Extra Life: Interview
“I’m really into a certain amount of artifice in music.”
Extra Life: two words that probably have as much correlation to the music of this Brooklyn band as Super Mario does to the austere of a death camp. But, to borrow a hackneyed expression, what's in a name?
TMT was on the fringe of coverage — if we may stroke our collective ego — when 2008's luminous and thoroughly original debut Secular Works (TMT Review) dropped, yet music geeks like myself weren't giddy just because the music was thoroughly original or particularly luminous. Whatever heavy-handed inclinations associated with experimental music of its kind felt strangely removed — in its place stood something as equally determined as it was inherent. While the notion of truth in music is sort of a crass idea, lead-singer/guitarist Charlie Looker supplements the concept when he accurately suggests the music originates from the band's "artifice" as well as its "natural constitution."
Before any such philosophizing, however, when I call Looker up for the interview, he admits to being "really fucking sick." He then remarks he will "try to conjure up the vibe energy" required. Needless to say, I believe him.
As glimpsed in this interview and in the debut's versatility to uplift and inspire, Looker's good-naturedness and humor suggests Extra Life isn't merely grimness and shadowplay. Still, simply pointing out Extra Life's versatility, genre-lessness, and technical aptitude feels a bit hollow in light of the music that so carefully side-steps such "meager" musical goals. So, what do those accolades really amount to? Taken at their own merit, not much, except to say I'm happy the band makes "seizure-inducing" — my own humble descriptor — seem like not such a bad experience at all.
I was looking through R. Crumb's Art and Beauty Magazine when I found this quote: "There are two kinds of artists in this world: Those who master technique and those who are mastered by it." To what extent do you feel technique is important in what you do? I guess the real question, however, is what does it mean to be virtuosic and not be confined by that tag — where creativity becomes the main thing?
Yeah, well... Definitely a very relevant question — I guess to everybody, but to what I do, maybe in a more direct, conscious way, y'know? I don't think that anybody needs to know how to do any one thing technically. I certainly [feel], as far as the music that I've found deep, revealing, and powerful — music or art — over time, art made by people with their crude technique has been a part of it as much as people with very developed technique. I definitely don't believe in technical mastery of anything. I definitely don't believe in it as a necessary thing. It's almost an incidental thing that some people get into. Maybe [it's] based on natural constitution of what you're attracted to for yourself and experience.
Technique is like having big muscles or something. It's cool but... [Laughs]
That's funny, because it reminds me of the late jazz guitarist Barney Kessel who said learning scales and technique is like lifting weights — it's not the real thing, but you learn it if you're into it.
Yeah, or if you really feel like training or practice or whatever. If you are actually deeply attracted to it because you feel like that mixes with your natural constitution and will amount to taking you on a path towards making something deep, then it's important. Yeah, it really is like lifting weights. If, like some people, you're meant to do that, if you get jacked, then it looks good. It's impressive, but it can be just as beautiful without it.
For me, though, the whole technique vibe is — definitely not to avoid your question at all — but I feel like it has been somewhat overemphasized when people talk about what I do, just because I'm way past the age and point in my life of acquiring new technical things. Right now, I just do what I want to do. I don't practice and study really now. If anything, I'm actually sort of making less technical music, if you can believe that. [Laughs]
I guess Zs, like my stuff from that, is definitely a lot more complicated then Extra Life. There's a spectrum of complexity from simpler material to really complex material, y'know? I don't write anything now that stretches my technical ability or I'd have to acquire new skills. I'm just past that.
"If you are actually deeply attracted to it because you feel like that mixes with your natural constitution and will amount to taking you on a path towards making something deep, then it's important."
To me, Extra Life's music is pretty diverse. Besides Secular Works, I recently listened to the split you did with Nat Baldwin and some of the acoustic stuff definitely shows a different side to what you do. Is that kind of the direction your talking about?
Yeah, yeah definitely. It's not like I'm abandoning complexity. The material that will be on whatever the next record is will also be a spread of stuff. For me, it's all about intensity and different ways of being intense. I guess [it's] just because practice and certain kinds of technical things are a part of my initial background — just a part of who I am — if I'm going to be intense, then that's going to be a part of it. But it's just an ingredient, y'know?
You've used the phrase "natural constitution" twice now. What about your "natural constitution" led you to study with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan? I don't want to push the whole technical thing to a breaking point, but I know some people are pretty curious about your study.
No, it's okay. Yeah, I guess at that time I was really into jazz [...] when I was in high school. But I was also into all kinds of other things: I was really into metal, starting to get into classical music and contemporary avant-garde composition. So, he just seemed like a really interesting [artist] — I wasn't even that familiar with his work. But he was teaching there, and he seemed like a guy who was addressing a whole lot of different things in his music and different traditions — a maverick dude who wasn't part of one stream.
So that was just inspiring. Well, obviously, his work doesn't address metal. [Laughs] Just an inspired synthesis and a fusion of stuff, y'know? One thing that has really fallen by the wayside in my stuff is that it's not entirely improvised. I still do that with this group called Period. But as far as Extra Life, it's pretty much almost entirely not in there — improvisation, [that is].
I mean, as far as the technical vibe, something that is consistent throughout my stuff, whether it's the simpler music or the more seemingly complicated music is that — it's hard to say this in a way where it's like I'm really going to communicate what I'm saying — I'm really into a certain amount of artifice in music. By artifice, I don't mean falsehood; I don't mean bullshit. But even in the simpler stuff, I don't view music as this totally immediate, eruptive thing — like, you have these human feelings, you have this spirit and it's just immediately, without any mediation, just translated into music. I'm not against that idea, that's just not what I'm attracted to. What I'm saying is that even with the simpler stuff that's less complex — y'know, has less notes or it's easier to play or it's more pop-related — I'm always making something. You know what I mean? I'm always building something. Sometimes it's more intricate, sometimes it's simpler, but it's always a combination of something raw and personal mixed with craft-making.
That's interesting, because I wanted to ask you about the transitional process from instrumentalist to singer — how that changed your writing process. I understand you were an instrumentalist, originally, before you transitioned into singing. Is that correct?
Yeah, yeah. I've always loved to sing. I sort of dabbled with singing throughout earlier projects, pre-Zs. I had a band called Lavender where I sung a little bit. It was mostly instrumental, but it had some vocals and then I played in random hardcore bands where I would scream. But I was really an instrumentalist for the most part before Extra Life — which is pretty recently. I mean only the past three years, really, that I've come out as a vocalist and really focused on that.
Did you ever deal with any self-confidence issues coming from an instrumental standpoint — lyrically, vocally, etc. Or was it more of a natural transition than that?
Yeah, that's a good question. I definitely didn't deal with self-confidence issues as far as being a singer. I just sort of started doing it with these solo shows. Like when I got sick, I'd just play guitar and sing — I just started writing these songs or like loose sketches of songs. Lyrically, yeah, that stuff came pretty naturally actually. It's funny. That all happened in 2006, which, for me, was a really strange — in a good way — fertile [and] pivotal year. I was touring a lot [with] Zs, doing solo tours, and Dirty Projectors a little bit. I was just kind of all over the place and my mind was spread out and kind of very open so this kind of seeped out through the cracks.
"We get a lot of references to Tool which I thought was really funny because I don't really listen to that band at all."
The reason I ask is because I heard you may be working on a work of writing that would address some of the issues of your transition.
I am working on this little essay thing. I want to hammer out the rest of it this weekend, but I'm so fucking sick I'm just gonna watch TV and sit. [Laughs] It's not going to be as epic as I initially pictured it — maybe like seven pages, ten pages, something like that. Mostly, it's talking about my vocal style in particular. Mostly it's talking about melisma. Do you know what that is?
I've heard the term, but can't say I'm super-familiar.
It's cool — it's simple, it just means when you stretch one syllable over a bunch of different notes. It's kind of just talking about that technique and just philosophizing about what it means to do that. What that represents in my stuff and what that represents in other kinds of music where that technique is prevalent. That's something that I was naturally doing [...] stretching out these syllables over a million notes. I didn't even self-consciously think about it but people latch onto it as being a very peculiar technique or sound. So, I talk about that, but it gets into the issue of vocal music versus instrumental music and text versus lack of text and whatnot.
The most inspiring thing, for me, about redefining myself as a vocalist is because I start now with lyrics all the time. [I] write lyrics before any of the music. So, for me, it's super deep because — like you were talking about being mastered by technique versus mastering technique — when you start with lyrics, which are not music, you hit the ground running with this thing that is outside music itself. It just makes the whole moment go away from getting caught up in nerdy, musical minutiae. [Laughs] When you start with something poetic, personal, or just something fucking human, so then, with any kind of craft or artifice or technical stuff that you do with it, it starts in the place of life, y'know?
I'm really glad you addressed the issue of that particular writing process. It seems like the lyrics are such a big part of what you guys do.
For me, it starts with the voice. And then I'll have lyrics that will have some kind of thing, some kind of inherent pattern — like the vibe or the actual poetic content of the words will, in some way, indicate what the general musical thing will be. Then there will be specific things in the inherent rhythm of the text or whatever that will help me carve out a melody. Then, even parts of the music that are totally instrumental and don't have words will usually precede form that — from what I did with the vocal.
I know you're feeling sick and I don't want to drag things out —
No, no! I could go for a while, man. Just tell me when to stop, I'll keep going and going. [Laughs]
You mentioned the technique melisma. From the way you described it, I can hear traces of that in Dirty Projectors and even Nat Baldwin's stuff. Maybe a lot of people talk about your relationship with David Longstreth, but I was curious about how you two crossed paths, and also, have you heard Bitte Orca? What do you make of it?
Yeah, yeah. I haven't actually heard it yet, but a friend of mine sent me the files. I just haven't checked them out yet, but in the next few days, I'm definitely very curious to check them out. I've known Dave for a long-ass [time], since like 2002 — I think before he was playing under the name Dirty Projectors, when he was playing solo. Yeah, I guess he'd played a couple shows with him playing solo, and I was really impressed, then I didn't run into him for a while. Then I ran into him again, and I was just in this crazy mode of touring a lot and not really having an apartment at that point or any kind of normal life. So, I was just like "Dude, I know your band changes lineups a lot, but if you want me on there, y'know," so he was like, "Yeah, totally. Hop on."
The guy's music is amazing. Consistently amazing. I will say, though, that affiliation has been a little bit overemphasized. I mean, it's welcome, for me because it just draws attention to what I'm doing. [Laughs] No complaints. But I was really only in that band for half a year. Pretty briefly. Right after I joined, that's kind of when they really started to blow up. They were just going to do so much touring at that point that there would've been no way for me to do that band and my other band. It was like full-on, full-time commitment, so it had to be brief. But I've got nothing but love and respect for the whole band: Dave and everybody.
To close things out: What's the funniest, overly-ellaborate or absurd description of your band you've heard from critics?
[Laughs] Wow, I'm trying to think... What's like really hilarious?
I've heard things like "impenetrable" and "seizure-inducing."
Oh, that's great. I would love that! Seizure-inducing — great. There was some blog a while ago, I can't remember — an inconsequential blog — they were not into the record and the kid said he hated it because it reminded him of church. No doubt because of the medieval and gothic aesthetic or whatever, he said something like it reminded him of church — being trapped in a room with a bunch of possessed zombies and unable to escape. It gave him the feeling of a claustrophobic creep show of being trapped in a room with the devout, which I liked.
We get a lot of references to Tool which I thought was really funny because I don't really listen to that band at all. Not to rag on them, but there's just not really any point where... [Laughs] You know what I mean? We just started hearing that and we're like "Really? I guess, dude." It sort of became this ongoing thing when people would just be like "what are your influences?" I'd be like, "Tool. Tool."
At least people out of town like to say that. If you want over-the-top, look at the European descriptions of what we're doing.
[Photo: Stephen Koslowski]