Every decade there is one or two male Pop/R&B vocalists that captivate the audiences of women everywhere. A mainstream trend that started back in the day with Elvis, then Michael Jackson, and more recently with Justin Timberlake and Usher, the artist needs to be good looking, have a killer voice, and be able to dance – and by dance I'm not talking the truffle shuffle, I'm talking about real, smooth, dancing. Let us introduce to you the next big thing: Leonard Friend.
Once frontman for Indie Rock band The XYZ Affair and now R&B/Pop solo artist, Alex Feder (Leonard Friend) is the full package. He has the looks, he has the moves and he has the voice. His music has an indubitable Michael Jackson vibe to it, sparking an almost subconscious need to dance. While he admits he's still learning the ropes of the genre, his music says otherwise. The sound is a flashback to what great dance music used to be, teleporting a listener to a time many of us weren't around for, when the beat came first and the dance followed. In an industry that is ruled by obnoxiously simple 120-130 BPM "Dance" music, an artist like this, who doesn't really incorporate the typical "dub" presence into his music, but still manages to create a banger – an artist like this is something special. His music will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face, and no matter how off beat– motion to your legs.
In addition to releasing "Serious Music" through Earmilk today, Leonard is also dropping "The Whole Thing" on his Facebook page for free. The track is what originally sparked my interest in him, and provides another solid example of his clean, Pop-Banger style.
Later this month the video for "Serious Music" will be released, giving fans the first visual taste of his killer moves. There's not much more to say about it. The preview speaks for itself:
WATCH: SERIOUS MUSIC TRAILER
Leonard was kind enough to let me pick his brain, talking with me about everything from his alter ego, to his faults, to his fascination with comic books. He has some surprisingly honest things to say about why he left The XYZ Affair, and pays homage to Michael Jackson and other great Pop artists. Read the interview below.
LEONARD FRIEND [INTERVIEW]
R: When I was reading about Leonard Friend, I noticed that you chose that name because it was your Granfather's. Talk to me about how he influenced you and why you chose that as your alter ego.
LF: It's kind of interesting, I was close with both of my grandparents (This is on my Mother's side) and my grandfather was a saxophonist. He wasn't the most pushy of people while his Father, on the other hand, was. Ideally, I think he would have liked to pursue a career in music, but he grew up in a different time. Myself, and many other people I know who've grown up in this generation, have these lofty dreams that we can chase after for at least a period, if not for good, and it wasn't really like that back in his day. As a result I think, there was always this interesting quiet sadness about him. I was close with him while he was alive, but the strange thing was – I'm not a particularly emotional person – and when he died a few years ago it impacted me, but it was more after the fact that things started really affecting me. Both my grandfather and grandmother died within five months of each other, and I have very regular dreams about them, to this day. I mean, I'd see them on holidays, but they never really played a regular role in my life, but something about when the [XYZ Affair] ended and I wanted to start pursuing my own thing, I was in the middle of this phase with all of these dreams and it just seemed to make sense. Essentially, the idea is that vicariously he could live through me – that in the end, hopefully people would hear the name Leonard Friend and associate it with music.
R: Speaking of your band, tell me about your time with the XYZ Affair.
LF: I started with XYZ in college. I always wrote all the songs – I would say I was the band leader, I wouldn't say it was my band because it was by no means any sort of solo project – but those were my best friends. We toured around the country playing, and we spent a lot of time in the van together. I think the only reason it ended was because we came so close to breaking through, and when it didn't quite happen it just kind of turned around the entire thing for me, where as in the beginning it was mostly fun and was a really good outlet for me, but it just ended up being mostly stressful and it felt like time for something new.
R: Understandable. So you went from being in an Indie Rock band to… sort of this R&B/Pop hybrid, I would call it, and that's a pretty big shift if you look at two different genres. From what you learned with XYZ and the experiences you had with them, what translated over most into the music your doing now?
LF: Not a lot to be totally honest. If you look at the last stuff XYZ did, you could see that it was heading in little bit of a 'Poppier' and 'Dancier' direction, and if you read any of the later interviews, whenever people would ask what kind of music I was listening to, it was almost universally R&B and Top 40 types of stuff. So I'd started getting into [R&B], but only to an extent. With XYZ, anything we released under that name came with an understanding that we would have certain elements. I mean, we always had big guitars, and tons of vocal harmonies, and huge epic choruses, and I could only go so far with this fascination I guess. Starting something new enabled me to kind of go whole hog. It's definitely been a learning experience for me, I mean I've listened to R&B and Dance stuff my entire life – I've been obsessed with Michael Jackson, since I was a kid. I've been obsessed with Al Green, and Sly and the Family Stone and Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder and Motown stuff forever, I mean, since long before XYZ and during XYZ and obviously now. So it's not like the genre itself was anything new for me, but I still feel like I'm creeping over the learning curve hill now as I'm working on stuff. It's just a totally different world from writing a big rock song, to now, trying to find a hook for something when it's just so much more minimal musically.
R: You're obsessed with Michael Jackson, as you mentioned, and you obviously like Prince a lot. What about their music sets them apart from other artists for you?
LF: Oh man, I mean with Michael Jackson it's hard to say. When I was a kid it was like an unhealthy (laughs), I mean not like a weird unhealthy, but I'd call it an obsession as a kid. I remember sitting there and watching "Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour" obsessively, and trying to teach myself how to dance and all of that. I see there being three Ultimate Pop performers: James Brown, Prince, and Michael Jackson, and they're all very interwoven for me. There's something about them that's inhuman. When you watch them you don't think you could sing like that, or dance like that or write songs like that, and there's something just fascinating about it. And even today, I mean I love Justin Timberlake and Usher, and I love a lot of these dudes, but there's still something that sets [Michael Jackson] above everybody else. Every dance move that he performs is perfectly timed, and it's not even that he's technically the greatest dancer – there are dudes that do much crazier stuff nowadays – but his timing is nuts. I've seen Prince twice this year and it's the same thing. You feel like there's no time when they are not 100% involved in what they are doing. There's no time when Prince drops the Prince thing and he's just some dude on stage with a guitar, he's always amazing and always perfect. Fortunately for them and for everyone who appreciates their music, they're all blessed with amazing voices and massive creativity when it comes to creating a song. Their stuff isn't terribly complicated, I mean, "When Doves Cry" has one chord for the entire song, so compositionally they aren't the most complicated things, but what they did with them – the way that would have a basic groove transform over the course of a five minute pop song – it's amazing. I mean, what sets them apart – I can't pinpoint it. If I could I'd be recreating it as often as possible.
R: What's your favorite Michael Jackson song?
LF: It actually depends. For whatever bizarre reason (laughs), the one that makes me want to dance the most is "Dangerous," which I don't even think is his best song – it doesn't even have a verse – but something about the groove is just killer to me. I think my favorite song by him though is "Wanna be Startin' Somethin'." The way it builds at the end is just nuts. With that said, I think his best song is "Billie Jean." You can tell, I mean, when it comes on anywhere, at any club, or any place, people still go nuts for it.
R: Not only did you go from Indie to R&B, but you went from Brooklyn to LA, and that's like going from China to America (laughs) in terms of music scenes. Why the change, and how do the two contrast each other?
LF: Oh man, I just talked about that today with a guy today who I was recording with that also lived in Brooklyn for a while. You know, I'm just getting a feel for LA now, so I can't really say "Oh, this is the LA vibe." But when I decided to move down here everybody I know was like "Oh man, LA is very fake, it's all plastic and show business." I'm very easy going and there's millions of people here, so I wasn't worried about finding people I could connect with. The main thing I've noticed is that when you're in New York you're really in New York – everything is condensed and your feel like your in such a small space – LA is so spread out that I don't even feel like I'm in a big city. As I've been here, I don't really understand where the comparison comes for people, because [LA] doesn't feel like a big city, it feels like a big place with a lot of little things going on. I haven't really gotten a feel for it musically since I've been here because I've only been around for such a short time, so by and large when I need to do music things, I end up going back to New York still, just because all my music friends are out there.
R: Is there anything that you miss most about Brooklyn that isn't in LA, like hot dogs or something?
LF: I was definitely ready to leave when I did. I was there for ten years and ready to leave, because I was starting something new, so off I went. I mean, New York… all my my friends are there, so I miss them. I miss the subway, I miss the cold – as silly as that sounds – but to me there's a certain vibe when the seasons change and the weather changes and your bundled up in a million coats with you iPod on, and even though there's hundreds of people walking by you, you still get this feeling of isolation. New York is everything I've known for my adult life, so I miss all of it. Right now LA still feels like a vacation for me. Because of the nice weather and the way life works here, it seems less hectic and like a vacation. There's just a sense of urgency in New York – you feel like you always need to be doing stuff – and I just haven't established a routine for myself here yet. New York is home.
R: Let's talk a little bit more about your music specifically. This single that's coming out ["Serious Music"], talk a little about that track.
LF: It was definitely one of the first songs I ever wrote from the beat up. With XYZ it was always a melody, and then we'd put chords underneath it and then move into whatever complex arrangement we had. This was written with drums first and bass lines, and then adding a synth and then I wrote the song on top of it. For me it summarizes the whole feel of the project. I wanted stuff that would inspire me to dance. I love dancing, like I said I love dancing to Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Usher, so I wanted to make music that makes me want to dance the same way the music that I love does. I didn't want to abandon who I am, which is where the lyrics come in. I'm not about to sing about being at the club, popping bottles of whatever, surrounded by a million women, because it would feel… pretty fake to me. So to me this is kind of my version of it, which is more of a lonelier night out – A Brooklyn night out – where the kind of mind frame that I imagined when I was writing these songs was wondering home super late, when your coming back from a night out. It also embodies a sort of frustration that I would feel when I was going out to some of the more 'hipsterry' spots or parties. When I go out I like to dance full on, I'm not about to do the hipster tap your foot move your shoulders whole thing, and it's tuff because in a lot of spots people don't really dance. It's interesting because I've been on tour this year playing pop music in a backing band, and the after parties are wild, because everyone is seriously dancing, and if it were up to me that's how it would always be. So it's this combined frustration, and I wanted to capture the feeling where your out, but there's still a little bit of loneliness that serves as an undertone to color the whole night. That's basically it. There's almost an LCD Soundsystem vibe for the lyrics, and then music where I just wanted to be able to dance.
R: You have a video coming out for the single later this month. Can you give me a brief description of what's going on within the video?
LF: Sure. It's not a big plot, it's basically me in a suit, sitting in a chair, dancing. It's funny, the video preview gives a better impression of the whole video than one would think. My idea was basically to do as little in the video in terms of plot and over arching theme as possible, and I wanted it to be visually captivating even though nothing is going on in it. I feel really proud of it. A director named Andrew Wonder directed it, and I think it's really special. It's my favorite video I've ever shot.
R: So you're a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, now R&B Pop singer – what can't you do?
LF: I used to work at the front desk of the NYU gym, and one time my manager threw me the keys, you know to unlock the door or whatever, and I literally just watched – like I didn't even try to catch them – and I just watched the keys fall. And he was like "Dude, you didn't even try" and I was like "Yeah, I have a no throw, no catch rule in public." He goes, "What does that even mean?" and I said "I'm very unathletic, and the idea of having somebody watch me even attempt to catch something, or attempt to throw something, is just embarrassing, so I won't do it." Me and sports, that's about as embarrassing as it gets.
R: Do you play any video games?
LF: I don't actually, at all. My mom never let us have them growing up, so I've never gotten into them in my adult years because I never had them as a kid… The nerdiest things about me (laughing), I really love comic books and I really love Star Trek.
R: Ahh… That's excellent. I'm a huge comic book geek. What's your favorite comic?
LF: It's weird, I mean comic books and Michael Jackson almost embody the exact same thing for me, which is striving for the unattainable, inhuman, perfect element of life. When I was a kid before I wanted to play music I actually wanted to be a comic book artist, and then I took up drums when I was 13 and that kind of shifted the whole thing towards music for me. At a certain point, I started reading comics again, and I basically go through super heroes. So I'll go through a period where I'll check out like, as many recommended Daredevil story lines as possible, and then the Green Lantern story lines as possible, and of course I've always loved Batman. There's nothing particularly weird that I like, I mean, I read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing and that stuff was awesome. I read Jeff Smith's Bone, and that was one of the best things I've ever read even though it wasn't a super hero book. I read the whole Sandman series. But at the end of the day, I really love super heroes. I'm kind of a DC dude.
R: Thank you. I live with three guys that are all Marvel people and they hate DC, so that is nice to hear.
LF: I mean, I've never really understood that. I like Marvel, I grew up watching the X-men cartoons, and that was huge for me, and I loved X2 the movie. To me there's something that's like, irrefutable, about the core members of the Justice League that you can't really argue. Those are kind of the dudes, you know?
R: I agree completely. Moving back to your music, "Serious Music" is sort of this R&B/Pop hybrid banger that is exactly the type of thing people on Earmilk and sites like Hype Machine love. Let's say your song becomes #1 on Hypem.com, and it gets really big. Where's the celebration party going to be?
LF: (Laughs) The funny thing about writing a club banger is that I'm like, the last person to ever throw a big party. To give you a real idea, my girlfriend was going to throw a surprise party for my birthday two years ago, and I got wind of it and I just (laughing) strait up cancelled it. I love going out and dancing, but the idea that I would ever throw a party to celebrate an achievement of mine is pretty slim. With that said, I'd be very excited about that. At the end of the day I just hope people like it. This is a first impression for people of me.
R: Well, if it holds testament to what's to come, I'm confident they will. Ok last question that I always ask in interviews: Freestyle battle – Me vs You – Who wins?
LF: (Laughs) Oh my God. There's no way I could freestyle. I mean it takes me a month just to write the lyrics for one song, so definitely you.
Leonard Friend's debut EP The Lynyrd Frynd EP is set to be released in December, so be sure to check back in to Earmilk for that, as well as his video release later this month. In addition, to score yourself "I knew about him before he was big" hipster points, follow him on his: