Q&A with Minneapolis-Native A/J Jackson of Saint Motel

With an upcoming concert at First Avenue (Feb. 29), A/J Jackson talked with us about songwriting and the mystery of music
The members of Saint Motel: Aaron Sharp, Greg Erwin, A/J Jackson, and Dak Lerdamornpong. Photo by Catie Laffoon
The members of Saint Motel (left to right): Dak Lerdamornpong, Greg Erwin, A/J Jackson, and Aaron Sharp

Catie Laffoon

Long before A/J Jackson replaced the periods in his initials with a slash and long, long before he created the first VR album with his band Saint Motel (Saintmotelevision, 2016), he was a six-year-old in Minneapolis, hiding from his piano teacher. It’s not that he didn’t like music. He did. He just liked writing his own. While he moved out to California to study film in 2007, on February 29, he’s returning to his hometown with the rest of his band—Aaron Sharp (lead guitar), Dak Lerdamornpong (bass), and Greg Erwin (drums)—and headlining First Avenue.

If you don’t think you know Saint Motel, queue up their 2013 breakout single “My Type” and see if you recognize the sax riff. You might have heard it on radio stations like the Current or Cities 97; if you went to see Panic! at the Disco during their Death of a Bachelor tour, you would’ve heard it since Saint Motel opened for them. The bop was certified platinum in Italy and Canada, and in the U.S., it rose to No. 5 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs. Combined with their other hits (“Move” in 2016 and now late 2019’s “Van Horn”), their largest successes tend to blend British pop, alternative, and vacation vibes into dance tracks. However, their discography expands beyond that, especially with Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Part 1, the EP “Van Horn” came with.

Part 1 is the band’s first music to drop since 2018, and it is truly one of three parts to a whole. While the complete collection has been ambiguously described by Jackson as  “a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist,” he’s also described it as organically echoing the three-part hero’s arc and, most practically, as a way for people to savor the songs. 

A peek at some tour reviews of The Motion Picture Show tour reveals that Saint Motel is using their full discography to take their concept of a cinematic movie and make the audience a part of it. Not to give too much away, but you can probably expect multiple costume changes for Jackson, something a little out of this world, and a moving crowd that can’t get enough of the experience. Before you go, check out Jackson’s agenda for his time in the Twin Cities, his memories of First Avenue, and why he rented a cabin in Monrovia for three months.

I know you usually try to explore the cities you stop at a bit, but you obviously know Minneapolis pretty well. Do you have any plans while you’re here?

I’m planning on hopefully getting lunch with my 98-year-old grandpa. It’ll be his birthday on February 22, so we’ll have the whole band and we like to take him out. I think it’s called Good Day Café in Golden Valley—that’s his jam. But then by First Ave, we’re probably going to go get a martini at Murray’s. That’s an old tradition. How cold is it right now?

The last time you were at First Avenue, you were opening for the Arctic Monkeys in 2014. Congratulations on headlining the main room! Do you have any First Avenue memories pre-Saint Motel?

There’s a couple of different memories. One time I had been there when I was in preschool. My mom took me with another mom and preschooler. I can’t remember why; it was during soundcheck, so maybe she was in a band or something. But there was a hair metal band on stage—at least I remember the guy wearing spandex, and he had long hair and a leopard print shirt. Or at least that was the impression on my child’s mind.

But then later on, I won tickets from Mary Lucia when she was on Rev 105—that was a radio station back then—and I think I saw Rancid or the Mighty Mighty Boss Tones… some sort of punk show or ska show. I think I told her that story when we were playing at the Current. At least, I told her I was a big fan of hers when she was on Rev 105, Revolution Radio.

You were in some local bands in Minnesota before moving to California, and now you’re on the road more. Do you feel like you’re a part of any particular music scene?

We are on the road quite a lot, but I would say when I was in Minneapolis playing music, it was like, wherever we could get a show, just because we grew up unclear [of who we were]. Unlike Hippocampus, who seem to be really advanced for their age, when we were that age, we were very confused. Yeah, we played shows here or there, but we definitely weren’t part of the scene. There were some other bands at our school, but we were kind of doing whatever. I was writing original music, but it was all over the place. 

I think in L.A., we had more of a scene we were a part of. In and out of college, it was a bit different because you were living amongst all the other musicians, and you met everybody every week, you’re at each other’s concerts, and you definitely develop more of a kinsmanship.

This is the first music and tour you’ve put out since 2018. What have you been doing in the past two years?

So, yeah, the tour finished 2018, and pretty shortly after that, [for about three months] I rented a cabin up in the mountains in Monrovia, which is pretty close to Los Angeles, and just started writing music. I tried to approach it in a kind of structured way where I would leave the music behind when I left at the end of the day [and went home], and I would space out times where I would then go for a hike or go explore nature and then come back—just kind of put some structure and some guidelines for the creative process. 

After about five years of just non-stop touring, I’ve been writing music in the van or on the bus, you know, and I wanted to approach it a little differently. I got really into hyper-scheduling. There’s something in creativity so it can be open-ended; it can never be done. There’s something kind of nice about putting some sort of constraint on that. I at least felt that, at the end of that process, I really did the best work I could at that point. So that’s kind of how phase one started. And then we spent the next year finishing it up in 2019. 

From the get-go, Saint Motel has been a very visual, experiential band in different ways, whether it was making the VR for Saintmotelevision, throwing Zombie Proms, or your last tour, the Late Night Tour, which included its own host and retro TV cameras. What sparked that?

I guess I approach each aspect of it as, what can be fun and different about this? What can be a fun challenge about this? Because it’s a live show, what can we do slightly differently, or how can we kind of push it more than we did last time? And I think ever since our very first show as Saint Motel where we grabbed plants and lamps and hung art and a deer head and turned off the lights of the venue and made it like a living room, it’s always kind of been the idea that the concert is an experience that’s more than just playing songs. You’ve got to try to create a world where people can kind of go inside, and [you] change it every time so it’s always growing and hopefully just getting better and better.

You studied film instead of music to make sure the magic and the mystery was still there. Now, after more than a decade in a band, is it?

I should point out I did study at MacPhail as a kid. I studied piano, and I hated it, and I also went to Chan Poling for a summer—it was a rock and roll camp, which was also I think at MacPhail. It was really fun, but for different reasons, and that’s a whole other story. 

There’s definitely some aspect to the mystery of it that I know as little about it now as when I was seven years old. And yeah, I mean, no one… no one really knows. That’s the cool part about it.  There’s a mystery why we interact the way we do, where it comes from, and why we do it. But I think that’s that really keeps it so exciting, and I really, really hope that it just continues. But part of it is not knowing if it will—that’s also part of the excitement. There’s no guarantee at the end of the day. Or anything creative really, I suppose.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

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