Interview with Charlie Looker

Charlie Looker is a musician from New York who has been involved with Extra Life, Zs, and Dirty Projectors, as well as collaborating with Parenthetical Girls and others. Influenced by all directions the musical tree has grown in, he has become famous for his highly experimental - yet also very appreciable - sound.

Q: Well, the inevitable question that is always presented is; who drove you to develop your very original sound? If you had to throw out several artists which influenced you and whom you would recommend to others, who would they be?
A: Justin Broadrick (Godflesh / Jesu), Morrissey, Scott Walker, Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think), Captain Beefheart, Michael Gira (Swans), some medieval European music (Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin des Prez), Current 93, 20th Century classical music in general. We don’t necessarily sound like all of this music, but this is what comes to mind.

Q: How do you compose? Throughout your work, much of it seems to be built around a few minimal basslines which have embellishments and motifs added to them by other instruments. Is that so? Despite being the guitarist and vocalist, it seems that you try to get every instrument to present itself in a roughly equal level, rather than having one specific instrument taking the stage front.
A: The writing process on Dream Seeds was kind of different from how the earlier records were written. In both cases, I always start with lyrics. Then I carve the lyrics into melodies. From that I can get some very vague idea of what the band texture will be, the kind of stuff the instruments will do. Then come the specifics of the instrumental parts. On the earlier material, I would write all the instrument parts myself, note for note. On the new record, I would just write my synth basslines and then I’d bring that in along with the melody and some vague general band ideas to Caley and Nick and they’d write their own parts.
I think the thing you’re talking about, with each instrument having an equally important role in the sound, is a quality shared by both the earlier stuff and the newer collaborative stuff. Especially in the drums. Even though Nick’s drum parts are way different from the drum parts I used to write, they have a similar way of not sitting in the background like normal drum beats. They interlock with everything else to create this web-like effect. It’s funny, I realize I’m calling them “drum parts” instead of “beats”. I don’t think any of us ever call them “beats”. I can’t speak for Nick and Caley about this, but for me that lack of foreground/background distinction comes from classical music. It’s basically counterpoint, like Bach or Renaissance music. In a lot of Extra Life all the instruments are playing separate intricate but inter-dependent melodies, even the drums. But then in front of it all is the voice, which is totally in the foreground so that’s more of a rock thing.

Q: Sexuality appears to be a cohesive theme within your lyrics, but the abstract nature of some of those lyrics sometimes makes it difficult to "decipher". Made Flesh and Dream Seeds both have a concept of sexuality, abuse and various other themes, but what are the overall concepts of each respective album? Did you write with a linear story, or was it more a collection of songs about the aforementioned?
A: None of the albums have an over-arching story but some particular songs tell stories. Others are more vague and combine several different stories, or I’m just trying to portray a certain human situation. Some of the records have unifying themes. Made Flesh was mostly about sex, the body, weight-lifting, death and to some extent money. Dream Seeds is all about children, dreams and morality. It’s way less sexual I think. But then again, I tend to feel that everything is sexual at its root. A lot of Made Flesh  was written from a more corrupt wayward point of view I guess. Dream Seeds is purer and more optimistic ultimately.

Q: From Extra Life's debut to your latest release, the albums seem to have become progressively more and more aggressive: was this an intentional thing, or has it come naturally?
A: I didn’t really notice that, but I’ll take your word for it. All the records have a mix of loud and quiet songs. To me that’s almost a classic rock kind of vibe, like Zeppelin or something. I guess my singing style I guess has become more “dramatic” over time, so maybe that’s more aggressive.

Q: Do you teach others in music? If so, are they aware of Extra Life? 
A: Yeah I teach private guitar and piano lessons to kids in their homes. Up until this spring I was also teaching general music at a Catholic elementary school. If that sounds like a recipe for problems, it was. Despite my hiding my first name from the kids, they found Extra Life online, it got back to the school administration and I got fired. It was upsetting, both personally and financially, but it was meant to happen.

Q: When discussing your projects with other music enthusiasts, many of them have cited  your style of singing to be  the least accessible aspect of your music, and though many have said they have come to like it, others have said it has sometimes made it difficult to appreciate Extra Life; have you ever experienced difficulties with audiences new to your music with this?
A: Well as you just said, yeah some people hate my singing. It’s interesting to me, people’s reactions to unusual vocal styles. Music with vocals is inherently more “accessible” than music without vocals. But if your vocal style is unusual, ironically more people actually hate it than if you just made some equally unusual music without singing. If you play noise, free improv, or other weird instrumental music, the people who don’t like it just say politely “well I guess Experimental Music just isn’t my thing”. But if you sing weird, people actually get personally mad at you and say “who does this guy think he is?” Since singing is inherently accessible and human, when you do it in an alien way, people feel fully entitled to criticize you. I would rather be directly hated than be not-liked-but-objectively-respected.

Q: Many experimental musicians find it difficult to break into a music scene without being turned down or pushed into the "experimental music night" by the local clubs and venues: what would you suggest a band or musician does to enter the scene by means other than brute persistence, or changing their sound to cater to the mainstream audiences' propensities and making their music more accessible or simplistic? 
A: I don’t really have any advice to bands regarding career/business/scene issues. I hate thinking about that shit in my own life and I really don’t want to think about it on behalf of unspecified others. Right before a gig in Atlanta, this nice teenage kid from the opening band was trying to talk to me about how to get gigs and get your name out etc. I told him please excuse me but I have to go to the van to do some vocal warm-ups and deep breathing. That’s the only thing I could come up with to say that wouldn’t get me depressed and distracted before we played. I hope he understood what I was trying to convey.

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