Words: Laura Weingrill
They wear knit sweaters, colourful pants and look like nerds with a slight hint of grandfather, but as soon as the voice of Josh Taylor fills the room, bassist J Tyler Johnson gets going and Brett Kramer hits the drums, one quickly realises that behind the inconspicuous wallflowers, there is a lot more to discover. Under the name half•alive, the indie group is currently stealing the hearts of all music lovers by storm. Laura Weingrill met up with the trio from California before their sold-out show at London’s Electric Brixton to talk about the stories behind their songs, staying true to themselves despite their fame and why they might actually be the most aesthetic band of the current times.
Back when you started off as a band, did you think you would end up where you are now?
J Tyler: When I joined the band, I had the feeling that it was going to do really well. I had this kind of weird feeling in my stomach, although I didn’t really know what it meant. So yes. But not in a prideful way. I just had this gut feeling about this.
Brett: I believed in the project, truly. If you would have asked me back then: “Do you think you’re going to play at Lollapalooza in front of a ton of people?”, I wouldn’t have said yes. But I believed in the project and felt that what we had was different and unique and stood out.
How would you describe your band to someone who didn’t know you?
Josh: I would say that at surface level, we play fun, groovy, thoughtful, move your body-kind of music that features a surprising amount of dance. At a deeper level, I’d say we are very intensional with our art in every way. The people who enjoy half•alive can dive as deep as they want into the music, movement, philosophy, lyrics and visuals, and hopefully never find the bottom, but rather be fully immersed in the universe that the band is creating.
What’s the story behind your band’s name?
Josh: The name is based on something I learned in film class when we were studying narrative and looking at different psychology theories, which had this similar storyline of humanity being split into two parts. The soul being pulled into life and being pulled into death simultaneously, ending in a state of being half alive. That really spoke to what I felt and what other people felt as well. Even biblically, it’s described as the spirit versus the flesh. Your feet are grounded into the dirt and your head is lifted into the heavens and you feel that tension between the physical and the spiritual. Our goal as half•alive and through the songs (and especially, this album) is to speak into that tension and provide hope and a way into a life that is the fullest.
Does that connect to the overall theme of your album as well?
Josh: Yeah, that’s where Now, Not Yet comes from.
Brett: We have a list of song themes we want to write through at some time. Some made it onto the album, some we haven’t worked on yet. But they are always in this place of exploring the tension of life and the human experience and how they fit within the concept of half•alive.
In a way, the album sounds very experimental but still cohesive – how did you end up with this certain mix?
Josh: I think in a large way it’s just through us being part of this generation. A playlist generation. It has a hip hop song next to a folk song and that’s perfectly normal. And we all listen to so many different things, which is why the album ended up being such a collective of different genres and sounds. The idea of an album sticking within one genre just wasn’t fitting what we were doing.
Incorporating dance into your videos and live shows has become your trademark – how did you get the idea for that?
Josh: It happened because I knew J’s brother, Jordan, who is now part of JA Collective, our choreographers. He worked with me on some moves for the ‘Aawake At Night’ music video and then I found that the ten percent of dancing in that video was my favourite part. So we decided to do our whole next video based on the concept of dance. That’s how ‘Still Feel’ got birthed. that seemed to resonate with people, so the Collective has been following us ever since.
So aesthetics and visuals mean a lot to you as a band?
J Tyler: We try to grab some visuals from our videos and bring them to our live shows, our posters and merch. If it all makes sense, people can look at it and find a few more connections to it.
Brett: Technology has been improving as well, so you can do multifaceted works and continue to put your message deeper not just through a song, but also through the music video and the concert and colours. It’s easier than ever for our generation.
Your video for ‘Still Feel’ currently has over 29 million views on YouTube. How do you cope with all the attention?
Josh: I don’t. That’s the answer.
J Tyler: I think the more we release other videos and find that they don’t do as well, the better we understand that number to a degree. There are other things right now that we are more passionate about, although that was an amazing moment for what it was and still is. But in itself, it’s just wild.
Brett: I think for me just taking breaks and being able to think about things because that video did change our lives, one way or another. We went from a certain place to now visiting London three times in a year and playing two almost sold-out tours. Having space to process all of this helps.
What does music mean to you, personally?
Brett: Music for me is just something that I have chosen that I want to put my whole life into. That’s such a beautiful thing, to have the opportunity to be able to put my whole heart into creativity and music and to do that for the rest of my life. That has been my anchor on this path and what keeps me truest to myself.
Josh: To me it feels like an expression of worship. I think everyone worships something, whether it be money or power or sex or God. I hope that through the music that I create I can ultimately lead people into intimacy with God. That would be awesome.
J Tyler: I think music is the thing that makes the most sense. It’s a place and a platform to share a greater message. In the past, it was this thing that I wanted and reached out for, but once I got there, I realised it wasn’t everything. Once I disassociated it from being my life, it has been a really great partner.
Is it easy for you to stay true to yourself despite all the pressure and your current success?
Brett: It’s definitely all the things that really matter and that are important were already the foundations of our art from the beginning. Those things are sometimes the most simple and we try to hold on to them as we go forward, to not lose them as we gain other things. So keeping the seeds of our creativity as pure and honest as they were at the beginning is what keeps me grounded and the others as well.
Josh: There’s this quote that comes to my mind of some billionaire who said that when people asked him what it was like to be at the top, he replied: “Once you get to the top, you realise there’s nothing there.” People think that there’s this arrival moment, but there isn’t ever one. Those things often lose their value very quickly. So for us it’s going back to the beginnings and trying to be a person of love, to embody love. That’s the goal, always.