ABOVE: KISSES' ZINZI EDMUNDSON (LEFT) AND JESSE KIVEL.
You might assume that a fiancé-and-fiancée band calling itself Kisses would come across as unforgivably twee, but a short conversation with Jesse Kivel and Zinzi Edmundson should clear up any misconceptions. While the synth-pop duo's music often focuses on romance in one form or another, the pair is more interested in capturing the whirlwind of youth rather than their own happily engaged life together. "Whenever I try to write about a strong sentiment about our relationship, the song is terrible," shrugs Kivel.
Instead, the band's sophomore album—titled, fittingly, Kids in LA—approaches youth from the viewpoint of teens in their home city. For the album, Kivel approached well-trod tropes of teenage angst, knowing full well it has all been done before. "I found it unique in its lack of uniqueness," says Kivel.
He's also interested in taking on the mythology of LA and shifting our preconceptions from the usual cultural touchstones. "I wanted to explore growing up in Los Angeles as being a classic experience rather than a Hollywood experience," he says.
This meant delving into slightly darker themes than their sun-drenched debut. "To me, there really are seasons in LA, and this record is not a summer LA record," Kivel adds.
Interview caught up with Kivel and Edmundson in a decidedly un-LA setting: Roberta's, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Over brunch pizza, we talked about the new album, recording with British synth-pop legends Saint Etienne, and why everyone thinks they sound like New Order.
NATHAN REESE: I'll take a coffee.
ZINZI EDMUNDSON: Sure, I'll have a coffee, too.
JESSE KIVEL: I'm good.
REESE: Not a coffee drinker?
KIVEL: I'd be dead if I drank that. I get super jittery. Coffee ruins my whole day. Today I bought a small coffee next door, and I poured out half of it. I never drank coffee growing up, and when Zinzi and I started going out, for the first four years of our relationship I didn't drink any. Then she started making it every morning. It smells good, so I started dabbling. Then I started drinking a little more. Pretty soon I was drinking it in the morning and liking it, but it started ruining my days. The comedown took like eight hours.
REESE: So how long are you guys in town for?
KIVEL: We flew in yesterday for a wedding.
EDMUNDSON: My cousin got married on Long Island.
REESE: Did you both grow up in LA?
KIVEL: I did. Zinzi is from Rhode Island, and I was born in New York, actually. We met nine or 10 years ago. We were friends for a while and then started dating our senior years of college—I went to college in San Diego. Then we moved to LA, where we've been ever since.
REESE: Do you think you'll stay in SoCal?
KIVEL: We talk about moving. I think of myself as a pretty worldly individual, but then I look at my track record and I'm really a Southern California boy. I can't go out like this. No credibility. I did live in New York for four years...
EDMUNDSON: As a baby—that doesn't count!
KIVEL: I lived in London for a year.
EDUMNDSON: Yeah, studying abroad. [laughs]
KIVEL: Yeah, it's sad. I gotta get out.
EDMUNDSON: The quality of life is so good, though. And it's pretty cheap. You can live really well and not make that much money.
KIVEL: We really do like living there. If we moved, there would have to be a really good reason. Living in Brooklyn just looks uncomfortable to me. There's awesome stuff, but the thought of spending thousands of dollars on a little place... I mean, our place is small, but we have a yard and a house.
REESE: So let's get to the record. How does it compare thematically to the last one?
EDMUNDSON: It's definitely a little moodier, a little darker. We don't go that dark, so it's all relative.
REESE: How did you hook up with Saint Etienne's Pete Wiggs and Tim Laracombe to produce?
EDMUNDSON: Pete did a remix from the last record. We just send the song "Huddle" around. We thought it was the most different and exemplary of the sound of the rest of the record. They just nailed it.
KIVEL: The production took a year, on and off. They had just put out the last Saint Etienne record. They were both really nice to work with. We worked digitally, sending tracks back and forth and using Skype. We finally met Pete in person after the record was finished, when we DJ'd opening for Saint Etienne. We got to meet the whole group, and Pete was just the sweetest guy.
REESE: How does being in a band together affect your relationship?
KIVEL: Well, I was in a band before this, and just from the perspective of me going on tour all the time without Zinzi—I don't think that was better. That was not less stressful for our relationship. But it is stressful. My working personality is very aggressive. I'm always pushing Zinzi with reminders and things.
EDMUNDSON: He's a real manager. He'll be like, "Will you do this really basic thumbnail thing for our Soundcloud?" and a week will go by; I won't have done it. He'll send me action items for stuff to do.
KIVEL: I'm obsessed with things getting done on time. It's a part of our relationship that I wish we didn't have, where I have to bug her to do things.
EDMUNDSON: I'm just lazier and more disorganized.
KIVEL: She's just got a real musician vibe. I'm truly a neurotic, task-oriented individual.
REESE: How much of the time you spend together is focused on the band?
EDMUNDSON: We spend so much time together...
KIVEL: Yeah, it's so much time that it's not a huge part of the time spent together. But it is every day, but it doesn't feel like it dominates our lives. It's just a seamless part of them.
REESE: How much does your relationship bleed into the songwriting?
KIVEL: This album, almost none of it is about us. I'm sure I could explore my subconscious and find some parallels, but the intentional goal was not really related to our relationship.
REESE: A lot of the tracks seem to be about teenagers and young relationships. What draws you to write about young people?
KIVEL: What was interesting to me was taking trite, well-worn themes about love and exploring them in a more self-aware way. As a young kid, you're overly romantic. Your only reference points are movies or TV. It's like you're acting out a parody of a relationship. I found that to be an interesting thought.
REESE: The album is called Kids in LA—why focus on Los Angeles kids in particular?
KIVEL: LA has history and iconography that isn't just the Hollywood sign. It's also Old Bel Air and UCLA. I wanted to bring a feeling of history to LA. The idea of preppy culture, of going to private school and living these excess lives is all New York, Connecticut, near where Zinzi grew up. And that's been done a lot in our generation...
EDMUNDSON: ...in lots of generations, really.
KIVEL: I went to public school, but I had lots of friends at private schools. I went to their parties. Kids in LA is about making that into a classic experience rather than an American Pie experience...
EDMUNDSON: Putting a little romance into that world, which isn't typically romanticized.
REESE: You mention the darker elements of the record, and I often felt a bit of a Bret Easton Ellis vibe at times.
EDMUNDSON: For our teaser video for the record, we shot all this stuff around Bel Air. It was overcast, and we were at the Beverly Hills Hotel and all the chairs were folded down and closed up. It was perfect. Our last record was bright and sunny—a little bit more of a vacation vibe. This one is a little more off-season. That same place, but packed up, a little colder, a little empty.
KIVEL: When you live in LA year-round, you get really sensitive to the changes in climate. When it's only slightly colder, it really feels like fall. It's all relative. It's not sunny all the time. But the Bret Easton Ellis comparison is on point. He does a great job with meaninglessness and youth.
REESE: What were you guys listening to when you made the album?
KIVEL: We get a lot of New Order, Bernard Sumner, and Pet Shop Boys comparisons. I like that, but I generally don't listen to any of those groups. I like New Order, but I was never really inspired by them. Maybe my songwriting style is similar, but what happened was I was listening a lot to 92.3 in LA, which is a lot of old-school freestyle. Debbie Deb, Lisa Lisa, Exposé. And why, I think, we weren't getting compared to Lisa Lisa was that they were white people taking '80s dance beats. We did the same thing, so I guess that's why that happened.
KISSES' KIDS IN LA IS OUT TOMORROW. FOR MORE ON THE DUO, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.