Charlie Looker has spent 10 years in New York art-rock anomalies–Lavender, Zs, Period, Extra Life, Sculptress, even (briefly) Dirty Projectors. The common thread is always the place where the vulnerable sentiment of indie rock collides with the jagged rhythms of contemporary composition; Looker’s unique cluttercore works like Antony channeling Anthony Braxton. His latest EP with Extra Life maintains the disjunctive bluster of bands like Kayo Dot or Xiu Xiu. Looker is increasingly hunching towards a sexually charged, darkly hued and perpetually windswept new romantic woosh—think Morrissey or Ian McCulloch had they grokked on 12-tone composition. Extra Life’s recent Ripped Heart EP (out now) takes him down colder, synthier hallways; the six-minute title track is a heartbroken piece of progpunk that’s somehow equal parts 4AD and Louis Andriessen. Ripped Heart is being released on Looker’s new Last Things imprint, which is also releasing limited-edition, vinyl-only pressings of his recent side projects. The most exciting of these is a 12″ from Sculptress, a team-up with old friend Chuck Stern (of Time Of Orchids) where they combine Morricone moodiness with the “currently unfashionable alt-metal sounds of the 1990s.” You can download a dubby remix of “Cuckold” below.
What is “Ripped Heart” by Extra Life about?
The song “Ripped Heart” is about desire. It’s about feeling desire as a positive force in and of itself, separate from possessing the object of your desire. It’s about desire as a thing, a presence, not as a lack of a thing. It’s kind of philosophical I suppose, but it’s also very personal and has applied to so many real emotional situations… That song was inspired by the book Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Incredible book. Despite all the Marx in it, which I don’t have a complete grip on, it was speaking to me deeply at the time I wrote the song. With these lyrics I was also just trying to cheer myself up after a particularly stupid romantic failure.
You have a new emphasis on synth textures…
Synths are beautiful, what can I say? I’ve always loved both analog synth sounds and also straight-up fake instrument sounds. It makes everything more lush and sensual. And also, to my mind, it makes the music feel less specifically like “rock.” I’m not a deep analog synth guy or anything. I mostly use the Nord 3x which is digital but imitates the modeling of analog synth sounds.
You mention “impassioned detractors” in your press materials. What’s the wildest thing someone’s said about your music?
This girl came up to me after a gig in Norway and told me, “Get over yourself… Your band sounds like Korn.” That’s a rough one. Some blogger said he hated us because it reminded him of being in church as a kid, surrounded by lunatics and unable to escape. People have said my lyrics are abysmal, my vocal style is annoying, and I’ve been called a “faggot” over here and a “tosser” in the U.K. I don’t make music deliberately to bother people, but when people speak that way it makes me happy, after the fact, that I’ve given them displeasure. What’s worse is when people accuse Extra Life of “just trying to be weird for the sake of it.” It’s like, dude, you ever think that maybe we’re just keeping it real and it only sounds weird to you because you’re insipid?
What inspired the lyrics to Sculptress’s “Cuckold”?
Those lyrics were written collaboratively with Chuck, line by line. I don’t want to speak for exactly what he was thinking about, because we may have different angles on it. For me, the song is about white guys who hire black guys to fuck their wives. It’s about race and class as sexual fetishes. It’s also about having contempt for one’s own body, or of the body in general, and getting off on “outsourcing” the carnal act to a group of people you have contempt for. I was inspired by various things I’ve stumbled upon in porn, and also by the book Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, which analyzes the phenomenon thoroughly. It’s a gross and sad topic, but we didn’t make it up.
You two grew up on “unfashionable alt-metal”…
I guess the bands I’m mainly thinking of are Faith No More, Helmet and Alice in Chains. That’s what Chuck and I were all about in high school when everyone else was getting into Yo La Tengo or whatever. I mean, still being obsessed with Angel Dust in like ’98… does it get less “cool” than that? Even with the ’90s coming back in style, those bands are still tough for kids to swallow now because they lead directly to nu-metal. And that is admittedly a problem. Still, all three of those bands I mentioned sound just as good to me now as they did back in the day, especially Alice In Chains.
You and Chuck have a history that goes way back. What were your earliest days together like?
Chuck and I have been best friends since eighth grade. We grew up in Manhattan. We didn’t play in bands together in high school, but we would collaborate on these epic, hyper-involved four-track pieces, kind of like fake Ennio Morricone soundtracks, noise collages, Zorn imitations, Justin Broadrick worship. Every Friday when school would get out, I’d go to this youth jazz band rehearsal on the west side for a few hours while Chuck would go buy weed. Then we’d meet up later, order food, blaze, maybe leave some porn on mute in the background, and just record music all night. Chuck’s parents were very cool. Sculptress is kind of our way of revisiting that time, but with a totally adult artistic seriousness.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve played in New York?
I’ll always remember this Zs show back in the fall of 2002. This was maybe Zs’ fifth show. It was at the 502 Warren Street house in Gowanus. That place was really important to me and represents an earlier time in the Brooklyn scene. The Aa guys lived there and had a ton of awesome parties. This bill was with Lucky Dragons and Tyondai Braxton solo. Battles didn’t have a record or even a band name yet. Ty’s solo voice/guitar/loop sets were absolutely sick back then. I met this woman that night and fell deeply and insanely in love with her. I also remember Matt Hough, the other Zs guitarist then, had really bad pneumonia and could barely move but played the set anyway. I also remember Alex Mincek, former Zs saxophonist, viciously berating us for making mistakes in his piece. Can you imagine playing in a band where that’s the dynamic? It was actually awesome. Early Zs ruled.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Brooklyn?
There’s a place in Bed Stuy, on Fulton between Franklin and Classon, with a yellow awning that says “NO MORE JUNK EAT HEALTHY HALAL IS THE ANSWER.” It’s right near where I live and I eat there five to 10 times a week. I just ate there an hour ago. It’s that Black Muslim buffet vibe, kind of Middle Eastern meets African meets Caribbean meets soul food. Outrageously deep food, and cheap. The juice bar is incredible. There are a million similar spots in the area, and this one puts them all to shame.
Extra Life play the Silent Barn with Sam Mickens on July 30.