With Americana-meets-psych-rock troubadour Aaron Lee Tasjan prepping for the release of his new album Karma for Cheap (out 8/31 on New West), we jumped at the chance to chat with him for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on to find out Tasjan’s thoughts on following up his heavily celebrated Silver Tears album, recording in a garage studio, touring with punk legends Social Distortion, and much more!
NoiseTrade: In looking to follow up such a celebrated and well-received album like Silver Tears, what were some of the first inspirational threads that started laying the groundwork for what would become Karma for Cheap?
Aaron Lee Tasjan: I didn’t expect anywhere near the reaction we got from music fans and critics on Silver Tears. That was a wonderful surprise. I don’t intend on following up anything. I think that’s a fool’s errand. When an artist starts trying to anticipate what an audience will want from them or like about their music, I think they are falling into a trap of their own mind and their own ego. What’s important to me is to be breaking new ground and to do something fresh and original. I think we’ve done that on this record. People try to compare it to lots of things. It doesn’t sound like any of the things it gets compared to. Not if you’re really listening. Anybody making those comparisons is either just copying a press release or article they read or they haven’t really listened to it. At least the comparisons are favorable but they aren’t all that accurate. I don’t really know who I sound like. I guess I just sound like me for better or worse.
NT: The leadoff single “If Not Now When” feels like such a call to action that is both of the moment and also very forward-leaning. What do you hope listeners get from the song and where’d the phrase “karma for cheap” originate for you?
Tasjan: I hope when people hear “If Not Now When” they will find something inside the song that feels like them. That’s what all my favorite music did for me. The phrase “karma for cheap” hit me right when I was writing the words to that song. Me and Dex Green were stoned in my tiny room in Cleveland Park in East Nashville working on it together. I had the chords and the verses came really fast. We weren’t overthinking anything. We were having fun and making each other laugh. I said, “you can’t buy karma for cheap and the cards say ‘Read ‘em and weep.'” He laughed pretty hard at that so we put it in the song.
NT: I read that you tried to record the album in a few different studio spaces but ultimately felt most at home in co-producer Gregory Lattimer’s garage studio. What was it about that environment and the recording process there that ended up making it the right fit?
Tasjan: Freedom. Total freedom. To be as out there as I wanted to be. The guitars on this record are pretty wild. That didn’t happen till we got to Greg’s. “Heart Slows Down” was recorded entirely live except for the backing vocals. It was the first take of it we did. We only needed to do it once. You’ve never felt truly free until you’re sitting in a garage with your band surrounded by mirror ball mannequins and you’re dressed like an Afghan clown on acid laughing at the idea that making records is some sort of important business. I’m pretty sure that’s how all the greats did it.
NT: You spent much of June and July out on the road with punk legends Social Distortion. How did their audience respond to your songs and did you glean any new insights touring with such veteran road dogs?
Tasjan: Mike Ness was our biggest fan on the tour. He came out on stage during our sets a lot and told people we were the real thing. I had no idea. But when someone like that puts their arm around you, you have to respect it. The audiences at those shows were great. They flipped us off, they moshed to us, it wasn’t unusual to hear “Get the fuck off the stage” and “I fuckin’ love you” in the same 45 minute span of our sets. Sometimes it seemed like those two things were coming from the same guy. We just did our thing. We don’t sound like Social Distortion and we didn’t try to. We trusted what we believe in more than anything in the world: Rock ‘n’ Roll. I think it was the right decision. Even Peter Frampton agreed with us when all was said and done. Think I’m lying? Ask him.
NT: Your adventurously psychedelic musical vibe often gets categorized into the unwieldy Americana genre. Are you intentionally trying to get audiences to reconsider what the “generally accepted” genre lines sound like or are you just writing what’s true to you?
Tasjan: Genres are a joke. We play music.
NT: Finally, there’s quite a bit of Beatles-y moments on your new album and within your songwriting in general. What part of their legacy inspires you the most and what’s your favorite guitar part (or parts) from any Beatles album?
Tasjan: I like the guitar playing on “And Your Bird Can Sing.” I would never consciously compare myself to The Beatles. How could I? They changed the world. I can’t even change a tire.