The Method Behind letlive.'s Madness
Jason Butler explains what's going through his head while he's hanging from the rafters like a lunatic.
Photos by Anthony Gattine
I first saw letlive. play in London at Vice’s own The Old Blue Last in February 2011. I was reviewing the show for a magazine and they blew me away. Over the course of the next few years, through more reviews and interviews, I got to know frontman Jason Aalon Butler well and we always try to catch up whenever he’s in New York. When they played here the other week, it was, seriously, one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to in my entire life and I felt compelled to talk to him about his mindset during these insane shows of his. So we caught up over the phone a few days later, and this is what went down...
Noisey: When I saw you guys the other night, there was a moment just before you did the backflip off the wall, where you looked utterly crazy and possessed. Your nostrils were flaring, you looked lost in some weird world and then suddenly the backflip happened. What was going through your mind?
Jason Butler: Honestly, I’m not exactly sure. A lot of the time I’m not fully… I am lucid, but I’m not concerned with my actions each step of the way. I don’t want to hurt anyone else, but I think the concern for my own safety is definitely diminished slightly when getting onstage. I know that my whole life, just as a regular dude, I’ve always just enjoyed pushing things a little bit further than what would be considered normal or appropriate. But only in the ways of things that I consider exciting—I don’t mean being morally corrupt or morally distasteful. I mean things that, personally, I can enjoy that won’t offend or impose upon anyone else. So that’s kind of what’s happening onstage, I guess.
What’s the physical toll to you after you play live? It must take it out of you…
Yeah, I think it does. I think my make-up physically, or perhaps a little bit mentally, because what you think can also guide the way you feel… I don’t know. I think the emotional toll might be a little bit more than the actual physical toll.
I was going to ask that. Because my perception is that this is you enacting out whatever emotional stuff is going on inside you in a physical way. So there’s this duality being drained out of you, the physical and the emotional, and it must be exhausting.
That’s exactly what it is. And that’s the perfect word for it. It is a rather interesting duality when I stop to think to about it or discuss it with someone like yourself. It’s this very demanding, as well as commanding, duality and it’s quite ironic, because in the past when they were happening, those emotions would actually make me become rather placid and slow me down. I think my way of chilling with them now is how you’ve put it before—almost exorcising them, like really getting rid of them and expelling them in a way that, I guess, is rather energetic and frenetic.
Does it ever get to the point, when you’re on tour day after day and you’re like "I just can’t be bothered today. I just want to stay in bed or sleep or not jump around?"
Yeah. Because that person that I am before and after stage is a pretty distinct individual versus the person I am onstage. So even if I am feeling that way before I play—and I know this sounds clichéd and whimsical—the energy, the music, the people, what we’ve written and the potential that these songs hold for me every night, it becomes rather exciting and I think I just kind of turn up and the switch is flicked as soon as we strike our first chord. But definitely, there’s times when I’m fucking exhausted or I’m fucking tired or I’m sick or in a weird place, absolutely. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m impervious to all things that are normal for most people to feel every day, especially in such a consistently physically taxing career that is full-time touring.
One of the other things that strikes me, too, is that you don’t drink—you’re doing all of this sober.
Yeah, man. Early on in my life, from ailments I was afflicted with and being sick and what not, they administered drugs to me as a child and I didn’t like the way that felt. I didn’t like the fever dreams and the strange way of thinking brought on by the chemical disposition in my head when I was given these drugs. So ever since I’ve been a child, I’ve never wanted to feel that way again. I feel like there is a place you can exist in art or performance or whatever it is that you love that can be likened to highs—and this is going to sound crazy—a sense that’s similar to deep meditation or similar to a trip you would take on DMT or on any substance. You can reach that place because they are, in fact, within your own mind, but they’re just induced differently. For me, I’m encouraging and inducing that trip—that place that exists in my own head while onstage or while I’m writing music. I just try to really, really deeply invest and also open up my heart as much as I can while doing so. And I don’t think it would be a very good idea for someone like me—I’m striking pre-emptively—I don’t think it would be a good idea if I lowered any of my inhibitions.
Yeah, if you’re like that sober, I don’t want to see what you’re like when you’re drunk!
I definitely don’t think it’d be the best idea! I don’t think it’d be safe… because I do make a lot of effort to ensure that I don’t harm anyone else other than my own self, but I’m sure that if inhibitions were lowered, it would make it harder to concentrate on the things around you.
Do you think people sometimes miss the point of that? You played at Webster Hall the day after that guy, whether or not it was related to crowdsurfing or stage diving, died outside the Miss May I gig. Are you ever worried that people in the crowd don’t understand the concern or consideration that you have, that they haven’t got it themselves, that they just want to punch people and hit people and bash them about?
Yeah. I certainly do. And I definitely do recognize the melange of mindsets and the myriad of perceptions at shows now. Because when you open up your band or your art as a forum to be as accessible to as many different types of people as possible, you’re also inviting contrast and some ideas will clash. With this music in particular, which happens to go by the moniker of letlive., people are there, I would hope, to make the experience mean something, which is great, and we do in fact promote that and are always encouraging it. But the biggest thing for us is as long as there’s no imposition on another person, as long as you’re not encroaching someone else’s good time or set of values… we can all exist together at a letlive. show and we can all have as much fun as we can possibly have. The only rule—and I would call it a very invisible guideline, if any—would be you can’t come to a letlive. show if your intentions are to destroy someone else, or destroy someone else’s idea of excitement or a good time.
That answer… to me there are like three elements to letlive., and you might disagree, so tell me I'm wrong if you want, but you’ve got the visceral, the emotional, and the cerebral. That was a very cerebral answer about something that’s very visceral, and the three things seem to somehow combine onstage and create this weird whirlwind of what should be contradictory ideas but actually complement each other.
Oh my gosh, yes. You hit the nail on the head with all of that, absolutely.
OK, good. So the dumb follow-up question is: how do you do that? You write these words and they mean something intellectually and emotionally and then it channels through you as a person? Is there a certain level of catharsis you need to reach, or energy you need to use up?
There used to be. It used to be about this sense of personal satisfaction and catharsis and self-analysis, and now that has all taken on a rather autonomous form and it just does it itself. I go onstage and what’s going to happen is going to happen. It used to be like "OK, I’m going to go out and I’m going to say these things because I mean it" and all this other bullshit. But then, as I started to get older, I realized the idea and essence of authenticity is allowing something to live on its own. I feel like when I go onstage, whatever’s being created I’m just lucky to be a part of it. I’m just lucky enough to be a vessel. But I make it a point to never say or do anything that I don’t mean onstage. I try to be as authentic and organic as possible.
Let’s talk about the things you say. These speeches you make—do you in any way prepare them beforehand?
No, I never ever think about that. Never. People ask at shows all the time—have you seen this bar that’s hanging from the roof? Are you going to climb it? I always answer no. Because I feel like if I think about something beforehand, I’m going to fuck it up. A) I could fuck it up physically and B) it’s going to be like a show, something that’s been planned out in order to get a certain type of reaction. And that’s not what I’m out here to do. The only type of reaction I’m trying to get is people feeling some sense of emotional liberation in a safe place. I’m not fucking there to be this clown of the hardcore or punk rock circuit. That’s not what I’m trying to do.
Going by your introduction to the song in New York, "Muther" is very much about love now, it’s about your girlfriend and the hope she’s given you, the passion she’s instilled in you. Which is very different from the hate that was flowing through what you said when you used to introduce it. It’s become a song very much on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
That’s exactly what it is. And something about you, Mischa, that I really appreciate and I knew from the moment that we met, is that you see—and you brought it up in the conversation and this will be, I think, a nexus for most of what we’re talking about—the duality. This is how we exist. There are so many proverbs and adages and aphorisms that believe in the dark and the light, the sun and the moon, the Yin and the Yang and all that other shit, but, honestly, it exists and it will continue to show its face in everything we do. I am by no means exempt from that. I’ve always known in my life, at every turn I take, I’m going to see the opposite side at some point and I need to ask myself, "What can I get from this?" Even if it’s the most treacherous or gruelling or painful thing in my life, because the amount of times I’ve experienced this quote-unquote pain and tribulation—I felt was unfair for so long. I felt like something in the universe was acting in a way that was actually imbalanced towards me. When I was in my darkest moments, for lack of a better descriptor, in those moments, was when I realized how special the next day could be if I just fucking woke up. If I just got to see another person or say hello or take another breath—instead of letting it consume me and navigate me into the depths of my own very dangerous and dark cerebral places. Like, "Fuck it. This is fucked and this really bad and this is sadness—this is sadness." So now, everything’s after sadness and I should be appreciating. I started to realize that I’m lucky just to wake up and… I’m digressing, I apologize.
My girlfriend now is the love of my life and something that I unexpectedly was given after writing a record saying I may be a human being that is designed to want love but can’t necessarily get it because of my patterned nature and my prior experiences with romance and trust and connectionswith other human beings. And all of a sudden—and again, there’s that duality—in that moment, where I was just like, "Yeah, I could just be that person and I need to be OK with that," while I’m trying to find some peace and solace in the fact that I may not find love, even though deep inside I know it’s all I want, I was obliged and gifted with the woman in my life now. It’s completely changed my perspective and it’s not this sort of idealistic and cinematic idea. It’s real. I’m in love with her. And because of my dark places, this love is the most powerful thing I’ve ever felt—because of all that hate, because of all that aggression, because of all those moments when I was truly so ignorant to the fact that this was even a possibility. Because of that, I have catalysed and enhanced the love I have for this woman and it’s fucking insane. Long story short, man—if I can do it, I feel like I should explain to people who I was and who I’ve become, if only to present a testimony, like, "I’ve done this!" And I’m not saying it’s going to happen immediately or it’s going to happen to everyone in this room at a certain time, but it is possible. If I did it in the state that I was and the way it happened, anybody can find a place where they find happiness. It doesn’t even have to be falling in love romantically, but falling in love with yourself. That’s what she’s helping me with now. Falling in love with something you can enjoy in any capacity. Love is a huge thing and it’s such an exhausted word and I’m trying to find a new way to look at love, because the shit I feel for my girlfriend and for people that are with us on this whole journey that is letlive., that love I feel is beyond a storybook, it’s beyond a movie, it’s beyond four letters. It’s all-encompassing and it’s inexplicable. It’s a fucking feeling. That’s what it is. We haven’t figured it out chemically, we haven’t figured it out scientifically yet, they keep trying to figure it out, and somehow it circumvents its way around logic. We haven’t figured it out yet and I don’t fucking want to. I just want to feel it. And that’s really what I’m doing in all those instances. Sorry, that was fucking too long.
No, it’s all good! We’re running out of time, but I have to say, I feel sorry for your tour manager. He was running around onstage trying to clear up your mess, essentially. Do you buy him chocolates before each show to apologize in advance?
We’ve known each other since we were kids. We used to book shows together, we used to play shows together. A lot of us grew up together and he happens to be able to read me. He’s got some foresight when it comes to Jason Aalon Butler and he has this sense of space clairvoyance and I think he knows what I’m going to do before I do it, or at least he sees the potential of what I can do. So he safeguards everything in his head and he’s always there for me and he’s always, always, always got my back. He shadows me in a way that keeps the show safe and running. Shit, man. I’ve got to shout him out, don’t I? Richard Humphrey, our tour manager / stage manager / one of our best friends from childhood keeps Jason Aalon safe and running at all our shows, so I’ve got to shout out Dick for sure.
You’ve got some new dance moves, too, I noticed, a lot of little leg jiggles. What inspired those?
Honestly, just remembering what I love. I love that funk. I grew up with it, soul, R & B, pop, Michael Jackson, James Brown—even current pop. I think Bruno Mars is going to kill it. He for sure went to dancing classes. I used to love that shit, and I still do. Again, it’s just letting your body act in a way that it’s representing how you feel. And sometimes my feet are happy, so I just let them go!
That’s a good note to end on. Anything you want to add? Any declarations you need to make?
Honestly, if you could, I just want to put you in this and say thank you, because with all of the things that letlive. has done and will do, there are those that will review us and those that will discuss us and those that will criticize us, but you understand us, Mischa. And I want this in the piece—tell the editor or whatever, "Fucking put this in there." Mischa, you get it. You are not only a proponent of letlive. or a patron, but you’re my friend. And this is what I’m talking about. This is why I said "yes" to this interview and "fuck you all" to the bunch of other ones, because I want to discuss this with not only my friend, who will be honest with me about what he sees, but, again, that duality—I need someone who will be honest with me about what he sees, whether good or bad, and you are one of those people. And you are the reason journalism should continue. You are a true idea of what it is to be a journalist, that rock journalism—to all of those people out there that keep on propagating the bullshit and really compromising the art of journalism, have a talk with Mischa and then maybe you can fucking come back and holler at me.
I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. Thank you. I doubt they’ll let me put in there, but I’ll try.
They fucking better!
[Editor's note: Totally put it in there.]
Also check out: