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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Justin Kennedy of Army Navy

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This young moose...er man who is being shot by his band mate is none other than Justin Kennedy the lead singer of Army Navy. Kennedy's history begins in Seattle where he co-lead the band Pinwheel with Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie fame.) When Pinwheel came apart, Kennedy headed south to begin again in Los Angeles. Here he put together one of the best brop (brainy pop) outfits in the Southland. His infectious melodies will stick themselves in your head like super glue. They are playing tonight at the Troubadour in support of their stunning debut self-titled album,which was released in October. Mr. Kennedy was kind enough to talk to us yesterday from San Francisco.

Hey, I was just watching the video where you describe a missed opportunity to kill James Blunt. What is with the rage?

Oh man, I hope he sees that video. He makes such horrible, horrible music. Someone has got to put a stop to it.

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But murder?

Oh, yeah! You know the way he looks into the camera directly when he sings? It’s like a challenge.

You know that he used to be in the an officer in the Life Guards (a reconnaissance regiment of the British Army.) I don’t know if you want to pick a fight with him.

Really? But he’s so tiny. I mean I’m small, but I’m scrappy. I think I could take him.

No disrespect meant to your fighting prowess, but I think you should probably think about it.

Ok maybe I’ll just get really, really rich and buy all of his songs and then burn them. I’ll make sure they never get played again. Did you know that Noel Gallagher moved houses because James Blunt moved onto his street?

No, I didn’t.

I think that’s awesome. Noel and I can be friends.

What is the town you hate playing in the most?

Lincoln, Nebraska was crappy. The Midwest has a lot of venues that are really crappy. Some of the venues were much too big and empty or they just had a weird vibe. But you know, in every town are a few people who really dig us, and that’s what it is all about.

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What was the worst show you ever played?

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Um, I don’t know about the worst, but one of the most disappointing was when we played with Teenage Fanclub. They are an amazing band and we were really excited to play with them. For some reason we couldn’t open for them that night -- we had to play right after. They went on and were incredible, so we were really excited to play for this crowd. And then somehow Ben broke a string on his bass. So he was looking around for a spare string and the crowd got impatient and everyone just left.

Oh no! That’s heartbreaking.

I know, but we learned our lesson. We always bring back up bass strings to all our gigs now.

Why the name Army Navy?

It’s kind of a boring story. I literally had to go to an Army Navy Surplus store and I wrote it down on a piece of paper. We were looking for a name and I just liked the ring to it. We were originally called the Fever Zone.

Oh, like your record label (The Fever Zone.)

Yeah, we decided to keep that. And then we went through two other names, but Army Navy sort of stuck. It’s funny. I come from a military town, so I think it holds a subliminal meaning for me. There is a submarine base in my hometown and a shipyard. When you drive into it you can see battleships and aircraft carriers floating in the harbor.

If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?

(Laughs) If we could actually make money, that would be great. Luckily, we sidestepped most of the music industry by releasing the record on our own label. We listened to a lot of offers from major labels, but they didn’t really understand what to do with us. They don’t understand that we’re not Rihanna. They want everything to be packaged up and we don’t really fit the mold. Also they are always hungry for the next single and our main goal for this record was that we need a really solid record. You know, one that matches from top to bottom.

Does your album have a cohesive concept?

No, it’s just a collection the best of all the tunes that we’ve been working on. We had a ton of material, but we chose the songs that flowed together the best. This album is meant to be listened to as an album.

What is your writing process like?

I usually bring the bare bones of song on acoustic guitar to practice. You know just the basic song structure and melodies. And then at practice everyone has a chance to mess around with it. Rearranging it, shortening it, and just generally editing it. You usually can tell instantly if it’s going to work when we all play it for the first time.

In your song Saints; the chorus goes, “The next girl I love won’t be a saint.” What do you mean by that?

That song was based on three separate relationships: one that I was currently in, one that I was previously in, and one that a friend was in. It was mostly about the relationship my friend was in.

Good save.

(laughs) Well I don’t want to get to explicit about who it’s about. Let’s just call it a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

What is My Thin Sides about?

It’s directly about a breakup I had just gone through at the time. I was completely upset and mad about it. You know that feeling where you’re longing still be in a relationship even though you know that it’s totally messed up? That is what that song is about. There are some clues as to who that song is about, too.

I assume the girls you write about know you’re writing about them.

Oh yes.

Is it easier to write songs when you’re heartbroken or in love?

Definitely heartbroken. I don’t know how to write happy love songs without them sounding corny. I also need some time to reflect about certain events before writing about them. I need see it in perspective.

Maybe writing a really happy love song should be your next challenge.

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(laughs) Yeah how about, “Gosh, you’re cool and I like the way your face looks.” That’s the going to be our next single. Man, if I ever get happy and settle down, I’m going to have to quit the music business. I’ll have to become a yoga teacher or something.

Congratulations on having your new album out. Where did you record that?

Our producer, Adam Lasus, has this amazing record studio in the back of his house in Studio City, CA. It’s really nice. We just hung out in his backyard and recorded for six months. You know Adam moved his Fireproof Recordings from Brooklyn to Studio City a couple years ago. You know he produced Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Yo La Tengo’s albums?

No, I didn’t.

Yeah, he’s an incredible producer. His studio has thirty or forty guitars that range from really, really nice ones to obscure strange ones from the 1960s. He’s also got all of this analog gear, pedals, amps, recording tape, and crazy things like that. Adam really knows how to find the right sound you’re looking for. He’s also the most positive person ever. He really believed in this album.

Are you excited about playing the Troubadour tomorrow?

Yeah, I love the Troubadour. Did you know that John Lennon got thrown out of there once?

No! What happened?

I guess he was really drunk with Harry Nilsson and they started heckling the Smothers Brothers, who were playing that night. They kicked him out.

Holy smokes. John Lennon is one of my heroes. Did you have any heroes that inspired you to pick up an instrument?

I tried piano as a little kid, and played the snare drum in school band, but I was mainly inspired by Mudhoney. I actually met Mark Arm at a Washington Huskies game. I was reading a local Seattle newspaper that had Mudhoney on it. Mark reached over my shoulder and pointed at the article. “That’s my band.” He said. I went home and started listening to Mudhoney and was like, “Woah, this is nuts.” It inspired me to start taking guitar lessons from one of my neighbors. This guy up the street was this shredder guitarist and he gave me lessons. He taught me in probably the best way: he asked me what I was into and we figured out how to play the songs together, which got me even more excited about it.

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What is the weirdest thing you ever saw at a show?

(laughs) When we look out into the audience, it’s just an orgy out there. It’s just such sexy, sexy music people just start removing their clothing without knowing why.

What is the worst thing about being on the road?

So many things. The crappy motels that smell awful. Living out of a suitcase and wearing the same clothes over and over. Running over your guitarist’s foot.

What?!

Yeah, it’s probably broken.

Have you taken him to a doctor?

No, we didn’t really have time.

What?

Well, between playing and driving to shows we haven’t had a free moment. (laughs) Well, we did have time to go to some naked hot springs last night.

You what?

Yeah, we were in Ashland, Oregon yesterday and we stopped at this RV place that had natural hot springs. It was seven bucks and they were open until midnight.

And you just left Louie behind?

(laughs) Yup, we just decided to leave him. We said, “We’re sick of your complaining. We’re going to go get naked with strangers.” Poor guy. Oh man and there was this chick in the springs with us who suddenly asked, “Hey, you guys mind if I sing?" You could not imagine the song that came out of her. We thought she was going to sing some Cat Stevens song or something, but no. She belts out this African bush song. Complete with tongue clicks. It was so crazy. Then we went back and raved about it to Louie, who was stuck with his foot up.

You do know that his bones are going to set weird if he doesn’t get help.

Don’t worry. He’ll see a doctor when we get to LA.

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I read somewhere that you’re a wardrobe stylist to the stars? Is that true?

Yep.

How the heck did you get that job?

It was totally by chance. I was between jobs, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My friend who works in wardrobe called me up one day and asked me if I wanted to help her with this rock video. So I did, and it was really fun, and I guess I did a good job, because people kept hiring me back. It’s great. I work freelance, so I can disappear on tour whenever I feel like it. And the work is not hard.

Who is your favorite person that you dressed?

Um, probably Morrissey.

You dressed Morrissey?

Yeah, he’s the coolest dude. Usually I dress cheesy actors, but I actually was influenced by Morrissey, so I was really nervous. But he’s a really nice guy, with the driest sense of humor. He gave me the nickname “Eighties Legs.”

Eighties Legs?

Yeah, I was wearing skinny jeans and he mocked me for being retro. So now I’m Eighties Legs.

Would you rather be a vampire or a werewolf?

Vampire!

Why?

Vampires are awesome. You get to live for a billion years. You get to seduce chicks and eat them. Werewolves are all dirty and tangled. Although on the plus side, not a lot of people have silver bullets. You can get shot a ton of times and not die. More people have wooden stakes. But vampires are still so much cooler.

But you kill so many people.

It’s not your fault. You’re a vampire. You kill only for survival. It’s nature’s way. That’s why God made vampires. (laughs) Do you suppose you instantly get that Eastern European accent when you become a vampire? Because chicks love accents.

Yeah, the chicks that you would later eat.

That’s true. I’m still going on the record as choosing vampire.

Photos by the talented Travis Schneider

Want to read more about Army Navy? Check out the LAist interview from 2005.