It’s Sunday in the garden of a Hollywood recording studio, and a battle is about to begin between hitmaker and frontman Jack Antonoff, singer Sam Dew, and hip-hop producer Sounwave. The music industry’s most in-demand are ripping the plastic off a new package of Settlers of Catan. The board game, according to Antonoff, is making a comeback, and he likes it as a metaphor for greed. It’s about humans who get a little taste of success and come back for more until it turns them into tyrants. “It puts you back in touch with how the country has gone this way,” he jokes. “If you’re good at Catan then hopefully you’re smart enough to take a hard look in the mirror and realize how you may be contributing. The amount of sheep and ore that’s been ripped from my hands by these guys just to build their little utopian cities …”
The music industry is a similar game, and one these guys are less interested in playing. Instead, they’ve chosen to hole up with their trusted songwriting partners rather than get trapped in the revolving door of studio sessions with everyone and anyone in L.A. As three prolific individuals, they’re reconvening here at this studio because they’ve formed an unlikely project called Red Hearse rooted in soulful, bedraggled synth-pop unlike anything they’ve done. They made a lot of the songs for their self-titled album (out this week) here. It’s not the work of a group of Napoleons seeking to take over the landscape with a tried formula. In recent years, New Jersey’s Antonoff has attracted a reputation as the white knight of female pop, working with Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Lana Del Rey (in fact, he was back in the studio again only days later to record “Looking for America”). L.A.’s Sounwave is most renowned as part of the TDE family, and has worked extensively with Kendrick Lamar. Chicago’s Dew co-wrote Swift and Zayn’s hit “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.” For years they’ve orbited each other’s circles, collaborating along the way (see: Bleachers’ Gone Now), but this is their debut as a supergroup of sorts.
The odd, noirish video for Red Hearse’s lead single, “Half Love,” stars St. Vincent’s Annie Clarke burglarizing a grocery store. Sounwave and Antonoff met while working on her album, Masseduction, but the connection between the three members of Red Hearse isn’t rooted in music-making alone. They humor each other’s inner nerds and indulge each other’s nostalgic obsessions. Get the trio in a room together, like today, and you’ll find them easily sidetracked for ten minutes, rattling off OutKast songs at each other, debating whether Speakerboxxx or The Love Below was the superior record. The verdict: They’re both great.
How does a project like Red Hearse come about if you’re always in the studio with other people?
Jack: In L.A., if you make records, there’s two worlds to it. There’s this Garden of Eden world and then there’s this bizarre merry-go-round. At different points each of us has had a moment of seeing how the latter works. You get thrown in different rooms and you go, “Screw this.” The impression is that the three of us do a ton of different stuff. It’s not that true. You have specific people you work with. It’s so rare to meet new people. I met these guys because I’d heard a lot from people I trust.
Sam: It’s true. You think you come out here and you’re gonna work with a lot of people but you find your favorites and you get really busy.
Jack: And it can kill you. We all have the story: After you have a first record that gets some attention, all of a sudden people start calling. All of a sudden you’re in some room like, How the fuck did I get here? It feels so good to be invited when you were uninvited for so long but then also, “Fuck this!” I like the idea of making something with a group of friends. If you put on this record you hear the three of us. People are starting to get really smart to that. How was my cereal made? How was my pasta made? How was my record made? What’s in this thing?! Sometimes you get a lot of collaborators, but this record — three people made it. That’s it. That matters.
The project is inspired by the places you grew up in: New Jersey, Chicago, and L.A. Do you think that your intention for it was to think outside current trends?
Jack: I always think it’s creatively foolish to talk about what you wanna do. How could you know? All you can talk about is what you don’t wanna do. It’s like when you go to a restaurant and they ask if you have any allergies. Then there’s this wonder of what you’re gonna get. It’s not negative but it’s so much cooler to say what you’re not into.
Sam: That’s why I liked writing on this project. It’s not trying to say any buzzwords. There’s a lot of lines that you’ve heard a lot on the radio right now. I was trying my best not to try to be cool while I was writing this but be honest. And I attribute half of that to Jack because he’s just so honest.
Jack: I woulda fucked some of the songs up if I were alone. I would’ve been like, “You can’t just say that, you gotta subvert it.”
Sounwave: My voice in my head is going, Yo, that was wack! If I’m in my room by myself I’m my worst critic. I make the weirdest sounds and try to bring it back down to reality. And sometimes I feel like it could be too weird. When you have collaborators who wanna be on that same journey and are trying to bend rules? That’s my best.
There’s the capacity for so many shortcuts making music today.
Sam: They work!
Jack: It depends what you’re after. They work for a version of “success.” That’s the devil out here, you have to be careful of it. It works. You’ll get money. People will tell you you’re doing good. There’s a wide line between what brings in a lot of money versus what people love. Here’s a game I love to play: Think of your favorite songs, songs that changed your life, songs that you chose to keep living because of. They probably didn’t chart that high but they live forever. Look at Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” The most important pop song of this generation never touched radio the way other stuff did. So it’s cool to be out here and find other people who are also dodging. L.A. is about protection. My advice to any artist or writer is come out here and get your armor on. These guys are my armor. Get a group of people who know you. Don’t let anyone else in the door.
What are some of the things you’re trying to dodge?
Jack: The shit everyone says.
Sounwave: Being in a comfort zone makes me uncomfortable.
Jack: When I watch Wave work, every sound coming off the MPC, every idea coming out of the head is in outer space. You’ve never heard a sound like this. It’s a new language. It shocks you. You get good at something because you came from your own culture. You came up with your friends. People start to like you because of what you did in your garage or basement. Then the first thing [the industry does] is go, “Oh wow, we like you for this, now do this.” But shouldn’t you just tell me to do whatever the fuck I want? Isn’t that the lesson? And it’s not cynical. No one’s trying to hurt you.
Sam: That’s the scariest thing about it. Everyone’s on your team.
Jack: The business of art is absurd because there’s all this money invested and there’s no way to know how to do it. Imagine you work at some big company and they’re like, “Well this album’s coming out, how do we make it good?” The answer is: No one fucking knows. Let the artist sit there until they say it’s good. But they like to pull this with all of us: “Go work with this person because they make it good.” They don’t make it good. You either have a vibe or you don’t.
Tell me about the stories you’re telling with Red Hearse, and the naming of the group.
Jack: Sam just said, “I’ll die riding in a red hearse.” I was like, “What did you say?” In life you just look for those moments of, I haven’t heard that before. That part’s not rocket science. If it makes your eyebrows stand up — cool. And then there’s this weird story where this dude I know showed me a picture of a red hearse outta the blue …
Do you believe in signs?
Jack: I don’t believe it’s from a divine force, but I believe if you’re seeing something in a few different places, listen.
Sam: Sometimes you’re more tapped into energy than you think.
Sounwave: I’m extremely tapped in. I have a girlfriend who is 100 percent tapped in, so I’m like 50 percent. My third eye is open.
Are you all astrologically aligned?
Jack: I didn’t grow up big on astrology. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing: You’re miserable ’cause you’re miserable. Do you fuck with it, Sam? Your tattoos would suggest a level of mysticism to me. Maybe that’s just the owl staring at me. [Ed. note: Dew has an owl tattoo on his left bicep.] Is it Twin Peaks?
Sam: You’re the first person to nail it! That’s my reference. It’s the barn owl from season one.
Jack: I can’t believe you have a Twin Peaks tattoo. Which tattoo do you totally regret?
Sam: [Points next to the owl] The Radiohead scary bear. I was stanning a little too hard. At that point in my life it was Radiohead and Assassin’s Creed video games.
Jack: That makes it cooler. Radiohead on its own is one thing. You put Radiohead, Assassin’s Creed, and Twin Peaks all in one bicep. It starts to create the makeup of a divine being.
Sounwave: Have you heard of this [astrology] app called the Pattern?
Jack: All my apps bring me food. And Tetris, man. I am crushing right now. Is the Pattern religious? Has it ever led you to a bad place?
Sounwave: No, everything’s positive. It’s never like, “You’re gonna die.”
Jack: What are you listening to right now?
Clairo, Weyes Blood, and Bon Iver. How does Justin Vernon get better every time? I don’t know where the peak is.
Jack: Hopefully you never find out. Isn’t that the worst? That’s what’s so crazy about this work. Anyone who wants to tell you it’s endless is wrong. If you feel something, make it. If you love it, make sure it’s right. There’s a way you can do it that’s the best. For this work, the highest form of it is to love what you do and believe it. There’s a lot of space out there and you shouldn’t take it up for no reason. So if you believe it, proudly take up a little space. If you don’t, go home until it’s right. One of the most annoying things about the business of art is having meetings when people say, “Oh it’ll go right over their heads.” No it won’t. People are smart. They prove it over and over.
Who is worthy of taking up space right now?
Sam: Kendrick Lamar.
Jack: Everything that comes out of Sounwave’s world. If it has that stamp on it you know you should listen. That reminds me of growing up. Whether it was Merge records, or Sub Pop. TDE is the new Sub Pop. If I see those letters I’m gonna listen.
Sam: When I was 23 I was listening to a lot of Danger Mouse. That’s when I first discovered I had a taste based off producers. I follow my favorite producers.
Who are they?
Sam: Two of them are right here. Also, [DJ] Dahi and Pharrell.
Jack: Pharrell’s the best. He’s always throwing around wisdom. You run into him and he’ll just fire something great at you. It’ll make your day. He’s my version of the Pattern. If I’m a little stuck, I’ll go for a walk, probably run into Pharrell on a bike, and he’ll shout something at me that’ll crack the whole thing. Something simple. He’s just shouting poetry.
Sam: He did that to me the one time we had a real sit-down. Blew my mind. He told me I reminded him of himself and that I should stop giving away all my hits.
Sounwave: The last time I talked to Pharrell he hit me with a gem. We were talking about our kids — I have a 1-year-old now. He said one simple line: “Your son is the greatest thing you’ve ever produced.” That stuck with me.
When was the last time you heard something on the radio that didn’t bore you?
Jack: That’s what Robyn did for a generation of people. It’s like the first time you go from the McDonald’s burger to a sick burger. The first time my dad made burgers on the grill — Oh that’s what a hamburger is? When Robyn put out Body Talk it was like, “Oh that thing [pop music] we made fun of on the radio? This is what it is? You’ve just been doing it weird?” You hear that all the time. There’s nothing wrong with pop music. There’s some weird stuff going on.
Sounwave: I was pleasantly surprised by Childish Gambino’s “Redbone.” It’s so not normal but it worked on the radio.
What do you think people writing and producing in L.A. are trying to chase right now?
Jack: Right now everyone’s putting a bit of a Latin feeling on things because it’s working. It’s so funny because people just want the next thing. Remember when trap was a weird, underground art form? If you’d brought that to a label and said, “I think this should be on the radio,” they’d laugh.
Sam: I remember when Waka Flocka Flame first came out. I heard it at a pizza place before it blew up. It was all through Atlanta. People were like, “Yo, this is the future!” And I was like, “Trust me.” It still took three or four years [to catch on].
Jack: In a weird way emo didn’t happen till trap emo. The level of which emo culture has now influenced this younger culture of hip-hop is a crazy cycle. I think it’s the same shit as always with the conversation around genre. Remember the ’90s? You turned on the radio, you’d hear Salt-N-Pepa into Melissa Etheridge into Weezer into Weird Al. I grew up in a time where I didn’t care [about genre].
People credit shuffle culture and streaming for genre cross-pollination, but we grew up with that without those devices.
Jack: It’s all the same thing. When someone says, “It’s all about singles right now.” Um, remember the ’50s? It’s the same shit. You got people who got these random-ass songs that people love and they don’t care about the artist. You got people who make albums. It’s always the same thing.
Sam: There’s always gonna be art to fit culture, and art to suggest it.
Jack: Bingo. And anybody who tells you that albums are dead is because they make money off singles. Name the ten best artists alive? Album artists. A song is a thought. They can be great songs, but if you can string 10, 12, 14 of them together and they all mean some documentary of a person in a moment? Unbeatable. You can write a million songs but not an album. Same reason if you put on a playlist, why isn’t it an album? It’s not. But you listen to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk or Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. It’s just a feeling. Why is Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so good? Why is it when this person puts 14 songs on something and you listen to it there are some cool things but it’s just not an album? Why is it sometimes you see a movie and you’re like, “That’s not a movie.” An album just is or it isn’t. You know when you hear it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.