The Studio is the Instrument

K. Leimer

“I’m overwhelmed by recalling just how much work it was to do these things. Not to say it’s automatically easier today, but with tape and mics and all the rest, the effort in accomplishing the simplest things was much more complex.”

Back in his teenage years, the electronic musician Kerry Leimer recalls he heard an intriguing song by The Beatles—or perhaps another band. Actually, it wasn’t quite the song that intrigued him. It was the sound that opened the song: a brief and unusual drone produced from guitar feedback. Everything that came after that was, frankly, dull. “I immediately found the feedback interesting, but the song that followed struck me as just another song,” he said.

“That’s the split for me: a preoccupation with sound and timbral quality versus the controlled compositional approach to songs and song structures,” Leimer observed. Though mostly isolated in his pursuits in northwest Washington in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leimer belonged to an international cadre of tinkering experimentalists, ones who took after John Cage and focused on the pursuit of sound for sound’s sake. Accident, contingency, and self-determining systems produced musical results. In San Francisco, Terry Riley and Steve Reich looped pieces of tape into elaborate compositions; in London, Gavin Bryans and Brian Eno crafted indeterminate works and ambient music. “While performing and listening to gradual musical processes, one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual,” Reich wrote in a famous essay. Today, we hear Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, Eno’s Music for Airports, or Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic as beautiful, even sentimental aesthetic journeys; but back then, a quest for pure sound superseded any quest for beauty.

K. Leimer, Savant

Two archival releases on RVNG Intl reveal Leimer’s own unsentimental approach to sound: 2014’s A Period of Review as K. Leimer, and this week’s Artificial Dance as Savant. Where K. Leimer reveals the musician as an inventive electronic composer, Savant represents an equally intriguing project. Leimer rounded up various musicians in the Seattle area in the early 1980s and recorded them playing in the studio, crafting snippets of their live performances into teeming soundscapes. Take “Shadow in Deceit,” which layers percussive loops that recall Reich’s seminal Drumming atop shimmering guitar strums:

“The music I’m principally interested in creating is pretty much the antithesis of anything with beats, of anything to do with bands,” Leimer told me. Savant had no fixed membership, and only performed live once. Musicians were mostly acting as raw material for Leimer’s transformations—he gave general instructions for improvisation, captured the resulting sessions, and reconfigured them in his Seattle studio. “Using chance, isolating the musicians one from another, randomizing the elements, using found materials, self-deterministic structures and all the other fairly usual destabilizing techniques were applied,” he said. In “Falling at Two Speeds,” murky textures are punctured with drum fills. The music feels eminently oriented toward the timbral; beats serve only to punctuate the washes of color.

“On the surface, the Savant work exhibits a degree of familiarity that makes it more approachable, easier to niche into a well­-defined and well­-worn genre, especially for those who simply hear music and don’t actually listen,” Leimer said. “The Neo-Realist”—the title track of Savant’s 1983 LP—begins a little bit like an out-there rock song, with spoken-word vocals, a funky bassline, and gunshot percussion. But the vocals intermittently disassemble into twitchy loops, and the jarring, composite timbre displaces any sense of a band at work.

That experimental edge is equally palpable in A Period of Review, which collects archival K. Leimer recordings from between 1975 and 1983. Like many of his contemporaries, Leimer was first drawn to experimentation via the art world, fascinated by Dada, Surrealism, Duchamp, and practices like automatic writing. “In theory, this process is largely interested in getting the music to participate in its own emergence,” he said. “When this does come about, for me at least, there’s an unforced sense to the result. In practice, it’s blind in many ways. Relinquishing the notion of control. Working at some remove. Reacting to the sounds, fitting different sources together, taking them apart, additive, subtractive, starting over. It often becomes quite dispassionate, emotionally neutral.” K. Leimer tracks often take the form of etudes in sound that fade away, unassuming, not long after they begin. In “Eno’s Aviary,” supersonic, birdsong-like synthetic sounds batter against a melody that’s Brian Eno-esque in its deliberately inane repetition.

K. Leimer

But there are also more developed compositions, which produce such a powerful emotional affect that it becomes difficult to take Leimer’s unsentimental philosophy entirely at face value. “Acquiescence” resembles a kind of church organ prelude, with heart-rending, repeated melodies. Gorgeous ripples of piano notes—not unlike the collaborations of Eno and Harold Budd—coalesce into rich overtones in “Facing East.”

And then there are unusual miniatures: “Commercial,” an eight-second jingle ditty, or “Afga Lupa,” consisting of 52 seconds of murky vocal oddities. One can imagine how technology in that period made even the tiniest of these tracks exhausting to create. “I’m overwhelmed by recalling just how much work it was to do these things,” Leimer said. “Not to say it’s automatically easier today, but with tape and mics and all the rest, the effort in accomplishing the simplest things was much more complex.” Leimer’s projects involved tape loops that spanned dozens of feet. For the Savant song “Heart of Stillness,” Leimer remembered, “It took three of us acting as human capstans to keep the tension reasonably stable for any duration while simultaneously trying to mix the thing.”

K. Leimer

But as a musician who has continued to exploit new technology in his work—his next project is a collaboration with the media artist Bill Seaman—Leimer isn’t particularly interested in romanticizing that era. “It’s easy to think that not long ago ideas routinely outstripped capability and that today capability can easily and vastly outstrip ideas,” he noted. “But on balance it’s a false notion. As always, a lot of capability is applied to some very uninteresting music. But what many insisted on since the advent of tape recording is now an absolute. And that is that the studio is, in fact, the instrument. Savant is a tiny example of that orientation. With applications like Ableton Live or iZotope IRIS, any demarcation between ‘instrument’ and ‘studio’ is finally and completely gone.”

In the Candy Store

Tamaryn by Alexandra Gavillet and Shaun Durkanphoto by Alexandra Gavillet and Shaun Durkan

“The ideas of my former records… were about pushing ourselves as songwriters within [specific] parameters. And this album is the exact opposite of that. It’s exploring everything I’ve ever liked, basically.”

Watching Tamaryn perform in support of her last record, 2012’s Tender New Signs, two things become immediately apparent: first is that the guitar steals your attention with the vigor of a certain real estate mogul turned politician, and the other is how low Tamaryn’s voice often lays in the mix. Rex Shelverton’s pearly-white Gibson generates a surging mountain of sound that lurches and leaps while Tamaryn herself, standing in black heels on a stage lit in shades of blue, sings elegantly, subtly, but almost hidden at times, commanding you to strain to hear her words. Her melodies, alive and alert, flirt about under the surface like darting fish.

The performance – torrential, riveting and powerful – perfectly captured the fervent shoegaze aesthetic of Tamaryn’s first two records. But while those albums were focused on perfecting that distinct sound, Cranekiss is a dizzying and delightful kaleidoscope of ideas, celebrating countless shades of pop. “The ideas of my former records…were about pushing ourselves as songwriters within those parameters,” Tamaryn explains. “And this album is the exact opposite of that. It’s exploring everything I’ve ever liked, basically,” she adds with a laugh. Along with producer Jorge Elbrecht and Shaun Durkan, of fuzz-rock outfit Weekend, Tamaryn has crafted a record that sounds both immaculate and effortless. It avoids feeling fussed over even as layers and layers of sound erupt and shimmer. On Cranekiss, Tamaryn has emerged from the shadows, transformed into a giddy kid let loose in the Wonka factory, where everything imaginable is within reach.

Yet while that eagerness is evident throughout Cranekiss, from the layered chorus of sampled female orgasms in “Softcore” to the dazzling torrent of manipulated percussion on “Collection” and the blurred cyclone of noise on closing track “Intruder (Waking You Up),” Tamaryn succeeds because of how well she and her collaborators demonstrate both restraint and a willingness to pare these tracks down. “I trusted [Elbrecht and Durkan] implicitly,” she says. “They’re very picky people with very strong identities.” Yet hearing the vast soundscapes of Cranekiss, it’s hard to imagine that there was anything left to take out.

Although the sumptuous gloss and shine of tracks like “Last” and “Collection” pull heavily from the plastic sheen of ’80s pop, repeat listens reveal a far more complex palette. Slamming drums and a topsy-turvy synthesizer herald the opening title track without a moment’s hesitation, pummeling you like a gust of wind, only to be pulled back and replaced seconds later by a punchy bass line and a winding guitar line that wanders in and out of a shimmering dream state. “Hands All Over Me” features elastic synthesizers that gallop along with the lurching drums like gum snapping and stretching between your jaws. Later, the sharp buzz of an acoustic guitar on the aptly-titled “Sugar Fix” provides an alternative to Cranekiss’ dense arrangements, crackling with light and playful energy.

It’s Tamaryn’s voice, however, that steals the show, cutting a laser beam straight through Cranekiss’ dazzling worlds of sound. She isn’t merely higher in the mix; her voice has become stronger and more versatile. The verses on “Last” find her channeling the syrupy luster of both Beach House’s Victoria Legrande and their shared predecessor, the Velvet Underground’s Nico; then she switches gears on a dime for the epic hook in the chorus, reaching for the dizzying heights of divas like Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson. Later, her ethereal, wordless coos in the breakdown of “Keep Calling” emit flat planes of icy sound that draw us closer even as they elude our grasp.

By the album’s end, we are no closer to understanding what exactly Tamaryn means by a “cranekiss” – giving a smooch to a piece of construction equipment? a long-beaked bird attempting to kiss its compatriot? – and that mystery is central to the album’s strength. Tamaryn and her team don’t make it easy to pin down the vast array of sounds that swirl throughout these ten songs; she leaves it to us to identify them and decide what they mean. On Cranekiss, Tamaryn combines the potency of grand hooks and melodies with a brilliant attention to detail, delivering a record that doesn’t simply get stuck in our heads, but reminds us that pop music is a chameleon. Whatever we think it means, it always means something more.

Tamaryn by Alexandra Gavilletphoto by Alexandra Gavillet

Inner Perspectives

Briana Marela by Lucinda Roanokephoto by Lucinda Roanoke

“I view my songs as conversations with people who I am too shy to speak with directly and openly. When singing the words, I have no fear of being vulnerable.” — Briana Marela

Singer-composer-soundscaper Briana Marela was barely out of college when she entranced critics and indie pop fans with her uniquely well-honed aesthetic. Her work—a fascinating study in contrasts—pairs emotionally direct lyrics with absorbing ambience constructed from synthetic and organic instrumental sources.

When she set out to create her sophomore album, All Around Us (Jagjaguwar), the Seattle-based artist was searching for her inner compass to navigate the post-college landscape. As a result, Briana conceptualized a sonically ambitious album that, with invigorating candor, revealed herself questioning her hopes and her fears. The imaginative, lush, and boldly expressive album was produced by Sigur Rós’ producer, Alex Somers, in Reykjavik, Iceland, and features strings by Amiina and percussive touches by Samuli Kosminen of múm.

“I had a vision for what I wanted to create. I had begun to write these songs in a transitory, post-college time. The general feeling of the album is facing the unknown in the best way possible,” Briana reveals. “It took about a year to figure out the logistics [to record the album with Alex in Iceland], but I was glad it did because that time period really allowed for introspective vulnerability to take place.”

Interestingly, Briana began as something of a confessional singer-songwriter, playing her songs on an acoustic guitar during high school. However, during her sophomore year in college, while exploring music technology, audio production and composition, she had an epiphanic moment. She realized the poignancy of lush, electronic compositions, and how that method of expression was essential to putting forth the immersive emotionality she was seeking to convey with her songs. “At that time, I realized I could create a whole new world of sound,” she explains.

Working with music programming software Max, Briana’s been able to develop an otherworldly creative fingerprint crafted from breathtaking, stacked vocal loops, bold overdubs, intrepid signal processing, and imaginative arrangements.

Briana Marela by Juliet Orbachphoto by Juliet Orbach “An ex-boyfriend of mine would joke that I was more of a recording artist than performing artist because I do, first and foremost, love recording,” she confides. “Technology and recording help me fully realize my music; I often think about compositions while I am writing them. I think about how I want to arrange and record certain parts, layer vocals, and fill out the song with overdubs.”

Another key influence on her artistry is her preoccupation with the expressive qualities of Polaroid images. “I love the unpredictable way that the photo will turn out. You know it will turn out dreamy—but how dreamy?” she says. “The vibe is mirrored in the way that my songs are very much composed and structured ahead of time. But no matter how structured and thought-out they are, it doesn’t take away the music’s fluidity and emotional content.”

There is a mystical aura surrounding the origins of All Around Us. In 2012, while on her first tour, Briana performed at an art gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. In the audience was artist and photographer Scott Alario, who passed along Briana’s music to his close friend, producer Alex Somers (Sigur Rós and Jóns). On one fateful day later that year, Briana received a message from Alex.

“I remember the day he emailed me because it was the last day of the Mayan calendar—a day that people were claiming would be the end of the world. I got the email when I was working on a drone piece with a friend for an ‘end of the world’ drone compilation. I read the email quickly at first and didn’t think fully enough about it being real,” Briana says.

Soon, the two began an in-depth dialogue that revealed the two musicians were not only kindred spirits as people, they were sympathetic artistic allies. At the time of their initial exchanges, Briana wasn’t very familiar with Alex’s work, but through studying his back catalog, she was able to surmise that his artistic perspective was compatible with hers.

Briana and Alex recorded and produced the album in Iceland, and though the country’s breathtaking environs would seem like creative fodder for the impressionistic tracks on All Around Us, it truly was Briana and Alex’s intuitive artistic connection that inspired such ambitious sonic constructs. “My friendship with Alex influenced the album,” she says. “We were just two Americans alone in a room in Iceland with a musical kinship. We could have been in a room anywhere else in the world and still have made the same record.”

The album’s title was directly taken from a 1940s children’s book Briana encountered in an Olympia, Washington bric-a-brac shop. Its green cover features a young girl and her little dog. The freedom afforded by picture books—an unscripted, youthful exploration of life—appealed to Briana while she processed her own surroundings post-graduation.

“I think what resonated most with me is that, although I am technically an adult now, I still feel overwhelmed in the same way I did as a child,” she says. “I also just think it is so important to retain the part of yourself that is curious and interested in people and the world around you, and remain innocent in that way.”

Though there is a spirit of naiveté running through the tracks on All Around Us, there is also a sage, knowing wisdom within Briana’s no-frills approach to songwriting. “I view my songs as conversations with people that I am too shy to speak with directly and openly. When singing the words, I have no fear of being vulnerable,” Briana confides. “I value clear communication with my friends and relationships, so I think that is why I am so direct in my lyrical choices. I see no point in being overly vague and poetic with words. I let the music that surrounds the lyrics give the full meaning.”

Briana Marela by Lucinda Roanokephoto by Lucinda Roanoke

All Around Us opens with a lone, angelic vocal that eases into a mosaic of looped harmonies, sweeping the listener away and whisking us to a netherworld of electro-pop that evokes the intimacy of the singer-songwriter genre and the striking aural dimensionality of the post-rock movement. The track “Follow It” has an inviting quality—an intentional artistic gesture. Briana explains, “I am very into the sequencing of my albums. Sequences are all about leading the listener through different emotions and being a sound guide, and I always try and keep that in mind, like in the choice of beginning with a more poppy, energetic intro and ending with a long, ambient song.”

Album highlights include the declaratory “Everything Is New,” the dizzying pop bliss of the album’s first single, “Surrender,” and the title track, which offers powerful life lessons from vocals that feel like they’re beamed in from a spiritual guide from the afterlife. “Everything Is New” is a revisited track from her back catalog. It represents a turning point in Briana’s artistic continuum, as it was the first track she wrote upon leaving behind her acoustic guitar origins for the fresh frontier of technological-based creativity. “It was really important to me to include it on this album, because I never had a good studio recording of it, and because I felt like it marked this important transition in my musical style and needed to be heard,” she confirms. “Surrender” offers a respite from weighty matters. “There isn’t really a direct message to ‘Surrender,’” Briana says. “It is just meant to be a pop song about being confused in love.”

The album’s centerpiece is “All Around Us,” which overflows with the kind of aphorisms you want to jot down and keep close in daily life. The song opens with the lyrical couplet “If you run from fear take caution/There is nowhere to hide/There is meaning in our every movement that keeps us alive.” Briana expands on these words saying: “This song is very important to me. Those lines are based on a conversation with an ex-partner. He is afraid of death and thinks that maybe, since we are all going to die, that life has no real meaning. I think, on the contrary, that the meaning of life is to love each other and show it.” From there, the song unfolds with glacial elegance, ponders the existence of heaven, and reminds us to hold close those we love.

“It feels good to reflect on this album,” Briana admits. “It was such a hard and beautiful time, lots has changed since then, and I think I have grown as a musician and as a person and am better for it. It taught me to view the world in a bigger way—which makes me think bigger and makes me want to live up to my full potential as a creator.”

Mac is Back

Mac DeMarco by Maria Louceirophoto by Maria Louceiro

On the heels of his latest release, a sentimental mini-LP via Captured Tracks, the laid-back-yet-prolific indie rocker Mac DeMarco dishes on his recording process, instruments he doesn’t know how to play, and butts.

Bandcamp: Has your writing and recording process changed much since the Makeout Videotape days?

Mac DeMarco: It’s essentially the same. I still do everything by myself in my bedroom or space or whatever I have to work in. I have a lot more fancy recording toys now, and I’ve gotten a bit better at it than I was back then, but it’s all still just ye boi.

BC: Do you follow Alex Calder’s and Peter Sagar’s (Homeshake) respective projects? Any chance you guys would hit the road together?

MD: Yeah definitely, these guys are some of my oldest friends. I was molesting Alex in a karaoke bar in Montreal last night, actually. Both AC and Homeshake whip ass. I still play with these guys whenever I can. We’re actually taking Alex for a string of shows this fall, so yes, we hittin’ the road.

Mac DeMarco by Kiera McNallyphoto by Kiera McNally

BC: Your album 2 includes an apology to your mom. How do your parents look at your career these days, now that it’s really taken off? Has your family been directly involved in any of your music?

MD: My mom is loving it. She’s always talking to kids on the Internet, getting fan mail. She’s a celebrity in her own right – ha! She’s always been really supportive, just sort of let me do whatever I wanted to do. Now that things are crazy, I think she’s hyped.

BC: Was there ever an intention to develop a public persona, or is it just a natural extension of your personality?

MD: Obviously in front of a camera or in an interview, some things inherently get put on, but I’ve never sat around trying to figure out how to act – ha! I’ve always tried to keep the real me and the performer me pretty similar.

BC: You frequently include covers from all sorts of artists (and the Robin Hood theme song, in at least one case) in your live sets. Do you have a favorite band to cover?

MD: We just always end up covering butt rock songs, the kind of songs that every young dude that learns to play guitar knows the riff to. I don’t think we’ve ever actually covered a song the whole way through. Maybe someday.

BC: Do you develop the concepts for your music videos, or is that a collaborative process?

MD: Usually my bass player and I will work on something, or we’ll just start shooting. We don’t really put a lot of thought into them.

BC: Was the inclusion of more keyboard on your last two records a conscious decision, or it just seemed right for the mood? Any other instruments you’d like to weave into future releases?

MD: I don’t know how to play keyboard very well, so I think that fact makes it interesting for me to play around with. If I have no idea what I’m doing on an instrument, sometimes I find it easier to be creative. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, so I think trying out keyboard is just natural progression, or boredom – ha!

Mac DeMarco by Coley Brownphoto by Coley Brown

BC: Andrew Charles White, your new guitarist, seems to fit right in. How’d you guys meet?

MD: Andy plays in a band called Tonstartssbandht. We used to play with them every time we’d come through Montreal on tour with Makeout Videotape, so I’ve known him for a bunch of years. When Peter decided he didn’t want to tour with us anymore I was living with Andy, so he just joined up and started shredding.

BC: Has anybody taken you up on the coffee invite at the end of Another One?

MD: Probably about three or four hundred.

BC: What’s the weirdest thing that happened to you last week?

MD: I kissed both of Donald Trump’s butt cheeks.

BC: Selling your old Vans shoes for the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (and answering all the resulting eBay questions) was an awesome move. Any connection to that camp? Also, did you ever imagine them going for $21k? Imagine how much the Volvo could get!

MD:The kid who placed the final bid never paid up, so they actually didn’t sell at all. Vans, the shoe company, and I ended up being the ones who donated to Willie Mae. Either way, it’s good that the camp got some exposure and cashola out of it. They’re doing a cool thing.

BC: When’s your next vacation?

MD: I don’t go on vacation.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,885 other followers