words + photos by Joe Cortez
I caught up with Vance Kotrla, Jody Stark and Mr. Mike of Los Angeles-based alt-folk band Sci-Fi Romance this past Saturday night prior to the band's CD release party at the Pig 'N Whistle, celebrating the drop of Dust Among The Stars, the band's latest long player. Afterward, Kotrla took some time out to answer some questions via email as part of our new features section.
1. Your new album, Dust Among the Stars, comes a few years after your previous release, The Ghost of John Henry. Do you think your songwriting has changed any in the time since? Do you find yourself influenced by artists you weren’t paying as much attention to then as you are now?
I can't really say how much it's changed since the last full-length (although, just to correct the record, there was an EP that came out last year called October) -- I think that's probably a question for the listener more than for me. But I can say that going into this set of songs, I was much more willing to take risks. Through the recording process of The Ghost of John Henry, I learned a lot. When you work with somebody like Jaron Luksa, an engineer who has worked with everybody from Quincy Jones to Amanda Palmer you're an idiot if you don't try to learn as much as you can. So coming out of that process, I felt a new ownership over my ability as a songwriter and performer, and I think a more fully realized sense of competence. I tried very consciously to take those lessons and build on them as I tackled the writing and recording process for Dust Among the Stars.
2. Secret origins: Your music is very much grounded in the folk and Americana tradition, but the name of your project conjures up otherworldly imagery. Can you give us a bit of insight into the band name, Sci-Fi Romance?
The project came about in a very organic way -- I didn't set out to start a band, I just started writing songs. And those songs drew on so many vastly different areas of interest for me, from Surrealist imagery to sci-fi literature to coming of age novels and classic horror movies, that I remember thinking that if I ever released all that stuff, it would sound totally schizophrenic.
I read the Alfred Bester book The Stars My Destination, and literally put the book down, picked up a guitar, and wrote the song "Gulliver Foyle," which the novel completely inspired. Just before that, I'd written the song "Lovestruck," which is this romantic triptych that looks at three relationships in various states of hope or despair. These are songs that wound up on the first record, ...and surrender my body to the flames. At the same time, I read this round-up of the best movies of the 2000s, and the writer referred to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a "sci-fi romance." I'd never heard that phrase before, but a lightbulb went off. As soon as I read it, it felt like a banner that could unify all the different stuff I'd been writing.
3. I understand you’ve also dabbled in animation a bit. Can you tell us where your interest in animation stems from? Any particular works or animators that stand out as having influenced your own art?
It's funny, I didn't think about this until just today when I was looking back over some old files, but the first music video I ever attempted had a big stop-motion animation component to it. My bass player at the time and I did it in my garage. This is years and years ago. So even going back to my earliest attempts at translating music into a visual story, that's always been a part of it. I'm a big animation fan, and I love so many different forms, from Looney Tunes to totally ephemeral sand animation. But I have a particular soft-spot for the stuff that started happening in the 1950s after the traditional school of animation began to fracture, and you had studios like UPA (who made Gerald McBoing Boing and The Tell-Tale Heart and Mr. Magoo) taking animation into whole new areas with constant experimentation. I love the vibrancy of that kind of risk-taking.
4. Your previous album was designed as a concept piece however the new album seems to be a more straightforward collection of songs. Was that a conscious decision? Do you see yourself returning to a story-driven concept piece again down the road?
Doing The Ghost of John Henry as a concept album was a very easy and natural decision for me because that whole legend/folk tale/fable is something that has resonated with me since forever.
When I had a chance to put my stamp on it, I ran with it. But I didn't want to try to just conjure a new concept out of thin air for the next album, so I focused more on making the songs each the best version of themselves they could be. In the recording process, though, I definitely found myself wanting to craft an album that had an emotional through-line, and took listeners on an emotional journey, so of the songs I'd written and we'd recorded, I tried to find the strongest...I don't know...most coherent emotional path. That meant some songs got left out, but I think the resulting album has an arc that I'm very happy with. It's not a concept album, but to me anyway, it's definitely a consistent journey.
5. What’s in store for the future? Any upcoming dates or projects you’d like to let us know about?
Like I mentioned a minute ago, some songs we recorded got left out of this record. So we've got a handful of other tracks that are in the can and other things we're working on that will probably find there way into another release before too long.