Interview: usLights reclaim the future by reinventing their past
The Massachusetts trio unveil ‘waes (2021)’, a reimagining of their 2017 debut album
It’s part of the complex human condition to always think back on the past and wish for an opportunity to do something over. It might be born of creative evolution, a change in personality or viewpoint, or just a new revelation that helps usher in a better understanding of who you are. For usLights, the Massachusetts band stood proud of their debut 2017 album waes -- but when the opportunity arose to reinvent and reimagine the entire record, inspired by a chance to perform its songs in a non-traditional setting, the Massachusetts alt-pop band jumped at the opportunity.
It wasn’t because of any sort of unhappiness over the original recordings. But four years is a long time, and as the members of usLights grew creatively as a band, so did their own bounds of personal expression. The result is January’s waes (2021), a reimagined album that takes each of the original’s songs and reworks them as nearly new compositions, anchored by lyrics and scant structural backbones that at times makes the new version unrecognizable to most listeners.
As usLights have sharpened their sound to a cinematic level of electronic-pop grandeur, this new version of waes, mixed by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios in Allston, Massachusetts, marks a striking attempt to not reinvent the past, but solidify their present and influence their future. publi*sist caught up with all three members recently to discuss the writing and recording process of an album that already existed -- and the ghosts of production that hung overhead.
publi*sist: People are familiar with remastering an album, and re-issuing an album. But reimagining an album, as you have done with waes, where usLights have reinvented each track almost to the point of its entirety, is a relatively new concept, and one we can see catching on. Why did you decide to effectively “re-do” this album?
Gregg Kusumah-Atmadja: This record kind of happened on a whim. We needed to make a couple of stripped down versions of our songs for a live performance on Boston Emissions (100.7 WZLX) and ended up loving how they came out. I was pretty adamant on re-imagining the whole record after that, so I started tinkering around. I started with ‘New Feeling’ -- broke out the acoustic and stumbled upon the chorus guitar/vocal arrangement. I was hooked and fully committed after that point.
Shawn Pelkey: As Gregg said, it just kind of happened. Anngelle slotted us for a live in-studio performance, but rather than bring our arsenal of gear into a tiny little room, we decided to try something a little more minimalist. We were to play two songs, and so to prepare we got in the studio and tracked the alternate versions of “Veiling Lights” and “Thirst.” We were all really feeling their whole vibe, so we decided to try and reimagine all these songs in the same vein. The intention was to strip them down but in true usLights fashion, the project ended up being quite the production.
How does the new sound reflect usLights in 2021, as opposed to 2017, when waes was first released?
Matthew Nastri: When we originally wrote waes, we were focused on huge, lush synth backgrounds with deep bass and driving beats, but we've always pushed for a cinematic feel to our music. This album allowed us to explore that side of our songwriting a lot more. It was kind of like painting the same subject with a different palette, from a different point of view, or creating an abstract representation of it. As we always say, it's not a complete departure for usLights, but it definitely led us down a little bit of a darker and quirkier place and we'll take aspects of that into later releases.
Kusumah-Atmadja: The re-imagining of wæs allowed us to explore a side of the band that we didn’t realize existed. Most of the songs started from scratch and were kept as raw as possible. We swapped out our typical sonic palette for acoustic guitars, household percussion, and more organic sounding keyboards like e-pianos and organs. We also put less focus on getting ‘perfect’ takes. This resulted in a much more intimate and matured sound.
It feels like an evolution of the sound, but it still sounds like usLights, despite the new vibe.
Pelkey: It adds a new dimension, for sure. I wouldn’t say it’s a total change of course for us but you will start to see some of the elements showing up in future releases. At the end we are still a rock band with a heavy synth element, but this certainly puts a few more tools in our shed.
Kusumah-Atmadja: While we’ve already started incorporating this new approach to writing into our newer material, this in no way replaces our lush dream-rock origins. In fact, we’ve already started working on a new record that pushes that sound even further. Hopefully it’ll see the light of day by late 2021, or early 2022.
What was the toughest and easiest part of the process of rewriting and rerecording?
Kusumah-Atmadja: The whole writing and recording process for wæs (2021) was very easy going. We took our time. All of the ideas came together quickly, and the few times that we did get stuck, we’d just sit on those parts until they worked themselves out.
Pekley: This record came relatively easy. I think it’s because they were almost treated as cover songs. Gregg or Matt would come up with a basic theme and establish the direction, and the rest of us would just flow and add the touches. It was extremely enjoyable because no one had a specific role outside of Gregg’s lead vocal. Gregg had some parts where he would play some percussion, I was playing some keys, synth and doing some vocals, Matt was doing vocals. It was really a free-for-all.
Kusumah-Atmadja: In an attempt to keep our undivided attention on the music, we also recently decided to stop mixing our own material. It’s so time consuming and we don’t really know what hell we’re doing, anyway. We enlisted Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios in Allston to mix wæs (2021) remotely. I’d often do notes sessions with him from my car over the internet. I don’t want to say that we’re annoying to work with but we can be really annoying to work with sometimes and he was very open minded and extremely easy going throughout the whole process.
Pelkey: Most of our stuff is a true collaboration anyways, everyone is always getting their hands dirty with everything. But this was a little different as everyone in the band had full creative freedom.
Kusumah-Atmadja: I think the toughest part about the whole thing was wrapping our heads around the fact that we were going to rewrite a record that we just put out. But if it sounds good, why the fuck not?
Shawn Pelkey (drums)
Matthew Nastri (bass, keyboards)
Gregg Kusumah-Atmadja (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards)
Photo Credit: Kayla Chin