"After all that bullshit, after all that struggle, all the signs that were pointing to, ‘Give up’?’ I want to show it working."
If you ever saw letlive. live, you'll never forget the experience. And if you've ever heard their 2010 breakthrough album 'Fake History'? Chances are it changed you, or challenged you, or made you want to kick a hole in the nearest wall. Probably all three.
One of the most visceral, urgent and thought-provoking albums in alternative music's recent history, it's deservedly gone down as a classic. But not a second of it came easy.
A decade on from the album that kickstarted their journey, we caught up with vocalist and driving force Jason Aalon Butler to reflect on the making of the album, and letlive.'s complex, powerful journey in general.
How would you describe your mentality going into ‘Fake History’?
“The whole idea of letlive. was an evolved iteration of the punk band I had when I was in high school. I started letlive. at the end of high school, and we’d already released a bunch of stuff. Some people know that, but I do find it fascinating that ‘Fake History’ is seen as our first album. That’s the album that not only is seen as the first record, but… even when people had invested so deeply in it, the previous two didn’t get found out. I think it’s fascinating, and speaks to the weight that album holds for a lot of people. For us, we had been writing… I had been writing, personally, for seven years at that point. I had seven years of music for letlive. already. For ‘Fake History’, I had been writing for about three years, just trying new things and seeing what worked, what type of band we wanted to be. Because we knew that this would be seen as our first album. And with me being the only the only original member from the first two albums, I knew what that was.
“I wanted to establish this band as something open enough where, we could make hardcore punk music with a soul twist, or speak on socio-political elements, but also include the emotional facets of all of it. I guess it was quite a lofty goal, but I think we did alright when we eventually went in and did it. It took us three years of writing, but also experience. I was going through so much emotionally, I guess, learning so much about myself and the world around me. The whole spectrum was on there, emotionally, intellectually, ideologically. Because I didn’t know what I believed at the time, you know?”
Was there an element of you figuring yourself out through the medium of those songs?
“That’s kind of it. I couldn’t afford therapy, couldn’t afford to go, so I wrote those songs. And I don’t mean… I guess a lot of people would assume that therapy would mean that you would need to work through some trauma, though I don’t mean that necessarily. While there were elements of trauma that I discussed in the album, it was also a sense of therapy where, I was trying to navigate through my own mind, and the larger environment around me. Institutions, systems, family, culture: I really did work through a lot of that in writing ‘Fake History’. And simultaneously, I was experiencing a lot. So when I was writing, it was my reconciliation with a lot of my beliefs ideologically, as well as what I was truly experiencing at that moment.”
You’d had a lot of adversity to face as a band, too, from people leaving to the struggles of touring, and what you’d been going through personally. Did this record feel like a last chance, in some ways?
“Absolutely. I think relative to the continuity that is time, the beginning and end are the same thing. And for letlive., it was the end of me wondering if this was going to work, and the beginning of going, ‘I know that this is going to work. Even if it’s just me’. Because I was the only common denominator in the band at that point, it was both a beginning and an end. When we got together… what a lot of people don’t know is, when we were making that album, we had a member leave literally as we were leaving to go record. As we were leaving Los Angeles and going out to North Carolina, he decided that it wasn’t for him. And so again, even in writing that album, we had to find someone else during recording! We were trying out the original letlive. bass player on guitar during that process. It was constant beginnings and ends at once, a continuous loop. With that album I realised that, this was what it was going to be, and that it would continue. For me it was the most holistic representation of the band, sonically and ideologically. It was the beginning of me really being able to show people what I thought letlive. was, what it was supposed to be, what I wanted it to be.”
There’s a real combination of personal and socio-political commentary going on with the album, something that’s really resonated with people in the years since...
“Yeah, the whole thing was just, me trying to explain to people what I thought. How I saw things, without being didactic or pedantic. I didn’t want to tell people what I was, I was just trying to explain what I thought, how I saw things and how I felt in a way that I believed to be open to people joining me. I wanted people to join me in learning about systems in politics, or moments in time where there was a relationship and I felt represented the larger idea of what it meant to be in a relationship. Which was, I guess, ill-fated in a lot of ways. But I was also understanding that there was a huge worth in that. Writing these songs, it was really all I had at the time. I was going through so much, as a young man trying to figure out love and life and my position, and really grappling with my identity in this scene, being a young person of colour in a scene where there weren’t many of us at all, and trying to honour my version of punk and hardcore and metal, with this hip-hop laden, R&B influenced music. I was explaining myself, while also trying to talk about more than myself.”
When it comes to the recording process, what are the strongest memories that stick out to you from that time, when you look back? It felt like this bolt of lightning in a scene that could feel pretty predictable and sterile at times...
“Yeah, that whole experience was something else. We’d lost a member, so were trying out someone while we were there, and we also brought along my best friend, who ended up becoming our tour manager. Everything in the recording process was so unusual, because we were so unusual! We were already so accustomed to having to work out an alternative or operate laterally, that it almost felt, like, natural or necessary. I remember being in the studio and people being like, ‘Whoa, this thing is happening to you guys?’ and we’d just be like, ‘Yeah. This is what it means to be in a band, isn’t it?’ We’d just been signed to Tragic Hero at the time, and were hearing all these stories of bands being in full studios and living in hotels! And we were like, ‘Oh no, that’s not this. That’s not who we are! And that’s okay’. I think a lot of our experience as a band really did fuel and shape the music we played. Despite anything we may have experienced between us personally, when we were being a band, at any given point? We were really good at it. I can’t deny that. Later on, maybe artistically or ideologically things became disparate, we had divergences in what we wanted or saw the band being, but when we were doing the band thing, we were really good at it. Every one of us was so committed. In that studio, man, it was so free.
We were working with my buddy KIT Walters, who I’m still writing music with today. And he produced that album in his basement, in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was sleeping on his pull-out couch in the vocal room, which was the same room as the tracking room, with no vocal booth at all. Everything was so insular, we were surrounded by the music and by each other, and I think that visceral feeling, that tangible feeling of whatever ‘Fake History’ was for people? It was because of that. We were steeped in ‘Fake History’ before we did it, and very much when we were recording. It was complete immersion. I don’t even think I’d written the title for the album at that point, but I remember knowing that it was going to mean so much to us, that it would have to mean something to someone. It would have to assimilate in some way into someone else’s life. Whether that’s one person or thousands of people, I was like, ‘This will have to mean something to someone, because we’ve given so much to it’.”
How did you find the early touring on that record? Looking back, it’s easy to forget how it was kind of a slow burn at first, in terms of who people responded, up to the Epitaph reissue…
“Dude, it took forever! I started touring when I was like 18, with letlive. and other bands, and this album came out when I was 24. We were doing so much. ‘Fake History’ came out in April 2010, and we started touring immediately. Literally. The day that we finished recording, I flew in, slept for about two hours, and then started a DIY tour with I Am The Ocean. No lie! It was the running theme for letlive.. I think, honestly, and I’m not trying to take away from any other artist, but it felt like at the time we were the only band touring the way we did. There was a year where we were on the road for nearly 10 months of that year, we were never home. We were literally using rocks as ratchet straps and leaf springs on our trailer, which is so dangerous! We got in crashes, we got in fights, some of us got put in jail. We experienced so much through those moments. And you would think, right, that we could go, ‘Yeah man, we did all that and then when the album was re-released, it all changed’. And… it did not happen that way. We were still broke three years after that, still touring in these makeshift ways. We didn’t even set foot into a bus until years later, on Warped Tour, and even then we were sharing the cheapest bus you could get. For whatever reason, we just weren’t that band. We weren’t the band with the crazy success story, who were in buses and could all pay our rent. That concentrated group of people who loved letlive.? Their idea of us was so much bigger than what we were.
"In the beginning I lost every relationship I was in, straight up. Everything was just thrown away, because I was so committed to never being home. Family, friends, ailments… I was sick like 70 per cent of the time being in the band, and I couldn’t afford to get better! And I wrote about that, you know. So I was constantly sick. All of that, and on top of that we were so broke, so tired, but so in love with this music and how we were doing it, why we were doing it. It felt like it became commonplace to just get through it, but dude. I know that I was never like, ‘I want what those other bands have’. It was like, ‘This is what I have, this is what I am supposed to do’. We had what we had, because we got what we earned, and if we wanted more, we had to try harder. And we were always trying so fucking hard! I would come home and couldn’t pay rent, so I would have to move into a friends’ living room or sleep on couches, as a grown ass man. I had loved and lost, had bills and family that I needed to be helping out. It was gnarly, and this was all the way up to… fuck, on ‘The Blackest Beautiful’ I was still living in someone’s spare room for $200 a month.”
How did you process the contrast between that pretty brutal reality and the way that fans and a lot of the rock press - and in no way without reason - were continually going, ‘This band are fucking incredible, you have to see them live and be part of this special thing’? Of being something of an icon to people?
“100 percent, it was insane. And here’s the thing: I was so, so lucky to experience that juxtaposed life. So lucky. Because it made me, so quickly, eradicate my own ego. Because originally you’d go, ‘Whoa, we’re on the cover of this magazine, we’re being touted as this huge band that everyone needs to see’, but there was no monetary or fame game aspect of it. And that was really great, I’m so thankful for being hit with such a large dose of reality. In our scene or subgenre? Especially at the time, it was still very much a subgenre, a minority genre. We weren’t rock, and we weren’t hip-hop. For that matter, we weren’t even metalcore or fucking whatever was popular at the time. We were like a subgenre of a subgenre. An alternative to a subgenre! So when we were experiencing what we were experiencing, that struggle, at the same time as people were saying these things, I think it really humbled us.
"No matter what anyone said, we knew what this really was, and that we couldn’t rest on the laurels of speech or the accolades that people wanted to deliver us, because it didn’t pay our fucking bills! Me being the number one rock star in the world didn’t pay my light bill! And I think there was a real, beautiful worth in that, because I lived my life - and still do to this day - going, ‘You can say what you like about me, good or bad, but I know who I am’. I might have been part of a project that was seminal or changed the face of post-hardcore, but I also knew that I had to go get a job outside of the band to pay for my life when I went home. Now, especially with the project I’m in now [FEVER 333], people also call me a hyper-liberal fool who’s bought into a plot designed to overthrow the white contingent of America, but I know what I am, and I’m not that! Either way, I couldn’t be more thankful for the lessons I learned through that paradoxical moment that was letlive. Most of the time, the way people saw letlive., it was really beautiful.”
“I think people bought so deeply into the idea of letlive. that they thought, ‘There’s no way this band is struggling. I buy all of their merch, I go to all of their shows near me, I got tattoos of this band on my hand, my neck’. And we didn’t give a fuck about the money either, we really didn’t. Up until the end, where we were trying to be grown-ups. Every investment we made, in our minds, was for the people, and these people gave us so much more than our guarantee at a fucking show. letlive. was so much more than anything like that. What we got from our family and friends who really believed in and lived and loved letlive.? Dude, I couldn’t even sum up the worth that we received from those people. So even though I’m sitting here talking about the paradox between such a large, cult-like investment and the results financially and in terms of our health, where and how we were living offstage? It still isn’t enough to take away from how much people gave to us, and how much that was worth. It was so big, so brave, so beautiful.”
It’s probably impossible to sum up a time as complex and momentous as the ‘Fake History’ chapter of your life, but looking back on it all, are there any moments, like polaroids, that have come to stand for that time for you, for what it felt like to live through it?
“I can tell you this. I grew up in Inglewood, and we put on our own shows, because we couldn’t get to where most of the other punk and hardcore shows around us were. We did our own thing, had our own weird bands, and I also think that’s why letlive. was such an aberrant outfit amongst all the other ones around us, in that way. I remember before ‘Fake History’, we used to go to this venue called Chain Reaction, and that was like the Holy Grail. For probably any band who have toured America and gotten to the West Coast, they’ll know what you’re talking about when you say Chain Reaction. We’d go to shows there every fucking weekend. So when I finally got a call, after I’d finally left Inglewood, and put out ‘Fake History’? Putting that out, I remember going, ‘We’re gonna play Chain, it’s gonna be incredible and I’m finally gonna get what I want from this music, which is to sell out this venue’.
"It was after the re-release when we played Chain. It was sold out, and I remember really feeling the first full venue singalong to my band. That moment, in 2011, was so big, so important, and it was at the beginning of our tour. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, this is real. This is everything I saw as a child, and I’m now on the stage that I was looking up to back then, as a young person, a young artist and dreamer. It was like, ‘Okay, I’ve validated this era of my creative journey’. People had learned all the words to our songs, and spent money to come see us, filled that venue. I’ll never forget that moment, the most vivid Polaroid of that era for me. Hearing that room sing these lyrics that I had written about being upset and confused, and at the same time, hopeful. I was really feeling, for the first time as my life as a performer, that there is a universal language and a frequency that we can all radio in on, if only for 45 minutes in a venue. That was the catalyst, the jumping off point for ‘Fake History’.
There’s another series of really gnarly Polaroids that I love and keep in my head in a different way, to this day… but that’s the nice one, the happy and hopeful one! If there are other artists out there reading this... After all that bullshit, after all that struggle, all the signs that were pointing to, ‘Give up’?’ I want to show it working. Because I believe that there’s a worth in that struggle, always. It just depends on how it manifests itself, and how you position it. We positioned it as part of our journey towards winning - or what we saw as winning!”
letlive.'s 10 years of 'Fake History' merch and vinyl bundles are available here.