In the interest of preserving some of the mystery behind Kisses’ clever and questioning sophomore album, Kids in LA, Jesse Kivel found himself making an important last-minute decision.
“Bret Easton Ellis and Less Than Zero are a touchstone for this record that I removed from the press release,” the articulate, engaging singer–multi-instrumentalist says on the line from his hometown of Los Angeles. “I’ve read Less Than Zero, and I like what Bret Easton Ellis does with L.A. in it. But even though this whole album is experimenting with the idea of banal things, I felt like referencing Bret Easton Ellis would have been banal. He’s such a touchstone for artists that I felt like it would ruin my take.
“There’s a way that he approaches L.A. that I found interesting, but that Less Than Zero didn’t 100 percent cover,” Kivel continues. “Less Than Zero is extreme, but what I liked about it was bringing meaninglessness to Los Angeles, and not in a Hollywood way. It wasn’t ‘L.A. is superficial because people are getting plastic surgery and trying to be actors and actresses.’ ”
With Kids in LA, Kivel also turns the klieg lights on the City of Angels. But, taking a considerably more meditative approach than Less Than Zero, the Los Angeles–raised songwriter wasn’t out to paint a picture of out-of-control rich kids with raging coke and sex addictions.
“I wanted to find the excess and banality of youth and being a teenager,” Kivel says. “And I wanted L.A. to be the backdrop for that, but without referencing the Hollywood sign and things like that.”
Along with synth player Zinzi Edmundson—his Kisses bandmate and real-life girlfriend—Kivel came up with a collection of gauze-swaddled disco-pop songs populated with characters who sound like Beverly Hills byproducts, but could really be from anywhere.
The album is a departure from the duo’s 2010 debut, The Heart of the Nightlife. That release brought the couple instant-darling status, with critics loving the breezy, neon-splashed way Kisses transported listeners to Palm Springs for a gloriously chilled-out vacation.
Musically speaking, Kivel has no trouble pinpointing what he was soaking up during the creative process for Kids in LA.
“I found myself listening a lot to this station called 92.3,” he says. “It’s an old-school station—not like hip-hop, but more classic stuff like the SOS Band and Lisa Lisa. There’s this wonderful show on it called the Art Laboe Connection, which is this really old, white guy who takes dedications. Minorities are the only people who call in—mostly black and Latino people. He reads their requests in the most grammatically incorrect way, speaking like a white guy would never speak. But the old-school freestyle stuff that he plays is really beautiful, with lots of driving percussion. The goal was to get driving beats and rhythms on this record.”
There are moments of wonderful wistfulness on Kids in LA (witness the dreamy layers of vocals and shoegaze-y synths in “Having Friends Over”). But the overall tone is indeed aimed at the dance floor, with standouts like “Up All Night” seemingly designed to make you wish you were downing martinis with Bryan Ferry in a Monaco disco.
Thematically, Kids in LA operates on the idea that, for better or worse, the world is filled with bored-by-life people who’ve been lucky enough to come from money, and are so self-absorbed they have no idea how blessed they are. The big worry of the character at the centre of the bass-heavy dark-waver “Air Conditioning” is making it to the local record store to hear a blog-buzzed cassette tape, while the midnight funk jam “The Hardest Part” contains such empty-headed musings as “Got nowhere to go/Should I think about the future?”
“I’m proud of the fact that, subtly in each track, there’s a protagonist with a concern that’s totally superfluous,” Kivel says. “In every song there’s someone with a deep existential concern. It can be a guy who thinks he’s spending too much time at the pool. Or somebody wondering when someone is going to bring them food. Also, the protagonists on this record are sleeping a lot of the time, passed out. They are not in bed, taking advantage of the decadence of being super-rich, but instead are totally sprawled out, sleeping under a sink. The idea is that they’ve taken it all for granted.”
Importantly, he didn’t want to come across as judgmental of the kind of kids that, growing up in Los Angeles, he was more than familiar with.
“The record, lyrically, plays with relativity,” Kivel notes. “All of us who live in a First-World nation try and draw lines and figure out ‘What are hardships for people?’ Not to sound dramatic, but the fact that we aren’t struggling for food and shelter raises the questions of ‘What are our problems?’ So this record isn’t criticizing people’s trite problems, but instead is taken from the view that they are real. They might strike us as completely unnecessary, but to these people they are real concerns.”
What makes those concerns worth our time? Start, Kivel suggests, with the fact that we’ve all got things that torment us, no matter how together we might appear to be.
“I’ve found out in life that it doesn’t matter how much you have—your problems will be as big to you as objectively serious problems are to other people, because that’s the way your minds work.”
Kivel is not immune to this, despite the fact that both he and Edmundson are blessed to be in a band that hit big with tastemakers right out of the gate. All the adoration has done nothing to chase away the demons that he finds himself dealing with. That he’s living at least a semi-charmed life and still finds himself unable to completely enjoy it gives him something in common, one could argue, with a certain group of kids in L.A.
“I’m a very anxious person, with tons of neuroses,” he admits. “And you know what? That’s entirely a luxury. And it’s funny—as soon as my life has been figured out or fixed, something else always pops up. It’s never-ending for me, and I think it’s interesting to talk about it. I think some people feel bad about having petty fears, but to me it’s all relative. And it’s all worth examining. I’ve had my struggles, in music and elsewhere. But I am trying my best to be grateful.”