Rock bands must inevitably walk the difficult line between art and commerce. Indeed, indie-pop groups tend to lean toward one (heartfelt expression) or the other (crass entertainment) end of the musical spectrum. Saint Motel straddles that difference, delivering thoughtful yet toe-tapping tunes.
Arguably the best example of the band’s approach is the bass guitar–pumping, horn-powered 2014 single “My Type,” in which frontman A/J Jackson comes on like a love-drunk Lothario approaching, well, anyone. You’re just my type, he croons. Oh, you got a pulse and you are breathing.
“It’s instinctual,” says Jackson, regarding his band’s tendency to draw from twisted ideas to create brilliant pop. “It’s a constant balance between the dark and light, the dirty and clean, the profane and sacred. You can’t be too nasty, and you can’t be too saccharine. It’s about finding that balance in music and in life.”
Like art-pop pioneers Roxy Music before them, Saint Motel is fond of busting out deceptively simple, guitar-based songs with musical layers and dense arrangements—tunes with big choruses that reward repeat listening.
For instance, their recent single “Move,” from the band’s first full-length disc for Elektra Records, Saintmotelevision. Initially, the cut hits like a long-lost dance-smash from the Motown vaults, until you begin to notice it’s covertly studio-enhanced with deep, heavy synth and beats. Jackson admits the band worked hard to help the song find its footing in a live setting.
“It always felt like a groove that was easy for the band to find,” he says. “The song started out with and was built around the chopped-up acoustic guitar that kicks off the verses. That used to be the bulk of the [track], until it all came together during recording.”
Music, like cinema, is a collaborative process. Jackson and guitarist Aaron Sharp formed Saint Motel while the two were enrolled in film school in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, the band has a powerful visual presentation, abundantly evident in the dozen or so music videos the outfit has released. (Jackson has directed eight of them himself.) Sure, sometimes Saint Motel looks like it might be auditioning for the house-band spot at the hipster Ace Hotel. More often than not, though, Saint Motel represents an updated version of the suave, arctic-cool Bryan Ferry style.
“The performance is really an extension of the music, which is what makes playing live so much fun. Wardrobe changes, glam, lights—they’re pieces of the larger project, just like Ziggy Stardust.” – A/J Jackson
“When we first started out [and we each] only owned one pair of pants, it was a challenge to present well,” Jackson says. “But at this point, we all love experimenting with clothing and enjoy wearing strange things. What we wear and bring on the stage is now an intentional part of the show. Everything, including the keyboard stand, should add to the experience.”
In other words, Jackson views his role as an entertainer as integral to the art he creates with his band mates. Seeing Saint Motel on tour and rocking out alongside full-size tiger statues (though probably not during the band’s one-off set at the Pearl this week for X107.5’s annual Holiday Havoc show) underscores Jackson’s commitment to avoid being boring.
“The performance is really an extension of the music, which is what makes playing live so much fun. Wardrobe changes, glam, lights—they’re pieces of the larger project, just like Ziggy Stardust.”
Saint Motel hasn’t played Las Vegas since Life Is Beautiful 2015, so the band is eager to return to and savor the city’s table games and clubs. “But not too much,” Jackson says. “Once again, there’s that need for balance.”
Dec. 8-9, 6 p.m., The Pearl at Palms Las Vegas, $70-$143, palms.com