Leo Islo manipulated our taste buds, daily dropping songs from his new EP Golden Grave last week, and now we’re really salivating over this Portland producer after our little sit down. Enamored by the release of Co-Exist last year, we couldn’t be more thrilled by the release of his new EP, Golden Grave.
A true masterpiece of gorgeously produced tracks with immensely relatable messages behind them, the 27-year-old musician clearly holds wisdom far beyond his years.
Hungry for some of this wisdom, we got together with this exceptional man behind the music and asked him a few questions about his EP, his influences and when we will be getting a full album.
Paradise Unlimited: I always like to start out with a little history on how you got started as an artist. What were some of your highlights and downfalls that got you to the artist you are today?
Leo Islo: I think what got me into music originally is that I’m exceptionally un-athletic, haha. I literally tried to play every sport available to me in high school and failed fantastically at all of them. My girlfriend at the time was in the contemporary rock class and invited me to sit in. Immediately, I realized that I wanted to be a drummer. From there I went on tour with some older musicians out of high school around AZ. I later realized I wanted to be in complete control over the music, and it evolved from drumming to bass to guitar and finally producing.
I think the biggest “downfall” for me was also what got me into writing electronic music in the first place. After I had graduated, I moved from Flagstaff, AZ to Los Angeles to pursue music. I was feeling unhappy by year two, and it came to a front when all the shit simultaneously hit the fan: I went through a breakup, my band fell apart, my car was totaled, and I was fired from my job all within about three months. I was incredibly depressed, but I felt like it was the universe sending me a sign- “Get out of here and figure yourself out, man.” So I packed up my stuff and moved back home for a couple of months to think about where I wanted my life to go. I ended up moving to Portland because a few friends were making the same move and I needed something new. Once the dust had settled, I realized I just needed to be in the right environment to find my tribe and work on building myself as an artist instead of trying to jump into the deep end right away, and that has made all the difference.
P.U. : This EP starts off on a sadder note with the song Blame, which if I’m correct is about the ending of a relationship but then Golden Grave seems to be about an infatuation with a potential new relationship. Was this your intention with the EP?
L.I. : The EP, in general, is about the dark side of relationships- not just with people, but also with fame and vices. “Blame” is actually about a friend of mine who was getting divorced at the time. We had a heart-to-heart, and I could feel his pain. People my age (I’m 27) are trying so hard to make something of themselves that we often forget to stay connected to the people we love, and I recognized that I was also guilty of that in my own life. It was a moment of clarity and empathy I wanted to capture.
“Golden Grave,” on the other hand, is about a blind pursuit of fame and fortune, even if it destroys who you are as a person. I mentioned it earlier, but I lived in LA, and the experience was a “chewed up and spit out” kind of feeling. I had tried to write about it before, but it always felt contrived until I landed on this song almost four years after the event. I guess to me it’s about realizing that empty validation and material wealth is a thin veneer on a shallow desire, and that life is about more substantial things than dying rich.
P.U. : What does your studio process entail? Are you always writing down lyrics and then laying down a track to put them to or do you find the sound first and write the lyrics last?
L.I.: It’s always different. Sometimes it just starts with tinkering around on my synths or guitar until I find an interesting sound or progression. I have five synths now, and I’ve spent a lot of time tailoring the patches on each one so that they’re as inspiring as possible. It’s really important for my process to be able to pick up a synth and just run with the first thing that comes out, and to make interesting sounds as quickly as possible.
I also record melody ideas and atmospheric sounds all the time, and I have hundreds of them on my phone at this point. Golden Grave came from one of those.
I find that lyrics are typically the last piece of the puzzle. I usually have the arrangement in place before I do my vocal takes, and I take my time to refine each line and how they flow into each other. It’s probably where I spend 70% of my time on a track, honestly.
P.U. : You live in Portland, I’ve always wanted to go but have never been, what’s your favorite thing about your city?
L.I.: Probably the food. It has absolutely ruined me for eating in other cities because I’ve become such a snob about it now, haha. Also the sheer amount of weird and unique things you can do in this city- the largest World Naked Bike Ride is here, for example.
P.U. : Euphoria and Golden Grave have sounds of wildlife used in them if I”m not mistake its birds. Are these specific types of birds and what inspired you to incorporate that into your sound?
L.I.: They aren’t really specific regarding birds (I’m no Ornithologist) but I’ve been experimenting with different “found sounds” the past 2 or so years because I enjoy textures in music and trying to make electronic music more humanized and organic. The point of music, to me, is to create an environment, so it seemed like a no-brainer to start using textural sounds in my music to help create that world I want my listeners to be a part of.
In “Euphoria” for example, you can hear what might sound like a record skipping or weird syncopated claps in the background, and that’s actually me and a few friends walking down some temple stairs in Laos (SE Asia) wearing flip-flops that I recorded on my phone.
P.U. : Tell me what’s going on with your EP artwork. I love the style, but there seem to be a lot of pieces to this puzzle, no pun intended with your record label, but what do all these images mean?
L.I.: When I decided that Golden Grave was going to be the tittle track I wanted just to embody that over-the-top opulence and splendor that I had associated with aspirations of fame and fortune, but with a sort of dark tinge. Death and vices are present, but everything is wrapped in a golden sheen so it can’t be that bad– right?
P.U. : Euphoria seems a little on the R&B side of things to me. Do you have any R&B artists who influence you?
L.I.: The Internet (Syd The Kid), Jessy Lanza, Majid Jordan, and James Blake are all amazing. At the time I wrote that song, I had just discovered a Sevdaliza track called “That Other Girl” and was totally taken aback by it and wanted to try my hand at making my own darker sounds in that same vein.
P.U. : Last track you listened to.
L.I.: Weval – Easier
P.U. : Venue or Festival that you would kill to play at.
L.I.: I’m going to a smaller fest called What The Festival here in Oregon this coming weekend, and would LOVE to play that. Sasquatch is probably at the top of the list, though… that entire venue is gorgeous, and I’ve had so many life-changing experiences there.
P.U. : When can we look out for your first complete album??
L.I.: Not sure yet! I think the rest of 2016 will be devoted to collaborations because I have a ton of other artists asking to do things with them. I’m really happy about it, though, because I learn so much more from collaborations than I ever have from hours of watching tutorial videos. Becoming part of someone else’s process gives you great insight into how you can refine or change your own.