Anyone who has seen Lucius live can tell you just how mesmerizing they can be, with co-frontwomen Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig merging their voices and standing in perfect symmetry, often coordinating their appearance right down to the color of their socks and the cut of their blunt bangs.
Wolfe and Laessig have been performing together for over a decade now, and in recent years they’ve gelled as Lucius with drummer Dan Molad and guitarists Peter Lalish and Andrew Burri. Together, the five-piece band has worked to create a special bond with their growing fanbase in Minneapolis (they went from debuting here at the Entry to headlining the First Ave Mainroom in a short six months), and coincidentally they’ll be returning to the Twin Cities just as the album art for their debut full-length is on display at the Walker Art Center as part of their International Pop exhibit.
I caught up with Wolfe and Laessig on the phone when they were in between recording sessions at a studio in Los Angeles, and we talked about their new material, their love for pop art, and how they get ready to play big shows like Rock the Garden.
Andrea Swensson: Hi! Who all is on the phone today?
Jess Wolfe: It’s just Holly and I.
Holly Laessig: We’re so excited to be coming back to Minneapolis!
We’re excited to have you. We have a lot to talk about today, because you have obviously this big festival appearance coming up, but also the art from your last record is on display at the Walker Art Center right now.
Holly: How cool is that? What a strange coincidence.
Can you tell me about how that album artwork came together?
Jess: Yeah! A friend of ours was helping us direct the art for our record and helping us find pieces for inspiration, and we landed on this painting—The Ice Cream Cone. Evelyne Axell has a really kind of amazing story. There weren’t many women in the pop art movement, and she had just started making a name for herself, and she was just about to have a huge premiere in Mexico, she was leaving, and she died in a tragic car accident, I think even on the way to the airport. So horrible. But we just really liked the idea that she was making herself the subject as opposed to the object, and you know it’s actually a self-portrait of her. And when we asked her son, who’s the trust caretaker, if we could use the artwork for our album, he was so kind and generous and let us use it, really, for nothing. Just because he liked what we were doing. We met him in Belgium and he was filming a documentary about his mom, and he said, it’s so funny, she also was so intrigued by duality and symmetry. And we’re like, what do you mean? Because there’s not a whole lot of information about Evelyne Axell on the internet and stuff. He gave us each a book, and it was different pieces of her artwork that were just all two women, symmetrically painted—and it was such a funny weird coincidence that it just felt like kismet or something. So it was meant to be.
Holly: We saw the original at the Barbican, when we were in London. It was so cool.
It’s been on all the ads for the Walker’s exhibit around town, so it’s really cool that you’ll be here to see that.
Jess: Yeah, it’s so awesome. And hopefully we’ll get to take a picture beside it or something.
I wanted to ask you about specifically playing a big event like Rock the Garden, which is this huge summer festival where about 10,000 people gather to hear music and to celebrate the fact that it’s nice outside. How do you guys get ready to play a big outdoor event like that?
Jess: Oh wow. Well we didn’t know it was 10,000 people. So now we’re really gonna have to prepare. I mean we always get into the mode just by getting dressed all together and going through the normal motions, but then also trying to relax as much as possible before going on stage so that we’re not too nervous or anything. But when we put on all of our outfits all together and do our little secret handshake and all that stuff, it kinda gets us in that headspace. And then you hit the stage and you’re kind of in a different world a little bit.
Do you plan the set list differently if it’s a theatre show vs. outdoors?
Jess: Yeah. Definitely some songs just hit better in a festival environment. You want people dancing and you want something that’s gonna carry in an outdoor space as far as the acoustical stuff, but we’ll just try to do something exciting. We’re always trying to do new covers. We’re gonna probably do a couple new songs. We always love being in Minneapolis. The crowd is so responsive and warm, so it’s gonna be real fun.
It does seem like you have a special relationship here in Minneapolis. I think your fan base grew immediately as soon as you started playing here, and I don’t know how it compares to other cities, but do you have any specific memories of playing for this crowd?
Jess: First Avenue was a huge deal to us. There’s so much history at that club, and everybody was so kind and welcoming, and it really was a milestone for us, having just played the small Entry just six months before that or something, so it was a big deal. The Current has been incredibly supportive; we’re so grateful for that, so it’s a joy. Then we got snowed in and couldn’t go to the next show so we just had to go see the Lego movie and hang out. [laughs] Our guitarist’s aunt lives in Minneapolis, so we got to hang out with them, it was great.
You mentioned that you might by playing some new songs at Rock the Garden. Are you working on a new album?
Jess: Yeah, we are. We’re actually in Los Angeles right now recording. We’re really excited about what’s coming out of it. It’s gonna be an exciting record I hope and we’re proud of the songs. We feel like we’ve matured a lot and grown a lot and obviously seeing the world and having traveled pretty much nonstop for the past two years has really given us a lot to write about.
How would you say it compares to the previous album?
Jess: I think it’s just much more alive. And we really tried to bring what people respond to with the band to the record, and also do things that might excite people and excite us. Just try and experiment a lot in the studio and see—there’s no real formula for us, other than just trying to let each song sit in its own world and see what magic can happen there.
Something that people talk about when they talk about Lucius is your amazing vocal harmonies. Do you remember the first time you sang together, and was there an immediate chemistry?
Holly: Yeah. The first time we decided to really work on something together we were gonna do a show of covers as The White Album. And we started working on this arrangement and we were both really strong singers and we both wanted to sing lead, but there’s not a whole lot of examples of [two people] singing all the time or singing lead, and so we were thinking how can we do this—should we trade verses, should we do harmonies? So a little by accident we started singing unison at one point and it sounded really cool. It sounded like a double track vocal on our recording except we were able to do it live, so it just kind fell into place as we stuck with it.
What was it about The White Album that made you wanted to work with it?
Holly: We love the Beatles, we love the songwriting, we love that whole era of songwriting, and there were a lot of interesting songs on that record. We ended up only working on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and then kinda got excited about writing our own stuff, so we didn’t actually cover the whole record. We’ll have to do that at some point. We’ll do a White Album cover show down the line. It’s just been one of our influences and one of our mutual influences, so we thought we’d tackle it.
I was curious about your background in music, and the fact that all five of the Lucius band members at some point went to Berklee. Did you find that the way you approached music as individuals or the way you approach music as a career kind of meshed, given this background together?
Jess: Just Holly and I went to school at the same time, and Pete and Danny met at school as well, so none of us really knew each other at school. I think that there is naturally some community, some bond, like an instantaneous bond if you’ve been at music school and have experienced that, but I’m not so sure that it changes our approach other than for the boys being just incredible musicians, and Holly and I approaching the voice from a similar place. But I don’t think that there’s really one thing about having gone to music school that changes the way that we see and hear music. I think all of us come from completely different backgrounds and have sort of gone through different iterations of our own musical selves. Holly and I bonded on our similar musical upbringing, so I think that, more than anything, has played its part in our inspirations.
I think of people that go to music school as being very serious about pursuing music in life, and so I was wondering if coming from that mindset helps five people get really serious about a band and push forward together.
Holly: I do think that for all five of us there wasn’t really another choice. It was music. That was it. So I think when you make that decision, or that decision is made for you, that you honor it—there can’t really be another way. There’s too many people trying to do this, and it’s just a really competitive world. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of hard work to make it work, to make it function, and I think that is definitely something that we each carry more than anything else—just a similar mindset that we’re gonna make this work and we’re gonna do all that we can to get there. But we are definitely not serious. I will say that.
There’s been so much talk lately about the economics of music, and especially in the indie world that you’re in. How do you define success in your band?
Holly: When you go to a city and you’re playing for a couple hundred people in a city you’ve never been, I think that’s a success right there. And then you go back within the year and you’ve got three or four times as many people—you’re doing something right. Something’s connecting. And I think that’s a huge thing for us, just trying to make a bond with the audience, trying to do something that sets us apart and that connects to people. Because we’re all in this crazy world together, and we all go through very similar emotions in different ways, and obviously each person with his or her own path. But if we can connect somewhere, and if we’re bringing about something that helps to guide that connection, then I think that, to us, is success.
I know you get asked a lot about the visual element of your performance with the matching outfits and the symmetry of the stage setup. As you develop that part of your aesthetic, do you have other visual artists that inspire you?
Holly: Yeah. We’re always trying to look up new visual art design stuff, video artists. There’s so much out there, and there’s a lot nowadays because of the way that everything’s so accessible. There’s more definitely to weed through, but I think it is important to keep in touch with artists in every avenue because everything inspires everything else. I mean, even like the record cover, when we had found it, it kind of helped define the mixing of the record—like, now the sound has a look and the look has a sound. And that’s also what we’re trying to achieve with our stage setup, too.
As you work on new material and your sound starts to evolve, do you feel like you have to evolve the way you look along with it?
Jess: I think that naturally happens as you grow and mature; your aesthetic changes. We so want to do something exciting and fun, and if the visual can represent that and the music can represent the visual, I think it goes hand in hand for us. Because people look at us and hear us as these two voices singing as one, I think it’s really important to reflect that in a visual. I think it helps people to connect to what we’re doing, what our sound is, by showing it as well. And the artists that we’ve always been inspired by have those similar feelings, and have done something really creative to bring you to another place, to take you on a ride, an experience for as long as they have you. That’s something that was always inspiring, and something that we wanted to achieve in our own work.
See Lucius on Saturday, June 20, at the Walker Art Center when they play Rock the Garden with Belle and Sebastian, Conor Oberst, Courtney Barnett, and thestand4rd. Tickets and information here.