Interview by Alexander Iadarola. Portrait by Stefan Schwartzman
The first time I learned Jake Levy and Chickenmuch, also known as Burke Battelle, had made an album I wasn’t totally sure what they meant by that. Jake conveyed the news in his usual playful/teasing/sincere court jester tone—he had just finished yelling at me for also wearing checkered slip on Vans that night—and Chicken looked characteristically stoic, looking straight ahead and then around calmly. Soon thereafter I asked Chicken for a haircut—via his Chopped by Chicken venture—and he brought it up again, at which point it became clear that this wasn’t just like a joke from the other evening.
Once he sent over the songs, they were pretty quickly stuck in my head, with a knowing catchiness that reminded me of Jake’s old McKate project, which is just like these amazing fifteen-second, sentimental advertisement-sounding pop songs. This sounded really professional, though—which makes sense because Chicken does music professionally, including an ongoing project with Queens rapper Dai Burger
Before heading to meet them from work I rewatched Jake’s snapstory, featuring bumblebee-filtered commentary such as “you don’t have to imagine john Lennon was a pedophile and a child molester – he WAS!!” and the avian-themed “Skinny Diary Confession: all I eat is bird feed,” featuring a troupe of pigeons at the base of the frame. He really wanted us to meet on a roof, which at first I thought was unnecessarily complicated but ultimately it was super pretty and nice—read our exchange below.
How did this album come about?
Jake Levy: Chicken and I had been talking about making music for a while. I’ve styled musicians he produced for, and we were already friends, so our worlds were already sort of combining.
Chickenmuch: I can’t even remember the exact moment that we came up with it. It was called Death by Scarecrow right from the beginning.
Jake: We don’t have a band name. It’s just, Jake and Chicken presents Death by Scarecrow.
Chicken: You were like, “I just always thought being killed by a scarecrow and straw crunching and stuff, is the scariest thing.”
Jake: Yeah. It sounds actually like a really visceral and brutal death. It doesn’t seem like it’s a comfortable bed to die on, assuming you’re in a cornfield when you’re dying. Also the scarecrow itself is always really scary. Whether it’s at day or night, which I think is a scary important thing about it.
It’s a sexy album too, at the same time.
Jake: Yeah! I think Chicken and I are really interested in sex too, so no matter what we do, that’s going to play into it.
Chicken: Well that extends beyond music. I just think that that’s always an element at play. There will be projects [like this one] where it’s a very forced concept, where it’s not necessarily about self-expression, but you use personal experience and sexuality because that’s what you have to work with, to put in as content.
Jake: One element from the songwriting process that was surprising to me was that Beyonce’s album Lemonade came out right around the time we started writing. When I was writing my parts of the songs, most of them were written to the melody of various songs on Lemonade. So of course, it was also all these relationship lyrics.
The whole thing is very rural. You’re singing about crashing someone’s favorite truck, stables, barley.
Chicken: The important thing about how the cohesiveness of all the visual stuff is that makes it so the lyrics and the vocals play just a specific, limited role in the overall production and the overall concept.
I listen to music through YouTube, so I just make playlists of songs I like and I don’t really get into albums for the most part. A huge point of reference for this product in terms of production was definitely the Revolting Cocks and that style of industrial rock. But I’m not even fan-boying on them, I’m just like, “Okay, this as a reference.”
Jake’s a stylist, that’s our mentality. We’re taking the idea of appropriation from a different creative field. In music the whole idea of immaculate conception and all of this exists more prevalently than in any other art form, I think. Even than in an art world. The attitude towards authorship and appropriation is just kind of romantic, I feel.
Jake:We wanted to be really transparent about our references.
Chicken: Yeah. ’Cause as much as it’s about sex and death and stuff, it’s also about these genres of music.
Jake: It’s about mood boards, and piecing things together and being like, “Okay, this is what we want to do. How do we commit to this?”
That was the first thing that came to mind when I heard the record, actually—that it was a mood board.
Chicken: We really wanted to make that point. That’s my interest in making entertainment, whether it’s music or fashion—it’s all about assemblage and collaging. There’s so much content already, and I’m not really interested in adding to the pile. Even though these are original songs, it’s also very much a re-ordering of existing genres, existing themes, existing imagery in the collective consciousness.
It definitely feels like a fashion editorial, in that way.
Jake: I haven’t done anything music-wise before. My immediate method that I’m coming in with is just being a stylist. You’re not just figuring out a relationship between garments but also what the photographer wants, what the magazine wants, what the model feels comfortable in. So when I come into music, I have to view everything in its separateness. Being really strategic about where we want these moving parts to be at odds with each other and when we want them to be connecting with each other. Every one of their relationships is a strategic mediation.
Valuation of audio fidelity can have a very particular relation to taste and class.
Chicken: Yeah, exactly. “Why are people making that cooky lo-fi music?” My interest in lo-fi is literally that it just feels much more material than the standard way most music is produced right now. Music is thought of as an immaterial art form basically, but people can’t understand that it’s the same as if you’re buying any other product. The style production that I try to achieve has this objectness about it.
You can use music as an accessory to stylize yourself, and put in conversation with other accessories. Do you want this album to be treated like a kind of accessory?
Chicken: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s functional, and that’s how I view entertainment. We’re planning to have one of the songs used as part of the soundtrack for DeSe’s new show and we’re interested in not just doing music videos for our music, but we’re open to it being interpreted and used.
Jake: We would love for it to be part of a fashion video or someone’s runway. We’re inspired by different mediums and because of that we can see this functioning in those other mediums.
For some reason I thought it was slightly odd to hear you express interest in doing press with a mainstream music publication earlier, but maybe now I understand why—you want it to travel in that way?
Jake: When people hear this album, they’re going to be hearing us poking fun at some of our references and that’s all fine, but I also want them to take this music seriously and know that it’s not just a joke album. There is something nice about having it be published in something Noisey or The FADER that gives it a certain legitimacy, that allows people to be more patient with our humor.
Jake, how do you think Scarecrow relates to McKate, and can you also describe McKate?
Jake: McKate was this thing I was doing before I moved to New York City, sort of playing the role of a singer/songwriter. It was just 20 second acapella choruses or hooks for songs. My intentions for the two are really different. McKate was very transparently comedy and because of that, I still get funny when I’m writing lyrics. Even though some of the lyrics on Death by Scarecrow aren’t funny.
McKate wrote a lot about community and town and I think this project also deals with those things, but from totally different characters-if you want to say that these are characters, which in some ways they are. We’re playing roles that come from a multiplicity within, rather than something external to Chicken and I.
I love the McKate stuff obviously, like “#townmeeting.” I’m interested in this recurring theme of a small town. What’s compelling about that for you as a lyricist?
Jake: I studied politics, and the way in which politics is talked about both in the fashion and music industry is really different than the way I have grown to talk about politics and write about politics.
In an academic context.
Jake: Yeah, and I find my outlets, but one motif that I do reconcile in my own work is that of the community and of people working together, and in this case, also singing together and praying together. It’s about people doing things together, and I know that sounds like such a cliché sentiment but I do like the sentimentality of it.
Chicken: It’s also about New York to a certain extent. It may be rural in the imagery, but the way the town is described and the type of imagery that’s used is just so generic that I feel like it’s easy to adopt as a metaphor for any place real
Oh, that’s interesting. Can you say more about this, considering the recurring trope of barley, etcetera..?
Jake: Sometimes you forget that this is a town, [although] maybe not in the rural sense, and that there are really live communities here. Also, just being young queer people in emerging art scenes, our world is so small, and we forget that… I always feel like we exist within this illusion that young gay artists run New York City but yet, we are a really small fraction of it and we’re all really self-absorbed and sometimes we don’t see anything else but our group of people, and it feels like this tiny group of kids running around New York City. Not to romanticize it but I do feel like I often operate on the city on a very micro level, despite it being such a imperial force.
Does the album have a storyline?
Chicken: Not really.
Jake: I think Chicken and I, even though you were saying earlier that you usually don’t listen to albums.
Chicken: We were inspired by the idea of the album, and guys making music and making albums. That’s one difference between McKate and this project, this is all about white guys making rock music and all of our references are that, more or less. I just think that it’s an interesting thing to explore because it’s something that definitely probably makes a lot of musicians cringe. There’s a weird tension around those references now, and I have this fascination as a white guy with these styles.
People want to make trap and all this really cool stuff… and I’m not putting that down at all, I’m not one of those people that thinks that’s fucked up, but I just think that, as an artist, it’s interesting to think about what you feel like you have ownership over culturally.
Jake: As a white man, on the one hand, we have ownership over way more than we should, and also in that same respect, we have ownership over nothing.
Chicken: And obviously rock is hugely indebted to black music. I’m not saying that that means that [rock in its entirety] is white and that’s our stuff to play with, but it’s just interesting to think about.
It’s like no one wants to identify with [this project’s set of references] because everyone wants to find the things that they can be a victim within. I think that that creates this situation in the arts in general where like, it’s not that white artists aren’t valid, it’s just that the things they choose to explore are often not the things that they have the most insight into. It would be really valuable for a straight white guy to make art about themselves.
Jake: There is this whole imperial exploration, trying to tap into a new aesthetic that seems unborn. Again, this sort of ex nihilo idea of creation, which is also a very colonial idea, that there is this thing that didn’t exist before I discovered it. What happens if you decide to not sail away and stay right here?
I think a lot of white gay men are really terrified of their whiteness.
Chicken: The hold onto the fact that they’re gay as a way to distance-
Jake: And that taking priority over their whiteness. I think that is a way of ignoring how in ways whiteness is an inherent racism. It’s not like we’re purposely trying to pull from that place but I think it’s just being white artists, we need to be reconciling our whiteness as artists and not ignoring that in the face of our gayness.
Chicken: Yes, totally. This album isn’t really about gayness.
Jake: Yeah. In fact, even when I’m singing “fuck” and talking about fucking in the stables—and I am speaking as a guy and I’m talking about another guy—I also think singing about sex in music is really hetero.
Why did you guys want this project to not be a band but a distinct, one-off project.
Jake: Honestly, I think part of it is like… bands suck. I just thought it was chicer to not have it be a band name and just an album. I don’t think it was actual politics.
Chicken: If you’re a band, it puts into a larger context straight off the bat and it’s like, well this is an album and then there will be another one. It’s like, maybe there won’t.
Would you do it live?
Chicken: I could see us doing acoustic versions of the songs but neither of us are really into live music. I don’t go to see live music. I don’t watch videos of it. I’m interested in studio recordings.
Jake: When the Foo Fighters do acoustic version of their songs, I think that’s way more the vibe. We’d source a guitar player. I think the next step, for when Chicken and I keep making music, is I am learning bass. I haven’t started yet but I have the intention of learning bass. I think once we have an instrument, just send us out there. Give us a few hundred and put us on stage and we can perform.
There are only really specific niches of rock music that use curse words, and you curse a lot on this album.
Jake: I can’t tell if I curse a lot in person or if I just curse a lot in writing.
Chicken: You just curse in songs.
Jake: No, it’s true, I like swearing, I want to do it more. I used to be a big potty mouth.
Let’s talk about the cover.
Chicken: I live with Jasper and he’s a good friend of both of ours, so we gave him the songs and we were just like, “Do whatever.” The one thing we said is, it should look like an album cover. We want it to reference album art and that genre of imagery and design.
The project has this theme of a hyper-personal relationship to mass cultural tropes.
Chicken: That’s totally what music is about for me and my interest in songwriting specifically. I use some of my personal experiences sometimes, but a lot of what I put into songwriting is my experience of other songs or other culture. That’s why I like constructing songs: you really feel like you’re playing with something that exists for a lot of people. It’s personal but in this whole other way.