Aaron Lee Tasjan Talks Most Personal LP to Date, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!

Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

Aaron Lee Tasjan can still remember watching MTV for the first time while on summer vacation with his family, introduced to the music network by the local high school student his parents hired to babysit him and his sister. “There were two videos that really got me,” he professes. One was Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” which captured his attention with its acoustic riffs, the other being The Black Crowes’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” After watching those videos, Tasjan says, “everything in the house became a guitar.” Tasjan happened to find a guitar pick on the floor left behind by a previous guest, which he took as a sign. “I treasured that guitar pick,” he says with emphasis. “I was just so fascinated with it.”

Fate would intervene again four years later when Tasjan’s family relocated to Southern California. A young Tasjan was at Vons grocery store with his mother when he spotted a small guitar shop next door offering lessons (the first was free, a sign announced). The aspiring musician convinced his mother to let him take a lesson, furthering his passion for the instrument.

The family later moved to Ohio; at the age of 16, Tasjan was invited to sing a folk song he wrote about peace at his school’s Columbine remembrance day event. The song led Tasjan to a life-changing opportunity to perform at a safe school conference in Ohio hosted by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary). Yarrow was so moved by Tasjan’s song that he invited Tasjan onstage to sing the Grammy-winning trio’s hit cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That same year, Tasjan flew to New York with the Columbus Youth Jazz program and won the outstanding guitarist award at the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. 

Each of these moments represent a seed planted in the music connoisseur, who’s since flourished into a genre-blending artist with his infusion of psychedelic-rock-meets-interstellar-pop. “My sound is informed mostly by what moves me. I never really thought of music in terms of genre,” he explains. “I have been touching all these different styles of music since I was a kid. It was just that way for me and always has been. All of these things are intentional and they’re done with purpose, and I think that’s why I seem to be able to do different styles of things that still connect with people.”

That’s evident on Tasjan’s brilliant – and most personal to date – solo album Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, out February 5 via New West Records. Introduced with a three-part video series that positions Tasjan as an alien lifeform kept awake by rock ‘n’ roll transmissions in “Up All Night,” searches the universe to fulfill his musical destiny on “Computer Love,” and takes stock of his journey, ultimately beaming his own unique sound into the cosmos with “Don’t Overthink It,” the record is a culmination of both Tasjan’s journey and his retro sensibilities.

Tasjan began honing his sound in earnest after ditching a scholarship at Berklee College of Music and moving to New York at the age of 20, where he met future pop hit songwriter Justin Tranter. The two formed Semi Precious Weapons, alongside Cole Whittle and Dan Crean, in late 2008. In large part to his connection to Tranter, Tasjan became immersed in queer culture, disclosing that he knew at an early age he was queer, yet wasn’t self-aware enough to understand it at the time. “I just knew that I seemed to be attracted to all different kinds of people and I didn’t know what that meant,” Tasjan remarks of having romantic experiences with men and women while in high school. “I never really defined that or thought of that as ‘I need to figure this out’ or anything like that. It was something that felt natural to me, to be able to fall in love with people that captured me in some way.”

Tranter was instrumental in helping to broaden Tasjan’s horizon when it came to queer culture; he’d watch in awe as Tranter orchestrated photo shoots while indie designers Tommy Cole and Roy Caires of fashion brand Alter (formerly known as This Old Thing?) designed the outfits the band wore on stage. The two also attended several drag shows together, Tasjan marveling at the art of performance – and later referencing his relationship with one of the queens in “Up All Night.” “They weren’t just doing this performance, they were living this performance. It gave you a whole new sense of what it meant to really be authentic within the context of whatever it is you’re trying to present in art, but to really come at it with intention and a desire to be seen,” he observes, adding that Tranter pulled inspiration from drag shows into the band’s live shows.

Tranter and Tasjan also experienced the discriminatory side of being openly queer. Tasjan recalls how Tranter would be chased down the street after coming out of a club in certain pars of town, and recounts a frightening experience when the two were chased by a man in his car. “That was not an uncommon part of [Tranter’s] life. Because I was his partner musically and we had this band together, those moments just broke your heart, largely in a way because they felt too common,” Tasjan reflects, adding that he’s been met with a fair share of disapproving looks that were “always interesting.”

In the fertile Lower East Side club scene, they met rising burlesque performer Stefani Germanotta, sharing bills in small LES venues with her as she developed her electronic pop persona Lady Gaga; Semi Precious Weapons would go on to open as special guests for lengthy stretches of her Monster Ball Tour, once her first singles catapulted her to fame. But by then, Tasjan had left Semi Precious Weapons to perform as the lead guitarist for New York Dolls, and formed his own band, The Madison Square Gardeners, before eventually moving to Nashville in 2013.

Staying true to his identity is embedded in Tasjan’s DNA, exemplified by the autobiographical single “Feminine Walk.” Describing the song as “the naked truth,” the song comes halfway through Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, which the artist says he recorded some 22 songs for, filtered down to 11 that “happened to be the ones where I was really singing about me,” he notes, adding that the subject matter of “Feminine Walk” “doesn’t leave room for guessing” in terms of its subject matter. Tasjan candidly sings, “I get one look, two look, three look, four, every time I’m at the bathroom door,” and though the track is ultimately celebratory in feel, he admits the song served as a “good opportunity to use my creativity to challenge my fear beliefs,” he says. “Everything kind of fell out because it was always there. It was like it was just waiting to happen the right way.”

Tasjan entered the writing process with a vivid childhood memory of walking down the street with his dad when he was no older than eight, donning a ’70s style bowl cut and an “androgynous” look that prompted an older child to stop the father-son pair and ask “is that a boy or a girl?” while pointing at the young Tasjan. He recalls another experience in a Denver airport as an adult, standing at the sink in the men’s bathroom washing his hands wearing jeans, a pea coat and hat when another man walked in and saw him, immediately walking out with a spooked look on his face. Moments later, he returned, laughing and saying that he initially thought he walked into the wrong bathroom. Tasjan laughs himself as he recites the memories, void of any animosity or bitterness. “My sense is more that they’re intrigued by it, and that’s what’s angering them more so than who I’m being,” Tasjan points out, using the song to investigate the curiosity of how people carry themselves and the impression it makes on others.

“I thought about that in my life and how some people have these qualities that seem to capture others in all sorts of different ways, but for some reason, people are captured by the way that somebody looks sometimes whether it’s for a good reason or a bad reason,” he muses. “I just happen to be one of those people. Everybody at some point in time has felt insecure about the way in which they’re perceived – we’ve all had an experience like that.”

“I like songs that I feel like are a part of the cannon, a part of the conversation of music that’s been happening for a long time. That song to me felt like it could be a part of that because I wasn’t sure that I had heard a song before where I had heard somebody say it quite like that. So that made me feel like ‘this is a good road to go down with this one,’” he adds. 

“Feminine Walk” allows Tasjan to explore the differences in perception that often translate into vulnerability – and that exploration doesn’t end with those anecdotes. Tasjan shares another distinct memory from his youth when he proudly invited his classmates on the playground to gather around as he attempted to do his impression of Michael Jackson’s famous moonwalk, feeling a sense of accomplishment when his peers asked him to do it again, only to realize they were actually making fun of him. It’s a moment that Tasjan says draws a parallel to his life as a performer, inviting people in to explore and immerse themselves in his wonderment – wholly accepting the genuine reactions from each individual.

“People’s perception of everything is going to be colored by their own experience, so you put yourself out there knowing that. It’s not really yours to create the experience for someone else – you have to allow them to have that experience on their own, which means it’s going to take on a different meaning than whatever it was that you intended, and I think you just have to be cool with that,” he observes.

“I seek out these moments purposely. There’s something about testing how far is too far, how much is too much. Something about that does inspire me creatively, or makes me feel like I’m pushing myself into a place that I haven’t been yet,” he says. “That’s my goal to do that on every record.”

Follow Aaron Lee Tasjan on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Wild Moccasins “Boyish Wave” Video

Wild Moccasins press photo by Arturo Olmos.

In the midst of a tour supporting their sophomore breakout album 88 92, Houston indie band Wild Moccasins were breaking up. Founding members Zahira Gutierrez and Cody Swann had been romantically involved for nearly a decade at that point, and as the band’s lineup expanded and contracted, amassing fans along the way, they remained its constant core, despite the personal turmoil between them. It all became fodder for their 2018 LP on New West Records, Look Together, centered on the deterioration of their relationship and their determination to keep moving forward for the sake of the music.

That narrative, of course, made its way in to everything written about the project. But just over a year later, the band has returned with a fresh perspective on what they’ve been through, where they’re going next, and a new video for the LP’s lead single “Boyish Wave.” Referencing French New Wave films of the ’60s – or, more specifically, their trailers – like Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and Breathless, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, and the love triangle in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim – the visual pokes fun at the drama that nearly destroyed them and officially caps off the album cycle as the band gears up for the next big thing.

“If you watch the trailers for all these films, they’re very dramatic, and they’re telling you what the film is about, but they’re also extremely ambiguous,” Gutierrez explains when we talk over the phone. “You’re just getting the best lines, seeing the most dramatic parts of whatever relationship is going on in the film.” This particular clip sees Gutierrez caught in a love triangle with Swann and Wild Moccasins drummer Avery Davis, following them through surreal scenes, subtitles and all. Seemingly taken out of context, the video is a trailer for a movie (or a relationship) that will never exist. “All of the most dramatic things you could say to to each other or do with each other when you’re going through a relationship are just kind of condensed into this like fake trailer,” Gutierrez says.

There’s no concrete timeline, narrative, or reality, which Swann says adds to the feeling of conflict. “But one thing we were trying to touch on,” he adds, “Is that when dating, you end up going to a lot of the same places with different people – your favorite restaurant, favorite place, favorite park. And a lot of times we live these mirrored moments, but we wanted to touch on the very positive aspect of how even something so familiar can be made completely new when you’re with the person you want to be with.”

The band plotted the “Boyish Wave” video shot for shot while on tour behind Look Together, releasing self-directed videos for “No Muse,” “Doe-Eyed Dancer,” and “Longtime Listener” with the same production team in the meantime. Swann says the band narrowed down the list of potential shots from around a hundred to about sixty, and that though it was extensively planned, they couldn’t account for all the “happy accidents.”

“A lot of that goes out the window whenever a shot doesn’t work out the way we thought it would, or sometimes a throwaway becomes the thing that everything hinges on,” Swann says. A perfect example is the still that became the video’s screen cap: Gutierrez points a prop gun at Swann from the opposite side of a picture frame he’s holding – Swann says he found the frame on the side of the road the day before the video shoot. It had such surprising visual impact, he says, “we had to arrange around it afterwards.”

The band remained heavily involved as the rest of the video came together. “Most cinematographers will not let you sit in through the editing process but we actually sat through the editing process from beginning to end and looked at every single scene and shot that we filmed and placed them carefully,” Gutierrez remembers. The subtitles were pulled from a notebook Swann has kept for nearly fifteen years, writing down quotes from his friends – and from Guitierrez, too.

“Most of the lines that are featured as dialogue are things that Zahira said maybe ten years ago, and she’s like, ‘I remember saying that!’ and I’m like, ‘Well it’s been sitting in my notepad for ten years,'” Swann chuckles.

Meanwhile, more than a year after putting out “Boyish Wave” as a single, the song itself has taken on new meanings, as both Swann and Gutierrez explored new relationships (and watched those end as well, due to the band’s relentless touring schedule). “We’ve all been through it together as a band,” Gutierrez says. “[On tour], you’re essentially living with the same people for a year and a half. There will be some sort of drama. The way I feel now looking back, everything needed to happen the way that it has happened for us to move on to the next step. As a band, I think our main goal is when we do something new we want it to be different, get out of our comfort zone. There were a lot of emotional moments but it all needed to happen for us to end up here.” She adds, “with the video, I don’t think the script could have been made when the song came out a year ago. Certain things had to happen – we had to go through things as people, as a band – for it to come out the way that it did.”

Swann says that growth as a band gave them the confidence they needed “to do something as scary as the next step.” Rather than participate in another grueling tour, both agree they’d like to “act with more of a sense of urgency” as Swann puts it. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned through the process of making these albums, it’s that the amount of time that goes into making one always keeps you away from entertaining. And you don’t get to make an album when you’re out touring. And we’d like to do both a little more often.”

“We are trying to figure out a balance. This last record, we went through a very intense studio/writing process and a very intense touring process,” Gutierrez says, adding that the band is always writing, but is leaning toward stand-alone releases, rather than a full album, in this transitional phase.

Evidently, the turmoil has only made the friendships within the band stronger – the fire to the fuel Wild Moccasins need as they begin their next chapter. “Though there’s always something new, there’s always something that we’re moving on to, it’s been really an absolute pleasure to get to grow with Zahira through all of it, through each step,” Swann confesses. “That’s something I don’t take for granted – that friendship that started with us as kids in a band and got us where we are now.”

Look Together is available on all streaming platforms. Follow Wild Moccasins on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for ongoing updates.