By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Syd KatoA musician is someone who’s heard a lot of music.
Influences are similar to, oh, noses: Most of us have ’em. But the point about Brad Laner’s particularly wide and weird musical range is that, whether on his pop-directed Amnesia or Medicine albums or his concurrent studio-stretching Electric Company projects, he’s not just drawing on all his sources, he’s using them to make something new. Avoiding pastiche is not an easy thing to do.
"I’ve been doing this long enough that when I make music," he says, "I’m not thinking, ‘Okay, now here comes this musique concr√®te element, here comes this Beatlesque melody.’ I just sit down to work, and whatever comes at the time, it’s sort of an accumulated vocabulary."
In the past, Laner’s composing pro cess usually started with a rhythm, which would turn into either a song or something more abstract. But nowadays he eschews a set methodology, building up vast data banks of raw improvised material, sitting down with various instruments or devices while the tape or computer rolls, uncensored, and editing later. You can hear the startling results of this open-plan composing on Amnesia’s recent Lingus, a glorious assemblage of oddly melodic and intensely sound-aware pop songs. Among its numerous cunning stunts, Lingusalso offers a fake free-music workout, "The Sensual Corgi," which is actually some pretty inspired jazz featuring Laner’s own deft stickwork. The album is dashed with darkly gorgeous string sections arranged by David Campbell, a.k.a. Beck Hansen’s dad. Beck himself adds some particularly gnarly harmonica on "Drop Down": "I just said [Captain Beefheart’s] Spotlight Kid, and he knew what I was talking about, he went for it."
Since most of Laner’s lyrics are ambiguous, one could have a field day trying to detect his pet themes. I suspect he writes love songs, sort of.
"Yeah, yeah." He laughs. "And hate songs. It’s whatever trivial crap is floating around in my head. It all comes down to just words that I can sing and sort of spit out."
Note that there is currently no Amnesia as an actual "band." The group’s deal with Supreme/Island is taking the big dirt nap. Of course, it’s hard to believe that Island ever agreed to release his recent Electric Company mutant drum ’n’ bass assault, Studio City, which The Village Voice hailed as "possibly the most uncommercial major-label release since Metal Machine Music." ("Or at least since the last Electric Company record on American," Laner says.)
The first E.C. album, A Pert Cyclic Omen, was a haunting fever-dream, dense and non-rhythmically-oriented loops and noodles that benefited from Laner’s then-limited studio technology. It was all done on a very basic E-Max sampler, and knocked off in a week, Laner judiciously rifling through his vast and righteous record collection.
But going by the sound of Studio City or his even more recent and nerve-racking The Story of Personal Electronics, Laner’s getting more immersed in the newer music technology, while exploring the benefits of simplicity.
"I’m moving toward a less cluttered approach, like instead of six things going on at once, just two or three things at any given time. If you look at electronic music, it’s put together just by these sort of little blocks of things; if you work on a computer you can see them that way, and you have all these choices — how many blocks do you have running at one time?"
We yammer on about some of our favorite gnarled-up drum ’n’ bass types — Plug, Autechre. "How could you ignore the stuff Aphex Twin’s been doing the last couple of years? Electronic music has just absolutely taken off and expanded with the technology. That’s the nature of electronic music, that’s where it starts."
Any thoughts, Brad, about the dance imperative?
"To me, it’s the second part of 1998, and anyone who thinks electronic music has to come from dance and rave, it’s pass√©, it’s old-fashioned thinking. I can appreciate great 4/4 rhythms, and I can appreciate drums being used in a totally elastic sense as well. What got me listening to electronic music, jungle, drum ’n’ bass, was that it was almost sort of Beefheart- or Ornette Coleman–like. But I guarantee you, most people still want the booty-shakin’ mama’s heartbeat thing."
Yeah, all the work they put into the production of these pop recordings, and all people want to hear is that muthafuckin’ beat.
"There’s some great stuff being done right now that’s all beat, all this Basic Channel stuff coming out of Berlin, and Porter Ricks and stuff like that. Or Plastikman — it’s just a bass drum and some processing. Maybe I love it because it’s so bloody-minded."
Laner grew up SoCal Absurd, a record-collector geek from a frightfully early age who never learned to be rigid about the kind of music he liked. "I was really lucky during my midteens to have sort of a mentor, and he just had this amazing record collection. He went to school in Germany, so I got turned on to all the great ’70s music, like [French Gypsy-metal-jazz band] Magma. He made me buy Tago Mago by Can at Licorice Pizza when I was 15, and I was like, ‘Why do I want this?’ But that completely changed my life."