Frontman Paul Klein talks through the band’s Midwestern-rooted, Ralph Lauren-inspired, universally themed statement album.
Paul Klein answers my question about how he identified subject matter for LANY’s third studio album mama’s boy with a question of his own: “Is that a Kansas City t-shirt?” I confirm that, yes, I am wearing a Kansas City Chiefs shirt. “That is amazing!” the 31-year-old frontman says. “Go Chiefs! I’ve been a Chiefs fan my entire life. I lived there for a year.”
If this conversation had happened at any other point in time, it’s more likely that Klein would not have been so keen to disclose that he’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and lived in Kansas City, Missouri, too. Being in a band called LANY, an acronym for Los Angeles New York, is a convenient veil. But mama’s boy represents LANY proudly establishing geographical identity — drummer Jake Goss is from Arkansas and guitarist Les Priest is from Missouri — while sharing messages that can be felt universally. “It’s us opening our arms as wide as we can and just being like, Yo, we’re trying to make stuff for everybody,” Klein says. “We always talk about being a band for the world and wanting to reach as many people as possible, and I feel very confident that there’s at least one song on this album for everybody.”
LANY has not had trouble putting themselves on the map, though, since releasing their self-titled debut album in 2017. The three-man dream-pop band landed on the Billboard Album Chart with 2018’s Malibu Nights. Altogether, 5.8 million-plus social media followers and 415,000 concertgoers are committed LANY stans.
Klein needed that validation in order to lean into his roots.
“There came a shift, right?” he says. “Because if you’re from Kansas City, or if I’m from Oklahoma, you don’t really like to talk about that. I’m assuming you left Kansas City because you wanted to go to New York because you wanted to pursue opportunity and get outside of the Midwest. Same with me. Everybody talks about it, but nobody actually does it. It’s not until you experience some sort of success — it doesn’t have to be, like, monumental in the grand scheme of the things, but you achieve some sort of success that you feel proud of. Once you’re proud, then you’re like, Dude, I’m from Oklahoma. It used to be people would ask, [and I’d say], Oh, you know, I lived in Nashville for a little bit writing songs. I’ve been in L.A. for seven years, whatever. Now, it’s like, where are you from? And I’m like, Dog, I’m from Oklahoma! And I say it with a certain pride because if I can do it, you can do it.”
It’s my turn to ask a question about what I see through my Zoom screen.
“Who are on those posters back there?”
Goss and Priest are not with Klein, but he’s also not alone. Behind him is a wall full of posters — his quarantine mood wall — depicting people, places or things that have inspired the album art, merch and tour wardrobe (for whenever a tour is able to happen) for mama’s boy.
“He’s my favorite designer, but you’d never think that he’d inspire an album,” Klein says after admitting he watched HBO’s Very Ralph documentary several times since the top of the year. “I damn near called this album Ralph. I thought we might call it Ralph because of his consistency, his ability to live outside of trend and time. I mean, whatever is in the Ralph Lauren store is not that different than what was in it 20 years ago, and it still, always, every season, has its place in culture. On top of that, everything he does gets better with age and wear. And that’s another thing I was obsessed with: I wanted this album to live outside of time and trend, I wanted it to feel like a modern classic, and I wanted it to get better with every single listen.”
Unlike Malibu Nights, Klein knew he was craftingmama’s boy in real time. LANY played 120 international shows last year, starting in Moscow on Feb. 4 and ending in Honolulu on Aug. 13. “That’s a lot of life,” Klein says. “A lot of life-changing experiences.” Where Malibu Nights was nine songs about heartbreak that Klein directed toward one person, this album is 14 songs about whatever felt galvanizingto whoever can connect. Just before the Malibu Nights world tour, in January 2019, Klein gathered Goss and Priest to write the first song for the album: ‘paper.’ Getting that one down helped Klein visualise how he would approach writing the rest of the tracklist. He didn’t quite know where the inspiration would come, but he “very diligently” kept notes and ideas when something or someone piqued his interest. Like Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill, who is absent from Klein’s mood wall, but said something in the documentary titled Talihina Sky that sparked one of the bolder songs on mama’s boy.
“[Kings of Leon] are from Talihina, Oklahoma, which is about two hours south of Tulsa, which is where I’m from,” Klein says. “Very casually in the middle of that documentary, Caleb Followill is just drunk and being interviewed and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I do all this shit, but I still talk to Jesus.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks because it resonates with me. I grew up in the church, yet I don’t really act like it sometimes.”
“I think that I say things in this album that are just very true, and they’re very self-aware”
The album’s fifth track is titled ‘i still talk to jesus,’ which finds Klein crooning about his human fallibility in a striking vulnerability he reserved for matters of the heart on Malibu Nights. He drinks too much, falls in and out of love, lies to his mama, smokes marijuana, does what he wants to, goes from the club to the church, but he still talks to Jesus. The ballad’s bravery extends beyond Klein’s confessions, departing from LANY’s usual soundscape to include a gospel choir.
It marks one of several statements made in mama’s boy: lyrically, instrumentally and visually. The album cover is a neon sign typically found on the side of the highway showing a cowboy bucking a horse. Before mama’s boy, LANY had never used an acoustic guitar on a song, and there is an acoustic guitar on nearly every song on this album. That includes ‘if this is the last time,’ where Klein lays his love out bare for his mom and dad as if it were their last conversation. Cello, flugelhorn and strings also add to the album’s melodic texture. Of the three other singles released from mama’s boy — ‘good guys,’ ‘cowboy in LA’ and ‘you!’ — Klein nods toward ‘cowboy in L.A.’ as “probably one of the best songs I’ve ever written.” There’s ‘bad news,’ where Klein lets a Southern twang seep into his voice. Then ‘nobody else,’ written alongside Semisonic’s Dan Wilson on a couch, submerges in the inevitability of mortality in a vein reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark.’
Long story made a little shorter: there is meaning behind each of these 14 songs.
“I think that I say things in this album that are just very true, and they’re very self-aware,” Klein says. “Relationally, philosophically, existentially, all of those things. It’s a real look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror-and-write-a-song-about-what-you-see, and that’s every single song.”
Klein can look in the mirror and feel a renewed respect for everyone and everything it took to get him here. That has not always been the case. Growing up in a flyover state bred a certain uncertainty within Klein, and he calls being forgotten his biggest fear in life. But mama’s boy tends to that childhood wound.
“I think there are quite a few songs on this album that I’m totally fine being known for,” he says. “Like, Oh yeah, that guy, he wrote ‘i still talk to jesus.’ … Look, we’re not the biggest band in the world, but I don’t think that we’re gonna be forgotten.”
Klein’s mom loves mama’s boy so much that she mailed her son a white graphic tee she designed herself. “TULSA’S OWN” sprawls across the back above a checkered version of Oklahoma that has “mama’s boy” written in red inside and Tulsa marked by a red heart. He holds the shirt up to show me while laughing and smiling. This is what means the most to him, whether it’s from Mom or a fan he’s never met.
“To be honest, it kind of sucks to put out an album this year,” he says. “We had conversations in the beginning, like, is it a waste of time? Should we hold it for 2021? Because, like I said, every year we average about 120 shows a year. We built this thing on the road, and it feels so weird to put out an album and not be able to see how it connects with people when you’re live on tour. That’s the most rewarding part of it for me. I don’t get too much of a rush just putting a song on Spotify and kissing it goodbye and hoping people like it. That doesn’t feel very rewarding to me. So, it’s not necessarily an emotional release at all. If anything, it’s like an emotional dam. I wish I could let it all out and feel all the things, but, you know what, ultimately we decided as a team and as a band that what this year needs is people doing what they were put on Earth to do. So, if you’re a doctor, be a doctor. If you’re a journalist, ask the questions. If you’re a songwriter, write the songs. Let’s go. Let’s put one foot in front of the other.”
I thought about all of this while on a walk with my mom the night before mama’s boy officially dropped. We took the same route around our Kansas City neighborhood we’ve taken countless nights before. This time, we strolled under a Harvest moon. Relevant lyrics from ‘if this is the last time’ (“If this is the last time / Then let’s do the things we always do / Like go for a drive or watch the news”) and ‘cowboy in LA’ (“Palm trees square dancing under the moon”) came to mind, but I chose to play ‘i still talk to Jesus’ for my mom. “Wow,” she said after the first run through the chorus. “I love that.” She had never heard LANY before, but now she knows Paul Klein as the guy who wrote ‘i still talk to jesus.’
I turned my phone’s volume all the way up and let the song ring out boundlessly into the darkness for the next few minutes. I imagined people across Kansas City listening. Across Oklahoma. Los Angeles. New York. The country. The world.
Then I remembered one of the last things Klein said before hanging up: “This is the most proud I’ve been.”
Mama’s Boy by LANY is out today via Interscope Records.