Jerry Paper is one of the most lovable weirdo-pop entities in music. Toying with existential themes and ego dissolution, mastermind Lucas Nathan crafts uncanny, captivating tunes informed by muzak, lounge music, and bossa nova. Onstage, he transfixes audiences with gyrating movements that flow under his signature silk robe.
This fall, Nathan will release Like a Baby, his first full-length for Stones Throw Records. It’s his most approachable work to date, while never sacrificing the surrealism that makes his music so bizarrely satiating. We chatted about the transportive video for “Your Cocoon,” collaborating with Weyes Blood, and escaping New York City’s oppressiveness for his native Los Angeles.
AdHoc: Let’s start with this video for “Your Cocoon.” How did you get involved with animator Steve Smith?
Lucas Nathan: I met him when I moved to LA a few years ago. He was neighbors with the comedian Jay Weingarten. I’ve been collaborating for years with my friend Cole Kush who lives in Canada. Cole and Jay had been doing some stuff, and I was about to move to LA, so apparently Cole told Jay, Jay was neighbors with Steve, and we ended up getting together and collaborating. Steve is a genius. He’s just a really good animator. I love him.
Is that an actual 3D model of your head in the video?
The head came from another project that involved scanning my head. We went to this place where they scan all sorts of stuff. You go into a cube made up of very fancy cameras. It’s something like 250 cameras that are all rigged to take a picture at the exact same time. So you just get an insanely hi-res version of your head. I am very happy with what Steve did.
In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about how music carries information that bypasses linguistic processing. Do you see your videos and visual work as performing a similar function?
My thinking has kind of evolved in that area. I believe that any form of communication is open to being interpreted in any way by the interpreter. When I was younger, I was very seduced by the idea that music was somehow a more pure and direct communication, as opposed to the complexities of language. But I believe that everything is processed based on how you interpret symbols. Music is also a set of symbols. You’re conditioned to interpret different sounds, melodies, tonal relationships in certain ways your entire life. So I don’t really believe in that kind of purity anymore. Any other way to experience things, such as visually, will ultimately lead to more symbols to be interpreted, more depth to be pulled out. It’s not necessarily important for me to get my message across. But I’ll try!
Working on this record, I was thinking a lot about Steely Dan. About how their music and lyrics are constructed and how the two relate. And also how many interpretations there are for Steely Dan lyrics. If you look up interpretations for the song “Peg,” there are like five different versions, and they’re all really interesting! They’re all related to the same feelings, the same glossy feel over some dark undercurrent. One of the interpretations, I think, is based on this actress Peg Entwistle, who killed herself by jumping off the Hollywood sign. There’s something really interesting about different symbolic interplays, and I was trying to do that a lot with Like a Baby.
Tell me more about Like a Baby. You collaborated with a solid cast for this, including Weyes Blood, Matty of BadBadNotGood, and Charlotte Day Wilson. What was that like?
It was great. This record is the most realized version of my fantasy, because I was able to enlist so much help. When I was writing the song that Weyes Blood is on, “Grey Area,” I was thinking, “Man, it’d be so nice if Natalie [Weyes Blood] sang that part.” And then I was able to have her do it. I was in a very fortunate position to have my ideas come together in the most perfect way.
Obviously, every single album is a struggle with limitations, but this one seemed to have the least. It was also the most difficult to make. It took the longest to get to the place where it finally felt like, “Okay, this is exactly what I wanted.” Whereas all of my other records have been a product of limitations—either time-wise, or [because of] what I had access to at that time. This time I was able to enlist exactly what the record needed.
There’s a greater clarity and precision in the arrangements on Like a Baby. Yet the performances still feel largely relaxed and groovy. What were you trying to achieve on that front?
I listened to a lot of Brazilian music—specifically, a huge concentration of incredible Brazilian records from the ’70s with amazing songwriting and production. I was particularly focused on this record Na Rua, na Chuva, na Fazenda by Hyldon. I was obsessed with it and also just thinking a lot about Steely Dan and how they create scenes and worlds. Lyrically, I was very focused on creating images that would convey meaning more than just me saying what I am trying to say. It’s been a gradual process of me moving from raw emotion to constructing interpretive worlds—places you can go and make your own meaning from. But there’s no emotion loss in that. If anything, I think emotions are conveyed in a more subtle and interesting way—if I did it right. And hopefully I did it right and didn’t just blow it.
You moved back to LA in 2016, after living in NYC for some time. How did that move affect your process and the recording of Like a Baby?
Living in New York is a constant rubbing up against the limitations and oppressions of the city. It’s just fuckin’ hard. I moved to New York when I was 18. I had a very small existence in LA beforehand. So moving to New York was where I became a person. When you become a person in a place where everything is super hard, you think that that’s just life, and that it’s always insanely difficult. And then moving back to LA, I had this revelation: “Oh, life doesn’t have to be that hard.”
Life is hard. That’s what being alive is. It’s not all fun and pleasant. But it can be better than New York. It can be a little easier. I think that that had something to do with my loosening of limitations.
Making music in New York, I romanticized the idea of my limitations and not being able to do everything I wanted to. And I think something about moving to LA made me just open up and say, “I’m going to fucking make the record I want to.” Then I made a version of that record and was extremely dissatisfied with it and ended up going to Toronto and re-recording the entire thing. I think an earlier version of myself would have just had that first version of the record and been like, “Well, this is it. That’s all I can do.”
I also spent a lot of time in shopping malls in LA. There’s just something about the self-contained shopping center, whereas New York itself is a city-wide shopping center. Going to these contained shopping spaces in LA was very interesting, and I wanted to explore that on the album. I love it here so much. I will die here, for sure—if I have anything to do with it.
At your upcoming shows, you will be backed by a four-piece live band. How do you balance a larger production with your “ego dissolution” on stage?
It seems to be easier and easier. I feel like the energy of the band and the audience makes it easier for me to dissolve my ego for a few moments, to just release myself. Everything seems to be smoothing out. Of course, there are some shows where it’s just not happening. But it’s definitely been more consistent. The more it grows, the [freer] I feel.
Doing the solo thing was a gradual progression to me becoming free-er, but now I feel like having help is even better. Especially the band that I have now, they’re really good at interpreting my music—even the old synth-pop stuff. It comes to life in a totally different way. I just like to have the live versions be interpretations. I like them to be different, something new for the audience and new for us. To have a more interesting experience and to just have fun, I guess. Just for everyone to have fun.