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Indie Pop Meets International Pop: A Conversation with Lucius

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe met in 2005 and immediately discovered their common interests. Ten years later, as the founders and lead singers of Lucius, they dress identically, sing in unison, and maintain near-perfect symmetry on stage. In other words, Lucius is a band that revels in careful synchronization. It seemed appropriate, then, that Lucius’s arrival at the Walker […]

Lucius posing in front of Evelyne Axell's Ice Cream

Lucius with Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream. L–R: Andrew Burri, Holly Laessig, Jess Wolfe, Peter Lalish, Dan Molad

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe met in 2005 and immediately discovered their common interests. Ten years later, as the founders and lead singers of Lucius, they dress identically, sing in unison, and maintain near-perfect symmetry on stage. In other words, Lucius is a band that revels in careful synchronization.

It seemed appropriate, then, that Lucius’s arrival at the Walker for Rock the Garden 2015 should offer its own opportunities for synchronicity. The Walker’s ongoing exhibition International Pop provided one such moment. One of its most iconic worksEvelyne Axell’s 1964 Ice Cream (1964), adorns the cover of Lucius’s most recent album, Wildewoman.

Lucius's Wildewoman

The cover of Lucius’s album Wildewoman (2014)

Before Lucius hit the stage on Saturday, the band took a personalized tour of International Pop. They clearly enjoyed the opportunity, pausing in reverent awe to examine works like León Ferrari’s iconoclastic La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western Christian Civilization)Afterwards, Laessig and Wolfe agreed to an impromptu round-table conversation about music, visual art, and ice cream. Joining me for the discussion were Walker Web Editor Paul Schmelzer, Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither, and Visual Arts Curatorial Fellow Mia Lopez, who helped curate the exhibition.

Paul Schmelzer: I’m curious what the role of visual art, or other disciplines of art, is on your music?

Jess Wolfe: It’s a big thing for us. Both of us come from visually artistic families, so it’s something we’re always thinking about. Obviously, our stage setup and the way that we dress are taken into consideration as far as the marriage between the visuals and the music. So, when we were looking for album artwork, we went through a bunch of stuff, Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream initially stuck out—and we kept going back to it, and eventually we decided that was the image that was calling.

Holly Laessig: Once you see it, you can’t think of anything more iconic. The colors and the feelings you get looking at it were things we wanted to express: this playfulness, this joy, this feminine strength. And some humor. I think those things, while also being bold, were really important in our choice of album cover. And luckily, Evelyne’s son, Philippe, was so generous in offering the piece to us. We really lucked out. It seemed like fate.

We actually didn’t know much about Evelyne Axell before picking the artwork, but when we went to visit Philippe in Belgium, he brought us some books and we starting flipping through them. There were all these triptychs and groupings of paintings she’d done with symmetrical women. Many, many different pieces: it was just another “a-ha” moment. It was so fitting in every way, it felt like kismet. He thought that we knew that already, that we were aware of her fascination with the duality of women and these symmetrical figures, but we had no idea.

Schmelzer: Where did you first encounter the work?

Wolfe: A friend of ours, a graphic designer who we had been working with for a long time, had brought lots of different pieces to the table to see what stood out. And, as Holly said, we kept returning to Ice Cream. At first, I think it maybe made the boys uncomfortable.

Laessig: Which was kind of the idea.

[Laughter]

Wolfe: We actually thought we were going to get so much more dirt for using it.

Mia Lopez: We have it on the side of our building. We have this huge phallic image on the side of the Walker.

Wolfe: And people are like, “You know that’s not really an ice cream cone, right?” That’s the comment they’ll make. [Laughter] I’m like, “It looks like an ice cream cone to me.”

Mark Mahoney: To go back for a second, I was wondering if there were particular artists that sort of turned your world upside down or influenced you as teenagers.

Wolfe: Both Holly and I grew up loving old-school soul music, the boldness and simplicity of those songs and singers. We also grew up with visual artists, so I think we were always fascinated by artists who had a strong visual representation of their music: artists like David Bowie, Björk, Prince, and even James Brown, Sam Cooke and the Supremes. When we first started working together, maybe because we weren’t completely comfortable in our stage presence at the time, I think it was a good way for us to transport ourselves into something else together, and also hopefully to transport the audience at the same time.

Philip Bither: We’re working on a festival next year with Devendra Banhart. He’s bringing together people from across disciplines: visual artists, painters, installation artists, and musicians. Do you find that to be increasingly common in independent music, that more and more people are blurring the lines between making visual culture and making music?

Wolfe: I wouldn’t say it’s new, but I definitely think it makes sense. For artistic people, that impulse comes out in all different ways. I’ve always used my hands since I was a little kid and been fascinated by visual culture. My mom worked at museums since she was a young person. That was something that was always around me, that I was always inspired by… It’s also an easy way to escape everyday life.

Bither: It’s an individual pursuit, rather than collaborative.

Laessig: Yeah.

Wolfe: And then you go away and you find the like-minded people, and you realize you’re not alone. There are a lot of weirdos. A lot of weirdos.

 

Beauty Is a Rare Thing: Philip Bither Remembers Ornette Coleman

The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew […]

Ornette Coleman performs with the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2005 as part of a three-day celebration of his music, The Festival Dancing in Your Head.

Ornette Coleman performing at the Walker’s McGuire Theater in 2005. Photo: Gene Pittman

The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew of trance rhythms, acoustic jazz, and electrified rock, post-’70s hard-core funk, free harmonics, and African polyrhythms all held some seeds of punk, Afro-futurist rock, and hip-hip to come (see Slate’s useful tracing of Ornette’s influence on non-jazz music innovators). The sounds knocked me sideways, introducing me to a musical language that carried so much magnetic mystery and human emotion that my incomprehension felt inconsequential.

When I first began curating music three decades ago, an early dream was to try to do something that would honor Ornette Coleman’s enormous contribution. I sought out Ornette’s drummer-manager son, Denardo Coleman, and we began a 12-year, on-and-off-again process of planning some kind of festival. Throughout, Denardo remained as genial as he was elusive (he would fall out of touch for months or sometimes even years, but when he resurfaced he remained as encouraging as ever). I will always remember a two-hour planning meeting with Ornette, arranged with Denardo, in the East Village the year before the festival, where I sat with rapt attention listening to this sweet, gentle, but fierce philosopher-poet of music and art, grasping only every third or fourth idea — not unlike my first introduction to his music. It was a meeting I found both baffling and mysteriously transformative. Ornette Coleman thought and worked on another plane altogether, and yet there I sat, furiously trying to scribble every word in a pad. I felt like I was clearly in the presence of a profound and generous spirit.

In April 2005, Ornette, Denardo and I were finally able to mount a three-day celebration of Ornette’s work — a copresentation of the Walker and Headwaters Music — encompassing a sold-out concert at the University of Minnesota’s 1000-seat Ted Mann concert hall, featuring his then-new quartet (which six months later would record the landmark, Pulitzer Prize–winning recording Sound Grammar); and a separate evening of Minnesota-based bands (including both Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, not to mention their rare recombinant, Bad Apple), all playing their versions of Ornette tunes in the Walker’s brand new McGuire Theater. Ornette sat in the audience, listening with attentiveness and grace. I walked him through the green room after as thanked each hero-struck musician who had played, telling them how much he enjoyed and appreciated their take on his work. The final event of the festival was a 10-hour marathon of wildly diverse and innovative music, concluding with a premiere of a Walker-commissioned set of works by Ornette and the avant-classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars (BOAC). With so many performers, the concert ran very late. I remember Ornette warming up with great patience and generosity on our loading dock for nearly two hours. Finally hitting the McGuire stage at 1:15 am with Bang on a Can All Stars, he played a breathtaking set of new music with his inimitable, deeply mournful, timeless alto soaring above the complex BOAC-played compositions to the hundreds of intrepid Minnesotan true believers still in the house.

Ornette wrote to me later, saying, “The Walker is a harmolodic place if there ever was one!” We will forever miss you Ornette, and remain always grateful for your transformative gifts.

Philip Bither is Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center.

Backstage: Three Questions with thestand4rd’s Allan Kingdom

Allan Kingdom took a moment following thestand4rd‘s tremendous Rock the Garden set to answer a few 8-Ball–style questions. What is your current musical obsession? I’ve been listening to a couple artists out of Atlanta: Uno the Activist and Playboi Carti. They’re dope. For the past few days, I’ve been listening to their music a lot. […]

Allan Kingdom of thestand4rd. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Allan Kingdom of thestand4rd. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Allan Kingdom took a moment following thestand4rd‘s tremendous Rock the Garden set to answer a few 8-Ball–style questions.

What is your current musical obsession?

I’ve been listening to a couple artists out of Atlanta: Uno the Activist and Playboi Carti. They’re dope. For the past few days, I’ve been listening to their music a lot.

What is one well-kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?

Probably the boutique BlackBlue, on Selby and Dale. It’s a good place to shop.

Finally, you’ve achieved an incredible amount of success at a young age, and it seems like part of that stems from how original and well-developed your musical concept is. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I think I’ve always known. Even when I was little, I would be thinking about how things would sound and look on stage. It’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to do.

Eight Questions with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger

Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who together comprise The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), have a unique chemistry. As both musical and romantic partners, their collaboration has inevitably drawn comparisons to other musical couples—to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, and especially to Sean’s legendary parents, John and Yoko. These comparisons, however, do little justice to the freshness of […]

RTG_2015_GOASTT_1_PP

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT). Photo: Courtesy the artist

Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who together comprise The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), have a unique chemistry. As both musical and romantic partners, their collaboration has inevitably drawn comparisons to other musical couples—to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, and especially to Sean’s legendary parents, John and Yoko. These comparisons, however, do little justice to the freshness of The GOASTT’s concept. Their music, steeped as it is in the sounds of ’60s and ’70s psychedelia, skillfully interweaves the whimsical and the dystopian, the pedestrian and the cosmic into something singular, adventurous, and immensely enjoyable. According to NPR’s Peter Macia, it is music that is “made for sunny summer weekends.”

Ahead of their Rock the Garden performance Sunday, I had the chance to ask Sean and Charlotte a few questions about their writing process, their history together, and the role of politics in their work.

Can you tell us how the name “The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger” came about?

It was the name of a play Charlotte wrote at seven years old.

You run the label Chimera Music. What led you to establish your own label?

Being at a major label felt so corporate and impersonal, so we created our own family-run label from our kitchen and basement. It was a lot more work than we realized, but ultimately very rewarding.

How has your relationship to one another, musically and personally, evolved over the course of the seven years since The GOASTT’s formation?

We’ve become fused at a subatomic level.

It is clear from the diversity of your output that your influences extend beyond psychedelic folk and rock. What are some influences or inspirations of yours that might be less apparent to listeners?

Prog rock, definitely. Classical. Experimental instrumentalists like Harry Partch, and even pop bands like The Beastie Boys. Also the surrealists, like [Salvador] Dalí and [Luis] Buñuel.

Your lyrics fuse autobiographical details with poetic musings and even Greco-Roman mythology. What is the writing process like for you? Do you write the lyrics collectively, or do you independently work on them?

We do every aspect together, so one of us may write a verse and the other may write the chorus. It’s a real Frankenstein of both our minds.

Sean, you have lent your talents to a remarkably wide range of projects, one of my favorites of which is your improvised duo with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier. (That project culminated in the release of the phenomenal album Mystical Weapons.) Does that sort of improvisatory spirit figure into the initial stages of your songwriting process with The GOASTT, or do you take a different approach altogether?

Charlotte and I jam a lot of ideas together with her on bass and me on drums in the initial phase. Or else we both have an acoustic guitar in bed. But The GOASTT is a lot more composed than Mystical Weapons.

Charlotte, I read that when you began dating, Sean was unaware of your musical talent. When and how did that come to light?

He knew I loved music, but I was extremely shy (still am), so a year in he finally coaxed me to play him a song I had written called “Cold Sun.” After hearing it, he declared he wanted to be writing partners, but neither of us had any idea it would become so serious.

You have both been politically engaged, performing at Occupy Wall Street and penning op-eds in opposition to fracking. Would you say your activism informs your music?

We are not like the activists of the ’60s certainly, because that paradigm has changed a little, but we still are very involved with finding solutions to environmental and cultural issues. We research what’s happening in the world every day on as many sources of alternative and mainstream news possible. Humanity has its back to the wall right now, but we are a resilient species so it will be fascinating to see what plays out over the next 50 years. And yes, that post-apocalyptic melodrama does inspire our lyrics very much.

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger plays Rock the Garden at 3:45 pm on Sunday, June 21.

Rock the Garden 2015 Listening Mix

In anticipation of this summer’s upcoming Rock the Garden, Walker Marketing Intern Samantha Sacks created a playlist that aims to capture the spirit of the festival’s unique lineup. These are twenty songs, both classic and contemporary, from the ten musical acts that will take the stage in July. From Afrobeat to psychedelic pop, this year’s Rock the Garden […]

Rock the Garden 2012

Rock the Garden 2012

In anticipation of this summer’s upcoming Rock the Garden, Walker Marketing Intern Samantha Sacks created a playlist that aims to capture the spirit of the festival’s unique lineup. These are twenty songs, both classic and contemporary, from the ten musical acts that will take the stage in July. From Afrobeat to psychedelic pop, this year’s Rock the Garden lineup offers a wide variety of sounds. Whether it’s the fresh faced newcomers or the seasoned pros, the festival seems to cater to folks young and old, with something for everyone finding their way to the garden this year.

Modest Mouse

“Float On” has been a massively popular hit since it was released over ten years ago. Its quirky anecdotes about life’s hassles and the positive message that “we’ll all float on okay” make this track a bit different from Modest Mouse’s typically darker moods.

In March, the band returned with their first new full-length album in eight years, Strangers to Ourselves. On “Lampshades on Fire,” lead vocalist Isaac Brock adds his classically punchy delivery to a highly danceable post-punk drumbeat. The vocals break down into numerous strands of soft, wordless sound, a technique that also appears all over Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

Belle and Sebastian

Like Modest Mouse, Scottish indie-pop outfit Belle and Sebastian have had a long career, spanning nearly 20 years. This year, they are back with their ninth studio album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. With a hypnotic ’80s synth-pop vibe, “The Party Line” is a perfect tune for any dance party.

“Lazy Line Painter Jane,” the title-track from their 1997 EP, is a classic of Belle & Sebastian’s early material. The song has the hazy groove of classic ’60s psych, along with the lo-fi pop genius of the ’80s Flying Nun discography.

Babes in Toyland

Local punk legends Babes In Toyland have also stood the test of time. They recently reunited for the first time in fourteen years. The trio will proudly represent the storied history of the Twin Cities underground this year at Rock the Garden.

“He’s My Thing” is an excellent example of the trio’s feminist subject matter. Lead vocalist Kat Bjelland screams and growls, “He’s my thing, stay away from my thing.” Clearly inspired by Patti Smith, Bjelland’s stark lyricism and vocals are totally unapologetic. Michelle Leon’s dark yet groovy bass line weaves prominently through the song.

One of the band’s most well-known songs, “Bruise Violet,” was thought to be about Bjelland’s grunge rival, Courtney Love, who almost joined the band early on in its formation. Although Bjelland denies these rumors, it’s certainly an angry song.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

Seun Kuti, son of Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, has led his late father’s band, Egypt 80, since he was 14 years old. Egypt 80 and many of its original members have remained together since its formation around 1980. Their latest album, A Long Way to the Beginning, takes cues from the afrobeat sounds Seun grew up with, yet manages to avoid coming off like an exercise in nostalgia.

Like all of the band’s material, “African Airways” has an incredibly funky rhythm that will undoubtedly get the whole Garden dancing.

The rhythms of each instrument in “African Solider” seem to be very complex. However, they somehow come together as a very cohesive whole. Like much of Kuti’s catalog, his lyrics here are very political, exploring Nigeria’s deep history of militarism and corruption.

J.D. McPherson

The influence of rockabilly and early soul music on J.D. McPherson is very apparent. “Let The Good Times Roll” will take you from 2015 to a 1950s prom. This track is a fun homage to the sound of the early rock n’ roll era McPherson admires so much. He still manages to give the song a modern twist with a guitar solo that nearly explodes in punk rock energy.

“North Side Gal” tells the story of how he and everyone else is “crazy about a North Side gal.” McPherson’s vocals are incredibly soulful, reminiscent of rockabilly greats like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Conor Oberst

Prolific singer-songwriter Conor Oberst has been involved in many different bands over the years, but he is best known for founding the legendary indie-folk outfit Bright Eyes. Recently, Oberst has been focusing on his solo career, releasing music under his own name and also with Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band.

“Cape Canaveral” is just one example of Oberst’s talent for heartbreaking lyricism and unclassifiable arrangements.

“Zigzagging Toward the Light” stays true to Oberst’s folk roots, with sliding guitar melodies reminiscent of the cowboy psychedelia of Lee Hazlewood and the Grateful Dead. The song ends with a furious, distorted solo, proving Oberst has the firepower to melt a festival crowd’s collective face.

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett has received much praise and attention from critics with the release of her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I just Sit. The Aussie slacker-rock goddess is anything but lazy when it comes to songwriting.

“Avant Gardener” exemplifies Barnett’s offbeat humor and surreal lyricism. She sings of her attempt to be productive by gardening, which is foiled when she ends up having an asthma attack. The song is comical, with references to Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction and clever rhymes like “Anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic.” Yet, there is also honest vulnerability in this song, as Barnett admits that she would much “prefer the mundane.”

With self-deprecating lyrics like, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” and “I’m a fake, I’m a phony, I’m awake, I’m alone, I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio,” it’s clear that Barnett isn’t trying to impress anyone. “Pedestrian at Best,” with its stream of consciousness lyricism, reveals her insecurities and inability to make up her mind. Its dark humor is met by powerful guitar riffs that seem to ramp up over and over again.

Lucius

Indie pop band Lucius consists of frontwomen Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who sing in perfect unison and perform in matching outfits. They are another newer band in this year’s Rock the Garden lineup. They made waves with their 2014 debut album, Wildewoman. Coincidentally, their album artwork, the 1964 painting Ice Cream by Belgian pop artist Evelyne Axell, is featured in the Walker’s International Pop Exhibition.

“Turn It Around” is a punchy pop gem with strong singing from Wolfe and Laessig. Their harmonies are tight, showing off the duo’s remarkable vocal control.

“Two of Us on the Run” is a stunning combination of Wolf and Laessig’s delicate vocal harmonies and two hauntingly beautiful acoustic guitars.

Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger

Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger, or GOASTT, is the duo of Charlotte Kemp Muhl and Sean Lennon. The band has been active since around 2008, but only recently did they release their first full length album, Midnight Sun. With parents John Lennon and Yoko Ono, it is easy to understand where Sean gets his musical and artistic chops. Not straying too far away from his Beatle father, Sean and Charlotte blend folk with a heady serving of ’60s psych-pop.

It is hard to not hear John Lennon’s iconic tone in Sean’s singing, and on the track, “Animals,” Muhl’s voice compliments it with a more ethereal sound.

It only seems fitting to include a song about a famous garden. “Jardin Du Luxembourg” is the opening track of their 2011 EP, La Carotte Bleue.  Sean and Charlotte sing delicate harmonies together throughout the entire song, pausing only for a short guitar solo.

Thestand4rd

Thestand4rd is Bobby Raps, Allan Kingdom, Psymun, and Corbin (formerly Spooky Black): a local super group of rappers, singers and producers who have joined forces to create songs that lie somewhere in between rap and indie R&B.

“Simple Needs” soothes us with the soft, melodic croons of Corbin and Allan Kingdom.

“Binoculars” is more rap-heavy than “Simple Needs.” Boasting about the group’s DIY roots, Allan Kingdom raps about how they’re all just some “kids with computers.” The beats and melodies that producer Psymun crafts are darkly smooth, creating a doubly eerie and enveloping atmosphere.

Rock the Garden has made it a tradition to showcase local favorites alongside national and international acts. Local acts like Thestan4rd and Babes in Toyland highlight the Cities’ deeply rooted DIY ethic, while acts such as Lucius and Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 exemplify some of the freshest currents in contemporary independent music.

The artists of Rock the Garden 2015 share a common disregard for barriers of genre and a willingness to follow their own muse, wherever it might take them. The result is a gratifying, challenging, and remarkably eclectic array of musical output that deserves to be experienced in person.

Rock the Garden will take place at the Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on June 20 and 21, 2015 from 2 – 10 pm. Tickets are available here.

Lucius, Ice Cream, and the Pop-Feminist Twist

Set to return to Minneapolis at Rock the Garden this summer, the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Lucius will no doubt bring a fresh twist to their debut album Wildewoman. Released in 2013, the record was met with widespread acclaim; Rolling Stone called the quintet “the best band you may not have heard yet.” Featuring layered harmonies and […]

Lucius, Photo: Mom+Pop Music

Lucius, Photo: Mom+Pop Music

Set to return to Minneapolis at Rock the Garden this summer, the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Lucius will no doubt bring a fresh twist to their debut album Wildewoman. Released in 2013, the record was met with widespread acclaim; Rolling Stone called the quintet “the best band you may not have heard yet.” Featuring layered harmonies and catchy pop aesthetics, Lucius creates a free-spirited ride through waves of carefully crafted instrumentation and substantive lyrics.

Usually seen adorned in matching retro outfits, lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig met while attending the Berklee School of Music and have been writing and singing together ever since. In their early days in New York, they moved to a Victorian house in Brooklyn that has served as both a music school and a recording studio over the years. There the duo met bandmates Peter Lalish (guitar), Danny Molad (drums), and Andrew Burri (guitar).

I had the pleasure of seeing Lucius last year during a blizzard one bitter February evening at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. The concert took place shortly after the release of Wildewoman, and I had spent the better part of the month listening to the album on repeat. I felt prepared to dance and sing along with my favorite songs (“Hey, Doreen” and “Turn it Around”), but I could never have anticipated what I experienced that evening. Their stunning visual presence and percussive surround-sound floored me. Wolfe and Laessig’s dynamic stage presence, alluring vocals, and deep lyricism were captivating. The joint percussive effort between all band members (both lead vocalists also play the drums while standing at the microphone) and the multi-instrumental score put an infectious spin on indie-pop music.

“Lucius is fueled by taut percussion—the quadruple drum assault…raised hairs,” Billboard wrote about the band’s performance at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival. At the Cedar, they encapsulated pop, indie, folk, and rock, with snapshots of a distinct ‘60s influence in every song. The album recording doesn’t do justice to the attack of live sonic elements and their symmetrical visual aesthetics. While they sent out invitations to shout back in a call and response throughout “How Loud Your Heart Gets,” I remember thinking, why isn’t the entire room dancing? It was as if the Minnesotan crowd on that cold winter night couldn’t match the spirited stamina and energy found on stage. Lucius was on fire.

Lucius, Photo: Peter Larson

Lucius. Photo: Peter Larson

It was not until over a year later, when I heard the announcement of the International Pop exhibition coming to the Walker, that I encountered the source of Lucius’ album cover and began to dig deeper into their music. I now believe that Lucius defies the categorization of just another millennial girl-pop band by leading an ambitious project to take pop in a new direction through the careful orchestration of aesthetic and sound. The strong female duo takes the visual representation of their music seriously; their lyrics, imagery, and public presence combine to present a fearless yet inviting feminism for all to enjoy.

You can currently view the original painting that inspired the cover of Lucius’ Wildewoman in International Pop. Based on Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s 1964 painting Ice Cream, the pop/feminist connection is not coincidental.

Axell’s painting of this provocative and intrepid female figure was first unveiled a half-century before the album’s release. Lucius asked permission from the artist’s son for the rights to the image. He responded positively to the request, pleased to see the painting taking on another life after the tragic death of its creator, who died in a car accident at 37. As Lucius guitarist Peter Lalish recalled:

When we reached out to [Philippe Axell] to ask if he would be open to us using his mother’s artwork for the album cover, he immediately responded and seemed grateful that her artwork would be associated with pop culture 50 years after it was created… Finding the right artwork that would fit this album was a long process and it was the last step in finishing the record. To hear that from him felt like it had come full circle.

Evelyne Axell, Ice Cream, 1964. Collection of Serge Goisse, Belgium; ©2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Evelyne Axell, Ice Cream, 1964. Collection of Serge Goisse, Belgium; ©2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The painting seen on Lucius’ album cover is definitely worth a stop at the International Pop exhibition. Ice Cream occupies the gallery called “Love & Despair,” which curator Darsie Alexander notes features a collection of artworks that suggest “an emerging understanding of the body as a battlefield, and of culture as something to be shaped and made anew.” When asked whether or not the Lucius album cover was intended to be “suggestive,” Holly Laessig responded:

It’s not meant to say, ‘We’re sexual.’ It’s meant to say, ‘This is a painting that was done in the’60’s by a Belgian pop artist named Evelyne Axell.’ At the time, she was making a statement that was incredibly bold, and we think our show is bold, we’re strong women. There’s nothing shy about the way that we sound and the way we put ourselves out there. It’s a strong image. And if you’re looking at fifteen record covers on iTunes, what’s going to stick out to you? You’re not gonna see a dick—sorry, for lack of a better word. When I first saw that image, I didn’t even think about that. I literally thought, ‘Here’s this overly joyful expression. There’s this ecstasy in it.’

The bright, blissful painting certainly exudes a delicious ecstasy with its dizzying monochrome blocks of green, yellow, and blue shapes spiraling throughout the background. The fire red hair of the figure contrasts with the black and white brushstrokes that comprise the face. Through both a figurative and abstract approach, the face acts like a photograph collaged on top of the competing background shapes. The psychedelic shapes swirl around the face, privileging the emotive and individualistic quality of the woman featured in the painting. Her tongue shamelessly sticks out to lick up the drips of what looks like mint and strawberry ice cream. In Ice Cream, the figure’s eyes look down, sealed shut to reject a male gaze. Entirely focused on the task at hand, the woman remains unconcerned with the viewer. Axell presents a subject that refuses to pleasure the viewer and occupies a space outside the mediation of the male gaze. Unadorned and unapologetic, the woman takes pleasure in her own actions.

As her paintings gained credence in the male-centered Pop Art movement, her choice to focus on a self-sufficient woman in sheer pleasure was a deliberate, liberating gesture on the artist’s part. Axell strove to deviate from the representations of women generated by her male counterparts. The artist rejected portrayals of women that rendered them passive, sexualized, or objectified. She adopted Pop motifs, tropes, and aesthetics, while also undertaking a rigorous assessment of the representation of gender and sexuality in art. Lucius’ Jess Wolfe explains the significance of appropriating the painting for the album: “[Axell] was really at the forefront of the Pop Art scene in Belgium…She was obviously a feminist, and it was really important that that aesthetic and that feeling was sort of projected in the artwork. It might be bold for some people, but that was the point.”

Lucius’ music also adopts the feminist themes that the album cover conveys. Their performances serve as a positive example of audacious women holding ground in a male-dominated music arena. When asked why they were inspired to choose the name Wildewoman for their album, Wolfe mused how they wrote the song before they selected a record title: “We’re like ‘wildewomen’…A lot of the women we surround ourselves with also share those same qualities: very free-spirited, very much feminists, strong-minded, strong-willed and strong-charactered people.” She continues, “Holly’s mom used to call her a wilde-child, wilde-girl, and we were like, ‘Well, we’re like that. But a little older.’ So, it became Wildewoman.” The lyrics of the title track also deliver this message:

Her smile is sneaky like a fiery fox

It’s that look that tells you she’s up to no good at all

And she’ll say whatever’s on her mind

They’re unspeakable things and she’ll speak them in vain

And you can’t help but wish you had bolder things to say

She’s a Wildewoman.

Wolfe describes how some of their lyrical content originated from their childhood experiences: “Holly and I grew up sort of feeling outcasted and feeling like we were different than other people and didn’t really know how to vocalize that, how to feel comfortable.” She continues, “When we met, it was the first time we actually felt that we were in a place that we felt comfortable with ourselves, that we could really figure it out. And we just wanted to honor that sort of free-spirited, awkward, uncomfortable aspect of youth and growing up and being a woman.”

While offering resounding beats frosted with enduring lyricism and soft guitar chords, their initial music video for “Turn It Around” addresses feminist concerns about absurd standards of beauty. The music video lays bare the incredible pressure and stress of beauty standards idealized through popular culture and mainstream media by following a young girl’s coming of age story.

When asked outright whether or not their band is feminist, Laessig answers: “I think feminist in saying that we’re pro-women and on the side of women our band absolutely is feminist but not in the sense of the word that it’s like anti-man. Some people use that word in different ways.” Wolfe follows up, stating:

We want to be open to everybody. At least half of our audience is male, and I think they get it too, and we have such a diverse crowd at our shows, older men and women and young girls and middle-aged guys, and it’s not just in the U.S., and so we don’t ever want to abandon those people. Not to say that if we had strong feminist values or view-points that that would happen, but we just want to make it clear that any woman—I hope—should feel empowered and strong as a woman. And there [are] two of us, and a lot of the things that we’ve written about involve femininity and in that respect we’re feminists.

With public figures adopting and disavowing the “feminist label” left and right, I listen to Wolfe and Laessig’s response and recognize the weight that the branding of “feminist” entails for their band’s reputation. By providing the caveat that they don’t want to exclude anyone, I sense a desire not upset any potential fans. I wish that they could unapologetically take the stance of being feminists publicly without fear of excluding audience members. This comment is less a statement on their careful stance taken in an interview and more about the public arena that stigmatizes those that call themselves feminists. As Roxane Gay, author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, aptly puts it, “…celebrities are generally vigorous in their disavowal of feminism. They recognize the scarlet F that comes with publicly embracing it, the taint to professing a desire for gender equality.” I want Lucius’ statement about feminism to match the fierce feminist convictions they uphold on stage and in their lyrics. Ultimately, I appreciate Lucius’ welcoming presentation of feminist values, because their intoxicating indie-pop music speaks to broad audiences. Roxane Gay also reminds us that there are many ways to be feminist: “We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

The feminism that Lucius puts forth on stage is bold and empowering, but not in your face. Just as Axell brought politicized concerns of sexual freedom into her works through the bold visual reinterpretation of women as subject in Pop Art, Lucius contributes to the movement of de-stigmatizing feminism. By embedding strong personal narratives into their lyrics and delivering them with ambitious performances that enrapture many, their music presents a feminism for all to enjoy.

Lucius will perform on Saturday, June 20 at Rock the Garden 2015. Ticket information available at walkerart.org

Sounds, Sourced and Unsourced: Aki Onda at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Aki Onda’s recent […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Aki Onda’s recent Sound Horizon performance. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Set One

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Composer and electroacoustic improviser Aki Onda begins Thursday night’s Sound Horizon performance soaked in the overcast light that floods through the massive eastern window in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery.  Accompanying visual artist Liz Deschenes’s spare, meditative installation, Gallery 7, Onda sculpts a piece of equally precise and hypnotizing sound art. Equipped only with a portable radio, two guitar amps, an array of cassette players, and several cassettes, he manages to craft a soundscape of surprising depth and intensity by the end of his first thirty-minute set.

Given the unconventional nature of his instruments, it’s often difficult to see how Aki Onda is deriving some of his sounds and patterns. This inscrutability is liberating. When you see a string quartet, your brain can intuitively understand the chain reaction between the bow, the strings, and the violinist’s fingers. When you witness an Aki Onda performance, a loop of chirping tones might be the feedback bouncing between a tape player and an amplifier or it might be a field recording of a Mexican birdsong. If you understand the source of every sound, the live music experience can become a bland appreciation of virtuosity. With Onda, you quickly give up on understanding all of his sources; you allow yourself to experience the entirety of the acoustic environment as he facilitates its growth and change.

Set Two

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Aki Onda. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Now, none of this is to give you the impression that Aki Onda is a formless technician, manipulating sounds with scientific exactitude. He is very much a performer, and he is as fearless an improviser as any of the great free music pioneers. For his second set, Onda plays for a large crowd in the long hallway that runs along Hennepin Avenue. His expanded set-up includes a larger collection of cassettes, two Kaoss Pads, multiple looping pedals, three cymbals, and a few cups of marbles.

There is a noticeable choreography to Onda’s movements. He paces methodically up and down the hallway, wrenching the tape player in his hand back and forth with a consistent rhythm, a frankly beautiful pattern of movement. The focused physicality of dance permeates Onda’s entire performance, embedding a constant human presence in his maze of disembodied sounds.

Onda’s calm demeanor may give the impression that he isn’t paying attention to the audience, but in this second set he subtly engages with his onlookers and their expectations of musical performance. On top of a brooding, ambient background, Onda sprinkles in the sounds of a soft rain by casting marbles down the hallway, letting them bounce with unpredictable rhythms down the slanted brick floor. As the marbles roll past members of the audience, they must choose whether to interact with them or not, whether to allow themselves to alter the soundscape or to let it continue on its path. Of course, this is a false choice. An audience member’s decision not to touch the marble still leads to a sound that would not have occurred if they had decided to touch it. In this way, Aki Onda enlists us all as his collaborators.

Set Three    

Aki Onda. Photo: Molly Hanse

Aki Onda. Photo: Molly Hanse

The night ends in Gallery 5, which currently houses the Walker’s Art at the Center retrospective, an exhibition that includes Nam June Paik’s hyperactive television sculpture 66-76-89 (1990) and selections from On Kawara’s TODAY series (1989), as well as Siah Armajani’s Prayer (1962), a typographical labyrinth that serves as the backdrop for Onda’s final performance.

The music resonates thoughtfully with these pieces of visual art. The screeching noise of feedback pairs perfectly with the looping chaos taking place on Paik’s televisions. Onda’s cassettes, heavily manipulated field recordings from his travels around the world, act as artifacts of memory completely cut off from their moments of origin. Kawara’s TODAY paintings, with their decontextualized calendar dates, achieve a similar feeling of detachment. Yet, both artists also open their work up to the audience’s free-associative memory. Kawara’s dates connect the viewer to their own real and imagined memories of the times he invokes. Aki Onda’s obscured sounds are equally open to individual interpretation. In just one of his tapes, depending on who you are, you might hear the squealing of a free jazz saxophone, the din of a busy street, or the terrified screaming of a human voice.

Found Sounds and Lost Memories: A Glimpse into the Synaesthetic World of Aki Onda

Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I […]

Aki Onda. Photo: Fridolin Schoepper

Aki Onda. Photo: Fridolin Schoepper

Aki Onda is an accidental musician. “To begin with, it was not like I understood music,” he told the British music magazine The Wire in 2013. “When I was a kid, I could barely play a harmonica, nor was I able to get a handle of the theories of music no matter how hard I tried to instill them in my head. So, early on, I gave up on music.”

Instead, he found an expressive outlet in photography. It seemed like a natural fit for Onda, who was born into a family of artists. His mother was a painter, and his father used to document his travels with a Super 8 camera. The grainy images captured Onda’s childhood imagination. As a teenager, Onda began taking photographs of musicians, leading to magazine commissions and photographic encounters with the likes of John Zorn and Arto Lindsay. Inspired by the new currents in art and music represented by these artists, Onda soon left his native Japan, traveling widely. While in London in the late 1980s, his camera broke. “I did not have enough saved for a new camera… I settled for a cassette Walkman…”

Cassette Memories

His decision to settle would prove auspicious: the Walkman has become his trademark instrument. For more than 20 years, he has used the Walkman to document the sonic contours of his daily life, accumulating a vast archive of personal field recordings. This archive has become the foundation for his much-lauded Cassette Memories project, an ongoing engagement with personal memory in which he fragments and layers his own recordings to obliquely reconstruct his memories.

Reading through Onda’s biography brought to mind a passage in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that postulates a relationship between recording technologies and memory: “In the camera, man has created an instrument that captures evanescent visual impressions, while the gramophone does the same for equally fleeting auditory impressions; both are essentially materializations of his innate faculty of recall, of his memory.”

This idea of materializing memory is central to Onda’s working practice. Through its attentiveness to spatiality and its relentless temporal abstraction, Onda’s music, often devoid of any metric pulse, seems to embody a distinct material presence. He wrote in his Cassette Memories project description, “What emerges from my sound memories is a sonic collage of ritualistic tape music.”

Aki Onda. Photo: courtesy Sandrine Marc

Aki Onda. Photo: Sandrine Marc

The phrase “sonic collage” underscores Onda’s interdisciplinary conception of music. It has become a cliché to describe texturally inventive music as “painterly,” but in Onda’s case such visual metaphors are almost unavoidable. He told The Wire, “The truth is, although I am labelled a musician, my musical influences are few and far between and I pull most of my ideas from other media.”

Perhaps a more fitting visual analogue to Onda’s music than collage would be the three-dimensional assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg. Like one of Rauschenberg’s assemblages, Onda’s music reaches out beyond the frame, beckoning to the listener even as it maintains its distance. It seems to teeter at the threshold between comprehensibility and inscrutability, the secret memories it contains hovering elusively, just beyond our reach.

Onda’s intent is not to retrace his memories indexically, but to lay bare their underlying morphology, their imperfect architecture. His sonic excavations seem to exist in the folds of memory, conjuring evocations that can’t be placed, indistinct somehow in their sensuous particularity. He told Tiny Mix Tapes, “I have to cut the bond with the original meanings first. Then, I’ll be able to use them for re-creating the other meanings. So it’s not like telling you about my personal history, which I’m not interested in at all. I’d like to make it abstract and open to the others.” What Onda is describing amounts to an auditory palimpsest. The original meaning and context of the audio is erased, but the audio itself remains as a trace upon which Onda and the listener can inscribe new meanings. Onda actively cultivates this intersubjective process of making meaning, telling The Wire, “My music exists where [the audience’s] gaze and my gaze cross.”

One question that remains is: why does Onda continue to use a cassette Walkman when there are a host of more modern gadgets available to him? Onda has said that he likes the characteristic imperfections of the cassette sound. “I just like things that are damaged, destroyed, scratched, ruined, wrecked, and not perfect,” he told Tiny Mix Tapes. This wabi-sabi ideal permeates nearly all of Onda’s work. Brian Eno captured the allure of damaged, lo-fi aesthetics in A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996) when he wrote, “The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

Onda’s music is indeed momentous, but it is rooted in the mundane. In one of Onda’s soundscapes, birds chirping might give way to cars honking. It’s a familiar mixture of sounds to most people, but Aki’s careful curation and cultivation renders it unfamiliar.

Theorist Shuhei Hosokawa famously examined the Walkman’s capacity for defamiliarization in his piece “The Walkman Effect.” Writing in 1984, four years after the Walkman’s original release in Japan, he concluded, “the practical meaning of the Walkman is generated in the distance it poses between the reality and the real, the city and the urban, and particularly between the others and the I.”

Hosokawa saw this distancing effect as inevitable, a product of the private, hermetic nature of listening to a Walkman. Onda, however, by rebroadcasting his private soundscapes into a shared public space, seems to suggest the possibility of traversing the distance between “the others and the I.” After all, the Walkman’s very name implies an act of traversal. For that reason, Onda could not have selected a tool better suited to his art.

….

Aki Onda will perform live in the Walker galleries on Thursday, May 14 at 6, 7, and 8 pm.

The Guitarist, the Chanteuse, and the Band: Jocelyn Hagen on Victoire/Glasser/Noveller

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer Jocelyn Hagen shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Victoire/Glasser/Noveller, co-presented by the Walker […]

Noveller performs with Victoire at the Walker Art Center as part of a co-presentation with the SPCO's Liquid Music series on May 9, 2015. Photo: © Tony Nelson

Noveller performs with Victoire at the Walker Art Center as part of a co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music series on May 9, 2015. Photo: © Tony Nelson

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer Jocelyn Hagen shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Victoire/Glasser/Noveller, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

Last weekend the Walker Art Center co-presented the final concert of the 2014-15 Liquid Music Series with the much-anticipated Victoire show featuring fellow female composer/performers Glasser and Noveller. Taking the stage for a solid two hours, these versatile musicians filled the room with both evolving and revolving textures created by stacked layers of sound. Victoire is led by composer Missy Mazzoli, who also played keyboards and used Ableton to manipulate sounds onstage; she prefers to refer to the group as a band instead of a new music ensemble. This approach to such boundary-defying chamber music is changing the way audiences approach the listening environment, and this is what the Liquid Music Series strives to achieve with each performance. Victoire is quite possibly the best incarnation of such a group, because of the consistency of their performers, the regularity at which they perform, and the collaborative way they bring Mazzoli’s ideas to fruition. They are at their best when showing off their virtuosity, especially the incredible playing of violinist Olivia de Prato and double bassist Eleanor Oppenheim. Victoire is unintimidated by dark, thorny, and even muddy textures, nor of filling the room with large, pulsing, loud sound.

Guitarist Noveller succeeded in bringing to life low, bubbly textures with wailing, sharp melodies, letting feedback and distortion color the textures she created by looping. The music sounded exploratory, along with the bright, glossy video imagery, but the limitations of looping made the music a bit static.

Glasser’s sensual performance with recorded tracks showcased her wispy, floaty voice against varied rhythmic textures of an ever-surprising palette. Her music came alive once the instrumentalists of Victoire joined her for the final set. If, ten years ago, I had to imagine what contemporary music would sound like in 2015, it would and would not have sounded like this ~ in the best sense ~ I don’t think I could have imagined this sound. There was a magical, futuristic characteristic difficult to describe, and this is exactly what music created in the present time should hope to achieve.

The video component of the evening didn’t always support or enhance the listening experience, and overall the music became a bit harmonically stagnant over two hours, but this final concert for Kate Nordstrum’s visionary series was overall a great success, given to a welcoming, sold-out crowd.

Noveller’s intricate soundscapes: an interview with Sarah Lipstate

A musical force is set to descend upon the Walker Art Center this Saturday, when Glasser, Noveller, and Victoire take the McGuire stage  for a special performance co-presented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. All three bands (Glasser and Noveller are solo artists, and Victoire is a quintet led by composer Missy Mazzoli) manipulate musical structures, […]

Victoire_Glasser_Noveller_2014-15_11_PP

Noveller. Photo: Alex Marks

A musical force is set to descend upon the Walker Art Center this Saturday, when Glasser, Noveller, and Victoire take the McGuire stage  for a special performance co-presented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. All three bands (Glasser and Noveller are solo artists, and Victoire is a quintet led by composer Missy Mazzoli) manipulate musical structures, warping human and technology into stunning sonic shapes. I had the chance to talk with experimental guitarist/composer Noveller (a.k.a. Sarah Lipstate) about the evolution of her project and the process of building her entrancing soundscapes. Noveller pulls notes from their stuffy staff lines to evolve and meld together with today’s machines: pedals, feedback, guitar, and a bow. When I talked with Lipstate on Wednesday, she had just finished a set on Radiolab at WNYC the night before and was ready for the next performance at hand, saying: “tonight I have rehearsal for Victoire. Starting tomorrow, I have performances every night. So, you know it’s exciting, it’s the best I could imagine for myself as a musician, but I also have to keep my head together.”

Abbie Gobeli: How did Noveller begin?

Sarah Lipstate: Noveller began when I was living in Austin at the University of Texas. When I started playing guitar, it was very much a solitary activity. None of my friends I’ve grown up with were really interested in the type of music that I was interested in, so it was something I did for fun by myself. I had a feeling that when I moved to Austin, which to me at the time seemed like a big city,  when I started college, I hoped I would meet other people I could play with and at the very least share the same musical taste as me. So that does happen, and I start playing with other people. I had a duo called One Umbrella. We would record improvised guitar and synth pieces and we self-released them.  That was the first time I was able to connect with someone else, make a recording, and get music out there into the world.

I was contacted by these women in Oakland that were doing a compilation called, Women Take Back the Noise, and it was all women in the realm of experimental music. I really wanted to be a part of this, but my duo was me with a guy. They said, “This is only for women, so why don’t you send us something you create on your own?” That was how I started: I recorded a piece and submitted it to them and they said, “This is great, so what is your project called?” I came up with Noveller, and that’s what encouraged me to make music on my own. I realized I really like recording on my own. Performing came later.

Gobeli: I was listening to one of your early records, Red Rainbows, and found it was noisier than the more cinematic tracks on your latest release, Fantastic Planet. How has Noveller evolved over time?

Lipstate: In the first recording (“Signal”) from Women Take Back the Noise, guitar wasn’t used at all. I used a Theremin and manipulated feedback through guitar pedals I had at the time. The very beginning of Noveller was very noisy, and when I started performing live, I had to figure out what I wanted to do in a live setting. That’s when the guitar became the primary instrument, but at the time I was using this double-neck guitar: one neck had 12 strings; the other had 6 strings. Because it was very heavy, I didn’t wear it. I laid it flat on a keyboard stand because it was a different orientation. I didn’t really play it in a melodic sense, but to create sounds I could manipulate through the pedals.

The biggest evolution with Noveller is viewing the guitar as a sound source, and now in present day, viewing the guitar as an instrument that I can actually craft melodies with in a more nuanced way to create soundscapes. There’s an early piece called “St. Powers” where I was plucking the strings, and it was very melodic, very pretty. That helped shape my live performance; I would play that piece and two short noisier pieces. I remember playing this show at a place in Williamsburg, which actually became 285 Kent, which doesn’t even exist anymore.  It was cold. I had to play with my leather jacket zipped up. After I played, [a guy who lived there] said, “Anyone can make noise. When you played that piece…that was very beautiful. That’s where you should focus your attention,” and that’s stuck with me. Things always feel organic with this project. I’m not a skilled guitarist in the traditional sense, but I want to figure out how I want to play it and give it its due.

Gobeli: How do you approach building one of your compositions?

Lipstate: I’ll start by playing the guitar completely unamplified; not plugged into anything. If I come up with several ideas, eventually I’ll set up everything: amp, pedals, everything and try to bring those ideas into the realm of effects, where things can really take shape. So, if I start that way, then I have some sort of foundation of melodies or structure that I like. Then, I can let effects take that to the next level. Recording a song, especially as a solo performer, I can record many different things I want, but translating it to a live setting takes some time to figure out. When I’m recording, I think I just can’t wait to play this live! It definitely takes some preparation to figure out when you have two hands and one instrument.

Gobeli: Do you craft each layer individually?

Lipstate: I have a cool looping pedal that has three different loopings available to me. I have three going live and I play on top of that. That’s how I’m able to create these compositions that don’t seem static. They evolve and build—that’s my goal. It’s taken a long time to assemble all these different pedals, but the set up I have now is great to create these compositions live. It can be a pain to have all these pedals as opposed to a laptop. But I think having the pedals gives the audience something to engage with to see what’s happening, to see who’s building these things. That’s really fun for me. I love when people come up after the show and ask about the pedals.

Gobeli: How many pedals do you have and do you have a favorite?

Lipstate: I have eight in my current set-up, but I’m constantly swapping things out. I try not to add any, because I’m trying to be as compact and efficient as possible. Recently, I got the Eventide H-9, and it’s a square, white pedal with an LED screen. It’s really awesome; it allows me to access any preset Eventide has ever created and it can do reverb, delay, pitch shifting, harmonizing, it can do all these crazy things. It’s a compositional tool in itself.

Gobeli: What’s the most challenging and what’s the most rewarding part of crafting your compositions?

Lipstate: Getting to compose and play music all day is rewarding. Even if I’m writing or composing something that won’t be recorded, it’s the most pure satisfaction; it’s my life.

Gobeli: What do you like about manipulating technology in music?

Lipstate: It broadens the possibilities.  We’ve been playing the guitar so long, but we can make new sounds with it. For me, personally, the pedals give me more options to push boundaries.

….

Glasser, Victoire, and Noveller take the McGuire stage this Saturday, May 9th at 8pm.

In addition, there is a free Composer Conversation with Missy Mazzoli of Victoire on Friday, May 8th at 6pm at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. 

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