A lot has happened in the world of Jason Aalon Butler – primary lyricist, lead vocalist and sole constant of post-hardcore hybrid beasts letlive. – in the three years that separate his band’s last LP, The Blackest Beautiful, and this month’s If I’m the Devil… Of particular note is his marriage – tying the knot with New Zealand chanteuse Gin Wigmore – as well as yet another shift in line-up for the band (guitarist Jean F. Nascimento and drummer Anthony Rivera out, drummer Loniel Robinson in).
Perhaps more pertinent, however, was Butler seeing the greatest minds of his generation get drowned out by a vocal minority of hatred, fear and phobia – leaving many, quite literally, for dead. It all impacts on If I’m the Devil…, which sees Butler and co. press forth with heart-on-sleeve honesty and tempered conviction, taking elements of the band’s chaotic hardcore past and the walloping choruses they developed through The Blackest Beautiful. The end result is one of the year’s most honest, compelling and rewarding listens within the genre – and there’s more to unpack with every spin.
Speaking with Music Feeds prior to the album’s release, Butler waxed lyrical on the thematic structure of letlive.’s fourth album – often taking the questions offered up to him and not only running with them, but winding up outside of the proverbial stadium.
Music Feeds: On the outset of releasing If I’m the Devil…, what do you hope people get out of this record? Or is that more up for individual interpretation?
Jason Aalon Butler: To be 100% honest with you, I told the band that I wanted to have a little trepidation and feel afraid to release that record. I wanted to feel like I was outside the zone of comfort. That scared them a little. If it were up to me, we’d have gone even further in a direction that would have made me feel that way. The band kind of reeled me in as far as that side of things was concerned.
I suppose one thing that I really want to broadcast to the world with our music is that I want people to not know what to expect from our records. For me, music and art is just about progress and evolution. It’s about change. That’s how I approach art. I’m not trying to sound contrived or whatever, that’s just how I see it.
MF: Each of the band’s four records were recorded with different personnel at the time – letlive. has never had the same line-up record two albums in a row. Have you found that each incarnation of the band has brought out a different side to what the band is able to accomplish?
JAB: I think so. Even Ryan [Jay Johnson, bass], who has been in the band longer than anyone who isn’t me, has only played on the last three records. Our first EP [2003’s Exhaustion, Salt Water, and Everything In Between] and our first record [2005’s Speak Like You Talk] were both recorded with our first bassist, Christian [Johansen]. Ray had actually joined by the time the first record came out, but all the parts had already been recorded for it.
We’d actually written a record between Speak Like You Talk and Fake History, but our buddy who was with us got a job in real life – he wanted to be a firefighter. So we scrapped it and started again with the four of us. Then there was The Blackest Beautiful, which was actually recorded with another drummer after we’d written the whole thing.
I think that there’s a vision. To pinpoint where it’s coming from is neither here nor there. I know that there’s a larger vision every time that we create a record. There’s a certain level of dedication and sharing of that vision when you’re recording, putting in that months’ or that year’s work. If you’re not going to fully invest yourself in it at the time, it’s best that you’re relieved of your position. I mean that in the most amicable way – it’s not about being a ‘fuck you.’
It’s about realising that a lot of what letlive. is about is finding yourself emotionally. I guess that’s kind of how we’ve gotten through all these records: We’ve figured out who wanted to make the best record that we could, and they’ve been the ones that have stayed on at the time.
MF: There’s a lot of very introspective stuff on this record – a lot of “I” and “my” – but that also shifts into “we” from time to time, particularly when the material and lyricism is more politically bent. Does a shift in perspective impact on the way that you write?
JAB: I think so. I find it interesting when artists are able to write away from themselves. I actually commend it. I admire it. That’s never been something that I’ve found that I’m able to do. Everything that I do for the band needs to pass through a filter of my own experience. If I’m going to authentically write about something and represent something, I have to have gone through it.
In the past, I’ve written more observationally. It was about trying to understand different paradigms and theories, elements of society and the western world. With this record, I really understand my place in it all. I understood my inclusion in the things that were doing me wrong on The Blackest Beautiful, and that was almost self-deprecation.
With this record, I’m so much more knowledgeable and so much better equipped to talk about being an outsider of the system. There are policies in place to exclude and marginalise myself and a lot of people like myself. There’s a much larger power that we are fighting against. For me, it’s understanding that I need to have experience about something in order to properly process it and write about it. Whenever you hear a “me” or an “I” on a letlive. song, that’s me literally talking directly and personally.
The “we” and “us” is understanding that I am not the only one that has had those experiences. I am not the only one that will have those experiences. In a fucked-up sort of way, that’s how we share this sense of solidarity.
MF: A lot of the “we” and “us” songs, as you’ve put it, are dealing with oppression of racial minorities and aligning yourselves as a band and as artists – and, perhaps most importantly, as people – with the Black Lives Matter movement. Having people of colour in letlive. has always been such an instrumental part of what makes up the band’s identity. Did you feel it was necessary to share that sense of solidarity, as you said?
JAB: Without question. I’ve had to dance around my identity for a really, really long time. People didn’t know if I was black, white, Latino, middle-eastern… there were times in my past within certain environments that I had to temper the things that I said because of my physiognomic appearance. I had to make sure I didn’t come off the wrong way. Now, I’ve realised that in the larger scheme of things, I am very much a person of colour – that’s by way of both written law and perception.
I have experienced many things myself because of where I’m from and the way I was typecasted – much more negatively than my light-skinned friends, too. This isn’t some sort of conspiracy. This is fact. You’re looking at the truths of my own life. That’s only on a micro scale. Macroscopically, these movements have been precipitated recently for me because I feel like I’m in the position to do so. That said, these things have been happening for centuries.
It’s shocking to me that people see this as a recent development. This has been going on for a long, long time. I’m very happy, of course, that the conversation is happening. There are cameras documenting everything. There’s social media. There’s forums. All of those things, on a global level, are reaching a boiling point. I, for one, am looking forward to it boiling over entirely. Then and only then will we be able to get to the root of these problems.
MF: There seems to be a real umbrage taken with any musician or artists that dabbles in the political. It generally garners a real “stay in your lane” reaction on social media – this idea that these people didn’t come to their shows for a political lecture. It’s especially ironic when one thinks of how often politics and music have blended throughout history – even before Woody Guthrie wrote “this machine kills fascists” on his guitar.
JAB: [laughs] I love it. It’s so funny. I expected a lot of people to have those feelings, and they’ve certainly presented themselves. We’ve been accused of being on the bandwagon, and have been told that the police violence we’ve alluded to is made up. I find it both ignorant and comical at the same time. I’m not just some dude who took an integrated sociology class and now feel like it’s my duty to tell stories of other people. I’m the motherfucker they’re talking about.
The one that’s being discussed in those conspiracy theories and these supposedly made-up instances. That’s the biggest fucking thing that makes me laugh. It’s dangerously ignorant. When I tell you something objectively that’s happened to me, that can’t be made up. I’ve also been on both sides of the fence due to being half-caste – my mother is of Euro-Caucasian descent, and my father is African-American. That’s been for better and for worse. My view is not one-dimensional. It’s actually multi-dimensional, and it comes from different culture.
These comments come from ignorance and from fear. None of my music is directly blaming anyone. “You, because of your representation and skin tone and your amount of money.. you are the problem.” That’s not what it’s saying at all. I think this sense of guilt is what has been misconstrued. People are placing it directly on themselves. What we’re trying to say is that people need help. In many ways, you’re in a better position to help them if you’re not being held down.
All the way back to fucking chain-gangs, music has been used to push these ideas – especially for those who cannot talk. It’s been a part of music for millennia. This is a primitive thing – we’re communicating and sharing messages. If you didn’t come for the message of our music, don’t come. We have facilitated an environment to have this discussion as a band. We’re not going to tailor what I say or think as an artist or a fucking citizen because people don’t want to open their narrow minds. That’s never been what we’re about.
I’ve always talked about this shit. I’ve always been vocal about these things. My intent is a little more obvious now. That’s the only difference.
‘If I’m The Devil…’ is out now, you can grab a copy here.