Let’s Drive to Alaska
By Juliana Russell
Following the release of their album “In the Fifth House”, Chris from Let’s Drive to Alaska spoke with Juliana Russell from Black on the Canvas, where we discussed brotherly inspiration, drastic differences between live and recorded music, and first impressions when composing new music.
Thanks for doing this interview! How did your band start out?
Chris: Well, I started writing the music for this project back when I was a sophomore in high school. Throughout the years, it’s gone from being a solo project, to a four-piece, to… Now, a two-piece. So it’s gone through different styles, primarily electronic, though. Rhodes piano, stuff like that. We’ve done things that are more cinematic, more hip-hop-based, dance-based too, but now it’s at a very different stage. I like where it’s at.
So how would you describe the music you make now, with this duo?
Chris: All the samples we’ve recorded, the strings that we’ve arranged are all organic, and the piano and drums bring a different live feel to it. So I’d say it’s a very organic, cinematic experience.
Okay, nice. Do either of you have any formal music training, or are you mostly self-taught?
Chris: Well Patrick goes to school right now, he’s in the music program. But before that, he’d been in drum line in his high school band. I personally was in school band in middle school, but then after that I just kinda went off on my own thing, and learned how to play guitar, bass, drums, and all these other instruments. So Patrick is very classically trained, and I’m a little bit different.
So what are some of your main influences and inspirations, whether other musicians, or different aspects of your life?
Chris: Definitely inspirations would be daily life, the people we meet, the people we talk to, the experiences we have—that’s always an inspiration to the stuff we write. When it comes to musicians, they range from Herbie Hancock, Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Album Leaf… Between the two of us, we love music, so there’s a wide variety. For this project, I guess you could say there’s a lot of one-on-one experiences with friends, films, books.
Yeah, okay. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Chris: For the main live shows, we use Ableton, just to do a lot of the live manipulation, backing tracks… Just to have a live source on stage. When we’re in the studio, we use Ableton, Reason, Pro Tools, and a lot of synthesizers… Not including the guitar, strings, violin, cello, everything… Program-wise, Ableton is a big staple in what we do.
Okay. So how you usually go about writing a new song? What’s your creative process like?
Chris: Patrick and I write demos for each other. Primarily how it works right now is that I write a demo with electronic drums, string arrangements, piano, things like that. Then I’ll bring it to him, and we’ll do different things—transitions, even take out the drums and do other parts. So I write a skeleton, bring it to him, then we re-arrange everything.
Awesome. Talk about your new song “Sejatski”. I looked it up to see what language it was, but it was just your song that came up! (laughs)
Chris: So the name “Sejatski”, the word actually stems from “Sejat”. I have a younger brother, who also makes music—he goes under the pseudonym “Sejatski”. He would stay up at night, and watch these late-night infomercials, late-night PBS specials… They had this whole thing about the Native American language, and how this word “sejat” was a known word about animals coming all together and drinking water in this one pool. There’d be like deer, and mountain lions… And they wouldn’t attack each other when they’re at this little place. They would just kinda meet there. So my brother went with that, and I named it after him.
Oh, okay, awesome! (laughs)
Chris: It’s a very long explanation! (laughs) But yeah, so the song’s about my brother. Or anybody’s brother, really.
Okay, I thought it was a translation. But it’s more like a subtitle kind of thing.
Chris: Yeah, it’s more like a tribute to our brothers.
Okay, yeah. I have a brother too! (laughs)
Chris: (laughs) Okay, there you go! Just think of your brother!
Awesome. So did you face any technical or creative challenges while writing or recording that song?
Chris: Okay so that song’s demo was done many years ago. When we were putting together the songs for this album “In the Fifth House”, we decided to go back and record our older ideas. We’ve been playing those songs—well that song specifically, for a couple years live. But I guess the biggest thing was mastering and mixing a lot of these songs. When you’ve been playing them for so long, you hear it a certain way, but when you add different things, different textures, it just makes it more complicated. So now playing live, we’re playing it a lot differently than we used to. So it used to be more raw, and now it’s more polished. So the main difficulty is recreating that live.
So in general, what do you do when you face challenges?
Chris: Well, I guess you just kinda buckle down and try to figure it out—that’s always the way to do it. But if not… Between Patrick and I, we have like hundreds of songs. So usually what happens is I’ll bring him a load of like fifty songs. When it hits, it’s like “Okay, there’s a song for the next album.”, “That’s another song right there.” But if it’s not really meshing, or really flowing together, we could try to make it sound better, but if we’re not feeling it right from the get-go, it’s not gonna hit, and we know that.
Right. First impression sort of thing?
Chris: Exactly. So that first impression… So if he hears it and he’s like “…yeah, no.”… But if he hears it and he’s like “Okay, I like what we’re doing here. Let’s work on this more.” Let’s say a problem comes up after that point, we just sit down, and play the piano or keyboard, rearrange… And we just try our best to make it work, if we really want the song, that is.
Right, interesting. So your band name is “Let’s Drive to Alaska”—how did you come up with that? (laughs)
Chris: Well, there’s a lot of funny stories. People that know that name, there’s a bunch of different rumors about how it actually started. But in actuality, the true story is that in high school, I was gonna play at Battle of the Bands, and I signed up under my name and didn’t think anything of it. Then my day to go perform and try out came up. And as I’m driving there, I realize I didn’t have a name, and I was like “Oh, I don’t even have a name for the project!” So I was listening to this band at the time, called Owls—they’re members of Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc. And I was driving and I heard that lyric “Let’s drive to Alaska”, that’s what he says. And at that point, I was like that’s gonna stick, it stuck out to me, it called to me. That’s what we’re gonna go with. We’ve had moments in the past… Patrick and I will be sitting there, and we’re like “Dude, we gotta change this name, man. It’s too long…” He’s like “No, man! Just think about it, it’s very unique. It’s really cool, people will get it.” I don’t know. (laughs) But it stuck. It’s sticking!
Okay, speaking of driving long distances, what’s your favorite activity to do during a long car ride?
Chris: Patrick would love to talk about this. Patrick is the one that does most of the driving, cause I get all fidgety in the car. I’m like always changing the channels, turning on music, doing something… And he’s like “Stop, just don’t move anymore! Go to sleep, Chris, just go to sleep.” (laughs) But we like to play 20 Questions, “Have You Ever?”, “Would You Ever?”… I know a lot about him now! (laughs) We went to Austin last year. 24 hours in a car with someone! We play those… Just tell stories, too. I don’t know, I guess the main thing is we play a lot of “Truth or Dare” kind of things.
That’s fun, okay! So what are some of the best and worst aspects of performing live?
Chris: The best aspect of performing live is… Performing! To me, performing is the best reward. It’s always different. We try to do 65% of it already programmed, so we try to improvise the other 35%. So every time we perform live, there’s always something different… To see what Patrick does on drums, and what I do on keyboard—that’s always something that feeds us. Now with the aspect of the dancers that we have, The Grigori, watching them perform and them also improvising or working on choreography—that’s just as rewarding. Now the worst part about performing is… Also performing! Sometimes, things you have in mind, don’t always get pulled off to a T, the way you imagined it. And sometimes it’s a letdown, kind of sad that things don’t hit the way they were supposed to at a specific show. Maybe even the show itself, the turnout isn’t good or whatever… It could be a vice, or something really good. The thing about performing live is that it’s always different, so it’s good and bad.
Okay, so you mentioned live dancers?
Chris: Yeah, we started working with this dance group in Los Angeles, called The Grigori. The choreographer is Gabriella Cataldo. We’ve been working together with them in live shows for a couple months… During the summer we had our first show at The Crystal Gallery, and that was our first collaboration. We were just gonna do one, but since that show we’ve been doing every show with them. That arrangement, sometimes there’s four people on stage, sometimes it’s six, sometimes it’s just two.
Two, four, six dancers, in addition to you?
Chris: Yeah, not including us. We’re always playing the music. So they have these draped out costumes that are long, colored fabrics. So you can’t really see people. You just see these like floating energy beings. It’s pretty intense! (laughs)
Yeah, that sounds really awesome!! Cool, so what are some of your future plans?
Chris: We were supposed to go on this tour in March, but I think we decided we needed to save up a little more money for our new van, so we’re gonna move that to July. And I think we’re also supposed to be going to Mexico for a set of dates with a saxophone player, Jonathan Arellano—he plays saxophone on the new album. We met him last year when we were at South by Southwest. And he’s like “Yeah, come to Mexico City, I’ll book you guys for a couple of shows, and we’ll play some shows together.” So we took him up on the offer, and I think we’re going there in July too.
Other than that, I think music-wise, we’re gonna be working on a follow-up to this next record—already! (laughs) The production to the actual time when it gets released is like almost a year, so we gotta start writing now in order to get it out by next year. Our album just got released, so people can listen to it on Spotify, and all that stuff.
All right, thank you!
Listen to Let’s Drive to Alaska’s new album on bandcamp:
Photos by J.J. Pulido