Amid the mercurial landscape of contemporary electronica, Los Angeles based electro/rockers Julien-K strive to take their already vastly successful creation to the next level. Group founders Ryan Shuck and Amir Derakh, along with keyboardist Anthony “Fu” Valcic, sit down with ReGen for a candid look at the process and direction behind their latest album, music video and European tour.
An InterView with Ryan Shuck, Amir Derakh and Anthony “Fu” Valcic
By: Brendan Leonard
In the late ‘90s, Ryan Shuck and Amir Derakh achieved fame on a level that few bands attain as pivotal members of the synth/rock band Orgy. As Orgy continued to develop into the early 2000s, Shuck and Derakh struck out on their own, forming Julien-K initially as a side project and addressing lighter themes still drenched in melancholic electronica. Even leading up to the release of their debut album, Death to Analog, Julien-K enjoyed success appearing on major motion picture soundtracks for Underworld: Evolution and Transformers. After years of musical development, Death to Analog was released by Metropolis Records in 2009 and immediately heralded Julien-K as noteworthy players in the dark rock scene. The band then embarked on an aggressive touring schedule on the road with industrial scene favorites Aesthetic Perfection and Combichrist. Refusing to remain idle, Julien-K toured with such dark arena acts such as HIM and Linkin Park. The intervening years have found the members of Julien-K engaged in remixing their own work and further honing their sultry romantic brand of electronics mixed with powerful rock hooks. They have even managed to find time to express themselves in a second project, Dead by Sunrise and in a Los Angeles-area tapas restaurant. In January of this year, Julien-K released theor sophomore album, We’re Here with You, and now prepare to take their music to the people with a new music video, a series of North American dates and a tour of Europe and the United Kingdom.
Shuck: Definitely an evolution. I would say that the first album we tried to sort of keep in mind that a lot of people were going to need a bridge to get away from Orgy and get into this kind of new thing that we’re doing. So we actually kept that in mind and were trying to be very respectful of our fans and what we had built already, and then we knew that down the line we were going to continue to push forward and do new things and try to grow our sound and sort of not be trapped in that same sort of genre that I think that we created with Orgy, or at least, opened up, you know, the can of worms with Orgy. When we did Julien-K, we really wanted to do something new and different and take it further and break into new territory. So, I think the first record, we kind of kept in mind, ‘Hey, not everyone is just going want to hear us just completely turn on our heads and do something weird and different.’ So I think that it was natural, but it was also that we kind of knew what we were doing. We sort of intentionally did it gently.
Along those lines, the first album was released under Metropolis Records, and the latest album is released under Circuit Freq. What prompted that move?
Shuck: Um, you’re very… perceptive. [Laughs.]
We are good friends with Metropolis. We love those guys; we love Dave, and we think he does a great job, and, I mean, they’re a great label. They’re one of the last ethical labels on earth. They’re really, really cool. But when you do something with Metropolis, you sort of get painted into sort of a genre. And we knew, to continue to go forward, that we would have to have to start our own thing, sign our own bands and create our own scene. You know, when you get on iTunes and you look and you go, ‘people also bought,’ or you get on Spotify and ‘people also listen,’ or Amazon, ‘you might like?’ There are all these algorithms that are involved in that, and when you sign with a label like Metropolis or something, you instantly sort of get sorted into this algorithm. So you look at us and you get Front 242, and you get all these bands that I don’t think we really sound like or that we’re not really…we’re sort of breaking past that and going into new territory. So with this new record we sort of knew that we had to kind of create something new, a new association, if you will. And again, you’re seeing that departure from the world of Orgy, that kind of slow and methodical growth out of that world into something new without forsaking it. The tent’s just getting bigger, I think. There’s still room for all our old fans in the tent. But they just need to get used to some new fans, as well.
Could you guys walk us through the process of writing a song for Julien-K?
Shuck: It depends. The songs are sort of broken up into groups, and Amir can definitely run with this one a bit.
Derakh: I like to always try different things. Some of it is collaborative with outside writers, producers, DJs, you know, I meet people and kind of get a sort of a sense that maybe we could do something cool together. We started doing this on the first record, just on the very end of the writing process, because Ryan and I have always been open to working with other writers, you know, other people, to really make what we do better, or at least try different things and expand what we’re doing, you know? Because we always write songs; Ryan and I will both come in with songs, and those usually end up on the record, too, but this time we did a lot more collaborating with these outside producers, and they kind of gave us some seeds, like cool song seeds; sometimes just a drumbeat that we took and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool,’ and they wrote a whole thing around it. Or with the case of ‘Breakfast in Berlin,’ Sharooz was actually in town, and he’s a big DJ/producer, you know, club guy, so he just came over and we just jammed in the studio and ended up writing this really cool song. So it’s kind of different every time, and with Ryan, you know, we treat him a little more like a singer/songwriter, because he tends to just jam on his guitar and he’s got some ideas, so we just bring his ideas in and nurture them in maybe a way that… you know, most bands I don’t think write that way, you know? Because Fu and I are really producers, so it’s easy for us to just switch our hats. Ryan, he’s like a solo artist almost but, you know, how do we pull that in and make it work with the band and keep everything that we’re doing cohesive at the same time so that at the end there’s like a…I feel that this record’s a lot more cohesive than the first record. We were kind of experimenting a lot on the first record that I don’t think we really knew exactly. There were some certain things that we did that I think, still to this day, that was the direction, but we just didn’t know it yet. So some of the stuff kind of went to the side and we started focusing more on, I think, what we really like and like to play.
Shuck: There was a lot of experimentation to find out what kind of a band were we. At first, on our own and then when Fu came in and then, you know, all the other people that have kind of come and gone.
Derakh: We could’ve very easily just kept the Orgy sound. I mean, because it’s us too. It’s like, it would very easy for us to sound like Orgy, and we could totally sound like Orgy.
Shuck: Well, yeah. We play our guitars on that Orgy rig. All the effects, the shit we created that was that band, all you do is you plug in and you start messing around with it and you go, ‘Oh my God, I’m Amir’ or ‘I’m Ryan.’ I mean, it sounds like it. So we completely put all that stuff away.
Derakh: We started out fresh.
Shuck: We brought out a whole new fucking paint palette to create with.
Derakh: Yeah, we didn’t really want to do that; we really wanted to make this sort of stand on its own individual kind of thing, not only from Orgy but from other bands too.
Shuck: Sure, Dead by Sunrise is the same as well. We have a whole different palette for Dead by Sunrise as well.
Speaking to what you were saying a little bit earlier, have you of embraced the sort of Dave Grohl ethic of, like, ‘Let’s get together at my house and record everything there,’ or are you guys still studio cats?
Derakh: It’s both, because we actually have studios in our houses so it’s kind of like that. You know, Ryan’s got one, I’ve got one at my house, and Fu basically has a whole other setup, but he’s living with me now, so it just basically makes it easy. We just go in there and do it.
When it comes to the synthesizers that you’re using, are you guys concerned primarily with digital or do you like vintage analog when you’re messing around? What’s the preference?
Valcic: Not really any preference, but we do love to have the vintage analog things around, and they are part of the arsenal. We’ll throw plug-ins up, we’ll get something new, something old, whatever. Amir’s starting to collect these little tiny boxes now.
Derakh: I’m pretty obsessed with gear, like most guys that are, you know, like me. I’ve got a crazy collection of amps, guitars, pedals, little beat boxes, keyboards, whatever; you know, old, new. Sometimes I just buy something that’s at Guitar Center, but something comes out of it then, it’s cool. But yeah, I think we have a love for some of the older gear, because we just love tinkering with it and wasting a lot of time.
Shuck: Sometimes the funny thing with these guys is that they often write like…he’s right, I write a little more like a singer/songwriter. I’ll sit down and I’ll have a melody in my head, words, and a thing that I’ll barf up, like a chunk of a song that I can almost play. These guys will get a cool piece of gear that’s vintage or something like that, and they’ll [gestures like adjusting a pot] and a sound will come out, and one of them will go, ‘Whoa’ and then start tweaking it and all of a sudden I’ll go, ‘Oh! I have a vocal idea on it!’ because the sound is so cool, and they come up with sort of a riff, and that’s how these guys tend to write.
Derakh: I would say definitely that I tend to write from the inspiration of a sound. A lot of times, I write from basically just a concept of…maybe I haven’t done anything, but I have this thing in my head. Either it’s a title or sort of a concept for a song like what kind of a song I want. And then somehow, sometimes that even morphs and I make it kind of come together and then I go, ‘Hey guys, I got this idea here, what do you think?’ It’s not typical, although there are a lot of people who write like that, I’ve found out. I thought I was weird, but I guess it isn’t. I know that Trent Reznor writes like that, actually.
Shuck: And M83 apparently.
Derakh: Yeah. He writes like that, which I thought was really cool. See, I always thought that I was some kind of a weirdo. Why do I write songs like this? It doesn’t make sense. Most people sit down to a guitar or piano or whatever and start singing and playing, but that’s never been my thing.
That sounds like a cerebral approach.
Derakh: Yeah. That’s just how I am: probably more up in my head.
You have some European dates after the North American leg of this tour. What do you guys have in store for your European fans?
Derakh: [Points to drummer Eli James] Well, this guy.
Shuck: Yeah, we’re bringing a fucking vagabond with us!
Shuck: Eli was in our ‘We’re Here with You’ video, and we’ve always thought when we play with Eli and Frank (Zummo), we were like, ‘Fuck! I wish we could take them both,’ and it kind of turned out that we ended up being able to. Frank is doing Street Drum Corp, so it was one those things where we’re trying drummers out we kind of already knew, that Frank was kind of the guy, but we wanted to play with some other people and see who else was out there, because you never know what we might get. So we met Eli, and we ended up doing a video with Frank and a video with Eli, and then wanted to see if it would really fit if we ever needed to do something like this, and it turned out to be awesome, and it looks like we’re going to be working with Eli a lot. So we got him to come to Europe; that’s going to be fun. We’re going to do a big run in Europe, we’re going to do a month and all the standard countries, everywhere from Prague to London to lots of Germany to France to fucking Romania.
Shuck: Fucking Austria; all sorts of good shit. We love it in Europe; it’s fucking fun!
There’s a song on this album, ‘Breakfast in Berlin,’ and then on your Twitter feed, it says LA/Berlin.
Shuck: Yeah, yeah we lived in Berlin last summer. We actually moved there and got an apartment and totally lived in Europe. Berlin is sort of like our home in Europe, and Germany is like our home in Europe, so we travel a lot. We love traveling. That’s honestly one of the reasons that I’ve been able to do this for so long; I think it’s the same with these guys. There’s one part creating music and being in the studio, the part that I probably don’t like that much. Then there is the other part where you get to get on a plane and you get to indulge in wanderlust and you get to go out and perform and be in different countries with your best friends and it’s just like a grown up fairy tale. It’s so fucking fun!
Derakh: One thing that’s funny about that song, though, is that that was kind of a concept song.
Derakh: The title I actually came up with before we ever went to Berlin. And then we ended up in Berlin for three months, and it was just like now everyone is going to think we wrote this song, but I actually came with that before.
Shuck: Yeah, but we had toured and traveled overseas and we got into this record definitely lyrically; I kinda got into the idea of worldliness: like, not being this LA point of view and this thing that a lot of bands kind of do. I really got into like the same vibe that we put into our restaurants and other things that we do. There’s like a vibe, there’s a feeling from all the dark, dirty, rad parts of the planet that we go to and party at, all the memories and the good times that you have when you’re doing that. I kind of channel a lot of that soul into the music. So a lot of this music has that, even ‘We’re Here with You.’ It’s sort of a like a militant, ‘Get the fuck up and dance’ song aimed at the whole world. So it’s like ‘We’re Here with You,’ through the music we’re with you. So there’s this whole kind of thing, we don’t really feel like we live just here in LA. We really do spend, you know, five months or so a year in other countries, and we really like that.
Tell us about the making of the ‘Cruel Daze of Summer’ music video.
Derakh: Um, yeah. Basically, where does it start? We did these first two videos, which Ryan and I really thought like we really wanted to showcase the band; no concept, really, just sort of good, energetic performance videos, right? So, when it came time for this song, we felt like not only do we want to give it a real sort of push as like a real single or whatever you want to call it, but we wanted to do something more with the video. A friend of mine, this model who’s the star in the video, she had done a photo shoot in Malibu. She’s from Germany; she’s actually from Berlin. She had done this photo shoot, and I saw this, and for some reason, I was just kind of like, ‘She has to be the girl in the video,’ like, there’s just some connection. It was her style. It’s just, I don’t know…it kind of came together. I told Ryan, and he loved the idea right away. So it’s going to be about this girl, basically. That was the beginning, but then I started having these little sort of random ideas about how we could make this video a bit more interesting than just a typical thing, and so I came up with the idea with the whole breakdown in the middle where she’s sort of enters into this whole club land and all that and this remix and kind of trying to figure out a way to just throw a curve ball in. You know, in the middle of the video, sort of Lady Gaga style, you know? She always does this crazy shit.
Shuck: Keep in mind that none of us wanted to be in the video either.
Shuck: We were all like, ‘Let’s not be in the video.’
Derakh: We didn’t want to be in the video.
Shuck: We’re sick of being in videos.
There was a noticeable absence of the band in the video.
But it has a very kind of a Lost Highway sort of feel to it.
Shuck: Exactly the vibe we were going for. Wow, that’s awesome!
Derakh: So, yeah, then the whole thing sort of revolves around her. I don’t want to tell you the story, because what we think is different than what everybody has thought about the video, so it’s like, that’s what we wanted.
Shuck: I will say that it’s very simple. The idea is very pure and simple. And it’s actually really, really cool, but we really enjoy hearing people’s interpretations. Because people add this incredible story to it, and our idea was very pure, very simple. Through using a pure idea, we were able to tell this really twisted tale that went in a kind of David Lynch kind of way. It kind of throws you off, like ‘Is this positive? Is it negative? What the fuck happened? Is she dead?’ The whole thing, really the essence of it is super simple.
Derakh: Yeah. It was just like, let’s come up with a sort of a simple concept, but we ended up meeting with a lot of video directors and conceiving ideas back and forth, Ryan and I, until we started to figure out where everybody’s place was in the video and how we sort of became the drivers of her. I hate when bands are inserted in some way, like maybe we’re at the club or something, and we actually went through a lot of people and you know a lot of their ideas they kept taking it and twisting it in a way that we were just like, ‘Ah, this isn’t it, we didn’t want to do that.’ We ended up doing more and more of it ourselves until finally, we met with Vincente, and he got it, and he had some really good ideas to help us get it done and help it be a little more explained than it was, even though it’s still a very…
Derakh: Vague, purposefully, because we really just want people to use their own imaginations. I think if it was too spelled out, then I don’t know…it just feels like it’s too played out that way to me.
Shuck: I think also we weren’t trying to look cool, and I think a lot of the directors…well, all the directors we know and met with fucking rule. But it’s whether or not they’re going to get it. We sort of had this idea, this epic idea.
Derakh: They just didn’t get the idea, I guess.
Shuck: But it’s like you always want to end up making it, and normally you want this, you want to look cool, right? In the video, right? But we didn’t really want that; we weren’t trying to be cool. We were trying to do something interesting. That’s all. We thought, the song on its face kind of has this pop feel, but it’s a very deep song, and there are a lot of really cool, interesting things going on with the music, and a lot of dynamics going on. Its breakdown and all these visuals came to both of our minds during all these different parts, and we tried to use the video as a vehicle to show that.
Is there anything else you’d like to address before we close?
Shuck: Thank you for interviewing us, and thank you to all our fans. We really, really appreciate everyone watching all our videos on YouTube and getting the counts up, and it really helps us, so we appreciate it!