Photo by Sara Wass
Atop the incredible maze that is Pacha NYC sits Jeff Montalvo, a doe-eyed, Santa Barbarian dance music producer known as Seven Lions. Lounging on a black leather couch with his hair down past his shoulders as management stands around the room making small talk, Montalvo gives his full attention to a young journalist eagerly interviewing him about his upcoming releases. Once the interview is finished, he politely stands up at the request of the interviewer to take some awkwardly posed selfies together, while top 40 hits blast from Pachita behind a door labeled "private." I notice he's wearing a pair of shorts with a plaid flannel shirt tied around his waist.
Jeff is known for being polite. He's pretty low maintenance, taking turns drinking from a Guinness tall can and a to-go cup of coffee rather than the bottle of Grey Goose that's taller than my four year-old cousin. He's only here to do his job, which is to play electrifying tunes to a 19+ mob starting at 1:30 in the morning. Montalvo didn't ever imagine he would be headlining a 30,000 square foot NYC venue like Pacha—his career began as a dance music civilian, when he won a 2011 remix context for Above & Beyond's "You Got To Go" on Beatport (it topped the dubstep charts on the site for the following six weeks, right behind Skrillex's "Levels" remix).
Studying the art of sound at Ex'pression, a digital arts school in Northern California, Montalvo thought he would be a studio technician for the rest of his life—until he realized he utterly disdained most other artists. He couldn't bear to deal with working underneath them, so he became one. Now approaching age 27, Montalvo is touring the country under the alias Seven Lions, a divine character from a Gene Wolfe fantasy novel that loses his memory at the end of each day, and spends the rest of his life trying to find out who he is and what happened to him.
Aside from touring the country, releasing tracks on labels like OWSLA and Viper Recordings, and making an annual appearance at Burning Man with his wife, Montalvo is perfectly content with dogs, beer and backyard barbecues. Read more about his intriguing perspective on life below.
THUMP: How do you feel about New York?
Seven Lions: I love it. It's cold, but there's a lot of stuff to do, and every time I've been here, it's been fantastic. The only problem is I'm usually flying in and then flying directly out the next day. I'd love to spend more time here and get more into the city, you know? The one time we did stay, we went to MoMA, we went to Sleep No More—I mean, we just like, basically spent all of our time going out and exploring, and it was awesome. It was really rad. We want to do that again. Actually, my wife like, immediately after said, "Hey, we're moving to New York, because it's awesome."
So are you gonna move here?
I can't handle this amount of people all the time. I'm such a recluse that when I'm home, I'm home, and my email's off, my phone is off, and I'm like… I can't deal with traffic, I just want barbecuing, and my dogs, and quiet—peace and quiet.
How about Brooklyn?
Yeah, but you're still in the city. You could look around and be like, fuck, there's people everywhere. In Santa Barbara, it's on the coast, so you have the ocean which is a lot of space, and it's pretty secluded.
So, I've seen you go from opening to headlining shows in recent years. How has the ride been so far?
It's been cool. I'm just keeping my nose down, do what I do, and I'm along for the ride to be honest. I can't say my life has changed much in a noticeable way, because I've just always kind of done the same thing. I make music, travel, and play shows. And the shows have definitely been getting larger, and that's been awesome, but other than that, you know, I'm just doing the same thing.
Tell us a little about the labels you've been working with, like OWSLA.
I actually just signed with Casablanca/Republic recently. But OWSLA—they're a great label, and they've always been open to literally whatever I wanted to do as an artist, and that's a really rare thing. Especially for EDM, because all these labels have very strict guidelines of what they want to put out, and OWSLA is very open to absolutely anything. So that was a great experience. I'll always have like, a really close connection with them. I think I actually will have a release with them later this year, but the next EP will definitely be Universal/Casablanca.
How do you feel about people getting your name tattooed on their bodies?
To be honest, my first tattoo was an Opeth tattoo, which is my favorite band. So, I totally understand what that's like. I feel like it's full circle, and I'm really fucking stoked to be, you know, that important that somebody would get a tattoo. And I totally understand, and I think it's fucking awesome. I mean, I have a tattoo of my favorite band, so how could I not be cool about it?
Could you tell me about your hair?
[Laughs] So… when I moved out, and went to college, I started growing my hair out. [I went to] Ex'pression, in the Bay Area—it's a sound art school. And I grew my hair out, and I really liked it, it was cool. And then, I wanted to date [the woman] who is now my wife, and at the time she didn't like my long hair at all. So I ended up cutting it just so she would date me again. And then, I put a ring on her finger, and started growing my hair out again, so she can't get rid of me even if I do have long hair.
What kind of shampoo do you use?
Since I'm traveling it's always different… I guess the Pantene Pro-V Extra Strength stuff. It's more about the conditioner, that's for sure.
So we hear you're a Burner. What about Burning Man is special for you?
The whole idea that you go to a place where art isn't commercialized, even in the slightest bit. Everybody spends all year just working their ass[es] off to create these beautiful pieces of art that are only there for a brief moment in time—and they're not trying to sell you anything, they're not trying to push anything on you—they're only doing it because they really love to do it. And that's a beautiful thing that's so absolutely rare. I mean, in the EDM scene it's entirely fucking rare. The EDM scene is flushed with money right now, and the Burning Man scene is just so truly artistic and truly about art. It's inspiring and refreshing and it's beautiful. It's the best thing that's going on right now, by far.
Do you think that you change as a person when you're at Burning Man?
I definitely did. The first time I went, it was a totally life-changing experience, and it inspired me—it inspired my wife too. feel like it instills this sense of like, you can be creative too. It doesn't matter what you do, you can do whatever the fuck you wanna do. As long as you're trying to express who you are, and just put something into the world that is creative, then you're doing the right thing. Of course there are great festivals that are about creativity and stuff like that, but Burning Man is just so inspiring in that way. Anybody who gets a chance to go, I say, one hundred-percent go, have an open mind, be a participant – don't just sit back and people watch.
What's something super weird that's happened at Burning Man?
Burning Man is super fucking weird in general. I guess I would say, cruising down the playa in the middle of the night. Everybody's glowing on bicycles, and then a fucking giant snail comes by, bumping house music, and you just jump on the giant snail and you fucking jam. And then you get off the giant snail, and then you go ride over and you walk up this like, six-story blowing man, and you just hang out up there and you come back down. Then, you walk and find this stage that's like, this huge coliseum with just lights, and you go party there for a bit. And then you go to a dome that's just like, super dark, and there's this fucking awesome DJ that you've never heard [of] before, and then you just go party there for a bit. And then you get on a bicycle, and you ride out towards the sunrise. And there's just nothing. It's just open desert and the sun's coming up. And you're just riding in the middle of the desert and you're just thinking like, what the fuck did I do just right now? This is the coolest thing I've ever experienced in my whole life. Like, what is even going on?
Sounds like something from a movie. I'm pretty sold on going but I'm not much of a camper.
You can handle it. It's a little rough—you're roughing it a little bit—but generally… I mean, you're with like, 60,000 people out there. You're not alone. You're not like, roughing it in a bush. You're out there with a lot of people who are really friendly and that wanna help you, and they want you to have a good time.
So when you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I heard my cousin once say he wanted to be a marine biologist, so I just told everybody I wanted to be a marine biologist. He was my older cousin who I looked up to, so I was like, "I wanna be a marine biologist!"
I can relate. I used to want to be a car washer, because my dad was always washing his cars.
Yeah! I guess I wanted to be a studio technician. I always played music, but I never wanted to be the artist, and I never wanted to be in front of people really. I always wanted something to do with music, so I thought being a studio technician would be the thing. And then I realized after going to school and after doing that for a little, that I fucking hate artists, because they're all pompous dick-bags. And even I am, too. So, I decided that I didn't wanna be a studio tech or like a producer, in that sense. So I ended up doing audio-visual stuff, and that's how that went.
And how do you feel about where you are now?
It's totally unexpected. This is not the career path that I thought I would ever take. I always made music as a hobby, and the fact that it's kind of a career now is awesome, and I'm stoked. I'm now fully really getting into it, and embracing it, but it was kind of a weird thing for a while, that's for sure. Because it was always such a personal thing for me—it was my time to recharge, and to just create, and [it was] therapeutic. Now it's become something that is very different. It's a job and a business. I still love it just the same but it's changed quite a bit.
What's the worst part about traveling so much?
I honestly try not to get too pissed off about anything when I'm traveling, because traveling is so fucking horrible anyways. It's the worst. Just being in airports makes me wanna just bash my head against the wall. But everybody experiences that. I've been trying to read a lot. Reading's very personal, and it's easy to get lost in that and kind of disregard what's going on, so that's kind of where I'm at right now. Just trying to read a lot, trying not to pay attention to what's going on around.
What's on your tour rider?
Guinness, almonds, Game of Thrones memorabilia, Lembas Bread…
All the Lord of the Rings fans will definitely know what Lembas Bread is. It actually doesn't exist. It's Elven bread. You eat like one bite and it's supposed to fill you up, but it's not a real thing. So basically, all the [promoters] so far, they've either been really fucking confused and trolled, like, they'll go look and be like, what the hell is Lembas bread? So it's actually pretty funny to put that on the rider. I'm doing the whole Paleo thing to be honest, I don't really eat bread. I eat red meat, fruit, vegetables and nuts. I don't do bread or dairy or anything, 'cause it's a high energy diet, and I feel like since I'm traveling so much and playing so many shows that I need to be really intensely high energy right now.
Can you cook?
I can barbecue like a motherfucker. And I'm not, to be honest, I'm not like, the kind of person who says, I can do this really well, that's just not in my nature. But I'm telling you, I barbecue like a motherfucker. I mean, I'll barbecue anything - steaks, tri-tips, shrimp, whatever.
If you could change your career right now, what would you do?
I think scoring movies, like Hans Zimmer or something like that. In a heartbeat, I would just do something like that. Hans Zimmer has done some amazing soundtracks. Just a creative person like Tim Burton, behind the scenes, you know, legendary. Those are legendary people. They're not in the limelight, which is the thing. I wouldn't wanna be fucking like, Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp or somebody like that, even though I really respect them, that's just not me.
Do you have any pets?
I actually have one dog, and she's a mix between a Border Collie and a Staffordshire Terrier. We think she's a rescue dog so we're not totally sure, but that's what she looks like. Her name's Khaleesi.
Where do you shop?
Mainly Skingraft, Killstar, Demobaza, and every now and then All Saints. But on an average day, it's always Killstar, Skingraft, Demobaza.
What country would you really like to visit?
I can't wait to go to Japan. Japan seems fucking rad. I love sushi.
You can eat sushi on the Paleo diet?
I do. So there's a few things I'll cheat on with Paleo, like once a week, which will be corn tortillas and rice. The whole thing with Paleo is that you don't wanna eat flower, whole wheats, and things like that, because they block your system's uptake of the energy of meat and things like that. But I don't know, I'm not a dietician, but I just know what works for me, so I'm sticking with it.
What's coming up in your music career that you're excited about?
I'm really stoked to be working with a bigger record label that has access to studio musicians. I have the ability now to pull up Omnisphere and make a cool string part, and be really stoked on it and be like, "Hey, let's actually track some strings and get some real, you know, strings going on in this track. And let's get a real guitarist." Basically we can take it out of the sample level and bring it to a much more produced, high quality level, and that's what I'm really excited about. To get the vision to where I can actually utilize a real studio with real musicians instead of just samples and things like that. That's what I'm really really amped on, for sure.
What are you listening to right now?
Lately, a lot of Of Monsters and Men. I'll always like a lot of metal—Opeth and Ensiferum. I've been into Turisas a lot. It's really good biking metal.
What are you not listening to right now?
Generally, any rap I don't like. I don't like rap.
How do you feel about Kanye West?
Embarrassed, if anything. Embarrassed for the music industry [laughs].
What about Beyonce? [as Drunk in "Love plays" in the background]
She's got a great voice. But the whole diva [thing]—I just don't really like that. I like soft and beautiful vocals, not in-your-face like, listen to how many fucking notes I can hit in two seconds, that's not my thing at all. Of course, Kanye and Beyonce are extremely talented, but that's just not my thing. Nothing against them.
If you were going to throw your ideal day-long festival, who would headline it with you?
It would be Above & Beyond, Skrillex, Tritonal, Xilent, Matrix & Futurebound, Norin & Rad, Mark Knight, Claude Vonstroke for sure, Bird of Prey, and I think that's pretty much it. That would be my ultimate lineup.
Sara is a NYC photographer and writer who enjoys dance music and making bad decisions. - @sarawassphoto