From exclusive interviews, live performances, special collections and more, we’re celebrating music all month long. We talked to the bands and artists playing our upcoming UO Live in Austin shows about their musical beginnings and the places they’re headed next. Click here to read from our favorite musicians.
Alex Izenberg makes eccentric pop music that doesn’t sound like it was made today or even yesterday or even five to 10 years ago. His debut album, Harlequin, came out late last year and it has more in common with older artists like Randy Newman and John Cale than it does with the pop-punk and emo-inspired indie music that’s ablaze on the blogs today. It’s a pretty, weird, and brave debut that sounds and stands alone.
Izenberg is soft-spoken and the opposite of chatty, but he’s also brutally honest and precise. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he tells me us prefers to work alone because other people muddy his creative vision and are an overall threat to his music. He says he’s working on his second album, but that he may quit music all together because he’s over it already. He says he can’t listen to new music, or even music made after the 1970s, for that matter, because it’s just not very good.
He’s not a big fan of compromise and this comes across on Harlequin. He’s also quite charming and funny, especially when speaking about the music he does love, and this charm and humor also finds expression in his music. Here’s what happened when we tried to figure out what makes Izenberg tick.
Photos by Evan Tetreault
Words by Elliot Sharp
If you lived somewhere other than Los Angeles, where would it be?
That’s a tough question. Probably somewhere with old architecture, like Venice. I’ve never been, but I’ve seen pictures, and I’m pretty sold on it.
You seem like someone who has listened closely to a lot of music, like laying in the dark alone and just listening very closely.
Yeah, I enjoy making playlists of songs that I like. Stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Not really the ‘90s and ‘00s, no ‘80s. For me, it’s easier to listen to older music, I don’t know why. It’s challenging to listen to ‘80s and ‘90s music. It’s just not as good. It’s just a matter of preference, I guess.
How did you first get turned on to older music? For me it was digging into my parents’ record collection as a kid.
My old band was discovered by Linda Perry [of 4 Non Blondes] and she linked us up with this singer-songwriter who introduced me to a lot of music. And my parents introduced me to a lot of music, too. And just surfing Spotify. Sometimes I’ll listen to something new, but I have a hard time opening myself up to that.
Who’s one musician that’s made a big impact on your life and your music?
Probably Debussy. I don’t know why. He’s such a gifted musician and he made some extraordinary art. Obviously, “Clair de Lune,” and his piano works and a couple of his orchestral works. It’s not something I listen to everyday, but there was a period in my life when I was really into him.
Did you study music as a young person?
I started to go to high school for music, but I dropped out. There were too many other classes, like math and science, that made me feel really stressed. I took guitar lessons for a bit in my teens, but I stopped doing that and started playing for myself. I taught myself by just religiously watching this Hendrix DVD that I had and trying to emulate how he was playing.
Is it that video where he sits on the high barstool and plays “Hear My Train A Comin’”? I like that video, but I can’t remember the name.
Oh yeah, that’s it. I forget the name too, but it’s just a compilation of performances throughout his career. It’s pretty cool. I really like the performances from around ’67 when the Experience was just hitting the public. Pre-“Electric Ladyland.”
Do you like the later Hendrix stuff, like his Woodstock band and his Band of Gypsys era?
No, I don’t. It’s too basic; maybe that’s the wrong word. The thing I really love about Jimi Hendrix is how he was recorded. My favorite album of his is “Electric Ladyland” because he started to explore the studio a bit more. What a good record that was.
I like “Axis: Bold As Love” because the songs are short and tight, and there aren’t even a whole lot of solos.
Yeah, I used to be really into that one. That one’s good.
Did you teach yourself piano?
I had a piano in my old house and I used to fool around on it. I also have this old Yamaha keyboard that plugs into the wall that I play and write songs on.
Are you the type of person who can just pick up an instrument and play it?
Yeah, but not necessary very well.
Is there an instrument you truly suck at?
I suck at piano, honestly. I wish I were better. I can write songs on it and play, but I’m not great.
After you taught yourself how to play some instruments, did you play in a band?
I did. Actually, no I didn’t. Well, I played in one, two, three bands. And no solo projects. Now I just put out this record alone and I’m working on another one.
Do you like playing in a band or do you prefer to lead your own ship?
That’s a tough question, because I do like leading my own ship, because sometimes someone will have an idea that leads a song in a direction you don’t want it to go in. That happens when working solo too, because you have a producer or engineer, and they’ll twist a knob in a way you don’t like. That’s just me being a perfectionist, and wanting to have all the control. That’s why I went solo.
Because you’re a control maniac?
Did you do all the arranging on your record?
I did some of it, but it was a collaborative project. It’s not a string quarter on there, it’s just one string player. It’s Ari Balouzian, who produced and arranged most of the record too. It was intentional to make it sound bigger than it is at some parts.
How did your collaborative process work?
I wrote songs and went to his apartment, and played them on guitar and piano, and we’d just record them. It was a simple process. I played some of the other instruments too. A friend played bass.
Was it a nice feeling to hear your songs come to life with the arrangements and other instrumental parts?
Yeah, it was a nice feeling. The thing about me is I’m constantly growing as a musician. So for me, the biggest struggle is to look at works I made in the past from an empathetic standpoint and with an understanding of how I was feeling at the time when I wrote it. I might be too hard on myself. I don’t know.
Would you like to work with a larger ensemble in the future, go for an even bigger, more arranged sound?
That would be an interesting idea, but part of me has a lot of trouble opening up to trusting other musicians. They’ll do something cool, and then do something I don’t like. If I’m playing, I’ll just play something I feel good about the whole time. I don’t want to have someone play on it and then redo parts they did. When I listen to a band like Led Zeppelin, it makes me want to join a band because they gelled so beautifully, all of them together. On the other hand, I’ll listen to a solo artist and think, “I could just do this all myself, have all the control, and take all the credit.”
I read some reviews of “Harlequin” and they seemed sort of off, like people couldn’t make sense of the album because they lacked a frame of reference for the older music that you’re into and that inspired you. What was it like reading reviews of your work for the first time?
It’s a shame to put stock into what people say about the record. What’s most important to me is to try to be happy with where I am at the moment. I have no control over what anyone will say about my art. I’ve been coming to grips with that, and it’s the hardest part of the process. I’m just grateful that I have a strong base and a supportive label. There are times when I think I don’t want to make music anymore. It’s such a crapshoot to put something you made into the world and expect them to praise it and love it. There have been times where I think the new record I’m working on will be the last one. I’m only 25, but I’ve been playing since I was 14, so I’m not a stranger to this.
You could always make music and never share it with anyone.
The thing about that is that I’d probably end up making really good music.
If you did quit making music, what would you do with yourself?
I’d love to be able to travel, but that’s too expensive and I’m broke.
See Alex Izenberg this month at UO Space 24 Twenty for UO Live in Austin. Click here for more schedules and information.