It is 5:00 a.m. The night sky is set on fire by the coppery crack of dawn. The Earth begins to awake except for those of us leftovers from the day before. The ones that have slept are living in tomorrow. All-nighters like myself are stuck in yesterday.
The man sitting with me asks, “You feel inebriated, don’t you? Sleep deprivation is a hell of a thing. Your mind has yet to accept it is a new day. I love this feeling. It fills me with a sense of optimism.”
This man is of average height. His age is not easy to tell but I eventually learn he is 48 years old. Bald and tattooed he often jokes but seldom smiles. When he does smile it is mostly just a smirk escaping the left side of his mouth. A laugh line has developed on that side of his face. It is a scar worn down by a lifetime of almost smiling. He is Sky McCullough which he shortens to Sky Mac. He is the singer for the band LESS LOVE, and he is trapped in the Philippines.
Sitting on his balcony, overlooking the jungle behind his house, bats are flying uncomfortably close to us. “They’re fruit bats. They won’t hurt you,” Sky assures me. Then, without expression, he adds, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” It’s a dad joke but his deadpan delivery makes me feel I just learned something.
Sky was traveling Southeast Asia when Covid-19 stopped the world from turning. Now four months into what the press is calling “the world’s longest lockdown” Sky sits at his temporary home on Cebu island in the Philippines.
“The U.S. organized flights to take stranded Americans home,” he explains. “However the U.S. is at the top of every list of worse places to be during the virus. I am safer in a third world country.” I think he is joking. Honestly, I can’t tell.
Having stayed awake all night talking about the past and the future Sky enlightens me to the history of LESS LOVE, the evolution which led to their new single “Snow White Trash (Trumps Americans),” and he explains how success can bring failure in a world of free music.
LESS LOVE was formed in 2006 by Sky Mac and Billy Gro. Their original intention was to just upload music to Myspace. Utilizing a cheap 8 track recorder and Radio Shack microphones they recorded two songs in what Sky describes as a mobile home inundated with wild opossums.
He reminisces, “Billy was in the band Wondernaut. They were about to release their first album on American Laundromat Records. It was an exciting time. Motivated by that we wanted to keep the momentum going so we put some songs on the internet.”
The band’s Myspace page got the attention of Quickstar Records. In 2008 the latter released the first LESS LOVE single “Magical Purple Hair.” The song went on to sell 30,000 copies and chart on CMJ’s Top 200. Unfamiliar with CMJ Sky tells me, “Back then College Music Journal meant something. Things have changed. It no longer has relevance.”
Few bands have the longevity to remain on the fringe for 14 years. For LESS LOVE each progressive climb on the rollercoaster has been followed by an immediate plunge back down.
After the success of their first single Billy and Sky expected nothing but success. Like The Black Keys before them, Myspace seemed it would be the launching pad for many great things to come. They followed that single with two more releases on Quickstar that went absolutely unnoticed. Shortly after that, the record label filed for bankruptcy and went out of business.
Switching labels, in 2011 LESS LOVE released its first LP “Go F..k Yourself.” on Lackpro Records. Elaborating on the vulgar album title Sky explains, “We have never committed to one genre. People tell us that is a bad thing. They say a band should have a consistent sound. Maybe that is true. The Beatles didn’t have one [consistent sound], but we are not the Beatles. Our first album is a mess of different genres. The title was a preemptive response to anybody that might complain. I didn’t anticipate people would focus solely on the title. In the end, no reviews commented on the ever-changing styles of music. They just complained about the title. There is so much I regret about that album. That is why I have tried to scrub it from the inter-webs.”
Despite that, the album did debut the band’s single “If You” which would go on the be one of LESS LOVE’s most popular songs.
By 2013 LESS LOVE had grown into a five-piece. In September of that year, they released their second LP “Paradigms in the Design.” It was a collaborative effort with the band Wondernaut. The album included 5 songs by each band and 3 songs of the two bands together.
The magazine Top-40 Charts described it as, “If Fleetwood Mac and Sonic Youth had an ugly love child, it would sound a lot like the new album Paradigms In The Design.” Rust Magazine selected “Paradigms in the Design” as their album of the year and music critic Eric Peterson called it a “once in a generation album.”
As the album’s promotion process bled into 2014 the band was slowly beginning to notice what all bands at the time were noticing. Album sales were diminishing while song streams were spiking. Sky remembers, “Prior to that time our streams were far and few between. But by January of 2014, all sales stopped and streams skyrocketed. To put it simply our revenue dropped to approximately a tenth of a percent compared to previous sales.”
What the band didn’t know was that in December of 2013 Spotify made their cell phone app free to all users. It was a simple decision that would change the music industry forever.
2014 was the first year in history that only one album (Taylor Swift’s 1989) would go Platinum. The Soundtrack to Frozen is often listed as having gone Platinum that year but it was actually released in 2013.
The critics’ response to the initial release of “Paradigms in the Design” once again gave LESS LOVE an exhilarating high. That was soon followed by a sickening dive back down as the band watched the music consuming world change around them. Sky recalls, “at the time I was a member of the Academy of Recording Artists. That is the folks that decide who wins Grammys. Attending their meetings I heard all artists big and small say the same thing. Nobody was buying music anymore. It was like a light switch going from on to off.”
This shocking change in the industry began to weaken the band’s resolve. Slowly one by one the members began questioning their decision to continue a career in music.
While “Paradigms…” didn’t sell many copies it did enable Sky to meet industry professionals previously outside of his reach. Two of his new acquaintances agreed to help LESS LOVE record their next single. In 2016 working with Grammy award-winning producer Michael Trepagnier (Coldplay) and engineer Kevin Lively (Rage Against The Machine), the band recorded their version of the Colourmusic song “Horse Race.” The song was nominated for an Independent Music Award for Best Rock Song and the subsequent music video won the band multiple awards including a Global Music Award for Best Music Video of 2016.
This attention translated into invitations to play music festivals and attend award ceremonies all around the globe. Regrettably in a world where nobody buys music the cost of fame was too high for the members of LESS LOVE. When being confronted with no “payday” and an expensive cost to travel the band members decided the struggle was too much. LESS LOVE called it quits.
Sky suggests to me that we go inside abandoning the previously bat-infested balcony. It is now 8:00 a.m. The day is in full swing. The public market near Sky’s house is bustling with masked patrons practicing social distancing. I have almost forgotten I have not slept.
While making me pancakes Sky continues his story, “Including me, everybody wanted to quit the band. Things changed. Today there are lots of people that grew up in the internet age having success with their music. That is great. I think it is awesome they can do it without label support. It’s just that I didn’t grow up in this age. I never wanted to be a TikTok celebrity or even a YouTube personality. The world I wanted to be a part of is gone.”
He hands me the chocolate chip pancakes and sits at the table across from me. His words indicate hopelessness. His demeanor always conveys confidence.
“Accepting my fate I decided I didn’t become a musician for fame. I would have liked the money but I didn’t even do it for that. I became a musician because as a child songs were magical to me. I wanted to understand everything I could about songwriting. The other band members walked away. I can’t quit because I don’t yet understand everything. I know I can do better. I still have so much more to learn.”
Not all the members are gone. “Billy Gro remains a member of the band but only in a studio role. LESS LOVE is now mostly made up of hired guns. It greatly improves the workflow. Life is good,” Sky says as he begins to eat.
After working together on the single “Horse Race” Sky continued a friendship with producer Michael Trepagnier. It was Trepagnier that introduced him to producer Mike Rodriguez (La Lenguas and Polartropica). Knowing they shared a similar taste in music Trepagnier suggested the two collaborate on LESS LOVE’s new direction.
A band that could previously be identified by beautiful and at times haunting harmonies now succumbs to angry screams. With only Sky singing lead the course correction is more jarring than fluid.
Analyzing the new style Sky explains, “Something happened to Rock music. It lost its balls. Today the closest thing we have to Rock music is pitch-perfect nonsense that has no soul. A few years ago the band Imagine Dragons won a Best Rock Grammy which proved “Rock is dead.” Then a few months later Billboard gave Lorde a Best Rock award which proved “God is dead.” LESS LOVE was always supposed to be a bunch of angry screaming. It just never came out that way. This is where we were meant to be all along. It just took us a long time to get here.”
The first endeavor in this new direction is the band’s recent single “Snow White Trash (Trump’s Americans).” A hard-hitting response to the growing racial tension in the United States,
Sky began writing the song in 2017 after President Trump referred to a group of white supremacists as “fine people.” The song is the first single from the band’s upcoming album “Everybody’s Somebody’s Satan.”
Sky, “The song was released in November 2019. I began promoting it in March of this year. But it was after the Los Angeles Music Video Awards nominated the song for Best Rock Video of 2020 that it started getting attention.”
“For the video, we wanted to do something completely different,” as he is describing the creative process to me I feel my own energy fading fast. “We intentionally made a video that most people will hate. It is supposed to be like the Tony Clifton character. You anticipate something great is going to happen. Then nothing happens. I guess being different enabled it to stand out. Or maybe it was just the timing. I wrote the song three years ago. When an openly racist president defended hate groups it was pretty easy to predict this is where the dominoes were going to fall.” In regards to the protesting in the United, States Sky laments, “I am sad for all the deaths. I hope real change is made. The police have got to go. The system doesn’t work.”
The Los Angeles Music Video Award ceremony is in September. Sky indicates he doesn’t expect to be freed from the lockdown in time to attend, “I want to go. This is a great honor but that is two months away. I don’t see any of this [referring to the virus] being organized by then. I keep hearing “new normal” but nothing has changed. The only thing different right now is there are no international flights out of here.”
I have lost the ability to think of questions and lost the battle to stay awake. Like a wrestler tapping out, I announce it is time for me to go. Lack of sleep has made me weak. Opening the front door my eyes are burned by the light of day. I thank Sky for his hospitality and prepare for the journey home. On my way out I make a comment about it being Friday. Sky corrects me, “It’s Saturday. If you have learned anything today it is: nobody buys music anymore, Rock is dead, and Friday is behind you. Don’t be living in the past.”