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.

LIVE REVIEW: Altimate 4th of July Block Party, Grand Park L.A.

Phantogram ALT 98.7

It’s hard to improve upon the old Fourth of July celebration standbys: burgers, hotdogs and beer. But in an attempt to reinvigorate the celebration and to make downtown Los Angeles a more enjoyable place to gather for special events, Grand Park hosted nothing less than the ultimate block party, with live music and fireworks to boot. The two best parts about this gathering? First of all it was free; second, the city partnered with radio station ALT 98.7 to put on a killer show featuring some of alt rock’s most energetic acts out right now. Between the two stages, The Altimate Main Stage and the Soulnic Stage, 10 different artists performed in the heart of L.A. to celebrate America’s birthday.

Not being the DJ type of gal, I planted myself on the rail at the Altimate Main Stage in the stagnant 90 degree heat of downtown L.A. (the things I do in the name of music!). First on the bill was the winner of ALT 98.7’s Summer Song Contest, an L.A. based indie pop band appropriately named Freedom Fry. Singer Marie Seyrat donned a short, flowy lace dress and Janis Joplin shades, a very fitting outfit choice for the carefree California pop music that Freedom Fry creates. It’s not the type of music that hits you hard, but instead carries you along mellow wavelengths of co-ed vocal harmonies and beachy guitar vibes. With its catchy bass line, cowbell and elastic synth line,“Friends and Enemies” had just enough energy to get the whole event going. “Home,” an anthem that pays homage to life the Golden State, was another strength in their set and resonated with the locals in the crowd – if there is one thing I learned about Angelenos this weekend it is that they certainly have a lot of hometown pride. The tune hearkens to a longing for the state as a magnet for people seeking something a little closer to paradise, reminiscent of The Mamas and The Papas’ classic “California Dreamin’,” with its slow melancholic guitar strumming and subtly tragic lyrics. After only four songs, the band finished their set, leaving me in an enamored California-Proud state of mind, ready to celebrate Independence Day with more music.

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Echosmith Miro Sarkissian ALT 98.7
Echosmith. Photo by Miro Sarkissian for ALT 98.7.

With temperatures soaring, I was grateful to the mini-festival’s organizers for keeping things on schedule. Within fifteen minutes, Echosmith took the stage. They’ve had a bit of radio success in Southern Cali, though Altimate was my first introduction to their music, which apparently means that I live under a rock. Echosmith, comprised of four siblings, are a little bundle of energy best suited for tours such as Warped; in fact, they’re currently part of the roster but took a day off to play at this event. Their sound definitely appeals to a younger audience, as the crowd became a crush of young teens as soon as they took the stage. The band itself is very young, its oldest member only 21. Their alt-pop sound reminded me very much of Paramore – one of my own teenage favorites. Though less edgy than Paramore, singer Sydney Sierota is so much like Hayley Williams, vocally and performance-wise, that the comparison just has to be drawn. Her brother Noah, the band’s bassist, is the powerhouse behind the band; his energy alone is captivating but his playing really comes through in their live performance. Their sound has an 80’s dance appeal to it, made obvious by their cover of Modern English’s “Melt With You.” “Cool Kids,” their wildly popular high-school outcast anthem really got my attention. The song is fun and relatable no matter what age the listener. With their strong fan base and earnest talent, I’d say this band has some serious staying power so long as they continue to broaden their musical horizons.

Next up was the one band that felt like the odd band out. Brick + Mortar is a drum and bass duo from New Jersey bent on a political-esque agenda. I had listened to them before attending the event and liked what I heard; having bass at the forefront of their sound is a risky thing to do but combined with John Tacon’s heavy rock drumming, their sound is booming. Frontman Brandon Asraf’s vocals are very different and sound great on record, but at this event he sounded strained and was shrieking moreso than singing (he blamed “too much pizza” on his being out of shape). To give credit where credit is due, their energy was on point and they were the first band to get into the audience and instigate that crowd involvement. Throughout the performance, Brandon waved an overused cardboard sign that had “HEY!” spelled out in duct tape letters to get everyone’s attention (and maybe add a little DIY cred to their act). What made them the odd band out was their more political bent. Their lyrics center around societal flaws, and I am all for activism, but when you show up to a Fourth of July celebration, it feels slightly hypocritical to rant about America’s shortcomings and how shitty the country is politically. It’s like going to a person’s birthday party and being like “hey your life is an abomination and you kinda really suck” after you’ve eaten all their cake. Their semi-pointless digs left a bad taste in my mouth, especially as I stood there in a sea of red white and blue, and I could tell I was not alone when I kind of checked out from the rest of their performance.

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Phantogram Miro Sarkissian ALT 98.7
Phantogram. Photo by Miro Sarkissian for ALT 98.7.

Up next was Phantogram, the act I’d driven the four hours to L.A. to see. They took the stage at about 6:00 pm, just when it started to cool down. I’d seen Phantogram back in February before I really became a fan so this was a huge treat for me, as my crush on Sarah Barthel has increased exponentially since then. They opened with “Bad Dreams” from Voices, out earlier this year, which was a bit surprising since I’d expected them to kick things off with one of their massive radio hits like “Fall In Love.” As usual, the band gave 100% of their energy to this show, though their set was a bit too short for me. I’d wanted to hear “Celebrating Nothing” from their new album but with only six songs on their brief setlist, I was at least satisfied by their choices. Sarah rocked powerhouse vocals and stylish dance moves in stilettos, and Josh Carter’s  guitar tones were so rich with this performance, his distorted singing added a whole new layer of sound to Sarah’s angelic sound. They were the only band of the night to get the classic concert encore, as we all knew it would be nothing short of blasphemy to leave the stage without playing “Mouthful of Diamonds,” from 2009’s breakout LP Eyelid Movies. I almost thought they’d get away with it but the crowd chanted for that one more song and, damn it, we got it.

At this point in the day, I was feeling the effects of being in the pit for almost four hours with one water bottle, so I decided I’d watch the remaining two acts from a bit of a distance. By the time Wild Cub started playing, the park came alive. The event was expecting to bring in 25,000 people, but it felt more like a ghost town that downtown when I’d arrived at 1pm, as the closed down streets were sprinkled only with a few early birds. By this point in the early evening, though, it finally felt like the bustling center of the city I was used to; with the fireworks show imminent, Wild Cub really fed off the buzzy, excited Angeleno energy. Maybe from the pit I couldn’t properly gauge the crowd’s enthusiasm, but from afar it was easy to see that Wild Cub’s electric performance really brought everyone to life. The Nashville-based indie pop ensemble played the perfect soundtrack for the sun setting behind the Los Angeles Times building. Frontman Keegan Dewitt alternated between slamming his guitar and pounding the drum kit for an invigorating transition into the final act before the fireworks display.

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Semi Precious Weapons
Semi Precious Weapons. Photo by Miro Sarkissian for ALT 98.7.

Semi Precious Weapons was the most colorful band of the evening. I had never heard their music and wasn’t quite sure what to expect as Justin Tranter tread on stage, his lanky figure clad in an all white jumpsuit complete with double breasted jacket. Playing something between glam rock and dance music, the band’s sound seeps into your soul and just makes you want to dance. The instrumentation was very much present between Stevy Pyne’s classic rock sound on guitar and Cole Whittle’s enthusiasm on bass, while Justin Tranter exuded a David Bowie-esque stage presence with his sense of fashion and vogue-referencing movements. Quite the ringleader, Tranter’s cheeky attitude had all of downtown in the palm of his hand by the end of the show. When he shouted “Hands up, motherfuckers!” we threw those hands up; if he tells you to jump the gate, you jump the gate. Even when he tells you to shut it, we knew what to do.

The entire event was a huge success. The lineup featured a great variety of artists – from beachy California pop, to moody electronic rock, to the glam and fabulousness of SPW, there was something for everyone. The slew of performers offered a view into the variety and vivaciousness of alternative music, which is something that ALT 98.7 prides itself in as a radio station. The event even has potential to expand as the park has not reached completion. There was something very special about being in downtown L.A. for the Fourth of July; it was a little festival that very much represented the eclectic sounds and feelings of Los Angeles, and I hope Grand Park becomes a frequent venue for music artists of all genres to gather for years to come.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]