Interview: Jelani Sei

Posted: by The Editor


Jelani Sei announced their newest EP, LVNDR TWN, with a statement that read: “This year has been incredibly difficult for a majority of us, There’s way too much uncertainty in this world and we’ve been stuck in a constant juxtaposition of two binaries, steadily trying to break each other. This is the idea behind LVNDR TWN.” Listening to these songs, the numerous pressures the band alludes to are addressed head-on lyrically, while an equally varied soundscape—featuring grooves of funk, jazz, indie rock, and beyond—unifies, to keep the audience on their toes and deliver sonic bliss.

The first thing to jump out at many will be the reference to Pokémon through both the EP’s title and the beautiful depiction of the franchise’s Pokémon Tower, which is based in that universe’s Lavender Town. “We’re just trying to capture the nostalgia,” says vocalist and bassist Evan Lawrence. It’s about remembering a time “when you didn’t feel the pressures of the world” and reflecting on “how different it is when those pressures change you.”

For those uninitiated to Pokémon, Lavender Town is where the spirits of dead Pokémon gather and occasionally grow angry at the state of the world. This connects to the music on a deeper level, as they both convey an “understanding that you are in a place where bad things do happen, but it doesn’t always have to make it negative.” Vocalist Kayana Guity adds to this idea saying, “We’ve just become aware. We’re now aware of it, this is the world that we’re living in.” And being conscious of it is a step in the right direction.

Jelani Sei addresses heavy and important topics on LVNDR TWN, but that by no means decreases the level of enjoyment that the music brings. This especially comes through in the live setting. Guity has picked up on commonalities between many of their audiences. “When a lot of people come to our shows and they’re listening and are just hearing it for the first time, they’re like, ‘I like it when I close my eyes and I listen to it because it just feels like the sound is very surrounding.’”

That’s part of what makes the band so passionate about their music. Lawrence expresses a desire to stand out from the pack and break away from some of the monotony, in terms of both sounds and themes. “We try to approach it a little differently. We’re like let’s not try to make them feel like they’re listening to the same song each time. There are definitely similar themes and even similar usages of choruses in some of our songs, but it really feels like we can say something with our music. And even just by playing our music live, just being the people playing it, feels sublime.”

Guity admits that she enjoys performing live more than working in the studio, but qualifies it by saying that the band is trying to evoke the same emotion in the studio as they experience during their live performances. The writing process itself comes somewhat more naturally, often just flowing out in large chunks. Especially with this EP, “a lot of it came from playing together as opposed to one person writing it,” says Lawrence. He describes writing as a group to a train of emotion. ”If we’re playing something that we worked on together, we’ll just jam out different parts. Then after jamming out the part we’re like, ‘Oh, what if we did this? Oh, oh, what if we did this!?!’… Two of us are jazz kids and we have that environment of just being like ‘woooo!’ whenever [we] hear something that [we] like.” Sometimes the roots of the songs don’t even come from music, as was the case with “Msg,” which started as a poem written by Lawrence that was then nourished and refined by the rest of the band.

The overarching themes of LVNDR TWN come into play on either end of the record, with closer “Msg” and opener “Telephone.” The latter centers around repetition of the line, “I ain’t havin’ it,” while the former opens with, “I’m not mad at you / I’m only mad at the way things are today.” Each set of lyrics is delivered with a clarity and emotion that perfectly encapsulate how many of us are currently feeling about polarizing events in this country. Guity stated that in both instances, “We’re talking as black people. We’re talking about how it’s been so long, it’s been fucking 500 years now. We have been criticized and condemned by white people. And we’re just talking about how we don’t want one white person, like one single modern white person, to think we’re angry at you or we just hate you.” The band wants white listeners to contemplate the reality of where we came from, versus the reality of where black people came from, and the treatment they continue to be subjected to. “We’re getting killed, you know? There are fucking terrorists out here telling us to get out of their space when they’re the ones that are taking up spaces that are just not for them.”

“Kayana and I are both inner city kids,” says Lawrence, “We come from a lot of the places where gentrification is happening. ‘Telephone’ and ‘Msg’ are just a culmination of these people, of brown bodies, being evicted from their homes and replaced in places that they built, especially in cities, that have helped build those cultures and then to replace it with a watered down version.”

While he loves the DIY scene, especially in Brooklyn he says that, “at the same time, we’re addressing scenes that are not always as inclusive as they claim to be.” This similarly affected both Guity and Lawrence when they were going to school at the University of Hartford, where the band originally formed. This was around the time of the murder of Michael Brown and they both felt like they weren’t able to express their feelings or have true discussions with people about it. “You would just see way more cases popping up on the news. It’s not like we didn’t know before, but it became a public debate over ‘Did they deserve to die?’“ Now that they have both relocated to larger cities, they feel closer to these issues and see a lot more people are actually talking about it. For everyone else the message is, “This is happening, please be aware.”

Scott Fugger | @Scoober1013