LITRONIX: UNDER THE CONTROL OF ME
photography by stefano galli
Kevin Litrow made Litronix during a year or so in his old apartment above a perpetually manic Venice gas station, the kind of place where humanity in its totality is constantly—for better or worse—on display. And Litrow’s pose on the album cover is the perspective of the resulting Pump The Gas: the musician alone in a crowd, looking up toward something only he can see. Think of it as the feel-better hit of the summer so far, or more of a self-help philosophy than a solo album. This is the next generation of Litrow’s earlier efforts with N.O.W. and 60 Watt Kid—even his extra-energetic Silver Apples-meets-Can outfit Dance Disaster Movement, who lived (and loved) every word in their name. But Litronix—like its recurrent pill imagery would suggest—is the scientifically purified version of Litrow’s formula, a negative-image of Suicide or Talking Heads where cosmic light sears away the horror of modern life and the blank space left blooms with a strangely earnest hope. On the long-gestating Pump The Gas (made with help from longtime collaborator Avi Buffalo) the sunrise soundscapes of Neu! become the surface streets of L.A., with the freedom of the autobahn replaced with the interstitial space of the gas station—the place you have to go before you can go anywhere else—to serve as the setting for songs about people who come, go or sometimes get stuck. And with help from Litronix, you don’t have to get stuck. Litronix will perform on Thurs., July 27, at the Hi-Hat with Avi Buffalo and Alina Bea. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You’ve said so much about this gas station—what do you think the gas station would say about you?
Kevin Litrow: I think the gas station enjoyed my time there. I think it liked me being there. I think the gas station enjoyed that I was listening and it may have thought it was just a little noise but it liked the little noise. It gave it a little love. And that corner is so intense, that gas station needs some love.
I thought Pump the Gas was the opposite of ‘pump the brakes.’ Is this album about going faster? Or is it about fueling up?
Kevin Litrow: I would say it’s more about fueling up. That’s when you can take a trip! If you don’t have any fuel, you’re not going to go anywhere. So to me, the album kind of represents like spirit of the—a lot of things on all levels. There’s a lot of symbolism and it’s kind of a mystery of itself. But I would say probably the ultimate goal of the gas station—of fueling up, of pumping the gas—is to pump your spirit with life. That’s the ultimate goal. There’s a lot of raw spirit out there, like especially on that corner, especially in that area of Venice, and it’s different kind of culture than a hipster culture or like living in Brooklyn. That intersection is pretty intense. So there’s a lot of rawness of just life in general. And then on top of that, the symbolism of pumping the gas—we can look at the way I’m holding the gas pump, too. It kind of looks like I’m holding up a gun. We live in a car environment and people from all kinds of places are coming to the gas station. Especially because LAX is down the street … you got travelers, people from all countries, you got locals. You got people that are like doing drugs at the gas station.
Dealing or doing?
Kevin Litrow: Dealing and doing. You got the people that do, and the people that deal. So many deals I saw down there, going on right below my window. A lot of this stuff is put into the lyrics. But a car pulls up, somebody comes around the corner and then they grab something out of the window and then they give them some money. And some of the darkest moments with some of the meth tweakers—there’s this one guy who would pull apart his bicycle and put it back together. It was the middle of the night, and he was throwing his bike parts around, pissed off he couldn’t put it back together. I looked out the window and saw him and I literally saw like a cage over him—a dark, dark black cage and he was in the cage screaming at himself, talking, surrounding by parts, and couldn’t put the fucking bike seat back on. These are little interesting things.
Were you just an observer? Or did you also go to the gas station yourself?
Kevin Litrow: I would only go over there to grab some potato chips when the liquor stores closed. Sometimes I’d get a candy bar. One of the guys that’s in the song, he’s a character—he worked graveyard. He’s an old old man. An old Irish-looking man. He had a big giant belly and … poor guy, he must have been I would say 70 years old, working at the gas station graveyard shift. Anytime I would go in there, he was only listening to doo-wop. I thought that was interesting. He listens to like some Elvis, or some Everly Brothers, or old doo-wop. The guy definitely had soul, but he’s not looking too good physically. And he could barely move around. When you told him ‘I want the potato chips,’ it took him ten minutes to walk to grab them and walk back to the register.
There’s a lot of pharmaceutical imagery attached to Litronix. Is this inspired by all the pills in the gas station? Wake-up pills, pain pills, allergy pills, sleeping pills—is Litronix something that would be sold in the same rack?
Kevin Litrow: No—the logo of Litronix came from the ‘Are You New Age’ single. When I was trying to put together the cover, that’s what automatically came to me was to put a tablet, and it really worked out. Also I worked in vitamins. So I think what’s just subconsciously around me is pills.
In ‘Are You New Age’ you sing, ‘What’s your name? / 5HTP Tryptophan.’ That’s a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, right? What does that mean?
Kevin Litrow: We’re searching for happiness—
—and that’s serotonin?
Kevin Litrow: Serotonin is happiness. That’s a subliminal poetic line right there, just to explain what we’re searching for in New Age. People are always searching for the right cure—for happiness. That song is kind of an ‘Are you a realist or are you an idealist?’ thing. It goes around on a few different things and makes fun of New Age but then it comes back to serious. New Age is actually a thing—New Age is actually really old age, if you want to get down to ancient scriptures and stuff like that. One of the lyrics says ‘Do you believe in what you see? Or do you see what you believe?’ That’s what it comes down to. There’s people out here—and I have plenty of friends—that would be like, ‘If I can’t see it, it does not exist.’ I’m sure there a lot of people like that. And there are a lot of people that are more dreamers—a lot of people believe in more than that.
This record is like a positive take on Suicide to me—instead of terrifying, it’s encouraging. Almost motivational.
Kevin Litrow: Good! Good! Mission accomplished!
When you write these songs, are you trying to motivate yourself? Like a pep talk? Or are you reaching out to the listeners?
Kevin Litrow: Both I guess. I try to treat every song like a painting. And every painting has its own subject. One song I could be wanting to tell a story—creating some imagery of some sort. That could be from my own experience, or something that I’ve gone through. There could be another song where I’m not really telling a story but I’m seeing the story happen in front of my face—like I’m more on the outside, watching a movie. That song could be something about that everybody relates to for the people. Like, ‘Hey guys, nobody talks about this but you can all relate to it right?’ Like ‘Hole in the Wall.’ Who is like … no one wants to admit that …
They secretly peep at everyone else on the internet?
Kevin Litrow: They peep!
You think that song is going to be about a hole in the wall like a hole you go in—like a dive bar or animal den or something. Then you realize the perspective is from someone hiding in the wall and spying at the rest of the world through the hole.
Kevin Litrow: A new dimension of our technology today!
So when Devo sings about a beautiful world, they don’t really mean the world is beautiful. They make that clear. On this record when you sing about the good life, do you really mean you’re having a good life? Or is it so positive it’s becomes a critique? Compensating for something that isn’t there?
Kevin Litrow: It can be very symbolic just like pumping the gas. It represents another thing—letting go to the actual cosmic spirit. Letting go and knowing that you’re backed without having to worry. It’s really about belief. It’s believing to the point where you are covered. And when you believe and you’re covered, everything comes. You don’t even have to worry. Every day is a holiday. It’s almost like you’re happy 24/7 because you know you’re covered. In the beginning it talks about somebody who … ‘You almost made it through but you walked the other way / and I hate to see you get so mad.’ You gotta get through the tunnel to know that belief—that everything’s gonna be ok, that everything’s gonna work out for you. To go through that dark dark tunnel first. That other person—they didn’t make it and they’re living life in anger still, but if you keep going you get through it and then you’re there. And love surrounds you.
Is that something that happened to you? Or that you saw happen to someone else?
Kevin Litrow: I’ve experienced it in a cosmic way of sort of just going through my life. It’s me breaking through and becoming wiser as I get older and learning what is—just learning life, basically.
What about ‘Maggot’? That’s about a parasitical thing that you have to crush and stomp. Do we have to use force to get rid of bad ideas? This song seems to say, you have to stand up to it, confront it, squash it under your foot.
Kevin Litrow: A lot of insecurities come from us. Not other people—it comes from our own brains doing it to ourselves by thinking we’re not good enough, or we’re ugly or something. And society maybe causes that—who knows? But that little parasite is us—our own brains doing that—and sometimes you need to like smash it. And it’s one smash, and it’s gone. You have to do it yourself. No one’s gonna do it for you. It’s DIY self-help!
There’s a white light motif that’s part of the music. Is that a Lou Reed white light—oblivion—or like the Kurt Vonnegut white light of pure human soul?
Kevin Litrow: More on the lines of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s spirit. If you got the spirit, you got the spirit. Elvis Presley had the spirit. Screamin Jay Hawkins had the spirit, or Howlin Wolf. These people were sweating the gospel, sweating it out of their skin. Like—who does that? That sounds scary to even say that. What does that mean? That’s light!
I’ve seen people describe you as a preacher or evangelist when you play. And since you’re talking about the light, the spirit, the gospel … are you doing spiritual music, if you stripped away the electronic trappings?