Photography: Hazel & Pine
Every year the industry delivers a fresh pool of pop potentials, each with their own angle and flickering promise to take over Top 40 radio. Most often backed by a major label, these breakout acts come through with an immediate, palpable sound, and one that embraces the accessibility of pop, while slyly edging it toward uncharted sonic territory. Within this pack are Lonnie Angle and Thomas Dutton of the LA-based duo Cardiknox, a rising outfit whose independent electro-pop sound was swept up by the Warner Brothers beast, further developed and finally packaged into their debut album Portrait, out now. Of all the new artists we’ve heard thus far in 2016, Cardiknox is the indisputable champ with a clear sense of self and DIY spirit still in tow.
While they began building quiet buzz a few years back with soaring synth-heavy tracks like, “Wasted Youth,” and, “Technicolor Dreaming,” Cardiknox’s first full-length album features all new material with a similar ’80s tinge and lyrical innocence. This forthcoming project is for the shameless poptimists whose Fridays are spent downing tequila shots and writhing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”—someone who finds solace in the sounds of bright drum-beats, powerful melodies and layers of nostalgia. They’ve capitalized on the history of pop’s greatest hitmakers, taking notes from the best in order to break ground and carve out their own space.
Portrait is a strikingly well-rounded release, giving a full scope of what Cardiknox has to offer. They’ve pieced together a cohesive three-headed monster, each head delivering its own attitude on the 12-track LP. One boasts a bratty tongue-in-cheek demeanor, laced with powerhouse guitars and confrontational instrumentals—something heard on “Wild Child” and “Supermodel.” Another revels in the cinematic glitter of Madonna, Prince and Cyndi Lauper—a sunny perspective voiced on album standouts, “Perfect Storm” and “Into the Night.” The last, a more melancholic head to the beast, unravels with walls-down introspection on cuts like, “What Do I Do” and “Shadowboxing.” This debut is an “album” in every sense of the word—an experience best absorbed from start-to-finish.
We caught up with Cardiknox ahead of the project’s official release this Friday to talk about signing with Warner Brothers, writing from the perspective of Lonnie’s mother and looking backwards for inspiration.
I was first introduced to Cardiknox when you opened for Betty Who a few years back.
Lonnie Angle: That feels like a lifetime ago. It was like Cardiknox 1.0.
You disappeared for so long and suddenly returned with Portrait’s lead single, “Doors.” What happened during that time?
LA: A lot of writing.
Thomas Dutton: We really felt like to go to the next step, we needed to be with a major label to do what we wanted to do.
LA: But we didn’t want to rush that.
TD: We didn’t want to force anything and wanted to beat everything we’d ever done before, so we just went into hibernation.
LA: After touring with Betty Who, we started doing studio sessions back-and-forth between New York, where we were based at the time, and Los Angeles. Once we found our album’s producer, John Shanks, we hit the ground running. He committed to the project before we were signed; he’s a big pop producer and we spent six months with him, like every day.
TD: In the middle of it, Warner Brothers came into the picture. Our manager worked on another project with Kate Craig there, who signed us. He played her the first few songs we were working on with John and two days later, we were playing our music in the President’s office at WB. They were like, ‘Don’t stop, just keep doing what you’re doing.’
I’m always interested in the big label jump and how that shifts the creative process. Were there any new limitations or powers saying, “We envision this kind of Cardiknox?”
TD: WB has been incredible with creative control.
LA: Either they’ve been incredible or we’re just super crazy. We have a lot of conviction about what we see this being. It’s our baby.
TD: When we were unsigned, we could finish a song on Tuesday and put it up on Soundcloud Wednesday, whereas with WB, we finished the album almost a year ago and it’s finally coming out [March 11]. Once you get into that system, you have to wait because it’s a huge monster—a powerful machine, so you have to be patient.
LA: It’s crazy when you realize it’s become so much bigger than us. When we started writing these songs, it was just the two of us in a living room in New York and working on a computer. Now, we’re working with a huge team that’s excited to hear the new music—it’s wonderful.
Considering it’s transformed into such a massive project, did you feel newfound pressure when making the music?
TD: It’s a double-edged sword. When we were doing this on our own, we’d release songs without changing a thing. With the label, we have a lot more time to tweak things. I think that can be beneficial. ‘Wild Child’ is hugely important to the album, but when we submitted the album a while ago, it was going to be a b-side. If we’d released the album on our own, it wouldn’t have made the cut, but since it went through the whole WB system and got feedback, ‘Wild Child’ is now a single on Portrait. At the same time, as a writer, it’s a thing we call ‘demo-itis.’ Nothing’s ever good enough. There’s a quote by Leonardo DaVinci that I love. He says, ‘Art is never finished, it’s only abandoned.’ You just have to let go at some point.
How do you describe your brand of pop music?
TD: When we first started, it was a bit more electronic. We shifted to be a little more center—more pop-sensible. We brought our sound to a more lush place. We lean heavily on ’80s stuff, which it’s been great working with John, someone who made records in the ’80s and even has the same type of keyboard Prince recorded with.
LA: It was the music I grew up with and that my dad played for me. There’s a lot of nostalgia in those sounds. I’m huge on nostalgia and I think our album is nostalgic in a lot of ways.
TD: The ’80s was a really cool time for music because it’s when technology became a huge part of music—it was the very beginning of that. The ’90s was almost pushing back at that with grunge, but the ’80s was the beginning of drum machines, sampling, sequencing.
Lyrically, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia on Portrait, as well. Where does this come from?
LA: It’s important for us to be storytellers. I drew a lot from my parents’ divorce, which happened in my early adulthood. It was this earth-shattering, out-of-nowhere event. They’d been together for 39 years, so it rocked my world. At times on Portrait, I’m speaking from the perspective of my mom and tapping into what she went through. Heartache and having to recreate yourself are strong themes and things we’ve all experienced. ’Shadowbox’ is about struggling with my dad and not speaking with him for a year, but then rebuilding our relationship. Portrait is nostalgic, yes, but we’re speaking to our own life experiences.
You’re right, these don’t feel like sad songs—they’re empowering. I’ve been listening to “Into the Night” nonstop and it’s the perfect song to walk downtown to.
TD: We worked on that with the producers behind, [Walk The Moon’s] ‘Shut Up and Dance,’ and I remember we looped the chorus for about 20 minutes because it felt like the end of a John Hughes Breakfast Club-type movie. Walking off into the sunset, into a new chapter of life.
It’s very immediate and I think the best pop is immediate. Is there a track on the new album that you feel is the most quintessential Cardiknox?
LA: ‘Earthquake’ felt that way.
TD: When we wrote it, everything clicked.
Portrait is your official debut album and the lyrics in “Earthquake” really reflect this breakout energy. Was this conscious?
LA: “With ‘Earthquake’ it was deliberate. We were in the process of talking with a major record label for quite some time and being courted by them. It was looking like we were going to sign, but one day, we got a call from our manager saying, ’It’s not going to happen. It’s falling apart.’ The next day Thomas was like, ‘I want to sing something to you.’ He sang the chorus of ‘Earthquake’ and I fucking lost it. We wrote the song that day. I remember my dad saying, ‘Record labels come and go, but hit songs don’t. Write a great song.’ That was the song that got us signed to WB. When we played that song for Dan McCarroll, the President, he played it again and again and said, ‘It’s a fucking hit.’
The new album has that exact kind of resilient energy.
TD: Nothing comes easy. I don’t know that it does to any band. Even with ‘overnight success’ artists, I think there’s 4 years of ‘overnight.’ The person who wins Best New Artist at the Grammys has been trying to break in for like 15 years. You have to be confident about the path you’ve set for yourself, keep going and trust you’ll get there.
“What Do I Do” seems to come from a place of defeat. What’s the story behind this?
TD: That is probably my favorite song on the album.
LA: This is a track written from my mom’s perspective, but I threw in some lyrics that weren’t all a part of her story—things that made it feel a big younger.
TD: We put ourselves in her shoes.
LA: But then wrote it so it’d be relevant to everyone.
TD: It’s our own experience through her lens. With the bridge, I thought there was something really powerful about the line, ‘I’m turning off my cellphone; I fall apart when my favorite show’s on’—these things you can’t get away from. Like if you used to watch Mad Men with them and then it comes on. It’s very emo, almost like that Dashboard Confessional song, ‘Your Hair is Everywhere.’ We tried to really tap into that heartbreak.