Interview: Luiza Sá of CSS

With only four more stops left on the U.S. tour calendar this year, CSS is wrapping things up to head to Europe next, where they’ll continue trekking the globe in support of their third full-length record, La Liberación, which came out just two months ago. Tonally different, that record harnesses elements which are tied to CSS’ band style and character – pop-sensical, light, easy listening, though sometimes emotive, sincere, danceable, full of colorful guitars and quirky keys, fresh. The live show, more than any of the records, conveys these. The band was born live, so it seems, having toured more than most since the 2006 release of their first, self-titled record.

As a drive of general intrigue and guitar-minded curiosity, I’ve always harbored a particular interest in what CSS guitarist Luiza Sá contributes, to the band and to the world of sound, and how. And barring minor post-show off-the-cusp Q&A, I’ve been vying for a more extensive conversation. This afternoon I got it.

TST: How’s the tour going?

Luiza: It’s going so well that we’re kind of sad that we only have four more shows. It’s been amazing. The shows themselves… touring with Men and EMA (EMA just joined the tour on the last four shows). But everyone’s so cool, and then we’ve had drag queens opening for us. It’s just been everything we wanted, and I’m kind of sad and bummed it’s ending. I wish we could just go South and go to the West coast again and start it all over.

TST: How many months a year do you guys tour, usually?

Luiza: It really depends, because this year we had a record out and that means a lot of touring. I guess, I’d say, we are touring this year 70% of the time? I don’t know; we’re always touring. [laughs] I think we’re gonna tour again next summer and fall. But we do have time off.

TST: So I met you when you guys were here before…

Luiza: … in Atlanta.

TST: Yep, at Center Stage.

Luiza: Yeah, I really liked that show. The venue was really cool; it was a really beautiful theatre. And this guy gave me a shirt for the Atlanta Gentlemen’s something. We like going to the South… we always feel good here, we love soul food. It’s good for us. And I always dreamed of going to Athens; I know it’s a cliché. But I watched that film, and we’re all big fans of R.E.M.

TST: You know R.E.M. just…

Luiza: I know! They just, like, ended.

TST: What do think about that?

Luiza: Well, we all kind of thought about it, and we all – I think we were listening to R.E.M. at the time. We weren’t touring; we were home, but we talked about it. I think – I mean it’s not terrible because they’ve been together for so long and they did so much that it’s kind of – we’re not gonna be crying over it. They’re so dignified. They could just stop and it would be fine. I don’t know, I think it might be one of those cases where they finish, so now… if they tour it’s gonna be crazy [leaving the idea to linger]. But R.E.M. is seriously one of my favorite bands.

TST: So, I know that you DJ. Are you DJ-ing a lot, or do you just sort of do it on your off time?

Luiza: We actually, when the band started, made a party right away. We always liked to DJ for ourselves. And when we started touring, I started DJ-ing afterparties – just having some fun doing it, not like a real technical DJ spinning songs and stuff. And then everyone in the band started DJ-ing together, more and more. Sometimes we have time off and we’ll DJ wherever we are because we don’t all live in the same city. But this tour we only DJ-ed once, in Mexico City. We might do it more this year. And we love it because we DJ whatever the hell we want. It’s a little funny.

TST: I wanted to ask you how you find out about new bands.

Luiza: Uhhh, the internet. And also from other people, friends. You know, we have a lot of friends who are always trying to find new things. From time to time I’ll have the craving of getting new music, even if it’s old music and I don’t know it. Sometimes I just have to sit down and get some new stuff. And, you know, everyone loves music I guess. So it’s a mixture of that and the internet. Sometimes when I’m home I listen to radios like Pandora, because I can discover things there, too.

TST: Do you go to a lot of shows when you’re not on tour?

Luiza: I actually do go to shows. I have lots of musician friends, and I’ve been living in Berlin since the summer. There’s a lot of musicians there. Sometimes it’s not even for the show, but just for my friends – just to show up, you know? And I think all of us, we still enjoy music. It’s different though, because we tour so much that we can judge a show a different way probably. I mean, we pick up on things that other people don’t, but we’re still very much able to enjoy it. And I think it’s always good to be in the flow of music and creation. Just to be around it helps out.

TST: That’s an optimistic take. Now, I know you were doing photography before, are you still actively doing it? Obviously, I think it’s very cool if you’re able to document your tours that way, but I don’t know to what extent you have. And do you do it on your downtime?

Luiza: I do it. The thing is, I’ve had so much touring, and have documented so much of the touring, that now I’m kind of over it… just documenting the touring itself. The subject for me – of course, every day, every place there’s something new – but it’s kind of a similar dynamic of getting somewhere, a sound check, a show, another show, the road and the hotel room or whatever. So I think I’m having kind of a crisis over it, because you just want something different and new. But I still do photography and I actually have a lot of work that I’ve done and never shown. So I’m in the process of making some things and maybe selling them.

TST: So, you just finished school, what, last year?

Luiza: Uh huh. I went for fine arts, and my project was in photography. So we had some time last year and I only had a semester left from back when I started touring, in 2006. My Dad was very frustrated that I never finished college. I was like, ‘Okay, it’s only six months (it was actually five months); I’m gonna do it!’ It wasn’t ideal, but I loved going back to school. It really felt like we go to school way too early in our lives to really know – you know, we’re not mature enough to appreciate it. When you’re older it’s, ‘C’mon, this is really expensive. Let’s use every little bit of it!’ So it was good to be around that, and then I graduated.

TST: Well congratulations.

Luiza [laughing]: It took like years and years!

TST: It doesn’t matter. I was just wondering how the hell you had time to go to school!

Luiza: It was kind of insane. I would go to school in the morning, and then I would go have lunch and go to our studio and stay there until night. And up until it was the last month I was just like, ‘Guys… I’m sorry.’ But they were the best. And I graduated and, after that, could just go over to the studio and relax a little.

TST: That’s great that you could do it. Okay, now I want to ask you about the new record.

Luiza: Okay.

TST: Look, you can go read my review on it, and I’m sure everybody’s telling you their opinion of it, but I wonder what was different for you about recording it, specifically guitars. I’m a nut when it comes to tonality…

Luiza: Thank you [in agreement].

TST: …and last time I saw you at Center Stage that’s why I was having to talk to you about guitar recording on Donkey.

Luiza: Right. Well, on Donkey we had an old, beautiful studio with a hundred amps and a hundred guitars, you know. Not a hundred, but it was all vintage and blah, blah. This time around I actually think I called a friend who had some amps, and was DJ-ing, too, and he borrowed me one. And then we went to this really cool, quirky guy that makes amps. He also makes really cool pedals. His name is MG. A lot of people buy his pedals. Billy Corgan bought one.

TST: Interesting.

Luiza: Yeah, well, he had this amazing, vintage amp… like from the war or something. And he let us use that. And then in terms of guitar, for the record – well, not just for the record – I bought this vintage Telecaster. It’s a ’73, all original. It’s a Telecaster, but it has a crunchier sound… a little bit more bassy, more like Keith Richards’ sound.

TST: Are you not playing the Jaguar now?

Luiza: No, that’s going to stay home. Because it’s a vintage guitar, and touring just destroys your stuff. It doesn’t destroooooy your stuff, but it’s hard on the instruments. But I’m playing the Jazzmaster on the tour. I love it. I mean, it’s a little harder to play, because the Telecaster’s so soft.

TST: I play a Tele, so I totally understand.

Luiza: Yeah! I love the Telecaster, but a Telecaster could NEVER make the sound of a Jazzmaster, you know, so that’s the thing. I always play the Tele, and then I want something different. So I bought the Jazzmaster, and it sounds much harsher – you have to have more strength in your fingers – but it sounds amazing. The thing about Donkey – it was good to go for a different sound. For this record we used a Strat, a Tele, what else? That was basically it. But we recorded for so long.

TST: What’s long for CSS?

Luiza: We took a year to make these songs.

TST: Oh wow.

Luiza: We had no rush at all. We were just doing demos, coming back, writing. But what we did, also, was get some new pedals. There was this old echo delay that was tape…

TST: Yeah, like an Echoplex?

Luiza: Yeah! I also got the Memory Man. It’s an amazing pedal.

TST: Oooh yeah, it is.

Luiza: It’s kind of hard to use on stage; I don’t use it on stage. But I love this pedal. It’s awesome because there’s just no way you can get a reverb and something else and put them together to make that. It’s just different.

TST: Memory Mans [Memory Men?] are great; that’s a good depiction. What else?

Luiza: Uhhh, I don’t know. We played around, but we weren’t pushed or anything. Donkey was more of a studio thing, more ‘old school,’ I would say. And this time around it was just more fun, more experimenting and not just experimenting with the expensive stuff. There was even a song that we recorded with a really small amp – like a toy amp – cranking it up. So, yeah!

TST: That’s nice. I like to hear about the experimental stuff. It’s always fun, and I think it’s a great practice. And the songs on La Liberación sound very independent to me, but it still sounds like a record, and I like that a lot.

Luiza: I understand what you’re saying. But I think the first record is kind of like that, too. So I think it’s kind of like [how] we are. It’s weird. It was more of a production of ideas than a collection of sounds. You know, it was more like a theme for us than, ‘Oh, this song sounds like this.’ Donkey’s so much more [about] sound, I think.

TST: Ya know, I have a question for you. When you all record guitars, do you play live the part that you wrote? Or do you decide what works for the song live? How do you do that? How do you orchestrate it, or do you?

Luiza: That’s a fun question. Sometimes, with some songs, we’ve had time to play it and then go back to it – to try it live. Actually, it would be a luxury to get all the songs, tour with them, and then go back and record.

TST: Yeah, I think everybody wants that.

Luiza: That is such a luxury, because you can’t really go out, play a bunch of songs that no one knows, go home, record. Also, to just rehearse, you spend money, you spend time, and so we don’t usually get that luxury. What happened, maybe, was that we were in Australia in the beginning of this year, and we played a few songs [before the record came out]. Then we kind of had a feel for what worked and what didn’t, but live and the recordings are different… I think they should always be different. Donkey is actually played live exactly like it’s recorded because we were touring so much that I think we were just in that mindset. This time [with La Liberación] we put in a lot of elements we knew we couldn’t really reproduce. I mean, we were just like, ‘Fuck it.’ It’s not really realistic. When we’re recording, especially now that we’re five people, getting someone just to play the drums is something else, you know. So I understand what you’re asking but, no, it doesn’t happen. That’s way too slow for us.

TST: I was going to ask you about the drummer. You guys have a touring drummer, right?

Luiza: Yeah, we have someone that we hired.

TST: Is it the same guy as the last tour?

Luiza: Yes, J.R. He is adorable. He’s younger than us – not too much, but about two years.

TST: So then does he party more than you guys?

Luiza: Definitely. He’s always drunk. But he’s such a sweetheart and such a good boy. We call him ‘Meu Bebê,’ which means ‘my baby.’ We really love him.

TST: Nice. I’m going to ask you the cliché question now, which is ‘What bands are you listening to right now?’

Luiza: [sighs] I spent the whole night listening to Beach House. I met her in New York a few years ago and I kind of liked it… and now I’m really listening and it’s amazing. The last PJ Harvey album is, I think, the best album of the year for sure. What else? Oh EMA is really cool; I’m blown away. Their show is a total rock show. I was expecting something more electronic, and it’s a rock show and it’s so different from everything that I’ve been seeing. Uh… let me think. Well, Lykke Li’s latest record is really good as well. I’ve heard a lot of Robyn this year… The Drums. And there’s this woman who lives in Berlin – Janine – and her band is called Planning to Rock…

Luiza goes on to mention other bands that have/will support CSS tours, including Wampire and Strfkr. The conversation takes a lengthy detour to band discoveries mode, when I mention Ladytron’s new record.

Luiza: Oh yeah! I’ve been such a bad friend. I’m really good friends with Danny [Hunt], and he sent me the record before it came out. And then I didn’t put it on my iPod, so I never really got around to hearing it. It’s on my computer.

TST: I like it because it’s really experimental. It’s nice.

Luiza: I’m pretty sure it’s nice. They’re at a point where everything’s going to be nice.

TST: I don’t think they can make a bad record.

Luiza: Yeah, that’s what I mean.

TST: Well, we could rant about music forever. I’m going to see Zola Jesus tonight, do you like her?

Luiza: Oh that’s awesome, yeah! I saw her a long time ago in New York with The XX and Warpaint.

TST: I remember that tour. And she’s so young! She’s doing great for herself.

Luiza: She is the nicest, too; she’s really nice. I don’t know, some people are ‘born ready.’

TST: I guess so. Man. It’s a week of good shows in Atlanta. Austra is playing here just before Halloween, too.

Luiza: Yeah, I met some of them in Berlin. They were playing a festival there that we played called… Berlin Festival, and I had the chance to check them out. It’s funny, there’s this whole sort of new scene that are like the ‘sons of trip-hop’ or something… like the new hip-hop!

It’s an interesting concept, coming from someone with a rounded viewpoint of what’s happening in live music right now. Our interview-turned-conversation winds down. I inquire about ‘Randall’ [see the La Liberación review] on the new record, who turns out to be not Randall at all. Luiza sets things straight. The track “City Grrrl” actually features Cody Critcheloe of the Kansas City pop-punk band, Ssion. She also queues us in – Cody is in the video for “City Grrrl,” which we can expect to be released soon.

We wrap up by discussing the significance of the 40 Watt in Athens, how I dread the trip there tomorrow, but am excited to see them play and how CSS anticipate playing it. I also express my eagerness to see Men live (who I missed just a few months ago), and Luiza tells me how ‘fun’ of a show it promises to be.

Thanks to Luiza for taking the time to chat! For the rest of you, note the remaining U.S. dates, as well as upcoming European dates, which will roll through the end of the year.

U.S. Dates:
10/26 – 40 Watt, Athens, GA
10/28 – House of Blues, Dallas, TX
10/29 – House of Blues, Houston, TX
10/30 – La Zona Rosa, Austin, TX

Euro Dates:
11/17 – Tavastia, Helsinki, FI
11/19 – Debaser Medis, Stockholm, SE
11/20 – Rockefeller, Oslo, NO
11/22 – Stodola, Warsaw, PL
11/23 – Lucerna Music Bar, Prague, CZ
11/24 – Weekender Club, Innsbruck, AT
11/25 – Estragon, Bologna, IT
11/28 – TMN ao Vivo, Lisbon, PT
11/29 – Hard Club, Porto, PT
11/30 – Shoko Club, Madrid, ES
12/01 – Apolo, LA2, Barcelona, ES
12/03 – Gaite Lyrique, Paris, FR
12/04 – Paradiso, Amsterdam, NL
12/05 – Botanique (Orangerie), Brussels, BE
12/07 – Heaven, London, UK
12/08 – Kasbah, Coventry, UK
12/09 – Library, Lancaster, UK