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Charlie Looker—schoolteacher, classical music composer, guitar improviser, ex-ZS member, Antony and Morrissey enthusiast and visionary behind Brooklyn’s niche-less trio Extra Life—is celebrating the release of Dream Seeds (Northern Spy) in his typical, adverse fashion: on a bill with black-metal terrorizers Liturgy. The just-released and revelatory conceptual sprawl opens creepily, with a child whispering “No dreams tonight,” and veers into meticulously crafted, sublime avant-folk and orchestral art-rock damage articulated by Looker’s singular voice and deliciously fucked wordplay.
Sound of the City caught up with Looker via email to talk Dream Seeds, his musical endeavors and his day job.
You seem to be the focus and face of Extra Life. Is Extra Life a musical vehicle for Charlie Looker or is it a collective “band” effort?
It has changed over the four or five years of its existence, especially on Dream Seeds. In the beginning it was really creatively micro-managed by me. As I became better friends with Nick [Podgurski] and Caley [Monahon-Ward] and got to understand them as creative musicians, the process opened up more. On the new record you’re hearing a real band thing. I write the “songs” and Caley and Nick arrange them and work out their parts, which are really integral to music’s identity. The songs I’m writing now are simpler and more open so there’s more room for their ideas.
Are you averse to working under own name as opposed to Extra Life, or does the band name have some sort of significance?
At the very beginning “Extra Life” just meant whatever my main band was, with whomever. Now, the name specifically means me and Caley and Nick. If this lineup changed or dissolved, I’d want to change the band name.
As for working under my own name, I only do that when I’m really in composer mode, working in the semi-Classical world, notating music on paper and having it played by people who I’m not in a band with. I just had a chamber piece premiered by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Players and I didn’t use a moniker for that.
You wrote this on your blog: “Dream Seeds is definitely a concept album, the themes of which I won’t elaborate on here, but it’s very much of a piece.” Can you talk about the conceptual angle of Dream Seeds and how you arrived at it?
The record is about children and dreams. It’s about kids, dreams, dreams about kids, and also about dreams as the children of the unconscious. Your psyche shows you these embryonic dream-children and you can either raise them [seek to understand them] or abort them [forget or ignore them] which is also a valid choice, though difficult. The first song on the record is about smoking weed before bed to deliberately block dreaming. The second song is about choosing abortion. I feel like they’re a linked pair.
When I was writing the lyrics for the album I was having this series of really intense dreams, many of which didn’t make it to the record. I wanted to write lyrics that were purer than the Made Flesh lyrics. Less humorous, less perverse, less multi-layered. More direct. Maybe actually purer in a moral sense? Some of the Dream Seeds songs are about real life and real kids, but I knew I wanted to have some songs just be straight-up transcriptions of the dreams, without even offering any interpretation or spin on them. And these dreams, as fucked up as they were, had a real sense of morality to them, issues of responsibility, honesty and innocence. Carl Jung says that dreams are always inherently moral, a statement which I’m not even sure I completely understand but it’s a deep idea which informed this record. Jung also says that the archetype of the Child in dreams is a special bearer of this morality.
I’ve read you are an elementary schoolteacher. How much of Dream Seeds and your songwriting is inspired by working with and teaching kids? How old are your students? Are they aware you are a musician? What do they think of it?
I teach general music at a K-8 Catholic school. Occasionally I’ll mention to the kids that I play in a band just to get them psyched about music in general and to show them that I’m really living it. But mostly I play it down. The last thing a nine-year-old needs is to check out Extra Life. You need to be as tall as this sign [inverted cross] to ride on this roller coaster.
Were Extra Life’s earlier LPs—Secular Works and Made Flesh—concept albums, as well?
Made Flesh wasn’t as tightly knit together as Dream Seeds but it wound up being pretty consistent. I wrote those lyrics when I was really into weightlifting and a lot of the lyrics were about that, and more generally about the body and masculinity. Looking back on it, it’s almost like Made Flesh was about men versus women and Dream Seeds is about adults versus children.
Secular Works wasn’t a concept album at all. The only concept was just that I was starting a new thing after leaving my old band ZS and that I was writing songs and singing. But I did write all those lyrics really quickly within a short time span. I guess they were all unified just by the momentum of my being psyched.
Your songs are expansive, orchestral and quite complex, especially the tunes on Dream Seeds. What is your songwriting process?
My process is a little different for every different band or project I do. And as I said before, the process for Extra Life itself has changed in recent years. But I always start with lyrics. Then I get some vague image in my mind of the general aesthetic of the song, just the tempo or texture or something. Then I carve the lyrics into melodies and write some bass parts. For Extra Life nowadays, I stop there and bring it to Caley and Nick and they start working on their parts. But yeah I always start with words because they’re a non-musical element and it gets me out of my nerdy musical head. Starting with poetry, feelings, Life etc. But then I check out the lyrics I wrote and I see how they suggest certain rhythmic things, certain melodic shapes, and then it becomes a purely musical crafty thing.
I would imagine recording your songs wouldn’t be a simple process.
Actually the simpler songs are often the most complex to record because there’s all this room in the songs to add things in the studio. Caley really gets all the credit for the Extra Life studio experience. He’s more than just a razor-sharp engineer, he’s a true producer/arranger.
Your singing voice is clearly unique. Which vocalists, if any, do you admire and/or inspire you?
My favorite contemporary singer at the moment is Antony. That guy is a fucking musical colossus. Morrissey is almost too obvious to mention. I’m really into Early Music singers like Andreas Scholl. He’s a countertenor which means his voice is basically alto range, all falsetto. On the more bellowing end, I worship the Rustavi Choir, who sing ancient men’s choral music of Georgia and the Caucasus. A bunch of people have said I sound like Maynard James Keenan from Tool. I haven’t listened to them much but I’m ok with the comparison if only because in Brooklyn right now that’s like the least hip band you could possibly sound like.
You’re playing with Liturgy at your record release show for Dream Seeds and Extra Life has played previously with diverse artists like experi-metal guitarist Mick Barr and sax player Travis Laplante of Little Women has also played with Extra Life and he’s a vital part of the avant-garde jazz scene here. Do you view Extra Life as somehow fitting and being accepted into disparate niches like both metal and jazz?
Extra Life definitely doesn’t fit into either the metal or the jazz scenes, but it seems like some people from both those scenes like Extra Life. I was really into jazz for a minute when I was a teenager but I don’t really know what’s going on in modern jazz at all. Metal has always really informed my music, even though it isn’t metal. The first concert I went to was Slayer. I just love intense, serious, heavy music, period. Liturgy and Castevet are both pretty left-field metal bands, and good buddies of ours, so I personally feel like it makes perfect sense for Extra Life to play with them. But the metal scene is weird. So many of the musicians are really musically open-minded, but then the actual scene with booking bills can be a different story because a lot of the fans get on this xenophobic hipster-burning witch hunt. Apparently Castevet [http://www.castevet.com/] are even getting some internet flak just for playing with Extra Life. I can actually respect the core anti-bullshit sentiment in that attitude, but it becomes stupid in its extremity.
Extra Life’s sound has been called religious. Are you a spiritual and/or religious person?
I’m not religious. Anyone who makes music seriously is dealing with crushing unseen forces, and that certainly can be called the realm of the spirit. But I don’t identify myself as “spiritual” because I’m not a college freshman. I’m very drawn to the specific imagery and aesthetics of Christianity. It clearly taps into elements of universal human imagination. It’s all over my lyrics. But I feel no need to believe in the literal truth of a bunch of insane ancient stories, no matter how deep they might be.
While Extra Life’s songs seem meticulously composed (to me, at least), you also do improvisational playing with drummer Mike Pride in Period, as well as with other musicians and you have the improv Stone gig coming up with Greg Fox and Jamie Saft. What was your trajectory with learning/playing guitar?
I got into guitar through playing metal, punk and this music called hardcore (does that still exist??) Then I got briefly but really seriously into jazz and then into free improv which led to experimental music in general. Improvisation is not a big part of what I do but if its with the right people I can bring something deep to it. Sometimes you want to play with people and an improv situation is the best way to do it.
Extra Life plays St. Vitus tonight; to celebrate the release of Dream Seeds; Charlie Looker, Jamie Saft and Greg Fox play The Stone on May 11.