Lolawolf Just Made the Most Unpredictable R&B Album of the Year

We talk to Zoë Kravitz and Jimmy Giannopoulos about defying expectations, karaoking with Drake, and hanging at the Gucci Trap.

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Oct 23 2014, 5:30pm


Photo by Eric Feigenbaum

Let’s get one thing straight: Lolawolf isn’t “Zoë Kravitz and her backing band.” The starlet—born to parents Lenny and Lisa Bonet—is taking a decidedly anti-pop star approach in New York-based band which operates more like a collective. Friends Zoë and Jimmy Giannopoulos and James Levy of Reputante collaborate on everything from their glitched-out, deep-web rave aesthetic to their lyrics and production. They self-release their music—last year’s 80s-spirited debut EP, and their new 90s-deconstructed album, Calm Down—and they don’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Last year, Zoë told us, “I don’t have the intention of being a popstar. I don’t really care if people like it or not, but if they do, that’s awesome.” Just one listen of Calm Down confirms that. The warped-pop album is full of sudden swerves and turns; experimental late-night songs that riff on the music they grew up hearing and loving on the radio, like the clanging R&B ballad “Skipping Days” and the wavy love jam “Stay With Me.”

Still, even though fame isn’t their concern, Lolawolf aren’t exactly operating out of the corners of SoundCloud. It’s somewhat inevitable for them: This year, just as they finished touring with Lily Allen, the group headed to Australia to open for Miley Cyrus on her Bangerz tour.

We caught up with Zoë and Jimmy to talk about their unexpected album, karaoking with their friend Drake, what Zoë and Lil Wayne have in common.

There’s a lot going on inside of it.
Zoë Kravitz:
That’s for sure.

How and when did you decide to switch your sound from the EP?
Zoë:
We didn’t sit down and make a decision to change our sound it just so happened that when we recorded, we were listening to a lot of hip-hop and old school R&B and 90s stuff—like Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, Salt ‘N’ Pepper, TLC’s Crazy Sexy Cool—and that made its way into the music.

Did you want to create an album where each song was an unpredictable turn from the last one?
Jimmy Franco:
It’s very minimal in the sense that there’s not much happening in the production and how scattered the vocals are. We’re trying to be minimal so we can really push our idea. As far as it being all over the place, it’s not really to us. That sort of style made sense to all of us. We’re into it feeling like you’re making a right turn when you think you’re going left.

The sound touches on a lot of trends that have been happening in music—there’s an R&B lean, glitchy moments—
Jimmy:
We’re definitely fans of modern music. We’ve always liked trap and we listen to new music, not for what’s trendy right now, but different parts of each song. Shit’s moving so fast and there’s so much music out there. If we can listen to as much music as we do, and keep it cohesive then we’re on the right track—because it can sound like a garage sale real easily.

The album is like a punch in the gut, in the best way possible. How much of it was you Zoë, trying to push against people’s expectations?
Zoë:
We didn’t think about that in the slightest bit. The first EP was just us fucking around and we were doing this with a little more intention. While we were talking, I would say, ‘What is music that makes us want to dance and nostalgic?’ So we decided to take the music that we grew up with and turn it into something of our own. Not one moment of this record was spent worrying about other people were going to think of it.

The last time we talked to you, you said that you didn’t want to be a pop star. That kind of rebellion comes across but it’s interesting because you guys have now gone on tour with Lily Allen and you’re about to go on tour with Miley Cyrus.
Jimmy:
We love pop and weird abstract hip-hop. We’ll listen to a couple of Brian Eno records or some weird gypsy music. I think the idea of a pop star is interesting as fuck but the way we create isn’t that. It’s just three friends sitting in a room making music and saying, ‘Oh, this could sound hard. Let’s go this way.’ That’s why we’re not on any label. We want to make the music we like. It’s not really about getting it to the masses. It’s about trying to find a niche group. When someone like Miley, who’s rad, says, ‘Hey, I think your shit will translate. You should come play some shows with us.’ Of course we’re going to do it. If A$AP Rocky, says come on the road with us, we’d be like, ‘Cool.’ If a noise band asked us, we’d do that too.
Zoë: We just want to go on tour with people that we think are cool and fun and that comes in all kind of genres.

Tell me about the Gucci trap, where you filmed the “Ayo” video.
Jimmy:
Trouble Andrews is an artist and has his own band that’s sick—it’s New Wave-y threaded with hip-hop vibes—and he has an art space which is an apartment where he does all of his painting, photography, videos and music. It’s in Bed-Stuy and it’s really dope.

How did the video come together there?
Zoë:
Jimmy had seen a bunch of his videos and really liked his aesthetic. We sent him the record and said, ‘Whatever song you vibe with is what we’ll do.’ He really liked the chaotic, tribal rhythm of ‘Ayo’—and the playfulness because that song is really playful—and he brought that concept to life. He shot us natural, hanging out in front of the green screen and then came up with the rest after.
Jimmy: We steered him in the direction. We were like, ‘We want this to be glitched out, raw, and future.’

As far as the lyrics go, is that something you handle alone Zoë?
Zoë:
For the most part. They’re there when I’m writing them and they’ll often tell me if they don’t like something or help me switch words around. A lot of them have to do with relationships—with friends, lovers. It’s becoming a diary of sorts for me so it’s usually about what I’m going through at the time. It’s also inspired by the beat—sometimes that will make them a little more playful or dramatic. Sometimes I’ll think about the beautifully simple love songs I grew up on.

Was there once incident that inspired the song “Bitch?”
Jimmy:
The OutKast show.
Zoë: Jimmy wrote that chorus at Coachella while we were watching OutKast. He started rapping it over whatever song OutKast was playing and singing in my ear [laughs].
Jimmy: Then I texted it to Zoë and said we should do something with this. There’s an obvious sort of attitude to it.
Zoë: Jimmy had to make me sing that. I wrote the first verse to it and then I sang it and was like, ‘I don’t know man.’ I was feeling weird and insecure about giving that much attitude and doing this pseudo-rapping thing. Jimmy had to talk me up and give me some confidence.
Jimmy: I’ll say what Trouble Andrews did, ‘She pretty much came in like Lil Wayne and did this flow.’ It complimented the attitude and vibe of the chorus so well that I thought it was dope.

It’s kind of like your “Bow Down” moment.
Zoë:
[Laughs] My “Bow Down Bitches” moment Like Beyoncé? I definitely have to channel something when we do it live. It has an anthemic vibe to it and the crowd really loves it. I think whenever there’s a cocky anthem, people love it because when they sing it, it makes the song about them. Everyone gets into that place where they’re sure of themselves and that’s how you want to feel.

Do you have plans to do more in the realm of hip-hop or work with someone like Rocky?
Zoë:
Rocky’s a really great friend of ours. He’s super supportive and comes to a bunch of our shows. We’ve been trying to nail him down to do something for awhile. He’s gone into the studio and messed around, it just hasn’t really gotten to where it needs to be. But I do hope and think there will be a collaboration with him for sure.
Jimmy: He’s so natural in the studio too. We were chilling out with him and his whole vibe is pretty impressive. He taps in and lets the energy of his creativity just take him. We were just trying to keep up.

I heard that you karaoke with Drake. Is that someone you’d bring in on the project?
Zoë:
[Laughs] Yeah, we karaoke with him. He’s also a buddy of ours and very talented. If we’re all in the same place at the same time, we’d love to. We have so many talented friends and we’d work with all of them. It’s just about the right timing.

Marissa G. Muller would love to see Lolawolf and Drake karaoke. She's on Twitter.