GREATEST: Leo Reilly By Beck
The internet’s BOYFREN and the Gen X icon rewrite the creativity source code.
Welcome to the outsized world of Leo Reilly, aka LoveLeo. A surreal land filled with JUULpod earrings and chevron mustaches, soundtracked by experimental pop songs that threaten to spill over from the realm of funk to all-out freaky. The son of film producer Alison Dickey and Academy Award-nominated actor John C. Reilly, Leo is a YouTube-generation wildcard that puts the hyphen in the exhausted term “multi-hyphenate.” He fashions DIY jewelry, shoots viral videos, models for brands like Saint Laurent and crafts genre-bending earworm tunes. Consider him a TikTokian Renaissance man. At 24, Reilly’s star is shining bright.
A similar story once applied to chameleonic icon Beck, who, at almost the exact same age in 1994, gatecrashed his way into the Billboard Hot 100 with the re-release of Gen X anthem “Loser.” The pair might be separated by three decades, but they are Californian eccentrics who drift in each other’s orbit, disposing of musical conventions in favor of more visceral approaches. Where Beck spoke to disaffected teens of the Beavis and Butt-Head era with absurdist witticisms, Reilly’s part-sardonic, part-deprecating one-liners are more in tune with 2022’s lovelorn E-boy (“I got pictures of you trapped in my recently deleted”).
On a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, Reilly and Beck discuss Reilly’s upcoming album Saboteur, badly designed hotel rooms, TikTok’s similarities with MTV and the songwriting process.
I’d pitch a hotel that you can actually sleep in because I spend a lot of time in hotels, and I don’t think they’re constructed by people who actually stay in hotels. They’re constructed to have a lobby that has a trendy bar or restaurant for people to assemble in. Or it’s got some architectural features that make it something you could see on Instagram or social media, but they’re not actually constructed for sleep. This would probably only appeal to musicians who’ve been touring for 20-plus years.
There’s a market there, for sure.
They used to have these things called sanatoriums. They were basically places where people who were exhausted went. They were just fucking done with life, and they needed to go somewhere for a week or a month or six months to just chill out and sleep.
They should still have those. That sounds super fun. It sounds like a great movie title: Sanatorium. It’d be a horror.
Definitely a horror film. I think we have a real fear of things that are intended as a utopian idea. Whenever there’s a perfect place that you go to to feel better, there’s always a creepy underbelly to it.
I don’t know if this is nihilism, but with most things, if it’s unbelievably good, I’m skeptical. I’m immediately like, “There’s a catch.” I’m always so wary of it, [but] I’ve been proven wrong many times.
Do you think that applies to people as well?
I think there’s a small percentage of people who present as fully put-together and mentally sound, and they actually are that on the inside as well.
They’re a very rare breed.
But the goal for me isn’t to be someone who has everything buttoned up perfectly. It’s just to be comfortable with the aspects of me that aren’t perfect and to be able to navigate the world without chasing perfection. I’m a big perfectionist in a lot of ways, like with cleanliness. It’s interesting living with other people because you really have to find a balance between “‘I’ve only ever done this thing this way” and seeing them do it a different way. It’s the ability to stop yourself from stepping in and saying, "Why don’t you do it the way I do it?"
Maturity is being able to deal with and reconcile all the shortcomings of people in the world and not let it drive you crazy. People are generally doing the best they can with what they have. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, so hopefully we can balance each other out somehow.
That’s something I say so much: “I’m just trying my best.” Especially when I get compliments, that’s immediately my first reaction. “Thank you. I’m trying my best.” Because it does take some level of effort just to show up and be present.
It’s a good thing to strive for. But I think in art and creativity, sometimes there’s an approach or a process of almost willfully trying your worst. Sometimes if I’m working on music and it’s just not going well, I’ll tell myself that I’m just going to write a bunch of really bad songs. Somehow reversing the dynamic can be a liberating thing.
I do the exact same thing.
I see in fashion that there’s a trend towards really bad fashion, beyond irony, where you’re embracing things that are genuinely terrible and trying to make something stylish out of it.
You’re such an inspiration for me, but especially in what you’re talking about right now, where one thing starts happening, and you get settled into the feeling of that, but then it completely changes. Specifically the start of [your 2005 single] “Girl” where it starts completely electronic, and then 10 seconds in, it’s onto guitars. That’s a very funny thing to do, [but] it also sounds great. I do a lot of visual art. I direct my music videos, and I try to do things that slightly subvert the expectation of what would happen. Visually that could mean adding an extra eye or arm. I feel like it’s the most fun way to make music because you’re keeping yourself entertained as you’re doing it.
I think [it’s due to having a] short attention span, maybe because of us both growing up in LA. [We can get] a bit bored by the conventional, and we try to disrupt some of the old forms to upset expectations. We grew up in a city that’s just a little over 100 years old. It’s still in its hot-lava state of forming into whatever it is.
Do you think eventually there will be old traditions and conventions for Los Angeles?
It’s still so in flux because even just in my lifetime, I’ve seen huge parts of the city completely torn down and rebuilt. You drive down the Sunset Strip, and half of it wasn't there five years ago. You can’t say that for Paris or Rome.
Maybe that’s because they have good zoning laws.
Exactly. They protect their history.
I think about how, in the future, they’ll look back on this time period in LA in the way that we look back on Rome and the Colosseum. It’s funny to think about the landmarks that we’re talking about, little convenience stores or the Silver Lake Reservoir, becoming ancient relics of the past.
You grew up mostly on the eastside of LA, right?
Yeah, Silver Lake and then up towards the mountains.
Were you exposed to art much [growing up], or do you think that was just a natural predilection you were drawn to?
Probably both. My parents are into all kinds of art, so it definitely was around. There was no [formal] art education of any kind. But I think my parents just being who they are and being into the things they were into really subconsciously influenced a lot of the interests I have.
You weren’t just playing video games.
No. And still never have really played video games […] I got a VR headset a little bit ago. I have to do it when I’m with someone. One of the first times I did it, I accidentally spent four and a half hours in there. I was like, “This is bad, and I can’t do this. Not for me.”
We’re entering an interesting time for sure. But it seems like you’re using these mediums for ways to make art.
It’s really just to entertain myself. I love creating [and making] myself laugh.
How is something like TikTok for you? Do you feel different apps have their own form?
Completely different. To me, [TikTok] was an exciting thing because it’s truly one of the only algorithms that you can go from nothing to a crazy amount of success instantly. But in the last year it’s really gotten oversaturated to the point where everybody is on it all the time. A trend will pop up, and then everybody does it. It’s just copy, paste, copy, paste.
Do you think with those forms of social media there’s a way to make art that transcends the transitoriness of a lot of this content?
Definitely. Some people will straight up make a short film and post it in a couple parts on an app like TikTok. However, it’s very rarely favored by the algorithm. There’s also some interesting artists where I can’t figure out whether they’re doing performance art or if it’s truly the way that they represent themselves. I think there are ways to make art on those platforms, but because of all the garbage that’s posted on TikTok, it does influence even the best things that come out of it.
Do you think that social media, by nature, is a young person’s forum, [due to] the fact that you’re filming yourself all the time? Most people over a certain age don’t really want to film themselves or take photos of themselves every day.
TikTok is such a tool for success because we’re able to theoretically have such great success on what appears to take little effort, in terms of the making of the video. But that shouldn’t be something that has to be a thing. I see both sides of it, but we need a hard reset. We need to go back to stone tools and rethink a couple things along the way. [We need] places for people who are in the same scene to meet, like what you’re talking about. Maybe those places exist and I’m just not seeking them out as much as I should be, but I’d love for the world to get a little bit more in-person and a little bit less dependent on viral success.
At one point, MTV was kind of an app. It was where culture met, and there was a lot of disposable content on there. Then once in a while, Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze would make something that stood out and transcended the format. Maybe socially, we’re watching videos of people eating food, but sooner or later, you have to go eat some food. You can’t just watch it, and we need that. You need that interaction and community.
Talk to me about your songwriting process. Do you begin with a concept for a song, or do you just go in and start messing around to see where it takes you?
Mostly the latter. Usually I’ll think of something, like a single word or sentence or a phrase I find funny or interesting—
And try to make a song out of it?
No, I’ll just write it as a note and save it for later. Then once I’m working on an instrumental, I work on the production for a song, very early, as soon as there’s a basic skeleton. I like to loop it out for three minutes and do a shit pass at it. I just do a bunch of scratch bubbles. In doing that, I go into it with no words or ideas in mind. But when I’m spit-balling melodies, a lot of the time, a word or sounds that seem like a word will come out, not on purpose. So it’s a mix of that, and then I look through my little log of phrases and ideas. I’ll then form the idea from there. Recently I went through a breakup. A big thing will happen like that, and I’ll be like, “This is an emotion I’m feeling so strongly right now that I want to translate it into a song.” And I’ll set out with that intention in mind.
I think sometimes we’re taking in information or experiences or impressions of the world, and then they start to ferment into something. Then they come out later. But what’s interesting is being able to cultivate that freedom to let yourself indulge in the possibility of what’s going to come out of you, in a non-self-critical way. Is that something you’ve always had, or something you had to develop?
With songwriting, for a long time, I wouldn’t record any vocals until I had fully written the verse and melody and thought of the harmony. In doing that, you dumb down your idea a lot. I find that by the end, it doesn’t have that same excitement of when you first thought of it. So getting that first thought recorded, that’s where the most exciting and raw thing is. [Especially] with this last album that I just finished mixing.
Thank you. It’s called Saboteur, like self-saboteur. I spent a long time experimenting with a lot of different genres because that’s what’s exciting to me, and it’s how making music stays fun. But in doing so, I’d spread myself very thin and end up with this batch of songs that were all over the place. From there, I picked out the things that I liked most stylistically and sonically from everything I made. I had a whole album, but it didn’t feel cohesive in any way. So, I scrapped that and set out anew. I’m really happy with how it turned out. What I also love doing, if I have an instrumental that isn’t quite working with the vocals, is taking a verse, chorus or entire song from another demo and redoing it with a different melody or different lyrics. That’s how I made some of my best songs. I also love freestyling as an art form.
Improvisation is something that’s so important for art. I’m also curious about your interest in fashion. Was that something [that started] when you were a child?
Yeah. My parents had costumes in these bins that my brother and I could access whenever. We would come up with all these crazy outfits.
Would you go out in them, or were they just for hanging out?
Sometimes. When going out, I’d tap more into, “What person do I want to present myself as?” Not so much wearing full costumes out. High school is when I really started to form a purposeful sense of style. I feel like when you’re a kid, a lot of it is just instinct.
Were other kids in school doing this? I remember showing up at school one day and I spiked up my hair with some soap. People had never seen anything like that in school. It seemed like such a small, arbitrary act, but it caused such an impression. It viscerally affected people, especially adults.
In middle school, I was pretty weird. I remember I spent a long time cultivating the full Justin Bieber combover, and I showed up to the first day of seventh grade with that. But the end of high school was really when I started making clothes and taking it in my own hands. I’d thrift a lot and then just Frankenstein chop shit up. I really enjoyed that. I ended up going to school for fashion design at FIDM.
How was that experience?
I feel like I left at a great time because there’s a certain point in which you start getting into the weeds of patternmaking and draping for very specific garments that I wasn’t interested in making. It was a good experience because now I have a full understanding of every step of the clothes-making process, roughly.
I think for men, it’s been a really interesting time in fashion. When I was younger, there was no men’s fashion, really. There was a distrust, a pretension in fashion or an elitism. When I was starting out, I’d go to thrift stores and mix and match different eras and put together these crazy styles of anti-fashion. It seemed like there was a conservatism among men in what they’d wear, and I feel like there’s been a [recent backlash against] that.
I think being in a city like LA is a great place to be able to wear crazy stuff and experiment. There are parts of the world, and parts of the U.S., where not a single soul will be dressed the same as you. In those circumstances, it must be difficult to stay convinced that what you’re doing and what you’re wearing is okay to do and wear, if everyone around you is telling you that you can’t.
I’m having flashbacks to my first rock tours where we’d stop at a truck stop in the Deep South, and my drummer would have dyed red hair. I had long hair. We were wearing crazy thrift store concoctions, and they looked at us like […] I definitely didn’t feel safe. I felt like there was a threat of harm just by the way we looked. It seems like we’re in a very different time now where there’s all sorts of licenses.
I love the performance of wearing something ridiculous. In the shoot for this article, the last look was full of spikes. Walking around with that and seeing people’s reaction was crazy. Honking everywhere.
Going back further, you had this YouTube channel where you reviewed basketball sneakers.
Dude, yeah. That was my first foray into the internet: basketball shoe reviews.
Do you have a longtime love of sneakers?
I love basketball shoes. [I reviewed] different traction patterns and cushioning systems to see how they affected the performance of the shoe. One funny thing that I don’t think I’ve ever said is when I first started my basketball shoe review channel, I asked my dad, “Should I use my real name? It’s the internet. This is scary. It’s my first time posting anything.” And he was like, “Yeah. It doesn’t matter. You can make a fake name if you want.” So, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to make a fake name.” I chose Ryan Fisher, and I was like, “Ryan Fisher’s going to be my alias.” So the first three videos are me being like, “What’s up guys? Ryan Fisher here.” I could have stuck with that, and I could be Ryan Fisher right now. But I’m glad I got away from it.
You could bring it back.
When I was younger, I wanted to change my name to Superstar the Great.
Superstar the Great?
Which would’ve been awesome. I’m still thinking about that one.