Tonight’s stop of Jesse Malin’s “Death and Taxes” tour, at Studio A, promises a bonus: openers Acute are hometown boys. Well, at least singer Isaac Lekach, 26, is. (Remember the basically one-man act, Poulain? That was him). Lekach went on a sort of vacation to Los Angeles a few years ago and basically never came back; in the meantime, he formed Acute, whose debut full-length, Arms Around a Stranger, was released this past May by the Tsunami Label Group.
It’s a work of pop perfection that is both orchestral and rootsy – there are easy
comparisons floating around to power pop, but there’s a down-home air, with lap steel and heart strings equally, moodily plucked. It’s a good fit, then, for a tour with Malin, with whom Acute has been sharing a tour bus this time out. A bus whose air conditioning had gone haywire in Texas, leaving about a dozen men to boil overnight, when I caught up with Lekach by phone last week. While the others fled to a restaurant, Lekach took the reins, sorting everything out with equanimity and good humor – for a frontman, admirable qualities indeed. – Arielle Castillo
After the jump, an extended Q&A with Lekach.
So what’s going on? How are you?
I am just… having a day. We left Austin for Houston this morning, and we’re sharing a bus with Jesse and his band. The AC unit on the bus that channels the bunk died, so basically we were baking throughout the night. When I caught wind of the problem I was calling people from the road to try to fix it. I was literally on the phone for two and a half hours with people saying, “Hi we’re on a tour bus and our air conditioning broke?” We’re waiting for someone to bring a ladder and get on top of the tour bus.
We’re in front of the hotel in Houston, and here’s the fun thing. My band is at a Mediterranean restaurant across the street from the hotel, the other band is taking showers, and I’m stuck in the heat trying to fix it.
Is this your first national tour?
It isn’t. But the only one that’s worth noting is, last fall we were out with Copeland, the Appleseed Cast, and Owen; in South Florida we played at Revolution. Everything else I booked myself and we were basically playing to the sound guy.
So what’s your Florida connection? You went to UM, right?
Well, I was born at Mercy Hospital, My parents live in Aventura right now. I’ve lived off Brickell and in North Miami. I went to a small Jewish private high school, Hillel.
I went to UM from ’98 to ’99, and from ’99 to 2000. Then I dropped out.
What were you studing?
Film and creative writing.
Then the music thing was just on the side?
I’ve been playing since I was 13 and I sort of was just dabbling in my spare time, but not really doing anything seriously. And then when I dropped out of school, still wanting to make film, my dad sort of sat me down and told me the songs I write are better than the movies I write. So it became more serious.
Are you still interested in film?
I still want to do film and I’ve been writing screenplays, but I don’t have $80 million to do a movie. That’s more of a hobby really. I just turned in the fourth draft about the latest script, hopefully some people bite.
It’s about these twins that were separated at birth and how they reconnect, except one of the twins was born a chimpanzee.
Really. Like a David Lynch influence or something?
I’d say it’s more along the lines of something Spike Jonze would do.
So why did you leave school?
I sort of just became somewhat overwhelmed and I didn’t feel like I was learning that much. I think when you’re studying an art, they can teach you technically what you’re supposed to do, but I think a teacher’s responsibility should go beyond that and they should inspire also.
I also felt like, being the oldest of four, I felt like I should learn something I could use, in the event I’d have to support my brothers. So I went to work for my dad and learned his business. It was perfumes so I worked in the marketing department. I’m the one – if I can take the credit for this – I swayed my dad’s company to get the license to make the Paris Hilton fragrance. It’s like $7 million a year just because of that.
You hosted a show on WVUM while you were there. What kind of show was it?
I cohosted a show called The Voice of Film for a little bit; sort of movie review show, and we’d play music from soundtracks and stuff.
But my main thing, I think it was like Wednesdays 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. It started as a rotation show and I worked my way to a morning show where I could play whatever I wanted. I played a lot of sad music. A lot of times people would call up and say, “I’m driving to work and I don’t want to fall back asleep.”
To me it wasn’t sad; I guess I should say “mellow.” I love the Magnetic Fields, and Belle and Sebastian. I guess that’s really how I got exposed to this music and why I think I write the songs I do. Until that point I really just had [now defunct commercial rock station] 94.9 Zeta.
How’d you get into things like the Magnetic Fields, living down here? What were you into before that?
I basically was listening to awful music, just anything they would play on the radio. I feel like I maybe understood the melodies, it was easy to digest. My dad turned to me on to stuff like Donovan, and the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Herman’s Hermits. So I guess that was always something I liked more, was more my speed.
When I went to WVUM, I realized that there were all these bands that were influenced by the stuff my dad was playing. I didn’t even hear about the Jesus and Mary Chain until college, or even the Cure. I heard a couple songs, but I wasn’t really exposed to it.
If you weren’t a huge music person, what made you want to be on the college station?
I guess it was just a Pump up the Volume type thing; it just seemed cool They were so welcoming.
They weren’t total indie snobs to you?
It’s a community. They were nice.
And that’s how you sort of discovered indie pop, or whatever you want to call it…
I remember listening to If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian, and that just blew me away. And 69 Love Songs [by the Magnetic Fields] came out around that itme. A lot of the Elephant 6 bands like Apples in Stereo. That’s even what I still listen to.
So when did you form the band that would actually become Acute, and why L.A.?
It was four or five years ago. I signed to Fiddler Records, which was a Miami label, but Amy [Fiddler, label owner] ended up moving out to L.A. So she invited me to come out and hang out in her house and write and demo and get my stuff together, and I ended up just not leaving. That was for Poulain.
We were touring for that, and I got another band together, and a mutual friend introduced me to Patrick [Edwards, drummer], who was on hiatus from Ozma. Shortly after that tour was over, Ozma broke up. (Now they’re back together, but they were broken up for a couple years.) The guy who was playing guitar with us moved to NYC. Colt [Maloney, bass] and Patrick and I just stayed together writing music.
Is there a story behind the name?
It’s just random, nothing really. I think someone suggested “Acute,” and we were like, “Acute?” And he was like, “You know, like a triangle.” So for a second that was our whole name. We played a couple of shows where we were like, “Hi, we’re Acute Like a Triangle,” but it was obnoxious so we dropped it.
What music were you listening to when you formed the band, and were you aiming for a specific sound?
I was a really fan of the stuff I was doing under the Poulain moniker, and I think the idea was to take it a step further and make it a little more lively. So it started off kind of garagey. But then I just can’t be swayed from orchestration and horns and a synthpad and all that, so it ended up just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We hired a bunch of musicians to come in and fill out the sound in the studio.
Actually, Jason [Borger], who’s in the band now playing keyboard, wrote out all the arrangements. That’s now the new goal, is to make the sound bigger and bigger, because ultimately, when I can afford to, I would lvoe to have an orchestra onstage.
That is really… Magnetic Fields.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Actually, we’re already starting to write and demo the next record, which I don’t even want tot hink about yet, because I want to give this one a proper push. I want to make it more atmospheric.
In terms of song structure, or just sound?
More sonically really, even more little, just, beds of music, and maybe experimenting with different instruments and different electronic instruments.
With such a huge sound on the record, how do you translate it live?
Well, live, I’m playing guitar, and then there’s bass and drums, and Jason is playing two different keyboards at the same time. He’ll either have one hand on a piano or organ sound, and the other one willl be playing string or horn parts depending on what will best fit the moment.
But there are a couple songs that we sort of reworked, like “You Could End up In Love.” Now it sounds almost like a French pop song, and less like the Jesus and Mary Chain. There’s a secret song on the record that’s even more of a Sixties throwback. That’s the kind of thing that we’re doing, 1) to keep things interesting for us and 2) to take advantage of a new setting and try to have the songs meet their potential.
What’s your songwriting process like, then, if you’re thinking in terms of all those sounds?
Basically, mostly everything just stems from me and a guitar, and I’ve been demoing a lot of stuff on Garage Band and and Protools. I’m not very proficient with all that. I’m a horrible engineer, but I get it to a point where it would make sense to show it to everyone else. And we’ll go through some arranging and structural changes in the rehearsal space. I think all the songs at the core are just really simple pop songs, and we just elaborate on them together.
Have you had formal music training?
Only vocal training. I had guitar lessons as a kid but I never really studied theory or anything.
So then when you’re discussing arrangements, what kind of language are you using?
Musical language. Just from playing music for so long and working with Jason I’ve learned a bunch of it, and I can speak it technically, but I might not know precisely why this one note works over another one. There are things that I do that someone who was classicaly trained probably wouldn’t, but the melodies end up in the same key for whatever reason.
You know, everyone else compares you guys to power pop groups like XTC, but personally on the record I hear more of this twangy thing. Was that on purpose?
I think we all try to listen to as broad of a selection as we can. But the pedal steel stuff -- I was listening to a lot of Ennio Morricone. He did a lot of the old western movie scores, so that’s where that came from, and the human whistle and everything. It’s funny that eveyrone says we’re power pop, but there are only a handful of songs that are uptempo on the record. The other night in Dallas we played a set that was exclusively slow songs.
How did that go over?
It was great for us, we love playing it; I don’t know if it was the best decision [laughs]. It ended up being more like background music, but that could have just been the audience.
You’ve toured with bands like Copeland and the Appleseed Cast, and now you’re touring with Jesse Malin. Obviously, those are really different audiences, and it seems like there would be a pretty big age gap. What’s the difference in how your music goes over with the two groups?
There’s a huge age difference. Jesse’s crowd is eclectic, but mainly they’re older, because with Copeland you’re talking about, like, 14-year olds. The Copeland people like us, and Jesse’s fans are super nice as well.
Honestly for us, it’s improtant to just tour as much as we can to as wide of an audience as we can. As long as there’s people there, hopefully we’ll do our job. And ll those bands, Owen, the Appleseed Cast, Copeland, they’re so different, but at the heart of it they’re just beautiful songs. I think that sort of transcends any genre stipulation.
How’d you get set up on this tour? Did you listen to Jesse’s music at all before?
Our agent was talking to his and put the package together. I didn’t actually listen to him before, but now I’m a huge fan. I think he’s a great songwriter, but live, he puts on a show. And he’s been dealing with a bad back so I don’t even know how he manages. He plays really heavy guitars and he moves a lot. So right now we pulled up to the hotel and he went to a chiropractor or to get some acupuncture or something.
Are you nervous at all about coming back to the area to play?
No. I mean, I think it’s fun, and I’m really excited for this time around because my mom’s gonna make a feast for all the bands on the Fourth of the July. Half of everyone are meat eaters and half are vegetarian. I guess Jesse and I will munch on vegetables and tofu.
I think the only time I’m ever nervous if it’s just my mom or my dad in the room asking me to play a song. For some reason, that’s beyond intimidating.
So your parents are supportive of what you’re doing.
They’re absolutely supportive. Right now they’re in Costa Rica and they call me all the time.
You said you’ve done national tours before, but what’s different about doing one on this scale?
This is our first bus tour that we’ve ever done, and I really don’t pay attention at all because I don’t have to. Typically we’re in a 15-passenger van, and Patrick, the drummer, and I do most of the driving, so we’re more on the ball.
Who’s on your bus?
The bus is all of Jesse’s band, the tour manager, the merch person, and all of my band, so there’s eleven people sleeping there.
Yeah, but it’s great not having to drive and kill yourself. We’ve been playing lots of Scrabble. We’re in the middle of a game right now and I’m ahead 20 points.
So you had to organize everything yourself before?
On the Copeland tour, their tour manager sort of did everything for all the other bands. And he was running lights. That guy is a magician!
With this guy, this time, you don’t have to do anything. I don’t even know where we’re going next, half the time. You just say, “OK, I’ll be there.” It’s kind of plush. I could get used to it.
What’s next for you?
I guess in August we’ll be home, and we’ll maybe flesh out some more songs. And we’re hoping to be back out in the fall. We don’t have anything for a fall tour yet but we’re working on it. Honestly, we need to tour as much as we can behind this record for the next year. It just came out and I want to give it proper attention and the proper push, so that’s the best way to do it I think.
Have you been writing any new stuff in the meantime?
I try to do it as much as I can. The only thing is, I didn’t bring a guitar on the bus. Some nights I’m itching to play and everyone is sleeping and I can’t. It sort of comes in waves with me, and I don’t think one thing specifically triggers it.
Acute performs with the Wildbirds and Jesse Malin on Tuesday, July 3, at Studio A, 60 NE 11th St, Miami. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $15, and all ages are welcome. Call 305-358-7625, or visit www.studioamiami.com.