Everything about Calm Down, the full-length album by Zoe Kravitz–fronted Lolawolf, seems effortless. From her languid vocals over sparse re-imaginings of '90s R&B beats to the band's "we're not trying to be cool" cool-kid brand of style to the organic way the members approach songwriting, there is nothing about this band that says "try hard" or even "try."
Kravitz and bandmates James Levy and Jimmy Giannopoulos describe their music as an organic product of "boredom," lots of "late nights," and a desire "to just make some shit with their friends"; still, Lolawolf now has a well-received album and a gig opening for Miley Cyrus during the Australian leg of her tour. So is that DGAF attitude their secret to success? They don't know. "Are we successful?" asks Levy. "I mean, it’s not not successful."
In advance of their show at Rough Trade tonight, the Cut spoke with Kravitz and Levy about their band's aesthetic, Pee-wee Herman, and how to make good music when you are just all out of fucks to give.
How did you all meet?
James Levy: I was a waiter at this place called Café Mogador, and Jimmy and Zoe came in one day and I kind of knew Jimmy from around, and I was like, "What are you doing, man?" And he was like, "I’m starting this group with Zoe. Do you wanna be in it?" And I was like, "If I must." Then we started out and the magic happened and we all became friends. We were just looking for something to do.
Zoe Kravitz: It was kind of a product of boredom.
So, in those early days when you were working out what you wanted Lolawolf to be, how did your sound develop?
ZK: I don’t think we thought about it very much.
JL: We were just trying to make stuff on the spot.
ZK: We were more curious about what would come out if we kind of just made shit. It was just very much a product of late nights. It wasn’t like we sat and thought about the songs we were trying to do, which we did a little bit more on the record. For this album, we recorded every day — usually a song a day. For this album, we worked in two different places, and you can feel it in the songs. One group of songs was recorded in the Bahamas, and those have more of a tropical, tribal vibe like "AYO," "Jimmy Franco," "Calm Down." The other group of songs were recorded in Las Vegas, and those tend to have more of a '90s R&B feel to them — "Bitch," "Skipping Days."
What R&B were you listening to in order to get that throwback sound?
ZK: A lot of old TLC and Aaliyah and A Tribe Called Quest. And then you said, too, like Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky and things that were very, very beat-heavy. Then, like, old Missy [Elliott] and Timbaland. Things like that.
Tell me a bit about your visual aesthetic. How did the image for your album cover come about?
JL: I think it’s very immediate, really.
ZK: It’s super immediate. I mean, for example, we made the art for the cover of our album in 24 hours. I took a picture of myself; when I first took the picture — I was in Italy at a film festival — on an iPhone. And I sent it to him and he made the wolf head on it, and there was the album cover. It was made that quickly. We didn’t have a studio or someone telling us, or our record label telling us, "Oh, this is not cool. We’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna hire this person." We just made it in 24 hours. That’s kind of the way we wrote everything. And I think because of that, it actually makes our aesthetic more potent, because you don’t overthink it. That just naturally comes through.
What about the band's style?
JL: I don’t think we talk at all about it.
ZK: I think we ask each other, "Do I look bad?"
JL: Yeah, she wants to look good. Sometimes they hint that I should never wear again — I was wearing, like, a Cubs wife-beater.
ZK: It was really tight.
JL: It was?
JL: Well, that’s what I mean. No one actually told me, but I sensed it. This is the first we’ve talked of it. I mean, no one really cares.
Zoe, you were already well known in your own right. Was it difficult to establish Lolawolf as its own thing instead of just “Zoe Kravitz and her backing band”?
ZK: I think it comes through in the way we interact with each other. I think you can hear it in the music as well — especially if you know us. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that these are not just guys I hired to be in my band. Everyone’s presence is pretty loud.
JL:. I don’t really care what a perception is. It didn’t really matter to me, you know? I just wanted to make music with my friends, to be honest. There wasn’t anything special. I was just doing it. I mean, now I guess people know about it a little more. I don’t think I would have made music with anyone if it didn’t feel easy or they’re not even in the neighborhood, so it was just something to do.
I’m interested in the kind of people you’re collaborating with. What’s the creative scene like right now?
JL: I think we just collaborate with anybody, if that makes sense, like if it’s a friend next door. I don’t think it has anything to do with indie or young. It has nothing to do with popular. Maybe we’d do Miley Cyrus or we’d work with someone in the neighborhood at the same time. Not the band neighborhood, but the actual neighborhood that we live in. So I just think it comes with whatever happens thematically and if we vibe with those people. Just because we’re creative, we just wanna make shit. It’s like, "Let’s go somewhere and we’ll make something tonight." Or, "Let’s do a video on Instagram." When we think someone’s doing cool shit and are around, we just wanna make shit with them.
Are there people out there you want to work with next?
JL: I don’t think it’s like that. I don’t think there’s any desire to [be like], "Let’s work with this person."
ZK: I mean, look, there are cool people out there that we’d be like, "Yo, Quentin Tarantino wants to direct the next Lolawolf video." That’s cool. So there are cool people out there, you know? If Mike Jones feels like coming and doing a video.
JL: Like if Pee-wee Herman wants to come and do a cameo.
JL: I mean, sure, that would be amazing.