It's not hard to remember when I first heard Ice Giants because it wasn't long ago. I was checking out artists on another music site with my a&r partner as we do in the middle of the night, and we came upon the Ice Giants page. The first song we listened to was so good, we moved on to another, and another, and this group was spectacular - dare I say it, Beatleesque.. I said to her remember that name, Ice Giants. A week or so later that name had a page going at IMP with their whole EP on it. Another one of our pipeline gang remarked to me that every song on their page is good. I just listened again to the whole page the other night and several of the songs: The Bronx, Mighty Midas, and Quiet As A Queen struck me as total pop/rock masterpieces. The Bronx btw is now one of the fastest moving songs on our Kayak Big 25. Great songwriting, arrangements, and especially strong in the harmony department, it turns out Ice Giants isn't a group but is a solo project by a guy named Paul Leo.
It fascinated me even more that one person was creating these lush, cinematic songs. I was happy for the chance to ask Paul about his music.
Ice Giants (in case you want to listen while you read)
Scott: ok we'll get the simple questions out of the way early. Where did the name Ice Giants come from? Does it have anything to do with the cold you speak of in the song Goodbye Tennesee Road?
Paul: I love the idea of “Ice Giants”. When I think of “Ice Giants”, I picture a tribe of enormous men and women made of ice - walking, breathing ice sculptures, in a sense. The idea is that even though they appear bold and invincible to the external observer (because of their size), they’re actually fragile and easily breakable (because of the ice). I feel like we’re all Ice Giants in a sense - appearing pristine and invincible to the world on the outside, when in reality, we’re all on the verge of shattering on the inside. I’m just as insecure and self-doubting as the next person, but I’ve been told that I appear very confident, which I suppose makes me an Ice Giant.
But also, it reminds me of the last few planets, and God Damn space is cool.
Scott: It's listed on your page that this is a solo project. You do all the instruments but it was mixed by Natalie Huizenga? What's the history of that arrangement? What was the evolution of you being able to make the quality recordings that you do? Any anecdotes about buying your first portastudio or anything like that? :)
Paul: I’ve been lucky enough to collect the equipment and skills over the years to be pretty self-sufficient in the entire recording process. I sing, and play the guitar, piano, and drums, and have learned how to record and mix on Logic, which means I don’t have to pay big bucks to local studios. It’s certainly taken a while to get to this point, though - I have plenty of awful, awful recordings from when I was angsty and 16, recording on my dad’s 8-track recorder in the basement. But we’ve all been there, haven’t we?
I’m a big believer in the fact that to get good at anything - especially an artistic endeavor - you need to consistently produce a lot of work, both good and bad. Don’t be afraid to make shitty art. Shitty art leads to good art down the road.
And about Natalie — Natalie Huizenga is a good friend and former band-mate of mine from high school, and she currently lives in LA doing sound production for a living. I know she’s got a way better mixing ear than I do, so I had her help me with the mixing this time around. It was our first real collaboration in adulthood, and I can’t say enough about how patient she was with me during the whole process. She went through 10 or 11 drafts with some of the songs to appease my obsessive-compulsive perfectionist tendencies. She’s the real MVP.
Scott: Referring to your song 'Lately, I've Been With a Monster', I must say I've known a lot of monsters. How would you advise a friend to deal with monsters he or she encounters?
Paul: The “Monster”, as it relates to romance, is a concept that my friend and I jammed on a few years back. When we crush on somebody romantically, we tend to turn them into this larger-than-life “monster” figure that occupies all of our mental space, despite the fact that we might know very little about this person. I wrote the tune after going on a date in Oakland with a girl I had a big crush on, and even after I realized the crushing wasn’t mutual, she got stuck in my head real bad as a Monster. The chorus of the tune - “I could go for hours and hours wishing the same damn things again” - is a reference to this insanity.
My best advice? I call it the APAP principle - “All People Are People”. I try to remind myself as much as possible that All People Are actually just People: imperfect, messy, insecure, unsure, flawed beings, much like myself. Every time I find myself Monstering over someone, I remind myself that they are, in fact, just a person, and whatever unrealistic mental interpretation I’ve created of them is untrue and not worth obsessing over.
Scott: Your lyrics like on Mighty Midas and The Bronx seem to have a lot of depth. Just guessing here but are you also a writer of text, blogs, etc? Or are you a traveller/explorer?
Paul: Not much of a writer outside of music, but definitely a traveller / explorer. Traveling (and taking in new sensory experiences in general) is an incredibly generative experience for me. I need to move around a lot when I write - each track on the album was written in a different setting, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. “Until Then Blues” was in a rainy car ride across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, “Goodbye, Tennessee Road” was on a bike ride through downtown Oakland, and “Quiet as a Queen” happened while cleaning up my classroom after a long day of teaching, for example. If I’m ever stuck musically, I’ll take a trip to get un-stuck. Sometimes it’s a 10-minute walk; sometimes it’s a road trip to the Pacific Northwest (which I got to do a couple summers back). Traveling is beautiful. Besides Netflix and sex, I don’t think there’s a single thing more universally enjoyed than traveling.
Scott: You aren't related to Ted Leo, are you?
Paul: Funny story, actually. Last year, my brother asked me the same question, and for lulz, I decided to do some research. I went online, found an email address for Ted, sent him a message, and after a couple of back-and-forth emails, found out that his family is from the same part of southern Italy that my family is from. So to answer your question - maybe?
Scott: Your harmonies are just great. What mainstream band has the harmonies you like the most?
Paul: Yo, thank you so much! I was music director of an acappella group in college, so I got great experience learning how to generate and arrange harmonies. Very few things in the world get me as excited as good harmonies.
There are a ton of groups out there with strong harmony games. Fleet Foxes, Dr. Dog, Haim, and Bon Iver are the first ones that come to mind. I also grew up on John Frusciante’s harmonies with the Chili Peppers, and think that’s one of the top 3 reasons the Chili Peppers were so great. My number one harmony crush of all time, though, is Lucius. Check out their track “Go Home” and try to argue otherwise.
Scott:: Your songs sound like singles, like the kind of thing I would've bought in my youth on a 45. Is there any music you feel nostalgia for?
Paul: Oh, absolutely. I had such an extensive “guilty pleasure” phase in high school that I sometimes go back to when I need a fix. I’m a total pop-punk / emo junkie. I miss the days when it was socially acceptable to listen to Dashboard Confessional, All Time Low, Sum 41, Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy, etc., for hours on end. I’ve been through so many different music phases in my life - I love looking back at playlists I made in years past, and seeing Billy Joel, Dave Brubeck, and The Used back-to-back-to-back on the same playlist.
Scott: How long have you had music online, and if you feel brave, tell us about your music career dreams in as much detail as you like.
Paul: Sure - “Rings & Kings & Bigger Things” was the 4th album I’ve put online. The first 3 were under the name “The Random Kids”, a project I have with fellow singer-songwriter Evan Munz. We released full-length albums in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and I’ll put in a quick plug for our 2012 album, “Paint it All Gold”. It’s fun as hell. Check it out at https://therandomkids.bandcamp.com/album/paint-it-all-gold if you liked the vibe of Rings & Kings. Evan and I wrote and recorded “Paint it All Gold” completely independently in a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania - probably the best two-week period of my life.
In terms of my bigger musical dreams - that’s a great question. Music has always been something that I’ve done “on the side” of other pursuits to keep me sane, happy, and engaged. After high school, I got a physics degree at Yale, taught high school math for a couple of years in California, and am now in medical school in Philadelphia - and all the while have been writing and recording music on the side. Thanks to the Internet, musicians no longer have to make music their only career. I know that in the future, I can have a full-time career in medicine and still have time to write my own music and share it with the world, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing. With things like Bandcamp, Spotify, and iTunes, it’s so damn easy to get your music out there. When I write music, I function better in the real world, and when I’m functioning well in the real world, I write better music. Isn’t that cool?
Scott: I lived near Philly myself up til a couple years ago. Are you an Eagles fan? :) How much exposure did you get to Philadelphia soul and is soul music an influence?
Paul: So I actually gave up football last year - I think it’s an awful, awful sport. Between the culture of violence that it builds plus the concussion problems that permeate the league (including the NFL’s efforts to hide incriminating data), I decided that I couldn’t support the sport anymore. Did you know that football players, on average, have life spans that are 25 years shorter than non-football players? Isn’t that nuts?
I actually just moved to Philly a month ago for medical school - before that, I spent most of my life (until age 18) in Chicago, then lived in New Haven, CT and Oakland, CA. So I can’t say that I’ve gotten much exposure to Philly soul…although I do love the Roots big time. When I taught high school math, I used to use Questlove in all of my lectures when I was teaching the kids about “roots” of quadratic equations. They thought I was a dork. They were right.
Scott: When did you first realize you're good? You do know it, right? :)
Paul: That means the world to me - thank you so much! I don’t view myself as a particularly talented guitarist, vocalist, drummer, piano player, etc., but I also don’t think that it takes extreme technical skill to make good music. Some of the best music comes from the heart and the brain rather than from the fingers and feet. Know what I mean? Take Father John Misty’s album “I Love You, Honeybear”, for example. In my opinion, there’s nothing on the album that makes you go, “Wow, this guy can really play the guitar!” or “Wow, what an incredible vocalist!”, but his torturously relatable lyrics and consistently spot-on songwriting makes it one of my favorite albums to listen to. I try to do the same thing in my songwriting - I worry less about shredding a “sick guitar solo” or laying down complex vocal riffs, and focus more on creating solid sonic textures and emotionally intriguing lyrics.
Scott: I ask all Spotlight interviewees this question: Have you ever had any experiences of high strangeness like UFOs or the supernatural ?
Paul: Great question - yes, actually! In years past, I had a bizarre electronic solo project by the name of “Vibe Frog”. Not a particularly successful project, but relevant to the story. On the night that I had just finished recording my first Vibe Frog song, I was taking a trip on the “L” in Chicago (the train system) when I had a total otherworldly moment. A hip-looking guy, probably in his early 30’s, was wearing this shirt that said “VIBE” across the back, and right as he got off the train, a woman with a giant frog tattoo on her arm entered the train and passed the VIBE guy in the process. There was one sweet moment when I saw the phrase “Vibe Frog” across their collective arm and back, respectively, and I lost my shit. Was it a sign? Probably not. Did I think the frog tattoo was sexy? Maybe.
Scott: What was your greatest moment involving your own music?
Paul: A potentially lame answer, but when I was a junior in high school, my band won a state-wide “Illinois State Battle of the Bands” competition, and as a 17-year-old, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Not that it isn’t still cool now! But it felt hella cool back then.
More recently, though, I’ve come to view songwriting as a means to navigate and work through my emotions rather than as a route to seek external validations. In other words, I’m really thankful for any time that my music gets featured somewhere, or when I get positive feedback on an album, but the greatest moments are much smaller than that. It’s that moment when you’ve just finished recording a song, and you take a walk around the block to listen to the final product for the first time, you know? When you have that moment of “Shit…I made this!” Nothing in the world beats that feeling.