A Royal Experience: Palaye Royale´s Emerson Barrett in Interview
By Katharina Moser
“Fever Dream, The lights are fading, Take my hand to Neverland, you’ll see, We can be free, we can be anything, Just you and me“, Remington Leith roars with his beautifully hoarse voice loaden with sheer emotion, Sebastian Danzig plays the guitar melody to it as if he were challenging the instrument’s soul itself, and Emerson Barrett transforms the drum set in front of him into the one ultimate heart beat that makes us feel so very alive. Us, that is the ecstatic fans that have gathered to see Palaye Royale´s show in Munich. And the brothers Leith, Danzig and Barrett, “the boys” as their team and fans affectionately call them, make up this unique rock band from Las Vegas that has been turning all the pits in entire Europe into surreal worlds between heaven and hell during their tour. “Fever Dream” is one of the many songs of their latest album of the same name that they have chosen to play in the concert, and with the surging crowd, the heat in the pit, the dense stage smoke and the three Palaye Royale figures moving on stage like otherworldly messengers, you cannot help but wonder if this is even real at all – if maybe, just maybe, you have indeed been caught up in Neverland, in a feverish dream of your own. But, at least that is guaranteed, it is a phantastic one.
“The shows have been crazy”, agrees Emerson Barrett, co-founder and drummer of the iconic rock’ n’ roll extravaganza, casually sitting on a shelf in one of the production rooms before the concert, swinging his legs, and tinkling his guitar. “I really fucking enjoy it. I think it’s one of the first tours in a while that I have actually been happy to be here”, he says. “I’m obviously very grateful for what we have built, and for the fans. But there has been a point in my life where I hated everything and everyone, including myself. I feel like in the last few months it has been some kind of rebirth for me. It is important to find happiness because it is so easy to be sad, and you just have to focus on the good”, Barrett remarks in his honest, touching manner. The reviving energy and feeling of liveliness that the band and the fans share during the show is one that has remained and intensified even though Palaye Royale has been standing on stage almost every night for months now. For Barrett, the moment when the entire crowd is united in their music and can sing along every word of their songs is nothing less than a spiritual feeling. “There is something about it that feels like time and space stop for a moment. Everyone in the room is there for a reason of their own choosing, but in the grand theme of it, there it is one collective emotion. There is nothing but love and appreciation in that room and everyone can feel like it is a safe place and a family of sorts.” If anything, the shows become crazier and wilder every time. “Recently I started screaming with Remington – that’s why my voice is the way it is.” Barrett laughs winningly. For the band just as well as for the fans, the concerts are trials with the new and unknown.
At the same time, Palaye Royale´s music has always been an essential outlet for a thunderstorm of emotions the three bandmates do not want to bury within themselves, but set free into a world of like-minded people. “Art, music, creation in general, have always been our version of therapy. For the longest time in my life, especially when I was younger, nobody cared what I had to say. Ever”, Barrett tells us. “But the walls and my sketchbook cared what I had to say. So I used them for an infinite influx of my thoughts coming out and I was able to get certain things out and look at certain ideas. I feel like music has always been the vessel for a lot of things in our lives, next to our clothing lines, cosmetic stuff, and my art work as well”, ponders Barrett. He does not only compose and write songs, produce and play them, but he has also been drawing a lot for the last ten years. “I didn’t quite know what I was doing at first, but then over the course of ten years it revealed itself to be this world of Obsidian, our graphic novel.” Obsidian is the fictive world of the band´s own graphic novel series that started with the first novel “The Bastards”. “Obsidian encapsulates the band, and the novels are like a fictitious historical accounting of our universe.”
Within this narrative framework that allows the Palaye Royale members to express their emotions and experience freely, the latest album “Fever Dream” takes up a paramount role. For the album, it was the first time in years – since the album “Boom Boom Room” – that the band had time to work on their ideas for longer than just weeks or months. The process of album creation took about a year and a half, and the band used the Covid times for a bit of calmness in their creative process. “We set up a studio at our house and worked all hours of the night and day, really crafting something that we felt individually as artists. And it definitely grew our relationship as brothers as well, starting to respect each other more”, so recounts Barrett, looking back. The resulting piece of art was definitely worth the time: 15 tracks compose a beautifully delicate blending of pain and sorrow with an energetically life-approving resilience. Especially songs like “No Love in LA”, “Paranoid”, “Broken”, or “Punching Bag” are widely known in the international rock community. The album is also a climax in the artistic development of the band: “It really is an incredible thing to see an artist progress through the course of something. What a terrible thing to be the greatest version of yourself at the beginning of you!”, says Barrett enthusiastically. “I think there is an intrinsic quality in discovering yourself as you write, as opposed to having a team of writers or stylists who tell you how your image and sound is supposed to look like. An artist must bleed for their work, where this is all they know, this is who they are”, he says. “So I think just naturally – over the course of growing up and finding things and having life experiences – we are able to write better and craft our image.” Barrett is sure that “Fever Dream” is the best work the band has ever done. “It has encapsulated everything that we have ever done in our lives and then refined it and picked out the best of it.”
“Fever Dream” came out during the pandemic times, “where life did not feel real”, as Barrett says. He has gone far into simulation theory and started to do digital worldbuilding. “If I, as one individual, can sit in my kitchen and create a new, somewhat fotorealistic world, imagine what someone in their kitchen can do in 50 years!”, Barrett smiles passionately. “So if this life is a dream, it might as well be the most beautiful dream you´ve ever had.” He pauses a second. “And to do everything you ever wanted. Say all the things that you need to say. Experience everything that you want to experience. So – I think this life is a fever dream. We just kinda wrote about that.” Not to forget the somewhat supramundane elements that left their mark on the creation of the album: As Barrett tells us with a grin, they lived in a haunted house at that time. Once the home of a French murderer and later of a girl that died of an overdose, the band claims to have heard and seen ghosts in the house. “We would invite friends for parties and they kept saying they saw a girl in a white dress on the stairs. And on a certain Hertz frequency with my technical equipment, I could hear a French man talking in the other room. So there was this element of these ghostly characters.” Barrett smiles widely, and thinks for a moment. “I think you gotta make friends with your demons though, sometimes they are very cool”. He grins, and his eyes sparkle in a way that you can feel his passionate energy for the project.
The way Palaye Royale is so very perceptive towards the surreal, the immaterial, mysterious and painfully emotional has been crafted throughout their lives from early on. “My mum engineered us like a computer this way.” Barrett laughs. “Our toys were art and playing chess. And it wasn’t until later in my life that I realized not everyone does this”, he says. “But I am very grateful for what she instilled in us when we were very young: I can give you a gift, not a bicycle or anything like that, a gift that can never be taken away from you”, he explains. “You can be poor, you can be rich – it doesn’t matter, you have that gift. The gift of creativity, music, art. The way I survive, the way I breathe, is making art and songs.”
For Palaye Royale, music is a mirror of the soul, a reflection of the inner life that is torn between pains so very hard to bear, and the love for true expression, for a deeply felt beauty of art, and the ecstasy of shared inspiration. “I like it when art is left up to the interpretation of the listener. You’re not fully told how to feel or what to believe. But we indeed are taking from our own personal experiences of pain in the songs, and we have had so much pain individually”, says Barrett, and starts playing on his guitar again. “The deepest, most terrific scars are the ones you can’t see. So if you are able to turn that tragedy into something beautiful and inspire others who feel the same way – this is so important, passing the baton to other generations. When we meet younger musicians, that’s the new generation: You have to inspire them, and give them an element of magic to take away and grow up with, and then expand on that, and I hope – “ he pauses for a moment and then corrects himself– “I think this is why we are alive.”
The perfect embodiment of this conceptual love for music is the song “Oblivion”. “Oh, I love that song!”, Barrett calls. “It is my most favourite song ever written. If you asked me if there was one Palaye Royale song to ever be remembered by, it would be Oblivion.” It formed out of a graphic novel, where Barrett did soundtracks to, and one of the songs he wrote was called “Death Note”. This six-minute track was where the idea came from. “I showed it to the boys, and they liked one part of it, and we stripped away the rest of what I worked on and broke it down”, Barrett says. “ I decided, no fucking drums at all. It has to be special. Piano and then Remington’s incredible emotional voice. There is something about this that is so magical. It’s hard not to cry.” This is even the more special as the band plays the calm, heartbreakingly sad song in the midst of the highly energetic, pumped-up show – a striking contrast? “I think this is how we all are though. In our show, we speed up, we put the emotional rollercoaster of life into an hour and twenty minutes. We all go through that. It’s like the seven stages of grief – that’s our show.” Barrett smiles.
In this conglomerate of sounds and emotions, how do the brothers shine through individually with their different personalities? “Sheer force.” Barrett laughs heartily. “Lots of screaming, lots of throwing things. No, we have gotten better at expressing ourselves. We obviously write songs together – but I think the best way we have been doing it recently is to go off on your own, express what you feel, and then bring it to the brothers and we all work on it. It goes for all of us: This is something I want to express, and then we make changes and alterations together. It’s like an open project.” Of course there are also brotherly disagreements. Barrett nods. “All the time. It’s the whole tug of war, for better or for worse. But that’s why I love art. Because no one fucking tells you what to do.” Barrett grins cannily. “Every decision is a correct decision.”
Now who are the Palaye Royale Brothers, who is Emerson Barrett – aside from the star celebrity figures anybody can see on stage, as individual personalities? What is their story? Barrett reaches out to his phone and smiles. “Let me read you a Franz Kafka quote, it will answer your question: ‘I was ashamed of myself when I realized life was a costume party and I attended with my real face.’ I learned that very early on”, Barrett says with his soft, sad voice, and it looks like his eyes are turned inward, into a past and future of a world no one can see but him. “I dropped out of school when I was 16, and I was assuming that the world was very acceptive of expression, and youth – and ‘here is my soul’. That’s not the way it is”, Barrett laughs bitterly. “There is this kind of costume party that we all have to be part of, and play your persona out of safety. It’ like wearing armor – because if you show the purest, realest version of yourself, you will be destroyed. But when you find likeminded people, you are able to reveal that”, Barrett says. “With our hardcore fanbase we have these secret little pathways to lead you down, and this is where we take off our masks and reveal ourselves. Which is a safety thing. There have been many times that I displayed myself and it has felt terrifying.” For Barrett, this terror is most clearly enacted by social media. “It’s a place where if you are too open, you are destroyed.” That’s why Palaye Royale has created their own platforms like their Discord or their “Royal Council” – “almost like our own world, like a hub, like a community, a central landing page for our fanbase”. Will Emerson take off his mask in the concert tonight? “Aah, I guess we will find out”, he says plainly.
With Palaye Royale´s music it becomes clear that rock’n’roll is not dead – matter of fact, it is very much alive. With their unique, authentic and highly expressive music that is in stark contrast to the superficial, commercially successful mainstream, it would not be farfetched to say that the band should deserve more credit and appreciation for their contribution to the genre. Barrett, however, sees this very relaxed. “I think time will tell. As respectfully as I can say this, I think there is a lot of things taking place nowadays in creativity and art industry that will not stand the test of time, that is a very brief shine of light in vast darkness”, he says. “I think through our history, no matter what generation you are in, as long as you express things directly from your soul and try to inspire others with your experiences, whether it be pain or happiness, that’s what will be remembered. I am very happy with where I am in my life, and obviously things could be bigger, things could be smaller. I’m just very grateful every day to wake up with a purpose and have people that care.”
And tonight, as the last heartbreakingly beautiful tunes fade at the end of the show, Barrett stands on stage, with a bronze mask on, a bouquet of crimson roses in one hand, throwing them into the cheering crowd, one finger stretched to the sky like a divine gesture of soul – in this moment we feel like we get a glimpse of Barrett without his mask, in his true revelation, and of the band in one ecstatic moment of true connection. “Always search for beauty – because it is within you”, Barrett says to us, in one last message to his fans. “There is enough of silence and darkness in the world, and you are the light. I am very grateful for all of you – I love you very much.”
The lights in the concert hall flicker one last time, a cool breath of fresh air soars above our heads, the bass line comes to a breathtaking halt – and the moment when the Palaye Royale brothers give the crowd a last glance and leave the stage without looking back, it feels like we have all woken from a deep fever dream. “We can be anything and everything, We want to be if we believe, Letting go of what we used to know, Fall asleep and make believe with me, We’re gonna be alright.” Yes, with you, Palaye Royale, we are indeed gonna be alright.