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Exit Interview: Charlie Looker on the Life and Death of Extra Life

Exit Interview: Charlie Looker on the Life and Death of Extra Life

After its Saturday night performance at 285 Kent, Extra Life will be no more. On November 13, the band shared news of the "amicable" breakup on its blog: "While it's somewhat difficult to articulate exactly why, let's just say that the inner creative momentum driving the band has stalled." In short, it's over. If you never found the time to experience the bizarre, mesmerizing, cathartic and sometimes discomforting music of Extra Life, this is your last chance.

After stints with Zs and Dirty Projectors, the guitarist and vocalist Charlie Looker started Extra Life back in 2006. Evolving through several lineup changes, the band ended as a trio with Looker, violinist Caley Monahon-Ward and drummer Nick Podgurski. The band released three EPs--Extra Life (2008), A Split (2008), and Ripped Heart (2011)--and three full-length albums--Secular Works (2008), Made Flesh (2010), and Dream Seeds (2012). Deeply inspired by Renaissance and Medieval music, Looker's unorthodox vocals and penchant for jolting rhythms grounded what gradually became more of a collaborative project. But just as it hit its stride as a band, with last year's stunning Dream Seeds, that stride suddenly stopped.

When I spoke with Looker a few days ago, he said something quite profound. "People always talk about life being short, but it's not," he said. "Life is actually really long." In a strange, beautiful way, he managed to sum it all up. What follows is a conversation we had that traces the life of Extra Life, from the beginning to the end.

What were you doing before Extra Life? I was in Zs for about five or six years before Extra Life. That was my main thing, and I started doing that in college. I studied music at Wesleyan; my education was pretty liberal arts-y. Extra Life has a real technical complexity, as does Zs, so people tend to assume that technical musical training played a direct role in these bands. But that's not exactly the case. Most of the study I did musically was on my own, even though I did study music. But it was a very loose, chilled out program. All the technical stuff I studied was on my own, like studying 20th century composers and analyzing scores. I also got into Renaissance and Medieval music. Around the same time as Zs, I was also playing in very short-lived hardcore and metal-ish bands. And I was writing chamber music and doing more non-band, composition-related things.

You've done some work with Nat Baldwin, who also went to Wesleyan. Did you meet him there? We weren't at school at the same time, but he was in the area. I've known him since I was 19 or so. That was before we were in Dirty Projectors together. We both joined that band separately by a weird coincidence. Nat and I used to do free improv stuff back in the day. Extra Life did some touring with Nat playing solo, back when it was me and Caley just doing guitar and violin. We did stripped down versions of Extra Life songs. Nat has a pretty high threshold for tour bullshit, but I remember that tour being beyond tolerable for him.

Tell me about forming Extra Life. What were the initial plans and ideas? I didn't have a worked out vision, to be honest. But looking back at the first album, it does seem really coherent to me. But there was no plan--no concept or anything. I was getting tired of my role in Zs, and wanted to do something as a leader. I'd been playing these solo shows in the summer of 2006 under the name Extra Life, which were a mix of quiet and loud stuff. I wanted to do a band version of that. Once I finally got a band together, it became a completely different thing. But I wrote a lot of that stuff really fast, and without a concept. There were no genre cues. I was clearly influenced by things, but I wasn't conscious of what I was going for, or what Extra Life would become.

What was the initial line-up of the group? The first record had none of the members who were there for most of the time. It was me, the drummer Ian Antonio of Zs, Karen Waltuch on viola, Tony Gedrick on bass, and Travis Laplante on keyboard. After that record I hooked up with the drummer Nick Podgurski and violinist Caley Monahon-Ward. The first line-up that did live shows was me, Nick, Caley, Travis, and Tony.

On the first album, Secular Works (2008), my understanding is that you composed the songs for all instruments. Yes. It's strange because it doesn't sound like it, but the process of writing it was very much a composer process. I used notation, and then we memorized the music, so we didn't read sheet music onstage. It was written on sheet music, though. Once we started playing it, people would have ideas and creative input, but it was pretty much written by me. There's a real limitation to that--there are certain things that can only really be achieved this way that groups of people would never come up with. There are some things that sound really unusual on that record--people from a rock or heavy metal background thought there were odd things about it rhythmically. A lot of that is due to the fact that it came from one person's head. The social process of making music really impacts the aesthetic, whether it's one person writing, many people bringing in ideas, and so on. A lot of times, that enters into people's minds just as much as conscious ideas.

 

Secular Works is very dense and heavy, and maybe more like the early Zs recordings than any of the other records. Yeah, that's true. There are a lot of long melodic lines and riffs that don't repeat. They eventually repeat, but by the time they do, you don't remember what they were in the first place. That changed over time.

The album title implies something "of the world" as opposed to "of the heavens," which turned out to be a theme across all the Extra Life recordings. There wasn't really a concept with this album, but that's true. This title was more of a goofy joke, because I'm really into Renaissance and Ancient music, and when you check out those records the composers will distinguish between their sacred music and their secular music. Those were the 14th century genres, so it's kind of a riff on that. I don't really like the genres of modern music. Everyone has their own little genre that they invent--some niche micro-scene they talk about on the Internet. Post-whatever. So-and-so-wave. I'd rather take it back to some Ancient, alien time that I'm into. The genre is non-religious. And a lot of my melodic content is influenced by that music, and the sacred music of that time. But the lyrical content is of the world: lust, sexual things, the self-destructive tendencies of man, various social and class hierarchies. It's not the afterlife. It's not the world beyond. It's this stuff right here.

The last song on the album, "Bled White," is an a cappella vocal tune and one of the most clearly influenced by Medieval music. "Bled White" is also the name of an Elliott Smith song. Is this referencing him in some way? I actually didn't realize that until after the fact. But I do like Elliott Smith a lot. I hadn't heard that song at the time. His song is probably about heroin, and mine is not.

And this is definitely the most Medieval sounding one. I wrote this on a plane. I can't remember where I was going; maybe out to the west coast to see family. The lyrics implied certain melodies, and it had such a fluid quality that it seemed awkward to tie down to a beat. Certain strange rhythmic things are very fluid when sung, but then when you put them over a beat, they feel very jagged, even if the beat is very interesting. The percussive quality of the bass and drums can also make it feel very jerky.

This song in particular sort of highlights the emphasis Extra Life had on composing for voice. Can you tell me about your approach regarding writing for voice? The fact that you phrase it "writing for voice" alone almost sums up how a lot of my singing in Extra Life is different than most rock bands. As opposed to just singing, there's a certain type of deliberateness. I normally write the melodies on keyboard or guitar and then sing them rather than just play the guitar part and then come up with the vocal melodies by singing them. It makes you do things differently that you might not come up with otherwise. It forces you to make twists and turns, and go in other asymmetrical directions. There are rhythmic things in the lyrics, implied in the words that I don't intend do be there. And then I'll let those rhythmic ideas float around in my mind, and then come up with an idea of how something will melodically move, and maybe I'll come up with that melody on guitar. There's a lot of back-and-forth. At least that's how it went on that record. At different phases of the band there were different process I'd use.

It's interesting that you, Nat Baldwin and Dave Longstreth crossed paths in such a significant way, because you all have such peculiar vocal styles. They're not necessarily similar--I think Nat and Dave's are more influenced by someone like Arthur Russell--but you're all unique. It's hard to say what ideas are shared, and how people affect each other. It would probably be a mistake to underestimate how much one's peers influence them. The thing that's similar is the use of a lot of melisma, which is when you stretch one syllable over many different notes. I didn't initially realize, but apparently that's weird in rock music. I get it more from a lot of early music. Dave is really into early 90s r&b, which I really don't like. I love his music, but I don't go for that pop and R&B stuff. I do love Arthur Russell, who I got into after I started doing Extra Life. People would hear me sing and say, "Oh, you must be into Arthur Russell," and I'd never heard him. Listening to him totally blew my mind. His music is so serene and contemplative, though. I wish I were that mature. Most of my music is very maniacal in comparison. I think it's time to calm down, as long as I have time left.

 

The next full-length was Made Flesh (2010). Was this more of a collaborative album? It was inching more toward that. I wrote some of the songs, and others were collaboratively written. By this point, the band had solidified a bit, so it was becoming more of a band thing as opposed to my solo project.

How do you think this album compares with Secular Works? To me, the general density is the same. My one retrospective criticism of Made Flesh is that it sounds too much like Secular Works. I love the music, but at the time, I think I was trying to make it like Secular Works, but better. There are loud songs, and quiet songs. The variety on Secular Works wasn't planned--it happened very naturally--but on Made Flesh, I deliberately tried to have variety. I wanted a certain number of ballads, and I thought very hard about pacing it out. It was more deliberately constructed.

Are you disappointed with it in retrospect? I'm not disappointed in it as a product. But it's less fun. Whether composing on my own, or composing with other people, the more records I've made, I've found that once you set out to do something, and once you succeed in making exactly that, it's kind of boring. A lot of people like that record more than the first one--well, to say "a lot" might not be true--but for me it was less exciting. It was too deliberate, and had this quality of over-competence, as if we really knew what we were doing. I still like those songs. Actually, we're going to play some of them at the farewell show.

A different version of "Black Hoodie,"one of the songs on Made Flesh, first appeared on a split 12-inch you did with Nat Baldwin called A Split (2008), right? Yeah, the version on the split is a super lo-fi recording of Caley and I. The one on Made Flesh has saxophone lines and is a bit more produced. I like both versions. I wrote this song before even Secular Works came out, in like 2007. I was writing a lot then. It was just pouring out. But we didn't record it, of course, until after Secular Works. I don't even remember. I move on. I don't know how I come up with stuff. I think I wrote those lyrics one day while walking down the street on the way to give a guitar lesson, or on the subway. A few rhythmic things came up in my mind, and then I came up with a melody.

As with Secular Works, the title Made Flesh is very of the world, and corporeal. For sure. Lyrically, I was going for something deliberate. It's sort of a concept record, but every song doesn't tie into the concept. About halfway through this album, I realized there was a theme, so I deliberately tried to follow through with the theme. It's about a body, so there's death, and sexuality, and so on. I was in a really weird, intense phase then with weightlifting. You couldn't really see any results, but I was at the gym like fives times a week just going at it. I was really obsessed with this type of vanity and masochism. That was a big motivator for this record. I don't really go to the gym anymore. Stages and stages...

This bodily theme seems to continue into the next year with the release of Ripped Heart (2011). Exactly. A few of those songs were things we recorded for Made Flesh, but that didn't make the cut. Now I'm kinda more into some of these songs than the ones on Made Flesh.

I think it's your most accessible batch of songs. It is. That's kind of ironic that it's a self-released EP. We didn't really give it the push that one might for an accessible album. It's typically perverse for us to just sweep that one under the rug. We play these songs live a lot, actually. I have a bunch of different things with the song "Elegy." I play that song solo a lot, and did an orchestral arrangement of it.

I've read that you're a big fan of Morrissey, and that comes across very clearly on this EP, specifically on the song "Run Cold." My vocal style has kinda changed, and it's different on each record, I think. Maybe not melodically, but the way I sing. But sound wise, these are some of my most Morrissey inspired performances. I love that man's voice. He's the guy that really got me into singing, in earnest, in the first place. Before him, I'd only do vocals in bands that were in a purely screaming style, on the metal and hardcore axis. Then I got into singing by myself through Morrissey and other Brit pop guys. There was no place for that in Zs really; it just wasn't a vocal band. Morrissey got me into singing, and singing got me into doing Extra Life, so he's an important part of all this.

Dream Seeds (2012), the last album, seems to be the most sonically diverse album. Do you agree? I do. A lot of that has to do with me abandoning the guitar, and we parted ways with Tony, our bass player. There's no bass--all the bass is me playing synth bass. I'm playing two synths throughout the whole record, so that's a different sound-world, and there's more variety in this alone. Caley switches from violin to guitar, so all the guitar is Caley. He has a much more varied sonic palette on guitar than I ever did. I have this one ice pick kinda sound, while he deals with effects in a really creative way. We were living together right before this record, so we were listening to a ton of Cocteau Twins and shoegaze stuff at the house--I know none of our songs feel like that, but there are some similarities in the guitar tones. Caley also produced this whole album. He'd done production for Extra Life before, but he did this entire album. He has a very particular production style, and had lots of creative ideas with overdubs and effects and a lot of things that are essential to this record.

Compared to the previous albums, how were the composing duties distributed on this one, if at all? Dream Seeds was totally different. Secular Works was all me, Made Flesh was me with other people, and Dream Seeds is a band thing. I'm the songwriter in the sense that I'm writing the melodies and the bass parts, but the drums are all Nick, and the guitar stuff is all Caley. Even the stuff I brought in, we'd tweak it as a band. For the past two and a half years, the band has been working like this, as an actual band.

Now I have a lot more opportunities outside of the band, like commissions, chamber music and orchestra things, that allow me to be a megalomaniacal composer. There are certain things that can only be achieved if one person does them, and then others only if you come together with your friends. What I wrote on Dream Seeds was a lot simpler, and then they'd gather intricacy and complexity from everyone else's ideas. There would be room for Caley and Nick to do their own thing, and add their own ideas.  

And the human, earthly theme continues with Dream Seeds but you shifted into the more vague domain of dreams and memories, it seems The memories aren't my memories. Some of the songs are about dreams I was having at the time. And most of the songs are about children, in general, or childhood, or experiences I had with teaching children. That's been my day job for a while--I was an elementary school teacher at a Catholic school while I was writing this album. I'm not religious at all, but this album also dives into issues of redemption, morality, innocence, purity, righteousness. So it's either about dreams or children or dreams about children. It's like a twin concept thing. The lyrics were very deliberate, conceptual, and planned, but musically the album is open-ended and collaborative. Lyrically, even though there's a lot of darkness, I'm coming from a moral point of view of transcendence and hope. At least compared to albums like Made Flesh, which is a really corrupted, vile perspective.

How do you feel about Dream Seeds being the final statement Extra Life will make? I think it's great. We're all really proud of it. It's a high note to leave on, for sure. In a way, I suppose it's extra sad in a sense to end after we made our first record that's really a band record. But, in a way, that's why the band's ending. I want to do stuff that's different enough so that the other members don't want to do what I want to do. If it was five years ago, I could keep the name and do something different. But now Caley and Nick are Extra Life. Once something stops being a solo project and becomes a band, it means it has the possibility of breaking up. Solo projects don't break up, and bands do.

What sort of developments do you think you have made as a composer and musician, or even as a human, during the Extra Life years? Oh, man. I don't really know. I wish I could give a deep answer. The reality is that, as I get older, I don't even know if I'm learning more, or even getting better at anything. This might sound negative, but in a certain way I'm starting to feel that life is just a concatenation of different things, and then you die. What have I learned from Extra Life? I had great experiences. I got really close to Caley and Nick. I'm very pleased that we got to make these records, and that they're out there in the world. But I wrestled with everything we've talked about, like collaborating versus working alone. I struggled with that the whole time, with the different results from various working processes.

One thing I learned--and this is gonna sound shallow, and I wish I didn't learn it--but I learned quite a bit about how the world of indie music, and indie-rock, works. I learned about the music business. It isn't deep at all, and it's a total distraction from musical depth, in fact. I got a sense of the way people react to different things, and what's out there. When I was in Zs, the whole thing was just so cult. I didn't know the names of the hip websites it was important to be written about by. I was totally underground, and I had no clue. As underground as Extra Life was, we did flirt with getting press, and playing certain European festivals, and things like this. I guess I just learned about the landscape of indie music, and what it's like to have hype come and go.

It doesn't sound like you liked what you saw. Well, I know I don't like any of the bands that people think are cool. But I got to meet a lot of awesome people on tour, which was socially deep. The people who like Extra Life are awesome and weird. It's the kinda band where the people who are into it are really into it, and I really feel like I'm connecting with people. That's been very meaningful. So there's a deep side to getting out there, too, and being perceived as a rock band, even if a really weird one.

But musically, I don't know if my music has gotten better. I don't think it has gotten worse. But I guess it's changed. I've definitely become more open to different forms of collaboration. There are a million different ways to work with people. It doesn't have to be all from your own head, or just completely improvised anarchy. There are many ways to combine ideas.

The past aside, what happens next? We all have different groups we're gonna be going full-on with. Caley has a band called We Can't Enjoy Ourselves that's a great rock band and is starting to get some attention. Nick has a group called Feast of the Epiphany, and he's putting out so many releases. He's on a prolific tear. He plays keyboard and sings and writes all the music. It's totally deep and strange and he's going full blast.

This band I'm in called Period, an improvised music trio with drummer Mike Pride and Chuck Bettis on electronics, has a record coming out this summer. It's heavy, noisy, doomy, psychedelic improve music. And my band Seven Tears has an album out in April on Northern Spy. It's very folk based and very simple--imagine the folky, quieter side of Extra Life with a totally different cast. It's a totally different proposition. I also have an unnamed band I'm rehearsing with now. It's just starting, so I don't want to talk too much about it. But it's very loud and aggressive. It's me and Andrew Hock, from the band Castevet. It's very much on the heavy end of things. You'll see.

Do you think you'll work again with Caley and Nick? I would be surprised if we didn't work together, but there are no plans at the moment. I couldn't imagine not playing music with them in the future. People always talk about life being short, but it's not. Life is actually really long. And all of us are really just getting started.

Extra Life, Tyondai Braxton, Ben Vida, Oneirogen and Sam Mickens play 285 Kent Saturday night (8 p.m./$12).

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