A decade later: A conversation with Aly & AJ

Pop rock duo talks industry problems, perks of independence and upcoming tour

alyaj_image_3_preview

Aly & AJ is still the sister-powered pop rock group from the golden age of Disney, but Aly and AJ Michalka are no longer under anyone’s creative control.

They make their own decisions.

Last year marked an entire decade since the duo’s last album, “Insomniatic,” an appropriate time for Aly & AJ to release their first independent project “Ten Years.”

With a new perspective of the creative process and years of success under their belts, the Michalka sisters are taking their string of ‘80s-inspired and synth-infused anthems on tour to Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre on June 13.

Before the duo embarked on their tour, The Spectrum caught up with Aly & AJ to discuss the show, upcoming releases, Disney Channel-oriented music festivals and industry-wide problems.

Q: “Ten Years” is something special. We’ve seen this massive resurgence of ‘80s sounding synth in music and you guys use it magically. Did anyone from that era directly influence this EP or did you draw inspiration from those who have made the sound their own recently?

AJ: A little bit of both actually. I think there needs to be modern elements in order for people to really relate to this type of music. I think if you start and go down the rabbit hole of old ‘80s tunes, you can alienate some fans that have stuck with us for so long. So there’s a modern element with synth references from Beach House, Tame Impala and some people that I think have done electronic pop in a really cool way. And then trying to not emulate but at least restore some ideas from people like Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran and Depache Mode. Those were artists that kind of led the influence for this new record.

Q: After using Pledge Music to support the release of the project, even with the change in direction musically and all those years off, what was it like to see fans supporting the endeavor?

Aly: We kind of used Pledge Music as a way to help fund little things that were kind of outside the EP. In terms of the EP production, that was all directly out of pocket unfortunately. But it’s cool that you can make music now in a much different way than when we put out our first album. We were so reliant on a label and needing that label to back us on distribution and so many different facets of production, from photography to the actual making of the record to hooking us up with songwriters. But now it’s been really in our hands and we’ve been fully in charge of all the decisions that were made whether it’s a font to use or a single that we want to put out. It’s really been just basically up to us. Obviously our goal would be that we do get re-signed, but our goal would be very particular and very specific about who we would want to sign with and they would understand the vision that we have as artists. But at the end of the day, putting music out now is so different that putting music out in even just the early ‘00s. People can make a full record now in their basement and get it mixed and mastered and it can be out on iTunes. AJ and I don’t run Pro Tools, so that’s the only thing that’s stopping us from doing that. Other than that, we technically could just be producing our own album and that’s what’s really cool about how far the music industry has come.

Q: And seeing both sides of the industry: independence and label support. Comparing the two, which would you say has been the most enduring?

AJ: I think the most enduring and the most fulfilling is doing it on our own. Now that we’ve really locked in our sound and we make every decision. That power is wonderful, not that it’s power, but because you have a vision and you’re able to apply it. You can have a vision all you want and most of the time you’re younger and under a major label, you can’t necessarily apply that vision. I think it’s really a cool thing that Aly and I are behind every element. The fans then can truly look at every image or every song title or every lyric or every social media post or whatever and know that it directly comes from Aly and AJ. With major label artists… you don’t necessarily have a say unless you’re Beyonce. It was great being under a major label because I think it spread our music out to a large base and now has carried us this long. But now that we’re independent we make our own decisions and coming up with the ideas and being able to actually launch ourselves is really cool.

Q: I saw your podcast with Shane Dawson and you guys mentioned higher ups questioning your songwriting during that era, sometimes even trying to alter lyrics. Do you feel like if you signed now you’d be able to prevent this due to your success as artists and musical growth, or do you think this is a deeper industry problem?

Aly: It’s a deeper industry problem, for sure. I think not only a deeper industry problem, I think it’s a deeper company problem. I think it’s one of those things that, I don’t even know if it’s based on us being women. I mean I’m sure that plays a part in it because I don’t know necessarily if their male artists were being treated the same exact way, but a lot of it was very much age-oriented and us being so young and doing what we were doing at such a young age. I think [this] was so shocking for the label to handle -- almost “this can’t possibly be what is actually happening.” At the end of the day, it’s hard to be an artist and a young artist and to be creative openly and it’s very hard to take criticism at that age. I take criticism a lot better now. We also aren’t nearly as sensitive about criticism. If somebody really truly didn’t like a song of ours and we actually really loved it, it actually wouldn’t affect us at all or hurt our feelings. I think back then we would’ve taken it more to heart. It’s kind of interesting how just growing up can change how you react to a certain situation, but yeah. I think if we were back there I think the same exact problems would be happening. Or if it wasn’t that exact problem, it would be some other monumental situation that we’d be having to battle, unfortunately.

AJ: Yeah, but I also feel like on the other side of things, if you have a great team surrounding you that kind of sticks up for your artistry and you’ve proven yourself with enough traction with our fanbase and singles doing well and whatever, that can also be momentum for the label… They’ll have to listen because we’re at a level now where we’re kind of gaining more power. It really is weird. Depending on how well you do and depending on the situation you can get away with a little bit more.

Q: You tweeted a couple days ago that before you guys pursue the next full length studio album, you’ll need a label backing it. With the Aly & AJ brand along with your Disney past, do you think that attracts label attention, or do you think there’s a stigma that comes along with it?

AJ: I think both. It’s weird. It’s such a tricky thing because there’s already a fanbase which means the label – in a weird way – is like “there’s less work to do because there’s already a foundation built therefore you’re not starting from ground zero. However, it’s not always the sexiest thing either because it’s like “well they’re already established, they’ve been gone for so long and now they’re back, their Disney past” and they also probably know that you can’t take advantage of an artist that’s already been around the block. There’s a beauty of starting out from the ground up because the full control of what the big man can do is a lot bigger than what you’re able to control when the artist has been there and done that. To me it’s attractive but it’s also not. It’s really just going to be about the right pairing and not really just the label but the person who we end up signing with; an a&r guy that really listens to the music and understands our sound just like our manager does. Aly and I will have to be super cognitive of our decision because I don’t want to end up in a position again where we’re with a label that doesn’t understand exactly who we are.

Q: Being in the whole Disney circuit years back gave you plenty of memorable business ventures. You guys had an MTV Cribs, which is wild and you performed at the White House and even had a Nintendo DS game – which I hope you play every day. Is there anything you often reflect on or do you hold onto this stuff?

Aly: We definitely thought it was cool in the moment. But I don’t think we also knew how lucky we were to have been given some of those opportunities. I think now we look back on it like “that was really not normal and that was something that we might have taken at least for granted just because we were young and naive.” [We were] never ungrateful but I think other things in or life were sometimes taking the front seat so we didn’t realize like “woah, that was actually a really big deal that we were able to be a part of that.” We definitely thought playing at the White House was a big deal. I would’ve loved if it had been Obama’s era but there’s definitely been some cool milestones that we’ve reached. A goal of ours is to play the Greek Theatre at the Hollywood Bowl. If we get to a place like that we’ll really be tripping on how big that is just because of seeing shows at those venues. If we can get to that place in the next few years, that will be amazing.

Q: Moving forward, I know there’s talks of a follow-up EP in the works. Is there anything that this follow-up may have that maybe “Ten Years” didn’t musically or lyrically?

Aly: I don’t know. I think more than anything it just feels like a progression even from the EP that was released in November. We’ve even grown from that point in time. With these new songs, they’re a little bit more upbeat, like not looking back with disappointment. The subject matters are more like inspired and feeling good about the relationship that you’re in, where as “Promises” and “The Distance” and “Take Me” are more like “I couldn’t do this” or “it didn’t work out” or that kind of sentiment.

Q: I’m sure with this new sound you’ve brought in a lot more fans who may not have been familiar with your previous work. When you’re on a tour, do you see more of the old fans or do you get a glimpse of new people?

AJ: It’s funny because we definitely have a group of fans online that we know well that have been part of the Aly & AJ world for years. But in the last few months, with the EP dropping and some attention on Spotify and the music video coming out, people come up that didn’t know Aly & AJ before and are digging the EP. So I think it’s a mix of both. I think on this tour we’re going to have a lot of die-hard fans that waited this long to see us tour again. But hopefully they bring people or spread the word to people that never knew Aly & AJ.

Q: You’ll hit the stage on June 13 in Toronto. After so many years exploring your talents in other fields, how excited are you to revisit the Aly & AJ live show? What are you looking forward to most?

Aly: Playing these songs in a live aspect. It’s so different than singing these lyrics and melodies in a studio. We’ve already been able to king of work the kinks out in terms of the EP because we’ve already played the EP live now a few times. In terms of re-working old songs and really just re-learning these new songs in this different atmosphere, it’s been really cool for AJ and I to see how the songs have kind of morphed. I think we’re just excited to see the fans reaction to the music and hear them singing along, just to see what their favorite songs are. I think that’ll be cool for us to take to our future writing sessions. Knowing that the fans are responding to a [certain] type of song, we can write more of those for them.

Brenton Blanchet is a managing editor and can be reached at Brenton.Blanchet@ubspectrum.com.