Now/It's: An Interview with Alec Koukol (Safari Room)

During the earliest stages of Now/It's (let's be honest, barely a year into existence, we're still in the early stages), there was a lot of aimless brainstorming and pontificating in the name of circumspection. While aspects of such thinking was absolutely necessary, most of it was not. In fact, some of it was detrimental, at least in the sense of impeding the beginning of the site. There were times in which serious moments of self-doubt delayed early posts about Run River North, Whitney, and Bonnaroo 2017. Ultimately, we threw caution to the wind, and now we're here, talking to Alec Koukol, the mind behind Safari Room, an indie rock band "assembled in Nashville, TN - born elsewhere." Clever etymological origins aside, Koukol experienced the same sort of crisis of confidence Now/It's once did in bringing Safari Room back into the light nearly six years after its inception. Luckily, Koukol has turned such trials and tribulations of convictions into Safari Room's EP Actual Feelings, which runs the gamut of feelings many experience in times of introspection and growth. Koukol hopes the EP will serve as something of a blueprint for any and all experiencing their own crisis of confidence, in turn coming out on the other side as realized as he (and his Safari Room band-mates) has.

Now/It's met with Alec Koukol at Portland Brew, in the 12 South neighborhood of Nashville.

Alec - What’s new and exciting?

N/I - Not a whole lot. What about you?

Alec - Well, some of the same [laughs].

N/I - When was the last time we got to really interact with each other?

Alec - Let’s think….

N/I - Was it the Oscars?

Alec - It might have been.

N/I - I believe it was. Or at least the last time we had a conversation versus the perfunctory “How’s it going?”

Alec - [Laughs] I believe so. Even though the Oscar pool had everyone at each other’s heels. Everyone had to get their own to win.

N/I - That is very true.

Alec - So how long have you been doing this?

N/I - The interviewing? On this particular site - a year and change. In general - roughly four or five years.

Alec - Oh wow, so you’ve been doing it a little longer than some might expect?

N/I - I suppose. I’ve really only been doing it seriously for the past three years or so. It’s tough to figure out the online writing world and how it all works.

Alec - Like how everything operates?

N/I - How everything operates, as well as what works best for myself - and as I’ve found out, is generally more exciting for everyone involved. In the end, I believe it’s to keep things conversational. The last thing I want to do is bring in a notebook with questions written down, open it up, and ask if the person is ready, only to see an invisible wall go up. And everyone is stuck in interview mode, which is fine, but sometimes the end product is underwhelming, at least in terms of original thought.

Alec - That makes sense. I’ve never really done much interviewing, so it’s all pretty new to me.

N/I - Well there’s nothing wrong with that! If my site serves as nothing more than a comfortable place for people to get interviewing reps in, I’m more than happy with that. It’s a super weird thing to get into, and to understand that you have a single coming out soon, and shortly thereafter, there’s an EP coming out in July. So how do you go about promoting both without sounding like you’re shouting your own praises? Through practice, it becomes easier.

Alec - Right. Or just going at it in general feels like I need to go after it in a number different venues. Because just Facebook and Instagram pushing it towards people becomes “AH! This is too much.”

N/I - It is interesting. What we can just call the “album cycle” or the “promotional cycle,” is still relatively open in terms of barriers to entry to artists in general. But at the same time, you have some very large and looming entities that can put more time and money into everything at all times to make their efforts seem more organic, because all their bases are covered through seemingly infinite funds…. Do you know who Charlotte Lawrence is? I’ve been listening to her a lot recently, because her “come up” is fascinating to me. Basically, she’s this eighteen year old budding pop star, but her dad created Scrubs, Cougar Town, and wrote on Friends.

Alec - That’s amazing.

N/I - And so it’s one of those things where I don’t think she really started making music up until about a year ago, and….

Alec - All of a sudden, she’s [snaps].

N/I - Has three of the “hottest viral” hits on Spotify. And I’ve seen a lot of promotion for it now - her face was all over Times Square for a week - and from the truly indie artist perspective, you can’t help but wonder “How the hell do I go up against that?”

Alec - Absolutely! Because that objectively is going to get covered.

N/I - She’s literally born atop the highest Hollywood hill, and she can just hop skip and jump to the top of whatever music chart. So all that to be said, it’s interesting, being someone who is by no means a musician, but finds themselves around it quite a bit, I would imagine the Charlotte Lawrences of the world can be rather intimidating as an indie artist. And not necessarily demoralizing, but with a project like Safari Room, you’re pretty much at the “beginning.”

Alec - Yes. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly it.

N/I - From the general person’s perspective, you are.

Alec - Exactly, this is a “new” band.

N/I - So to go from the literal inception point to wherever it goes, I would imagine it could be pretty intimidating.

Alec - It can be a big challenge. Because even in circles of friends, I still feel somewhat unknown. The social media of everything means people can keep swiping through, and so you have to stand out that way as well. And on the bigger scale of it - what you were talking about - knowing that someone can go from zero to sixty in the matter of a year….

N/I - Because of circumstance.

Alec - For different circumstances, her’s being a little bigger than mine [laughs]. But yeah, I think it’s interesting that something like [Charlotte Lawrence] can happen, because sure, [Safari Room] could do the exact same thing. We could have certain ads, and pay $100, and promote things that way, but we still won’t have that breadth….

N/I - The depth and breadth of all your efforts are nowhere near as “sticky.” Again, I’m curious - being in Nashville and being around other people in musical projects - is it weird, or uncomfortable to make others aware of your musical efforts? Is it almost like you have to announce “Hey, I am doing this.”

Alec - It does. I think we may have announced something when we were in the first, early stage of all the EP work. Because we did an EP two years ago that we recorded four years ago, and that was just me in a dorm room writing songs, saying “Hey, I want to do this,” and then a friend, Kevin Freund, was like “We can do this on the cheap! Let’s make it happen.” So he gave me the opportunity to flesh this demo out, and then Simon [Knudston] and Emma [Lambiase] were there to play drums and bass, respectively. They were there, and we recorded it in their basement, mixed it all, Adam came in with synthesizers, we did a little choir and background vocals. It was all very small, but then we sat on it for two years. There was the dilemma of figuring out whether or not I wanted to play shows with it, and being busy with school. So then it was December 31st, 2016, I think. Right before 2017, before I graduated from college. We decided to just throw it out and then blank slate. That’s how it felt to me. But then when I got out of school, I thought, “Wait, maybe I can play shows with this.” So I felt that I needed to make an “announcement” then, to be able to say it’s a real thing. I knew I announced it a couple years before, but that was dipping the toe into the pond, but now I’m fully behind it.

N/I - Thing like that are fascinating to me - in terms of human nature, not necessarily just music - is the trial period of convincing people that this is actually really happening. Even if you have been doing it for other projects, or in other public facing arenas or ventures, if it’s you doing it, you have to really sell it initially. I mean, when I first started this website, I had to really lean in on interviewing friends. Those interviews were getting the feel for what the website might become, and to build out the trust circle that would substantiate the legitimacy of the site. So when you establish that legitimacy or credibility, you can look ostensibly six years into the past and think “Wow, this can’t be it,” only to realize you have to reintroduce yourselves all over again.

Alec - That is interesting. We weren’t trying to playing those six year old songs live. There is one that we might consider playing, but we thought we shouldn’t, but then one night, I decided we should embrace that past self. And that’s what a lot of what the context of what we’re talking about in the music is.

N/I - That’s right. Aspects of anxiety?

Alec - Anxiety. Stuff that’s really interesting and stuff that I’m still dealing with. They’re ideas that make me stop and think, “Wait. Other people are dealing with this too.” So why not honor that mindset and that struggle to continue to bring it to light.

N/I - Sure. Hopefully it doesn’t sound like I’m generalizing - but they’re universal truths. I’ve always thought that having a certain aspect of relatability in the music. It’s one thing to be Shel Silverstein and write “A Boy Named Sue.” That’s not relatable in the very specific sense, but at the same time, you look at it and you can see a story about a guy that really hates his father for never being around, but through the humorous lens of being named Sue. And the father/son relationship has been around since the dawn of man. Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, everyone has some version of it.

Alec - And if you find yourself in the song - that’s what music has always been, and it should always be - you can find yourself in stories even if they’re not necessarily written about you. That’s something that helped me realize I needed to revitalize these songs and make them feel welcome in the family [laughs]. It’s like getting married again, and the kids are all back together.

N/I - There might be some animosity, but it’ll crop up somewhere later down the line.

Alec - And some of those songs are people’s favorites when we play them live. So that’s kind of funny to think that we didn’t even want to play them at first [laughs].

N/I - So when you have some of those songs that you think you’re just going to table in perpetuity, only to have people respond to them, does that make you mad? Or something along those lines.

Alec - It only makes me mad toward myself, because then I realize I need to be a little more kind to things that I’ve made. It’s always a reminder that we’re our worst critics.

N/I - That’s fair. I could see it going one way or another, in which you either despise the fact the old songs resonate, or you embrace, or even chalk it up to something like Murphy’s Law. It figures that the ones you didn’t want to do are songs that people have expressed more relation toward than you might have anticipated.

Alec - I just think it’s funny because that’s a weird trend to recognize, so I just have to say “Cool!” and keep rolling. Because we’re not really at a place where we’re playing these songs every night - maybe if it reached that point, I’d reconsider because it would get tiresome, but right now, it’s nice to see that line of my past connect with people. For someone to say they felt it too, or that they felt in general means a lot. Not that I haven’t felt those things in six years, but it is cool have that shared past. It’s like that thought where someone else’s past is someone else’s future. That whole thing.


N/I - Right. There’s a sense of camaraderie there. In a live music arena, that’s a big aspect.

Alec - And it’s a totally different time in my life - my freshman and sophomore year of college was kind of a lonely place….

N/I - Why is that? New place?

Alec - I moved from Nebraska and I only knew Sam [Gidley]. He was one of the only people I knew [laughs], and while The Lonely Biscuits were gaining traction, I just figured I’d try not to bother him [laughs]. That’s a very “me” thing to do, to go “I don’t want to infringe upon your life!”

N/I - That’s not necessarily a flaw, as much as just being overly diplomatic, or overly polite.

Alec - I suppose.

N/I - It could have been worse - you could have tried butting in at any and every opportunity.

Alec - Well… I might have tried that once [laughs]. I think when John [Paterini] left, I might have said something along the lines of “If you ever need another guitar player… I hate that I’m even saying this, but just know that I’m around.” [laughs] I’m sure they probably got fifty of the same texts around that time.

N/I - That is funny, considering the nature of Nashville and then Belmont within Nashville - there was sort of a month and a half long period of uncertainty, and things almost reached an audition point where they’d run through all those people that texted them. But those guys are all so nice, I’m glad they didn’t have to go through some ridiculous montage of characters auditioning for an open slot and have to tell a lot of people “no.”

Alec - [Laughs] That would have been… uncomfortable [laughs].

N/I - So during that period, what would propel you to try and join a different band if you didn’t even want pursue your own music?

Alec - See, it wasn’t like an active writing on my end, I think I was just writing to write. I didn’t have a ton of confidence to push forward with it. I would just write, record demos, and feel good or bad about it. Then I would just let them sit. So I did that throughout college - I wanted to be diligent with school, and all the music stuff I was doing within that. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen to dip out a little more and try doing the Safari Room stuff a little earlier. Not playing shows felt okay at that point. I wanted to, but there were really no openings that I saw, and the ones that I did see opened and closed almost immediately. So I started to think that that might of not been the right time. In the end that was all perception. There were opportunities staring me in the face and I just thought “Hmm, maybe I’m not ready.” I talked myself down a lot instead of jumping on and doing it earlier.

N/I - Not to speak in generalities, but that’s pretty applicable to any aspect of life. No matter what field you’re in, there are opportunities that stare you right in the face and again, you might not realize it. In my experience, with this website, I spent longer than I probably should have sitting on my hands contemplating, that by the time I went ahead and started with the interviews, I saw that the little bit of legwork led to way more momentum being created than I could have ever anticipated. In a sense, I’d networked my way into a sort of consistent flow of requests on my end and from others. Though, networking is sort of the ultimate buzzword in Nashville [laughs].

Alec - It’s a beautiful and ugly word.

N/I - It can seem so perverse and pure at the same time…. That sounds so cheesy, but I guess I stand by it [laughs].

Alec - I feel like I’ve had an issue with that too, because you want to come at it from a genuine spot, because everyone wants to get their word, or their work across, but at the same time, I’ve tried to be very intentional, yet casual about it. There’s a certain amount of show-going that happens in the name of networking, but I’m not going out every night just to network. When you’re there, people can see you, but at the same time, they’re like “There’s that guy who keeps popping up with his business cards.” That’s terrible. Maybe that’s ignorant of me, but that’s not the way I want to be perceived.

N/I - I think that’s fair.

Alec - I go to shows that I have friends at and I just want to be a part of that as opposed just so that it only benefits me.

N/I - I think if you’re so incredibly introverted and so socially maladapted that you don’t know where to begin, then sure, maybe you should start going out to something like a show every single night. Realistically, there’s a financial aspect to that in which maybe you can’t, unless you have a ridiculous bankroll, or clout that lets you into that world for free, but you can’t connect with people, but that’s a whole different story. But I think the way it sounds like you’ve approached it is much more natural.

Alec - Sure. I fear the perception of what people might think of me….

N/I - I think that’s something everyone deals with.

Alec - …. Right. I just think I’ve seen it and I don’t want to be it - the person who walks around only to benefit themselves. And yes, I do want to benefit myself, but not at the expense of others.

N/I - I kind of liken that approach to going to a wedding and deciding you’re going to propose during the reception.

Alec - [Laughs] Yes! You’re taking that spotlight. And that is someone - treat others the way you’d want to be treated - I wouldn’t want someone walking around selling their albums at my release show [laughs].

N/I - You don’t want people showing up to try and shift the perspective away from the event at hand.

Alec - So it’s finding that balance, and I don’t think I’ve found the balance, and honestly, I may never find that balance.

N/I - I don’t think many people do. I think realistically, the most “connected” person is never going to fully get it….

Alec - Because it’s a changing science.

N/I - And they’re not wholly omnipotent, they’re just fortunate that they haven’t upset enough people to that point.

Alec - Exactly. And that is such a thing for me - I don’t want to have to bother people, and then the social media thing just makes it all a swamp. I do Safari Room, and I do some film composing as well. We had finished recording [Safari Room] and I was itching, thinking I needed to do more, because our hands on role in the EP was done at that point, we were mixing. I still needed to do stuff, and some things came into my inbox, and I figured I’d look into this other venture, and I made this big post about starting this new thing where people can follow if they want, and that’s great, but if they don’t, that’s fine too. But I was just letting people know that it was something else that I’m doing now, too, because it’s my alternative to playing in six other bands and touring. I don’t think I could survive in six other bands [laughs].

N/I - I don’t know many people who would.

Alec - So I feel like Safari Room is the band that I wanted to do, and then this composing thing, I’m super set with those, along with some teaching on the side, too. But I was super nervous when I released both projects kind of around the same time, because I figured people would get so annoyed by all these posts from Alec.

N/I - I understand. I run into the same thing with posting these interviews. I’ll post once, but I’m not going to keep inundating people with “Hey! Have you read this yet!?”

Alec - Exactly. You just post it and let it go.

N/I - Because otherwise you get caught up in that perception you were talking about earlier. And that’s kind of universal, which applies to the four principles of the EP?

Alec - Yeah. It’s like each song kind of ties into those four thoughts. And I was kind of hesitant to post it like that, but that gives the general idea of what it is and where it’s coming from. Isolation is the first one, anxiety is the second one, vice is actually probably the most positive song, but coming from a dark place, and the last one is just about relationship pain. So boom, boom, boom, boom.

N/I - And that’s all stuff that’s….

Alec - Relevant.

N/I - And a universal aspect to it. I don’t know anybody whose never felt alone, anxiety ridden, or even in the most perfect of unions, some sort of strife.

Alec - It’s fun to play on those, and I’m striving to write more positive songs, but I feel like it’s more interesting to delve into that.