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Interviews, Music

Interview: D.A. Stern Talks “Aloha Hola”, Fave Albert Brooks Movies, and Moving to LA

By: Curtis Sindrey –

D.A. Stern. (Photo: Danny Kokomo)

D.A. Stern. (Photo: Danny Kokomo)

Introducing your new favorite Cali singer-songwriter, D.A. Stern, and his debut album, Aloha Hola (out Jan. 20th via Twosyllable Records). This exciting new collection of 11 catchy tunes was painstakingly written, recorded and produced by Stern in his mother’s New Jersey basement. Though formerly a New Yorker, D.A.–full name, David Aaron–has relocated to discover all that Hollywoodland has to offer from Canter’s to Langer’s and beyond.

More inspired by Albert Brooks and Woody Allen than any songwriter, Stern, a bonafide cruciverbalist, finds his inspiration from screenplays, comedic timing and especially crossword puzzles more than melody or harmony. Despite its peppy power pop pastiche, it’s his excellent, dark lyricism that holds the secrets of our true, twisted reality. Take, for example, the sugary pop hook on “Miami” that examines the ultra-connected, device-obsessed populous, or the jaunty balladry on “In Pain”, which details the aftermath of a love story we’ll never know.

At its core, Aloha Hola, like a modern Harry Nilsson, Dylan or post-Beatle record, is an album of melancholic love dirges for the loss of girls, booze, New York City and even life itself. Stern tackles these life-long questions of solipsism with a poet’s aplomb. 

In our new interview, Stern talks about the making of Aloha Hola, his time working at Oscilloscope (Adam Yauch of Beastie Boys’ film company), his favourite Albert Brooks movies, what it was like to move from NYC to LA, and more!

Congrats on the new record, I’ve been listening to it for the past couple of days.

Thank you! Yeah! It’s pretty exciting, it’s like it’s finally born in a way, you know.

How long did it take to write, record, and produce everything?

It took a really long time. You know, like the writing itself I don’t really consider a part of the production process because I wrote it and then recorded it. You know, it’s not as if I wrote it as I was going like song by song because I had a batch of songs. Then I like went to record them, but it took like 10 months.

Yeah, but it wasn’t like I was in a studio every day for 10 months. It wasn’t like the Metallica’s Black Album or anything, haha. It was just like I would go into my mom’s basement when I had an free opportunity, which is where I did the recording. It was a long process and then mixing it took like another four or five months or something. Just because that was another situation where my friend Jake who did the mixing, we sort of pieced together the process, we didn’t just like say ‘We are going to take this week and mix it’. I had to work around his busy schedule.

What was it like writing and recording this album in your mother’s basement instead of a proper studio? 

Well at that time I didn’t really have much experience in a proper studio. I was actually just beginning to work in that field. But, you know the main difference I’d say is the environment. The process wasn’t that different in my opinion at all.

I was in my mom’s basement which is where I grew up playing music, so the home atmosphere was already built in which is something a lot of people miss when they go into a big recording studio or especially like one of these major more sterile ones. People miss like that sort of coziness which is what I just kind of had. But, you know at the time, honestly it probably wouldn’t have made a difference that I was going a little crazy in my own head just focusing on the record, that… you know the process for me was like very obsessive so it probably would have been the same anywhere but it was nice. Like you go upstairs, you know and catch the Yankees game, have wine with my mom and eat dinner. And then just like go back down to work if I felt like it.

And with recording in that kind of environment, what was it like to record there in the sense of being able to separate yourself from the studio?

How do you mean?

What kind of lyrical themes did you focus on with this record?

Looking back to it I realize that there is a ton of death on it, haha. But you know it’s not… it wasn’t like ‘Hey I’m going to write a bunch of songs about death’ but I guess it kind of crept in there. And who knows why. I’m not a particularly dark person but I guess that was just, you know…whatever was on my mind at the time. Lyrically there’s a lot of themes, like longing when I listen to those songs. There’s a lot of defeatism. But I don’t really think that way day to day. But I don’t know why that became. But maybe I felt that if I didn’t have something negative to say it wasn’t pointient or something. I don’t think that’s actually true. Maybe deep down there’s some truth to that.

I love the video for “Miami”. It’s hilarious. How did the concept come about?

Ah cool! I have a friend in LA, and we call each other “almost cousins”. We are extremely close but our first cousin (my first cousin and his first cousin) are married so we are almost cousins. So he and I were brainstorming ideas for a video and over the past 10 months or so whenever Netflix started hosting all of the Albert Brooks movies I became just utterly obsessed with him. And with all of his movies. You know, when you like to watch a movie you really relate to, a certain director or a couple of albums… and you are just like “oh my god, this is my guy” feeling. Like I really felt that, that kindred spirit with Brooks and his mentality and his voice. So while we were brainstorming for ideas I watched the movie “Real Life” and in that movie, he has a montage and we chose to take that idea for his montage and make a music video out of it. We stole some actual shots from it and kind of the video narration of that, it’s a chance to show all of the french what a montage is all about. We wanted to make it an omage and really close in spirit to the “Real Life” one.

D.A. Stern released his debut album, Aloha Hola, on Jan. 20th via Twosyllable Records.

D.A. Stern released his debut album, Aloha Hola, on Jan. 20th via Twosyllable Records.

So do you have, other than the film that inspired the music video, do you have any other favorite films of his?

Of Albert Brooks? Yeah, I mean he’s only written and directed seven films and I love all of them, haha. So it’s pretty easy like “Lost in America” maybe and “The Time of Your Life” is probably the one everyone regards as his best one. But for me, it’s those three that are probably my favorites.

You worked with Adam Yauch as an engineer and assistant. How did you meet?

That’s where I learned to engineer, I didn’t work with him, I use to work at his film company at Oscilloscope and their recording studio was across the hall. So I left that job and later came back in order to learn how to engineer and eventually assisted. I was never the full-time head engineer, but I assisted on a bunch of stuff. By the time I had started at the studio, Yauch had already passed away sadly. But yeah, I did work there and you know got to work on some pretty cool things as a result.

So I never worked on any Beastie Boys music. But that would have been a real thrill, you know.

What kind of projects did you end up working on?

It’s actually funny, the first day I was there I was assisting for John Spencer Blues Explosion on a track, they were actually covering, I think they were covering “She’s Honest”, one of those early Beastie Boys singles. And then in the middle of it has this break down. But you know, those guys are so old school and analog that it was like having to pretend to know all the names for these microphones, they were recording to tape it was like… your first day driving and you’re driving on a Nascar track, haha. It was a steep learning curve but it was a really fun thing and I was like “oh man I can definitely see myself doing this”.

Do you enjoy working with tape vs. working with digital or do you have a preference?

Working with the John Spencer Blues Explosion might have been one of the three times in my life that I’ve worked with tape. Tape is not convenient and now there are plug-ins that approximate the sound of tape but it’s like it is with everything else. There’s a certain level where there’s really nothing like the real thing, then at the end of the day, I think a lot of the large part that you get out of that is mostly for yourself. If I make a record on my laptop or on a tape machine like no one’s going to give a shit. They’re just going to listen to it like ‘Hey this is recorded tape, oh really that’s cool, I didn’t like it’. Haha. It’s not going to matter at the end of the day.

But for me, it’s like, like if you do it like Kevin Shields of the most recent My Bloody Valentine record, then that might be a different story where I don’t think there was a digital signal path on the whole record. It was recorded on tape, it was mastered from the tape, sounds better on vinyl. You know, then it makes a difference. But, I’m using like software instruments and old crappy synthesizers and I don’t think that it really matters that much. But tape is cool, and it’s great to have that giant box sitting in the corner of the room, it can be inspiring.

So I was wondering how the… how you came up with the album title?

Oh, yeah so I was like fishing around for one for a while. I really enjoy puzzles, mathematics, and palindromes. So I recently moved to Los Angeles which is where the Hola! part comes from because it’s a strong Mexican community here which I love. And I had the flower drawing that my friend Emily made for the album cover, it felt very like play, so it’s Aloha Hola. The purpose, two forms of hello, new beginnings, first album, just moved to L.A. and a convenient palindrome. So that’s how that came together.

So what was the transition like for you from moving from coast to coast?

It was pretty easy. My philosophy with it was like if you’re going to try it just jump into the deep end of the pool and see what happens. If you don’t like it you can always move back. I have a lot of friends here already so it wasn’t really that much of a challenge, also I think part of it is that I’m 31 years old and it was like every other, every month I have to go back for a wedding anyway, haha. Like my niece was born, so constantly back to the East Coast. So I feel like, you know, New York is only six hours away so it’s not far, it’s not another planet. And what can you say about L.A. it’s an amazing city, inspiring, people are friendly and you know it’s January and I’m walking outside right now, haha. It’s incredible. It’s nothing but good.

So in terms of like being in your 30’s and releasing your debut album, how big of an accomplishment is that?

Well, I guess I beat Leonard Cohen by three years. Right, haha.

It’s an accomplishment for sure. I’m trying to stay cautiously optimistic with regards to my career in music and this album itself. I really believe in it, I’ve never really felt like anything strongly about my age or other musician’s ages for that matter. You know, if I was like Neil Young and most of my stuff came out when I was like 16 years old, I would be like “holy shit I’m a fucking genius”. So like we can’t all be Neil Young.

I had a band in New York and we put out a record out like, it’s not my first rodeo in a sense but it’s also like it’s all me. But it’s cool, I mean it’s definitely an accomplishment, the day I got it back from the mastering engineer was when I was like this is an accomplishment.

Well except for Neil Young’s 1980’s music. We’re not going to acknowledge that.

Nobody’s perfect you know, Haha. Even Moses didn’t see the promise land. Where are you calling from by the way?

Toronto.

Oh cool! I’ll be playing there soon. One of my favorite bands is from Toronto right now.

Oh, who?

Alvvays

Oh yeah! I love those guys.

Yeah, they are, I was listening to that album for like six weeks straight at a certain point. It was like all I could listen to, actually my old band played with them years ago in New York.

Oh wow.

Yeah, I saw them here, they played here like six or eight months ago I guess and I got to see them, it was awesome. I’m really excited for whenever they are putting out their second record because I love that album.

Yeah, they need to put out a second record. what that was like 2012, 2013 or something?

Yeah, I think 2013 or 2014, I’m pretty sure because it came out when I was still living in New York. I like 2013 or 2014, something like that.

They are really taking their time. 

Yeah, I mean I can relate to that and more power to them because it’s a delicate process and it can’t be rushed. So, I mean if their next album is as good as their first one, no complaints.

Yeah, in terms of like how sort of people can consume music these days which is mostly song by song, does that sort of any anxiety in you as an artist?

No. I wish I could make everyone see in my vision of universal alignment. I was actually discussing this other day with my friend, while we were working on some new tunes and I was like “Do you think these two tracks could be on the same record?” And he was like “nobody listens to albums anymore, the medium is dead and you know it’s song by song”. I was like, you know to his point he’s correct that is the truth. Funny that you brought it up, but to me, I don’t try to write a song, I strive to write an album. To me that is so like, that’s still the book, you know what I mean? Songs are chapters in that book and I want to make a good book, you know.

That’s a great analogy. 

Yeah, so like, I want people to listen to an album front to back, you know it’s not going to happen.

I did! Haha

Aw, Thank You! But you also write about music, you and I probably see eye to eye on this. But a lot of people like they do listen to an album front to back but they probably won’t do it three times. They’ll probably find a song they like or, you know, a song they want to skip every time it comes on. Or put it in a playlist with some other music and I’m fine with that, I can’t help it but to me, I’m happy that I made that album that I wanted to make.

That’s a great perspective to have like rather than you know than creating the record that somebody else wants to hear. 

Yeah, yeah I mean you know what else can I do, it would be a disservice to everybody and probably the album would never come out if I tried to do that. But like my favorite records are like Yo La Tengo, Harry Nilsson, Beastie Boys, XCC like stuff with a lot of different things going on. And if you take like one hardcore song off of Ill Communication it’s like the album is totally different. I don’t listen to that record because I only like the Hip-Hop tracks but like the funk instrumentals like I want that whole package.

Yeah, you want the whole experience.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah you know because I’ve been listening to like Wilco a lot recently and a record like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there is so much stuff and different sounds going on in that record that you kind of have to sit with it and just experience it. 

Yeah, exactly and that’s just a perfect example of a record, where it’s like every song is, I still think that there hasn’t been a better album since like 2002 since that record came out, that is until today. Please don’t quote me on that, haha.

No, but that is a perfect example of an album where every song is great, you can listen to any one of those songs on its own and it delivers. It does what songs are suppose to do. But there are like common threads that run from track to track with the noise and synthesizers and dry drums and part vocals and roomy pianos that sound like that their falling down the stairs and stuff like that. You want the whole picture, you know what I mean? It really felt like a story through, through the lens of like camera and audio, you know. It’s not just about “Kamera”, it’s a cool song but tell me what comes before and after “Kamera” that’s what I want to know. In fact, that helps me to appreciate “Kamera” more.

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