NZCA Lines’ Michael Lovett was gripped watching the world’s political landscape transform when writing his third album Pure Luxury.
It was the summer of 2016. The multi-instrumentalist had released his excellent sophomore record Infinite Summer and he was seeking inspiration for his next project.
Throughout the landmark year, he found himself spending time between the UK and the US – in the Big Apple to be exact – as somewhat unpredictable historical events were unfolding, including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president.
And while his previous efforts had revolved around themes of fictional utopia and a fake apocalypse, the sociopolitical landscape of the real world was facing a traumatic transformation.
“There was all this stuff happening, like Brexit, and I just felt like I had to put something like that into the lyrics”, Lovett tells Daily Star Online when discussing Pure Luxury’s writing process.
The result is his most personal work to date as he delves into self-produced hip-hop beats, disco pop and warbling basslines over intriguing themes of status, climate change and break ups.
Lyrically, he found inspiration in science fiction classics Metropolis and J.G. Ballard’s High Rise. Musically, he turned to the pop genius of Nelly Furtado and Timbaland for singles like the infectious floor-filler Prisoner of Love.
Pure Luxury marks a neon-soaked new chapter in apocalyptic times for NZCA Lines and Lovett, a former touring member of Metronomy who played on Christine and the Queens’ debut release.
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown caught up with him from his New York home over Zoom to talk about Pure Luxury’s writing and recording process, its themes, its influences and his hopes for the year ahead and beyond.
Hi Michael. How has lockdown treated you? Have you worked on anything or focused on the album?
“It’s been focused on the album. I have done a bit of writing. There’s a group of musicians that do the song challenge. Tim Wheeler from Ash who’s based in New York was doing them. That’s why I got involved. You try and write as many songs as you can in a day. It’s a good way of writing stuff. Now they’ve been doing them almost every week virtually. You do a big Zoom session at the end of the day.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into promoting the album, even if it’s all happening online. I’ve been trying to sort out new videos and I’ve been doing a lot of live sessions and that requires a lot of practicing. I do a lot of technical building, stuff like Ableton and working out sounds. That’s been taking up a lot of my time, which has been good, and I’ve been playing more than I have done for ages. I would like to be writing more music. At the moment, I’m in the mode of this record.”
Your album Pure Luxury is released on Friday. What was its writing and recording process like? Was it any different to previous releases? When did you start writing it?
“It has been quite different, largely because I’ve been at a different place in my life. I started writing it straight after the previous album.
“I ended up doing this album in three distinct periods. The first bit was that summer in 2016 and was I writing songs on an digital 8-track. A couple of songs on the album are from that, the more introspective ones, For Your Love and Take This Apart.
“The intention of that was to do stuff I’d not done on the previous album. Just try and write something that could be played on a piano, which is always the thing I try to come back towards doing and gradually go off into another world.
“I wrote quite a lot of it while I was in New York visiting my then girlfriend. That was really affecting the writing of the album. I made some songs, one of which ended up on there called Larsen. That was around the time, crazy enough, of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“During this process I was actually learning to produce a lot more myself. I had to really work out my way of recording and self criticism. I was writing these songs that are a lot more political originated I guess.
“I started trying to make up a world. There was all this stuff happening, like Brexit, and I just felt like I had to put something like that into the lyrics.
“Larsen ended up being quite angry. We went to a women’s march and, especially being there, I just felt like there was a real atmosphere, the left-wing being very active. It was a big shock to their system, these two things happening. I think there was some sort of liberal complacency before that, which suddenly felt there was some energy I was aware of.
“I was trying to make the music unfiltered. That ends up being a little bit more complicated. That led on to writing the tracks that would make the backbone of the record, which became Pure Luxury. I found a voice for it.”
You’ve expanded your sound sonically and Pure Luxury is awash with different styles. What was it like mixing styles from disco pop to hip-hop grooves? Did you enjoy it?
“It was really enjoyable. I had to force myself into finding sounds I hadn’t used before. It was really fun to do that. I find there has to be a degree of work or difficulty to get to what you really enjoy.
“I love that moment of being excited. Like the track Pure Luxury, that came together quickly, the basis of it. That always carries through, even if it ends up being there’s a stage of tearing your hair out.
“The idea ended up being 90s hip-hop but also the music that influenced 90s hip-hop. 90s hip-hop uses 1970s samples. With a track like For Your Love it almost became making a song I could imagine being sampled to create one of the songs I reference on in the other tracks, like Primp & Shine, making some strings that sound like they’re being sampled but they’re not.
“Without being too pretentious, it’s the postmodern of what is a sample and not a sample? I guess that’s quite relevant now. It’s very easy to make something sound old.
“When I was trying to go method on it by using old samplers, which was quite convenient because I ended up doing things I wouldn’t have done. It was liberating to feel like at the end of it – I put those things together and it would work.
“At some point I was thinking I knew the album sounded like Pure Luxury or I had an album that sounded like For Your Love.
“It’s to do with my voice as well. These things that I’m handling are quite sarcastic and but I feel it’s very genuine and emotionally direct. The song Take Us Apart is the most direct I’ve recorded.”
Take Us Apart is tender compared to a lot of other tracks on the album. Do you think it was important to be on there?
“I think so. I just like that song. It was one of the only songs on that album that was older and existed because I was playing it on guitar for ages and was eventually recorded. It felt like it would be a shame to not have that on the record. I’m really glad that was the way we did it. I’m happy with the way I’ve got this intense and more relaxed and more intense sound.”
Prisoner of Love is definitely a stand out, a pure pop track. How did you manage to create such a catchy track? Were you influenced by anything when penning it?
“It’s probably more complicated that you would think. When I hear that song now myself I think ‘ah, that makes sense.’
“It actually started off as two different songs. I wrote the chorus with my wife. She also sings as well, and we worked with some ideas.
“It was one of those ideas where we were trying to write a Timbaland and Nelly Furtado-style track. That ended up being the chorus Nelly would sing.
“That was on my hard drive for ages. I really like the chorus and felt it was more poppy than I normally would write. I wanted to do a song with this kind of catchy piano riff. That was a different song that didn’t have the right qualities or chorus.
“There’s another version of it with a different verse which goes with the same chorus. Eventually I would change the key of that and bring them together, and then it made perfect sense – it works. For me it’s finding the right sounds.
“It took me a long time, even at a late stage. The bass sound wasn’t quite right. For me to be able to finish it, it has to fit right. Once I got that in place, the idea of the strings was me wanting something ridiculous. ‘Let’s get some disco strings!’. That would be really fun, and it was fun! It took a while but in the end I’m happy with it as a piece.
“It makes sense and draws on the rest of the stuff on the album. It marries more upbeat synth related sound to classic strings. Hopefully it’s a bridge to parts to the album.”
Lyrically you tackle themes like climate crisis in Larsen, relationships, break-ups. How do you get into this mindset when writing?
“On previous albums I’ve almost been treating it like an art project. The first record I made while I was at art school and lots of ideas had come from drawings or prints.
“The second was made during two different stages. I had a a book full of research and drawings on the songs and videos I’d make, and the atmosphere. I had a lot of reading material backing up.
“I had this idea of the luxury you see but from this ivory tower that had been depicted in lots of pictures. In the film High Rise, the JG Ballard adaptation, the character who is the head of the building lives in this garden on the top of the building with a horse.
“There’s a Moebius comic, the Incal, which they did together after they were working on the idea for Dune. They made this book which is amazing. There’s this futuristic time in an unknown period in the future and the president is this disgusting character who gets cloned into a new body every 100 years. There’s a lot of poverty and crime and he lives in this holographic garden just somewhere near the top of the city.
“In Metropolis, by Fritz Lang, the gardens of the ruling class are on the tops of skyscrapers. At one point he workers break in. This kind of stuff pops up in fiction.
“In the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, there’s this place called Galt’s Gulch which is where all the entrepreneurs go to shelter from governments. All this stuff was in my mind. That meant when I was writing it came through but the act of writing songs has to be an intuitive thing. I was going back through old note books last week and I realised I had loads of different lyrics for Pure Luxury which were gradually changing.
“It has to be something that works musically. Even in previous records, they were more stories, more fantasy. With this one it was real world events. It has to be accessible.”
Singles Pure Luxury and Prisoner of Love have received a lot of support, especially from 6 Music. Are you pleased with the reaction to the singles so far?
“Yeah it’s amazing. It’s great for a track like Pure Luxury, which I did not make thinking it was going to be a radio single. I wanted to make something that was fun and exciting for me. It was originally a lot longer. It’s great they play that a lot and has been on the playlist for five weeks.”
It must be great to have that backing when you return with new material.
“It’s great. The fact they do that is amazing. Getting on Radio 1, unless for some reason someone decides to like your stuff, is really hard. It’s mainly only much bigger artists.
“The fact that 6 Music exists and like my music is great. We got good support for the last album as well. Lauren Laverne has been great playing stuff and feel very lucky she likes the stuff too. I hope people who listen to it on the radio like it too!”
How do you think you’ve evolved since you first started out?
“It’s changed a lot. The first album I had songs I had written in demos in different ways in my bedroom, as it is on your first album. I was able to reframe my music using synths, which was the first time I had really used them. That meant I had music that I had already written in a certain way that was then was reframed in this other way, which was really positive.
“It was a very transformative experience because I was challenged a lot to make stuff. It enabled me to grow. For me it was a big experience.
“The second album I strove to dig into making a concept album, which I have always loved. I love OutKast’s The Love Below.
“On the second album I feel like I maybe didn’t explore my own intuitions enough in terms of having fun with the music I was making. Maybe that was because of second album syndrome.
“With this album I have really developed as a producer. Songwriting-wise I feel like I’ve got back to how I was feeling on my first record… even before that when I was a teenager. It’s just having fun with it and not really trying to do something that somebody else would like. I know my shortcomings better and I can work around them.”
What are you hopeful looking ahead? Are you looking forward to getting out there to play live again?
“Yes, if that’s possible. I very much look forward to playing these songs live. I really hope it’s soon, whether it’s this year’s or next year. I think it will be a great return to the live scene when we get out again.
“I want to be playing shows and I really want to be writing music. I’ve got a lot of stuff left over from the album sessions that I want to finish up that didn’t make sense on the album. And just release some more music, that’s my main ambition. I’ve been in an album mindset. I want to be releasing music faster. Four years is a bit long between albums.”
NZCA Lines’ Pure Luxury is out now via Memphis Industries