THE INTELLIGENCE: THE HAPPIEST I’VE EVER BEEN
For much of the last decade, Lars Finberg was the Intelligence, a scraggly one-man garage group born in Seattle. Herds of band members came and went as Finberg handled the auteurial duties, writing and recording the band’s first several records himself. But steadily, if slowly, the Intelligence have grown—from a man to a band, from lo-fi snarl to shimmering studio recordings, and from prolific to premeditated. In 2011 Finberg won the annual Genius Award by The Stranger, a weekly paper in his former home town. After the Intelligence’s most recent record, Everybody’s Got It Easy but Me, Stranger editor Chris Frizzelle called Finberg ‘Seattle’s laureate of feeling trapped—and also the patron saint of short-circuiting traps.’ I spoke with Finberg over dinner at a Thai restaurant just down the street from the Satellite, where the band performed later that evening. This Interview by Andrew R. Tonry.
I read in The Stranger that your mom likes songs on this latest record?
How did she used to feel?
She did that real nice mom thing. I mean, I don’t know if she ever even listened to the CDs we gave them. My dad liked a song that I wrote for him a whole bunch, ‘Estate Sales.’ It was on Males. He comes up with these hilariously bad song titles all the time. Like, ‘Why don’t you call a song “Wire Monkey Momma?”’ It’s like—‘Ahh, I just can’t.’ ‘Estate Sales’ was the first one that made it through. He had the whole idea. He was like: ‘What about a song about estate sales?’ I said, ‘That sounds doable.’ He says: ‘It’s about all my crap on the curb when I’m dead. Like the tuxedo that I got refitted a bunch of times. And it’s sitting in a box, on sale for 50 cents.’ I was like, ‘That sounds like something we could do.’ He was very happy when we recorded it. He likes it a lot. It’s the only song that he has on his iPhone. And after that he would just play it for anybody. He’d be at a restaurant with his friends and be like, ‘Oh, you have to hear this song!’ And play it with his blasting iPhone. That was totally embarrassing, Dad!
It could be hard for parents to see success—especially in a scene like you’re in.
They’ve always been really great. And I think with a pretty decent sense of worry that they’re containing. But with stuff like the Genius Award thing in Seattle and being on TV with Thee Oh Sees—they’re super proud and really just super supportive.
When you started out, it was a lo-fi, bedroom thing and it was all you. Now you’re into proper studio sounds. What happened?
One, it was my listening tastes. But we didn’t have any choice with the first record. Nobody wanted to record it or give us any money. So you just buy a tape machine off eBay. The next record we did in a studio. A lot of the stuff was so lo-fi and blown-out in the beginning because when you don’t know how to record and make it sound good, you just keep turning everything up until it’s blasting.
Do you ever find lo-fi aficionados that are like, ‘Come on, Lars! Quit cleaning it up!’?
I keep waiting for that. I don’t really go scouring the internet to find out because you’ll just get your feelings hurt. But as far as people that I know that like our records, they keep liking each one more. In The Red, which is pretty much the litmus for who should like our stuff … [label owner] Larry Hardy is excited about our being recorded well. My hope is that—I don’t think our songwriting has changed very much, just the fidelity of it. I didn’t want our stuff to should like shit next to Devo when somebody was playing it.
So you recorded the new record with two different bands, with one in Seattle and one in L.A. Was that the first time you’ve done it with a rotating cast?
I just always loved recording by myself because the funnest part is putting all the pieces together for me, rather than just playing guitar—like figuring out how a bassline fits with something. And then In The Red really pushed us to record that Males record with a band. He was like, ‘I want it to sound like you guys do live. Please, just do me this one record like this—then you can do whatever you want.’ And I really enjoyed it. I had tried to weasel out of it so hard. Like, ‘We’re on tour—we’re going to record in Detroit and the drummer did these drum tracks and I’m going to come back and work on them like I’d normally do it.’ He’s like, ‘This is not what I’m asking you for. Just go in there and play like a band.’ I don’t know why I was hesitant. I was partially hesitant because I love when we get the chance to go in the studio to just start layering stuff and I thought I would miss out on that. But it turned out that it was just what we needed. It makes the other people more invested. It’s more fun for me to hear other people playing along with you. Really, I’ve got to thank them for making me turn this corner. I started the Intelligence as my thing—as a band that can never break up because it doesn’t really have any members. But after a while that just got lonely. And it just makes the band more of a gang as opposed to just getting whoever can go on a tour to do it. That gets boring after a while.
In that case, is the band you’re playing with right now going to stay that way?
I want this to be the band. It’s a little bit tricky, because when I say there’s an L.A. band and a Seattle band, it’s really just two different drummers. Both of them have real jobs, so one can do a tour when the other one can’t. But this is the happiest I’ve ever been and the best people I’ve ever played with and I would love to make a record just the same way and roll with this. For sure. Everybody is a little older and has been in bands for a while. I like playing with inexperienced people too and having it be scrappy. But I also like people that know how to dial in their guitar amp and have toured before and they have experience on the road. Just going to Jiffy Lube and the new bass player knowing that I don’t know shit about cars … even though it’s my van, he knows that he should go in there and ask questions about why the coolant is so low? It’s really nice to have this everybody kind of looking out for each other kind of vibe.
Usually it happens the other way. Early on in a career a lot of people step out with their friends and over time they take a more controlling approach.
Which is funny. Now I’m constantly going, ‘What do you guys want to do? Tell me. You can play guitar or you can play bass on this. We can leave for San Francisco at noon or 3 o’clock. I don’t care.’
I imagine also, as you’ve played with Thee Oh Sees, you get what auxiliary band members are doing.
For some reason I’ve never thought about that. We were going this direction anyways, but it’s true. It’s romantic. They’re a band that’s like … these are the four people. I don’t know. I’ve always been so turned off by the idea that there’s a mastermind in the band. Or Billy Corgan comes out like, ‘I’m the mastermind!’ I remember I liked Smashing Pumpkins as a teenager then reading some interview and thinking, ‘You’re a douche!’
When you go out with Thee Oh Sees, how does it feel when you come back to the Intelligence? Does it make you want to dive back in creatively?
Yeah, definitely. Now I’m not playing with them anymore. It’s all friendly and cool. But it was really nice to take a year off from the Intelligence. We’d just been slugging away at it. I just realized that I didn’t want to be constantly putting out records. I didn’t want to be known as ‘prolific’ anymore. I wanted to put out good things. So I was like … we’re not going to put out a record for two years, which is unheard of for us. Instead of writing twenty songs, write ten good ones and work on them harder.
Is that more a matter of filtering it, or is it taking more time and writing less?
It’s more working on it like … instead of having two one-minute songs, saying maybe these can get glued together. At first happy accidents and not thinking about it really appealed to me. We just had done that for long enough that maybe it’d be a cool change of pace to work on a song for a year and really get the lyrics as perfect as you can instead of writing ten songs in that period. And I just wanted a break. I’d been the boss of the Intelligence for like ten years now. And I wanted to take a year off and just play with Thee Oh Sees. It was really fun to just be a side-person in a band. But it made me super excited to get back to working on this. I was kind of thinking about quitting after the Males record. Because I really like it and I was like, ‘I don’t know if we can do a better record than that.’ A lot of times I’ll be like, ‘We can definitely beat that record.’ Because the Intelligence was the only thing I was doing, it kind of got depressing. We don’t do that well. We try to tour all the time and you play a city and there’s less people there than the time before. You can try to be positive about that as long as you like, but you’ve got to be realistic too and just go, ‘Maybe we just aren’t good enough to be a band that’s working all the time.’ I wouldn’t do it many more times. I wouldn’t watch it dwindle into nothing. Taking that year off was nice. Music is just a hobby. You’re lucky if just 25 people come to see you in the scheme of how many terrible bands there are out there.
When you started out did you have any particular dream? ‘If I could do this, that would be everything I ever could’ve asked for’?
In the beginning it would be like if we didn’t have to play on a Monday, first, in Seattle. It was like, ‘Damn, could you imagine if we could play on a Friday? That would be nuts!’ I remember hearing about In The Red bands touring Europe thinking that would be incredible. And it was. It was cool. We were a band for three years before we even made a record. And that was exciting. I recorded that by myself.
How does it feel to think that after so many years in this band that it could be at its highest point? Does it feel like that at all?
Yeah. It feels like that to me. It’s kind of bizarre. We put this video out the other day that already has like 8,000 hits on it—which is nothing compared to bigger stuff. But it’s exciting for me. I like the slow little climb. It’s not like we ever got offered a bunch of money and made some super embarrassing thing. It’s easy to look back and say we just put out records that were gradually better than the last one. That’s all that I hope to do.
How old are you?
How does touring in a scraggly band suit you at this age?
We’ll see how these next couple tours are. If it’s super scrappy and we can’t make any money then I would do it once a year for fun.
I’m thinking about the song ‘Evil Is Easy,’ where you talk about taking ‘too many cancers’ and getting stuck ‘living in a rat’s nest.’ Do you have to moderate?
The nice thing is that we’re pretty healthy and square compared to the average band. We have vegetarians and are like, ‘Where’s the Whole Foods?’
I think about your contemporaries at one time, like Eat Skull and the Hunches, and certainly the scene could be rough.
Well, those guys were always gnarlier than us. A lot of it, I think, was getting Susanna [Welbourne] in the band. She’s kind of a responsible adult and she’s not going to hang around here if we’re maniacs. I’d watch other bands that were strung-out on drugs and fucked-up and all that, and I like touring because I like being on the move and I like seeing different cities and I like having a hamster wheel of routine. But I don’t like waking up hungover every day and staying in horrible places and all that stuff.
Touring as many years as you have, I’m sure you’ve seen punk houses come and go.
Yeah. And we’ve watched them deteriorate to the point of where we won’t stay there. So we’re growing up and at the same time it’s like, that is even more disgusting. … People are like, ‘Come by, don’t waste your money on a hotel!’ It’s like, ‘Nah, going to go to sleep in a bed and take showers in the morning sounds super appealing.’
Tell me about getting The Stranger ‘genius’ award.
That was amazing. I was shocked. The only band I knew that won it was Shabazz Palaces, who won it the year before. I love that band, but they’re on such a bigger level than us that I didn’t believe it at first. I knew that The Stranger had been so nice to us and given us a bunch of press and that the editor there is a big fan. But it was really one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to us, that’s for sure. And it was really awesome to get that thing and I was in Seattle and my friends were like, ‘We’re going to party so hard that night! It’s going to be amazing!’ I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ And then I went, ‘I don’t want to party super hard that night. I want my parents to come up here and see this.’ I texted my mom, ‘What are you doing on the 24th?’ She’s like, ‘I’m hopefully coming to your Genius Award?’ ‘Yes, please.’ My sisters and dad and mom flew up. I had to do a speech. It was at the Moore Theater, which is where they filmed the Pearl Jam ‘Even Flow’ video, which will give you a sense of how big that room is. It was super packed and I had to do a speech, which I was super nervous about. I thanked my parents and told them it was a drop in the bucket, because I’m sure I owe them like 50 million dollars at this point.
It came with $5,000? How big of a deal was that?
It was a great deal. We didn’t do anything fancy with it. I used a portion of it to help buy my son a new wheelchair. The rest of it we put on the credit card that the van is rotting on, right now.
You said you spent some of that money on a wheelchair for your son. If you don’t mind my asking …
My son has muscular dystrophy. He is 14. And it’s a pretty rough super rare strain that deteriorates the muscles in your legs really rapidly around age 10 or 11. It happens almost primarily in boys. So he’s in a power wheelchair. And that stuff is super expensive. His mom is really wonderful about finding grants or state-assisted stuff to help, but there’s not a lot of that stuff out there. Right when we were going through that I won the award and it gave me the chance to be able to pay for some important essential upgrades to the chair, which made me feel really good. And to have it come from music—his mom was so stoked and he was so stoked and I was and it was a really super nice blessing.
He’s up in Seattle? I imagine that made the move difficult.
It was difficult. But you know, I needed to leave and he understood. I’d been wanting to leave for years. And at age 14, that’s about old enough where he only wants to spend one weekend a month with his dad anyway. I asked him if it was okay and he was totally okay with it. And now we spend more time than we did in Seattle because he comes for summers and spring break and long visits and stuff like that.
What does he think about Dad being in a punk rock band?
He didn’t care for a long time but now he’s getting into music more. He’s pretty into it. It’s funny, because ELO is one of his favorite bands and we cover a Del Shannon song, ‘Little Town Flirt,’ that’s on the new record—we’re covering the ELO version of that. He was really stoked on that. He called me the other day and said, ‘Hey, guess what I just heard on the radio? They just played the Intelligence!’ I went, ‘That’s amazing!’ And he went, ‘Yeah! It actually sounded pretty good!’
Do you try and turn him on to new music?
He is pretty stubborn about being turned on to new stuff. He needs to find it himself. It’s cool though, because he’s into older music.
On this tour you played Seattle and you’re about to play L.A. Which one feels like home?
Seattle. I’m excited about playing in L.A., but it’s Seattle. I mean, who knows what happens tonight, but I’m sure our crowd is better there. That’s home. Or like homecoming. Driving into L.A. in the tour feels like home. Like, I’m very happy to be home. I love it here in L.A. I’m from Bakersfield and I moved to Seattle right out of high school. I think Bakersfield is a typical small town where you just split as soon as you can. In the beginning it was a great change of scenery because Bakersfield was pretty central valley—dried up most of the year. So the novelty of being in the greens was really nice.
Was there a moment in Seattle that pushed it over the edge? ‘OK, it’s time to go’?
It had been slowly building. But after going through a breakup I just knew it was the chance to hit the ground running and make a real life change. You know how it is: being depressed in the winter time. It was at the end of this tour in October and I was like, ‘I’m not going to hang out here in January.’
There is that sentiment in the Northwest that the dark, gray, wet winter is a great time to turn inwardly creative.
I told myself that while I lived there. Now that I’m happy almost every day and having sun, I think I’m a lot more productive. I dunno. It’s about the same. You know what it is? I think I’m less productive but the quality is better because … I don’t know why. It’s hard to figure out exactly, because with this last record—it’s thirteen songs, and ten of ’em were written up there over the last few years, but the three that I wrote here are the three that I like the best. It’s also kind of weird for me to write only three songs in a year.
I’m trying to avoid making some lame journalistic correlation—that it’s your cleanest, sunniest record, and that it happened while returning to California.
It’s hard to tell. It’s probably not true. Well. No, I think it is. I don’t know. But I like romanticizing it; it’s sunnier and poppier. I wanted to make a sunnier record this time anyway. The last few have been just kind of dark. I think that dark punk rock is easier for us to do. But sunnier pop stuff without a bunch of effects on the vocals and stuff is a challenge for me to do well enough that I like it. And it’s what I want to listen to, more than anything. I don’t listen to a lot of the things I was listening to years ago—lo-fi punk stuff that was around the time that we were playing, like Eat Skull and Blank Dogs and stuff like that. That’s not what I’m listening to at home anymore. It’s more like Walker Brothers. It’s big orchestral pop stuff. I’m really into stuff that’s recorded well and sounds good.
What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned after all these years?
Especially after moving to California and taking time off from the band and then doing this tour for the first time in a long time … it sounds corny, but how invaluable doing what you really want to do is. It’s amazing when you get to do that. It’s not like we’re making hardly any money or anything. But I have moments when I’m driving around with these guys to the next city and I just feel inspired because I’m not at home and I’m not working a 9-to-5 job for these few weeks, that is the most alive and the most thankful to the universe that I feel. This is getting to do what you really want to do and not wanting to be anywhere else. It’s pretty special. I feel real lucky to be able to do that and to have friends who want to help me do that same thing. It’s pretty great.
Now, you did interviews for a time, and I want to borrow a question you used. So—what’s your idea of a perfect day off?
In L.A. it would be pretty much what I did for my birthday. I woke up and went to … I can’t remember the name, but this ridiculously over-priced health food store. I went and had super cheap huevos rancheros by my house. Did that and then went over there and got some kale juice. Walked around, kind of window shopping. Then I went to Griffith Park and was like, ‘I’m going to walk all the way to the top.’ I couldn’t figure it out. I was just walking around, and right when I was exhausted and walking back to the car this hawk comes swooping over my shoulder and picks up this squirrel by its shoulders and takes it screaming into the distance. And then I drove up to Bakersfield and had dinner with my parents, played with my year-old niece, and saw my family. That’s perfect to me.
THE INTELLIGENCE WITH ZIG ZAGS AND SHARK TOYS PLUS DJ ADAM WADE ON THUR., OCT. 4, AT THE SATELLITE, 1717 SILVER LAKE BLVD., SILVER LAKE. 9 PM / $10 / 21+. THESATELLITELA.COM. THE INTELLIGENCE’S EVERYBODY’S GOT IT EASY BUT ME IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM IN THE RED RECORDS.