "I remember seeing the lead singer, but I didn't go up and fanboy out. I should have."
But the Silverlake connection paid off last December when Saint Motel got signed by Elektra president Jeff Castelaz, who'd guided Silversun Pickups' career at his former label Dangerbird. Elektra will soon release a remix EP of "My Type" with other recent tracks, followed by a full-length album.
Jackson is optimistic about what comes next. "Not to sound too corporate, but we have more smart and creative people on the team, who can offer their insight and experience. Ideally, a label works in a way where they give bands more resources to accomplish what they're trying to do.
"It doesn't always work like that, but that's the hope."