Lesley Flanigan – The amplification of amplification

Friday night, July 8, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, the Dither electric guitar quartet will present the Invisible Dog Extravaganza! In addition to Dither playing works by Phill Niblock and Corey Dargel, the show will also feature several other acts, including guitarist Marc Ribot, So Percussion, and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan (full list here). Last week, I caught up with Lesley to talk about electronic music, intuition, and what, exactly, a sound sculptor does. You can read the full transcript here.

 Download: Lesley Flanigan – “Thinking Real Hard” – mp3

Lesley Flanigan is the first to admit that the idea of using feedback in an intentional manner to create music is nothing new. But still there is something to be said for arriving at such a technique on one’s own, absent any outside influence – and a degree of poetry in taking what audio engineers and technicians have gone to great lengths to eliminate and twisting it into something intuitive and beautiful.

When I ask Lesley about the role intuition plays in her music, there is a slight, nearly imperceptible, hesitation. It’s understandable. This is, after all, something of a loaded question – not in the sense that I am trying to trip her up (I’m not that kind of journalist) – but even though we both know that intuition is a factor, it is also, almost by definition, notoriously difficult to define.

“I think all artists and musicians essentially start in a place of intuition, playing around with ideas and feelings, sensing what’s right. Once you’ve thrown something out there, then you step back and realize what it was you were doing and can focus it a little bit better.”

It’s an idea I am intimately familiar with. And like me, Lesley is a singer who came to music through voice. It’s the most intuitive instrument we have at our disposal, and for most of us, it’s the first instrument we learn, taking our cues from the world around us. She adds: “even if one doesn’t use their voice as a singer or in any particularly trained way, we all can shout, we all can cry, we all know how to use our voice to express emotion.”

“I also aim to create a very raw and intuitive environment in my performances. While it can be nerve-wracking to not have complete control of the outcome, if done successfully, my best performances are very intuitive.”

Those performances are what first brought her work to my attention – one woman on stage, surrounded by a handful of handmade wooden speaker boxes and a microphone. She walks, with deliberate pace, from one side of the stage to sweep the microphone past another speaker a few yards away, stopping, on occasion, to sing a few syllables of her own. It all appears to be highly choreographed, but it is far from theatrical. This is what it looks like when a feedback soloist plies her trade – it’s intricate, it’s physical. It’s sculptural.

For Flanigan, her role as a sound sculptor – a label used primarily for the sake of argument – was a natural extension of her experience as a musician and education in fine arts. Initially resistant to the idea of marrying sculpture and music, she built her first hardware electronics as a grad student at NYU, experimenting with sound circuits. It was while testing some amplifiers she had built, when the piezo (a contact mic) and speaker she was using came a little too close together. She recalls:

“[Some] feedback happened, but it was more than just sound. It was really energetic, a physical kind of reaction that was happening, because the piezo was bouncing on top of the speaker and making all this sound. And was like the raw electronic sound that, as a musician, I had been looking for in keyboards and computers and stuff like that and failed miserably….I was always trying to find the perfect kind of dirty electronic sound, and here these speakers were doing it, but it was coming from a very physical place.”

Taking those noises, so often our cast offs, as her starting point, the progression was natural. “[Maybe] you call something noisy because you don’t exactly know what it is and it’s kind of uncomfortable,” she says. “But if you sit with that same noise for a while, you can…at least get used to it and then it becomes something you would call a sound. And then, when you take those sounds and you start to put them in patterns, arrange them in compositions, they become understood as something you would call music.”

Those noises become voices, characteristic and unique to their respective amplifiers. And like a choir director, Flanigan arranges and rearranges them, guided by the way they play off of and against one another, playing on the idea of amplification within amplification. The sound of her homemade speakers projected through PA speakers into a performance hall designed to be an architectural amplifier in its own right combine in what she refers to as a “Russian nesting doll effect – a speaker within a speaker within a speaker. It is naturally spatial work.”

Download: Lesley Flanigan – “Thinking Real Hard” – mp3

And the effect is demonstrated beautifully in tracks like “Thinking Real Hard” from her album Amplifications. Out of three minutes of looped feedback and harmonized “oos” and “ahs” emerges a single voice: My head is small / but it hurts like hell / been thinking real hard / been thinking hard all night. It is simple and unadorned, and as she sings: Stay with me a while, the listener is enveloped in a flood of warmth and clarity. But, just as you feel you could reach out and touch the sound around you, the voice fades once again into the noise from which it emerged.

“I’ve ended many performances with that piece,” she says of “Thinking Real Hard”. “Because in my mind, it locks in the idea of noise to sound to music, it’s like, now that we’ve just gone through this wash of voice sounds and speaker sounds, it’s all ultimately music in the end, that it’s actually not that far off from what you’re used to. And I love that switch that can happen, where suddenly you realize, wait a second, I’m listening to a song.”

Emilie Simon in Chicago: the complete abridged interview transcript

Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com
Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com

Here it is. Finally. The (abridged) transcript of last month’s interview with Emilie Simon. Emilie is off touring Europe right now, so here in the States, we probably won’t be hearing anything from her for a while. In the meantime, you will just have to read this and get all excited for the eventual American release of her latest album: The Big Machine. If you live in Europe, you can already buy the album (or, at least you can in France). You can also catch Emilie on tour, which you ought to do, because it is a life-altering experience. You can read the complete (almost) interview here.

The Indie Handbook: First of all, let me say that it is such a pleasure to meet you. Have you ever been to Chicago before?

Emilie Simon: No, this is my first time to even leave the club, so I will discover it with you.

TIH: So you’ve been living in New York for a while, right?

ES: Yeah, it’s been almost two years now.

TIH: What made you pack up and come over here?

ES: At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here.

TIH: How long do you think you’ll stay.

ES: I have no idea. I didn’t plan it, I don’t plan ahead. I plan what I have to plan, like if I have a tour. I know I am going to be touring pretty much all of 2010. But you never really know what’s going to be happening in your life.

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Emilie Simon gets the Big Machine up and running

Emilie Simon at BerlinI followed her for years – not in a creepy stalker way, but the way any true fan tracks the career of an artist he or she admires – spending countless hours in dusty independent and secondhand record shops near university campuses and enlisting the help of friends and family in Europe to track down a catalogue of records that you just can’t get here. It was all very calculated and deliberate. Meeting her, on the other hand, was (almost entirely) an accident.

It was on one of these prospecting expeditions (in search of a release date for her latest album, The Big Machine) that I caught a glimpse of Emilie Simon‘s tour schedule. Noticing almost immediately that the next show was scheduled to be in Chicago, I, without thinking, sent off a message to (literally) the only American contact I could find and several hours and half a dozen emails later, we had plans to sit down for a cup of tea after soundcheck.

As I approached Berlin Nightclub and heard the sound of “Opium” emanating from behind the swinging doors, I had no idea what to expect. I am not exactly a veteran of the club scene and I had never even heard most of the songs on the album she was touring, but walked in, trying as best I could to look like I knew what I was doing. What I found: half a dozen people prepping and decorating for the party that night, Elizabeth (my contact), and Emilie on a small stage in the middle of the room surrounded by machines and a keyboard. I stood and listened as she finished her soundcheck, attempting to recover the carefully planned talking points that had fled my memory the moment I came into the presence of my all-time musical idol. How do you cover such an impressive body of work in 20 minutes? You don’t, but the attempt became markedly easier when I discovered that we have a great deal more in common than I ever thought I would with anyone I consider a true genius.

Her first two albums (Emilie Simon and Végétal) and her soundtrack for the French version of March of the Penguins, included some of the most intricate textures I have ever encountered in the course of a four-minute “pop” song. The Big Machine is different, though. You could think of it as the first of her “American” works the way you might “Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. After all, she’s been living in New York for almost two years now.

“At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here,” she says. And any such dramatic change is bound to make an impression: “I don’t know why, but there is something very intense and creative about New York with all of the artists…but something very noticeable to me when I was in New York was that it was full of a lot of energy…. I don’t want to say that it’s more energy or something, it’s just different and because you are not used to it, it is very noticeable, so it’s really inspiring.” It’s that spirit of change that was such a factor in the new sound heard on The Big Machine.

“I think I had a way of doing things from the first album….I was sort of building the basics. For the album after that, I feel like it was a little bit the same way of working: that I was experimenting and still building and I needed to change – to try something else…because…there is a point where you know that you are totally capable to do that again and again and there is no point in doing that again and again.” And so, the IRCAM alumna and winner of three Victoires de la Musique set out to reinvent herself. “I thought, I am going to stop writing on the computer first and see what instruments I need the most for writing songs and it’s been the keyboard, so…for a long time I was writing without a computer, without programming and everything, just working on the composition itself, the song and its structure.”

As a result, her vocals, once set back within the instrumental texture of her songs, have been moved into the foreground, featuring more prominently than ever before. “The other albums are more…like: I have my studio; I can spend a lot of time programming details and the vocals become a part of the instrumentation and are in balance with the other elements. This one was more about the energy and this kind of urgency of writing…. I was moving every week; I had a keyboard and that’s all…It was more of a raw energy, so the vocals took a lot of space because I needed to express myself and I didn’t have all the sounds.”

But such “urgency of writing” is the nature of an album conceived almost entirely in a live setting. After a short set at the Roxy in L.A. where she played several of the new songs for the first time, Emilie embarked on a five-week residency at The Cutting Room in New York. “At the Cutting Room… I was adding a new song every week. So every week I had to finish the programming of a new song and make it ready to be played.” That live atmosphere was maintained throughout the recording process as Emilie “decided to keep [the] energy of experimenting on stage and find [her] band and record”. And she seems happy with the results, assuring me that “everything was like it was meant to be like this”.

Still, someone so involved in the intricacies of composing, as Emilie is, does not relinquish control easily: “at the beginning, I thought maybe I’m going to find the right producer for this album and ask somebody else to produce it…but I didn’t find this perfect person that I can trust so much more than I can trust myself…. And because I produce all my own albums now, I really know what I like, what I don’t like, and trusting somebody else – it has to be amazing, and I trusted and I worked [on] this album with really amazing people and I opened a lot,..but I still kept being the producer of the album because I know where I want to go…I was more like the captain, but the crew was amazing”.

That amazing crew included Kelly Pratt and Jeremy Gara (both of Arcade Fire) and John Natchez (Beirut) as well as sound engineer Mark Plati (David Bowie, Alain Bashung) and Renaud Létang (Feist, Gonzalez…) who mixed the album. The result is an album that “is very different from the other ones: a lot of energy – a different type of energy – a lot of it because of New York and the kind of energy I’ve felt there. It’s the influence of New York on me”.

As we walked back to the club, part of me wished she had an extra day or two to experience Chicago’s own characteristically unique energy that slips so often and unfairly unnoticed beneath the glamorous cacophony of the coasts, rather than the 22-hour reality of airports, traffic, and Belmont Avenue (and you ever do have the time, I hope you will let me know). No offense to the neighborhood, but the one block stretch between Berlin and Starbucks at Clark and Belmont (much of which was under construction at the time) is not exactly the pinnacle of what my beloved Chicago has to offer. Still, for a few hours on October 15th and for reasons I cannot even begin to express, there could have been no more perfect place.

if…t-shirts, paste mag, & school of seven bells

Before I talk about music, I have some other things to talk about.

If we sold The Indie Handbook t-shirts, would you guys buy them? No, this is not a rhetorical question. We really desperately want to make them and sell them to you. We promise they’d be just as charming as we are, but we need some definite opinions before we take any action. Also I need to get married before I spend any more money. (Unrelated? Sorry.)

If you saw Where the Wild Things Are and didn’t like it, you have no business reading this blog anymore. Just kidding. But okay, seriously, I saw it and of course I loved it–I knew I would–and the soundtrack was incredible, including all the “music from the motion picture” stuff that isn’t on the official Karen O & the Kids soundtrack. There is an enormous amount of beautiful music in the movie…but that isn’t why I’m talking about this. I know maybe this isn’t related to indie music, but this was the most beautiful film I’ve seen in some time (then again, I’m not much of a movie buff) and once again, Paste Magazine doesn’t like it and definitely doesn’t love it. Paste angers me. A lot. And it kind of sucks, because I’d love to have Paste on our side–after all, they do like music I like, and they even interviewed Thao recently and I cried a little on the inside because interviews scare me and I would still love to have coffee with Thao. It was a pretty decent interview, too. They also like Welcome Wagon, which is cool. But then they go and make She & Him the best album of 2008 and so often I feel like their reviews miss the point…and it makes me so angry!! And jealous!! They don’t define what’s “cool,” they just write about it. …right? Anyway, The Indie Handbook is all about what we love. No matter if anyone thinks it’s cool. Difference.

If you thought I didn’t like electronic music, you were only sort of right. I don’t like bad electronic music, and I don’t listen to much good electronic music. But I found a cool band that is pretty electronicky and I think you will like them too. Ok, I didn’t find them, they’re nominated for MOJO’s Best Breakthrough Act of 2009. They’re pretty cool.

School of Seven Bells released Alpinisms in July, and when I have money again, I will most certainly purchase it, because I like it way more than I expected to.  They have been called psychedelic and futuristic–they are those things, but when I think of futuristic, I often think of hard, cold lines.  School of Seven Bells achieves futurustic in a lovely, soft sort of way.  The female vocals are reminiscent of Stars, or especially Au Revoir Simone.  I like that the focus seems to be on atmosphere and creating a beautiful line rather than on voice or lyrics or rhythm or whatever people tend to put more energy into.  Everything flows in an even consistency, and they’ve created so many layers that they’ve got the Mates of State “wall of sound” thing out-walled to infinity.  I do love Mates of State.

They’ve only got about six songs from Alpinisms on their myspace page, and who can blame them for not giving it all away?  But I think this is going to be one of those albums that needs to be listened to all at once and in order, like Sigur Ros.  I could be wrong.  I have to say, anyway, that I could listen to “Half Asleep” or “Connjur” on repeat for hours.  They’d be badass to see live, so if you’re in Brooklyn this weekend, you should check them out.

Maltese Additions…

Although I generally eschew domestic responsibilities/activities of all sorts, there’s some housekeeping to be done before I begin my “actual” post tonight.

1. Gee whiz, Eric and I sure do love to write about music, y’all!  Is it because we’re terribly pretentious and dreadfully pompous people?  No, sillies!  Reference our About Us section to sweeten our sarcasm with sincerity.

2. If you read our About Us section and can still stomach us, be our fans.  For realz.

3. Also, as much as we love love love writing, our day jobs sometimes get in the way of us doing all we would like to do (and knowing all we would like to know).  We value your knowledge, and also your writing abilities.  Send us guest submissions at the.indie.handbook@gmail.com — we are great editors, promise!

Now, onto this evening’s post.

Well, the great thing about having weeks dedicated to music of other countries (re: Dutch Week, Malta Mayhem…) is that often, we’ll hear back from musicians and music lovers in those countries with glorious recommendations,  picking up what we have missed.

So, although Malta Mayhem is over and done, it lives on in our hearts and our ears!  And I have two more bands to share with you, thanks to a lovely email from a Maltese music connoisseur extraordinaire.  Yes, I did make that title up myself. The first is a band I had previously considered reviewing…but Brikkuni beat them out.  Maybe only because Brikkuni’s myspace page is better-looking, I’m not sure.  Packed with interesting sounds and instruments, Hunter’s Palace must be named experimental.  With such an emphasis on guitar motifs and a percussive feel, melody definitely isn’t the main focus here.  Hunter’s Palace achieves something very similar to what Sigur Ros achieves, but through very different means–atmosphere; the listener can’t be half-hearted, as they must immerse themselves in the musical experience or they probably won’t be very interested in what’s going on.  This may or may not be what my grandma calls “noise.”

To be quite honest, I don’t really listen to much electronic music; it isn’t really my style.  I’m more indie-folk, I think.  But when I heard Mathematikal (and passed them on to my little sister, who is into some electronic music, and by that I mean, she really likes Crystal Castles), I agreed that they were definitely worth mentioning and experiencing on our little indie blog here.  They’re electrosynth all the way, with plenty of beats and changes and voice distortions to go around.  I asked my sister whether she got an 80’s vibe from it, because I kind of do, but she doesn’t–she said she gets a strobe lights vibe.  I’m not sure what that means, but I’m gonna go with it.  If you check out their myspace, I especially recommend “The Mathematimix,” which reminds me of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds at some points (and to me is a good thing, soooo is Eric going to kick me off the blog for that?), and in the middle, there’s a little Michael Jackson remix (I’m still in mourning).  I also really enjoy PonyPonyRunRun_HeyYouRMX–the beat, the layers, and the vox are a pretty awesome combo.

Well folks, if you were still yearning for a bit more from Malta, here you go!  If nothing else, these two great bands are a bit different from mine and Eric’s usual taste, which you better not be sick of yet, and so isn’t it always nice to have something fresh and exciting?  Answer: yes.  Enjoy!

Laziness takes lots of energy

You may have noticed that I’ve been a bit lazy with my posts lately. If you haven’t, pay attention, because I am about to be lazy again. How lazy? Today, I am going to tell you about a band that broke up eight years which aligns nicely with a tale of serendipitous googling that I am going to (in the name of Dickensian expediency) save for another post later in the week. But first I am going to tell you about some CDs I got from Subroutine today.

Today I got some CDs from Subroutine Records, namely AC Berkheimer and the Sugarettes. You may remember them from Dutch Week. If you weren’t with us for Dutch Week, you can find them in the drop down menu to the right. I also got my autographed copy of the new 7-inch from the Joy Formidable. I trust you all have yours by now as well, since I’ve been urging you for months to order one.

Anyway, on with the irrelevant posting. I mentioned Universal Hall Pass on Facebook on Friday. Did you listen? It doesn’t really matter, because I am talking about Splashdown tonight.

Splashdown were one of those indefinable fusion-type bands drawing on elements of electronica, jazz, and trip hop. Add to that the vocals of Melissa Kaplan who can turn a Middle Eastern maqam like nobody’s business (if you’ve listened to UHP, you know this already) and you can have no trouble understanding how, in their five years together, Splashdown won such a dedicated following. In that time, the band released two EPs (Halfworld and Redshift) and an LP (Stars and Garters)

I am going to come right out and say that I really like Stars and Garters. And I have no trouble admitting that I like it for primarily one reason. “So Ha” has got to be one of the best tracks on any album that I have ever heard. It will take you a month just to figure out the time signature, if you can settle on one at all. I’ve been listening for over a year and the is what I’ve got: 16/8; 10/8; 6/8; 2/4; and 12/8 (both 3+3+3+3 and 3+3+2+2+2, often simultaneously). A couple minutes of this, and even Brahms would have been all cross-eyed and sweaty.

The band also recorded two other LPs (Blueshift and Possibilities), both of which were shelved by Capitol Records at the time of the band’s demise and will never be released. It’s a funny thing about record labels though. No one really cares what they think anymore. I know I don’t (or else I’d be gagging for, or thanks to, Tinted Windows like those other people). The band now encourage fans to share their music, for free, even the “never-to-be” released LPs (silly record execs). You can find most of them (and a few live recordings) here and check here to pick up a copy of Redshift.

If you like what you hear from Splashdown, check out Freezepop and Symbion Project, both projects by Kasson Crooker as well as Anarchy Club which is not so much my thing, but it is the current musical home of Adam Buhler. I hope you know by now the name of the other band I think you should check out.

I’m living in the future again

I am so tired. I was up until 3:30 this morning writing a review and then back up for work at 8:00. And I have to host a dinner party Saturday evening, so you will forgive me if I choose the path of least resistance and discuss a few albums that I am looking forward to, rather than delve into completely uncharted territory. Back in January, Under the Radar Magazine printed a list of about 25 of the most anticipated indie releases of 2009. I was anticipating 4 of them and they have all been unleashed. These four were not mentioned. They are nothing less than subterranean.

Little Birdie Storybook (more of an idea, really) – Little Birdie Storybook is Becca Kreutz who writes some of the most charming and enchanting songs you will ever hear. All that exists at the moment is a handful of demos on her MySpace page, recorded at home in one take on an out-of-tune piano, but she will be heading into the studio to have another go at them. To be honest, I am going to miss those blue notes. You Regina Spektor fans will enjoy this, though Little Birdie Storybook is pretty much impossible to dislike. I think I am looking forward to this one the most. You will be hearing a lot more from me on this topic in the months to come. In the meantime, listen to the demos. You can find the lyrics here.

FunAim & Ignite (23 August) – Fun is the name of the band. The name is nearly as pretentious as that of French rockers Rock and Roll, but it is entirely appropriate. I caught their set in support of Manchester Orchestra, and I can say without reservation that they have earned the name. Stylistically, they fall somewhere between Queen and Mika. The release date for Aim & Ignite was up in the air for a while, but it now stands at 25 August. I know what I’ll be doing that day. For now you can check out their MySpace where you can pick up a free download of “At least I’m not as sad as I used to be” which you can also stream on Facebook (where you can also become a fan of The Indie Handbook). If you want more, catch one of the few remaining dates with Manchester Orchestra.

The School, (title and release date TBA) – This one is still in the works. They went into the studio to begin work a few weeks ago. If you’ve been following us for a while, you already know how much I love this band and for your sake I will tell everyone else to read this. Needless to say, I am pumped. I may have to go to Cardiff to thank them in person. You are all more than welcome to join me.

Venus Hum, (also TBA) – I mentioned this on the Facebook page a couple of days ago. It’s been three years since their last studio album, The Colors In the Wheel, which included one of my favorite songs ever, “Pink Champaign” (I will post the video below). Finally, they are back in the studio. Annette Strean has one of the most striking voices I have ever heard and backed by multi instrumentalists Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle, they have produced enduringly appealing albums in my music library. I’ve been listening to Big Beautiful Sky all week. You can track the progress of the recording and here a few samples (which may or may not end up on the record) at the band’s blog here. (Ok, I am adding a live version of “Yes and No” because the band are actually in it.)

It’s a landslide nation

Among certain circles who think along these lines, Jena Malone is the perfect woman. And while I confess I have never seen any of her movies, I have seen her on Craig Ferguson and I was beginning to see their side of things. Then I found out that she is a musician. Then I heard her music. Then I saw the face of God and I died.

OK, OK, so Jena’s music (along with Lem Jay Ignacio, of course) did not exactly result in an encounter with the divine (or the Divine, for that matter) and the last check of my vitals confirmed that I am, in fact, very much alive. I can’t even promise you that there are actual circles that consider Jena to be perfect (they tend to be more elliptical). But I can assure you that, of all the movie-star-turned-singer-side-projects, this is the most ambitious and least pretentious. It is also one of the best (on par, I think, with Go-Getter co-star Zooey Deschanel’s work with M Ward if completely different).

In the past, her music has been performed with Jena Malone and Her Bloodstains, but now she works with Lem Jay Ignacio (“Lem Jay Ignacio: playing water love, wurly and hand claps. Jena Malone: playing with fire always”) as The Shoe. From what I understand, “the shoe” itself essentially amounts to a steamer trunk full of keyboards, processors, mixers, pedals, a guitar, and various other buttony things I wouldn’t know the first thing about using, ready to be plopped down on a street corner at a moment’s notice for an impromptu concert, which, I think, is sort of the point.

If you’re not lucky enough to find yourself on one of these street corners or dive bars, then I suggest you head over to MySpace and listen to the Shoe and the Bloodstains while you’re at it. I love the rant at the end of “Landslide Nation” and Raccoon, but there is a special place in my heart for “freestylechuckp’s radio show”, not only because of the David Byrne and Suicide Girl references, the use of the word “fictionary”, or the fact that it may actually be freestyle number 46,700, but also because she coins what could very well become our motto: “I’d know what is indie if it hit me”. Suddenly, I feel vindicated.

This is one band I would love to have on our Christmas album. I think they would do something truly incredible.

And, if you want even more electrified-pseudo-anti-folksy-bang for your buck, head over to therewasanoldwomanrecords.com and explore. There are even more tracks available there. They’ve got a YouTube channel, too. This video is my favorite, even if it isn’t exactly from the album.

[Apparently, I am not allowed to embed the video, so you will have to click here, or here, or here.]