Interview: Satchmode Turns Grief into Electrifying Dreampop

Lead singer Gabe Donnay on Satchmode's upcoming record, electric influences.

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Satchmode's lead singer and songwriter Gabe Donnay is sitting across from me wearing a green sweater plastered with trippy, California-inspired imagery: palm trees, neon shoes, lines of black melding with green, bright colors in the darkness. It turns out his fashion sense makes perfect sense with the themes that tie up the band's latest record. Love Hz. The latest record, despite it's extremely danceable, 80s synth-pop sound, is strung together by the classical stages of grief. During our conversation, Donnay was buoyant as he discussed the band's upcoming tour, turning his grief into danceable bangers, and how he translates a jazz and bluegrass background into a dream pop sound.

Who are your influences?

I think the ones that come through most obviously are M83, Todd Terje, Hall & Oates, Phoenix, Phil Collins. I think there are some less obvious influences, too, like Glen Hansard, Darkside,The Field... so kind of more deep house producers or ambient electronic guys. I think that stuff is sprinkled in there, too.

What's your dream collaboration?

Oh, that's a good one; I wasn't prepared for that (laugh). Just in general, I want to work with a female vocalist. It's something we haven't explored and I'd love to do. I really love old country duets, kind of like Hank Williams-era male/female vocal duets, so I'd kind of like to do a modern version of that.

Where do you hope to take Satchmode as it grows?

Well, I'm already looking to the next album, and this has been a really fun project because I feel like it's the first thing I've worked on where I can really use all of my influences. I think dream pop is a great term because of the drama, the subconscious––anything can happen in a dream. There's no question of what makes sense or why it's there, and that's how I approach the arrangements for this band. I'm not afraid to use anything, and have kind of a weird musical background that I like to draw from.

How weird, exactly?

My intro to music was studying classical violin as a kid, then I learned classical piano and played guitar and bass in rock bands. I studied jazz in high school and jazz organ in college, but I grew up playing bluegrass and folk music in Maryland. It's a weird hodgepodge of influences you don't usually hear together, and there are things I can draw from each of them that apply to what I'm doing now.

Tell me how the current band came together.

I started this project in Baltimore, moved to Philly for a while, and then to L.A., so all the guys in the band now are L.A.-based. Before that, it wasn't really a live band kind of project, but once we got to L.A. we wanted to play shows that were more high energy and had a live feel. Through some mutual friends, we met the guitarist, Bo Jacobson––he was from L.A., so we put the band together form the rest of his friends out there. This group has been playing together for about 2 years now.

You guys are starting your tour next week; are you excited?

Very excited! It's going to be the first time we're playing a bunch of songs on the record and we've been in the studio a long time working on the new album, so we're very excited to actually get out and play the songs for people.

What's the best show you ever played?

Our last tour, the show in San Francisco was great; there was a really high-energy crowd. We've played there a few times, and it was just great seeing a lot of the same people at that show that knew all the words to our songs, so that was nice.

You're also focusing on the West Coast for this upcoming tour; have you guys ever played the East Coast?

Not with this band; we want to. It's on our list.

Is New York on your radar?

Yes, of course!

What were you listening to when you were making Love Hz?

A lot of the same references we were talking about; I know I was listening to Todd Terje's It's Album Time on repeat in the early stages, and a lot of early Phil Collins. I also listen to a lot of weird shit: a lot of jazz, a lot of Bill Evans, bluegrass. I'm not sure that stuff shows up, but I am always listening to it!

Can you tell me what the new record's about?

There's definitely a theme that ties together the whole album. It's about the stages of grief you go through at the end of a relationship, specifically about that time when you're still in a relationship with the person but it's falling apart and there's no hope of rescuing it. You're not ready to let go, so your mind is going through all these contortions, trying to wriggle out of the situation you're in even though there's no way out. Each of the songs is tied to one of the classical stages of grief.

There are two songs from the Afterglow EP on this record, "Hall & Oates" and "Never Gonna Take You Back"; what led you to include those on the new record?

Those songs were important to me, lyrically; the thing we talked about earlier, about the stages of grief, it felt like they were a part of that arc. They fit nicely into the flow of the other songs on the record.

It's interesting that melancholy ties the album together, seeing as the sound is extremely upbeat synthpop. How do you convey grief through joy?

I like to write very direct lyrics; I think that's effective for the emotions I'm trying to get across. If the music was also very directly conveying those emotions and was really sad, I think it'd be very melodramatic, honestly, so making the arrangement contrast the lyrics gives me room to go even darker. Also, you know, I want to write music that makes me want to dance––that's fun, and it kind of sneaks in the sadness. You don't realize it the minute the song comes on, but if you like it and you listen to it again, you'll start to realize there's a dark message in almost all of them, so I like that sneakiness.

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