Reporting Shannon Carlin
Most bands wear their influences on their sleeves, but Pacific Air tuck theirs away, hiding them within the many layers of their songs where they can only be heard with headphones.
Listen closely to the duo — comprised of brothers Ryan and Taylor Lawhon — and you might hear a bit of early ’90s R&B or hip-hop. Pay even closer attention and you’ll detect a little Enya.
“If you took the drums out of any of our music, it could be a New Age song,” Ryan, the oldest Lawhon, told Radio.com.
Thanks to their mom, the Lawhons grew up listening to New Age music. While no one is going to compare Pacific Air — who previously went by the name KO KO — to Enya, the guys say it’s definitely an influence worth mentioning.
“Instead of abrasive rhythmic synths we tend to go for more sprawling, very stereo, soft synths,” Ryan said. “Which is something heavily utilized in New Age music. It’s something that provides such a nice layer and it fills up the sound without overpowering rhythmically.”
The California band’s unique blend of electropop, indie rock and (obviously) New Age has lent itself to a quick, almost unbelievable rise. Within 24 hours of releasing three songs on the music-sharing site Bandcamp, they were contacted by an eager blogger who had been trolling the site for bands with interesting artwork. They would later play this blog’s SXSW party. And less than a week after uploading the songs, they were being wined and dined by eight different labels looking to sign the band.
While in the label meetings the brothers started to realize that A&R reps like to talk, and instead of putting in their two cents, it’s best to just let them do their thing. Ryan even came up with a mantra, “stop talking,” which eventually became the title for Pacific Air’s debut, out June 11.
“It was a very odd, not really a game, but just trying to understand it and not screw anything up,” Ryan said of the meetings. “And the less I say the less chance I have of screwing anything up as well.”
Days after signing with Universal Republic Records, the guys were in a New York studio recording their first album with producer Chris Zane, who’s worked with Passion Pit and The Walkmen. Though they had shared the songs on a whim and had no plans to release an actual record, Ryan had already written 11 songs. All of which, he said, were written during a dark time when he was working a day job at Apple and wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with his life.
While the music is upbeat, the lyrics tell a much different story. One that is very vague. The singer purposely left out any specific details of his own life.
“I don’t talk about any events at all on the record,” Ryan said. “I talk about the immediate emotions of any event. In doing that, I think it’s more universal.”
He explained that instead of writing major pop songs “about living for tonight,” he wanted to be a tad more introspective. “I was moderately depressed at the time,” Ryan said. “It’s a melancholy album… [but] the music is as happy as possible.”
The band’s first single, “Float,” a breezy pop tune that focuses on the dreaded quarter-life crisis, is a great example of the happy/sad dichotomy, but the brothers are the first to admit that the recording process was a bit of a mess.
They laid down the melody, chords and beat in one day before adding a layer of snaps and whistles, something they were hesitant about at first. “People see whistles as a gimmick,” Ryan said. “We try to stay away from that.” But the whistles later became an integral aspect of Stop Talking with eight out of the 11 songs on the album using it in the same way one would use a keyboard or guitar to just delicately highlight the melody. Or, as Taylor explained, they tried to use the whistles in an “Andrew Bird-style.”
On “Float” the band also combined 10 different organs and synths and added an underlying bubbling synth that is present throughout the whole album like a watermark. Filling up space without making any real impact.
“It’s funny that the parts we spent days working on are barely noticeable,” Taylor said with a laugh.
The Lawhons admit that they spent way too much time in the studio slaving over little intricacies of a song, whether it was those bubbling synths or a 12-string guitar or an inaudible banjo that no one will ever even know is there.
“It’s definitely not a utilized instrument on the record, just adds a little bit of twang when needed,” Ryan said. “We pair it with a whistle and a guitar so it’s more of a vocal. We could have used any instrument, but we wanted a banjo.”
Finally, to highlight the many intricate layers of each song, they panned right and left in the final mix. This means if someone is listening to Pacific Air’s album on headphones each ear will be able to hear slightly different things, almost as if the right and left ear are sometimes not even listening to the same song.
While Pacific Air warn that a car stereo isn’t the best way to discover all the secret sounds, they believe the best way to listen to Stop Talking is loud and, if at all possible, in the desert.
“It’s a blank canvas for anything,” Ryan explained. “Music really lends an interesting perspective, especially at dusk.”
Of course, just to be safe we’re going to bring our headphones along too.