Interview with letlive. front man Jason Butler | By Jameson Ketchum
The sun is setting behind the Hawthorne Theater. It’s late March as I await our interview on the back door of letlive.’s trailer. The front man is resting in his bandwagon recovering from an illness that kept him from the first few dates of their tour with The Wonder Years (Keith Buckley filled in). Later in the evening, he would tell the audience, “Someone took my beanie when I jumped in the crowd. I don’t need it back but I do have shingles”. By all accounts, he shouldn’t be all that enthusiastic to chat, but if you’ve ever met Jason Butler, you know that his offstage appeal diametrically opposes his madman stage performance. Speaking with Butler takes you many places. Small talk rapidly gives way to more important topics and it’s clear that he’s always ready to dive deep. Though their new record, If I’m the Devil… is still months away from release at this point, the front man is anything but tight lipped about its creation. Devil doesn’t feel like letlive., which isn’t a comment on its quality or direction. Rather, we are given another piece to the puzzle portraying what the concept of letlive. truly means. Here is an act that is truly fearless, genuinely limitless, and comfortable exploring new spaces. Letlive. is the future.
You’ve been a band for well over ten years but most people have gotten to know you just over the last two records. What do you feel like catapulted you into this new echelon of fame and notoriety in the last several years?
That’s such a good question. It was when Tommy Lacombe said “I want to be your stepping stone”. He was so humble in saying he wants to be the catalyst and he doesn’t want to sit there and make millions off letlive. He was just one person who believed in us and who wanted us to get our foot in the door so people would listen.
The last thing anyone would say about letlive. is that you’re formulaic. However, you’ve found a great stride in these last two records to where you could stay in your lane and be just fine. What keeps you striving for something different, for growth, and avoidance of stagnation?
I just think that the beauty in art is progression. I think there is just this incredibly attractive thing about moving forward and evolving. I think that’s what this whole thing is, just on earth, finding a way to adapt then finding a way to do it better. With music, it’s the same. I don’t ever want to be complacent in life or in music. I think trying to find a way to stay excited about the shit you’re doing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is a challenge that needs to exist inside of you if you want to continue being an artist that affects anything.
What did you learn about yourselves while writing and recording If I’m the Devil…?
I think we were able to identify the thing that exists within everyone with a frontal lobe and that is the ego. I think we were able to isolate that and then we had to confront it. We all challenged ourselves in doing so. If we hadn’t done that, this album wouldn’t have been created and we would have gotten in our own way. It would have been too much of one idea being belabored upon so much that it would have stifled the way it was created. I think that growth was figuring out what we wanted and who we wanted to do it with. Thankfully we decided we wanted to do this record as a band and the result in really eclectic and a very cool composition of vibes. There is a very strong theme that braids itself throughout the record and that idea is about change and recognizing that there are things that need to be discussed, ideologically as well as sonically. There are things that need to be recognized if we are going to advance musically.
Are you speaking a bit abstractly or are these conversations that you literally stop and have?
Oh yeah. Sometimes I may seem like this crazy asshole when I’m talking to the band because I’m very impassioned when I speak about these things. Success is such a dirty word in music now because it’s synonymous with selling out or whatever. I mean success as far as gauging if you did the right thing. For this record to be successful I felt like we really had to discuss what our intent was. This record had to seem deliberate because if it didn’t it would seem apocryphal or disingenuous like we had to put it out there because we had to. By no means did we feel like we had to, we wanted to. These are things we wanted to do for years so even with The Blackest Beautiful there are so many elements that kind of got phased out for whatever reason. These are the opportunities that we missed in the past and are trying to put out now.
Coming off this huge record with The Blackest Beautiful, what was the pressure like on this record? Is it mostly self-inflicted or is that something that even enters into your thinking?
I’d love to be able to say “We just do what we want and we don’t care” but no (laughs). When I write, especially when I write for the band, I always think about what we’ve done prior, what it’s done for us and did I enjoy that? Was it so visceral that it can only exist in that moment that I wrote it or is it something will sustain and continue? I’d like to take the things that I feel have this perennial timeless element to them and carry them onto the next record. Look at what is of the day though, look at what’s modern at the same time so with this record the most pressure was from ourselves if anything. The pressure we put upon ourselves is so tremendous that we don’t have to worry about the pressure of others. That being the case, we all had so many ideas that I think in the beginning it was very difficult to find a place for all those ideas within the unit and also for us getting out of our own way and writing a record as a unit again. We’re all growing and feeling very confident in what we were writing, but I think those things found themselves in a very isolated place. There was a lot of understanding that we are still very much a unit and things we create must past through all levels which are Ryan, Loniel, Jeffrey and myself.
Does that always come easy?
No, no no (laughs). Again, it’s something else I don’t want to sugarcoat or deflect. It was very difficult. What was going on with us personally certainly found its way into us as a band. I know that plenty of bands talk about the art being the driving force, but I don’t hear many bands talking about this, or maybe they don’t have these scenarios, but we were growing so much as human beings and that can be very difficult. It found its way into us as artists and it made writing considerably longer than we would like. At the same time it made the record we have now so I guess it was worth it.
Sonically, what were you hoping to play with on this record? I feel like when I hear Jeff talk about the music, he is very much about exploring what you can experiment and play with.
For me, even since Speak Like You Talk, I’ve always wanted to just try anything you hear that sounds cool, anything from your favorite rock band to a guy tripping on the street and the sole of his shoe hitting the crack. I believe that there is some sort of…again here we go with the hyperbolic artsy bullshit, I feel like there is something to be said for using everything at your disposal and not just designated and distinguished musical instruments. I’m such a hip/hop, R&B, soul guy, I love all of that. I filled in for Every Time I Die and I’m singing with them, August Burns Red and Stick to Your Guns so I sing with them then jam over to The Weekend show and have the best night of my life, I just love music. To me the most forward thinking against the grain music would be the R&B, electronic, hip/hop stuff that is adverse to everything that is standardized in music, that shit is punk. For me I wanted to try and find a way to not sound like a hip/hop or R&B band but advance the register in which we sit as a rock band.
Lyrically, how did you choose your topics?
For me, it was about a real sense of romance. My wife (Gin Wigmore) is incredible, she’s so inspiring to me that I have to credit her and I will in this interview. She has a lot to do with who I’ve become as an artist and even more so as a person. The song “Foreign Cab Rides” has a recording of me talking in a guy’s cab because I thought I had just ruined my relationship with Gin. I was a victim of self-sabotage, which I always did because I had to have an escape route. I did it with her and that was the moment I realized that I was fully in love with someone. I recorded it, because I was in such a weird, anxiety-riddled moment that I was voice recording my trip in the cab from the venue to her house to tell her “I love you. I want to love you”. From that, all the way to understanding myself as a mixed race, heterosexual male who doesn’t necessarily believe in these boundaries we’ve created societally, not only in the western world but everything from religion to our societal impediments to our government and media etc. there are so many things but if you want to look at the basis of all this, fundamentally, I’m just talking about people and the policies we create and how unnecessary they are when it comes down to living a happy or fulfilling life. It’s so much easier for me to see now because before I was inundated and blocked by so many other things that couldn’t allow me to see the things we discuss on the record. I also read a lot. I read a lot of radical things as well as conservative pieces so that I can know both sides and I choose to be on left of center.
You’ve talked a lot in the past about your childhood and growing up where you did. Now as an adult, what does Los Angeles look like to you? What is its influence over you and your music?
I love it, man, everything from the abundance of adversity to the easy breezy living which is the view of Los Angeles. We’re such a large hub and a nexus for so many things, artistically. I get to see a lot of shit that I don’t want to do. I get to see what not to do. Because of that abundance, what some would consider a saturation, whatever it is that draws people artistically to Los Angeles, is the same thing that draws people that want to hustle and people who want to break into film or do some project. It’s such a large omnivorous place to be. Because I travel I meet a lot of people who absolutely abhor Los Angeles, but there are so many layers to the topography and sometimes you have to dig deep. For me, even growing up in a very impoverished and crime stricken community, I was still able to see past it and find my way out. I think it aided in who I am now and who I became as an artist.
You’ve said that letlive. is more than a band but maybe more of a set of goals or ideals. Can letlive. exist in other forms?
I think you’ve got it correct, its’ more of an essence or attitude. I started letlive. when I was 16 and from the moment I was driving with my old drummer, we came up with the name in his 90’s Mitsubishi Montero, and it was just the simplest idea, just “let live”. It’s this idea that we will all exist simultaneously and that is the world. For us to co-exist, it seems like we’ve over-complicated things with borders and religions and colors and creeds and race. Race was invented in like 1890 in Virginia (laughs). Understanding “let live” was just about existing in a safer and fluid place if we just allow people to be who they are as long as it doesn’t encroach on what others are doing. For me, that comes along with ethics and a very natural sense of morality. If you’re going to stand out and really say something, you need to always remember that you’re the only person who can sustain that. If others don’t believe you, it’s alright, because it’s still your belief. If you find others who do believe you, then you’re lucky, so be humble. It’s by no means an obligation for you to speak for the masses or even a small contingent, it is just understanding that your beliefs are your own and you’re lucky when you find others that feel the same way.
How do you wrap your head around being that influential figure? People really care what Jason from letlive. thinks.
I’ve never thought about it. I’ve never had an idol or idolized anyone. Now that I’m older I’m starting to understand what that means and I guess I have a weird sense of idolization for certain things. Those things are more so like ideas of a real sense of love and compassion for others. It’s funny and ironic coming from me because I used to be a very aggressive person. All I know is this; you have to recognize who you are, where you came from and what you’ve done and I try to do that as often as possible. Me vs. say a Taylor Swift; Taylor Swift has millions of people, young and old, who listen to what she has to say whereas mine could seem infinitesimal by comparison, but because people may take what you say and digest or analyze it, then you have to be careful. I don’t like to be careful, I don’t like to feel that. I don’t want to feel like I have to bait what I’m saying.
Then is the performance just a gateway to the message?
Unconsciously, that is certainly the goal. When you make a decision to be someone who is going to say something, like the things I say, you really have to be about it. There’s a line I use on Fake History that we use in Englewood; “We ain’t trying to talk about it, you gotta be about it”, so when you say something that’s a radical thought like you want to protest something, you need to be about that shit. You gotta make that move right away. Sure, I slip up sometimes, especially when I was younger and more hot-headed. Now that I’m older, I want to be unbridled and make sure the message is being presented properly.
Could you say that this is your definitive record?
I would say it’s the first step toward that. Because this is the most disparate and ostensibly different record between the four, since I’ve been in the band, where we show that there are a very small amount of limitations that we feel and hopefully the forthcoming release following this record will show that we have no limitations whatsoever.