Cardiknox Interview: The Synth-Pop Duo Discuss Making Debut Album ‘Portrait’ With John Shanks

Cardiknox's "On My Way" Video
Watch the duo dance in their one-take video.

Cardiknox have been hard at work, hitting the pavement ahead of the release of their Warner Bros. debut album Portrait on March 11. The synth-pop duo’s current supporting slot on tour with The Knocks wraps this weekend, after shows in San Diego (February 12) and Los Angeles (February 13). From there they’ll jump on Carly Rae Jepsen‘s Gimme Love Tour, which will have them on the road through the end of March.

We first took notice of Cardiknox, comprised of former theater major/singer Lonnie Angle and musician and onetime Forgive Durden member Thomas Dutton, in 2013, when we branded their lyric video for independently-released single “Technicolor Dreaming” one of the best of the year. (Their band name, by the way, is a play on Dutton’s mother’s maid name of Cardinaux — just one of the many clever quirks of this pair I picked up on while grabbing coffee with them at New York’s Ace Hotel in chilly mid-January.)

Below, catch Idolator’s chat with Seattle natives Lonnie and Thomas, who now live in the City Of Angels after recording their major label debut album with Grammy-winning producer John Shanks.

IDOLATOR: You’ve upped stakes and are now living in Los Angeles after several years in New York!
THOMAS DUTTON: Pretty much. We basically recorded our album there when we still were living [in New York]. So we were going back and forth a ton. We were thinking about trying to make a bi-coastal thing work, but it’s just too much to do.
LONNIE ANGLE: Too impractical.
THOMAS DUTTON: But we’re originally from Seattle and obviously we spent a lot of time in New York. So we bounce between those three places quite a lot.

You recorded your album Portrait with John Shanks, who I personally admire because of his work with British boy-turned-man band Take That.
LONNIE: It’s so funny. They’re like the third best-selling act in the UK.
THOMAS: I think it’s like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Take That.
LONNIE: And then you say their name here and nobody’s heard of them. It’s wild.
THOMAS: It’s crazy, even with how open the Internet has made everything, that things can still be so regional.

And he of course worked with Michelle Branch on her first album.
THOMAS: When we first got to write with John, the thing that I was most excited about was that he wrote “Pieces Of Me” with Ashlee Simpson! I loved that song and I was so excited to talk [to him] about that.
LONNIE: He’s a genius.

How did you come together with him?
LONNIE: I actually have the same publisher as John, and so we were set up to do a writing session, just a one-off writing session.
THOMAS: We were doing a lot of writing sessions at the time with this guy, that guy, this producer…
LONNIE: Different producers. So we went in and he’s the only resident producer at the Henson studio in Los Angeles. He’s had his own room there for 15 years. We were like, “Oh my god, this is so cool!” Two days turned into four days, turned into a week, turned into him being like, “I want to do this record. I’m producing this album.” We didn’t have a label at the time.
THOMAS: This was before we were signed.
LONNIE: He was just like, “Let’s do it.”

So you recorded the album with the mindset that the label situation would sort itself out.
THOMAS: Exactly. We were planning on just finishing [the album] and maybe shopping it around, but through our management, Kate Craig, who’s our A&R at Warners, came in and she loved it. A day or two later were sitting in [Warner Bros. president] Dan McCarroll’s office playing the music for him. Warners came into the picture about halfway through but they were so great about, “This is great, keep going.” They were never all of a sudden, “Okay, now we need to be hands on.”
LONNIE: They had a lot of trust in John too. He’s well-seasoned and has been in it for so long.
THOMAS: He was vouching for this music.
LONNIE: We spent nearly six months in the studio, which was a total gift to get that much time and to be dedicated-writing for that amount of time. it was very special.

The Jim Henson Company studio is where “We Are The World” was famously recorded.
THOMAS: John’s room is room is right across from that room. One week Coldplay’s there and the next week Slayer’s there and then Justin Bieber’s walking down the hall.
LONNIE: And we’re like, “Hi, guys!” We’re this baby band. It was so cool! We were talking to Bonnie Raitt. It was so surreal.

So let’s talk about the synthy sound of Portrait. How close was the finished version of the album to the original vibe you set out to capture the beginning?
THOMAS: That’s a good question. We had been making music, just the two of us, and we had four or five songs we had self-released prior to this.

Including “Technicolor Dream,” which we posted here a few years back.
THOMAS: “Technicolor Dream” was probably the one that most resembled the direction we wanted to go — synth, ’80s-sounding stuff. But it still was just missing that, I don’t know, that oomph a little bit. So John really was that missing ingredient for us to take it up a notch and elevate everything a little bit. A few of the early songs we wrote with him were about still feeling out the vibe, in terms of finding the right sound, the right kind of equation. He actually came out to New York and we wrote out of an apartment the song called “Earthquake,” which is the first song on the record. That was really the first one where everything clicked into place, like this is the Cardiknox sound. From that point on it was easier to have all the right elements in play to put the right songs together.
LONNIE: We had at that point been talking to a big record label for about a month. We were going down this road of being courted by them, so to speak, budgets were being discussed, blah, blah, blah. And it fell apart right at that moment. John was in New York, we were in the middle of writing and it was a big letdown because we had spent a lot of time being in discussions with them. So that’s where [“Earthquake”] came out of — “I’m gonna rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.” We’re not gonna let this defeat us.
THOMAS: That was still pretty early on with John and that’s when he was like, “Well, fuck it — let’s just make this record. We don’t need a label.”
LONNIE: And that’s the song that got us signed to Warner Bros.!

Your video for “On My Way” is heavy on choreography for both of you. Does dancing come natural to you? Lonnie, you have a theater background.
LONNIE: That’s the extent to which I dance, in musical theater land. I took a couple of fun dance classes in college.
THOMAS: My high school homecoming is about the extent of my dance background.
LONNIE: We were lucky because the choreographer we worked with — her name’s Natalie Gilmore — was one of Justin Timberlake’s dancers out on tour for the past few years. She’s very talented and she’s an old, old friend of Thomas.
THOMAS: I’ve known her since high school, actually.
LONNIE: So we had this concept. We wanted to do this movement performance-based thing all in one shot. We were like [to Natalie], “Will you work with us? Because we are not dancers.” She was excited. We spent a lot of time working with her to make sure we weren’t doing things out of our comfort, because we didn’t want to look ridiculous.

“On My Way” was done all in one shot. How many takes were there before you got the video right?
LONNIE: We ended up getting 10 takes, in terms of the time that we had allotted to be shooting. [The video] is the ninth take. And funnily enough it was a stressful take, because the sun had changed.
THOMAS: We were shooting early in the morning, at like 6 or so.
LONNIE: We were on set at 3 a.m., started shooting at 6 and originally, when I come out of the bar, I was supposed to go left and go down the street. But the light changed, so I had to go right, which made some of the moves change. So it was like, “Let’s hope this works!” And that was the take that worked.

Check out all of Cardiknox’s upcoming tour dates here, and be sure to pick up their debut LP Portrait on March 11.