Photo by Syd Kato
Among the more interesting phenomena you’ll find as you slop about in the cultural muck of Los Angeles is that of the isolationist creative type who, deriving his or her work from usually very idiosyncratic sources, has been spending days and years willfully crafting utterly individual things that gleam like jewels when the fortunate digger unearths them. Brad Laner is one such artist, and though he’d love to have as much fame and fortune as any of us would, he’s happy doing what he does, and that he does it his own way is of course something we ought to be grateful for.
Since he was a wee shaver, Laner the music obsessive has been involved in many of the best and most unusual things going rock/pop/avant-garde-wise on the L.A. scene. His list of multi-instrumental and composing credits, though somewhat obscure to most, is super-impressive: thumping/electronic freakery with Savage Republic, Steaming Coils, Debt of Nature in the ’80s, the noisy-pop Medicine and his laptop/electronics project Electric Company in the ’90s and ongoing, and numerous radical mixes on the Tigerbeat6 label even as we speak. Laner’s recently revived Medicine for a new album on Astralwerks called The Mechanical Forces of Love, only it has very little to do with the old Medicine’s alt-guitar-band attacks. And that too is just fine with Laner.
The Mechanical Forces of Love, a melodiously challenging sound & vocals duo project with Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon, is like a hybrid of Laner’s seemingly mutually exclusive interests in the sweetest of pop sounds with the vast possibilities of purely electronic abstractions. You’ll hear perhaps for the first time how lyrical and heartrending tunes can be conveyed with electronic elements to enhance and deepen the manifold emotions that a pop song can contain. You’ll hear, too, how the old worlds of rock and dance and “disco” became friends after years of bitter internecine struggle. You’ll hear things that’ll melt your mind, things you’ve never felt before — though you old-schoolers might cry foul at how it tampers with your right to no-nonsense, straight-ahead rock.
Let’s catch up with Laner on what it’s all about and where the hell we’re heading . . .
L.A. WEEKLY: This new record seems to sum up what you’ve been interested in for a long time; I like how it flows in such a natural way — well, a naturally disruptive way.
BRAD LANER: Yeah, hopefully it’s representative of a lot of the work without too much thinking about how to make it work together.
How did you happen to be working with Bruce Lee’s daughter?
I had met her through a mutual friend she had a demo deal with, and he thought we’d be an interesting match. She and I kind of hit it off. I said I could use her abilities on a few things, for a different kind of sound; it was nice for her to work with somebody who was untrained and unashamed of that.
How did you arrange the material? Did you have music pre-prepared, or did you truly collaborate on these pieces?
At any given time I’ve got five or six tracks going, and she came over and I played her a few of them, and we’d talk about and try different things. She’d give me a bunch of songs and just leave it to me to do a Holger Czukay [chop it/rearrange and enhance it].
You’re doing a lot of processing and messing with Shannon’s voice. Didn’t she mind that?
Shannon doesn’t consider herself to be a songwriter, or even a performer. She’s got her fingers in a lot of different pies, and was willing to contribute this particular sound of hers for this project without worrying about it being hers necessarily. That took a lot of pressure off of her, the fact that it wasn’t about her songwriting, it’s only about this singing.
The way you incorporate your influences in these songs is fascinating. For example, in “I Smile to My Eyes,” you quote vocal and rhythmic parts from Can’s Monster Movie album, and it’s so accurate that I couldn’t tell if you built it on a sample or not. You’re paying tribute to that vocal line, and then building on that, right?
It’s not a sample; I played it. It’s something that I consciously understand, you know? If I’m liable to do something Beatlesque or like something from an old Can record, it’s like muscle memory.
Krautrock in general had a huge impact on your way of thinking. Is it still an influence?
Yeah, but as much as any other classic references that would pop up. If it’s either Kraftwerk or Can, the four-on-the-floor drumbeat is a propulsive quality — that’s a basic energy booster. And Neu and Faust, Guru Guru, Amon Düül, even if I’m not listening to them regularly, my interest is there. I definitely think like a drummer.
On this new record, the range of sounds both electronic and acoustic is enormous; it’s like every tonal color under the sun. How did you harness it all?
Anything I’ve done the last few years is pretty much just the old Mac G4, with lots of VST plug-ins, and guitars and vocals and drums added onto it. That’s it. For the drum sounds, a couple of good mikes and real drums. I really got into the process of sampling real drum sounds and building digital drum sets out of them. Or using the real thing when you feel they’re more appropriate for your song. I take all these guitar and vocal and drum sounds, and it all goes into the Mac through those tiny wires.
Weren’t you afraid of blowing out your system?
I’m never one to worry about that kind of thing. I just get what I get. [laughs]
Yeah, you always recorded in the red on the early Medicine albums.
That’s still the gist of it. It works really well with computers. But I’ve blown plenty of speakers, for sure. It’s kind of gilding the lily, I guess, a Phil Spectorish thing — there’s three of everything happening at once.
In the past you’ve been pretty sarcastic about terms like ambient music, because you’d found yourself thrown in with a lot of that stuff. How would you rate what you’re hearing from the electronic sphere, like electronic dance tracks, or laptop artists?
If I have anything to say about that kind of music, it’s what I’d say about music in general, which is that everything is so safe right now that for the first time in quite a long time there’s a clear line between knowing what’s bad and what’s good by whether it’s on a major label or not. People are just running scared. It’s a minor miracle a record as weird as mine came out on a label as large as Astralwerks.
Your new album isn’t so weird. The melodies are very strong, and that’s a big part of how you sell the other bizarreness.
As far as the kind of melody you can really make a mark with, melody has just been done. But I’m back into it now, and it’s sort of a natural thing. Melody is a priority for me. Everybody has one song, and everything I write is just another version of my song, you know?
And you’ve got lyrics that dis-harmonize with the musical backdrops. In one tune you’ll say, “It’s my sole wish that you should die,” but the music is kinda cheerful and peppy. I like that, because the area between the two gains expression.
It’s just a line that flew out of my mouth — I’d had some serious ends of relationships with people, a lot of anger.
But are you a traditional songwriter who writes from
No, it’s just this feeling that happens. A lot of this stuff is just baldly emotional. I love on TV commercials when people sing emotively about room fresheners.
Most of the songs have obtuse titles, like “Sodden Rockets.” That’s pretty unusual for pop music — not being literal-minded.
The whole idea is that it’s pop music without compromise. And it is pop music.
Your brand of pop music works in a distracted, fractured manner — just like the human mind.
That’s my ongoing commercial suicide. It’s my version of pop music. As maybe as unfashionable as it is, it’s an expression of myself . . . I’ve been noticing a lot of old Medicine fans are upset with this record, and it’s come as a shock to me — it’s amazing that some people’s lifestyles and identities are dependent on familiar sounds. Someone said, “The first song sounds like demented disco.” And I was like, “Thanks!” As if that was supposed to be a bad thing.