Monday, July 9, 2012

Saint Motel

Greg Erwin, Dak Lerdamornpong, Aaron Sharp and A/J Jackson of Saint Motel at Kouraku Restaurant


At Kouraku Restaurant

314 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles (Little Tokyo)

When I found out that Saint Motel wanted to meet at Kouraku Restaurant in Little Tokyo, I felt a bit nostalgic. I remember visiting Little Tokyo with my grandparents when I was little to pick up some mochi for New Year's Day, then going to Kouraku for lunch. I stood in front of their display case, mesmerized by plates and bowls filled with plastic food. I yearned to take them home and add them to my play kitchen. I couldn't help smiling as I walked up to that same display case on a balmy summer evening to meet Saint Motel. It's not surprising that the band members – vocalist A/J Jackson, guitarist Aaron Sharp, bassist Dak Lerdamornpong and drummer Greg Erwin – are fans of Kouraku since it's just a few minutes from their rehearsal space and it stays open until 3 a.m. (midnight on Sundays). Although there are several noodle shops in the area, Kouraku was actually the first ramen establishment to open in the United States in 1976.

Plastic food in front of Kouraku
When I ask Saint Motel what they usually order here, the quartet reply in unison: "Ramen!" A/J sings the praises of the No. 22 Chashu Ramen with its tender pieces of pork, even comparing it in deliciousness to the rich broth at the famed Daikokuya.

Saint Motel not only share my love for ramen, they met in my hometown. Aaron and A/J were both film majors at Chapman University when they got to know Dak, who was working as a sushi chef at their favorite restaurant (Sushi Sho in Costa Mesa), and Greg, who was going to a different school in the area. After playing together in different groups, they formed Saint Motel in 2007, released their first EP (ForPlay) in 2009 and relocated to Los Angeles.

"I love the city's history and architecture, especially Downtown. I love how something new is built from something old so organically, like we do with our music. I think Downtown is a very appropriate place for what we sound like," says A/J. "So much is different about Los Angeles, depending where you are, what neighborhood you're in. It's a blessing, because you can just go from one mindset to the other – if you're feeling like going to the mountains or to the beach or the valley. It's a really fun city. There's always something going on. There's always someone new to meet."

The group definitely likes to make a unique first impression on those who come to see them play. Over the past few years, Saint Motel have built a reputation for cinematic shows – from rock 'n' roll circuses and zombie proms to a Future Fathers Day and Spaceland residency with each week based on a different film genre (sci-fi, erotica, experimental and slasher). This creativity extends to their music videos, which are often mini theatrical adventures. As they prepare for their debut full-length, Voyeur, to hit stores tomorrow and its release show at the El Rey this Saturday, they're working on a video for lead single, "1997."

"We actually just came from shooting today. That's why we still have a little make-up on. We don't always wear make-up," laughs Greg.

"We shot at the Dresden, and it's kind of a Marty and Elayne thing. The band's at a piano bar. So, that's a good starting off point. From there, I can say: out-of-body experience and hypnosis," adds A/J.

There's always a hint of humor in all of Saint Motel's videos, like "Puzzle Pieces" which was filmed at the Roxy, as well as their music. But along with their tongue-in-cheek fun, there is a sincere honesty to whatever narrative they have concocted.

"Hopefully with this album people will understand that all we're trying to do is write songs that we think are awesome. We're not trying to be like the coolest band or the poppiest band. We're not trying to be anything. We're just making music that makes us happy," says A/J. "Our music is escapist, because for us, music is where we want to be. It's not usually where we are – it's happier. We have to play it every night when we're on the road. It's therapy. I hope people who  listen to this album will understand the hard work we put into it. We feel like the album fits together pretty well, I feel like we assembled it from experience. From song to song, there's a fluid journey. I hope they understand by listening to it what Saint Motel sounds like and what Saint Motel is."

There is a distinct progression apparent in Voyeur from ForPlay, specifically with experimentation with Latin, tropical, retro and big band sounds. But the musical growth is not something that Saint Motel worked hard at achieving in one specific way.

"We don't really try. It's organic," says Dak.

"We're just different people and probably because we've been doing it so much, writing and collaborating with each other, the process seems like it's ripe right now for all sorts of interesting, creative directions that we haven't really gone before. I feel like the bulk of Voyeur is the direction that we're heading. It's a bridge to where our next recordings are going to be," says A/J. "We want to do stuff that is ambitious but lo-fi and record it ourselves. It's all about making the most compelling song we can, something that will stand out 20 years from now and is not just part of an ├╝ber hot movement today."

With an album named Voyeur, I can't resist asking whether each member prefers to be the one being spied on or the one doing the watching.

"Everyone's a little bit of both. We are both all the time. We're being watched, and we're watching," replies A/J.

Aaron chimes in, "Voyeurs like to be watched as well, actually."

"Because of all the film stuff, I prefer to be the voyeur. But I love performing. When I'm performing I feel different. Everyone has both sides in them," concludes A/J.

Greg jokingly adds, "The telescope out of my window points at Dak's house, but his points back at my house."

After the El Rey show, the band heads out on a cross-country tour in support of Voyeur, and each member is looking forward to visiting a new town together.

Dak: Nashville
Greg: Yeah, we haven't really done the south proper together. We're also doing Atlanta.
AJ: [Lansing,] Michigan.
Greg: We'll be back in Austin too, at Stubb's BBQ.

At the mention of the famous Texas barbecue joint, I wonder where the guys return to first when they come home from tour.

Greg answers, "Tacos Delta [in Silver Lake]. I go get a burrito. You can never get good Mexican food out there on the road."

While A/J sticks to Downtown, "Bottega Louie is one of my favorites, and Cole's. There are so many good restaurants and good food here."

Voyeur is currently available. For more information, visit

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