The Music, Mythology, and Romantic Fatalism of Fatal Jamz
Fatal Jamz have been impossible to ignore for anyone familiar with the L.A. underground music scene of late. And honestly, with their unique brand of glam-romanticism, why would anyone want to ignore them? We happily seized a recent opportunity ahead of their June residency at the Constellation Room for a sit-down with frontman Marion Belle and guitarist Andreas Emmanuel to cover diverse topics like past recordings, influences, and the new album Coverboy, which is the first part of their developing and compelling trilogy.
Bobby Weirdo: Who plays live Fatal Jamz shows?
Marion Belle: We’re playing with pretty much the core group these days: Nick Johns is playing drums, and he and I produced the record. Nick is like our production guru. Andreas [Emmanuel] on guitar, and Paris [Yavuz] on bass.
BW: Is Fatal Jamz a concept, a character, a band, or a solo project?
MB: That’s a good question. Fatal Jamz is a pop group really, and I’d say it’s a band.
Andreas Emmanuel: It’s Marion’s band.
MB: There’s a vision there. It’s a way of life, and I always say Fatal Jamz came out of desperation to say how I felt about my music. The name speaks to that. In L.A., there are so many great musicians, and we all overlap, so when it finally came to committing to making a record as Fatal Jamz, I just got the musicians who I love and are my best friends. It’s since become more of a unit with Andy, Nick, and Paris. When we toured with Weyes Blood, it was just Andy, me, and Paris – a three-piece.
AE: And drum machines. We’ll have a four or six-piece band as often as we can, like if we’re playing a local show. But on a tour, the three-piece worked great for jumping in the van and getting on the road.
MB: I’ll break it down easily: Fatal Jamz has been me and Nick since the beginning. But then when Andy came on board about a year ago, he’s become…
AE: I’m like the Slash to his Axl these days.
BW: Yeah! [laughs]
MB: And Paris is a very special artist in his own right as well. Now we’re all writing for this band - It’s just a matter of opportunity at this point. When we played our residency at The Echo this past November, we had a seven-piece band for most nights, because we were in our hometown, so we could bring out the “Imperial Fatal Jamz”.
BW: So Nick produced Coverboy?
MB: He and I did the entire Coverboy record together. The first song he and I ever did together was “Rookie”, and that was before this record, so we had established a palette with that tune, and we wanted Coverboy to build on that recording in a full-blown way. He had a studio downtown in Skid Row.
BW: That’s the “Penthouse” studio, right?
MB: That’s the Penthouse, yes. We rehearsed there recently, but [now] we’ve moved all the gear out of there.
BW: So the Penthouse is done?
MB: We did Coverboy, and it’s done now. It’s documented. The rent there is super cheap because it’s in Skid Row, and the vibe was good for recording. You could get really loud and wild with the vocal takes.
BW: What’s the setup like there? Is it a professional studio?
MB: The Penthouse is one huge stripped down concrete room, with pillars and partitions. There was one room with killer analog gear, just encircling [the entire room]. It was just a little cave of great gear collected over time. Nick had a bedroom too with all his records and film posters. I always felt like I was in Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner when I was down there. You could stretch out and let the weight of the world start to roll off you. But to get upstairs you have to walk through the gauntlet of people waiting around the shelters. Upstairs it was a playground, and like school girls running through the fields, we let our imaginations run free. When I walked over to the window, I didn’t hear the cries of men. I saw a Garden of Eden that could be, and I knew all I could do about it was try to sing like a bird does. We recorded “Touch the Flame” and some of the songs with a more live sound at Dan Horne’s studio.
BW: And he was the original Fatal Jamz producer, right?
MB: He was. We recorded the first Fatal Jamz record at his place. That was all tape in a tiny room, but that’s a conclave where a lot of great musicians work. It has a great vibe.
AE: It had that huge, wall-sized plate reverb. It was pretty amazing.
MB: That first Fatal Jamz record was done so differently than Coverboy. It was five, six guys. I would bring in a song the day of the recording, we’d learn the song that day, and would really work hard on the arrangements as we were going.
BW: So when you’re talking about the first Fatal Jamz record, that’s not 17 & Hung?
MB: No, there’s a record before that that’s just called Vol. 1. We did that whole record with Dan Horne.
BW: When was the tracking for 17& Hung done? Were those the tracks that go back several years?
MB: We tracked for 17 & Hung, which came out as a digital EP and cassette, at the time of Coverboy, actually. I did the title track with Evan Conway, who works a lot with Matt Fishbeck and Holy Shit. He’s just a real shy, eccentric producer who is sonically a beast. We worked on just that one track for about a year and a half – meeting up about twice a month. Silver Scream is all the demos that go back to 2005.
BW: Is that the album that Don Bolles was involved with somehow?
MB: Don came to the Penthouse two days, and he played on a number of things kind of toward the end. He opened up over a couple of the songs, and a lot of what he did made it on the tracks. He’s on the track “Silver Scream”. He’s a good homie, and he’s game to work hard.
AE: He appreciates good stuff. He knows what’s good, and he’ll stand by it.
MB: He was the DJ at my wedding - He’s a good DJ.
BW: Was he? Cool! If you could let him loose and have him play what he really wants to play as a DJ, he’d probably be totally amazing.
MB: You wouldn’t know any of the bands!
AE: That’s what he does at his Hushe Club night.
MB: Yeah, that’s a great night.
BW: You brought up Weyes Blood, for whom you opened on a tour. You’ve also shared the bill with Gene Loves Jezebel. They both sound like good match-ups.
MB: It was awesome. We loved being on the road with Natalie and Shags and they were awesome to take us out. I see us as a festival band because we are kind of hard to put in a box. I envision us at festivals with rap groups, big pop groups, and rock ‘n roll bands. We have our own genre.
AE: We want to tour with The Cure and Kendrick Lamar.
BW: So that leads me to other questions I have. How do you feel about the word “glam” that seems to always be attached to Fatal Jamz? Is that something that just got rolling, or is it really accurate?
MB: Sonically, we probably sound way more new romance, but categories are too limiting and I don’t feel attached to any of those things. To me, the music is glamorous because it’s full of secrets and talks about a secret world. It’s not about Rodeo Drive, because Rodeo Drive isn’t in itself glamorous. But the feelings you had driving there once with friends is. I obviously love glam rock. I always used to say that I’m the love child of Johnny Thunders and Cindy Crawford. And I love Hanoi Rocks. But I love the pop music aspect of it – it’s more of a postmodern cross-over thing. I think it’s always going to be glammy and romantic.
AE: I think that label comes more from how we dress, too.
BW: Right – I feel like it’s more of an esthetic. You’re certainly not glam metal.
AE: And nobody’s really one genre these days.
AE: It’s just what we like, and usually if you can put a label on it, that helps people. Usually when people ask what genre we are at a show, I just tell them they’ll see and can decide for themselves.
MB: I like the term “Romantic Fatalism”. It’s very emotional, romantic, and euphoric. That’s something I care about, and not something I work to do. When we were doing our residency, it was like two days after the election, and it was a heavy time to play, but the scene and the atmosphere [at our shows] was so euphoric and up. It’s its own world when we play.
AE: It can be escapist to go to a Fatal Jamz show and not have to think about that kind of stuff, but at the same time, we want to tap into the energy people are feeling as well.
MB: It’s trying to tap into something sacred, past all the noise.
BW: On the topic of genres, when you’re in the writing stage, do you edit and filter, or is that all in the production? Like, I know you’re a Tupac fan, and do you ever say to yourself while writing, “Hm, that’s not Fatal Jamz territory”?
MB: I know what you mean. I think at this point, everything I’m writing is Fatal Jamz, because I’m just one with it. But then maybe you have this beautiful, spare, acoustic song. “17 & Hung” sounds very different than the song “Coverboy” production-wise, for instance. But there is a unity to it, and now that the Coverboy album is out of my system, the question is where do you go next. Do you want to go totally free and not worry about what people expect, or do you want to hone into one part? And I think the songs determine that.
BW: Would you consider the Friendship album Marion Belle, or Bowery Beasts?
MB: That’s Bowery Beasts. It wasn’t a solo record.
BW: Your mom knew a lot about mythology. Did that influence your songwriting, and if so, how?
MB: I think [it influenced my songwriting] a ton. She taught a class at my school called “Bible, Myth, and Epic”, so in my house, she was always talking about Greek myths, and she gave me big picture books with the stories of Icarus and Theseus and the Minotaur and that kind of stuff.
I think the mythology and archetype of a rock ‘n roll singer is something that I related to. I didn’t think about that until I’d been in L.A. for a while and looked back at why I wanted to be a singer. I think it had something to do with some sense of being a leader, and the myths are just stories you tell to make sense of things and find transcendence in the mundane. She subtly showed me those things.
BW: Coverboy seems like a series of character portraits, and maybe “Nikki Sixx” is the most autobiographical.
MB: Yes – it’s very direct in a way.
BW: You were born in Nashville, and grew up outside of Philadelphia, but your story is an L.A. story.
MB: I feel like L.A. is like the Labyrinth. “Nikki Sixx” talks about that right away. When I first came to L.A., I was very naïve, and I didn’t really have any goals except to just be a singer and artist. That’s something I’ve embraced with all the hurdles I’ve had to jump through. The songs themselves become the armor in order to keep embracing that lifestyle.
BW: As I understand it, you’ve got two more installments in your L.A. trilogy coming up after Coverboy, right?
MB: Yes, that’s the plan. The idea is that I came to L.A. and then a sense of destiny grabbed me. There’s no looking back – this is what I do. The trilogy idea is that I’ve been doing this for eight years, and I don’t have any backup plan. I want to sing about that perspective – what it’s like to be completely fucking overlooked. What it’s like to be…not suicidal, but fucked up and really, really lost except for the music.
I don’t often find what I talk about in the music I love. [Someone] like Robert Smith is not necessarily talking about these things, though he might have experienced many of them. Iggy Pop is at times talking about stuff like this, like what it’s like to be left for dead on the streets. So what I found interesting about singing from that perspective is that I could describe something that most singers we’ve ever listened to do experience – the temptations. Rappers do it a lot more than rock ‘n roll singers. I want to be open about it, and make it fun.
BW: Will the second and third installments of the trilogy be an extension of Coverboy, or will they go in a different direction?
MB: I think the Coverboy story is about a lead singer trapped in his own labyrinth, and hopefully the next one will be more direct. It’s more about relationships. Coverboy, with songs like “Lead Singer”, has a real chip on its shoulder.
AE: It’s pretty literal.
MB: It’s pretty literal! [laughs]
MB: Now we’re freer than that. I don’t feel that chip on the shoulder. That picture is painted now, so now it’s more about the purity of the song.
BW: What’s the process like in a Fatal Jamz writing session? Is there such a thing, or is a gradual process? Does it happen while recording, or is it more ahead of time?
MB: There are a couple ways it happens. Some of the Coverboy songs came about like “Jean-Paul Gaultier". I wrote that song on acoustic guitar with all the [sings rhythmic pattern]. I brought that in to Nick who learned the song through the guitar. Then we slowly built up the track.
Most of the time, songs start with me writing on a guitar. Right now Andy and I have started writing together. I do a lot less fucking around with the production in my spare time. I used to demo a lot. Like on “Gigolo”, I demoed the whole thing.
BW: So what’s a demo – is that you and a guitar?
MB: And a drum machine, and all the little touches I like. But now Nick and I can work so fast. We’ve got a language down from years of being friends who believe in each other. The music is pouring out, so we just need time and some resources to deliver on the big lush vision of the trilogy. Patron saints hit me up!
BW: Your dad plays piano, right?
MB: He does.
BW: Do you play as well?
MB: I was like a failed student, probably because my dad was always trying to teach me. I was frustrated because he can sight-read Beethoven. That’s why I found singing later, because I stopped trying to play piano, and started singing with him at the piano.
He plays every night, so I would come home from school, and he was in the den playing. That was his mystical time.
BW: What style of music does he play?
MB: His nature would be to sit down and play Chopin or Ravel – real romantic, soft and quiet. Do you know Keith Jarrett? He sometimes plays like that, and it makes me think of my dad.
BW: So what do 2017 and 2018 hold in store for Fatal Jamz?
MB: We have a really good agent, so hopefully we’re going to go to Europe in the fall. If we’re able to lock the kind of shows we want, we’re going there. In June we’re doing an Orange County residency at the Constellation Room, which is just another opportunity to showcase the record with a really good band.
BW: Fatal Jamz has this under-the-radar thing attached, but it seems like I’ve heard from you that you want to be mainstream. Is that accurate?
MB: We want to be huge.
AE: Who doesn’t? And if they say they don’t want to be, they’re lying. We want [our music] to get to the widest audience possible – whoever wants to listen to it and enjoy it. You don’t have to please everyone, but we want to be known, play to big crowds, and have a blast.
MB: Even on the Weyes Blood tour where we weren’t headlining, in every city there were super loving fans who heard our music. We’re going to keep taking it up a notch. That’s just what we do.