DUSTIN LOVELIS: WHISKEY AND A MICROPHONE
photography by ward robinson
Dustin Lovelis played guitar and sang in the Long Beach band the Fling, who got out one album on storied indie Dangerbird before complications from all directions finally made them collapse around 2013. For Lovelis, it must’ve been like getting kicked out of the house—that was where he’d spent most of his musical adulthood, if you wanna call it that, and then it was done. (It didn’t help that he lost a job, a relationship and a dog all at pretty much the same time.) Dimensions came out of these kinds of nights—whiskey, guitar, tape rolling—and month by month Lovelis pieced together what would become his full-length solo debut. Now just weeks from release, Dimensions is revealed as an album working against its own sense of isolation and all the more powerful for it. It’s pop despite itself, like those Emitt Rhodes songs that sound so innocent until the lyrics sink in, and it’s an emotional state captured as it happens, like those parts on Big Star’s 3rd where you can almost hear the bottles smashing into the back of the studio. There’s moments of Lennon-esque self-evisceration and sarcasm and a Pixies-ish sense of harmony and space, as well as a certain powerful something that must’ve been absorbed during sessions at Elliot Smith’s New Monkey Studios. But really Dimensions is a brave and personal self-portrait, raw and alive with the humor and honesty that happens when you’ve got no one to talk to but yourself. Lovelis speaks now moments before making one of his locally famous backyard brick-oven pizzas. He performs with Pageants on Mar. 19 at Acerogami in Pomona. This interview by Kristina Benson and Chris Ziegler.
My dad’s a musician—he was in a band called the Fling when he was about 22.
Was he the first person to teach you about trademark infringement?
No, luckily! He did request we cover one of his songs and put it on a record, but we never got around to it. We fucked up. We’d been discussing names and we were coming up with the stupidest names you could think of. ‘Milk Babies.’ They were all ridiculous. It got to a point where it was a joke.
‘Milk Babies’ sounds more like the first part of a felonious Google search.
That’s what we were going for!
When someone’s parent has been a musician, it’s like the parent is either super supportive or super traumatized—like, ‘No, don’t follow me into this life of pain!’
They’ve always been super supportive. Right out of high school I was playing in bands and on the road and making records. Even to this day, they’ve been supportive, even though it hasn’t been a very lucrative financial decision. They back me! My dad’s old band the Fling … when he was like 22, he had a little happy accident that happened to be me, and he ended up having to give up music to raise a family.
And then you resurrected it?
Yeah—my brother and I were like, ‘It’d be cool to keep the legacy going.’ [Our dad] was a huge Beatles fan growing up. We had all this rare … like the Beatles Christmas album, fan club Christmas albums … he used to play guitar and there’s old home videos where he’s playing guitar and we’re super young. There’s always a guitar around or a record playing. It’s ingrained in [my brother] Graham and I since we were kids. Both my brothers are really into video production and they also play music. My sister moved to Austin—she’s into music but kinda strayed from the pack stylistically. She’s into modern country.
I thought you’d say she’s a juggalo.
She might be? I don’t know! Every time I see her, she takes the make-up off? An undercover juggalo. That’s the next documentary—My Sister, Undercover Juggalo.
Did your dad’s history in a band make it seem more possible for you to be in a band?
He was supportive but definitely made it known that this isn’t easy. ‘If you’re gonna do this for a living, you gotta get super fucking lucky.’ And that hasn’t happened yet!
Which talk was scarier: ‘Son, the birds and the bees…’ or ‘Son, this is what the music business is really like…’?
Music business. When it came to birds and bees, all he told me was, ‘Sex is like candy—you can’t get enough of it.’
The last Fling record was called Mean Something—looking back, that almost comes off like ‘Avenge me!’ Like a last defiant cry before you broke up.
Graham came up with the name. It’s a play on words. It could be ‘MEAN something,’ or an actual physical … mean … something. We tried to emphasize that with the cover with the bear Richard Swift drew.
Which is an actual mean … something.
I think we were a little pissed-off and bitter about the way things went down, and how much work we put into it and it kind of falling apart. Without us knowing at the time, that was a break-up record. We got back from a ten-and-a-half-week tour, wrote that record about the state of our lives at that time and went our separate ways. But I really like that record. It’s my favorite we ever made. It just didn’t really get to see the light of day. I watched that Big Star documentary at the Art Theatre and just felt like I related to it so much. ‘These motherfuckers are so good and nobody knows!’
So you start making this solo album after the band you’d been in for years breaks up. How much of Dimensions is you proving to yourself that you’re still you? That your days as a musician aren’t over?
I definitely set out to make something on my own to prove to myself that I was capable of doing something independently. The band never had a talk. We didn’t wanna tour anymore, we rehearsed less, played a few shows after the record and then everybody got super busy … after that long tour, our lives all individually fell apart. I lost my job, I lost my girlfriend, I lost my dog. It was like a fucking country song. The person I was dating also had the dog, so … she took the dog.
All in the same day?
All in a week. Her and I split, I got fired for touring too much and then the band split up shortly after. I was just … broke, living in a two-bedroom apartment with two of my bandmates, and getting $200 a month working at the museum of art. I was like … fuck my life right now.
What was your go-to cocktail then?
Just whiskey. And a microphone. In my room, drinking and recording. There was a period of processing everything, and once I was able to start reflecting, that’s when the writing came. It all came at once. Looking back, I was able to contextualize everything that happened. I’d say probably six months after everything fell apart I started writing. Songs just came to me. It’s not like a concept record but there’s definitely a theme involved. I had realized I was dealing with a lot of anxiety issues during that period. It’s not easy. As I was writing these songs, I was conscious of the lyrical content cuz a lot of my songs was super on the negative darker side of human emotion and the mind. Going through my back catalog, I realized … the lyrical content was almost premonitions of shit that was going to happen to me. I was looking back and I can’t remember specific lines, but there’s a lot of lines that came to fruition years later. Especially with the anxiety. When I was writing it, I wasn’t necessarily feeling that way. But it was something that was going to come eventually, and sure enough it did. So I was having that revelation as I was making the record, and I was trying to be more honest about how I actually felt at the time.
Did this record teach you to be more honest with yourself?
There were definitely elements of self-discovery and realizing shit will affect me if I don’t take care of it. Ultimately that’s what happened. I got a record out of it but it was a difficult time period. In hindsight, I’m glad it happened cuz I learned from it and was able to write a bunch of music. Hopefully people who are going through the same kind of situations will be able to relate. That’s the shit I like—having a glass of whiskey and listening to a record that I can connect to. I tried to make it like as much as it’s a downer, I tried to throw some positives and some uplifting stuff in there, too. Not to sound cheesy. Just to implement a hopeful side of the darkness.
What’s your most t-shirt ready positive lyric?
Maybe just ‘I’M AN IDIOT’?
That song has the line, ‘I’m too old to have thoughts like this / I’m an idiot / I’m finding my safety net.’ What were those thoughts? And how did you get past them?
It’s come out that a lot of people I know deal with anxiety and depression. I realized that as I was going through that. When you’re really going through it, you can’t help but talk about it. And when you’re actually at that point, people open up and are honest like, ‘I deal with that, too.’ And you’re able to have this camaraderie about going through those time periods. That song is mostly me realizing that … a lot of the time I’m the problem. I tend to blame other people. ‘You’re fucked up, you’re stupid …’ In reality, I had to face the facts that yeah, I can be a fucking idiot sometimes. I realized that and I realized because of anxiety issues, it’s really hard to adjust to change. You wanna stay in your safe bubble because if you go outside, you’re gonna get hurt or something bad’s gonna happen. ISIS is gonna bomb just you!
That’d be flattering, in a way, if that really happened.
‘Oh, you picked me!’ My next record will be a ‘Fuck ISIS’ concept record just to try and make that happen.
That’s what I like about you—you’re all about the path of least resistance.
That was mostly just adjusting to change. At the time, not wanting to go out of the house … or move. Just stay put, cuz that was the safest thing to do. After I made the record, things started panning out and getting better. But at the time, it was very true. There’s still moments where I feel that way. It’s a constant process to get out of your own head.
What about ‘White Coat’? Same thing?
I had an MRI and I thought I had a brain tumor and all this crazy shit, just cuz I was being a hypochondriac. I was looking at …
I did that, yes! But there’s a … it’s called ‘White Coat Syndrome,’ where your blood pressure will go up when you’re in a doctor’s office and you see a doctor, and it will read as high blood pressure. You basically convince yourself that you’re sick or something’s wrong with you—but it goes away soon as you leave the doctor’s office. I thought that was really interesting. On a small scale, that’s what I was doing to myself. I was freaking out about this shit cuz I was so anxious and I thought something was wrong. When in reality, I was just dealing with shit and I needed to get over it.
How did you get over it?
Making the record helped a lot. Letting a lot of time pass.
What did the MRI say?
It came back fine. It was just waiting it out, talking to people and being convinced I was fine, and over time it dissipated back to normal. It lasted for a year and half, two years. I’d have panic attacks at work … I think people were kinda worried. And I was really making it into a big deal. And it felt like a big deal at the time But in hindsight, it was just, ‘No, you’re just fucked up for a year!’
It’s not so easy to realize that when you’re in the middle of it.
I thought I was fucked forever! It didn’t help that cuz I had anxiety, I didn’t wanna take meds for it. So I was just drinking a bunch, which was fueling it. I was getting blackout drunk and falling on my face and getting embarrassed. It happened quite a few times! There was a year where every other week, it felt like I had a big ol’ scab on my face. People probably thought I was doing meth. It wasn’t the healthiest but I got through it.
When did you get into pizza? Does your backyard brick-oven go back to these times? Is making pizza as therapeutic as making records?
Oh yeah—I started making pizza around the same time I was making this record. It was a way to stay busy and have accomplished something and be proud of it. I’ve tried a convection oven and the dough didn’t turn out right. The same exact recipe put in a brick oven tastes completely different. And way better, I think. The hands-on process of making the fire and making sure it’s the right temperature is really delicate and really kinda fun.
What did people around you think of that? ‘Man, I’m getting awesome pizza and hearing great songs—keep suffering, buddy!’
I’m sure they enjoyed it!
How long did it take to assemble Dimensions? I know you’ve been working on it for a while.
There were two or three songs I’d had for a while. I’d bring them as a skeleton to the Fling and we never ended up using them. I went back and wrote new lyrics and reworked them. The rest was over the span of six months. The Fling was dissolving. Instead of trying to get a whole new band with full members, I wanted to do something on my own so I could just record and find people to play. It just seemed easier than a band environment.
It’s more of a pain in the ass, that’s for sure. You don’t split everything. Practice or recording, it’s all on me. I feel like I should pay the band members after every show. So it’s a little bit of a different dynamic. But it’s nice to be able to pick what shows I wanna play. Or just call the shots in general. Not have to go through a filter of four other people with different opinions. With songwriting, there’s no democracy where other people have say in what songs make the record or don’t. I do it all on my own, and if I fuck it up, it’s my fault.
When you’re writing a song, do you have any kind of goal you need to achieve? What lets you know it’s done?
There’s a few times on the record where I finished a demo and I knew I really liked it right away. I was really proud. And there were some I was really unsure about cuz I was entering more pop territory than before. I still haven’t developed the filter—I want to know what’s OK and what’s not in the pop world. But looking back, everything I made, I’m really happy with. It took me a week or two to sit with the song and make sure I wasn’t doing something cheesy. By the time I started recording, I was feeling better. I had this batch of songs I could look at as a time capsule. When I was recording it, it was more exciting than anything. I wasn’t in a dark place. I was able to reflect on it and I was playing with good players in a really nice studio. There was a lot more gratitude while making the record. I was appreciative of having access to New Monkey and being able to play music with buddies that are just amazing musicians. When we recorded, it was just Eli, Frank and I and we did it in two days. The basic tracks were two days. Frank Lenz, and my buddy Eli Thompson who plays with Father John Misty now. Frank played drums and Eli payed bass and we went down to New Monkey Studios in Van Nuys and had a pretty small budget, so we had to knock everything out in two days. We stayed up really late one night, slept for a few hours, then got up and finished. I took everything home and added synthesizers. Most of the lead vocals were done at New Monkey, and a lot of harmonies and synths were done at Frank’s house. So I kinda pieced it together afterwards.
Looking back, was Dimensions a painful thing to make? Or a joyful one?
When I was recording demos, the only way I could overcome daily panic attacks was if I was recording—the only way I could forget. I had tunnel vision and I’d be really dead set on finishing a song. That was a positive experience for me. I was basically going to my own therapist—writing music and telling whoever’s willing to listen, ‘This is the way I’m feeling.’ It was more therapeutic and then looking back now that it’s done, I feel more joyful—more positive than negative.
Music seems like such a paradox for you—you’re thrown into this dark place when your band collapses, and then you turn back to music to get you out. Why?
I guess I couldn’t really avoid it. I was going through quite a bit during the writing process. At the time, it was the only therapeutic cathartic thing to do—to write about it. Once I did, I had all these songs. And I didn’t just wanna put them online. I wanted to get them as much exposure as I could. I found myself playing shows and getting excited again and now I’m doing it all over. It sort of feeds itself. You get down cuz of music and you feel better and that cycle will continue until you feel better all the time, and then you start writing shitty music! But hopefully not! Hopefully when I get to a place where I’m really satisfied and content with everything, I can write about that in a creative way that’s not dorky.
What did you listen to while you were making Dimensions and needed to hear someone else’s voice? When you didn’t want to write and you just wanted to listen?
I was listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson and Everly Brothers. I was really intrigued especially by the Everly Brothers—how they’re able to have the most depressing lyrical content packaged in this cute little pop song. Talking about wanting to die and shit in all major chords. I thought that was so fascinating—cuz it didn’t come across as weird. For some reason, they were able to get away with it.
How do you do that?
Just being conscious of what I was saying. Not letting the music make people feel that way, necessarily. Not letting the music make it sound … I didn’t want the music to sound like what I was saying. I wanted there to be a paradox or whatever. Having a lot of that music ingrained in my head since I was a kid, it just came natural to me. That’s my way of keeping myself satisfied—throw weird chords in and still make it easy to digest. That’s the stuff I like. Pixies are one of my favorite bands. If you take them and then I grew up listening to the Beatles my entire life … those two things mashed together is what I model my songwriting on. Pixies with a lot more harmonies—Everly Brothers, Pixies and the Beatles audio buffet!
What’s your go-to Everly Brothers paradox song?
I gotta look through my records! There’s this one song on Two Yanks In England I really like. The song ‘Comatose’ was kind of inspired by it cuz it’s a really dark song. ‘I’m A Collector.’ It’s the opposite we were talking about. It’s a really dark musical song with kind of happy lyrics. The first line is, ‘I’m a collector of beautiful things,’ but the music sounds so dark. It’s this creepy minor-chord progression with really positive lyrics. I thought that was equally as interesting as the opposite.
The last song on the album is ‘Children In The Dark,’ and it ends with that unresolved chord—why? It’s like a musical cliffhanger.
We intentionally didn’t hit that last note. At the time I didn’t know that was going to be the last song on the record, but it worked out as the endcap. That’s when I started dating and things seemed like they were looking up, so I wanted to put the happy pop song at the end but also leave it a little bit disjointed. Just to add mystery to the story.
So where are you now? What you writing? What’s the next unpublished chapter?
I have a few new songs, a lot of ideas and I think I need to release the album to get a clean slate and I can really start writing again. Even though the record’s done, I feel it’s all in my head still. So once it’s released, I think it’ll be a cleansing. Then I can look around like, ‘Where am I at now?’ and write about that. One of the new songs I have is more storytelling and talking about more political and more external things. I’m trying not to look inward so much cuz I don’t wanna do that on every record. I don’t wanna repeat the same thing every record. I think I would get tired of hearing myself sing about myself and how shitty I feel, and I would imagine other people would get tired of that too. Being conscious of what people wanna hear—or predicting what people wanna hear and what I’m gonna wanna do, and balancing the two.
It’s tiring to feel shitty all the time. Do you ever find yourself appreciating the simple beauty of a flower?
It’s been a few years. I’m pretty cynical in general but I try not to be. I try to find the beauty in life. But life only gives you so much to go on. I’ve seen millions of flowers and they all look the same.
Reagan basically said that if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen ‘em all.
Same way with people, too! If you’re gonna be cynical, it’s important to have a sense of humor about it. If you have a ‘fuck everything’ mentality, at least make it light-hearted.
Maybe unrelated, but did you ever get to see your dog again?
There were a couple visits.
Did you get a new pet?
Nah. Just my weiner. And he’s more cynical than I am.
DUSTIN LOVELIS PERFORMS WITH PAGEANTS ON THURS., MAR. 19, AT ACEROGAMI, 228 W. SECOND ST., POMONA. 8 PM / FREE / 21+. MORE INFO HERE! DUSTIN LOVELIS’ DIMENSIONS WILL BE RELEASED THIS MAY ON PORCH PARTY RECORDS. VISIT DUSTIN LOVELIS AT FACEBOOK.COM/DUSTINLOVELISMUSIC.