Interview: Letting Up Despite Great Faults are not letting up
When now Austin-based indie pop band Letting Up Despite Great Faults first released their self-titled debut back in 2009, the music scene was completely different. Spotify was nonexistent, and the place where bands got discovered were the wild, wild west of music discovery: Myspace. Just one look at the album artwork for their debut will time-warp you back to that era of wide-eyed hope. Since then, the members of Letting Up Despite Great Faults, Mike Lee (vocals, guitar), Daniel Schmidt (drums), Kent Zambrana (bass), and Annah Fisette (vocals, guitar) then released a number of other similarly delightful indie pop albums, 2012’s Untogether and 2014’s Neon, before taking a long, eight year hiatus.
This year, they’re finally back with IV, a shoegazey, dream pop album that revives and revamps their timeless, ever-dazzling sound.
Before one of their scheduled SX performances at The Drafting Room, I managed to catch up with Mike Lee and Daniel Schmidt. Amongst a backdrop of blaring DJ sets next door, I was able to ask them about revisiting their debut album, the new world of online music streaming, and how IV came together after all these years.
What the SX experience has been like so far? I assume it’s a bit different for you, since you guys live in Austin.
Mike: Yesterday, Daniel and I went out because we weren’t playing, so we decided to enjoy it, because it hasn’t happened in a couple of years. It’s nice that it’s back. With it comes all of it: high highs and low lows. Lot of stuff. We got to see a friend’s band, I got to see Kristin Hirsch, which was amazing. But nighttime is when it’s intense. We wanted to see Wednesday and Claud at Mohawk. The line is just killer! We turned the corner and immediately just said bye to each other. Like, “Let’s go home!” since we’re playing today. I’m happy that it’s back. It’s kind of one of those things that checks off the quote unquote back to normal. Feels good for our mental health, I think, as crazy as it is.
Daniel: I’d kind of forgotten a component of it, too, is we’ve actually been a band for a long time, and I’ve been in a lot of other bands too and accumulating so many band friends. We didn’t make it into Mohawk last night, and I was trying to go home, and I kept running into other music folks I’m friends with. It took me two hours just to walk back to my car! That, to a certain extent, is the cool thing about it. For me, it’s a balance. I want to see XYZ band, but I also want to see my friends that I only see once a year when they tour though. I got to see Pom Poko this morning, they’re the only band I haven’t ever seen, and I was like, I gotta fucking see this band. They killed, they’re incredible.
It’s been eight years since the release of Neon, your third album. What was the process like bringing the band back together after all these years?
Mike: We both were doing a band called Fanclub for a little bit, and when that dissolved right at the beginning of the pandemic, I was just throwing things around in my head what to do next for myself. The four of us, we all keep in touch, we’re all really good friends. Pandemic hit, and I knew these guys weren’t doing anything. I was like, “Hey, you wanna just do this?”
It was very easy… I think being long-time friends really helped. It’s probably more guitar, jangle-heavy than the last album for sure. A lot of that was I wanted to make sure I was writing songs that I liked playing on just the guitar. I think it’s very easy for me to go down a lot of soundscapes and synths and drum machines and analog filters, and it’s so easy to get lost. For me, I wanted to make sure that I wrote a simple pop song that I would enjoy playing. That’s probably why there’s so much guitar on it!
Daniel: I think there’s, like, there might even be a little bit of a technical element to it too. Whatever last iteration of the band of Letting Up did not include Annah at the time. And so from a technical standpoint, in order to flesh out the rest of the synth and electronic elements, we started playing with some backing tracks, and that allowed for a different kind of live show. With Annah being in the band again, she’s now playing guitar rather than keyboards. I think that allowed, too… not only was Mike writing that way, but he knew we were able to perform it in that way too. We’re live and gonna be a guitar-driven band. And we’d be louder and thicker and fuller in that way, which we were really excited to do. There are a lot of older songs that we’re like, “I can’t wait to play this with two guitars.” And that’s felt really good. A lot of the shows that we’ve played, it’s kind of like, “Oh, we’re just, like, a fucking rock band now.”
How difficult was it putting this album together? Did it come together quickly or did it take a while to get back into the groove?
Mike: Definitely a mix of both. It would come and go. I think writing songs in general, that can go through you. But to write an album, you sort of want to have some cohesion with everything. You’ll hit walls where it’s just pulling teeth. You know, you just need to get through it. You just keep pounding the wall. There are definitely weeks at a time where I would just work on the same sound over and over, and then at the end of three weeks, I would just delete it all. I think where we’re all at right now — we’re all so much more mature. I think we know and we expect it to be a lot of work. We try to embrace it, I really try to embrace it, and say, you know what, I’m not gonna finish it soon. But I am gonna work on it all the time. I think with the pandemic, that was sort of the vibe. There’s no end, so just do the best you can!
That’s great advice for anything, really!
Mike: I think arbitrary deadlines definitely have pros to it, but we were all forced to be in this weird “every day is the same.” This helped me cope with that, for sure. It changed up my days, where I could think about this song as opposed to this song… and then moving on to a new theme. It really allowed me to differentiate the days when we were all just doing the same thing over and over at home.
What type of music were you listening to throughout the creation of IV?
Mike: I am always listening to stuff and wanting to listen to new stuff. It’s hard to pin down just a few things. I definitely feel like since we’ve been gone for so long… One of the reasons that I wanted to take a break was because I felt like I was always outputting and not inputting. But then I had that eight year timespan where I was really just taking everything in. One of my favorite bands is Kero Kero Bonito, and I just listened to that all day, every day. I don’t care! It wasn’t a conscious thought of “I want to sound like them,” or anything like that. Consuming my usual stuff like Soccer Mommy and all the usual [bands] you would guess. I do have my go-tos in my back pocket of Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh, Velocity Girl, that crafting a little indie rock pop song… what that means. When I was stuck, I would put on those albums that I loved. Liz Phair albums, Juliana Hatfield, very 90s easy guitar music that I absolutely adore. That would always help me not too get complicated in my head and overthink things.
All great picks, by the way.
I could go on! I don’t want to name-drop… I absolutely love music. I would totally DJ if I wasn’t doing this.
Since the release of your first few albums, a lot has changed in the musical landscape, with streaming and social media becoming extremely important for musicians. Do you feel that promoting your music now is different from how it was back then?
Mike: It’s totally different! When we first started, there was no Spotify. Think about that!
Daniel: That was such a weird thing with Fanclub, cause like, we just got on a playlist and suddenly we had a million plays. It’s just, like, what? And then we’d play a show, and there’d still be… 20 kids there.
Mike: I think with Fanclub, that did kind of give us some practice. It helped us learn what the digital world is really like. As much as it is single driven, albums are still so important, which I still love to see. I still consume things that way. I know a lot of my friends do. Luckily, vinyl has made this weird resurgence along with it, so I feel like with Bandcamp and Spotify, you get two different worlds that I think can work together. It doesn’t a lot of times, but we try to embrace whatever the listeners want to listen on. I try not to put my two cents into any political thing about Spotify streams and what they pay, and Apple pays more and Tidal has better sound quality… there’s so much stuff and I get it. I have my opinions, but if someone’s really comfortable with listening to our stuff on YouTube, I’ll put it in on YouTube. I just want you to listen to the music and hopefully enjoy it. I just wanna play music!
It’s a different beast now, especially with social media. I mean, Instagram wasn’t a thing back then. That’s so crazy! I try to be active on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook… Facebook’s such a weird thing. But yeah, Myspace was the thing before. That was it. I loved Myspace! Myspace music was so fun.
One of my favorite things about the new album is how eye-catching the artwork is. How did that image come to adorn your album cover?
Mike: As I write… you always need to take breaks, right? Visually, I kind of don’t know what I want, ever. But I maybe will know if something looks appropriate for what I’m doing. So I just scour the internet. It’s probably alarming how much time I spend just looking at everything. Everything from Google to copyright free images… Getty, friends’ photos, just anything that will resonate.
Luckily, I found this Deco piece from the 20s where this guy… he basically visited Japan so it has that almost Japanese feel, but not completely. There was something about it that was so delicate and said so much. There’s so much going on. There’s like three different figures doing very different things. Nothing too much deeper than that, I just really loved it, I passed it along to them…
Daniel: I do think that this is always an interesting part of this band, cause Kent and I, we both effectively work in a visual media in our non-band lives. And I think Mike and Kent and I have extremely opinionated aesthetics, but it’s purely editorial, it’s not creative visually. We’ll often toss around the dumbest shit, where it’s like… we’ll land on a thing, and we’ll sit on the minutiae of it, for like, weeks.
Mike: I think I found this piece for one of the singles, but I kept finding other pieces that worked better for the singles. There was this crazy text thread back and forth, and it’s really nice to have, because if all three of us like it, then there must be something there!
Recently. it’s been announced that Japanese label P-VINE is reissuing your debut s/t on vinyl. What is it like revisiting that album after all these years?
Mike: Yeah, it’s so lovely that they’re doing that. Over the past years, especially with the vinyl resurgence, people really wanted that on vinyl, and I’m really happy that they’re doing that. We’ve talked to them and it’s a thing where we might even do a tour of just doing that album front to back. It’s crazy, we were all so different back then, and in a weird way, it should make you nostalgic, it should make you think about the memories and the past, but for me what it does is it really highlights the sense of my mortality.
Because, what’s this album gonna be in the next X amount of years? Where am I gonna be? Am I still gonna be doing this? There’s so many things to life, and I think for me, you see your family getting older, you’re dealing with all these things… people passing away… that really didn’t happen for me on that album. It really makes me, yes, seize the moment and enjoy the now, but also figure out the very soon future. What’s gonna happen in the next couple of years? How are you gonna set yourself up for that? I feel like back then, I would let things come to me. I hope that I’m now a little more… grabby. I’m gonna go get it. I’m not gonna wait for someone to offer to me, I’m not gonna wait for this opportunity… I’m just gonna ask. See if it happens, if it doesn’t, it’s fine! Move on. It’s wild that Spotify didn’t exist back then. Was there an iPhone? It was the Razr phone. Motorola Razr.
Mike, I’ve noticed that in a lot of your old music videos, you rarely, if ever, show up in them despite being the main vocalist and bandleader. For the longest time, I didn’t know that you were even in the band! Do you think that’ll change, and will have an increased presence in your music videos in the future?
Mike: That is a great fucking question, because I’ve had to talk to myself a lot about this. Starting out, I was never comfortable being the face of the band or anything. A lot of that is, like, back then, being Asian wasn’t cool, man. It was not cool at all. So I really wanted to let the music speak for itself, and I feel like I shied away… any opportunity to get in front of the camera in any way. Almost all of our videos just don’t have us in it.
I do like the idea that [music videos are] also trying to tell a story. So the last video that’s out right now is “Corners Pressed.” 100% just us in it. And we all felt so happy about that. It felt right to do. We just shot a video for “She Spins” which should be out soon, and again, we’re all in it. I think that’s just the way to go. I’m happy to show everyone who we are; I did not have that confidence before. I think it’s a combination of 1) the maturity thing, but 2) I think the culture’s very different now. We see Asian leads now, and not just in the karate role, you know? I feel like it’s okay to do this. I honestly don’t know if I felt okay in the past. I felt like I was infringing on territory that I didn’t belong in. I really am happy with who I am, who we are, and I hope people don’t mind looking at us more.
Daniel: We’re also really lucky. Kent works in media production, so we have someone in the band who is in the industry. And so, anytime we’re doing a shoot, we have someone who is on top of everything. Knows what’s going on, knows what’s gonna be all right. And Mike has built a lot of great relationships with photographers, videographers, etc. And so a lot of the people we work with, we love and we trust and we know it’s gonna be right. I hate being in front of any camera in any circumstance, and they make it really easy and fun and feel good.
Even literally, one of my best friends ever, pressed our records. He works at a record pressing plant, and so that’s just such a cool component that when you’ve been doing this long enough, that my buddy is telling me that he just pressed our record. We put in the order before he even worked there, and it was independent of that! The fact that that can stretch into every component of this band is just such a cool thing.
In the past few years, Asian musicians have becoming more and more prominent in the public eye. Are there any who you would like to work with in the future?
Mike: Well, I feel like I say his name in every interview, but Cornelius has been, like, the top level for me. He’s what I’m aiming for. His album, Fantasma, I listen to all the time. There’s so many weird things that happen in that album, yet, it’s such a great indie pop album, too. I think I shoot for that a lot, and I respect him so much. He’s just such a good producer and musician.
But, yeah. It’s great, there’s so many now. We were just talking about Japanese Breakfast… and she’s a New York Times bestseller! She’s, like, everywhere! That’s amazing.
Daniel: I’d tour with Say Sue Me in a second!
Mike: No Vacation, Jay Som… it’s great. There’s so many that are great! It’s very refreshing to see. I do think there are a lot of females, which is dope and I want to keep going, but I honestly can’t think of a lot of male Asian artists. I linked up with a friend on Twitter, his name is St. Lenox, but he’s one of the few. It probably is, for lack of trying, that’s my fault, but just on the general radar, I don’t really see that pop up so much.
Anything you’re looking forward to doing at the festival this year?
Daniel: I’mma go home and go to bed after this. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m so happy to be back doing this. It feels so good even though it’s different for us because we live in Austin, so I know everywhere I’m going. And it’s so crazy that it can get a little bit complicated where I’m just frustrated at parking and traffic and scooters and whatever. But I am a lover of music and music festivals, and so I will never begrudge any of that for people going to see live music. That is the number one thing that you can do as a consumer of culture. It’s just the best. I kept things easy on myself, so Pom Poko and Claud are all I care about, and I just wanna play some good shows.
Mike: Claud’s my number one for sure. That album is probably my top played of recent. Wednesday… Lunar Vacation, this band Tallies is really awesome. I think I missed them, but fanclubwallet is a cool band. SASAMI played, Wet Leg… Lot of good bands playing.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu, in-person at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas.
IV is out now on major streaming platforms. Heading press photo by Brandon Exum.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!