Music has a way of bringing people together. For Lionel DeGuzman and Casey Lui, it all started in high school, writing a song together about To Kill A Mockingbird. From then on, they were inseparable. Under the band name, Tigers in the Sky, the duo writes bright folk-pop, influenced by the easy vibes and pedal-steel swells native to their home state of Hawaii.
Currently spreading their roots in their new home of Long Beach, California, we caught up with Casey and Lionel to chat about their story, what’s next for Tigers in the Sky, and the joys and pains of creating with your significant other. Enjoy.
How did you end up making music together?
Lionel DeGuzman: I started playing music just by myself. When I was 13, I got my first guitar. I used to be really into acoustic songs. I think I learned all of Jack Johnson's music -- that was the first thing I tried to do.
Then, when I was in high school, a friend of mine played the drums. He played the djembe all the time. That's when I had my first experience writing music with a friend. I always did it in my spare time. It wasn't something I was pursuing, it was just something that I had fun doing.
Casey Liu: Lionel really always loved to play music. I think he wrote more and performed more mostly because people made him and wanted to.
LD: The first time we played music together was for a class project she did. We had to write a song. We wrote a song about -- what was the book?
CL: It was To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a school project where we had to write a song about or based on To Kill a Mockingbird. I can only write love songs, personally. So, I was like, I want to write a love song, but there's not really romance in To Kill a Mockingbird, obviously. I chose to write about Dill and Scout, which were these two kids who had this really odd friendship. It was cute. So, we wrote this song about it.
LD: We sang a duet.
CL: I was 16. I played it for my class -- I didn't tell them that it was me or my boyfriend -- It just was anonymous. They really were shocked.
LD: They kind of liked it. It was pretty funny.
What was the song called?
CL: It was called “Dill and Scout: A Love Song” -- It was super lo-fi garage band. We wrote it on her porch.. That’s when we fell in love.
LD: A lot of music started right on her porch. It's where a lot of it came to fruition. It's funny.
CL: Yeah. Personally, I wouldn't consider myself a musician. I think a big reason why I even play music is because he one day came home from California and just told me we were going to be in a band together. Because I would play and write little songs, but I had never performed. I never saw myself as a performer or musician. He just worked it out for me.
It's taken me a lot more and a lot longer than him. I feel like he is a lot more natural as a musician, but I do it because I enjoy doing it with him.
LD: Yeah, we just have fun together.
Going off that, Casey, you were saying Lionel really encouraged you with your music, and to sing in front of people and write. What does that process look like now, when you two write music together?
CL: It changes pretty often, our writing process.
LD: Yeah, our band is changing because sometimes we'll go through periods where I'll write all the music, and then I'll write Casey's part and she'll sing. But then lately, we just get together at night when we're all done with our work and--
CL: We'll just play.
LD: Yeah, we'll just play. We'll just jam songs out until we come across something that really strikes.
CL: It depends on the season of life we're in. I also do photography, and I have a bunch of random things I do. For a long time, music was last priority to me because I didn't feel like I was talented enough -- I don't know. It just wasn't the forefront of my life. So, a lot of time he was writing the music. Lately, I think, I've been a lot more intentional about playing music and making time for music. Now, we just hang out and bounce ideas off of each other.
Sometimes, it's just me really psyched on something he's written. I won't even have anything to do with it, but I'll just make him record it.
LD: It's a team effort.
That's awesome. Do you think that your style of music has evolved since you started Tigers in the Sky?
CL: Yes, especially moving to California. That's been huge for our growth as artists.
LD: Yeah, I think we just heard different kinds of music. We're just inspired by other things that we haven't seen. I think that's affecting the way that we see the world and the way that we interpret it, so that changes our music.
CL: Yeah, I think growing up in Hawaii, music used to come late to us. We're always the last. Folk music came at the back end of it. So, we started writing folk music.
LD: We really were inspired by it in Hawaii. I remember never hearing it before.
CL: Yeah, and being on an island, a lot of Golden Lights, our first album, songs were really inspired by travel, getting out of your comfort zone, and being a kid. Being from an island really influenced that. It's just this big world we're writing about.
Do you think any of the music that is traditionally associated with Hawaii influenced your music starting out?
LD: Yeah, for sure. That laid back, acoustic guitar sound, that's what I really was drawn to because I heard it all the time. It was on the radio.
CL: I think people from Hawaii really appreciate music that makes you dance and music that makes you happy. I think reggae music is something that you hear so much in Hawaii that, to us, we were almost--
LD: I thought it came from Hawaii. Growing up, I thought that was just a sound from our island.
CL: Yeah, it's just because you hear it so much and because it's so common, it almost is a turnoff, or was a turnoff to us.
LD: Not a turnoff. You just become numb to it. I stopped being able to appreciate it.
You mentioned that you get together at the end of the day and start playing music after you're done your work. How do you navigate that balance, between work and music?
LD: I think I'm just passionate about it. So, it's not hard to make time for it.
CL: Music has always been something we've done just because we enjoy it. We moved from Hawaii to California for a bunch of reasons. He wanted to skate; I wanted to travel and take photos. But also, we both really wanted to put out music. We knew that we had to come to California, or just away from Hawaii, to play music.
Do you think being in a band together and writing music while also being a couple creates more challenges? What is that like?
LD: It probably creates more challenges.
CL: I feel like because we're a couple, and we've been together since we were 16, when we write music, I'm pretty critical. Not normally will a band member just tell another band member, "I hate it." Because we're so close, I'll just be, like, "Nah."
But when I'm really psyched about something, I won't shut up about it. I swear. He just wrote this other song last week and I recorded it yesterday. I feel like I've listened to it in front of you 50 times within the last 24 hours.
LD: Yeah, for sure. But then, also just being a couple, of course that presents challenges because of being critical of each other. But it's all in good fun.
CL: Yeah. We grow faster, I think, because of that, though. I grow faster as a musician because Lionel will tell me exactly where it is that I'm falling short, or what I can improve on without me being offended, or thinking he's trying to hurt my feelings. I know that it's well-intentioned. With other band members, sometimes you have to think about how to do it and how to say it without hurting feelings.
What do you two have planned for this year?
CL: We want to press vinyl and CDs. It's a little bit of an investment, so I think we're just trying to devote more time to making merchandise and perfecting our performance.
LD: At the moment, we're still writing music -- we always are. I think in a little bit, we're going to start recording again. We just want to start putting out more merchandise this year. We're going to have some music videos coming out, too.