In the Studio: The Submarines

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The Submarines: John Dragonetti, Blake Hazard
WRITTEN BY
William Goodman

Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti, the married couple behind Los Angeles indie-pop outfit the Submarines, built a music career 21st-century style: with song placements in TV shows, commercials, and movies.

The Submarines broke out in 2008 thanks to a lucrative iPhone ad campaign, featuring two songs from their excellent third album Honeysuckle Weeks: "Submarine Symphonika" and "You, Me and the Bourgeoisie," a pop ditty with xylophone and Hazard's memorable coo that soundtracked Apple's TV spots for over a year and a half. A flurry of other placements followed: Nip/Tuck, Weeds, Gossip Girl, Nick and Norah's Playlist. It was hard not to hear their music.

Now they're putting the finishing touches on their yet-to-be-titled third album, out this fall. Speaking to SPIN.com from their Eagle Rock, CA, home, the duo dished about the album, Blake's relation to The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the difficulties writing, recording, and touring with your spouse.

How's the new album coming along?
John: Great... I think. We're feeling pretty good about it! We just finished mixing six songs with [Grammy nominated producer] John O'Mahony (Coldplay, Metric) so the light is at the end of the tunnel. We're planning on 10 songs for the album. We write and record as we're going, so we don't necessarily have 10 or 15 songs that we record all at once, then see which make the cut.

Where have you been recording?
John: We started the tracks at the home studio then, a few months back, I went down to Austin, TX, to [Spoon drummer-producer] Jim Eno's studio for about a week. Jim ended up playing drums on some songs and helped with arrangements on four or five tracks. He's an awesome guy, but he got busy with Spoon, so we came back to L.A. and have been mixing with John at Sunset Sound Factory.
Blake: It's a legendary little spot and we were across the hall from Belle & Sebastian the whole time. It was a really nice vibe with their little dog running around.

What sounds can fans expect from this album?
Blake: Jim's playing brought a lot of energy to the tracks, whereas before most of the drums had been programmed. So there's a lot of live energy. But I don't think anyone's going to run screaming, "Who is this band I thought I knew? They've changed."

Do you have any pastimes in the studio?
Blake: I bring a lot of magazines, because when John is programming and getting into stuff, I only listen every five minutes. So I'll be reading Sports Illustrated or Tape Op, because of what's just lying around in the studio, and I'm also a super geek for Runner's World.
John: Really sexy stuff.
Blake: Anything that keeps us connected to the outside world, especially when we're in the writing phase. It's easy to feel like you're in a little cocoon. This sounds ridiculous, but even just simple colors have that stimulation that I find really helpful. We're really lucky to have our studio outside in a garden basically, so anytime we're frustrated we can just walk outside, hear the birds, lie on the grass, and stare up at the sky. Instantly it's like, "Ah... thank god."

Does the album have a title?
Blake: No. Long ago we abandoned this title that we still love called Hand Claps and Bitch Slaps. But we don't think we could get away with it.
John: We could totally get away with it. We should use it!
Blake: It would be very post-feminist or something.
John: It's a working title. It just sounds hilarious. A lot of the songs on this record have a lot super spring-reverb hand claps. But I don't know about the bitch slap part.
Blake: That's the part that's a little, you know... awkward politically. But we learned that a couple hip-hop producers have been using sounds that came from slapping different parts of the body.
John: You can get a great clap sound from slapping your ass.

You two have documented the ups and downs of your relationship in song, and now you're presumably happily married.
Blake: Hahaha. It's true, it's true.
John: We still write about love and heartbreak. It's amazing how you can tap into the dark side, even if you have to use your imagination a little more.
Blake: In any relationship you're lucky if you have a few days without some kind of conflict or turmoil. All those ups and downs are ever-present.
John: Even if we weren't a couple, you'd just be writing songs about what you know anyway.

Do you feel like writing and touring together puts a strain on your relationship?
Blake: Yeah, it's a terrible idea. We'd never recommend it to any other couple. It totally puts your relationship in peril. It's a really dangerous thing to do.
John: But it's also amazing. But it's true -- it's trying at times.
Blake: We try to find ways to do things that keep us sane. Like John went down and worked with Jim on the record, and I went to Paris for a month to do some writing. We find ways to just kind of...
John: Get away from each other!
Blake: No! Keep our sanity.

Blake, did you do much writing in Paris?
Blake: I didn't, which would have been a disappointment except that when I returned there was a good spell of writing, so it felt worth it. It was good for us to have that time apart. There are some songs on the album that came out of being apart at that time.
John: And all the singing is in French.
Blake: [Sighs] There aren't any songs in French.

Tell me about a few tracks on the album.
John: We have a song called "Tigers," which we're really excited about...
Blake: They all seem to have animal names.
John: Yeah, there's "Tigers" and "Birds"...
Blake: And "Elephant"! But that's a working title.

What's with the animal theme?
Blake: No idea. It wasn't intentional at all.
John: On "Elephant" there's a guitar sound that we processed and it ended up sounding like an elephant. "Birds" is about the birds out here, which are really loud sometimes. One day I recorded the birds and added them to a demo for a song. We kept those sounds, so we decided to call that "Birds."
Blake: We have an avian cacophony all the time. You'll wake up at night and hear this riot of birds squawking.

Blake, I hear you're the great granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, true?
Blake: Yes, that's true. My mom's mother's parents were Scott and Zelda.
John: I can vouch.
Blake: When I was younger my mom didn't really talk about it. My brothers and I were exposed to his writing in the same way any other American kid growing up would be. But a lot more has come out recently. My mom has written a couple of books, or edited a couple of books about Scott and Zelda, for example their love letters. I do feel like I was raised in a family that was really supportive of creative endeavors. But otherwise I don't know that I've felt a direct influence in my own work necessarily.

Submarines' music has been featured on TV and movies, from iPhone ads to an episode of NipTuck to Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist.
Blake: We were really happy to have our music in Nick and Norah because we really admired director Peter Sollett's work. Raising Victor Vargas is such an amazing movie. The other things came to us with no warning, like the Apple spots. The music supervisors at Media Arts Lab, the creative agency for Apple, approached us blindly -- that was a happy surprise.
John: There wasn't a chance we were going to say no to the Apple ad. But it's something you question.
Blake: I feel differently about licensing music than I do about composing original music for an ad. The artistic integrity is there with the tracks that you've written and recorded for an album. But we've also done some jingle work, which makes sense in the context of working musicians.
John: I find it more comfortable to write a piece of music for something because then that's what it is -- a commercial. When someone wants to license a song off your record, or use a song in some stupid part of a TV show, it's like, "Wait, this is weird, it's taking the song out of context.' That's when you can say no.
Blake: Um, [disagreeing pause] okay.


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