Interview: Active Child

Photo by Philip Cosores

Active Child has today released his debut album You Are All I See and will soon be embarking on his first headline tour. In the lead up to that, Active Child is doing a five-night residency at Los Angeles music venue The Echo. Before one such performance One Thirty BPM had the chance to catch up with the man behind Active Child, Pat Grossi, and spoke with him about touring, recording the album, his initiation into music, and other modern acts.

One Thirty BPM: Now that you’re going out on your own tour do you feel extra pressure as the headliner?

Active Child (Pat Grossi): Of course! We’ve done five support tours in the US and UK and Europe and there’s still pressure doing that because you’re live and you want to impress and get new fans and impress the band you’re opening for; there’s all this pressure. But then when you’re the headliner everyone’s there to see you so you don’t want to get shown up!

Do you get any comfort from knowing that you’re playing to an audience that will be more familiar with your material?

Yeah, I think so. It seems like every show I play I get more comments from the people who have never heard of me before, but I’m definitely excited to play for an audience that is there specifically for my music.

So, as you said, you’ve toured with five different acts and they’ve all been completely different [White Rabbits, White Lies, Islands, School of Seven Bells and James Blake]. Have you learnt something from each tour or is there one specific thing you’ve learned?

I think you learn something different from each band and you hear stories from their own tour experiences and things that they’ve gone through. Touring in itself, no matter who you’re touring with, is a learning experience for sure. It’s work. I think a lot of people will see it as this kind of vacation – and at points it can be a really fun time, depending on where you’re playing and how many days off you have in the tour. We toured with School of Seven Bells for almost 2 months and played 42 shows. It was like a grind, just like ‘Go! Go! Go!’ not a lot of days off.

How did you come to terms with the constant moving on tour?

That was our first big US tour and we were touring out of my two-door Honda Accord. So there was two of us jammed in there with all this equipment driving 8 hours a day to pretty small venues. It’s a reality check to show up after 8 hours driving and you’re playing for like 15 people. You’re like ‘what the fuck am I doing right now?’ –laughs- It’s all in the mindset that eventually you’ll headline and you’ll be playing a sold out show and that’s what makes it all worth it.

There are now three of you in the live band where there were previously two. Is that a necessity or something you just always wanted?

I see myself continuing to grow the band, getting bigger and bigger. I think it definitely was a necessity. There was no way I was heading out on a headline tour as a two piece. I just felt disingenuous and kind of frail and like I wanted to give more as a performance and give more to the audience. People always seem to respond to me positively but I think there was still an aspect of ‘is this a fucking DJ set or are these guys performing?’ So that was a focus, and still is a focus, to try and produce a stronger live show.

Were you playing songs from the album live before you started recording?

No. Some of the songs had been written before, during the tours when I had time off I wrote some of the tracks, but a large proportion of them, like 7 out of the 10, were written after the touring was done. I put together 15, 20 demos and recorded them and got them locked to the best of my ability, then I went to the studio with a producer here in Echo Park, re-recorded the vocals, got everything crisp and nice and then started reworking and recomposing some of the sections and trying to make a better song. Before, for the EP, they were essentially demos in a different way; it was all made by me, I felt like I could only really take it to a certain level.

When you were recording the album were you thinking ahead to how they would work in the live show?

I did initially; I was in this mindset of ‘How would this be? Who would play this?’ and it just drove me nuts. I was like ‘you know what, you can’t focus on that, focus on making the song as good as you can make it and figure out the live stuff later.’ I think that is a mistake to compromise the sound of your album, to make it bow down to how you’re going to do it live. For me, I never do that.

Was it hard to bring in other band members to this sound you’ve created by yourself?

One of the players that plays with me has been there since the very first show, and so he’s been hearing the songs for a year now. It’s tough for me to really see it from their angle because I wrote all the stuff. It must definitely be weird to be playing in a band where, um, it’s not like you’re in the studio together and you’re making this record and you feel this unity. But the other two guys who are playing with me don’t seem to like the music. –laughs- I hope they’re not banging their heads every night!

Is there a change in mindset when you go from being Pat Grossi to being Active Child?

I think it’s just a name to a certain extent. I think there is an element of going into ‘performance mode.’ Kind of just glazing over and letting yourself go a little bit less concerned with your movements and what you say and stuff like that, but I don’t think I inhabit some sort of persona that is Active Child or anything.

You were in a choir as a boy, apart from guiding how you sing, how else did those experiences influence you?

It was my first real musical expression and it introduced me to a lot of new sounds and styles of composition that at the time I didn’t think of as style of composition, I just head them and was like ‘wow!’ I just heard it and thought that I’d never heard anything that sounded like that. I listened to a lot of radio pop, like Ace of Bass or whatever happened to be on the radio and sing to that, or sing to whatever my dad played like classic rock, or sing to whatever my brothers played like hip-hop. And I got into the whole choral realm and I think it just kind of left a mark as far as melodies and the way I like my vocals to sound.

If you hadn’t been in a choir do you think you still would have started singing?

Ummm… I don’t know! That’s a good question. Maybe not!

How did playing harp come about and how did you decide to combine it with electronics?

I had always been fascinated with instruments and I had played other instruments, some guitar and piano and you know percussion and stuff like that. I just happened to live near a music store where my friend, he was renting a viola at the time, and we would hang out and make music or whatever. I tagged along with him one day and they had a whole harp showroom and I just wandered in, and – it sounds ridiculous – this old lady walked up and she was like ‘if you want to take one home today you can take one home and pay thirty bucks a month, it’s rent to own.’ So I took it home and I rented it for about a year and a half until I bought it and I just played it non-stop. I was obsessed with this thing. Once I officially owned that one I sold it and worked my way up to a nicer harp and… just look at my fingers! I don’t know I just fell in love with the sound of it and the feel of it and I remember sitting down with it and it feeling really natural, just being with the instrument. It was good.

As far as electronics, I started initially recording a lot of music that was very singer-songwritery, you know like guitar loops and harp loops and then these big vocals and stuff like that, which I maybe might release eventually, I don’t know. And then I started messing with Reason and these other synth bass programs and suddenly I realised ‘Wow, this could be something really…’ and I started putting the two together because I had these two elements and I had them separate for a little bit. One day I started playing the harp over the instrumental that I made and I thought ‘Wow, this could be cool if you do it right’ and I just kind of worked from there.

Does your music feel more natural to you because you use a lot of actual instruments like harp instead of synthesized noises?

I think so, yeah. I think every artist tries to bring that organic element to it or else it starts to feel a little bit Garage Band-y, a little bit manufactured. I think it’s nice to have some real percussion in there or vocals, some string stuff, some found sounds and just different things like that… Some ambient stuff, just to give it a little more depth.

Who were the first people you played your music to?

The first person I played my music to was my girlfriend at the time who was always telling me ‘you need release this!’ And then I played some for my parents and I think they were kind of like, y’know, -chuckles- ‘what? What are you doing? Do you have a job right now?’. And then when I finally started getting into some of the stuff that’s on the EP I was in Denver and I lived in a house with four other people and I started playing it for them and they got really hyped on it. So yeah it was really just friends and family.

You’ve got How To Dress Well (Tom Krell) on the album, how did that come about?

He reached out to me and, just jokingly he’s like ‘hey, we’re both like castrati falsetto boys, we should do something.’ I was a fan of his music, I thought he was in a similar pretty, beautiful falsetto-y realm. So I started making demos for the album and one of the songs struck me, and I thought it would be really cool if we could split verses, almost like a hip-hop song. So I sent him the beat with my vocal on it, the chorus, and then he laid down his verse and added some harmonies to the chorus and other sections. And he just played here at the Echo back in February so I went to the airport to pick him up and we went to the studio and finished the song and that was that.

Have you had the chance to play it live with him yet?

No, but we’ll definitely do that. He lives in Chicago so maybe when we go through Chicago we’ll do it live.

You should do a joint tour.

I would love to but he’s not a fan of doing any sort of extensive touring. He tends to do little bulk shows, like five or six and then he’s done. I’ve already put that out there like ‘Hey, we should tour together!’ and he’s like ‘ehhh, no.’

So you’ve toured with James Blake and you’ve worked with How To Dress Well; do you think you guys are forming a new sort of music or do you see yours as being quite different from theirs?

I think all three of us are doing our own thing for sure. I mean there’s obviously a lot of comparisons as far as the arrangements and use of vocal sampling and different stuff, but I really see the three of us in very different areas. I think James tends to be… well his album was a mixture, there are some pop songs and there’s some really abstract out there stuff and I feel like he’s just going to get more and more abstract. I think he did the pop thing and I think his next album is going to be weird, I think it’s going to be really out there.

And then Tom from How To Dress Well, he’s on a whole different tip. He was out here because we shot the video for “Playing House” just last week and he was staying with me and playing me demos for his new album and it was like ‘dude, what… where are you right now?’ It was a different world. So, yeah, there are a lot of comparisons, but we’re all different.

So finally, what should people expect going into the album?

I think they should definitely listen to it all the way through. I think a lot of people latched on to the singles like “Hanging On “ and “Playing House,” the immediate ones, but there’s a lot of gems on there too though. I think it’s… I don’t know. I think for me I wanted to make something more sophisticated and denser. And really try to walk the line between pop and trying to get weird with it, and I hope I succeeded.