The Heartlights interview by Alxis Ratkevich

Jun 15, 2017

The Heartlights from Oakland, Calif. blend power pop punk with thumping garage guitars and female vocals. They bring something fresh to the genre with their take on songwriting, layering a mix of sweet—and sometimes self-deprecating—lyrics over catchy, toe-tapping rhythms. The band’s humor and high energy in both their live performances and recordings ensure everyone has a good time. And, according to the band, that’s pretty much the point.

I’ve know Jason Testasecca (guitar, vocal)—or JT as I call him—for a long time. I don’t even want to say how many years because it will make me seem old, but it’s probably longer than some of you reading this have been alive. He’s one of my favorite people and I love all his musical endeavors from his bands Elvis Christ and Squirtflower, to playing with Nobunny. One could assume that I’m pretty biased, but, honestly, my appreciation for each one of his bands is based purely on them fucking ripping. I was super excited when I heard Jason was working on a new project with Maggie Aytac (lead vocals, bass). The couple recorded two songs together and those songs evolved into a band. Now with members Tyler Santoro (guitar/backing vocals) and Pascual Santiago (drums), they’re gearing up for their first release ...oh dear... The Burger Records album is a perfect fit for the label with its dreamy vocals and fun, rockin’ sound.

The Heartlights came down from Oakland to shoot a video for “You’re So Cute It Hurts,” directed by my husband and me. So after two days of running around Los Angeles filming, we sat down at my place, drank too many beers, and talked about all things Heartlights: from album art to the musical process, and how Maggie’s realization that being a teacher was “extremely embarrassing” led to the birth of the band.

Alxis: Where are you originally from and how does that influence your music?

Jason: I’m from southwest Florida. I was a big indie rocker then. I just liked noisy guitars and stuff. I still love all that. There was really only a small group of people who showed me what the cool stuff was—some of the more glam and punk stuff—so there’s a part of that in our music. There’s a more pop thing too, where we’re not trying to be all dissonant and guitar-noisy. I love a lot of music like that—it’s just not where I’m trying to come from. We want to be fun. That’s the main aspect of what I want to do.

Maggie: I was born in Berkeley but I grew up mostly in Cupertino, which is near San Jose. There’s no youth culture there, just eight people who wanted to play in bands and just played three birthday parties or some shit. [laughs] So for me to try and play in a band was totally not a thing. It was kind of unthinkable.

Alxis: So when did the shift come for a band being unthinkable to a possibility?

Maggie: Not playing music with people was totally a decision about trying to avoid embarrassing myself. Then I became a high school teacher—I didn’t realize how extremely embarrassing that job can be—so I was just like, “I’m not even scared of anything anymore. I don’t even care. Fuck this. I’m gonna die soon!” So it took thirteen years, but I thought, “I’m just going to do this. Why not? It’s fun. Can I just have fun, please?” [laughs] “Day after day of not playing music, it’s stupid!”

Alxis: How did you decide to start writing and playing music together?

Jason: Maggie’s role in other bands had been as a bass player or a keyboard player, but she didn’t have too much of a hand in crafting the songs. So she wrote her first song, a song about me, and I just pitched the idea of recording it together. It snowballed into, “Let’s write more songs,” into finally, “Let’s be a band.”

Maggie: You (Jason) showed the first song to some of our friends. They were really supportive, so you were like, “I guess we better name this project.” [laughs]

Jason: Yeah, that really encouraged us to try and come up with some more songs.

Alxis: How did you decide on the name The Heartlights?

Jason: We went through several sessions of trying to figure out what the band should be called—that’s always difficult. Then the more we sat on it, the more it just seemed right.

Maggie: Originally it came from us watching a lot of both good and shitty ‘80s movies. We were watching E.T. and Jason came up with it.

It’s cheesy and funny. It’s a nod to E.T. but it’s not so obvious, especially to people who are under thirty. It’s not so spot-on that you would automatically think that. [laughs] He has a heartlight and there’s a Neil Diamond song and everything. I’m not the hugest fan of that song—and to be honest I’m not crazy into E.T. either—but it was the biggest thing in the world when it came out. I loved it as a kid. E.T. is the ultimate, iconic ‘80s movie and it’s a cute name. It just seems to fit ‘cause that’s what were into—we’re into cute.

Maggie: I like when band names represent what’s going on in their music. I like it as a music show goer as well, that you have some idea what the band might be like. I’m still going to look them up and listen to their music, but I like having at least a vague impression of what it’s going to be like. Having any “the somethings” name like “The Heartlights,” I liked that because it is timeless. It’s also like, “Don’t expect Mr. Cool tough guy.” I mean, we’re gross, but our band’s not. [laughs]

Jason: Yeah, our band’s not supposed to be gross. If it is, we’ve missed the mark.

Maggie: I also like that a name like “the somethings” implies that we’re not trying to invent a new…

Jason: …way of naming bands. [laughs]

Maggie: We tossed around Maggie And The Meatballs. Jason was showing me Small Town Security, the spicy meatball rap, and I started calling Jason a meatball.

Jason: But, obviously, Maggie And The Meatballs is not nearly as good of a name.

Maggie: Yeah, it’s like we’re the appetizers and we’d open for Personal And The Pizzas. [laughs]

Alxis: We just need to find that dessert band you’ve been looking for.

Jason: The Tiramisus. [laughs]

Alxis: Tell us about your song writing process?

Maggie: “Can I Come By,” which is the first song I wrote, I was thinking about the root notes. The lyrics were the very first thing I could think of. It all happened in like, ten minutes. Then the second one, “Make You Care,” was almost rewriting the Sparks song, “Beat the Clock.” It’s really funny because it’s full of all this hyperbole like, “Went to school when I was two, Ph.D. that afternoon.” It’s really just ridiculous and over the top with how great he is. Our version is basically the feeling that if I did great things, it would never impress the other person. So I just thought it would be funny to make up all these fake accomplishments that are totally implausible.

Jason: She does claim in the song that, “I straighten out the leaning tower / I put an end to all white power.” [laughs]

Maggie: “I brought your grandparents back from the dead / You shrugged and got back into bed.” [laughs] I think that part is kinda funny.

Alxis: How do you work and collaborate together?

Jason: Depending on the song you’re talking about, it’s a little bit different. I’m really more of a collaborator than anything. Usually Maggie would have either the whole idea or a little bit of the idea and some of the lines. It’s usually not a full idea, except on the first song, “Can I Come By?”

I wrote “Let’s Make It Right” with Dan (Thee Makeout Party, The Oil Pans) and Brad (The Bradleo Administration). Dan and Brad never even meet each other, but Brad—he’s done this a couple times—wrote a song and just gave it to me. Then, basically, Dan and I rewrote the lyrics and I wrote all the music. It’s still sixty-seventy percent Brad’s words, but I wanted to put my spin on it. I wanted Dan to put his spin on it, too. Dan works really fast. He was really awesome. He read the lyrics and was basically like, “This line isn’t as interesting. This line here is kind of repeating what he said earlier. Move this here. Nix this.” Then when I read it, it just seemed like it could work.

Maggie: “You’re So Cute It Hurts”—I actually thought of the lyrics when I was on a long bus ride and that song’s about Jason, too. Then on “She’s Been Bad,” Jason wrote the song and I contributed lyrics.

Alxis: Tyler and Pascual, you’re the newest members of The Heartlights. How did you get involved with the band?

Pascual: I’ve played for a few of Jason’s other bands in the past. I think at first I was just like an on-call drummer for last-minute local shows, but every project of his I filled in for I really liked. Over time, I think we learned to play really well together.

Tyler: I had a show with my other band Lyle Lorraine and my friend broke his finger so his band had to back out of the show last minute. I was scouring, looking for other bands to hop on the bill last minute, and I found The Heartlights. I really liked the Bandcamp recordings, so I messaged Jason and asked if he wanted to get on the show. It turned out they couldn’t play the show, but Jason said he dug our demos and told me about his home studio.

Jason: Yeah, I listened to his tunes and liked them. I’m always trying to make some money recording bands. [grabs and speaks directly into mic] JT Recording, Oakland, Calif. [laughs]

Tyler: We were looking to record, so I went and checked out the house and studio and dug the vibe. We ended up recoding with Jason and he was telling me about Nick (The Heartlights’ previous guitarist) having to leave the band because he was so busy and how they needed a replacement. I just remember joking, “Well, if you’re having auditions let me know,” and it just went from there.

Alxis: What attracted you to the music of The Heartlights?

Tyler: Just the fun, catchy songs, good songwriting, and melodies. It’s poppy but it’s still garage and rough around the edges. I really like the lyrics on “Can I Come By”—the chord progression and how it changes around—and live it’s fun because I get to sing backup. And “I Can’t Believe,” there’s just something so beautifully jammy about it.

Pascual: I have a lot of fun doing the caveman in The Heartlights because the songs are so cool and catchy. I got to meet Maggie and Tyler, who are awesome people and really talented musicians.

Alxis: How’d you end up putting the tape out on Burger Records?

Jason: The very first two songs we recorded I sent to Sean Bohrman. He was super enthusiastic and said, “We’ll do a tape whenever you are ready.”

Alxis: Who designed the album cover art?

Jason: Hal MacLean. He’s the drummer from The Whoosie What’s It’s, who are a super fun, garagey-type band.

Maggie: Jason was recording them for the weekend, and Hal is just a really talented artist. He likes to draw constantly. The raccoons were one of his ideas and it’s perfect, too, because—that’s Jason’s backyard, well, actually it’s an alley, but it’s gross and overflowing with trash and it’s cute.

It didn’t take us long to pick that one, even though the other drawings he had were really good. There was just something about it; it’s cute and gross at the same time. There’s something trashy about it, but it’s still kind of adorable. There are raccoons helping another raccoons get into a dumpster so he can eat leftover Chinese food or thrown away pizza or whatever. So that’s how that came about.

Alxis: Did Hal MacLean do the title logo design for the album as well?

Jason: No, the spine was done by Jordan Treat. We made stickers of it, too. He’s a fan. He’s a Nobunny and Elvis Christ fan—one of those rare people who is aware of my work. [laughs] He just messaged me. I saw some of his artwork and he’s very talented, so I told him, “I really like your style.” I’m not sure if he offered or I asked, but he was super into it. What I loved was that he was on it right away. I told him to make it super bubbly and cute and not look like a font. He sent us about eight to choose from and, oddly enough, the one we picked probably looked most like a font, [laughs] but not really.

Alxis: You are together romantically as a couple. How does that affect working together?

Jason: As far as working together, I don’t think it makes it any easier or any harder. It’s just the dynamic is different because we don’t want to bicker in front of our bandmates.

Maggie: We don’t really bicker, though. We don’t really argue about small things. We only argue over big things. [laughs]

Jason: It’s either shit or roses for us. [laughs] In a way, it’s easier just because we like to see each other all the time and there’s only so much TV we can watch. [laughs]

Maggie: It’s really fun playing together. I think it’s super fun and wonderful in almost every way.

Jason: We like doing everything else together, so why not this?