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A Quietus Interview

No Popularity Contest: Extra Life's Charlie Looker Interviewed
Noel Gardner , May 19th, 2011 06:23

Noel Gardner talks to Charlie Looker about masculinity, baring the soul and why he won't slag off Dirty Projectors

The best album of last year - in the opinion of this observer - was Made Flesh, the second long player by Brooklyn three-piece Extra Life. If you're of a mind that the best album of any given year ought to capture the zeitgeist in some way, or change the direction of the wind blowing 'cross the musical landscape, or even just sell a vast amount of copies and receive industry awards for its trouble, then you and I sing from a different hymn sheet, as Made Flesh ticks none of those boxes. I can't excuse my intransigence, of course, but all I can say is that I'm pretty sure I heard over a thousand other albums in 2010, and none of them made as lasting an impression as this one, or sounded so little like anything else currently being made and described as 'rock music'.

Extra Life, in existence for about five years and ultimately the muse of Charlie Looker – whose CV includes a brief stint in Dirty Projectors and a longer one in the abrasive Zs, to whom he has again been contributing – are by no means complete unknowns, or wanting for critical warmth. Do people writing about Extra Life understand their music in the same way as Looker and his bandmates, guitarist Caley Monahon-Ward and drummer Nick Podgurski? Possibly not, but it is very dense referentially, and often in terms of rhythm and time signature too, so this barely connotes laziness or gaps of knowledge.

At different times, and also often concurrently, this music lurks in the same corners as 70s-vintage Canterbury prog; English folk at its darkest (Looker has recently formed a band called Seaven Teares where he can explore this more fully); the austerity of Early Music going head-to-head with the exaggerated grandeur of opera; folks such as Antony and Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart who, like Looker, have committed themselves to laying their sexuality and personal demons on the rails. When he sings a lyric like "Fancy lad, fancy lad / How will they write your biography, fancy lad?" ('Head Shrinker', from Made Flesh), you may find it unavoidable to invoke the spectre of Morrissey (one of Looker's primary guiding hands, as I find out from his answers to my questions).

The extent to which these strands present themselves in Extra Life's catalogue varies from record to record. Secular Works, the 2008 debut, contains most of the group's heaviest riffs – sometimes possessing the singular bulk of, say, Khanate or Swans – but it also finishes with a purely a cappella piece, 'Bled White'. The Ripped Heart EP, fresh instore at the time of writing, is at four tracks and sixteen minutes as close as the band have come to rock orthodoxy – that is to say, still a goodly distance away, but manouvering the cello's scrape and squeal into the complex rush of math-y no wave guitars and urgent vocals. It might lack lyrical scraps that lodge in your head, which are in abundance on Made Flesh (like the aforementioned two discs, released on the LoAF label in the UK; there's also split vinyl EPs with Larkin Grimm and Nat Baldwin of Dirty Projectors out there, and a remix EP, Splayed Flesh), but its textures reward close listening.

As well as Extra Life, Seaven Teares and Zs, Looker has two other projects, Period and Sculptress; recently set up his own label, Last Things; has played live in ensembles led by John Zorn and Glen Branca; and teaches piano and guitar for a day job. For someone creating something this challenging and commercially non-viable, at a time when even most would-be huffers of the record industry pecker don't get a proper paycheck for their efforts, it seems that he gets to immerse himself in music, more so than 98% of comparably self-sufficient bands. He could be a living advert for this level of immersion, and also for creative control. "I tend to do better in writing than on the phone," he says to me, so we spoke by email.

My understanding of Extra Life is that it's very much your band, and governed by your aesthetic. How much is this accurate, and do you run a dictatorship in the group? How many ideas do the other guys in the band bring to the table?

Charlie Looker: Our working process has changed a lot since the band began. It's still my band, but it's way more collaborative now. In the beginning I wrote everyone's parts, down to the last detail. Secular Works was written entirely that way. There are certain kinds of musical things which can only be achieved that way, and I think you can really hear that on that record. Made Flesh was written largely in the same way, although in certain very important instances the other guys wrote their own parts. Ripped Heart also represents material from that phase.

Our current live set, however, consists largely of brand new as-yet-unrecorded songs which we've written in a far more collaborative way. Nowadays I'm acting less as a composer and more as a songwriter. I write my vocal parts, a basic harmonic foundation and some general aesthetic directions ahead of time and then Caley and Nick start bringing their ideas to it. They come up with parts, we jam on things, we debate things for hours, etc. While I still love all the older, through-notated compositions, I'm finding the new approach way more fulfilling. Caley and Nick are among the deepest musicians I've ever played with and I love the synergy of their ideas. They're really changing the nature of the music. If you come see us live, you'll hear these newer songs and you'll feel what I mean.

With regards to your own sphere of influence and previous areas of research, do you think there is a particular lack of... musical education in modern rock? Like, do you find it frustrating that 99% of the genre borrows from the last 45 years of music, and no further, when there's another several centuries before that to be poked around in?

CL: I don't think there's a need for rock musicians in general to study music more formally or more historically than they do. People should just pursue what moves them. The past 45 years of music has seen such a wild proliferation of different sounds and approaches in all musical cultures and it's a lot to sort through. I have this certain love affair with European art music and ancient music and it shows in my music, but Morrissey will always be more important to me than classical composers. I guess it's taken me a few years to fully realize that. Anyway, knowing about the history of music or its technical aspects doesn't necessarily mean you have a deep engagement with music. When I hear a new band that's weak, I certainly don't blame it on lack of schooling.

What frustrates me is bands that just have no conviction, intensity, imagination or work ethic. You don't get that from formal study. You do that yourself. All the music I love is intense and passionate and clearly comes from a place of spiritual urgency and severe commitment. The technical training of a musician is ultimately irrelevant to whether I love their music of respect them. I don't know, is harsh noise 'primitive'? A lot of people would say yeah. But I think if you're making harsh noise and it's emotionally moving, it's probably because you've worked hard on it, focused deeply and honed some kind of nuanced approach. That might be a different kind of work than practicing scales on a flute, but work is work, and commitment is commitment, and that kind of care shines through in any kind of music.

The digital version of Ripped Heart features remixes by Xiu Xiu and Liturgy. What was the reason for choosing those guys? It seems to follow something you began on the Splayed Flesh EP, commissioning remixes from people who don't have much experience in the discipline. Was that intentional?

CL: Jamie [Stewart, Xiu Xiu] and Hunter [Hunt-Hendrix, Liturgy] are both friends of mine and I truly respect what they're each doing. I also thought they would gut the songs beautifully and uniquely which they absolutely did. In inviting people to do remixes, I really didn't think about whether or not they had experience as remixers. I just thought about who I respect, who I thought would do something deep, who I thought would be down, and who I want Extra Life to be affiliated with.

Both Xiu Xiu and Liturgy are dudes – and really, people are just talking about Jamie and Hunter – who get a lot of... faceless grief for being pretentious and precious and unashamedly literary. I mean, people are less nice than that, but you get the idea. Is this something you relate to at all? Certainly Extra Life hasn't struck me as a project that holds much back in case someone thinks it's ridiculous.

CL: Yeah we definitely don't hold back anything for fear of anyone's opinions. We're not running a popularity contest here. Life's too short and the stakes are too high, spiritually (how's that for pretentious?). I definitely catch some shit from people, perhaps along the same lines that Jamie and Hunter do. I'll be honest, it does hurt my feelings a little when I get called names, even when it's by some random jealous troll-ass internet hater. And sometimes I wonder if Caley and Nick might feel like they're being dragged into a line of fire which they didn't ask for. But in general I think I can speak for all of us when I say, fuck anyone who has a problem with Extra Life.

'Pretentious' is one of the most overused and misused words around. It means you're trying to be something you're not. Everything we do comes from a completely real place. Even just talking about the lyrics: all the emotions expressed are emotions I feel deeply; all the intellectual currents represent things I think and care about deeply; and all the humor is stuff I find deeply hilarious. I laugh and cry and get goosebumps when I write these songs, when we rehearse them and when we perform them. I feel ecstasy, and I want to feel that way as frequently and as intensely as possible. Music helps keep me from getting depressed and mistreating people and it has probably saved my life more than once. Anyone who finds that pretentious is more than welcome to go listen to some more 'tasteful' indie music made by chilled-out hobbyists instead.

Was it important to you guys that you made the sound of the new EP expressly different than either of the two previous albums? To these ears it kind of bisects both... in that there's few of the metal riffs of 'Secular Works', but also little of the minimalism and open spaces of 'Made Flesh'. Does it offer any particular clues as to what the next EL release is going to sound like? If not, could you give some sort of pointers in that regard?

CL: We weren't consciously trying to make something different with Ripped Heart . The EP actually represents songs written over the course of the past three years, from right after the recording of Secular Works through the Made Flesh sessions. These songs just weren't included on Made Flesh because they didn't fit with the record's thematic concept; except for the song 'Ripped Heart' itself, which would have fit perfectly, but there were just so many loud epic pieces on the record that we decided to hold it for a later release.

Anyway, Ripped Heart indicates certain aspects of our future direction: my songwriting is simpler, there are less epic non-repeating sections, simpler meters and rhythms and there is more synth. However, in other ways, the next Extra Life full-length is going to sound very different than all of our previous releases. I mentioned earlier the more collaborative band process. That's hugely affecting the aesthetic. The brand new songs are way simpler as songs but way more complex and subtle in terms of the ensemble arrangements, the interplay, and the overall sonic palette. Because of Caley and Nick's contributions, the brand new stuff has a lot more style overall.

What is your relationship with Zs at the time of writing? Although you're not a member, as it stands, there's a somewhat cryptic paragraph on leading interviewers' aid, Wikipedia, that suggests – I think – there might be some sort of regrouping in the near future. What's the deal with that?

CL: Zs has entered a new phase where Sam [Hillmer, founding member] is going to be leading several different projects under the umbrella moniker Zs, all of which include various past members of Zs. I'm going to be involved in some of these operations. I contributed some guitar tracks to their sick new EP Essence Implosion. I'm psyched about the idea of playing more with Sam again at some point before too long. Sam and Zs were such a huge part of my musical journey and I just love all those guys so much. Sam was like a big brother to me for many years. I won't be 're-joining' Zs in the same capacity as before but I'll definitely be collaborating with Sam on some things under the Zs name and in some way coming from the Zs aesthetic tradition.

Seaven Teares is the newest thing on your agenda. What were the reasons for forming it, and what does it allow you to do that you can't do in Extra Life? Do you have releases and/or a tour planned?

CL: I'm so excited about Seaven Teares right now. We're working on a record which should be done in June or July. It's actually enough material for a full album plus an EP. We don't have a fixed release plan for that yet and we're still just considering options. I might put it out on Last Things, but we'll see if the label is even still operational at the end of the year! We'll be doing a few out-of-town shows in the nearby northeast in the summer but we're waiting a while before doing any kind of proper tour.

I formed Seaven Teares because I found myself writing a lot more quiet acoustic songs and, while the songs could be Extra Life ballads, I wanted to form a band more specifically devoted to the quieter sound world and to vocal harmony. Harmonizing with a female singer in particular was an important idea, not just on a purely sonic level but on poetic and energetic levels too. The second I had these ideas, Robbie, Amirtha and Russell immediately came to mind, and I hoped they would be down to do the band. Luckily they all were totally into it and now the creative vibe is really getting frothed up. That group is also really collaborative in terms of arranging the songs.

I've read about the influence of Early Music on your records before – sometimes in your own words, sometimes others'. It's not a period I have more than a layman's understanding of, though, and I suspect the same is true for most music listeners, just because it isn't imposed on you in a normal environment. Can you pinpoint the Extra Life songs, or parts of songs, where it exerts the most influence?

CL: Good questions! I'm not sure which Extra Life songs I'd say have more of that influence than others. Maybe 'Bled White' from Secular Works, since it's completely a capella? The Early Music vibe isn't as obvious in my guitar playing or writing for instruments. It's mostly in how I write for the voice, my general sense of melody. Without getting too arcane or pedantic: in ancient European music, especially sacred music, symmetry wasn't really considered the most beautiful quality in melodies. What was beautiful was a certain kind of variety and balance. Melodies were asymmetrical yet balanced. Imagine a single, really long, non-repeating melody with a lot of movement in it, which at the end feels like one unbroken graceful gesture that has come back to rest.

Going back to Gregorian chant, it's all about this really subtle and larger-scale sensitivity to melodic contour, leaps, skips, peaks, valleys, how variety unfolds elegantly. That's why a lot of my melodic writing sounds all over the place from a rock or pop perspective. But it's not that I'm trying to be tricky or to avoid symmetry. It's just that I've immersed myself in this medieval melodic sensibility which I find really hypnotic and seductive.

I also use a lot of melisma, which means stretching out one syllable over several notes. That's a really big thing in r'n'b too, but in Early Music it's not just an ornament, it's a central part of how the melodies are written. Some people seem to find my rampant use of melisma unnerving but to me it's just a really natural way to turn text into melodies. I must have absorbed it from Early Music.

Were/are there other bands working in the rock idiom who have used pre-Renaissance styles in a way that inspired you to do the same?

CL: I'm really not sure about contemporary rock bands who roll this way… In the early Seventies there were some Renaissance British folk revival bands like Steeleye Span. They rule. Current 93 (who I really love) have an Early Music flavour. And actually that band Fleet Foxes have a slightly ancient sound. I like them pretty well, although I wish they were more intense. But all these bands are mostly referencing ancient European folk music, which is way less melodically free-wheeling than the liturgical music. The sacred music was where the really serpentine melodies were.

Ripped Heart and Made Flesh, especially, use repetition in the lyrics a lot – in a manner that seems to point to opera (maybe even mid-century musicals) more than quote-unquote popular music. Have I got that right, and are there any specific works or composers that have influenced the syntax you use?

CL: I didn't consciously get that from anywhere in particular. I don't have a deep history with opera, although I've actually been getting really into it just the past few months. Musicals I never got into. I guess it's this kind of thing : I start by writing lyrics and using music to convey them emotionally, but then once the writing process gets going, sometimes the lyrics become pure sonic materials for melodic or rhythmic things I want to do. Repeating words or phrases can emphasize or intensify the meaning of the text, but it also in a way departs from that meaning by turning the words into pure music, pure sound. Repetition is similar to melisma in that way.

Do you feel that you write from a very male perspective? There are certain songs on Made Flesh that make me curious... 'One Of Your Whores' seems to be from a female perspective, or that of an emasculated male. On the other hand, there is this sort of breathless talk of "spilling" in 'Voluptuous Life', and the "wet-petalled like a vagina" line in 'Head Shrinker', which as an aside is the only example I know of the female anatomy being referred to in song by its actual name. So, er, do your lyrics strike you as being about 'male concerns' so to speak?

CL: Yeah I definitely write about masculinity, or maybe I should say masculinities – although the Pretentiousness Police might blow the whistle on that. Sometimes I'm more reflecting on masculinity in a thoughtful way, sometimes I'm more emoting about something personal from my life. Often it's all blended together. I often write songs from a few different perspectives or speakers, sometimes changing within a song. A lot of the songs on Made Flesh are trying to give voice to , and I suppose to exorcise from myself, certain douchebaggy hetero-male perspectives. Anything from silly physical vanity all the way to literal violence against women. When I write lyrics, part of me is really aware of what I'm going for, but I always get carried away to a more intuitive place where I'm just throwing things in there that feel connected.

For me writing songs is a sacred place where the more vile and unacceptable aspects of life and of the soul can be made into something beautiful and positive. That's why I'm really into alchemy and the whole lead-to-gold project as a metaphor for making music. It's a kind of redemption, but not in a passive dogmatic-religious way. It's DIY redemption which is what I think magick is all about.

Is there an effort to bare your soul, for want of a less awful cliché, through your music? As a listener on 'the outside', I have a working idea of themes in lots of Extra Life songs, but am less sure of the specifics.

CL: Yes, I'm baring my soul, and that will never be a cliché. It sucks that you feel you have to follow that phrase with a disclaimer. But still it's a good question, because my lyrics aren't all direct autobiography, if that's what you mean by soul-baring. It's a mix of direct personal experience, the experiences of others, and things from books. I usually end up imploding all of it together.

'The Ladder', for example, I can read as being about either a former partner or a relative.

CL: 'The Ladder' was inspired by two different relationships I've had with friends, which placed me on either side of a certain unsavoury dynamic. And it's also conflated with several different relationships from The Sopranos. When you share some really intense personal experiences in certain songs, people then tend to assume that every line of every song is pure autobiography, which isn't the case for me. But I never write specifically about a scenario which has nothing to do with my own life experience. So even when it's not directly autobiographical, it's something that hits very close to home for me.

Are there any Extra Life songs where its subject has known they're being sung about, and if so how did they react?

CL: I haven't been confronted about this. Yet. Sometimes when I'm performing or recording a certain song, I'll consider that it might be irresponsible toward the people written about, but I always end up doing it anyway. The things I say in my lyrics, while they're things which might be unproductive to bring up to a person's face, I would completely stand by them as feelings, thoughts and artistic statements if I were confronted by someone.

To bring up Xiu Xiu again, Jamie Stewart's done whole albums about stuff I probably wouldn't tell my best friends, if I'd been through it – do you look at that as more 'brave' or 'crazy'?

CL: It's just necessary. Some people need to turn their problems into art to deal with them. Other people can just deal with them more internally and privately. But most people just repress their problems and it makes them hurt themselves and the people around them. That's what's crazy, not Jamie, and that's how most people are living.

Re: the video for 'Head Shrinker' – for a band like yours, what is the specific purpose of making videos at this point? Like, what percentage of it is 'promotional tool' set against 'artistic endeavour'? My assumption would be that most people who see it will do so on Youtube, which I guess from a cinematic point of view is like knowing that people will only listen to your song on computer speakers.

CL: Well everything we make is a creative endeavour, and everything has a promotional purpose in that we put it out there. So there isn't really a separation there. The video doesn't really spin our image in some new direction. It's just extending what our vibe already is, visually and poetically. Most of the basic ideas were mine, but I definitely wouldn't say I 'directed' the video because the Peking team were the ones with the brilliant filmic expertise to make it look visually awesome and to make my ideas legible.

None of which is to disparage the video, which I think is great – who came up with the concept(s)? Is the main character supposed to be a younger version of yourself, and if so does this mean that the lyrics are also questioning/disparaging yourself?

CL: The narrative is a case where it's way less directly autobiographical than people might think, but of course I'm strongly implicating myself. That song is inspired by an exaggeration of myself and people I've known and by some Oscar Wilde stories. There's definitely self-critique in there, although it's grotesquely exaggerated and humorous. I got SO into making that video. I felt like it was a way to bring out the humorous side of the song and of the band in general. And the video also allowed us to tie in references to alchemy and the occult, which aren't in the lyrics but which for me are strongly related to the themes in the song: psychoanalysis, narcissism, sacrifice, goldmaking.

The Quietus recently ran an interview with John Garcia from Kyuss, in a similar Q&A format to this one: all good until the end when he gets asked about one of his old bandmates becoming way more successful than him and turns into an angry paranoid weirdo.

Now it's not a perfect parallel, but Dirty Projectors became much more of a commercial proposition after you were in the band – how much pause for thought does that give you, and does it tend more towards relief or regret? Do you feel confident enough in your work that you're not predominantly thought of as 'a dude who was in Dirty Projectors for a bit there'? Can you empathise with John Garcia at all in this instance? (I'm not looking to hear you had a falling-out or anything, if that helps.)

CL: Haha, okay, I just read that Kyuss interview… and dude, honestly I'm not trying to get insane and dark on you the way that guy did, but I really must say, your question to me kind of does feel like you wouldn't mind hearing about a falling out! I mean it doesn't make me mad at you because it's human nature to love gossip and I'm guilty of it myself. Countless people really do come up to me and literally say, 'Hey don't you think Dirty Projectors are overrated now?' And I'm politely like, 'No'.

I was only in DPs for one tour and one record [Rise Above] and it was on a pretty mercenary basis. The band at that point was this fluid roster of people, different for each tour. So there wasn't a set plan in anyone's mind that I would necessarily continue with the band. I never would have had the time to do Extra Life if I had kept going with them full-time, and Dave clearly needed to pin down a steady line-up and make it a real band. Basically I got exactly what I needed from that tour. I learned a lot from playing those awesome songs, I met some wonderful new people and I got wasted with Nat a lot.

In general, I'm glad to have people find out about Extra Life through DPs. If I were really concerned about over-shadowing, then I wouldn't drop their name in like every press release. There are some problems with it… It does occasionally bother me when people force direct comparisons of the two bands on an actual musical level. That's just people reading my resume and not really listening to the music. And I'll also say that DPs' recent success has made it a bit less fun to go see them play because now the crowd is infested with frat boys and yuppies. But the band's music is as great as ever, so that's as close as I get to shit-talking them. Sorry!