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What comes first, the movie or the soundtrack? Most would say the movie should come first. How can you create songs without the story? But Saint Motel wanted to flip the script. Their latest album, The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, is “a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist.” The album, released in three parts, tells a story so vivid you can visualize it all in your mind.

The first act begins with a period of innocence, establishing the scene and introducing the challenge with “Save Me.” The next part brings the necessary drama — the dangers, the love interest, the false resolutions. Songs likes “Slow Dance,” “Preach” and “A Good Song Never Dies” lead to literally to “The Moment.” And the long-awaited part three brings the dark period into the light through victory with “It’s All Happening.”

The idea of a visual album is still relatively new to the music industry, but a few artists have begun to dabble in it. But as AJ Jackson, frontman for Saint Motel, explains, the band isn’t afraid of that. They began as friends who met in film school. Visual elements have always been part of their DNA. And as the film industry widens the possibility of what a movie can be, Saint Motel is joining in on the fun.

RELEVANT sat down with Jackson to explore how their music has changed over the years, what it’s like to create a storyboard for an album and why he’s pleasantly surprised by how fans resonate with their songs. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea for The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack start?

So the idea is it’s a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist. Initially, it came about, we were on a plane flying to a show, and Aaron Sharp was sitting next to me looking through the SkyMall magazine. There was a soundtrack for some movie, and he’s like, “Oh, that’s a great name for the album.” And it made total sense to me. And I had already kind of wanted to try releasing it in parts. I didn’t know what the concept would be. But then, a three-act structure of a movie seemed to make a lot of sense. We just had Saintmotelevision come out before that. And then, the band started in film school, so it felt like it was harkening back to our roots. Even though the music wasn’t created with that in mind, the songs started slotting into place of this story structure that seemed to make a lot of sense. 

You mentioned that the band started in film school, so it’s cool to see the way that you all use a lot of visual elements in your music, which is kind of rare for a band. Typically, you just think of the sound of it, but when you all started the band, did you all plan on making sure that you had these visual elements in your music as well?

Well, when we first started, it was just since we were in film school, it was, we had access to cameras and our friends were all making stuff. So the first EP, ForPlay, just ended up having a music video for every piece. And then, by the time we got into Voyeur, same kind of thing. We made quite a bit of music videos for that album too, I think. A lot of that was just our film school background and our film school friends. And that’s even why we got into the virtual reality, augmented reality thing with Saintmotelevision because some friends pulled us into that world. Before you know it, we had the content for every song on the album, so the whole album needed some sort of virtual companion piece.

But in visuals, if it’s music video or album packaging or the live show, it’s just a fun way to creatively enhance what you’re already creating with the music. Different parts of the brain are being exercised, but it’s all still pretty fun. It’s a lot more of a pain, especially, music videos. I feel like I’ve probably almost died a few times from making music videos, but I don’t regret doing any of them.

Your virtual reality concept, that was so interesting to me. And as far as I know, I don’t think anyone has ever done that before. Do you think that the music industry will go towards these virtual experiences with albums?

Yeah, absolutely. I think the pandemic has already forced it somewhat, even if everything’s being called virtual now, even if it’s a Zoom performance. But really more in-depth, experiential virtual stuff where you’re actually kind of there, that’s just getting better and better. It’s insane. The best stuff, honestly, is the stuff that’s not actual video cameras. It’s all digitally created worlds and then placing the artist in there. That stuff’s super fun, and we can walk around and high five other people watching this.

It’s perhaps going to be a companion to the existing tour structure we know, but more excitingly it’s going to be a new experience. So you could do your tour, cool. You could probably hit the same cities most bands do, major markets, major countries. You’re going to probably miss 75% of the world. And then you can do your virtual world tour that is accessible to anybody, anywhere. Where you can, instead of having to worry about the constraints of a physical stage, you could be a dragon performing on a cloud. It’s just, it’s some sort of merging of a music video and a concert and a make-believe fantasy world. It’s really anything you want it to be, so I think you’re going to see more and more of that.

Did the events from last year affect your creative process as you were writing this?

Not the writing aspects, but the creative, as far as releasing is very much impacted, so. I guess, initially, we were looking at putting out Part 2 during the tour shortly after Part 1, that got really spaced out.

And then it became a challenge of how to promote it and do content for it. So we started trying to do a virtual thing with, not a virtual thing, I should say, an animated music video. It was a computer-animated video, and that was a whole kind of new challenge. And also everyone in the world was trying to do that at the same time. So we did a pandemic-responsible video, which was what we did for “Preach” and similar for “It’s All Happening.”

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So “Preach” was just, there were multiple characters, but we made the face masks part of the costume design, and we spaced everybody out in this dystopian world, which actually felt good, and the vibe actually felt okay. And then, with “It’s All Happening,” same kind of thing. It was just spaced out. It was just me and the band and very, very quarantine-style music video, where we made basically a character in the sky, who kind of is the love interest, I guess, or still up for interpretation.

You mentioned your songs like “Preach” and “Born Again,” and you have these narrators, like the voice of God. What role does religion play in your life and in your music? 

I guess a song like “Born Again,” which is perhaps our most religious undertoned song — even though, I suppose, a lot of them, you could probably find interpretation through a lot of the songs — but that one is pretty directly influenced by an experience of mine growing up with a friend of mine who kind of disappeared and was sent to a… I guess it was a religious rehab, and then came back a changed person. Some of the songs are a bit more metaphorical and are all up for interpretation, which I think is good. And I think, as being a religious publication like you guys are, I think interpretation is pretty important for scripture or whatever it is.

I generally treat songwriting in the same way as “what it means to me isn’t necessarily what it means to you.” And I think that’s great that people driving their own relevance, so to speak, from the lyrics, and how it fits with them personally is kind of what I’d say 50 percent of songwriters are going for.

Does it ever surprise you when you write a song, and you release it, and then you see feedback from fans and it kind of goes in a different direction than you intended?

Yeah. I think, as long as it’s a positive reaction, it’s always thrilling. I think “Born Again” was one of the most interesting ones, too. We’d have people come over after the shows that had a direct religious kind of connection to it and were really excited about it. And that just made me really, really excited. I was just like, “Well, this is fantastic that you’re taking that kind of feeling from it, which is awesome.” There’s some songs I remember back before we were Saint Motel, our college band had a song that I was very… I wrote in a certain way. It was called “First to the Last” or “First to the Last,” but someone came up to me after a show, and they thought it really resonated with them.

“My dad passed away too.” And I was like, “Whoa, I don’t even know how you got that from the lyrics, but that’s amazing to me, I’m very, very happy that this is resonating with you in that regard.” But I think it’s always nice to hear any kind of connection. 

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