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Interview with Alex Feder, Lead singer on the XYZ affair

Posted by mikedotephoto on June 13, 2008

Alex Feder, the lead singer of the pop rock band- The XYZ Affair, was kind enough to give me an interview. Enjoy!

Me: For starters, what’s your background?
Alex: My personal background, or the band?

Me: Well, let’s start with yours.
Alex: Okay. I am originally from Maryland, right outside Washington, DC. I went to a small private school that didn’t have much going on in the way of music and I wasn’t involved in the DC scene at all growing up. I moved to New York in 2001 to go to NYU for Jazz Guitar. I had recorded a bunch of songs on my own and wanted to put together a band to play them. I formed XYZ’s original lineup in the second semester of Freshman year.

Me: Cool- who was in it then?
Alex: We were a five piece. It was myself, Chris, and Sam, plus a friend of mine from high school on second guitar, and a college friend of mine on keyboards and saxophone!

Me: So, how has the band changed over the years?

Alex: To be honest, the longer I’ve been in New York, the more I’ve become disillusioned with the indie scene. What first appealed to me about it was the fact that I had only been familiar with radio music, and then here was this world of NEW music that was different, creative, and way better than Limp Bizkit. But as it’s gone on, “indie” has become just like “alternative,” which is to say that it’s a style of its own as opposed to a band on an independent label. At this point you get one Arcade Fire and then a billion bands who suddenly have violin players. You get one band with Wolf in their name and then a billion bands to follow. It’s becoming a parody of itself.

I’m always worried that I’m going to come off like a jerk when I talked about indie music like that. Let me clarify: There are plenty of indie bands I really like, and I love the Arcade Fire and would take 1,000 Arcade Fires over one Daughtry. But at the moment, I am more fascinated with pop songs than a lot of what’s going on in the indie world.

At some point I just started becoming much more interested in writing pop songs. I have always considered our songs poppy, but I stopped worrying about whether it’s “indie” or whether people in Brooklyn will be into it.

I have a semi obsession with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” these days. I mean, for one record to have 7 hit singles, and to be that solid of a record throughout, is simply amazing to me. The writing is smart, the hooks are undeniable, his voice is insane, the arrangements are brilliant. So yeah. I just want to make my version of “Thriller.” A pop record that is pure pop, but really intelligent pop that stands the test of time.
Well…and a pop record that’s based in the rock band setup as opposed to having it be synth/horn based.

Me: So, you mentioned intelligent pop before- care to elaborate as to what makes it intelligent?
is it the lyrics, the sound, the rhythm… or does it come down to context?

Alex: Sort of hard to really pinpoint it, but I feel that there is something inherently smarter about “Thriller” than, say, “Dontcha” by the Pussycat Dolls. The melody is amazing, the bass line is amazing, the groove is amazing, the harmony is amazing. You can achieve catchiness through pure repetition of an idiotic phrase, like “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas, or you can achieve catchiness through creative arranging and a great melody, like “Cry Me A River” by Justin Timberlake.

But there’s no one thing. Sometimes you get bands that play straight forward music with amazing lyrics, and that’s what gives it its unique edge. Sometimes you get bands that are more about the melody and harmony and the lyrics don’t have as much meaning, like the New Pornographers.

Me: So, are you saying that Justin Timberlake is better than the Pussycat Dolls?
Haha. I mean, in my opinion, Justin Timberlake is far better than the Pussycat Dolls. But both need a lot of help from the music industry machine, so the next Pussycat Dolls album could be filled with undeniable hits, whereas if Justin loses Timbaland, he might be up shit creek without a paddle.

Me: So, do you think the last 5 years have been good for music?
Alex: I think they have been interesting for music. So much has happened! I mean put it this way: we were struggling so hard as a band before we made our silly little Youtube video last summer. Ever since then we’ve done way better and had many more doors open for us. So we can thank YouTube for the last year of our life as a band…and YouTube didn’t even EXIST a couple years ago! Same thing with Myspace. And home recording. I think labels are still essential for distribution, promotion, funding, etc. But it’s much easier to get your name out there than it used to be. It’s easier to let people know that you exist. Labels now read blogs to find out about bands. I can guarantee you that when Stereogum and Brooklynvegan first started, they had no IDEA that at some point they would be such huge tastemakers.

The point is that the entire landscape of the record industry is different, mostly thanks to technology that’s come to be in the last 5 years. Everybody can start a myspace, or a blog, or make their own video and let people see it, and consequently the model is totally flipped upside down.

Me: So, what do you think motivates the music industry? Do you think it’s just profit driven, or is it still about the music?

Alex: At this point I don’t even think the music industry knows what motivates the music industry. Obviously it’s a business, so at the end of the day the bottom line HAS to come into the equation. But I do believe that they’ve woken up and realized that if you focus more on quality you might end up with a product that has staying power. That’s why majors are snatching up Indie bands left and right. DeathCab for Cutie might not sell 1 million records in their first week (not that anybody does anymore), but however much they sell will be the same for every record as long as they keep putting out good records. It obviously makes more sense to sign a band that can sell a few hundred thousand records every time as opposed to a band that might sell a million records once but will probably be a flash in the pan. So I would like to think that with all the downloading and the success of smaller bands that yes, the record industry might be starting to think more about long term investments and quality.

Me: Absolutely. Do you think it’s a more competitive field nowadays? Is it tougher to book gigs? To fill them?
Alex: It’s insanely competetive. I have no idea if it’s more competetive because I wasn’t involved in the industry before this era. But I know that it is really competetive now. Booking gigs isn’t tough, but filling them is damn near impossible, especially in New York City. Every night there are hundreds of bands playing live.

It’s really tough to get people to choose YOUR show over every other show. In the last few months we’ve been so so so fortunate, and certain press and web sites have taken a liking to us, so that has helped our show attendance.

Just to draw a comparison of New York to other places: there’s a band we play with in Georgia who can easily draw 500 people to their shows, and it’s a band that is not huge outside of Georgia. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a New York band that draws 500 people in New York and 50 in every other major city. The bands that draw that many are bands like Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend, who draw really well all over the country. It’s just a little bit tougher in New York because there are so many bands here.

Me: Well, you know the saying: If you can make it here…
Alex: Haha yeah. It’s definitely true, in my experience.
Me: Anyhow, being in such a competitive environment must breed some bad blood, and I’m sure people have done some nasty things to each other… what’s the worst thing that someone has done to you or your band?
Alex: To be honest, nobody has ever done anything bad to us. It’s less that people will do bad things to your band, and more that it just sometimes feels like some sort of exclusive club. It’s such a bizarre “which came first, the chicken or the egg” kind of thing: in order for people to like you, you have to get on the blogs and have to play with bands that people like. But in order to play with those bands and get on the blogs, you have to have a crowd and respect, etc. But no, we’ve never come across a band that has purposefully done something harmful to us in any way. One blogger did called me an “emo twat waffle.” But hey, everybody’s entitled to their opinion.

Me: So, if you could pick one place to play, where would it be?

Alex: In the entire world? do you mean a city or a venue?
Me: For starters, a city
Alex: Oh god I have no idea. I think we’d do well in Japan, for some reason, so I’d love to play there. I’d love to play someplace in Europe. But in the U.S. I have two favorite cities that we’ve played at: Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Lawrence, Kansas. In Fort Wayne we played with a band called Orange Opera who were great, and the crowd, though small, loved us. It was just a really nice welcoming crowd. In Lawrence we played at a High School called the Bishop Seabury Academy. The kids were great, the staff and administration were great, the high school bands that played were great. Just a super fun fun time

Me: In the end it’s about having a good time and doing what you love. What is it about music that makes your heart flutter?
Alex: Not a clue. The first time I knew I wanted to do it forever was when I was in seventh grade playing in a cover band. We played at my friend’s Bar Mitzvah party for a couple songs, all classic rock covers. I just knew I loved it. No clue why.

Me: Anyhow, out of all the musicians that ever lived… who do you respect the most?
Alex: As far as songwriting goes my personal choices are all cheesy and obvious, but I’d say: Michael Jackson, Prince, The Beatles, The Band, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Totally uninteresting I know. But oh well. They made all the best music, gotta give them credit for it.

Me: That begs the question- who are your least favorite musicians?
Alex: I don’t really have many “least favorites.” We recently played this game called “Bottom Five,” started by our friends in the DC band ‘JukeBox The Ghost’. The idea is that you pick bands that have to be well liked that you just don’t relate to or dislike or get under your skin. So for instance, you can’t choose Nickleback because everybody knows they are terrible. But one of them chose Bob Dylan. The idea is that it’s somebody who you recognize might be inherently good, but you just can’t stand for some reason. It’s really tough. A friend of mine made a funny comment when he said: “Can I put the entire genre of indie rock in there?”

I might get crucified if this gets widely read, but I chose The Smiths, The Doors, Bob Marley, Joy Division, and Sonic Youth. I KNOW that these bands made music that people like and respect and live by, I’ve just never been able to relate to it myself. I am not saying that XYZ is better than these bands. I am not saying that I don’t respect them for being immensely talented, influential, and ground breaking. I am saying that they’ve never hit the spot for me.

Me: No worries- it’s perfectly fine to respect someone’s merits, but not be interested in their art
Alex: Ha, tell that to the commenters on Brooklynvegan.

Me: I sense some resentment towards the commenters… what did they say?
Alex: No, they actually were merciful to us, thank GOD. But just for a lark, go read the comments on ANY article on there. It is the most consistently mean, negative, petty, terrible shit you could imagine.

Me: Why do you think things are that way?
Alex: Because it’s easy with the internet. You don’t have to be a published writer any more to have your opinion be widely read, all you have to do is own a computer.

Me: On the other hand, doesn’t the digital age account for a good amount of your success as an artist?
Alex: Oh absolutely. I mean, the negative commenters don’t have any real bearing on anything. I was just stating that they do exist, and they do exist purely because it’s easy for them to exist.

Me: True. So I’d like to close with one last question. It’s a toughie, so brace yourself.
Alex: Ha. Uh oh.
Me: If an elephant got into a fight with two grizzly bears, who would win?
Alex: Hm. Two grizzly bears makes it interesting. I’d still go with an elephant. Just cause they’re huge. At least, when I was a child and went to the circus, an elephant was the biggest thing i could possibly imagine. So I’m going to stick with that opinion of the Elephant as the largest thing on the planet and assume it would win.


7 Responses to “Interview with Alex Feder, Lead singer on the XYZ affair”

  1. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. […] update: Michael interviewed Alex concerning his thoughts on intelligent pop music, the animal kingdom and what the “bottom five” is. Check it out […]

  3. […] Interview with Alex Feder, Lead singer on the XYZ affair At this point you get one Arcade Fire and then a billion bands who suddenly have violin players. You get one band with Wolf in their name and then a billion bands to follow. It’s becoming a parody of itself. … […]

  4. Guy Gadois said

    Having heard a slew “indie” (am from Washington, DC – despite what Feder says, we get our share), can honestly say XYZ’s the real deal. If ever there were a group that should rise above the fray, they’re it. Refreshing to hear well written lyrics and music that tell a story and, a day later, are still in your head and hummable.

  5. Guy Gadois said

    Lame writing – meant to write “slew of “indie” bands. What do you expect from Washington, DC, land of politics and little else that gets done.

  6. […] and who lead singer Alex Feder feels would win in a fight between an elephant and two bears — check out the following interview from earlier in the […]

  7. Shannon Hicks said

    This was a really cool article, it wasn’t to serious and go the message across perfetly. I now love the XYZ affair and can’t wait for more music from them

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