Just prior to the release of Mark of the Beat, we sat down with music blogger Cypriots Brazanthr to discuss the album in detail. Now, two months into the life of our debut album, the interview is available in its entirety:
C. Brazanthr: So something I've been waiting to ask is if you are both using stage names and if so, why you decided to have different names if you're brothers both in act and real life?
James Tillman: We're both using our middle names as our last names. We simply don't like our last name, and our parents happened to give us middle names that are plausible surnames.
CB: Do you think that's going to confuse people at all?
Matthew Taylor: It could. People still ask us if we're real brothers. We look like brothers. I fully expect every article about us to start with, "Yes, they're brothers!" (laughs)
CB: James, you’re the older sibling, and I know you’ve been making music in other bands for a much longer time as a result, so my first real question is, where was Matthew during your previous musical endeavors?
MT: I was just beginning to write and play. I was never a part of those bands--or at least never in an official capacity--but I was often in the studio with them trying to learn whatever I could.
CB: So it seems you're really coming into this with a lot less experience than James. How long have you been writing music?
MT: I've been playing and writing music for about six or seven years. James always wrote so much that it just seemed like the normal thing to do--playing music without writing never crossed my mind.
JT: I've been playing for about twice as long as Matt, but I didn't have a mentor or anything like that when I started. Because he was around the whole process from the beginning--songwriting and being in studios and everything--I don't think his learning curve was as steep as mine.
CB: So for James, what was playing music like before you started writing music? I know a lot of people will play music for a long time before they even think about writing their own.
JT: I started playing when I was thirteen and began writing songs about a year later. I played guitar first, then started noodling with MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface], trying to write music that sounded like video games I liked. I started my first band when I was a freshman in highschool, but I didn't know any singers. That's why I started singing--because I was tired of looking for someone else to do it (laughs). It's funny, in retrospect, because now I think of myself as a singer first and guitarist is maybe third on that list.
CB: James mentioned Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE as an influence in a previous conversation. What other artists or albums influenced Mark of the Beat?
MT: David Guetta tops the list. His album Nothing But The Beat showed me a way to make electronic music--which is usually more long-form and repetitive--work in a more conventional pop arrangement. Most importantly, the songs on that record have a really prominent lead vocal and more lyrics than I was used to hearing in electronic music. The title Mark of the Beat is a bit of a nod to Guetta's album.
CB: Were most of your influences prior to that dance or electronic artists?
MT: I've listened to a lot of electronic music in the past, but David Guetta was my first exposure to EDM [electronic dance music]. Different people have different definitions of EDM. Daft Punk's "Discovery" is a huge influence for me in general, but I personally wouldn't categorize it as EDM.
CB: Let's talk about your songwriting process. Is the process the same for each song?
MT: It's split into two processes depending on who starts the song. If it's me, I have a huge pile of demos that are anything from a single chorus to a whole song, and sometimes I may have a few lyrics or a melody. If one of those catches mine or James' ear, I hand it over to him and he fleshes out the lyrics for the whole song. Then he bounces it back to me, at which point I mix/engineer all the bells and whistles.
CB: And if James starts the song?
JT: I don't have a pool of song ideas. If I have a song idea, it's usually while I'm driving or sitting on the toilet. Sometimes I hum melodies to my phone. Then when I'm at a computer, I sit down for the better part of a day and write out every note for every instrument in MIDI. I like having that kind of control over a song, being able to think about every drum fill or hi-hat pattern. I record myself singing along to the MIDI with my phone, then send it to Matt to get his take on it.
MT: Don’t print the "toilet" part. (laughs)
JT: If Matt likes it, I send him the MIDI data and it moves to one of his most critical roles--sound selection. I give opinions, but Matt is 99% of the mixing process.
CB: What do you use to make your sounds and what's your approach to sound design?
MT: We are almost entirely software-based. The synthesizer we used the most on the record is Native Instruments' Massive. My approach is listening to the part in context and thinking about what I want to feel next. As an example, when "Something Incredible" is about to kick in, I start looking for a synth that sounds as powerful as the build-up leads you to expect. Most of the time that means we combine things. There's rarely one synth that can fulfill my expectations for a part on its own.
CB: So it’s not exclusively Native Instruments' Massive?
MT: No, not exclusively. We work in Logic and as a result use Logic synths sometimes. Massive accounts for about 75% of the sounds on the record, then the rest is Logic instruments and real instruments.
CB: There's a lot of debate over the merits of software versus hardware synths. Do you want to weigh in on that at all?
MT: If I had the money, I'd probably use both. (laughs)
CB: Matt, what do you think of the opinions expressed in your brother's songwriting? Do you feel like he's being more honest than he is in real life or is he just being a songwriter?
MT: I think he's being honest. We're closer than most siblings, so I'm never really surprised by the things he writes. But I'm always impressed.
CB: If it’s alright, I’d like to go over each song on the album in order and talk a little bit about what they mean and where they came from. So tell me first about Something Incredible. I know that song started with James and the lyrics seem to reference the difficulty of trying to make it in the music business. Is that right?
JT: I’m sure Matt wants me to preface this by saying that songs can mean more than one thing, so that interpretation is totally as valid as any other.
MT: I think there will always be at least a small part of every song that reflects our experiences as musicians.
CB: Fair enough.
JT: I wrote Something Incredible about the feeling of changing genres. Before Poppy Brothers, I was always in vaguely punky 3-piece rock bands. When we set out to write songs for Poppy Brothers, we decided to focus on just doing whatever we thought sounded coolest regardless of what instruments were in each song or whether one song was upbeat and the next was depressing. So that was very liberating. I felt like a new man.
CB: Was it one of the first songs you wrote for the album?
JT: The lyrics were around from the beginning of the project, but the music came near the end of writing the record.
CB: Sort of like spending forever to write the first sentence of a book?
JT: Something like that.
CB: So the next track, Nights + Weekends. I feel like you've covered that probably as much as you want in that YouTube interview you did.
MT: Yeah, that sums it up pretty well. It started with one of my rare happy ideas and ended up being the most positive song on the record.
CB: How did You + Me come about?
JT: You + Me started as an attempt to write a crossover between 1950's pop and dubstep. Musically, I had more to do with this one than most of the songs on the album. Lyrically, I liked the idea of marrying music that sounds like a cheerful love song with lyrics about throwing yourself into a relationship headfirst. Sort of the uncomfortable realities of "love at first sight."
CB: That's sort of a theme to some of the other songs too, isn't it? I would say that’s arguably what Prince Charming is about, too.
JT: I could see that. Prince Charming is You + Me without the disguise.
CB: What about One? That song has some unbelievably great elements in terms of music.
MT: Oh man, thank you so much.
JT: That song is definitely one of our favorites.
MT: I remember being in the studio trying to write. I was sort of just throwing different sounds up on the keyboard until I found that bass and I started playing the main groove. I was so scared that I would lose that rhythm that I immediately ran over to the computer and hit “record”. I emailed it to James and he came up with this great, very rhythmic and soulful vocal. That might be my favorite track on the album.
CB: Tell me about Superflu
MT: I think it's a really interesting song, and we've gotten good feedback from people who have heard it. It’s kind of funny because even though I started that song on my own, I immediately thought “Hmm...this sounds like something James would write”. Of course, when he finished the lyrics and showed me what he was thinking in terms of what the song would mean, it really took me by surprise and totally blew me away.
JT: I think it's the most fun song to sing along with, and also the rhythm that makes my head bob the most.
CB: Moving on to track #6, End of the World.
JT: I really love that song. If someone told me to prove that I had made something artistic in my life, I would point them to End of the World. Lyrically, it comes from a very vulnerable place. I like that it starts with abstractions before it gets to something as concrete as "Now I'm 25 and I'm still living like a child." It's hard to be around people when they hear that line without feeling a little uncomfortable.
CB: And what exactly do you mean with the "living like a child" line?
JT: Being in a band makes me feel that way. Doing something different from what all of my friends do. When I graduated from high school, my classmates moved on to colleges, careers, wives, and children. I chose music.
MT: James didn't change anything about the music after I gave it to him. He said it reminded him of Tears For Fears, and I was very flattered by that.
CB: $$$ (Dollar Signs)?
MT: Same story as End of the World musically. I wrote the music and gave it to James, he wrote lyrics and recorded vocals for it, and it went straight to the mixing phase.
JT: When I'm reading, I'm always interested by the idea of unreliable narrators. $$$ is that way to me--the person speaking is very confident, but the things he says reveal that he's not as tough as he wants you to believe. "You thought there were tears in my eyes / But I don't shed tears; they were dollar signs"--something led the person he's speaking to to think that he was crying. It's a very defensive song.
CB: Time Machine.
MT: That song is one of my favorites on the album. James wrote it entirely. I like how it takes something very personal--a guy's emptiness after a breakup--and turns it into something much larger-scale and more cosmic through the music itself.
MT: It does those things musically, I mean.
JT: Again, I find myself influenced by novels maybe more than anything else. Time Machine is my stab at magical realism. Something terrible happens, something that feels terrible, and the conclusion is as bizarre as the speaker stepping into a time machine and rewinding back to when things were better.
JT: Sometimes I think it's better to say how things feel than how they are.
MT: I don't think many people will hear that as an actual time machine. I think it's more of a dream of having a time machine.
CB: Had You Known Me Better
MT: Oldest song on the album. It started in a very "pure songwriting" way--I was playing piano without any intention of writing a song and the chords just kind of found me. I contributed more to that one lyrically than any other song on the album.
JT: There's some fun wordplay in that one. One of the verses says the words salt, seasoned, sweet, and bitter.
CB: Oh wow. I would never have picked up on that.
JT: Food is very important to me. "Time Machine" talks about a girl who's as "fine as flour" and "sweet as cake."
MT: When I brought the song to James, it was very literally about thinking that people would like me if they knew me. He turned it into that story of unrequited love.
CB: That's really interesting-- that James took a song about feeling like people would like you if they knew you and turned into one about a much more...standard topic. What made you do that?
JT: It was what I felt. Co-writing is always a tug-of-war when two people have different ideas about a song.
MT: I never had a problem with it. I feel like the song still encapsulates that meaning, it's just in a different context now.
MT: When I have lyrical ideas to start a song, James doesn't usually change them, he just builds around them. Like in Nights + Weekends, I wrote the chorus and James was tasked with figuring out what that means for the verses.
JT: Building onto someone else's foundation is the most fun thing for me as a songwriter. It's very stimulating.
CB: I have a really cheesy and dumb question I want to ask about Prince Charming: What personal experiences contributed to writing a murder ballad?!
MT: Did someone get murdered in that song?!
JT: The lyrics are heavily inspired by the movie Drive. There's a line in the movie after things have gone really badly. The Driver says something to the effect of, “you could take the money and run, I could come with you”. Prince Charming is less of a violent song and more of a (horrifically) unglamorous romance.
CB: Hate Me?
MT: I started Hate Me on piano and came up with the chorus line. Originally it was, "Why do you hate me?" James changed it to "Why don't you hate me?" This is one instance where he completely changed the meaning of the song.
CB: Does that self-loathing in the song come from anywhere in particular?
JT: It's an astonishingly sad song. When Matt first brought me the music, it was so sad and minor and mopey that I said we could never record and release something like that. Eventually I decided to embrace it and take it as far as I could. Being hated hurts, but giving someone a reason to hate you hurts a lot worse. I was nervous about including it on the album, but the people who have heard it really like it. I think it's a great song, I just didn't think people would want to feel the way it makes them feel. People who hear it tell me they relate to it.
CB: And Harry Houdini?
JT: Harry Houdini is a choose-your-own-ending song. The verses describe a desperate man who has one last chance to be with the woman he loves. The choruses are instrumental. The person speaking is begging for the one he loves to take him back. "I've got one last trick to show you that I'll stick / So I drop to one knee." Does she say yes? It was important to me to not answer that question.
MT: To me, the instrument you hear in the chorus is wedding bells.
JT: That’s great. I would be really happy if others came to that same conclusion. In the end, I wanted it to be a song that says as much about the listener as the writer.
CB: That's a lot more depth than I think goes into most "open ended" songs.
Mark of the Beat is available now on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and more. Visit www.PoppyBrothers.com for more information.