Go on, call me the one who’s gone insane/Oh, I will be the one who’s gone insane
Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe have just finished screaming into each other’s faces. It’s a rainy Tuesday night at the Gramercy Hotel’s Rose Bar, and the singers are catching their breath before a wide-eyed crowd that witnessed the pair howling over the din of the band behind them. Wolfe and Laessig — who together provide the singular voice of indie-pop quintet Lucius — are used to sharing a microphone. In the studio, they stand face to face while singing into the same one, eyebrows arching and lips curling in unison as they work their way through a verse. Onstage, that mirror image extends to include their respective stations — mics, keyboards, drums — situated a few feet apart. A single dynamic microphone serves as a magnet here, as it does in the studio, but it’s a boundary as well: If they leave their perches to convene during the set, it marks a line they approach but don’t cross.
With the carbon-copy swirls of blood orange updos, kohl-painted eyes, and resplendent gold capes flecked with metallic sequins and fringe, Wolfe and Laessig seem less like identical twins than a conjoined pair from another planet. And just like siblings, they have their…moments. The fury that unfurled at Rose Bar — a reenactment of a real fight between them in the studio, now immortalized in song — was the climax of “Gone Insane,” a track off their forthcoming record, Good Grief, out March 11; it’s one of five from the album that they’re performing for the first time before a live audience on this dreary January evening. “Gone Insane” is a runaway train of a skirmish, set to music: Laessig and Wolfe seethe at each other before their voices split off from the same melody and spiral up into two merciless, sparring tornadoes: You can’t call me the one who’s gone insane/’Cause we know you’re the one who’s gone insane. On their own, the lyrics of the chorus would be familiar to anyone who’s received a blow below the belt (or thrown one), but the sound of these two women whipping each other with their vocal cords feels especially ferocious. Lucius fans are used to seeing Laessig and Wolfe as two halves of the same whole, weathering the dips and swells of brutal ballads or buoyant pop. They are not accustomed to Laessig and Wolfe turning on each other, their words serving as ammo in a battle of volume and verses.
The recording of “Gone Insane” is even more frightening in its viciousness. Onstage, the song still roars, but it remains relatively contained. There’s an art to controlling the emotional chaos, and Lucius — which includes Peter Lalish, Andrew Burri, and Dan Molad (also Wolfe’s husband) in various arrangements of drums and guitar — have mastered it just in time for Good Grief‘s live debut. Of the two hundred people jammed into the confines of the Rose Bar, only a handful have heard it in its entirety. Some of them murmur their approval of the band’s choice to keep “Gone Insane” relatively civil in a live setting — while raising knowing eyebrows over how far the record’s most daring song really goes. “Well,” someone whispers to the person standing next to them, “they adapted that for the live show just perfectly.”
Lucius did, in fact, adapt “Gone Insane” perfectly. The furious color eventually retreated from Laessig’s and Wolfe’s cheeks; their eyeliner didn’t even run this time. But “Gone Insane” is merely a glimpse of the tempestuous power of Good Grief and the might of this new Lucius, who left New York to make it — and returned to the city a band transformed.
The time we shared is in the suffering/We’re all alone in this togetherness
Lucius haven’t seen a crowd as small as the Rose Bar’s since their earliest gigs in New York, back when Wolfe and Laessig moved to Brooklyn together in 2007. They’d started collaborating as students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music after moving there from the San Fernando Valley and Cleveland, respectively; their songwriting duo gradually expanded to the current quintet, with Burri’s addition in the spring of 2012 rounding out the lineup as we now know it. They hadn’t yet released a full-length album by the time, the following January, that they taped a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR showcasing five songs from their 2011 EP, Wildewoman, a study in catchy, complex pop. Later that month they sold out the Mercury Lounge, which can pack 250 people into its skinny bar and backroom, on the strength of those tracks and the endorsement of NPR’s Bob Boilen.
From there Lucius went on to finish up their first LP, also titled Wildewoman; they hit the festival circuit months before its October 2013 release, with stops at South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, and the Wilco-curated Solid Sound preceding a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom that December. Laessig and Wolfe cut their hair into bobs so closely matched that they were frequently complimented on their new “wigs.” (“I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to touch our heads to see if they’re fake,” Wolfe notes with a giggle.) The tours grew longer and reached farther the following year, as did the list of high-profile appearances: “Turn It Around” became the soundtrack for a Samsung commercial, and the band earned glowing reviews for performances at Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and Newport Folk. By the time they returned to New York in December 2014, they were headlining a sold-out night at the 3,000-capacity Terminal 5. It was a meteoric rise. But a flame needs air to burn, and in Brooklyn, Lucius found themselves running out of oxygen.
“Just coming back from tour and being away for literally two and a half years, it started to feel really heavy,” says Wolfe. Two days after the Rose Bar performance, she and Laessig are sitting at the Farm on Adderley, a favorite restaurant in Ditmas Park. “We wanted to feel like we could have a real respite, and [New York] stopped feeling like that. This was home for a long time. I still consider it our hometown in many ways. Our baby was sort of birthed here.”
They’re wearing their hair in matching jellyroll styles and sporting twin capes again, steely gray over cerulean dresses that offset the stark red of their locks. They had stayed at the Gramercy the night of the Good Grief preview performance, but now they’re stopping by their old haunts, pointing out the spot across the street where Laessig used to work and gushing over the Sycamore, the flower shop–bar hybrid owned by their friends next door.
“The last year and a half we toured, we were home a nonconsecutive thirteen days,” says Laessig. “Ditmas Park is special, because it does feel more restful than other places in New York, but New York in general is sensory overload. We were just like, ‘Give me space!’ and that’s what Los Angeles did.”
Los Angeles is home now, or at least it is for Laessig, Wolfe, and Molad (Burri and Lalish still live in New York when they aren’t on the road). For Wolfe, who grew up in an L.A. suburb, this is a return, though that doesn’t diminish the significance of ditching New York. “It was really difficult to make that decision to leave, but I think it was time for some change,” she says. “So we thought, ‘Let’s just pick up, move across the country, and see how it goes.’ ”
“We drove from New York to California in the van,” Laessig adds. “It was like, ‘The last thing I want to do is tour anymore! I’m at the end of the rope!’ We were like, ‘Well, let’s just drive across the country. That’ll be relaxing.’ It actually was.”
My heart’s so heavy, I’m gonna need your help/Losing my grip while holding everything else
The route Lucius traveled from Brooklyn to Los Angeles resounds throughout Good Grief, which they started writing here and finished out west. “Madness,” Good Grief‘s opener, was written in Ditmas; urban intensity echoes in its extravagant orchestrations and blunt-force severity (“I had a dream where you were standing there with a gun up to my head” are the first words we hear on the album). The verses of the closing track, “Dusty Trails,” took shape in the Joshua Tree before the band drove north to L.A., and that stretch of desert is present in its ambling acoustic guitar and Laessig and Wolfe’s cloud-climbing vocals. You hear concrete, chain link, and laughter in crowded bars on the tracks that were written in New York; you hear lonely dawn drives, swaying palms, and wide-open spaces on those penned in California. This is what makes Good Grief a true (and rare) bicoastal record.
Laessig and Wolfe love to locate Good Grief‘s songs geographically: where they were written, the structural details of homes where the group stayed (the New Haven brownstone, the Long Island beach cottage, the Echo Park bungalow). A hilltop house made of reclaimed materials in L.A.’s Montecito Heights stands out as a favorite landmark, the place that provided the respite they’d left New York to find. The property, which Wolfe refers to as “the Mountain,” is a popular retreat for musicians: The Head and the Heart worked on their forthcoming record there before Lucius moved in, and Jim James, My Morning Jacket’s frontman and the house’s current tenant, followed them after they moved out. (Meat Yard and Psycho Pomp, the two prehistoric-looking, kale-munching turtles that also reside on the Mountain, would have some pretty good stories if they could talk.) With views that sweep from the Pacific to downtown’s neon bustle and up over Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood sign, the Mountain was the perfect location for Lucius to feel removed from the sprawl of their new city as they finished up writing Good Grief and began arranging and recording it.
A week after the Rose Bar, Lucius are back in L.A., preparing for their upcoming tour and filming the video for “Gone Insane.” Laessig and her husband are living in downtown’s arts district, while Wolfe and Molad have settled in a house on a hill in Silver Lake with a koi pond in the front yard. They’ve walked out to the edge of the perch the Mountain sits on; James is hanging out a few yards away in the kitchen. “I don’t know if it consciously sounds like L.A., but it would’ve been totally different had we written it in New York. To be able to discover a new place while you’re writing, that can be really inspiring.”
Laessig squints in the direction of Griffith Park; Wolfe does the same from behind huge mod sunglasses. A rooster is losing its mind somewhere below, and Laessig keeps laughing at it. The shades hide the burns on Wolfe’s face from the day before, inflicted by a series of prosthetics she’d worn on the “Gone Insane” shoot. The concept for the video came to her in a dream, though she laughs that it was likely informed by the scene from Mrs. Doubtfire in which a rubbery mold is made of Robin Williams’s face. On the drive up to the Mountain, Wolfe shares clips on her phone of the previous day of shooting: To create the effect of Laessig’s fingers working Wolfe’s features like Silly Putty, the video had to be shot in stop- motion, with Wolfe spending hours in the makeup chair before slowly mouthing the words to the song while the camera rolled. In one shot, Laessig uses her thumb to smush Wolfe’s eyebrow and nose into a ghoulish aspect; in another, her hand passes over Wolfe’s mouth, stretching her nose down over her chin and erasing her lips entirely. The effects are exceptional, but for each angle and Dalí-esque expression, Wolfe had distorted eyebrows and adhesive skin applied and removed, and the process took its toll.
Today, Laessig and Wolfe haven’t coordinated outfits; they’re in layers of black cotton and jeans, with Laessig’s hair tucked beneath a beanie and Wolfe’s falling in a symmetrical bob. Back when Wildewoman was still an EP, their hair hung at different lengths and in respective shades of dirty and dirtier blond, and they’d simply tie their tresses up into matching sock-buns affixed with giant bows. Then came the bobs. Then came the dyed bobs, in varying shades of blond and slate-gray and shock-white. Then came the jellyroll twists, with the bottom half of their heads shaved; then came the red.
James saunters out to say hello; he hands a stalk of kale to Wolfe, who offers it to a stony Meat Yard baking in the sun. “I think we do better when we can separate from the chaos,” answers Wolfe when asked if Lucius thrive in the city or a remote locale like Montecito Heights. “But we can do both.”
I’m not the only one to bite, no/I’m not the only one to blame, no/(I’m not the only one, just keep on calling me insane)
“There were really divergent opinions about what the record should sound like, from complete polar opposite ends of the spectrum,” recalls producer Shawn Everett of Good Grief. “I think some of the band wanted it to sound like an avant-garde, German experimental record, and some of them wanted a straight pop record, as far as referencing Taylor Swift.”
Everett, who won a Grammy this year for engineering Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, was a friend of Lucius’s first and a collaborator later; his studio is around the corner from Laessig’s apartment and about fifteen minutes from the Mountain. It was Lucius’s first time working with him as a producer (he mixed Wildewoman), so before their first day of recording, Laessig and Wolfe set out to find him a studio-warming present. In a Highland Park antiques store, they encountered a cartoonish shoebox — a cardboard character with a John Waters mustache — passing for an objet d’art. When Laessig and Wolfe presented Everett with this batshit token, he named it Marnie, and what began as a joke gift turned out to be a tool for keeping Good Grief on course, the solution to those “divergent opinions.”
“Shawn had this great idea: Since Marnie was a shoebox, turn it into this sort of magician’s hat that you’d pull a rabbit out of,” Wolfe says. “For every song, we were to pick another song that we thought would inspire the recording we were about to work on. It could be this drumbeat on this Beyoncé track, or the way the vocals were recorded on Judee Sill’s ‘The Kiss.’ ”
For Everett, this was a totally new approach to recording. The members of Lucius would write their inspiration songs down on pieces of paper, fold them up, and deposit them in Marnie; Everett would then pull out the picks one by one, play them over the studio’s speakers for the room, and jot down the band’s resulting ideas on a whiteboard. “The whiteboards said things like ‘Dolphins flying through the universe.’ It was like a poetic scramble,” Wolfe recalls.
“I’ve never done anything like that before,” says Everett. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had recording records. You hear about that in the Seventies or something, when your parents and their friends would gather around and listen to a record and talk about it, but no one in my generation does that.”
Still, even Marnie couldn’t prevent the chaos that came to a head at Everett’s studio one day in the midst of recording Good Grief. The session was rocky from the start, first because the band couldn’t settle on a drum pattern that made them happy. Laessig and Wolfe then felt off when it came time to record, and frustrations mounted in the way that can happen when two people used to finishing each other’s sentences aren’t in sync.
“It was a lot: We had just moved to L.A., we were dealing with personal things, and we felt like there was a lot riding on this record,” Laessig recalls. “When I got there that day, it was the two of us, and Shawn was preparing all the gear, getting the mics ready. I was just talking out loud, thinking out loud, just talking, talking, talking, which just isn’t necessarily in my nature. She was very quiet and internal, which isn’t in her nature, so that was already scary. And because of that air, there was this storm, and we just blew up at each other.”
“I think we’ve fought maybe five times in the twelve years we’ve worked together, and never like this,” Wolfe adds. “Never yelling at each other, cursing at each other.”
Today, everyone — the girls, the guys, Everett — can laugh off the tense session that produced “Gone Insane,” when Laessig stormed out of the studio before returning to square off with Wolfe at their shared mic, the two spitting and sobbing as their exasperation reached a crescendo. Ultimately, the skirmish forged Good Grief‘s most brilliant moment.
As a pop song, “Gone Insane” hits the ear in a deliciously dissonant way: Its chord progression isn’t revolutionary, and the structure is straightforward, but the bridge builds relentlessly — a series of repeated accusations and battered feelings — before dissolving into two minutes of delirium. “Screaming at the top of our lungs, tears coming down our faces, eyes closed — at the end, only then did I realize we were both crying, because I looked up and her face was all red,” Wolfe says. “We just totally lost time and came back to it just before the bass drum hit.”
The unhinged, caterwauling result is intensely uncomfortable to listen to, particularly coming from two musicians known for their precise control and exemplary technique. Molad cried when the track was played back. Lalish felt like he was having a panic attack. Everett, meanwhile, knew he had captured a lightning-in-a-bottle moment; the band would record a few more takes, but the first is what made it onto the record.
“If we hadn’t had these experiences and felt these intense feelings, there would be no Good Grief — and no good grief,” Wolfe says, rolling her eyes at her own pun.
Go on, call me the one who’s gone insane/Oh, I can be the one who’s gone insane
It’s the final day of the “Insane” video shoot in a warehouse at the end of a quiet block in Frogtown, and Wolfe is done with the prosthetics. Now that her rubbery deformities are gone, she and Laessig match once more as they hit hour fifty on the clock: They wear the same head-to-toe gold metallic ensembles, save for the glasses Laessig dons in between takes. Their hair is identically styled.
Outfits aside, the two don’t look or sound especially alike. Laessig stands taller, their eyes are different colors, and Wolfe’s voice has a bit more rasp to it. But this extra effort to twin themselves from head to toe is just as effective as their propensity to trade off singing the higher or lower line in the harmonies they combine for, and it further marries their music and aesthetic.
“One is definitely an extension of the other,” Wolfe says of Lucius’s emphasis on appearance. “The visual is always an extension of the music. It’s always been that way. Now, it’s another thing in itself, too: It’s fun, it’s playful, it gives us a sort of landscape onstage.”
Lucius opted out of touring for the majority of 2015 in order to focus on Good Grief. They dropped off the festival circuit for the same reason. Then their pal Jim James — and Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd renown — came calling. When the man who wrote The Wall asks you to fly back east to sing backup on two songs at the Newport Folk Festival, you hang up the phone and get your ass to the airport.
My Morning Jacket served as Waters’s backing band for his headlining set last July, but Waters had been minimal with his directions for both James and Lucius in the days leading up to the show. Laessig and Wolfe had been told that they needed to sing backup on two songs, not the whole program. “We had exchanged a couple of emails with Jim and Roger, and Roger was very short,” says Wolfe. “I mean, we had written him saying, ‘Are you sure you just want these [songs]? Do you want us to be prepared with anything else? Let us know what you need, we got your back, we’re so excited!’ The response: ‘Cool — R.’ So we were like, ‘Let’s listen to his setlist and be familiar with all the songs — who the fuck knows?’ Jim was like, ‘I would listen to them all if I were you, just in case.’ ”
When rehearsals began, it was clear they’d been right to overprepare. “We sat down for the next song, because that was a song we were not doing, and he starts playing his acoustic guitar, singing, and halfway through the first verse, he stops, and everyone follows suit. He turns to Holly and me, and he looks at us, sitting on the floor, listening, and he goes, ‘Man up!’ And I’m like, ‘But we were only supposed to learn these two songs!’ He goes, ‘You’re singing every song.’ ”
The Newport Folk performance was sensational, a worthy addition to the festival’s history, which includes Bob Dylan going electric for the first time and Johnny Cash’s bird-flipping performance. For Newport Folk’s producer, Jay Sweet, Lucius have earned their spot in that illustrious company. “Their professionalism is so far beyond most singers,” he says. “The last two times they’ve been at Newport, they sat in five or six different times.” (Lucius sang with Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples, Shakey Graves, and Deer Tick in 2014 and 2015.) “They can do that. Their versatility, it’s incomparable.”
James says their work with Waters only raised his opinion of Laessig and Wolfe. “The girls are just always so Zen and ready to help everyone understand what is going on. They are great teachers and learners and can just jump right in,” he says. “They never pull any diva drama bullshit. They are completely hardworking and respectful. They can disappear into the background and support the show or explode to life and shine front and center of the stage.”
Wolfe, for her part, is still stunned by the Newport experience. “At one point, I remember watching people just sobbing out there [in the audience], and Jim turns around like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ and Roger turns and blows us a kiss in the middle of the set,” she says. “Holly and I were just like, ‘This couldn’t get better!’ It was amazing. So that was one epic moment in the past year.”
And the epic moments are, for Lucius, set to multiply exponentially in 2016. Beyond the murmurs at the Rose Bar, James is just one of the fans and friends of the band swooning over Good Grief, calling it a “vision of the future”: “I have heard a few songs and I am very impressed by how fucked up they are. It feels like…music for virtual reality. There are new structures and sounds coming out we haven’t heard yet.”
The album is both the souvenir of this magical-realist journey — one populated by giant turtles, Marnie boxes, and kiss-blowing legends — and proof that the risk paid off. That they chose to come home before giving Good Grief to the world at large shows that they’re heading into the next chapter of their career with one foot still planted in Los Angeles, but the other right here.
“It made total sense to come here and play the songs for the first time,” says Wolfe. “I think I’ll feel a closeness with this place, a real homecoming with Ditmas, and Brooklyn, forever. I don’t imagine that changing. There’s no place like New York City. It’s definitely where we first found our voice.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 8, 2016