Interview: Zach Charles Of A R I Z O N A Talks ‘ASYLUM’ & “Hold The Line”
A R I Z O N A has a lot to celebrate this month. Last week, the New Jersey trio unveiled their sophomore album ASYLUM. The follow-up to 2017’s breakout release GALLERY features a wealth of thoughtful electro/alt-pop anthems. That includes previous singles “Nostalgic,” “Freaking Out” and “Find Someone” alongside several new gems. And they marked the occasion in style. How so? By rolling out a video in support of their latest emotional earworm “Problems.” This week the group continues celebrating with their first headlining performance at Tecate Live Out 2019.
Recently I had the opportunity to hop on the phone with lead singer Zach Charles to talk all things ASYLUM. The hitmaker opened up about what the group felt ahead of the release date, how the music compares to GALLERY, the album’s title and dove into several songs on the tracklist. But that’s not all. He revealed a timeline for how “Hold The Line,” their song on Avicii’s posthumous album TIM, came together. We also spoke about their third album, which is already in the works, the potential for a tour in 2020 and other ways A R I Z O N A plans to engage with fans.
Check out the “Problems” video, dive into our interview and press play on the rest of ASYLUM below.
Right now you’re just a couple days away from ASYLUM’s release. How are you and the rest of the band feeling?
Oh, man. Honestly ever since we finished it I think there’s been an overwhelming sense of this sigh of relief. It’s been very good because it has been a very long time that we’ve been working on this album. Maybe not a long time that we’ve been working on it per se, but it’s been a long time that we’ve been in this cycle. Trying to balance tour and also everything else that comes along with it and still giving our hundred percent to something like an album has been a lot. So now that it’s done, I think at this point we would normally be nervous. But now that we are where we are, it’s been two years basically, I think we’re just very happy that it’s done. We want it to just go out in the world and do what it will for the people that hear it.
You’re just ready to let it go!
Just ready to let it go, yeah. Which honestly is not a thing you get to experience a lot, you know? A lot of people sometimes they have to do it then they crank it out. Then they put it out, and you have trouble letting it go. But I think we, on the flip side of the coin here, the positive is that we are so ready to let it go that it’s a nice peace that you don’t get to experience very often. It’s nice.
You mentioned that you’d been working on the album for about two years now, which is about how long it’s been since you dropped GALLERY. Did you start thinking about a follow-up immediately after GALLERY dropped or did you take a bit of time to regroup?
We released GALLERY, and then we were on the road basically immediately afterwards and even kind of during, I guess. There was a lot going on because A R I Z O N A happened so quickly for us. So it was a busy time on the road, and I think that we knew we were eventually going to get together and start the second album. The idea was to get ahead of it. But we got so busy on the road that we had to wait for a little while until November. I remember really getting into it around Thanksgiving, I don’t… a year or two ago. And when we did, we had some trouble because we wanted to be in the right creative headspace to start a second album right away. But it’s tough.
Being on the road and then being home and then trying to make an album are just very different headspaces. I think that’s why it took us a while to sort of get into it. But we knew that it was coming. What I will say is I can answer the question this way. Now that the second album is done, and we sort of learned the process and we’re a couple years deeper into this whole thing, we are now thinking about a third album. So we’ve started the work on writing and doing some album stuff already. So yeah it’s relatively back-to-back for sure.
That’s awesome. I can’t even imagine nailing down that schedule where things are constantly changing. But it’s great that you’re already thinking about number 3.
Yeah. We already started making some demos. And some of the songs that didn’t make it to album 2 are still kind of cool and in question. So there’s a lot of stuff in the vault, for sure.
I’m wondering… How would you say that the material off ASYLUM differs from what you were doing on GALLERY?
That’s a very interesting question. I think that GALLERY was something that we may not achieve again. Or if we do it will be later on. In the sense that maybe a lot of musicians go through this. Or artists in general. But the process for GALLERY was very different. It’s a snapshot in time of life going from one chapter into another. Unlike the other times of our lives. You know? You go from not being A R I Z O N A to being A R I Z O N A, and then you have to create your first album. So it’s a very interesting lighting in a bottle thing. I think that ASYLUM has something different to it than GALLERY. GALLERY was us just sort of making our first album ever and letting it be just stream of thought, right? Very stream of conscience.
I think that ASYLUM is something that we had more fun with. We had more of an idea for. We said “let’s take this time to make this album and really make it about our life the past year or two specifically. And some of the difficult things we’ve gone through song content wise. But let’s try to make jams as well and have fun with the theme and make a lot of cool dance-y, sort of high-energy records.” It was very interesting. We had a lot more fun with ASYLUM because we got to a point where we just had to think about it. GALLERY we didn’t have to think about. ASYLUM we had to think about, so we didn’t want to make it feel cardboard. But we wanted to be very adventuresome.
I wanted to ask about the title. How did you come up with ASYLUM, and why did that speak to you for the title for the whole body of work?
Well a big theme for the songs this past year for us that we have released. And some of them are on this album. And then the rest of this album in general. A big theme for it has been sort of living life as freely as possible. Even if that means sometimes going through difficult things that you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. You know, being OK in uncomfortable situations. Our whole thing recently that we’ve been sort of playing with is the idea that a lot of times you get put into uncomfortable situations with yourself or your life, the idea is that you have to either take a lesson out of it or you lose entirely. The uplifting part of ASYLUM was a concept that Dave kind of came up with.
And asylum, we looked at it sort of as double-meaning. It’s like an asylum is a place like an insane asylum. You know you go and get locked up in when you kind of lose it and can’t take it anymore. But at the same time, you have things like refugees seek asylum as well as a kind of safe place. It’s just sort of a play on the idea that sometimes you’re going to lose control of your situation or yourself. But that can also be a safe space to be. And it’s also a controllable thing. It’s just a matter of how you handle it. So ASYLUM has a double-meaning on it. It’s just a play on sort of an ironic look at things.
That’s cool. I hadn’t even really thought about that because my first thought was a safe harbor. So it’s interesting to see how that can spin with the double-meaning.
Yeah. I was also thinking that you’re the first person I’ve had out of context. It’s good to know that you went to the safe space first. That’s kind of cool. It would be an interesting case study.
Something else that you mentioned is that you have been dropping songs over the last couple of years. Several of those are on the album. While you were releasing them were you planning on putting them on ASYLUM’s tracklist? Or was it more at the end when you were going through them and deciding what made sense to stay?
A little bit of both. I think that there were some songs this year like “Freaking Out” that we absolutely knew we wanted to include in the project. And then there were a bunch of other songs that we released throughout the year that we weren’t really thinking about which ones would go on the end result. It was less of that and more just trying to release music as we had it knowing that we had a larger body to finish.
Towards the end is when we started to think about “hey guys, cool. We really want this one to be on the album. Do we want this one to necessarily be on the album or can it live on its own?” I think it was just a mixed process. We sort of took this year in stride as much as we could. It was interesting to see when we had to start making decisions. It was kind of a cross that bridge when we get to it type of thing most of the year.
Another song that you had released that I wanted to talk about was “Nostalgic.” I think it’s a really cool song because in my mind when you talk about nostalgia in pop, I tend to think about it in a really positive way. Whereas on the song it feels more resolved looking back. More melancholic. Does that make sense?
Yeah. I think that’s sort of plays off the theme of the whole collection of songs on ASYLUM. The personality of ASYLUM is like that where there’s a lot of double meaning. There’s a lot of at first glance and then. There’s a lot of irony that goes into what these songs are about and how they feel. And also how they sound. I think “Nostalgic” was one where it was interesting in that sense where sometimes these moments that these songs are about, including “Nostalgic,” have not necessarily super amazing or positive reference points. But I think that they’re just very gray area. It’s how you take them.
“Nostalgic,” and looking back on something and having regrets about something, could be a learning process for people. And it can be a snapshot in time of something from a better place. Or it can be something that you’re just sitting in at that moment. I think it’s very up to the person.
Now you’re moving into releasing “Problems” as the next single, right?
I believe so, yes.
I think that’s probably one of my favorite songs because there are a couple of lines I find so relatable. I was wondering if you could talk about how it came together and what it was like working on the song?
Of course. Basically it was a song that sort of came to us as an outside idea from some friends of ours. It wasn’t really entirely fleshed out as it is now, I guess. Because we worked with it quite a bit. “Problems” was kind of… it’s another one of those records, man. Like I said, ASYLUM is just through and through these songs that are very interesting because when you listen to them one way they can be one kind of song. And when you listen to them another way they can be another kind of song. I think it depends on how you’re listening and where you’re at in your life. But what are some of the lines that you’re referring to?
When you’re talking about how you wish you didn’t care what people thought about you. I think that’s such a human and relatable thing that so many people are always going to be struggling with. It’s something I consistently find myself struggling with.
Everyone does. That line is “sometimes I can’t tell if anybody even really likes me. I shouldn’t care, but I still do and that’s a little frightening.” We all know who we want to be and don’t want to be. We know the things that should and shouldn’t bother us. But that doesn’t mean that we’re always that person. It doesn’t meant that the things that shouldn’t bother us don’t. We all know what we’d like to be in a perfect world, but at the end of the day we’re not. We’re just not. I don’t know if we ever will be one hundred percent.
And that’s the idea. The idea is that there’s always growth happening. The simple fact that growth is always happening means you’re not going to be one hundred percent where you’re trying to be at this moment. Having songs like that and not making them these terribly melancholy, down-tempo ballads, you know? Having fun with the music and the productions and putting them into a collection and having the colors be so bright and all the designs, having fun with things like that is sort of a celebratory way of going about viewing those things. Everybody can be better.
You may not want these things to be the way they are. And you want to be a different person but you are right now. That’s fine. Just know you’re not alone in that. And everyone does feel this. Trust me. Everyone feels this way.
It’s interesting too, because I feel like this is something I just talked about with Natasha Bedingfield.
What she had said was that when you’re listening to a song that sounds so upbeat and you think it’s going to be a happy song. Then you’re listening to the lyrics and they make you think more. She had mentioned how that kind of situation with a happy-sounding song with more honest and even sometimes painful lyrics it puts it out there in a way that’s easier to relate to.
Yeah. Because who wants to sit there and sulk and listen to a terrible downtempo ballad on your way to work? It’s like… Listen. You’re going to have nights where you’re going to be sitting home alone drinking some wine and hanging out and doing nothing. Thinking about how terrible life is for an hour before you get over it. And you’re going to play one or two of those songs, right? Everyone has those nights. But at the end if the day, if you want to tell people something then I think it’s cool to have it be a full spectrum.
You can make moments in time. You can have songs that are complete moments in time that people will go to when they’re there. And then you can have songs that are just fun and anyone can relate to. Whether its just physically and musically or it’s conceptually. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark.” You know? It’s one of the coolest songs ever, but when you listen it’s like “oh shit.” It’s like terrible. But that’s the cool thing about it.
It kind of feels like the same idea comes through in the video, too. It’s dark but has a cool vibe with all of the disco balls. It’s also interesting because it feels like the videos you released this era have really been very diverse and showcased a variety.
We tried a lot of different things. We had a lot of different crews and a lot of different ideas. This most recent one was amazing I think. We shot two other videos, sort of visualizers because we had a bunch of set design there. The crew was amazing. We try experimenting and having fun with everything we possibly can. We don’t put too much thought into it. I think that’s the cool part of it.
You shot two more visualizers. What songs are those for?
Man, that’s a great question.
Dude it was three or four things in a day! One of them was “Still Alive.” And the other one was “Where You Are.” My girlfriend had to tell me. I’m sitting in the car with her. “Still Alive” and “Where You Are” are the two we shot alongside “Problems” that day. “Problems” was the big production, but we had one or two other cool little sets set up at that location that the crew was shooting. We were able to get two other things out of it. And it was a lot of fun.
“Still Alive” is actually another song that I wanted to talk about. I think it was particularly interesting after hearing “Hold The Line” because they both really have that message of survival and resilience. And I love that you’re closing out ASYLUM with that. I was wondering if you were thinking about “Hold The Line” while writing “Still Alive.”
I don’t think there was a direct connection. If I’m being candid, I just had that kind of life. I think that everyone has in some way or another. And it was just a theme, I guess. Occasionally for me at certain parts over the last couple of years because of how deep we got into making this album and how crazy life has gotten you just have moments of collecting everything. In a way that you normally don’t get an opportunity to do so. “Hold The Line” was one of those day where we got together to write a song and that came out.
And I think “Still Alive…” You know what’s so funny? They were with the same guy. Our buddy Andrew Jackson is the guy we wrote “Hold The Line” with, and he’s the guy we wrote “Still Alive” with. It’s so funny. I just thought of that. Maybe we just have epic fucking conversations man? I don’t know. But basically we just got together and banged out another record that day. But it was this sort of uplifting thing. We all go through so much shit in life and there’s always a slight feeling. After a certain amount of years and after a certain amount of shit to get through. There’s a certain feeling of being able to look back on it like “wow.” I don’t know how I covered that much ground that I’m still standing. But I am.
That’s a cool thing that people need to hear. It’s OK to sometimes look back and be like “Jesus, that’s so much ground we covered. What happened?!” How did we get this far and we’re still alive. We’re still here. It’s simple. Because you’re stronger than you realize. That’s going back to the whole overtone of the album. That’s one of the things that the whole cycle in itself touches on. Everyone goes through everything. It’s OK to do that. It’s alright to not be totally OK right now. But you are stronger than you realize. I think that’s maybe why it was a good ending note.
I love that and it totally comes across. And it’s so true.
The resilience of the human spirit man. Wild.
Yes. I did want to ask one or two questions about “Hold The Line,” too. I was hoping you could talk about how it felt to have a song on TIM and how you got involved with the project.
Well so Andrew Jackson came in one day, and we sat down. We were all kind of hanging out, and we ended up writing that song. Then it got put into our folder of ideas we had written this year as we’re making our second album. Tim and his team had sort of been in touch with us before. We had a bit of a relationship going for a while. We were originally supposed to do something on his initial retirement album but timing didn’t work out. Then I think what happened was we… Obviously we all stayed in touch and would send stuff back and forth and whatnot. But then what transpired transpired. What happened happened. And that was a shock in itself when we found out that Tim had passed it was very shocking.
Then not long afterwards we found out that there were maybe a handful of collaborations that he was trying to do and really excited about and working on. There were a few songs that were very close to him. It got narrowed down to a very, very ridiculously thin number. That “Hold The Line” was one of those songs that he’d started working on, and it was very close to him. When we found out we were blown away. Basically the family got in touch with us and were like we’re putting together an album. If we got you what he started could you help put it together?
We opened up the stems in the Pro Tools session. It was weird because we struggled with it for a month or two. Because I’m not Tim. How am I going to finish Tim’s record. I think that was a difficult thing because we tried so hard to keep it intact and keep the integrity of what it was. Because to be like “here finish an Avicii album” is like what?! You know what I mean? It usually works the other way around. So it was a very interesting thing to approach, especially with the gravity of the situation. It was intimating almost. But at some point we let go of that.
We said “listen we have to accept the fact that none of the songs on this album are going to be done or finished because the most essential part of them is missing.” I think that’s possibly the point. The idea is not for them to be finished. The idea is for them to get the point across and hold the message that they hold. And together as a body of work show that there is a piece of Tim here and a piece of all the things that were really important to him here. And that’s enough. Here it is on display for the world and let it go and speak to people.
That was kind of what it was from start to finish. It was just sort of accepting that and doing the best that we could to keep it intact and build it out. Hopefully it’s gone out into the world and done some good things for people. Because that’s another strong similar message to ASYLUM.
It’s interesting to hear how it came together. It gives you chills in a way to hear how it all worked out.
Yeah. We had no idea. No idea. It was pretty wild.
I think it’s great to have a song with a message like that out. I love that you’ve recorded acoustics for it, too. You’ve done a lot for the track.
That’s how it started originally. The original version was really not a piano but a little synth. One little bare kind of synth, slowed down version. So when it came out we wanted to do the acoustic version to let it live in the world the way it started as well.
One last question. You already mentioned that you’re thinking about a follow-up to ASYLUM and that you had started thinking about ASYLUM while touring. Do you have plans to tour ASYLUM as well?
Absolutely. We have our first headline show coming up in Mexico next week. Then we’re also playing live at Dusk Music Festival. We have a lot of one-offs like that. We show up and play a show then kind of move on. A full tour is probably coming end of the first half 2020 I imagine. Sometime in May. I think spring 2020 is what we’re shooting for at the moment. Because we’re going to take some time to really start writing for album 3. Basically starting now. I’m sure between now and then we’ve really gotten into doing events. Both digitally and physically. We did a cool event for Seamless. We did some Air B&B concerts.
We really really value experience over production. Even though a tour is a great way to put them both together, when you’re not on tour and don’t have the production I think it’s still really great to do little pop-ups or one-off events. I think one of our plans for the release of ASYLUM is to go do a livestream and pull apart some of the Pro Tool sessions for people watching. Any time that we can get people together to hang with us whether its livestream or we can do it in the studio. Any time that we can get people together to hang that’s something very valuable to us. Between now and the next tour there will be a lot of opportunities to come and see and hang with us while we’re writing the third album
That’s cool. Something to look forward too. Awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.