Alternative rock/hip hop duo Little Stranger is a name that’s growing more and more familiar within several music circles. Hitting the road hard again since April of 2021, they have been winning over audiences at notable events, such as Summer Camp Music Festival, Dirty Heads Orlando Vacation and Holidaze. To top off a successful year of touring, Little Stranger — comprised of John Shields and Kevin Shields (no relation) — released their first full-length album in over five years, Trip Around Saturn.
My initial objective for writing this piece was to review the album, but there is a lot more to this irreverent duo and their journey to release this 12-track LP that should be highlighted, far beyond my opinion of the music. (Spoiler alert: I love every song!)
Instead of a traditional review, here’s a look under the hood with Little Stranger.
Check out what these two had to share with Top Shelf Music about the new album, the recording process, record labels, their own personal and professional growth and more.
‘Trip Around Saturn’ is inclusive of a lot of different stylistic inspirations, samples and lyrical content. Can you call out some overarching themes and/or influences for this album?
- LS: Because of the amount of time that passed from creating the first song on the record — which was probably “Hollywood Not” or “Way of the Ghost” — to the last song “I’m Fine”, we had already changed so much in our own influences and style. So, this album is ultimately kind of a melting pot of themes and influences. Which is kind of cool.
- Although we have always admired bands who are able to create a full album that captures a certain time or mindset and create that cohesive sound — Tropidelic’s Of Illusion nails this, in our opinion — that just wasn’t in the cards for us for this one, given being put on hold for a bit.
Put on hold for a bit? Was that just due to COVID or can you unpack that a bit?
- We signed with a label a couple weeks before the pandemic hit. When we signed, we had already put together what we thought would be our debut album with the label. We submitted about 20 songs to them, to be narrowed down to an 11-song record. The feedback we got from them was… not good. At one point, we were told the songs sound “too much like Little Stranger”, which is funny now, but at the time we were devastated. We almost jumped ship then, but we decided to ride it out and push ourselves and our writing to meet them in the middle. But, after a while, it was clear we were just on different pages of what we each believed Little Stranger was and could be, so we came to terms and exited the label amicably.
So, how did this impact the process of ultimately creating ‘Trip Around Saturn’?
- Because of that experience, this album was put together differently than our past releases. Most of the songs on this album were written prior to signing with the label — ones we had been sitting on, waiting to release. But, some of our favorites came from pushing ourselves in the writing process because of that experience. “Stormy Weather”, “COLOSSO” and “I’m Fine” were some of the songs added to the mix during that time and have become some of our favorites.
How do you feel about the whole situation now, in hindsight?
- As tough as that whole process was on us — the self-questioning, the doubt — it helped us really learn a lot about who we are in this music game. And, we’re at our happiest when we’re writing songs that we like and that we have a blast with, rather than what we think might be popular. We think this album shows just that.
Love to hear a positive perspective at the end of it all! Now, back to the album. Let’s talk about the album name and title track, “Trip Around Saturn”.
- Our former label gave a hard ‘no’ to our song “Trip Around Saturn”. We knew it wasn’t a single, but it meant a lot to us. It felt like a step into a new, weird direction for us, while still feeling like Little Stranger at its core. So, when we left the label, we were like “Fuck it, we’re calling the whole album Trip Around Saturn.”
- This mindset played into the final collection of songs. We wanted a group of tunes that felt uniquely us. We decided to open with “Hollywood Not” for the same reason. We actually wrote that song before we signed with the label, as kind of a tongue-in-cheek diss to the LA music industry culture. Once we went through that experience firsthand, we knew this had to be the opening track.
Which track, or tracks, stand out as the most special to you?
- JS: “Red Rover” and “Ask Me Why” are probably the most special and they couldn’t be more opposite. “Red Rover” is my favorite song I’ve ever been a part of creating; every step of the way was so smooth. We just had so much fun with it from start to finish. As a producer, it was my first real success in sampling and getting the sample cleared properly. Recording gang vocals on that track was arguably the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio. (Shout out to Damn Skippy who joined us and obviously added to the fun!)
- KS: This is my favorite track because of its palpable energy. This song was the most fun I’ve probably ever had recording a track. It was also the most fun to show people before it was released. Within seconds, heads would start bobbing and you could feel the room fill with energy. “Red Rover” gave me a chance to flex as a rapper and goof off as a lyricist.
- JS: “Ask Me Why” is one of the more emotional songs we’ve ever put together. Our vocals on that track are a favorite of the album. We’re both exposed. We brought in two of our closest friends, Matt Zutell (Human Resources / Coast Records) and Ross Bogan (Doom Flamingo / Lureto) to help the end build to a climax. I had a vision in my head of what it could be and they took it beyond. We all were genuinely inspired working on that tune in the studio, completely in the zone. That type of collaboration with friends and artists that I admire is as good as it gets.
What would you say are some of the differences between how this set of tracks turned out compared to previous releases?
- Since our last release, Styles & Dynamics EP in 2018, we’ve toured like crazy. When we’re not touring, we’re in the studio constantly. We’ve matured as a band and as people in those three years. We’ve been through a lot together and in our own personal lives. We went into these songs hungrier than ever, almost with a chip on our shoulder… like we know we can hold our own in this industry. That attitude pushed us to put a level of creativity and emotion into the songs that we may have been lacking in previous releases. We poured some rage into “Red Rover” and “COLOSSO”. We cried while Kevin recorded his verse on “Ask Me Why”.
- Growing closer as a team and sharpening our skills in the studio and on the road… both of these have helped us realize our confidence and appreciation for how amazing it is that we get to make music. I think those qualities comes across in these tracks. But, don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of times we curl up under a blanket and question everything we’re doing. (Not the same blanket… different blankets.)
On the topic of growth, John does a lot of production in-house, correct? Can you talk a little about your process?
- JS: I spent a ton of time over quarantine working towards becoming a better producer, which opened doors creatively and allows me to write in a way I may not have been able to if I just had my guitar in hand. I just absolutely love being in the studio and the time spent there has started to pay off. We self-produce all our music in our home studio with a fairly simple setup. Usually, I will get the foundation to a song going. I try to get it all down while the inspiration is there.
- Some songs I’ll send to Kevin with my verse and a hook already written. Kev takes it and crafts a verse in his own space. But, I think some of our favorites have come from just a beat that we’re both jacked up about. We’d sit in the studio drinking beers, eating some mushrooms and just throwing out ideas, pacing around the room. That’s the real magic of the studio — total collaboration in the moment.
- Once we have all the parts in, I typically spend that night staying up and diving in on the production and mixing ideas. I could spend every night like that if it wasn’t detrimental to functioning as a human the next day. But, that’s what makes those nights special: they only happen when the inspiration is tangible. I get the mix as close as possible to what we like and from there, I send the stems to a mixing engineer, which was Danny Kalb in this case.
I know Danny Kalb has worked on some great albums for artists like The Movement and HIRIE. What was it like working with him?
- Danny has been such a treat to work. We found him after hearing The Movement’s album Golden. We had reached out and originally sent him “Way of the Ghost” and “Ur No Good” to mix. After hearing the result from those two, we needed him to do the whole record.
- You can tell Danny really cares about the songs. He would call us while he’s working on a mix to ask a thoughtful question, just to make sure he’s getting it right and we’d end up nerding out about breakbeats for 30 minutes. He’s also an excellent producer, so he also took some creative liberties. Nine times out of 10, they were exactly what the song needed and we didn’t even know. He does an amazing job of seeing, or hearing, our vision of the song and blossoming it into something bigger and brighter than we’re capable of creating ourselves.
Speaking of the team who helped with this album, this is your first time partnering with Ineffable Records on the release. Can you share a little about your experience with them?
- Oh, Ineffable. What an amazing team they have. Coming off our last record label experience, we were hesitant to jump in bed with anyone… we kind of had our tail between our legs. After one phone call with their team, it was immediately clear they were the type we wanted to be working with. They allow the artist to have complete creative control. The insight they do offer on the songs always comes from a place of consultation based off their experience and, so far, they haven’t been wrong. They are hip to the ever-changing industry and they keep a pulse on it as it evolves. So, massive shoutout to Thomas Cussins, Adam Gross and J. Lately over there for believing in us and helping us release this album. Truly reinstated our faith in the music industry!
Alright, that’s a nice positive note to bring this to a close, so one last question, what’s coming up next for Little Stranger?
- We took a couple months off the road, which is a needed break. Time to take a bath. Fix the van. We’re already sitting on a new batch of tunes that we’re excited about. Got some great tours and festival plays lined up already for 2022, starting with this tour with The Movement and Ballyhoo! kicking off soon. We’re looking forward to hitting the road with all the homies we love in this scene. To Saturn and beyond!
Take a Trip Around Saturn with Little Stranger by listening to their latest album (and full discography) on your preferred streaming platform below and by catching them live at a show or festival near you. And, I leave you with a question that’s perhaps inspired by the record itself: if you haven’t already, will you let Little Stranger move into your heart for free?
Purchase or stream ‘Trip Around Saturn’ album:
- Hollywood Not
- Way of the Ghost
- Red Rover, feat. Jarv
- Brain Fog, feat. Del The Funky Homosapien
- Trip Around Saturn
- Sunburn, feat. Tropidelic
- Stormy Weather
- I’m Fine, feat. The Elovaters
- kev’s break
- Ur No Good
- COLOSSO, feat. Wrekonize
- Ask Me Why
Little Stranger – “Hollywood Not”
Disclaimer: All views presented in this album review are those of the reviewer and not necessarily those of Top Shelf Music.