Saint Motel: Ambition, Auteurism, and the Ever-Vital Music Video

The importance of the music video is not lost on some artists, namely Los Angeles' Saint Motel, whose dazzling, narrative-driven visuals are at the crux of their big indie pop aesthetic. With Part 2 of their cinematic album series The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack out now, we caught up with lead singer A.J. Jackson about how music videos are more vital than ever.
Posted: 5 October 2020 Words: Matthew Watkin

You’d have to have been living under a fairly large rock not to have heard ‘My Type’, the jubilant breakout single from Los Angeles indie-pop purveyors Saint Motel. For a brief period after its 2014 release, it was everywhere. Films, video games, TV adverts, you name it, it was bound to appear somewhere. It was nigh-on impossible to escape that horn melody which distinctly encapsulated the song’s themes of lust and desire, and seemed tailor-made for festival punters to chant at the top of their lungs. With its sunny, indelible hooks, it was no surprise that it became a hit; the song reached no. 5 in the US Adult Alternative chart, and has over 165 million plays on Spotify as of writing.

Despite the chart success and the ubiquity, the band haven’t rested on their laurels. Sure, songs like ‘Cold Cold Man’ and ‘Move’ repeated the trick, but their desire to push themselves creatively has only strengthened, especially in the way their albums have been packaged and structured. Each track from their 2016 album saintmotelivision was accompanied by a VR music video, and their latest effort, titled The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, has been split up into three separate parts, with Part 2 released on the 18th September.

“Early on in the writing phase I thought it would be fun to release it in sections and it was initially going to be in two parts because I noticed a lot of the songs fit well into different camps,” explains frontman and founding member A.J. Jackson. “Looking back, one thing that’s set us apart and sometimes been something that’s been very difficult for our band to succeed is our eclectic-ness, so I thought with this album it would be kind of interesting to have that eclectic-ness but split it up into corresponding pieces depending on the mood. But it became three parts when we were flying to a concert and I was sitting next to (Aaron) Sharp (the band’s guitarist). We were reading the in-flight magazine and we saw the original motion picture soundtrack to a movie I can’t remember the title of, and that’s how the idea came about.”

Jackson describes himself as a “musical chameleon”, and trawling through their back catalogue in preparation for the interview, there is certainly a disparate array of sounds on offer. There’s colourful pop bangers aplenty, but some would be pleasantly surprised by the band’s occasional excursions into different sonic territories. ‘Balsa Wood Bones’ (from debut album Voyeur) is reminiscent of 60s psychedelic folk, while ‘Benny Goodman’ has Motown coursing through its veins. They don’t shy away from throwing the odd curveball on the latest part of their new album either, particularly with the orchestral touches on ‘The Moment’ and  dark, pulsing lead single ‘A Good Song Never Dies’, which Jackson describes as one of the album’s most fun songs to make.

“I found it really hard to stop tweaking” he says. “I was making changes in the mixing phase, and I redid the vocals at the end, and it was very hard to say this is done. It’s so wild as well because it goes from darker, dissonant guitars to a Motown-y pre-chorus which builds to an intense, rocky chorus. There’s so many different sonic elements that only appear once and don’t come back ever in the song, and there’s a very fun, weird structure to that one.”

That single, a tribute to the emotional power of music and (in Jackson’s words) “the process of writing songs”, showcases the self-awareness that permeates his songwriting. There’s also a deep knowledge of pop music’s enduring tropes, but what made songs such as ‘My Type’ so powerful was how it subverted those tropes – in this case, falling in love with “the perfect woman” and the idea of soulmates.

The visionary behind the band’s music videos, Jackson has also earned a reputation as an auteur. He met Sharp and formed the band while studying at film school in 2007, worked on adverts for large companies including Hyundai and Elle Magazine, and directed videos for bands such as Royal Teeth and Band of Skulls. He was even nominated for an MTV Movie Award as part of comedy group Craptastic for Broverfield, a wacky parody of 2008 disaster movie Cloverfield that lampooned bro culture and its enthusiasm for partying.

Saint Motel’s dedication to visuals is at the crux of their identity – there’s always a narrative, dazzling special effects or a stylish aesthetic to complement the band’s performances – and Jackson believes that music videos are just as integral as they were during MTV’s halcyon days. “I don’t think there’s any decline in the importance of visuals in music,” he argues. “There’s loads of artists doing extended versions of videos and even making films like Beyonce did with her new album. It goes beyond just having a music video, it’s almost like they’re creating whole worlds now. And maybe it’s because I’m a child of the days when music videos were popular, but when I want to hear a new band or song, I go to YouTube first.”

Jackson also speaks passionately about the recent video for ‘Preach’, which sees him surrounded by leather-clad dancers on rollerblades, with the rest of the band making intermittent appearances. By Saint Motel’s standards it’s a stripped-back affair – the video was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they had to work within that constraint – but it’s one that Jackson is no less proud of. “It’s like a Janet Jackson video from the 1980s,” he says jokingly. “There’s a level of dance that I’ve never done, and we do this whole thing in this pandemic responsible way where the dress is reflective of the times, and there’s the distance and the emptiness of the place we shoot. But conceptually, it very much harkens back to the music videos of the past.”

When asking Jackson about the band’s future plans, and they are about as bold as one would expect. He opens up about a virtual world they’ve created where they’ll share a raft of exclusive content, as well as giving fans a place to connect with each other. “This is our first foray into it, so it's kind of like the Wild West,” he says, with a little apprehension in his voice. “It’s a 24/7 space designed around the album, and each room in this motel is designed around a song from the album. But there’s a big stage behind it because we’re planning on doing acoustic shows, movie screenings, Q&A’s, and eventually we’d like to do a tour or a proper show.” Saint Motel’s approach to their art is certainly ambitious, but it goes to show they are so much more than the hit song they made their name with.

The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Pt.2 is out now on Elektra Records.

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