In early 2014, a completely unknown band from New York appeared out of nowhere and dropped a banger of a debut single on Soundcloud. ‘Easy’ was shrouded in mystery, so naturally it set tongues wagging instantly – who were they? Why had we never heard of them before? Will there be more?!
Well as it turned out, it was MOTHXR, an all-star quartet consisting of Penn Badgley on vocals (Spoiler alert: Gossip Girl), producer Jimmy Giannopoulos (of Lolawolf fame), guitarist Simon Oscroft (of former Midnight Youth), and bassist/keys Darren Will. Fast forward two years and MOTHXR’s popularity has skyrocketed, with lengthy UK and US tours under their belt, half a million Spotify plays on their most popular single ‘Stranger’, and now being picked up by major radio stations globally – all before the release of their full length debut album. Having drip-fed their fans by releasing individual tracks themselves on Soundcloud when they felt inspired to do so, the band have successfully mastered the art of building the hype for Centerfold, which will finally be released later this month. I had a chat with Penn ahead of the release and their promotional UK/US tour, to talk writing, recording, and the unintentional sexy vibe of their songs.
You have such a unique sound that it’s hard to pin you down. How would you describe your music to those that haven’t yet heard of you?
New wave indie rock with a heavy R&B influence.
I really respect that you’ve released your music in your own time, and have been eagerly awaiting new material. What can we expect from your debut album that we haven’t yet heard?
More new wave indie rock with heavy R&B influence. I mean, it’s good. It’s all over the place, so as much as the sound is uniform throughout the record, it’s very diverse. It’s a flamboyant, technicolor uniform that looks good on anyone.
You’ve known each other for years and all work very closely, so when you recorded the album were you wondering why you hadn’t done this sooner?
No, it was pretty clear why we hadn’t worked together sooner, just as a matter of practicality and circumstance. Jimmy, Darren and I had been looking forward to recording for some time, and Simon was the unexpected guest who became the fourth member. It was instantaneous, our working dynamic, and it was a welcome surprise, so we were just going. Not quite thinking about the “why”.
So Jimmy is the producing wizard of the group, but how would you describe the rest of your creative process? Do you write songs collectively?
We composed and recorded this album as a quartet very much. For the most part, everyone was in the room at the same time at all times, and we influenced each other pretty heavily. There is no separation of writing and recording in our process—it’s a bit like composed improvisation, or improvised composition—which is always how I had worked privately, and Jimmy very much, as well. Darren and Simon come from more traditional songwriting backgrounds, so the balance of intuition and theory was ideal, and we knew every time we started a track that we could bang out something unique almost immediately.
Were there any elements of writing/recording the album that stand out as being most memorable?
‘Centerfold’ was one of the last songs we recorded, and Simon was annoyed that I was singing in falsetto again, and we actually all were quite tired of it, so I was screwing around and impersonating Julian Casablancas, singing what I thought was a Strokes hook. Apparently it wasn’t a Strokes song at all, and we fleshed it out into the chorus. At that point, since I was singing in a totally different register, the music was able to veer off into a Joy Division fantasy, and that probably became one of our favorite songs.
I caught your show at the Sebright Arms in London a while ago, which was awesome. You’ve toured a lot more since then, how do you think your shows are evolving along the way?
Well, we’re all learning to play a record that is quite dense and complex. It takes a little bit of time with limited means. I’ve had to learn to sing what are intimate R&B deliveries with aggressive volume and presence for the live show, Simon has had to do that same with his guitar. Darren wasn’t even a damn keys player, he played bass on the record and now he’s a wizard on the two tier synth. I’d say we have a tighter dynamic now, creating more space. And always more raw. More raw. More raw. Whatever that means.
Do you have a song in particular that you enjoy playing live the most? If so, why?
‘Touch’ and ‘Victim’ are the most fun, no doubt. We just get to rip. The band gets loud, I’m screaming, we’re all sweating. I also love playing an instrument and not singing, and the last half of ‘Touch’ is an extended instrumental outro.
You’ve got experience both in music and acting, is there one profession that you find you enjoy the most? Have you ever found it difficult for people to take you seriously as a musician?
They inform one another, so they aren’t really separate. I’m enjoying music now because this is a real project, we’re releasing an album and it’s 100% every sound we wanted to make. There is no machine surrounding it trying to degrade it. I mean, there is, but we avoided that and now we get to present something that we love, and perform it. You can do that as an actor, but it takes a lot longer, and a lot more people, and a lot more money.
You’re now off on a full tour of the US (which I’m hoping to catch along the way!), but do you know yet what the rest of the year holds for the band?
No. We hope more tours, festivals. Videos. Next year probably another record. It’s hard to say. We’ll see how the record is received.
And lastly, the common denominator that people take away from your music is that it makes them feel sexy – is this what you had in mind when writing?
The thing with the sexual vibe of these songs—and this can easily sound pretentious without understanding or believing where I’m coming from—but they’re truly not about sex. They are the sound of sexual entanglement, in a way, yes, but I use the vehicle of sexuality to carry a message that isn’t bound by the physical. My belief is that we’re all so sexually driven because it’s communion, it’s the most visceral and immediate form of intercourse we have widely available to us, but that we’re all desperate for intercourse with the divine, even as we roll our eyes at the notion. So I’m whispering coyly in the ear to say something they might not otherwise wanna hear. And that’s not new, it’s been done plenty before. That’s much of soul music. Music is all analogy and symbolism bringing us closer to that which we cannot understand, so, you know, this is our contribution. Personally, these songs don’t make me feel sexy. They make me feel a lot of things.
Centerfold is released on 26th February on Washington Square Records.
Words: Angharad Bishop