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In Conversation With Isaiah Lehtinen

Keeping true to his “terminally online” self, the rising actor and musician is building a fanbase drawn to authenticity. 

by Ben Boddez

Vancouver-based actor and musician Isaiah Lehtinen – also known by his musical alias, Hermit – is having the biggest year of his life so far, but he’s doing it all on his own terms. Despite picking up the TIFF Rising Star Award for his role in I Like Movies and dropping a Death Grips-inspired experimental hip-hop EP this past summer, Lehtinen asserts that he’s “still on [his] normal shit.”

His normal shit mostly consists of gaming – his copy of Fallout: New Vegas has 20,000 hours logged – watching anime reruns, and lately, spending time in the studio prepping his next release. And even though he’s getting more recognition on the street – “I have a definable silhouette,” he says with a laugh – Lehtinen’s ideal world would have his burgeoning acting career take off enough that he doesn’t have to rely on the Hermit project for anything, whether it’s fan expectations, label demands or monetary compensation; allowing him to create as freely as possible.

His latest EP as Hermit, Stage Clear, certainly won’t be for everyone, but it perfectly captures Lehtinen’s vibe through its tongue-in-cheek lyrics, glistening hyperpop synths and industrial noise. A longtime participant in the Vancouver DIY arts community, Lehtinen has been using his creative outlet without much concern for outside reaction for several years. Of course, if you’re picking up what he’s putting down, Lehtinen is ready to welcome you to what he calls his “cult of freaks.”

“I make a lot of references to Internet culture and being a media-obsessed, terminally online young man. The name Hermit is a little wink to shut-in and NEET culture, and that’s the fanbase I’m trying to cultivate,” he says. Lehtinen made a Tweet earlier this year searching out the 10 people that had his name appear atop their Spotify Wrapped, saying that he wanted to get them the “help they need,” but he admits that he’d rather have them join his world.

Despite those references, however, Lehtinen makes an important distinction about being labeled as a “meme rapper” in the vein of a Yung Gravy or a bbno$ – though he includes the latter when explaining that he prefers artists that have their genuine personality come through in their music, including any ridiculousness that may go along with it.

“I say stupid shit, I really say stupid shit, but that’s just an aspect of my personality.”

“I say stupid shit, I really say stupid shit, but that’s just an aspect of my personality,” he says. “Hip-hop is about radical self-expression. I can’t stand fake posturing or artists who pretend they’re down with shit that they’re not, I think that’s so lame. I feel like I wouldn’t be true to myself if I wasn’t trying to make a joke. Ween is one of my favourite bands, and they’re funny, silly guys by nature, but they’re still on some real shit.”

Lehtinen’s authenticity and dedication to his craft have allowed him to open for many of the people who initially inspired him to start making music, like JPEGMAFIA, Yung Lean, and Denzel Curry, who he says made one of the biggest marks upon him when building his profile.

“It’s really awesome that I’ve gotten to the point where anytime some weird internet rapper comes to Vancouver, I’m the man they call,” he says. “When I opened for Denzel, obviously this man is on international tours, he was literally just being interviewed by Nardwuar, but when he hears I was the opening act he just clears everyone away, shakes my hand and chit-chats with me. I feel like there was just a respect for art. He had probably been in that position, and he had love for me for that.”

At the same time, Lehtinen is a lot more than just a “weird internet rapper.” He lists influences as disparate as LCD Soundsystem, Playboi Carti and PC Music originators like A.G. Cook and SOPHIE. Even across a brief 10-and-a-half minutes of content on the Stage Clear EP, it goes to quite a few surprising places. Lehtinen describes the track “Feeling Bad Again,” which mixes together both personal content and a wide swath of musical inspirations, as his musical “mission statement” so far.

“I was showing my producer COLDTVRKY – side note, I think he’s going to be like a Mike Dean-level genius behind the scenes guy in the future – a bunch of crazy gabber raves in the 90s from the UK, and some modern anime sample stuff, and I was like ‘We need to do something like this, and it just needs to be a fucking mess. It needs to give you a fucking headache.’ I thought that was beautiful. During the conception of this project, I would be blasting some fun, exciting trap, but it was also colliding with sounds from Japanese Super Nintendo games from the 90s.”

Through his many passions, it’s easy to see why Lehtinen was such a natural casting choice in I Like Movies. The film revolves around a 17-year-old movie buff working at an old-school video store who ends up alienating many around him due to his obsessive fandom. Lehtinen has mentioned how much he personally related to the character, though he believes he’s grown past some of Lawrence’s more socially inept tendencies as he’s aged.

“My hyperfixation probably still falls more under records, learning about artists, and anime and video games, but being a part of a film production from the inception to the end has made me appreciate the craft a lot more. After Uncut Gems came out I needed to scour the Internet and see every single piece of information about that that I could. But right now I’m really into Judee Sill. She wrote all these nice, sweet songs about Jesus, but she was totally with the shit! She was in the trenches! She was arrested for robbing stores at gunpoint, strung out on heroin … she rocks, dude. Judee Sill kicks ass.”

Many interviews with Lehtinen find him – and his director, Chandler Levack – speaking about Blockbuster with reverence, but Lehtinen’s latest experience in a video store felt like divine intervention letting him know he was on the right track. It was just the latest step in Lehtinen’s journey to success by going with the flow, a journey that started when his mom signed him up for his first audition through an open casting call on Craigslist.

“Right before I booked the movie, and I was still waiting to find out from the last audition, I went to Black Dog on Commercial Drive, right before it closed,” he says. “I went over to the discount bin, and the first DVD I pulled out was a copy of Punch Drunk Love, which is Lawrence’s favourite movie in I Like Movies. I saw Adam Sandler on the cover, and I was like ‘This is it! We’re in!’”

“I saw Adam Sandler on the cover, and I was like ‘This is it! We’re in!’”

Lehtinen is at work on a new, full-length album called Service for Shut-Ins set to release next year, and he’s planning to switch up his sound once again to what he calls a more “explicit Pacific Northwestern vibe, on some Boards of Canada type shit.” With his usual wide grin and speaking through a barrage of chuckles, Lehtinen builds up anticipation for it in the way he knows how.

“I really put my whole pussy into this album,” he says. “It’s going to be the best album to come out of the Vancouver music scene ever. I’ll put that on my mom, so keep your ears to the streets.”