Army Navy Singer Justin Kennedy Talks Power-Pop, Movies, the Oregon Trail + the New EP ‘Crushed’
Army Navy’s new EP, ‘Crushed’ landed on Aug. 20, bringing with it six tracks that fit neatly within the precedent set by their last two albums, 2008’s self-titled debut and 2011’s ‘The Last Place.’ It’s a catalog that has earned the L.A.-based trio — Justin Kennedy, Louie Schultz and Douglas Randall — the power-pop stamp of approval more than a few times. The elements are there: super-melodic tunes, jangly guitars and Kennedy’s deceptively sunny vocals, but Army Navy’s lead singer and songwriter isn’t so convinced.
Diffuser.fm chatted with Kennedy about the new EP and Army Navy’s next long-player, which you can be expect in early 2014. He also shared his thoughts on the most definitive power-pop songs and explained why the band’s perhaps shouldn’t be categorized in that subgenre.
Your songs are super melodic and accessible — you’d think that more power-pop bands would be huge, but they don’t seem to capture the attention they deserve. Why do you think that is?
I probably think because we don’t completely fit into any distinct category. A lot of people call us power-pop; I don’t actually consider us a power-pop band. I’m a huge power-pop person, and I tend to put very specific bands in that category. We have a lot of attributes of power-pop, obviously. I wonder if maybe because we’re not true power-chord power-pop, we’re not championed as much by that group. We fall in an in-between space. We definitely have our power-pop songs, but then we have our more across-the-board [songs]. We try not to pigeonhole ourselves, and maybe that makes it harder for people to know who we are.
You said that you think there’s a very select group of bands that fall into that power-pop category, and you are drawn to that sound, so what would you say is a definitive album or song someone would need to know to get into power-pop?
Big Star is what everyone is sort of chanting as the leader of power-pop, although at the same time I always think of them as sort of all over the place, too, which is what I love about them. They have their sort of country songs, then they have weird, almost psychedelic songs.
This is a later song, but a song that I love that I think is a sort of classic power-pop song — it may not define power-pop, but it has big power chords, distorted guitar, but super-melodic vocals with harmonies — is Matthew Sweet’s ‘Sick of Myself.’ He’s one of those epic guys. I love Matthew Sweet, but I grew up on Teenage Fanclub; [they’re] one of my all-time favorite bands. ‘Sparky’s Dream’ by Teenage Fanclub is another big, epic power-pop [song], but I almost think ‘Sick of Myself’ feels more defining in a way. Fanclub have a lot those beautiful harmonies, but it’s slightly more complex.
There’s this really interesting contrast of light and dark in your songs, with these super-catchy surfaces but lyrics that are really kind of lovelorn, and you’d almost miss that. Do you guys intentionally try to create that contrast?
I think it’s just the nature of my songwriting. I’ve been drawn to and always wanted to write catchy tunes. I think the melody is the most important part of the song. I’m always trying to cram lyrics into songs, but they never seem to fit. I’ll write a tune, and then I’ll try to find the best melody, and it’s always the job of trying to fit the words into the very specific melodies, with very specific ways of saying stuff. I just don’t tend to write about too many happy things. It’s just a little bit of a sadder take on things. I’ve tried to write happy-go-lucky lyrics, and it always comes across too sugary.
A good example is ‘The Queen Is Dead’ by the Smiths, with Johnny Marr’s really great, almost chiming guitar playing and then Morrissey’s really sad lyrics. That was one of my earliest favorite records. Even R.E.M., in a way, had Peter Buck’s guitar playing and songwriting, which is more upbeat, but the lyrics are more mysterious. Michael Stipe doesn’t write so much about himself, and I tend to write mostly about myself, but I guess I’m just always more interested when there’s two sides to things.
I think on the surface, people don’t tend to even listen to the lyrics, which is totally fine, as long as the melody’s strong. You want that to be caught in your head, and then if they do take the time to go back and start digging deeper, they might find different meaning to the song.
I do think the melancholy is showing through a little more than on your previous albums. Were you trying to evolve the music into more introspective territory?
It’s just wherever I am in my life. The last record [‘The Last Place’] was based on one specific relationship, and I think with the [EP], I wasn’t into anything specific. I think I was doing a lot more introspection, because I wasn’t in the middle of a relationship and didn’t have that to talk about. In a way, it made me think more about myself, about life, death and longing. I went to different territories, which is good. You’re always looking for new things to talk about. Like on the next record, there’s a song about a relative I had that came across the Oregon Trail, so I was trying to push myself in a way to tell stories and think of things in different ways than I had lyrically in the past.
The Oregon Trail, huh?
Yeah, it’s my take on it. I know that my great-great-grandfather came across on the Oregon Trail, and I always thought that was really ballsy. You have to have a major will to get on a horse or a wagon train and depart for unknown territory. I just took that and sort of contrasted it with what I was thinking of in my life at the time.
Your music has shown up a lot in TV and movies. Living in L.A., do you ever find the reverse happening, with movies and TV inspiring your music?
I’m a huge movie and TV nerd and always have been. I kind of work in the entertainment business, and it’s always around here, and I tend to watch a lot of movies, so even from the last record, ‘The Long Goodbye’ [the 1973 Robert Altman movie] is one of my all-time favorite movies and one of the reasons I moved to Los Angeles. That was the jumping-off point. I watched that movie again, was reflecting on it and took it in its own direction. You are influenced by the things around you, whatever you’re reading, watching or listening to. Going back to that song about the Oregon Trail, I went and watched Ken Burns’ ‘The West,’ ‘cause I wanted to get more details on that world and find out what life was like.