May 19, 2010
I meet Avan Lava outside St. Cecilia’s Catholic School and Church in Williamsburg. Father Jim walks past and exchanges hellos with multi-instrumentalist Michael “Le Chev” Cheever and singer Tom Hennes as the two finish their cigarettes. Father Jim walks back up the stairs into the school and a few seconds later Cheever and Hennes lead me down to the Church’s basement, filled with rooms that Father Jim rents out to artists, dancers, and musicians. We walk through a maze of dust- and clutter-filled rooms until we reach the recording studio where I sit down and talk with the band.
Avan Lava’s music doesn’t necessarily sound like it was recorded in a church basement—it can certainly be haunting and ambient at times, but still the group switches easily between shoe-gazey, dream pop and bouncy, dance-ready neu-disco. Avan Lava have already released their first EP, Vapors, which you can get on iTunes or their website; but the two are still hard at work, spending hours upon hours in the basement of St. Cecilia’s figuring out and perfecting their constantly changing sound.
Jezebel Music: So how did you guys meet and decide to start working together?
Michael Cheever: We were working with a friend of mine, Ian, and all of us were writing this song together.
Tom Hennes: Yeah, and Ian had seen me sing in something random, and was just like “Hey come sing with me.” So I showed up at the studio and it was the four of us, and Mike and I kept having the same ideas. It was weird.
MC: Especially because we were working with like a 70s, glam rock melody. And everyone was kind of saying, “I dunno, I dunno,” and Tom and I were like, “Yeah, that’s it!”
TH: It’s funny because we were the two people whose input wasn’t really wanted, because we were kind of invited into this project.
MC: I actually don’t think it was fitting the track very well, but it was exciting for us.
JM.com: Did you guys find out that you came from similar musical backgrounds?
TH: No, not even. That’s kind of what’s cool—we don’t really listen to the same music. So we both bring weird, opposite things that can clash in this really interesting way. We’re always thinking about the sound we want to make, and it always ends up being something completely different.
MC: You’re never going to make what you think you’re making.
JM.com: What other stuff have you guys done before Avan Lava?
TH: I’ve done mostly just random things. I used to sing backup for rock singers, I’ve done rock musicals; but this is the first band I’ve ever been in.
JM.com: What are your biggest influences, specifically for Avan Lava?
MC: Well, right now I’m listening to a lot of music out of Paris and Berlin. I really like electronic music. I always have to get a taste of what’s happening right now, but the stuff I listen to over and over again, I usually like to be from 15 to 20 years ago, mostly so I don’t make stuff that sounds like what else is out there now.
TH: I feel like I listen to everything. But as far as influence goes, I love soul, pop, and R&B singers. And that’s what’s fun about this: I don’t think people are making our kind of music with necessarily the same amount of singing that we do. It could be a lot simpler, but I do think of people like freaking Michael Jackson and the great singers who will throw in layered harmonies and just say, “Fuck it, I’m gonna riff all over this.”
JM.com: What kind of process do you have for writing music together?
MC: Well I play all the instruments. It typically either starts with someone having an idea that we should write a song about this, or we just wrote three sleepy songs and now we need to…
TH: Pump it up.
MC: Yeah. Or I try to think about it in terms of a record now. At first it started with random beats and tracks, and then I’d make a bunch of stuff and Tom would hear one beat and say, “This beat is sick,” or “Let’s do something with that.” But now the process has changed to seeing the arc of a whole a record, and fitting in the pieces. The thing is, by the time a record’s finished, whoever’s made it is basically done. You started making this shit a year ago, and by the time it comes out you’re like, “That sounds old already.” So the last track is like a flava sava for the next one.
TH: And I think that’s what we were surprised with the way “The Easy Way” came out, because it was almost like a joke, but not even—we were just having fun and it just ended up becoming our new sound. We definitely want to play with more pop influence.
JM.com: So does the music you’re working on now have a more pop feel to it?
MC: Parts of it. I mean, my favorite records are the ones where people have a few of those tracks and they also give some real treats for the person who’s going to listen to it all the way.
TH: The more complex songs. You’re not going to be able to sing along with it by the second listen.
MC: It’s like, do I want a Coca-Cola Classic or do I want a fruit smoothie with the perfect amount of all these random things. It might not be as punchy and fun, but you’re gonna feel a lot better after you listen to it a few times.
JM.com: You just started playing live. Did you put together a band? When you’re playing live, are you trying to have the poppier, more exciting show, or how do you try to balance it out with the sleepier stuff or the more down stuff?
MC: For the live stuff we try to get more emphasis on the foundations of a song, because I think what separates a lot of recordings—and I hope our recordings too—is the weird stuff…
TH: More ambient.
MC: Yeah the ambient stuff and the noises, those really build a recording. But live you just want the drum beat, so we try to plan it that way. But for the last show we had nine fucking people in the band, which is a lot.
TH: And we both recruited people we worked with or close friends who are musicians to be in the band.
JM.com: So you’re still fleshing everything out?
MC: We’re trying a couple different things. Like, my favorite shows are punk shows, and I fucking hate punk. But going to a punk show is the best; it’s like a riot. I saw this band The Death Set, and at one point the guitar players were running around and both of their guitars were unplugged, and it didn’t matter at all. And I love that. I don’t think that’s specifically where our show is going, but that energy is really raw to me. We want to have a show where people can get energetic and where we reach this perfect ground between the electronic world and the acoustic world—like what LCD Soundsytem or Soulwax do live. And also we’re just watching Bjork videos from the 90s.
TH: The best.
MC: Well she has this one dude on like a synthesizer and a string quartet. Or she has one guy playing a snare drum, and the whole time you’re thinking, “Damn that guy’s fucking incredible!” And then you realize there are just some beats playing behind him, he’s not really doing anything. But you bought it.
TH: She’s cool, because live, every song’s arrangement is just completely different. It seems like she just uses whoever’s in town.
MC: Yeah, I feel like we’re fleshing out our “New York Set” with our New York friends, but we want to keep it so it evolves and changes. I think a band naturally does that anyway, but I want it to be a conscious decision where you come to a show and you hear the songs that you like, but there are some differences.
JM.com: Are you recording anything new now, like a full-length?
MC: We’ve had a couple offers of people wanting to put out an album for us, so we’re planning on releasing a full-length by maybe early next year, and also another EP by the end of the summer. I would just like to put something out again pretty soon.
TH: We’re always working on a few tracks…but there’s always one that’s top priority, the one we can’t stop listening to and fucking with.
JM.com: Do both of you have other projects your working on too?
MC: I’m putting out a bunch of house music with my house music project called, Chateau [Laughs]. And that stuff really influences me—you know we’re not a house group, but there’s a lot of electronic influence and I love that shit. I steal all my production tricks from those guys.
TH: I’m actually doing a Jeff Buckley musical that’s doing like a pre-Broadway trial. No one’s actually an actor, which makes it really cool; and it’s just full of really great musicians who all share this mutual love for Jeff Buckley. His mom’s involved too, so it’s like a family project.
JM.com: Tom, do you have more of a musical theater background?
TH: Yeah. I kinda quit in college, because I hated being told how to do it, especially when no one actually knows what it is anymore.
JM.com: Does that background play into what you like to bring to Avan Lava?
TH: I think the most I bring from it is storytelling, and also just being comfortable and improving. I never really knew what the hell I was doing in musical theater, and I’m still kind of in it, but I’m glad I’ve gone to a more rock ‘n’ roll kind of place. It’s so much more fun and fulfilling to do your own stuff.
JM.com: What are your favorite summer songs?
MC: I think mine are a little old, but I really like this song, “My Partna Dem” by Rich Kids, and “Look Like Jesus” by Lil B—“Suckin’ on my dick cause I look like Jesus.” That’s gonna be a summer classic for sure. And I’ve been listening to “High Together” by Siriusmo over and over. Also I’ve been really into Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s Crydamoure label—early 90’s house is back, it’s here again for real. And I just listen to Delorean non-stop.
TH: I dunno, in the summer I’m always a sucker for Sigur Rós.
MC: Yeah, so what else are we doing … We are loving diners right now. A milkshake, grilled cheese, French fries with ketchup—nothing better. That’s my summer jam.
JM: Where’s your favorite diner?
MC: It’s either Mega Bites or Pies and Thighs. We were also at this one a few blocks away and we overheard the best music biz conversation. This guy’s giving advice to his friend and he’s like, “Look, if you ain’t playin’ on Broadway and if you ain’t playin’ in a jazz band, you can go fuck yourself.” And then he keeps going and says, “Listen, you gotta be ready to rock all fuckin’ night if you have to. Look at me, I’m ready to rock till two in the fuckin’ morning if you want.”
TH: [Laughs] Two?
MC: Yeah, two. Like I’m in the Ghoul Zone till like five. That’s what we call this place: The Ghoul Zone.
by Jon Blistein
Catch Avan Lava at the Jezebel Music Feature Show June 3rd!