I’m currently sitting across from Penn Badgley at a deluxe suite at Surf Lodge. It’s one of the hottest days of the year and, understandably, the former Gossip Girl star and MOTHXR frontman is in a pretty bad mood. Having just headlined Brooklyn’s Full Moon Festival, tonight’s performance in Montauk is a precursor to the band’s upcoming California tour, and the kinks are still being ironed out. Penn has a million different things on his mind and is exhausted, pissed off, but above all, passionate about getting his group’s upcoming album, a collection of electro blues pop ballads reminiscent of Arthur Russell and D’Angelo, the necessary traction to take off.
Just when I’m starting to worry that this trip was a total waste of time, the rest of the band barges in. A smile lights up across Penn’s face and it becomes evident that even though they’re stressed and failing to turn a profit, the Brooklyn DIY quartet is on one hell of a ride, with the best yet to come.
You’re from Baltimore originally.
Penn: I was born in Baltimore and have family there.
And you’re currently living in Brooklyn.
Penn: We all live in Brooklyn, but travel a lot.
How do you think your surrounding environments manifest throughout your music?
Penn: We recorded the album in LA and Chicago mostly, with a few days in New York. They all definitely formed our sound in ways that are hard to describe. We spent a lot of late nights driving around and listening to whatever it might be. We did finish the record in the dead, freezing cold of Chicago and that’s when we started doing our deeper work with Victim, Centerfold, and a song called I Can See You’ll Never Make it Out.
What are some of the prevailing themes throughout the album you were trying to grapple with during the production process?
Penn: There was no trying. We just did it. To me, when I hear the record lyrically, and the way the music and lyrics inform one another, I hear a certain disillusionment. There’s this sense of seeking something deeper in life. That was never a conscious decision. That’s just what came out of it.
The style is also very DIY. What were some challenges you faced early on with tackling the album?
Penn: Time. Nothing phased us and we cranked out the whole thing; wrote it, recorded it, mixed it, mastered it in twenty-eight days, spaced out over two months. We did it with a handful of instruments. In that sense, it was as DIY as it gets.
Were there any artists or friends that you specifically reached out to gauge how the album was coming along?
Jimmy: I think we are the people we would have reached out to, because we’re all friends and we all play in different bands.
Penn: And we were doing that every moment.
You also took up residency at Pianos. How has that been?
Darren: [Laughs] A big, fat residency.
Penn: It’s right in our neighborhood. We all live close and we know the guys out there. We know the crew. It’s just a great spot. We played there last night and it was easily one of our best shows.
What do you want audiences to take away from your music when you’re onstage?
Penn: When this record comes out, most of these people are going to be hearing this music for the first time. I’d just love for them to fucking listen; if they listen, I’m happy. I think we all have a very specific idea, maybe even unconsciously, of what this record is about, but you can’t impress that upon the audience if they’re not hearing it. If they hear it and they listen, I think that’s a great first step.
Jimmy: Even when you go see a movie, and you go with your friends and are all talking and laughing and kind of paying attention, you can still love the fucking movie. We don’t need to have an audience’s undivided attention, it just matters that they’re into it. And if they’re not, it’s our fault.
Simon: Next year when we’re touring, people will come to the shows because they want to come to the shows after hearing the record.
Penn: When you’re playing a fifty-minute set for people who have never heard any of the songs, you’re asking them a lot to just stand there and listen.
Jimmy: [Laughs] We understand it’s a chore.
What other bits of psychology go into making a live performance and capturing an audience’s attention?
Jimmy: Trying not to make the set fall apart. It’s always changing and updating because we’re still a relatively new band. It’s very internal on stage at this point.
Darren: We’re still trying to figure shit out.
Penn: When any one person comes and sees us at any given show, we’re technically playing with one arm tied behind our back. And we never get the chance to sound check properly!
Darren: There’s this very eerie thing that happens with this band where something always goes wrong. Always!
Penn: But you know what’s fantastic about that? Last night as we were sound checking, half of my electronic setup where I do a lot of tweaking of peddles and vocal effects just wasn’t working. But it still always works out. We always play and at the end of the show we always feel good, even if we feel terrible about specific things. It’s all fine. Obviously, we have to do this stuff, but the fact we’re even doing an interview inflates the stage of where we are. We’re not figuring this out like clueless noobs, but we’re still figuring this project out. It’s hard to be that intellectual about the process as we’re still going through it.
Simon: I think, back to your question though, any live band is trying to be dynamic and impactful so you’re able to impress people. You just want to be a good band, and people know the differences.
Darren: And to affect yourself and change things so they’re always interesting. It’s not like we’re going out there and making fucking money. We just go and pretty much lose money with pretty much everything we do. But we do what we love. We play music, but we’re friends, so we decided to get together and do this band. The real question is, “How do we keep this interesting for ourselves?” If we’re just playing the same thing without making it more interesting for us, then it loses its purposes. Whereas if I were to go see, fucking Lady Gaga, her show is very calculated; it’s more entertainment at that point. I don’t know anything about her music, but her show seems more like a show.
Simon: I think there becomes a need and an expectation to be very calculated when you’re playing for 25,000 people a night.
Darren: Yeah, but then you have bands like LCD Soundsystem. They’re super tight, but every time I’ve seen them play, it’s been different.
Simon: Their calculation is to improvise. Either way, it’s a planned situation.
Darren: Their calculation is to keep themselves interested and internally stimulated.
Penn: We’re always changing.
Penn, what are some similarities between the artistic processes of acting and creating music?
Penn: I think they’re mirrors of the same thing. I think anyone that makes two kinds of art would feel the same way. You’re pulling from the same places, you’re saying the same things, but in different ways. To be honest, for me as an actor and as a musician, everything about it is about being present in that moment. That’s the best you can do and the most you can do.
What’s the next step to take MOTHXR to the next level?
Penn: The record is coming out early next year. That’s the next step; putting out the music that we’ve had and have wanted to put out for a while. We’ve been moving ahead with or without a label and finally we got a deal. Subsequently, we’ve taken our material down [from online].
Darren: Someone was like, “We really love this. Can you take it down so we can properly put it out?” The deal seemed cool and the label seemed cool.
Penn: It was a casual thing, really.
Darren: They were offering some pretty fun stuff like shows in Europe and more videos we would have had creative control over. We’re just trying to get it out there with the right tone. You can take shortcuts and get it out there way bigger…
Penn: But we’ve taken the time to do it the right way.
Darren: It’s about quality over quantity, as far as getting shit out there.
Simon: The best gauge or benchmark is to judge the way you’re putting out your music or the way you’re going about things against other artists you love and respect. We wouldn’t put it out any other way, because we wouldn’t respect ourselves if we put it out a different way. But it would be fucking awesome to just have people in the realm of the music business, that would like us, to hear us in the right place at the right time. That’s the only goal you can have. It just needs to be available and out there. After that, we’ve done our part. The rest is up to them.