Saint Motel spikes hooks with dark subject matter
With its jaunty piano riff and sprightly brass accompaniment, “1997” is as close to perfect as an indie-pop tune can get. The song, by Los Angeles–based Saint Motel, is about finding acceptance among like-minded companions. Just when you think “1997” sounds like the sort of thing that might pop up in a smartphone ad, however, you might notice that it doesn’t paint as rosy a picture as it first appears.
Reached in his hometown of Minneapolis, where he has returned for Thanksgiving, Saint Motel singer-guitarist-keyboardist A/J Jackson, reveals that the lyrics were inspired by a UFO religion whose members committed mass suicide in ’97, with the aim of freeing their souls to board an alien spacecraft.
“I did a lot of research into the Heaven’s Gate cult and watched a lot of the documentaries, and their own videotapes,” Jackson says. “They were just such a tight group of friends, really. It was a really intense cult, but at the same time these were all people that really couldn’t find these bonds outside of the cult. There’s something very sinister in ‘1997’, the undertones of it, but there’s something about friendship, too.”
It should be obvious by now that Saint Motel has no fear of spiking its hookiest tunes with lyrics exploring the dark corners of the human psyche. This is borne out on the Cali quartet’s debut LP, Voyeur. “Puzzle Pieces”, for example, sounds like pure aural sunshine, but astute listeners will realize that it’s actually about someone who is dangerously addicted to cosmetic surgery.
Jackson admits that he often undercuts his most accessible melodies by wrapping them around topics guaranteed to make the faint-hearted squeamish—if they even notice, that is.
“It’s not necessarily a smart move to do that,” he acknowledges. “It’s almost like defacing something that is very commercial. And I think that that contrast is very unique, but it’s so often glossed over, and in so many reviews and in a lot of feedback, people don’t notice those elements of it. Which is fine, but it’s definitely something we think about, and we actually enjoy having that kind of strange lyrical subject matter—something that’s not just the same old love song, or a song about, you know, youth or something, that some record label’s thinking, ‘Oh, this will sell. You’ve got to use these certain key words and people will use it in a Nokia commercial.’ It’s just so repetitive so often.”
One might justifiably wonder why Saint Motel doesn’t fully embrace its dark side, sonically speaking, and create something that would fit on that Songs for Staring Into the Abyss playlist alongside Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and the entire Joy Division catalogue. Why make pop at all?
“It’s escapist music,” Jackson reasons. “We’re not necessarily the most upbeat or energetic guys, but historically we’d come into the rehearsal space, which is like a dark dungeon in downtown L.A., after working our shitty part-time jobs or whatever, and we wanted music that would be a release for us. Music that would be fun and amplified, and would be something that we could play to get out of certain mindsets.”
Saint Motel plays the Media Club on Tuesday (December 4).