Youth Lagoon's Trevor Powers: "A lot of happy stuff is cheesy to me. When there are bands that are pure happy all the time, I don't believe it."
Youth Lagoon (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) began as the solo project of Trevor Powers, who first started making music while still in high school, and whose early recordings caught the attention of music fans and critics well beyond his circle. Powers's songwriting goes well beyond surface level style in a way that's rich musically, with a compelling narrative style that has a sense of warmth and tenderness throughout. His debut full-length, last year's The Year of Hibernation, teems with hazy yet vivid sketches of stories woven together with the sounds that resonate within their respective moods. We recently caught up with Powers and spoke with him about Boise, his songwriting process and Bob Dylan.
Westword: Why do you think you could never write a completely happy album? And would you even necessarily want to or see that as a goal?
Trevor Powers: The reason I said that is because the things that inspire me -- and I don't know why this is -- are the things that bug me or tick at me, things that kind of haunt me. I think it was in the same interview where I said it's not like I'm not a happy person. But I have an overactive mind and it obsesses over things, so when it comes to what I create, that's usually the stuff that comes out. A lot of happy stuff is cheesy to me. When there are bands that are pure happy all the time, I don't believe it. You can't be happy all the time.
How did you get started playing keyboards or piano, and what do you feel you're able to express with that instrument that you're not able to express as well with other instruments you play?
I started playing piano when I was six, and I took lessons for about six years. It was mainly classical music, reading music, theory and finger exercises -- all that kind of stuff. So when I was like twelve years old, I got tired of the classical stuff. My mind has slowly let go of it, and around that time, that's when I taught myself guitar. I taught myself guitar for two years, and I went back to piano and re-learned the parts that I enjoyed and forgot the parts I hated. I think that's when I started writing music. I was twelve or thirteen when I started experimenting with writing songs.
I feel what's special about the piano is that there are so many ways you can speak on it. It has so many voices, and there are so many things you can do at the same time that you can't necessarily do on other instruments. The way I usually write is I write parts for other instruments on piano and then translate it over to the other instrument. There's something about piano where I connect with it more. Even guitar parts, it usually starts out on piano.
What do you feel the Fender Rhodes allows you to express in your music, and do you bring one on tour with you these days?
It's interesting because I bought the Rhodes in Austin, Texas. I experimented with it very briefly. On the record I used a lot of Rhodes stuff, and I used different Wurlitzer organs and a lot of older equipment. But I never had my own, so I ended up buying that Rhodes and experimented with it live. But I ended up switching back to my old keyboard because there's something about the Rhodes...it wasn't very consistent with what I was trying to do live.
Now I'm playing on a Nord -- I hate to say this because I love older-sounding stuff, but as far as modern technology goes there's a lot of consistency. The Rhodes probably just needed to be worked on, but it kept cutting out and I had all these maintenance problems with it and it was a big headache. I love it as a writing and recording utensil, but, as far as live, I need to get major work done before I can start using it. I used it briefly on tour but ended up just using the Nord.
Being from Boise, did you become involved in the music and arts community in that city? Did anyone take you under their wing or champion your music in any way?
Yeah. I started doing a lot of local shows even back in high school, like seven years ago. There were different people and friends supporting me and when I started this project back in 2010. There are so many rad places and [there's] a cool art collective.
Like Visual Arts Collective?
Yeah! I love that place. All those people were so supportive and a friend of mine, Eric Gilbert, has been super supportive from the very beginning. He booked my very first Youth Lagoon show. He's the one that reached out to me. I've always respected that guy as a musician and as a friend. He's been one of the very big supporters from the beginning.
What are some of your favorite Boise bands and why?
Aw, there's so many. It's funny because most of my friends play music. I have a really good friend named Trevor Kamplain. He has a project called Mozam. It's like psychedelic, beat-driven, very analog, experimental bliss. I have some other friends who have a project called TEENS -- especially the track "Die With You" -- it's garage rock with a punk influence. Their music is so sick. A band called Atomic Mama, Finn Riggins, obviously, with Eric Gilbert. There's all kinds of rad bands, people doing what they love, saving up their money and making weekend trips to places. It's a cool community that's growing.
Right now I think the Boise scene lacks in a lot of ways, as far as people going to shows. I would love to see more people attending shows because there are so many amazing musicians putting on DIY shows and doing house shows and all that kind of stuff. But there needs to be more people going. There's a lot more artists than there are fans, I feel like.
How do you -- or, perhaps, did you -- balance your academic life with this seemingly sudden burst of attention for your music and the demands that places on your attention and energy?
I was majoring in English with a writing emphasis, so things happened at just the right time. I was working toward my bachelor's, but I was about to get my associate's degree, leading up to the record coming out and all that kind of stuff. When the opportunity came to start touring it, there was a time where I was balancing hardcore academics and music. That made it kind of difficult because I was so distracted. But I ended up getting my associate's degree and then I just took off on the road. The reason I was pursuing English was because I'm fascinated with writing. I feel like I'm a much better writer and speaker.
Did you mainly write fiction or non-fiction or a bit of both?
It was both. In a lot of the upper division courses, you're in a class with like seven other people. It might be a class of thirteen and most of the people don't show up and they fail. I took non-fiction courses and fiction writing; it was mostly historically-based papers, studying different historical people and writing essays.
Your video for "Montana" is aesthetically reminiscent of Donnie Darko and seems to tell the story of a man haunted by the ghosts of his past and of issues with an absent father. What sorts of thoughts and feelings were you trying to convey with that song and video?
The song, in general terms, is about the idea of loss. It was based on a conversation I had with someone that I thought I wouldn't see again. So when it came to working on a video, the cinematographer, Tyler Williams, has been a good friend of mine for a long time, and I had him in mind from the very beginning. His specialty is film, so when it came to discussing it, I said, "I trust you." We talked about the broad idea of the song, and he came up with all these ideas, and I got super excited. When he started shooting it, it started falling into place, so he's the one that really deserves the credit for that.
You've said that you sometimes tell stories in your songs. Are these stories born of your own experiences, and is there any idea or concept that inspired you to write more than one story/song? Something that you found particularly compelling?
This record, in particular, is a very personal journey. A lot of it relates it to my mind, in general. A lot of my music relates to my mind because I struggle with it so much. It never completely shuts down. It's always thinking of things that bug me. But in broader terms I write about everything and the music is just the way I interpret it.
Why do you think Bob Dylan is the man?
Oh, man, I love Bob Dylan. I think he's the man because, listening to his records, I think you can tell he's never written with an agenda, as far as other people go. He has ideas he wants to express, and he's always done it in his own way. That's something I've always admired in an artist: They create their own path and don't walk down a path that's well-trodden and cemented. They walk down a path that's like a forest where there's no path. He makes his path.