Carving out its own niche in the world of indie electro/rock music, Julien-K may be one of the year’s most notable success stories with the band’s fan-funded third album. Vocalist Ryan Shuck speaks with ReGen about the band’s relationship with the fans and what the future holds for Julien-K.
An InterView with Ryan Shuck of Julien-K
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
It’s no small feat to establish a name for oneself after taking part in another group’s widespread success, but the team of Ryan Shuck and Amir Derakh has managed to do just that – together with Anthony “Fu” Valcic, the Los Angeles electro/rock band known as Julien-K has garnered an exceptional following throughout the world. After first appearing in the dark electro/industrial scene with the gritty and glamorous 2009 Metropolis Records release Death to Analog and appearing on numerous movie and video game soundtracks, the band set its sights on Europe with the smoother, lusher follow-up album, We’re Here with You in 2012. Now in 2015, Julien-K is delivering the third album, the first part of a larger concept album with a sound that the band can truly call its own – California Noir. Embracing all elements of their dark electro roots mixed with a heavy dose of sensual melody and introspective atmospheres, Chapter One: Analog Beaches & Digital Cities is the product of the band’s highly successful IndieGoGo campaign, having achieved 100% of its goal within the first 10 hours. Ryan Shuck speaks with ReGen Magazine about the reciprocal relationship between the band and the audience, offering some insights into the nature of the music business and how Julien-K has survived and plans to continue pleasing the fans for a long time to come, all the while carving out its own particular niche and creating a new type of electrified goth music… California Noir!
What are your thoughts on how Julien-K’s sound has developed over the course of three albums, and in what ways do you feel that California Noir defines the current sound of the band?
Shuck: I think that the previous two are really different. Death to Analog was sort of us graduating from Orgy and finding our sound without that band, so it’s an album where we journey out of a certain sound and define what we think Julien-K is going to be. A lot of it was unintentional; we just tried to create something that was really cool and scratch the itch that was not being scratched because we weren’t doing Orgy. We’re Here with You was us trying to make sure that we weren’t going to be pigeonholed into this ‘dark industrial’ genre. It was more of us trying to open up and grow the tent a little bit and try to create an album that signified our desire to travel the world, which we did on that album; we toured the world four times. All the stuff we had learned from being in Dead by Sunrise and touring all over the planet came back with We’re Here with You, and that was the meaning of the name – we’re with all of our fans all over the world. We had that mind when we made the record, and what can sort of flesh out what Julien-K is. With California Noir, we brought it back home. We wanted to build a bridge from We’re Here with You, which was about being all over the world and having this new color and style to our music that we didn’t do before. California Noir was re-identifying with our roots and that we’re unusual types, sort of ‘gothic’ guys. The one thing that’s never changed in the way we are is that we are dark guys; we’re into fashion, we have a full vibe of style and design, and we can’t fucking do anything about it. We just do. We live by the beach, which is just the weirdest thing, and we’re all pretty active and, of course, we party and have fun. I think California Noir is really about coming home and redefining this new evolution of goth and interpreting our lifestyle and putting on the lenses of being in this post-apocalyptic dystopian future ‘California-X’ world and all of this imagery I come up with when we made the record.
That’s interesting because when most people think of goth, they most likely think of drearier imagery along the lines of Birmingham, UK – i.e. very cold and darkly lit, while California seems to be more associated with sunlight and surf.
Shuck: It’s funny… I own some restaurants; I have a handful of them, and it’s a decent size business. I had a meeting with my staff and I had eyeliner on from the night before, and I had some tighter fitting pants, and I brought my surfboard inside the restaurant for the meeting because I didn’t want to leave out on my car. I pick it up and I’m walking out the door with my surfboard, looking like a full-on Yoji Yamamoto Tokyo ninja goth roughneck. I put on my backpack and I’m like, ‘Okay, so we’re done here,’ and everyone is looking at me and they’re laughing. I say, ‘What?’ They go, ‘What is this thing you have going on? What’s your style? You’re definitely something, but we don’t know what it is. Are you in Bauhaus or are you a surfer? What are you doing?’ I go, ‘California Noir.’ They all start laughing, but I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s fucking exactly what we’re doing! It’s California Noir!’ The name instantly jumped out of that meeting and me defining… making a sort of joke out of my look and what I do, but it was very much what we are. We are this modern, different breed of goth. I think it’s funny that of the first three songs we put out, ‘California Noir’ is a little more forlorn, but it’s a little more commercial. And then we have ‘She’s the Pretender,’ which is definitely a little bit more of an emotional type of song, and it is more electro. And then we put in ‘No You Can’t,’ which is definitely more of another direction that we’re going; it was more in-your-face, it was darker, and it had that monotone vocal that I do really well, the kind of vocal that I like in Sisters of Mercy and that kind of stuff. The band is actually heading more in that direction, so it’s a funny thing now that we were able to build a bridge from We’re Here with You into more of who we really are with this modern evolution of goth. It kind of helped us define where we want to go now, and it’s also helping us to reshape Chapter Two of the record. It’s actually going to be darker and we’re experimenting more. It’s so fucking cool and it’s pretty dark and pretty ’80s, and it’s actually bringing back some of the industrial and some of the stuff we did on Death to Analog. California Noir has really helped us to wrap up and focus on what the band is going to start doing. I don’t know if you want to call California Noir one album, or if you’d call it Chapter One and Chapter Two, or if it’s two albums… I think it’s two albums. The funny thing is we’re already planning album five! It’s so fucking crazy, but I think it’ll be cool for fans because we have a lot of music to put out, and I think some of our core fans are going to like it because we’re going to bring back some of the dark in a pretty rad way, and in a very decisive way.
When you released Death to Analog, you toured with Combichrist and were by association perceived as part of that electro/industrial style. With We’re Here with You, you went in a different direction working with more varied styles of electronic music like Bryan Black and Battle Tapes. Having now taken things in the direction you have with California Noir, along with the way the musical landscape seems to be developing, where do you feel Julien-K fits in with that?
Shuck: The one thing that we’ve figured out is that we definitely don’t know where we fit in with music and how it’s developing. I definitely think that music is getting a lot more unpredictable in a lot of ways. There are a lot of these splintered, fractured genres and bands that get these little followings and are able to go out and do something. I don’t know if any of them are making any money or anything like that, and the only reason I mention that is that you have to eat. That gets us into the IndieGoGo side of things; it has to be a little bit of a business so that you can do it. That’s the trick. I think music is really developing in a weird ‘wild west’ way on the indie side. On the major label side, it’s almost turned back to radio and label support for touring – it’s like old school. It’s so weird that it’s gone totally fucking old school again. You kind of need radio to get a really great fan base or you have to decide to completely live miserably and go tour in a van on your own, and just do it. I don’t know. It’s really unpredictable and really tricky. I would say that that’s one of the biggest questions that we ask ourselves everyday right now – How do we feel like we’re going to carve our own path? That’s the big question in this band.
Now that the band is three albums in and has developed its own sound, what is the working dynamic like among the band members for this album?
The band lineup has also seen several people come and go. Fu was not a live member until We’re Here with You, though he was involved heavily from the start, and Brandon Belsky was a prominent member during Death to Analog. The drummer position being filled by… is it Eli (James) or Frank (Zummo) now?
Shuck: It’s Eli and Frank, basically. Frank is going to be playing with us on a couple of shows coming up, and Eli is going to be playing with us on a couple of shows coming up. Unfortunately, with the economics of being in a band now, we can’t keep people on a salary. We really need multiple options because everybody’s got to work and do gigs and do stuff to make money, and those guys are professional musicians, so they have to play. They’re very good and accomplished, and we brought them both into our family, and they both know each other; they’re friends. It’s actually kind of a cool thing. It’s been working out really well. They’re both great drummers, and they bring different things. It’s a funny thing how things come around. We left things very open with Brandon, and he’s always been our friend. We just wrote a couple of new songs with him. We’re definitely going to do some disruptive shit and we’re going to double down on who we are. That kind of goes back to when you asked me where we feel we fit in. I don’t know that we do fit in or that we’re going to find some label or solution that helps us to… say, tour America like the way that we want to. It was easier to tour Europe because Europe’s smaller and we’re savvy enough with our points that we can fly over there for free a lot of times because we know how to manipulate our credit cards and do all the kinds of things you need to do when you’re a hustler.
That brings up an interesting point about touring, which does seem to be the way a lot of small bands are claiming to be able to make money, and yet it seems more difficult now than ever, yet you said touring Europe was easier than touring America. Why is that?
It does seem like it should be common knowledge, but perhaps a lot of people are unaware or underestimate the financial strains involved, and how much of that affects how bands are able to function on their own or just what necessities the record label entities fulfill.
Shuck: Oh yeah, because we don’t have a label, and a lot of these bands coming up are indie and are on an indie label and a lot of times, they’re receiving some kind of tour support or they have a booking agent or they have something going on, maybe a little bit of love on the radio. We are really, really indie – it’s only me, Amir, and Fu. We’re doing everything! We did that whole IndieGoGo campaign ourselves, we recorded this entire record ourselves, we mixed it… we did everything! In most situations, that’s like six or seven people’s full-time jobs. A lot of bands hire highly paid professionals to do all of this. We do all of this and we also own and operate our own businesses and jobs. It’s just such a colossal trick to figure out. Trust me, we were thinking about tackling Chicago on the way to New York. I thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to New York, why don’t we go to Chicago?’ And then I looked at the map and thought, ‘Well, if we’re in Chicago, why don’t we go to Cleveland?’ It’s very, very hard for me to hold back, but then I look at it, and fuck! We’re going to come back with a $10,000 bill, and we can’t afford that. And what if because we played New York and Chicago, it kills the draw in Cleveland and we ruin Cleveland? So you have to just be very careful. You don’t want to go into these venues and have people not show up and then end up fucking them over. Right now, we do really well in L.A. because we fucking sell out. We went down to San Diego, and we did really well. We didn’t know that we were going to do well, so we know we can play there, but you don’t want to overplay, so we don’t play there that often. So we keep our value up and you have to not fuck over the venue as well; they’re in the business to make money too. We can go on a tour on our own and spend our own money and maybe play in front of 20 people in 40% of the cities and a couple of cities do good, but we might cause more damage and hurt our chances of touring again on our own if we do that. The dirty secret about playing with a bigger band is that you usually have to pay the bigger band. (Laughter) You very seldom get paid, so it’s a very tricky situation, and that’s where the record label thing comes in. If you’re not on a label and you don’t have a relationship to leverage, then a lot of times, it’s really hard to get on with a bigger band.
The IndieGoGo campaign for California Noir was quite successful, having raised its 100% goal within 10 hours. What are your thoughts on how this particular model of crowdfunding is representative of the changes in the industry and how artists are utilizing such models? I ask because to even start such a campaign must be a huge decision, especially for an indie band.
It begs the question, what’s it take to impress these people?
Shuck: Oh, I’ll tell you what it takes – it takes a $500,000 publishing advance that they can take 15% of, and we’re not in a position that we are getting those offers, nor are we in a position that we’d necessarily want to sell off our publishing. We own everything right now. I don’t know. If someone came to us with a million bucks, we’d be dumb to turn that down, but short of that, it doesn’t pencil out to be the right move. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t going to get in with you unless they hear a single that they can get on the radio and then there’s a label that’s going to pay for radio promotion… so there’s a whole string of shit that has to happen. If a whole bunch of our fans sent ‘Photo Voltaire’ to XM or something en masse and fucking bombarded them, like e-mailed them personally with our songs, then maybe it could get on XM; that could help. But frankly, it’s hard to get on the radio without a radio promotion staff and without a label paying for it. It’s super unfortunate. I think XM and some others have a little more leeway to throw something on if they’re getting a lot of heat for it or if they notice it. But there’s a program director there. I have the dude’s e-mail. I sent them some of our music. I got no response. Do you know why? Because I’m not a radio promotions guy that takes him to dinner, so I get it. I get what’s going on. That’s sort of how it works.
It’s really disheartening because there is a sort of romanticized view of the past – especially the ’70s – about labels and managers supporting artists and actually willing to take the chance on those acts and actually help them to grow. It just doesn’t seem to happen anymore.
So, what’s the next step now that California Noir is seeing its release?
Is there anything you’d like to say to close out?
Shuck: I want to thank everyone and I want to thank you, and I want to humbly ask everyone to please try to keep the fire. It’s something I tell myself all the time, something I tell the band all the time, something I tell my employees all the time, and it’s something that I try to do with my music – keep the fire and promote among ourselves and get our friends into the music and share it. Getting people to become new fans is so important and having the fans evangelize and show up at shows and support us is really the only way that we’re going to be able to keep doing this. So I want to humbly ask everyone to share the music and get it out there.
California Noir IndieGoGo Campaign https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/julien-k-california-noir-chapter-one
Julien-K Website http://www.julien-k.com
Julien-K Facebook https://www.facebook.com/julienk
Julien-K Twitter https://twitter.com/julienk
Julien-K SoundCloud https://soundcloud.com/officialjulienk
Photography by Amir Derakh and Marisa Tayui, courtesy of Julien-K