Jason Loux of Xoul Kool on Old-Time and Eclecticism

Playing a lot of instruments is an album-making asset unto itself, but knowing where to use them takes another level of skill. When I’m Here I’m Home, the sophomore record from Xoul Kool–alias of Philadelphia singer-songwriter Jason Loux–shows a strengthening grasp of both.

While his debut record hinted at what the wide-ranging multi-instrumentalist was capable of, with mandolin and fiddle tunes mixed into its lo-fi guitar-driven rock, the follow-up takes his eclecticism to new heights. Throughout When I’m Here I’m Home, you’ll hear mandocellos, electronic bongo breaks, vintage pop melodies, and unexpected bursts of distortion.

Loux manages that contrast well, keeping each successive track surprising without losing the album thread. The psych-pop echo of the early tracks’ vocals slowly fades into more organic territory, even breaking down into crystal-clear spoken word for “An Ode For Friends I’ll Never Meet.” That track sees Loux backed by ukulele and violin, just another case of an atypical arrangement that nonetheless feels–wait for it–right at home.

After the release, Loux spoke to The All Scene Eye about the recording tricks, nature trails, and idiosyncratic instruments that continue to shape his music.

You filmed the video for “Your Smile is My Crown” at the Delaware Water Gap. What’s the backstory of that?

That was just a fun trip I took with my girlfriend. We’d never really gone on a road trip together, so that was our first time. I told her before we were going on the trip, “hey, I think it would be really fun if we recorded a video, and just did clips of us being silly,” because we’re usually pretty silly.

The song is about her, so. Gushy moment there. I knew I wanted her to be a part of the video, and we did a bunch of cool hiking around the area, and had some beautiful views, and I just think it really worked. And then, yeah, we edited the video together, so it was a nice collaboration with her. It was really sweet.

I love those stories of involving other people in your art. I think that’s super neat.

It felt really good specifically to get her into it, because I’ve done a lot of this stuff on my own, so it’s good to just have other people putting their ideas into it. It makes things so much easier and so much nicer. I really need to venture out of my own sphere and talk to more people, and work with them more.

Are you an outdoorsy type of person? Do you go to a lot of those kinds of hiking spots?

Yeah, in particular I’ve been doing a bunch of new writing in a spot at Ridley Creek State Park in PA. I just found a cool meadow off-trail, and I like to chill there, write songs, and listen to the nature. I feel like it’s just a really good, wholesome thing. I live in Philadelphia, so I’m in the city, constantly surrounded by cars, and phones, and emails, and all this stuff, so it’s really nice to take a break and be surrounded by trees, and nothing but trees, and really be able to appreciate all that.

Do you bring an instrument with you?

I usually bring my guitar. I haven’t brought out the mandocello yet, which I’m doing some new writing with. It’s really fun.

What was the first instrument you learned to play?

That would be violin. I grew up in a family that did old-time music, which is like, fiddle, and banjo, and guitar just playing tunes over and over again in variation. My mom started by teaching me violin, because she plays fiddle and my dad plays guitar. I actually started playing classical music with Suzuki’s, which is, like, what everyone does who plays violin. I started probably in fourth grade, and then I continued until junior year of high school.

It’s interesting, I started on classical music, but I sort of fell out of touch with the rigidity of it. I played in orchestras, and some district orchestras, and it was a really cool experience, but I found that I didn’t get to explore too much of the sound. You play exactly what’s set in front of you, and you don’t get to mess around too much.

You definitely hear the old-time influence on the album when you’ve got the fiddle and the mandolin going on tracks like “The Deeper You Hide.”

The mandolin was an interesting analog to the violin. My family used to go to a big old-time music festival–well, they still go, but I haven’t been able in recent years. When I was a kid, I used to sell ice there, and I made enough money in tips to buy a mandolin. It was a cool analog to the violin, because it’s the same notes, but it’s fretted, so you can play it like a guitar, which I thought was super cool. I don’t practice the mandolin too much, but it’s interesting, because I sort of already know how it’s going to sound when I play it, so I do want to do more writing with it.

Even if you don’t practice it very much, it’s cool to have something you can whip out like that. The mandolin and the violin can add so much depth to a song.

It’s interesting how two instruments that have the same note structure can come together and sound totally different; the timbres are super different. It’s cool to put one in one ear and one in the other ear.

You mentioned that you fell out of touch with classical music. How did that lead to this project, Xoul Kool?

The first thing that threw me when I was playing classical music was the first time I heard the Beatles, and really sat down with it, and listened to them so much I used to know all the track listings for every album they put out. At that point, it was just taking it all in and seeing what songwriting was all about, because they really nailed it.

Favorite Beatles album?

It changes, but probably The White Album right now. It’s super eclectic, and if you listen to my music, sometimes it’s super eclectic, so it’s an inspiration. If I ever have two songs that sound super wacky against each other, I’m usually like, “eh, I guess it’ll sound interesting in the context of an album.”

I usually stray away from doing a full concept album and try to throw a bunch of different sounding songs together, although there were some songs that definitely didn’t fit for the last album that I totally scrapped. Originally, I was going to make it 14 songs, and then I realized a couple didn’t really work with what it sounded like as a whole. I keep that loose concept, I guess, but I enjoy having some electric songs and some acoustic songs, stuff like that.

Are those scrapped songs going to come back around?

It’s possible. I got invited to do a split this summer, but it depends on whether or not I actually get around to recording some new tracks. I do have one track that’s fully recorded, but it’s kind of crappy sounding. I might reboot it or give it to Jack. You know, Jack Hubbell of Telyscopes.

He’d be able to make something out of it.

He actually–I put out the first album back in 2015, and then after sitting on it for a couple of years, I started playing shows, and I realized I wanted more people to listen to it than just on bandcamp. I was like, “oh, I should probably put it on more major outlets.” But before I did that, I was like, “it just sounds like–not like something you’d want to hear on Spotify, in terms of mastering quality.” I was like, “well, I guess I should get somebody to do this.”

I’m actually in another band, Flamingo Chicks, and we worked with Jack for our EP, so that’s how I knew him. He’s just such a nice person–so easy to work with, will listen to every single thing you want to do and give you good feedback about it.

What do you play in Flamingo Chicks?

I play drums, but I did break out the mandolin and the violin during the recording for the EP. It was funny, because we’re like, a punk band, and when we recorded the EP, there was one song in particular I was just like, “yeah, this needs a violin part,” I wrote a violin part prior to going into the studio, and that came out great. There was another song that’s kind of a punk song, and I had the mandolin, and I was just like, “you know, it would be super interesting if I just did a bunch of chucks during this,” and we turned it from a punk song into practically a country song by adding one instrument.

It’s funny though, because that thick, percussive mandolin sound is something that could be at home in punk, you know? 

Totally, I agree. I think what throws people is how bright it sounds. I think they’re immediately like, “oh, god, where are we? We’re in the south now.” People up north are just like, “where are the beats?” [laughs]

Tell me about the album art for When I’m Here I’m Home.

The album art is a picture I took. My girlfriend was doing research in La Jolla in California, right outside San Diego at the University of California San Diego, and that building is the engineering building on that campus. If you look at it, it’s a house on top of a building. It’s pretty insane. And when I figured out what I wanted to call the album, I remembered that photo, and I just thought the colors were super beautiful, the blues were so pure, and all the reflections on all of the windows are just perfect. I was just like, “yeah, this is definitely the photo that’s going to be used.”

I was so sure it was digitally manipulated.

No, it’s a freakin’ building, it’s pretty crazy. [laughs] I used some sort of filter on it in Instagram, but other than that, that’s it.

When did you start going into the studio with the songs that became the album?

It’s interesting, I never really went into a studio. I recorded everything at home and then took it to Jack. That’s super similar to the first album. I recorded everything myself on the first one, and then this album, I got some other people to help me out on a couple tracks, which felt really good, and I would like to do a lot more in the future, because laboring over every instrument gets really tedious and kind of forces you to listen to your music too much, and just dwell on things.

I just graduated college, so it was being recorded for two and a half years, just being piecemealed through different places I lived. Two of those spaces were basements, so, not super ideal for recording, but that’s where drums can fit. I used one mic for everything, including the drums. It gives it a really weird sort of sound, but it came out really good, and once I gave it to Jack, all the songs that had drums on them, he figured out how to fatten them up in stereo. It’s pretty incredible, what he does.

What was the microphone?

It’s a Blue Yeti. Just a classic, USB home recording mic for the whole album.

That surprises me, not because I don’t think the Yeti is a good microphone you can do a lot with, but just because I wasn’t listening to it through that lens.

I’ve had a couple of people talk to me and be like, “oh, yeah, what studio did you go to?” And I was just like, “I didn’t.” [laughs] Which is kind of cool.

I had a couple different people who were interested in recording me, but at the time, it was difficult to schedule. I wanted the other people to play on the record, and it was difficult to schedule with them, because they all have their own lives and different jobs. We couldn’t settle on a weekend, so I was like, “You know what? I can save some money just doing it myself.” 

Lyrically, “Secant to Everything Else” is an interesting track. Where did that geometry metaphor come from?

I did math and computer science in college, so sort of that. A bunch of songs on the album are actually really old, and that was an older one. I’d say eight or nine out of 11 were written probably two to four years prior. Especially “The Deeper You Hide.” I think I wrote that junior year of high school, so that’s, like, five years old actually. 

Wow, digging deep.

I just always knew I wanted to make sure that sounded good, and the first album I put out was basically like, “oh yeah, like, I’m going to try recording and doing my own thing,” and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was messing around on a computer trying to figure out how to do things in the software that I use. By the time I got to the second album, I felt like I could make it sound really good.

What recording software do you use?

I use Reaper. I feel like that’s a super good one for Windows, in particular.

Back to “Secant,” there’s a moment at the end where you have a ukulele strum that turns into this loud, feedback-y, distorted sound. How did you generate that?

That’s all in the software, which is pretty crazy. That’s the one thing that really blows me away in particular with that software. It’s the stock distortion that comes with it, and you can make it, like, explode. On the last song, “No Harm More Foul,” that distortion at the end is also in the software. It’s just an acoustic guitar, and then add distortion on the track, and it just sounds insane, like a hammer is getting hit.

Composition-wise, a moment that really stands out on the album is that middle section of “An Ode For Friends I’ll Never Meet” where you go to the ukulele arpeggios and spoken lyrics.

I was in a particularly weird mood when I wrote that. I think I was at the beach for my 21st birthday, and I had just gotten a new notebook to write things down in. I just started writing, and all the words I wrote from that session, I spoke. For that particular part in the song, I didn’t feel like there was any real melody that I could do that would work. I probably could have come up with a melody eventually, but for some reason, the phrasing of the words just seemed to really work with the fingerpicking pattern on the uke, and I was just like, “yeah, I think it would be cool to do this.” It’s something I had never messed with before, and I know a bunch of people do, and I just wanted to see how it would turn out. I think it turned out really good.

Now I’m also seeing the connection–you mentioned computer science, and you’ve got the blue-screen imagery in there.

I always thought that was a super interesting word, blue-screen. I think words associated with colors are usually super interesting, so I tried to mess around with it in my own way, and say yellow-screen, and green-screen, and have my own interpretation as to what those mean.

You have so many colors associated with feelings already–green with envy, seeing red. So what is blue-screen, right?

Right, yeah. I mean, you can take it in the context of a broken computer. It just means broken. [laughs]

Do you have a favorite track from this album, or one that you enjoy the most having recorded?

Either “Anchor” or “We Are Better Than Now.”

“Anchor” is another really old one, written around the same time as the first song. I’ve recorded it a bunch before and never really got it. Two years ago, I had just gotten my first USB audio interface, so I could directly plug into the software and do effects with it. I did the electric guitar and the slide guitar that way, and I just loved the tone that I got. Then I was just like, “alright, there are the guitar tracks,” and it sat around for, like, two years.

I still knew I wanted to use those tracks, so I looked at them recently, and I was like, “alright, let’s do this.” Because I had recorded most of the rest of the album, and then I started working on that one. It just came out really well. I added the violin part that’s sort of like bluegrass, and that’s one of my favorite violin parts that I’ve written.

“We Are Better Than Now” was originally a totally different song, and I redid it after I had some family emergencies happen. I really enjoyed the way it came out because the rest of the album is really full, and that song is just vocals and one electric guitar.

We’ve talked about how you like this eclecticism, and I notice there’s no genre labels on anything you’ve put out. But the album is tagged “devotional” and “moody-defective-loud-coffee.”

Those were the original tags for the last album, and I just looked at them, like, “oh, this is still really funny.” [laughs] So I just kept it like that. I guess you’re supposed to use them professionally, and be like, “oh, this is what my music sounds like,” but I never changed that. It would be nice to update. Maybe I’ll do that.

I do sometimes have difficulty describing how my music sounds to people. I’ve also had difficulty submitting to radio stations and trying to get people to listen. They come back with, “oh, this is too folky for what we usually listen to,” or “it’s too bluegrass-y.” And I’m just like, I don’t know, it’s a little acoustic sounding, and it has some solos on a violin, and all of a sudden it’s bluegrass? I feel like that’s how people view acoustic music, and I’m just like, “ugh.” [laughs] We’ve lost it, folks.

I guess I describe my music as indie folk rock. I think the first album was a little more psychedelic because I was experimenting with a lot of different phasers and stuff, but this time around, it’s a bit more stripped down. The next thing I’m going to record is going to be super stripped down. I have a couple of songs that I think are just going to be acoustic guitar and vocals, and that’ll be it.

What drove you in that direction?

I’ve been listening to a bunch of Nick Drake. You listen to something like Pink Moon, the whole album, and it stops you dead in your tracks, like, “wow, all of this other instrumentation is so useless.” Of course, the songwriting has a huge part in that too, but it’s super cut-and-dry for me when I listen to Pink Moon and then I listen to his two other albums that are, like, produced, and I think they fall so flat. The songwriting is great, his guitar playing is great, but the production freaks me out. I’m like, “why is there all this unnecessary stuff?” But I guess it’s also because I’ve listened to Pink Moon so many times, and going back, it’s hard.

When you break it down to fewer elements, you have to think harder about what each element is doing, right? Pink Moon is an album where he gets so many different things out of that solo guitar.

Definitely. And I feel like whenever I’m recording a track or writing a part for a song, I try to make what I write super deliberate and not haphazard. The thing that’s probably the most haphazard about my music is the vocal harmonies; I usually do those last second while I’m recording. I kind of just hear them in my head, try to run through doing it once, and then I’m just like, “oh, that was a bad take,” and then I do it again. But I figure it out on the fly.

What was really cool was collaborating with two of my really good friends, Becka and Paul, and having them write some of the vocal parts. I would tell them, “here are some ideas I have,” but they would take it and make it their own, and it worked. It was nice to take that feeling of haphazardness and give it to people who really know what they’re doing.

What are you up to next? You kind of answered that, you’ve got this album that you’re working on now.

Yeah, I don’t know when it’s going to come out. I always said, “oh, this album is going to come out soon,” and that was the last one, and it took me forever. So it usually takes me way longer than I say it will.

I’ve been working on that, I have a couple of shows coming up, and I’ve been collaborating with some new people. There’s this harp player, Sara Henya, that I’ve been working with, so there might be some harp on the next Xoul Cool record, which would be really sweet. I think it’s going to be a song with mandocello, and harp, and vocals. It’ll be super nice.

And super unlike pretty much any other song.

Yeah. [laughs] Yeah, we’re working together, and it sounds really cool, because both of our instruments are from a particular era in time, like, Renaissance era. They work so well together, and it’s just so awesome working with someone like that.

If you could add any instrument you’ve never used before to your arrangements, what would you want?

Piano. Easy.

Really? Deceptively simple.

I’ve been trying to teach myself piano recently, and I’ve been really enjoying it. One of the songs I wrote, I wrote on guitar, and then I started doing it on piano, and now I like it way more. So that’ll probably make it onto the next thing. I also almost got a Fender Rhodes for an insane deal, but it It slipped through my fingers, which I’m kind of sad about. But it was alright, I ended up saving money, and I got a new guitar for the hole that–the infinite void that it created. [laughs] I’ll get one eventually when I have my own house and space, when I’m like, 52.

What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen?

I’ll give you two answers. My all-time favorite, and then my most recent favorite.

My all-time favorite was a house show in West Philly, and it was Porches. They put out two albums recently that were super, like–not poppy, but had way more synths and beats. They’re good, but Aaron Maine, the dude who is Porches, used to write so many crazy beautiful songs, just him on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and vocals–sort of like the Nick Drake sound–and then very sparse, dingy-sounding beats and bass. He has these primal screams and yells and growls in his voice that I just think are so cool and so incredibly unattainable by another person that it blows my mind.

This was like, four years ago, back before he did all his new stuff. It was him and Frankie Cosmos, and they both were just by themselves playing an electric guitar and singing. I don’t even think it was miked either. It was in a living room in this beautiful West Philly home, and there must have been 80 to 100 people crammed into that house, people sitting on the stairs. So far, in my time going to house shows, I’ve never heard every single person in the entire house just shut the hell up and listen. That gave me chills, and it still gives me chills just thinking about it. To reach that level of songwriting, and to reach that level of love from fans, is so incredible.

But most recently, I’ve been listening a lot to the Unknown Mortal Orchestra record. I saw them live, and that was just, like, so good.

I’ve never listened to Unknown Mortal Orchestra; where should I start?

I really like their first and second album, and then their newest is really good. The third album, Multi-Love, is the one that most people really like, and the one that got a lot of success for them, but I think it doesn’t really compare to their older stuff. The new album takes the best of the really poppy stuff and the old stuff. It’s super sweet.


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