The breeziness, the overdrive, the echo effects on DWNTWN’s latest single, “Bloodshot Eyes,” are all qualities that make its hefty pop hook even more indelible. Add to this pastel video (which we’re premiering here) which explores various levels of connectedness, and it’ll be burned in your brain, sweet and breathless and brave, like it’s been in mine for weeks.
DWNTWN is a Los Angeles-based band—singer Jamie Leffler, guitarist Robert Cepeda, drummer Daniel Vanchieri—whose past three EPs have explored the nuances of shoegaze-leaning guitar pop, with a slight lilt of country and a subtle nod to classic rock, all done with a dreamy overtone. In July, they’ll release their voluminous debut album, Racing Time, from which “Bloodshot Eyes” is taken; it’s lovely and there’s a tight chemistry to the way they write songs, all led by Leffler’s airy vocals and propensity for earnest songwriting.
There’s a history there, too. Racing Time is, in part, about Leffler dealing with the death of her bassist father, Howie Epstein of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, from a heroin overdose when she was just 14. In coming to terms with how it affected her, and working through it with hauntingly pretty music, she also has become an advocate for those affected by America’s opioid crisis, speaking openly about her experience so we can all increase our understanding of it. Jezebel spoke with her via email about “Bloodshot Eyes,” DWNTWN’s general approach to music, and coping with the loss of her father. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: This video is artful and so pretty, as is the song sonically, but seems to have a message of being lost, or disoriented. What’s it about and is there a disconnect between the visuals and the content?
JAMIE LEFFLER: Not at all! When I wrote the lyrics for the song I was feeling trapped by my own fears unsure of how to move forward with my life. It’s scary for me to make decisions sometimes because I put so much pressure on making the “right” one. It can sometimes paralyze me and keep me in cycles that are not serving me any longer.
All of these scenes of being wrapped up and covered and together in pastels are so pretty. How did you ideate them all? What was the recurring theme you discussed when making it?
We worked closely with an amazing director, Sean Hollihan, to come up with the treatment. It was important to us to create a video unlike anything we had done in the past, and Sean was the perfect person to help realize that. We talked a lot about the idea of being in a seemingly unbreakable cycle, and eventually breaking free. He created so many interesting visuals to illustrate the idea, and it brought our song to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I often am guilty of writing melancholy lyrics over bright upbeat music, and Sean was able to maintain a lightness throughout that captures the essence of the song. I love that he chose shots where we broke into laughter. It gave a realness to the video, and captured how much fun we had while making it.
Sean asked his best friend’s little brother Andreas to be in the it. We found out that day he HATED chewing gum, which pops up multiple times throughout the video. We wanted him to chew a bunch and blow giant bubbles, poor kid was not having it. He was super sweet, and I think some of his shots ended up being my favorite in the whole video. Bianca Lexis is the lovely lady wearing entirely too many sweaters. Sisters Victoria and Ellen Nachman braided their hair together, quite literally demonstrating being stuck. It was fantastic to see how many people came together to help us create this. We were all laughing all day, and I think that is evident in the final edit.
Your music has such strong guitar pop but there’s a twang beneath it, too. What are your strongest musical roots, and what was the concept, musically, in making this track?
I have always been a fan of classic country. I love the pain in the both the lyrics and vocals from that era. The Carter Family influenced us greatly. They are probably the main reason you can hear country undertones in our songs. I think Anita Carter has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard, it’s haunting and angelic. I’ve worked on developing my style to capture hints of that twang, and Robert is a sucker for a little bit of slide guitar. It is imperative in our songwriting process to find melodies and lyrics that can stand on their own with minimal instrumentation, just like classic folk and country songs. Once we feel something is strong enough Robert will take it to the computer and begin producing it out. On this album we worked hard to limit the amount of layers we incorporated. We wanted the music and lyrics to feel venerable and not hidden behind many layers of synths.
Racing Time is, in part, about your father’s death from a heroin overdose when you were 14. Is that something you’re still working through? How does writing about it help you?
When it happened I didn’t get too emotional. My mom worried about me because it seemingly didn’t effect me much. Only in recent years have I learned to let my guard down and analyze emotionally what happened. I tried very hard to be strong when I heard the news, not allow it to take over my life. Through songwriting I have learned to accept what happened. Learned to accept my vulnerability as human and not weakness. I have always been an independent and strong person, so admitting that something hurt me can be difficult. Songs I have written have taught me more that I even realized I felt. They surprise me. Almost as if I didn’t write them, like they are little gifts to teach me to cope and to be comfortable with not always being so strong.
So many of us have lost people to heroin and other opioids through the years, but just only recently it’s been getting more attention, something I personally feel complicatedly about. How does seeing this make you feel, and how are you working for advocacy?
Our country is in crisis. Between prescribed pharmaceuticals and income inequity driving people into unhealthy life choices we now are faced with an epidemic that not a lot of people are comfortable talking about. I understand. I wasn’t comfortable talking about it. I didn’t want people to know or to think of my dad in a negative light. He was my best friend as a little girl, we had so much fun, and I have some pretty incredible memories. As soon as the word heroin enters the conversation I worry people see the demon and not the man. I never wanted to share because it wasn’t always pretty. I am just recently becoming more comfortable with the fact that this was a big part of my childhood. I want to share. Raise awareness that just because someone is stricken with addiction doesn’t mean they are evil. Opening up a broader conversation and leading with honesty and an open heart is something I am beginning to understand how to do. I want children to know that they don’t have to follow in their parents footsteps like so often happens in families with history of abuse. You can break the cycle. You can make different choices, learn from mistakes, while also cherishing the humans behind the addicts and be there to help them get though the other side. I wish I could have done that for Howie.
Racing Time, DWNTWN’S debut album, is out July 21.