Blake's the guy in the bow tie

Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett seems content, if hardly complacent about the recent release of the veteran indie band’s fourth album and major label debut, Under the Blacklight. The single “Moneymaker,” a slinky, ’70s-disco-meets-21st-century-meditation on L.A.’s porn underbelly, has garnered the band considerable radio play and a heightened profile. Nine years after Sennett formed the band with fellow child actor Jenny Lewis and bassist/classmate Pierre DeReeder (drummer Jason Boesel was a later addition), Rilo Kiley’s full-blown success seems just around the corner.

“We wanted to make a different kind of record,” Sennett says. And make it they did with the largely hands-off support of Warner Brothers, who’d picked the band up after distributing their 2004 self-released More Adventurous. Two previous indie releases on Seattle’s Barsuk label and Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records were well-received, but as fraught with frustrating limitations as they were freedom.

Sennett is quick to note that Rilo Kiley’s move to the majors quickly dispelled some long-held assumptions: “The main thing that’s blown my mind a little bit is that the artistic freedom has been so much more on a major label record. They let you stay in the studio longer, let you make videos quicker. They never once interfered with our music making process. I’m sure with some bands they do. But with us they trusted us enough or knew we had some history.”

But whatever the corporate encouragements, Rilo Kiley’s sound remains fueled by the restless muse of mainstays—and former lovers—Sennett and Lewis. Lewis’ ’06 solo effort Rabbit Fur Coat, a self-described “sort of soul record,” seems to have inspired her to open her voice up considerably on the new Rilo Kiley album, while Sennett’s side project the Elected and a recent stint producing the Grand Old Party has helped both broaden and hone his own musical instincts.

Blake Sennett seems driven by a restless nature. His successful career as a child actor may have peaked with roles on Salute Your Shorts and Boy Meets World, but by 13 he’d already taken up music—and the drums. “[Acting] was fun,” he says. “But as I got a little older it didn’t resonate any more. It wasn’t something that moved me.” He also discovered his first choice of instrument to be limiting. “I found with drums you couldn’t write a song, and that part was the most fun for me,” he says. “So my friend showed me a C-chord on his guitar and I just kept playing it, it sounded real cool and I switched to guitar. I got into Hendrix and Clapton and bought some Eric Johnson records when I was a kid, and a Satriani album. But what really moved me in the end were songwriters.”

Of his prowess on the instrument, Sennett says, “I’m not a virtuoso.” But whatever limitations he may have as a player belie an innate musical philosophy that’s one of the keys to Rilo Kiley’s rich, diverse sound. “I try to play more like a producer and less like a guitar player,” he says. “Try to give hopefully what the song wants. All I can hope for is to play tasteful, hook-y, interesting. Keep the song moving forward. I don’t know where that comes from. I guess I’ve always been predisposed to be more of a team player. I think if you fight the song, try to play over the song, I don’t think it’s as symbiotic an experience as when you just try to give the song what it wants.”

Like many devoted players, Sennett has accumulated a small collection of instruments over Rilo Kiley’s lifespan. But he’s also frankly wary of the investor’s mentality that has driven vintage guitar prices into the stratosphere: “All the old flame-tops are now ridiculous prices!” he laments. “When Wall St. Journal started printing articles about guitars as good investments, it kind of screwed up the whole thing. I still collect stuff, but I’m not trying to compete with those guys. I have a bunch of guitars; maybe one day I’ll sell ’em and buy a house. I dunno.”

But like most professionals, Blake’s work tends to revolve around a small core of instruments. “I have four that I always go back to,” he explains. “One is a ’76 ES-335 with the coil tap on it. That one’s just got a magic to it. I’ve got like four of those 335s with the coil taps. I think that period is really great for them, from, like ’76 to ’81. I also have this Gibson ES-140. It’s like a tiny, 3/4 scale single cutaway guitar with one P-90. I think it’s a ’56. I love that guitar for a very specific sound. And I have a ’64 330 Cherry that I got for like 400 bucks. I usually bring a bunch of guitars to the studio, but those are the ones that mostly end up making the records.”

Those albums have revolved around Jenny Lewis’ richly detailed songs, whose bittersweet emotional palette and third-person narratives often seem to have more to do with Randy Newman and Elvis Costello—with the latter even paying recent respects to her lyrical skills. The band’s sonic comparisons have ventured as far afield as Fleetwood Mac, though Sennet is quick to downplay them: “I think it’s always some kind of honor when people try to place you next to the pantheon of great and timeless artists, but I take it with a grain of salt. I don’t really believe any of it. To be totally honest I don’t read any articles or reviews—ever, ever, ever.”

Still, listening to the album’s Lewis/Sennett-penned confessional “Breaking Up,” or especially Blake’s shimmering pop jewel “Dreamworld” can’t help but evoke The Mac’s long shadows. “Jenny and I love each other like brother and sister at this point,” Blake says of Rilo Kiley’s frontwoman and chief songwriter. “Our relationship will always be volatile. But I think there’s a love there and we still get along very well. But if we decide to go at it it’s hard to pull up out of that and be rational sometimes. But it’s been pretty darn good making this record and touring. We haven’t really gotten into at all. We’ve been having a good time together.”

When it’s offered that Lindsey Buckingham himself might have been proud of penning “Dreamworld,” Sennett quickly demurs. “I guess I was thinking more David Byrne than Lindsey Buckingham,” he explains. “It’s about ending up with a little less than you were hoping for. Like so many of our songs, the disappointment theme comes into play. I started writing it after a friend’s father had been saying that about somebody—‘He’s living in a dream world, man’—and I guess I felt like it was a song. And then my friend Morgan (Nagler) and I finished the words.”

And on second thought, Blake might not necessarily buy into his original notion that Under the Blacklight turned out to be that much of a departure from their previous releases, contemplating a little of the band’s mercurial chemistry in the bargain. “I think all of our records have been pretty diverse,” he notes. “We’re a band that tends to work well under duress. We don’t fight like cats and dogs, but there’s a little tension sometimes. That’s the nature of our personalities.”

“We’re not U2. I feel like those dudes are still having the times of their lives. They love each other so much, like brothers. We love each other, too, but in a different way. We’ll always take it day by day, that’s just the nature of our band.”