Interview: L’Altra

New York City/Chicago’s L’Altra returns after six years with their upcoming album, Telepathic. If you’re down in Austin at SXSW, be sure to check out their performance Wednesday night at 1AM at the Hideout Theatre. We had a chance to speak with Joseph Desler Costa.

You just came back from Japan. How was the tour?

It was awesome! We played five shows and it’s a very different experience for musicians. First of all, Japan is like another planet to what we’re used to. It’s like the people really go to shows to listen. For a band like ours, we don’t play super loud music, which can get lost if we play in the wrong venue. There was great, people really listened. Our show in Tokyo was sold out, which was nice. We had a great time. We all felt depressed when we got home! [laughs] Back to real life.

Our album came out there earlier than it did here, so that’s how we ended up going to all those places.

How did Japan catch on to you?

Our last record came out there on a division of Sony. So it was on a major label in Japan. Our label that Hefty in Chicago got that set up somehow. Since then we’ve been there three times, so it’s pretty cool and we’re really lucky to go there. We’re on a record label over there called And Records. They license a lot of really good indie rock from the States. They have Azure Ray(?), folk pop, Styrofoam. We’re really lucky we kind of fell into that.

I think it’s a different way of interacting. I feel like in the three times we’ve been there, they have a kind of respect not just for music in general, just like a collective conscious that people are really aware of others around them. It translates into a great audience for a musician.

Is it comparable to touring in Europe?

Yeah, kind of. I don’t know how but we do well in Europe and Japan. In the States, it’s like, “We’re almost there!”  I wish I knew what was missing for us, for our music to catch on here. I know the kind of music here is either hit or miss. You either like it or really don’t like it.

I wonder if it’s a different patience level. Like have you ever seen a European movie where it’s really beautiful but it’s really slow developing? Maybe people in the States are not use to that slow moving thing, not tempo-wise, but like some European movie that’s cool, but it’s not the easiest thing to watch. I hope we’re not like that. Maybe that’s the only thing there.

It actually leads into one of the questions. It sounds like an Antonioni film, like Eclipse, which is very slow moving in the beginning. Then you’re glued to the film.

I love Antonioni. That’s a great comparison, I like that. It’s something immediately you’re not totally into, and then you realize you are. I would love it if our album to work that way. I wouldn’t want it to be immediate thing. I don’t think music we do can operate like that.

Listening to Telepathic, you get a lot more listening to it from end to end than just by individual songs.

Wow, that’s cool! I try to always make albums that will work as a whole. It’s getting harder these days with people tossing a few songs on their iPod. The album is definitely coming extinct, I think. At least in those cells, then it gets split up and downloaded and you end up with a track here and there. So, it’s a challenge but we try to make an album.

It [making an album] was definitely a goal we had. We spent a lot of time figuring out song order.  The last track, we knew we wanted “Telepathic” to be the end. We knew we wanted to have a kind of bookend, a corner at the beginning and at the end. We had a vision of how it should flow.

I definitely liked the bookend of “Dark Corners I” and “Dark Corners II”. Those made the album.

Yeah, the thing was I have this old, shitty out of tune piano and I wrote that piece on the piano. Then Charles, our drummer, and Lindsay transcribed it and we gave it to horn players. It was one of the first times I’ve ever written something, had it transcribed, and then had it played by other people. It was cool to see it evolve that way.

How was it having the other musicians play your music?

I knew what I wanted it to feel like, more specifically the horns. I wanted it to be real sweaty feeling, and like a funeral. Everyone picked up on it. It was funny. We ended up recording it in Chicago and it was one of those summer days when it’s 99° with humidity and we’re in this un-air-conditioned loft. It was funny, everyone’s sweating. I think that’s why the horns sound all sloppy but nice.

As far as hearing other people play my stuff, it was the first time that has happened. It was a really, really cool feeling! Man, I can’t write music. I play by ear. Charles wrote out tablature for it. I kick myself for not learning how to read and write music. So that was the first time I was able to that, it was really cool.

So you taught yourself by ear?

I think I had one lesson when I was like 14. I learned how to play “Smoke on the Water” or something like that. [laughs] And then I just fooled around with it until I just figured it out.

I actually do weird things on all my chords. I mean, I thought I invented chords. So I’ll hold a D chord in a different way. People are always like, “What are you doing? You can do it so much easier.” But it’s just, I learned.

That’s really cool. I had a more formal training, like learning scales.

You’re lucky. I wish I had that. When we’re collaborating, or even when I’m talking with Lindsay, I’m trying to explain and I don’t have that language to do it. At this point, I’m trying to learn but I just don’t have the patience.

I guess the true, genius musicians are the ones that learn first, then break it. Like amazing composers, like Schoenberg, who probably learned, then they think their own way of doing things.

Going back to film, could you elaborate on the “Nothing Can Tear It Apart” video?

It’s from a Godard film. It’s cool, like a film within a film. I always thought, “It’d be cool to actually see that movie that the guy is trying to make.” Then when we started to put it together, it really was fitting the song. The idea of the song is about Helen of Troy, this guy who doesn’t give up on his past and just keeps going. I guess it’s the story of Odysseus, which is the subject of that film. Not to get all intellectual, it was just fit the song very well.

It’s been about six years since Different Days was released. Have you noticed any changes in the band compared to six years ago?

For sure, the reason we stopped playing because we were having a hard time. Lindsay and I are kind of the core of the band. We write, but we have a rotating group that we work with. We just weren’t able to work together after Different Days came out. We were at each other’s throat. We took some time off and each made solo records to mixed reviews. Last year, I was writing songs and she was writing songs. We started to try to get together and play. It seemed to work together perfectly. The time we took off made us appreciate each other in a different way. We learned that there’s a critical distance between two collaborators. If you get too comfortable, you can end up hating each other. If you’re not comfortable enough, you can’t accomplish anything.

Apart from that, I think the songwriting is really solid and that has developed over time. I feel structurally the songwriting, not to complement ourselves, I think we’re getting better on each album.

I haven’t seen any reviews yet, so I’m in that sort of nervous period where the first couple of reviews kind of dyed everything.

Could you explain a little bit “Winter Loves Summer Sun” and how you got that synth sound?

Originally that’s the song we came up with in the studio. We already like to do those back-and-forth call-and-response vocals. We were trying to figure out a song where we could do that. The only thing we had was that weird guitar intro, and I think Lindsay came up with that line that synth, ascending and soaring. She came up with it on a piano. The song kind of jumped from there. We write the lyrics right there in the studio. It was inspired by, we were thinking of Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, not that it sounds like that, but we were going for that back-and-forth singing.

The synth sound came from a friend, a collaborator called Josh Houston, he plays in a band called Telephone Tel Aviv. He has a huge collection of vintage synthesizers. I think the one that’s on there is called an Arp. It was awesome, we had that with a delay on it that opened up the whole song, and put it in a whole other place. That’s one of the tracks I’m most proud of on the album. The verses, and the choruses, and the slide guitar, the weird meshing of brutal electronic with that weird country or classic rock vibe that’s cool.

You’re about to play SXSW. Are you excited?

Yeah, we’re playing Wednesday night at 1 AM in a theater. We did it in 2006 and we’re super excited to go back. I heard it was cold last year, but normally it’s spring time already there. Let’s hope for that. Even if you don’t feel like seeing shows, you just walk around and there’s people everywhere. I am excited because a couple of my friends that are in other bands that I don’t see a lot. They’ll end up being down there so we’re going to try to meet up, which will be cool.

I am also excited to be playing in a theater, because usually we get placed in rock clubs. It’s always harder for us in a straight up rock club. We always do better in weird theaters or alternative spaces. We’ve played the Empty Bottle in Chicago, and that’s one of the hardest places to play. I don’t know why. I love playing there, but it’s always a challenge to make it work there. You’re doing stuff, and then you hear somebody throw a beer bottle into a garbage can. [laughs]