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Personal Electronics

Photo by Syd KatoA musician is someone who’s heard a lot of music.

—Pierre Boulez

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 concrète 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, Lingus also 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 passé, 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."

His first band was Debt of Nature, "a little industrial Hanson," he says. "I was 14, and it’d be just me and my brother [Josh, later of the Sugarplastic] and friends, and we’d play at places like the Cash Club on Cahuenga, which was an all-ages theater-type place, and we’d fill it with garbage bags and just whip through them with drumsticks — minimal stuff. We actually got to do some bigger shows just from me being pushy, with Wall of Voodoo."

At age 21, Laner was invited to play drums with the tribal dronemonsters Savage Republic. "They were part of a whole group of amazing bands at that time — Monitor, Bpeople — and they were going to Europe, so I joined and basically pushed them around. I was a little fascist in that band." He spent a year touring Europe and the USA, paying his rock dues, sleeping on floors, etc. A natural multi- instrumentalist, Laner was nevertheless merely the drummer in Savage Republic. "I still love playing drums. But unfortunately it’s hard to be a control freak and a drummer in a band at the same time."

Simultaneously, Laner formed Steaming Coils with lyrical improviser David Chrisman, and in the early ’90s his big major-label-type rock group Medicine emerged from the throes of nascence. This was Laner’s attempt to meet pop music with noise. "Amazingly enough," he says, "we got signed as part of the ‘alternative’ boom. That was a period when Nirvana was just starting to break, and the labels were quite liberal." Medicine went with Creation Records in England, where they toured and got a lot of good and bad press; the band inked with American Records stateside.

I remark crassly that one couldn’t read a review of Medicine without seeing a reference to the English pop-noise ensemble My Bloody Valentine. "They were definitely a big influence," says Laner. "In the early ’90s, their album Isn’t Anything I thought was great. It had the Beatlesque sort of pop stuff that I love mixed with a real sonic sensibility. I always heard Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth described as noise-rock, and I was like, ‘Well, where is the noise, exactly?’"

Glenn Branca once said that music should have a visceral impact, but that that didn’t require dancing as a result. And frankly, it’d be difficult to shiver one’s boo-tay to much of Laner’s material. It’s body stuff, but he wants us to hear some radical tones.

"I go to extremes in the upper registers that most people would find distasteful to do," he says. "It’s an anathema to what most people consider a pleasurable listening experience. There’re ways of getting to those upper frequencies without it being painful, but it’s always gonna have a physical effect, probably as strong as a sub-bass thing. High frequency is an interesting thing; I hear it in a lot of my favorite 20th-century music. Xenakis is way the hell up in that upper range; a lot of Alvin Lucier’s stuff occupies that range too."

Laner can’t make up his mind if he’s a catchy tunesmith or a pointyhead avant-gardian; he also doesn’t feel like he has to. "Lately for me it’s been about either writing a pop song or just experimenting with sound, and experimenting with sound has been winning out. There’s some scary songs waiting, though."

There’s a lot of overlap on Lingus.

"That album might be a kind of singular event," he says, "’cause I’m not sure if I’m moving toward integrating them anymore. I seem to be moving in the opposite direction, of separating them massively. I see the next album as being a lot of piano and strings.

"Eno said something so right, that the most effective artist in today’s climate is the curator. I make the stuff, but I think that I curate it as well. I’m trying to make so much music that I can’t even remember what I did five days ago. If I can go back and sort of cruelly curate a record out of all that . . ."

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