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Brad Laner, Medicine Man 

Under any other name — even his own! — a new album still sounds as (psychedelically) sweet

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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Generally speaking, Brad Laner does not consider himself a fascist. Yet when it comes to protecting the architectural integrity of his Granada Hills neighborhood — a bastion of the midcentury-modern design that his family’s home typifies — Laner admits he’s willing to betray his liberal-permissive nature ever so slightly.

The neighbors, you see, have erected a ghastly McMansion in the High SoCal columns-and-turrets tradition, one Laner and his wife fear will inspire more in its wake. So they’ve joined forces with a group of fellow residents in an effort to procure for their neighborhood Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) status from the city. According to the L.A. Department of City Planning Web site, an HPOZ designation “helps to ensure that the most distinctive, historic and charming qualities of the neighborhood will be preserved.” With the assistance of Big Brother, great design might survive.

It’s easy to understand why Laner cares about this: His day job pretty much consists of renting out his home — a handsome glass-wall-and-wooden-beam affair — to various production companies for film and commercial shoots. But it’s also where he tends to his night job, which is making music. Laner’s modest home studio sits at the back of the house; these days, it doubles as a playroom for his 3-year-old son. “He’s wrecked so much gear,” Laner laughs. On the morning I visit, there’s a DO NOT ENTER sign taped to the studio’s door, which Laner says is his feeble attempt to ward off TV people who know no boundaries. It doesn’t always work.

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Laner is probably best known as the front man of Medicine, an L.A.-based guitar band that made a string of excellent noise-pop records during the first half of the ’90s. Unabashedly melodic but caked with a thick layer of texture and fuzz, Medicine’s music was viewed by many as an American counterpart to stuff by English shoegazer groups like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. You might remember Medicine from their appearance in The Crow. During the shooting of the film, Laner met Brandon Lee’s sister Shannon, with whom he made The Mechanical Forces of Love, a 2003 album he released under the Medicine handle largely as a way to prove to another group calling itself Medicine that the name was still in use.

Medicine hasn’t been Laner’s only outlet: He’s also made records as Electric Company on Kid606’s label Tigerbeat6 and with the bands Amnesia and Tusk (the latter of which included former Tool bassist Paul D’Amour and current Autolux guitarist Greg Edwards). And he’s done the session-guy thing on albums by Brian Eno, Blinker the Star and Caribou. Laner’s MySpace page lists his age as 101, and though that’s not quite right — in reality, he recently turned 40 — his overstuffed résumé makes the figure seem almost plausible.

Last week, Laner made a perhaps-belated addition to his discography: Neighbor Singing, the first album he’s issued under his own name. Culled from pieces of music Laner’s been recording at home over the past few years, it’s a stunner, a gorgeous little psych-pop gem that distills all of Laner’s work down to one easily consumable (yet deceptively complicated) essence. Catchy choruses, cool guitar noises, warm-and-fuzzy electronic squiggles — they’re all here.

“I play the album for bands I’m working with, and it blows their fucking minds,” says Thom Monahan, who worked with Laner on the mixing of Neighbor Singing. (In addition to playing bass in the Pernice Brothers for a spell, Monahan has produced recent records by Devendra Banhart, Brightblack Morning Light and others.) Monahan says that Neighbor’s cover, which depicts a house and its backyard in an M.C. Escher–like fashion, is a ?perfect reflection of Laner’s unique handling of melody and rhythm. “He takes something familiar and twists it,” he says. “The music’ll be going in one direction and then all of a sudden you’re looking at it from the other way.”

Laner doesn’t resist the idea of Neighbor Singing’s serving as a kind of career overview, but he says it’s not necessarily what he set out to do. “I think it’s just me trying to make music using the abilities I’ve picked up magpielike over the past 25 years,” he says. As for issuing the album under his own name — a choice that certainly invites the this-is-who-I-really-am vibe — Laner says, “I’ve actually always thought that I should do a record under my own name, but every time, I chickened out.” So why now? “I think I just had a strong-enough batch of stuff.”

Laner credits Monahan, who introduced himself to Laner as a Medicine fan at Arthurfest in 2005, with a role in assembling that stuff. “He sort of asked me to curate the record,” Monahan says, adding that Laner would periodically send him unfiltered collections of songs in progress, which Monahan would then comb through looking for pieces that appeared to go together. “I told him, ‘I think you have several records here, but the one that I’m most interested in hearing is this kind of one.’ ”

For Laner, the several records he’s got lurking on his hard drive are the focal point of his career now. After spending years doing the major-label touring-musician thing with the original incarnation of Medicine, he’s not at all interested in leaving his wife and child behind to hit the road and hawk his wares inside America’s rock clubs. “I’m not an entertainer,” he says. “Making recordings is the thing.” (Beyond a handful of one-off dates around L.A., Laner has no concrete plans to tour in support of his new album.)

That’s not an attitude that troubles Sara Padgett Heathcott, one half of the married couple that owns and operates Hometapes, the Boulder-based label that released Neighbor Singing. “It was an honor to put out this record,” says Heathcott, who, like Monahan, first met Laner at 2005’s Arthurfest. (The two have since bonded over their love of midcentury-modern architecture.) “There’s no reason why someone in Brad’s position shouldn’t have his music released in the best way possible, whatever the demands of the industry are.” She laughs. “That’s probably an indication of how idealistic we are.”

Ken Andrews, an L.A.-based producer-musician who’s played in the bands Failure, On and Year of the Rabbit, says he understands Laner’s reluctance to jump into the music-industry fray he once knew so well. Still, “It’s hard for artists like me and Brad who don’t wanna tour,” says Andrews, who’s currently collaborating with Laner and a handful of other musicians in a project called the L.A. Digital Noise Academy, which creates songs over the Internet. “Artists that sell [records] okay aren’t selling as much as they used to, so the only way to make money is off touring. It has to become more ‘This is what I’m doing and I don’t have any expectations of making money off this art.’ ”

Dire words, but Laner’s not particularly worried by them. After all, he’s got more important things to think about: As soon as I take off, he’s headed to his son’s preschool to play guitar for the kids. “It’s cool, ’cause all the parents are old lefties,” he says. You can bet none of them live in McMansions.

BRAD LANER | Neighbors Singing | Hometapes

Brad Laner performs at Family, 436 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., Sun., Dec. 2., at 8 p.m.

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