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Hotels is the noirish, post-punk brainchild of Blake Madden. Since the early 2000s, the band has specialized in heartfelt, heady dance rock with massive hooks and high drama; the songs are crafted like films or crime novels themselves. The music is patient, sexy, and at times a little unnerving.
Such is life, and Hotels brings its wisdom to the table. Madden started the band in Brooklyn, then moved to Seattle, where it took on a new form (there was even a period when Hotels East and Hotels West coexisted). Travel is a central theme, both internally and out on the grid.
Genres frequently collide. As Time Out New York writes, “Hotels fuse elements of new wave, goth, and surf so seamlessly that genre tags will be the last thing on your mind when you hear their bittersweet, atmospheric pop songs.”
BTRtoday spoke to Madden about the ongoing journey of Hotels, turning tragedy into art, and the incredible new album, “Night Showers,” produced by Erik Blood (Shabazz Palaces).
BTRtoday (BTR): The music of Hotels transports listeners to other worlds. There’s a sense of a large literary and cinematic influence on the band, almost an extended universe. What books or films have played key roles for you?
Blake Madden (BM): William S. Burroughs’ “Cities of the Red Night” immediately comes to mind. It’s a detective story, a pirate story, a western, but it also comes completely untethered from any structure or grammatical conventions at times. I read it when I was 16 and I think that was the first book that showed me you could rip everything up, build other universes and give them your own rules.
I also love John Carpenter—his movies, his music, and his attitude. The lesson I get from his stuff is that honesty trumps execution, and substance trumps style. I had him in mind recently as I was making this video for the first song on Night Showers, “Green Apples.” I thought, “Man, I don’t know what I’m doing here, I can’t do this or have that.” Then I thought, “Who cares? Just make it the best you can and if the ideas are there, people will get them.”
You can do a lot when you don’t know what you can’t do.
BTR: One of the more immediate tracks on the new album is the Prince-esque (but better) “Linnette.” It’s got a great groove and a melding of synth and actual bass. It’s so festive, but melancholy. That’s not an easy thing to do, right?
BM: Thanks! “Linnette” had Frankenstein beginnings. I wanted to write a love song, but didn’t know where to start lyrically. Then I had all these little parts and little grooves from different places that didn’t match up and I was trying to figure out how to piece them together.
I got as far as naming the song “Linnette,” because of the LinnDrum groove, but was really frustrated with it otherwise, until at one point I took some headphones off and literally said out loud, “Please Linnette, tell me what you want from me?” That’s when it became clear that Linnette was the muse and it was a love song to her.
The melancholy is the same frustration we feel in romantic relationships; sometimes Linnette is hard to satisfy, sometimes we don’t see eye to eye, but we keep working at it because we love each other. And when we work through it, it’s festive at the end! Linnette and I are doing great now. As long as I don’t become complacent in the relationship, and I respect her, we can reach new heights.
BTR: Another crusher is the title track, “Night Showers.” It’s slow-building and very evocative. It’s a bit like “Atlantic,” from your first record, but there’s more Morricone than Elfman, or something like that. What can tell us about that track and the impetus behind it?
BM: I like to shower late in the evening, right before bed. Showering right before bed is the most opposite you can get from showering right after you wake up—the way most people do it—and yet neither way is more clearly “right” or “wrong” than the other. Sometimes you are with the grain, sometimes you are against it, and you decide what works for you and what doesn’t and if you can handle how the outside world interprets your choices.
“Night Showers” begins with the first little droplets of water. It’s agitated, it needs time to wake up and get started. That’s a morning shower, not our shower. You go through the day and the agitation builds; somebody is yelling at you because they really needed their thing delivered by yesterday, somebody really needs to make a U-turn right in front of you, a bird really needs to shit on you, somebody got your taco order wrong.
You’re tired and defeated at the end of the day, but you have a release they don’t know about…You take a Night Shower and the world falls away. They can’t touch you in there. The weight of expectation and the noise is gone and the moon will be your friend without judging you just because you forgot to return its text. For one moment of the day, at the very end, you find the thing that is most elusive to humans: peace within.
BTR: That first record (“Thank You For Choosing…“) is sorely underrated. There’s so much emotion and information coming at you and it’s all very sci-fi. How do you feel about it now? Do you think there’s a special relationship between the first and newest records?
BM: I’ve gone through periods of being really proud of it, then wanting to distance myself from it a little, to now again being proud of its place in my musical history. Some of those sea changes in emotion have to be related to me getting older and just having more music that exists; now I can see it in the proper context. Now I like where it sits as the first link in the Hotels chain. It’s youthful, a bit naive, a little frantic and combustible, it wears its heart on its sleeve, but really, what else should it be?
I think the Hotels sound—if that is a thing that exists—has gone through a lot of change and evolution, but I like that if you listen to “Thank You For Choosing…” and “Night Showers” back to back, you say, “I can hear this is the same group and the same themes, just maturing and moving through different places.” That’s my hope, at least; that even through evolution, the thread is always there between what came first and what comes next.
BTR: How was it working with Erik Blood? And how did that collaboration come to fruition?
BM: I lusted after Erik’s services for years. We shared a few bills with him long ago and I loved his stuff. He was a kindred spirit in washy Cocteau Twins guitars and synth pads. Erik’s “Touch Screens” is one of my favorite albums by anyone in the past five years, and I knew I had to work with him after he put that out.
It might have been about four years ago that we were at a party and I said, “I want to work with you. I have nothing yet, but just keep this in mind for the future.” Then, maybe two years ago, I said, “I have one song and I want you to record it.” He said, “why not make an album?” so I went back and wrote one. He pre-produced me.
And that’s a good example of why he’s good: he pushes you slightly out of your comfort zone to make you make something better. I knew this would be the case and I wanted that give and take, because I knew we had common ground in our influences and I trusted that he would know how to take me where I wanted to go, sometimes better than I knew myself.
BTR: “Night Showers” was conceived in isolation and later brought to others and eventually the world. Do you enjoy being the first audience member, you the writer? Is it comforting to work in solitude?
BM: The record is about extremes, particularly the extremes of isolation and community. Both are needed and sometimes one is needed as an antidote to the other.
In the beginning, “Night Showers” was just a tadpole crawling out of the ooze. I had no band; Hotels was defunct and I wasn’t sure it would be revived. I was finally learning to read and write music properly, in hopes that I could communicate musical language better, but it was humbling. As for writing, I had a guitar line here, a melody there, but nothing to hang it on, just the recurring thought that no matter what direction I went in, I was years away from anything solid seeing the light of day. It was a low, lonely point in my musical life.
If you listen to “Night Showers” today, it’s an album with 11 different performers on it, all doing different things, all coming from different places, all coming together to build this thing that was once nothing more than a seed of an idea. It’s fully realized; it has life coming out of every corner of it. That still amazes me. How did I get from there to here? I could not have written this album without the isolation, and I could not have executed it as something finished without this community. One had to be the antidote for another.
BTR: You’ve had a turbulent year, and, if you’re comfortable discussing it, how did your personal life affect this record? Do you believe in channeling tragedy into art? It sounds like there’s a bit of that here.
BM: The mantra for this record was “sow in sorrow, reap in joy.” At first, it was a silly thing about the grind of building something really ambitious out of nothing, just hoping I’d have something good some day. My father died at the end of last year, right before we began recording, and that’s when it became something real and necessary I had to hang on to.
It’s the type of sentiment that I might have called “hokey” or “cheesy” when I was younger, which is a shame, because now, as an older person, I realize that just means sincere. It’s scary to be sincere and vulnerable, to be open, but grief leaves you with little choice. You don’t have the strength and energy for irony, detachment and defenses. Your energy and strength is spent just trying to get through the day. You get naked and raw.
So, the earlier records are all guarded: I’m a character, I’m singing in code; it’s all subterfuge. This record is all me, wide open. I’m singing about my mother and how I miss her, about my best friend and how I appreciate him. I’m singing about my inspiration. I’m singing about my paranoia and fear.
I cried a few times while writing some of the songs, but I didn’t run from it; I didn’t discount it and call it “cheesy.” I went toward it. I think even the music itself is more open. Using all these acoustic instruments, there’s already less places to hide, but also I just went with my gut more in how the songs were constructed.
Turning tragedy into art—I want to say I believed in it before, but I don’t know if you really believe it until the choice is in your hands. When my father died, I felt I could have easily imploded, given up. Instead, I focused all of my energy on trying to make something as beautiful and open and honest as I could.
I lived in this album, I hid out in it, and the people who helped me make it also helped me keep getting through days just by showing up, not only convincing me that I had purpose, but that *we* had purpose, together. Despite this year, I think I feel more love for the world now than ever before. So, if people take anything from the record, I hope it’s that you can find love even in the dark places.
Check out Hotels’ site and sign the mailing list to receive a free download of “Green Apples.”
Hotels will be performing “Night Showers” in its entirety at the release show, September 8th at the Lo-Fi Performance Gallery in Seattle, with Erik Blood opening. Tickets are available here.