New York City’s metal underground is a vast beast with a diverse array of visionaries who are deconstructing its various forms and shredding out fresh new takes: improbable cross-sections of metal with classical and electronic music and beyond. Such hybrids have been explored by composers such as pianist Kelly Moran, multi-instrumentalist Mario Diaz de Leon, Liturgy chief Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Kayo Dot mastermind Toby Driver, and Charlie Looker.
Looker, formerly of avant-jazzers Zs and defunct art-pop outfit Extra Life, is constantly pursuing reinvention, sound-wise. In Seaven Teares, metal elements intersected with old-world folk; on 2013’s Power Ballads, the group covered Alice in Chains. And as leader of Psalm Zero, Looker melds 1980’s-influenced synth-pop hooks into a brutal, industrial-strength assault.
Now, Looker is reinventing himself yet again – under his own name. Simple Answers, due June 15 via his Last Things label, is his most ambitious project to date. “Chamber-orchestra-metal” might be a fitting label for his majestically sprawling vision, which connects the darkest of electronics-driven pummel and modern classical composition meditations to the gloom and doom of metal. Meanwhile, Looker’s unmistakable flair for the dramatic singing and world-weary introspection, with a 17-piece orchestra behind him, take Simple Answers to the highest of ecstatic heights.
National Sawdust Log connected with Looker via email about the origins, themes and influences of Simple Answers, the cross-section of metal and classical music, an upcoming performance at National Sawdust on June 14 where he will be accompanied by the full 17-piece chamber orchestra – featuring members of Mivos Quartet and ICE and sopranos Daisy Press and Megan Schubert – and much more.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’ve led/co-led Extra Life and Seaven Teares, and more recently, been the driving force behind Psalm Zero. You’ve had a couple of recordings under your own name before, but Simple Answers seems to be your debut solo album proper. Why was this the right time – and project – for this particular record to be a Charlie Looker release?
CHARLIE LOOKER: Well, this is the very first record released literally under my name. Even though the majority of the Extra Life material was written by me note-for-note, there were also so many important songs that were way more collaborative, arrangement- and even composition-wise. The process and presentation was kind of a hybrid of the new music composer approach and the DIY band approach. Seaven Teares is a side project, and it’s kind of the same model. For years I’ve been periodically getting opportunities to do chamber music projects, writing for ensembles like the Mivos Quartet, Yarn/Wire, or the Brooklyn Phil, but none of that material has been recorded or released.
When I discontinued Extra Life in 2012, I decided to split my activities into two main currents: Psalm Zero as my “rock band” that plays clubs and writes in a semi-collaborative way, and then using my own name for more composer-ish, fully-notated vision quests. Since 2012, Psalm Zero has been out there operating in the metal scene, and privately I’ve been slowly chipping away at what has become Simple Answers.
I wouldn’t even say that 2018 is precisely the “right time” for me to put out this solo record, because I honestly intended to finish it way sooner! I just kept changing the instrumentation, simplifying things, learning more about writing for these instruments. I even ended up completing an entire 10-minute piece for a larger instrumentation (25 players, 4 singers, and no electronics) called “Black Lightning” which I completely scrapped. That’s just how it had to be, a long, winding, learning process.
As you have written, Simple Answers is your most ambitious project to date, specifically sprawling in scope in terms of the large ensemble you put together to realize your vision. Instrumentally speaking, how did you arrive at the concept of needing the backing of a chamber orchestra-sized band to make Simple Answers come to life?
The desire to do something with a large, mixed ensemble was probably inspired by getting into the so-called Spectral composers – Gerard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Giacinto Scelsi – as well as Debussy’s orchestral music, and also finally connecting with Wagner and Mahler. Just getting into the variety of orchestral color, the kaleidoscope of timbre, especially Grisey’s world, where the timbres of the instruments fuse together into composite sounds that go so far beyond any functional “harmony”, and sound almost electronic; Grisey made me go back and further appreciate the older masters of orchestration from the Romantic and Impressionist periods.
Around 2011-2012, I was also playing guitar in the live performances of Tyondai Braxton’s orchestral music, and Jherek Bischoff invited me to do some live featured guest vocal spots with his orchestral project as well. It was really inspiring to see those two artists, friends who I already respected a ton, just suddenly drop these massive orchestral records as their “crossover composer” debuts. Owen Pallett is another amazing composer who I was thinking about and talking to when I hatched this. All of three of those guys were immensely encouraging, not just artistically, also logistically, assuring me that if I just wrote this record, I could figure out some way to make it actually happen in the world.
It seems, at least to my ears, that Simple Answers could also have worked in a more minimal sense as well as the way you did it as a large-scale work. There are hints of metal and electronics leanings, as heard in your previous work in Psalm Zero. Could Simple Answers have been a PZ record, or did your vision just beg for something else entirely?
Simple Answers definitely could not have been a Psalm Zero record. Despite lineup changes, PZ is a band that will always involve collaborative writing, and it’s also essentially guitar-based music. Not that I necessarily see it as “metal” specifically, but everything in PZ is mostly going to revolve around guitar riffs. That was never the plan for Simple Answers. Initially I intended it to be way more of a “new music” statement, and it was going to be even more complex in terms of form than it turned out. The vocals were going to be more irregular, the compositions unfolding really asymmetrically, dealing with the flow of time and events in a really unpredictable, modernist-classical-music kind of way, like Nono or Lachenmann or someone.
But as it turns out, I’m a somewhat simpler man than that. Once I started really getting into writing the record, it quickly became way less like classical music, and more like a dark pop album with orchestral arrangements, and some new music-ish instrumental interludes. The lyrics ended up being way more catchy, rhyming, and anthemic, and the songs turned into more verse/chorus kinds of forms, albeit stretched out in various weird ways. And the basic structure of the songs ended up being formed around lyrics, melody, and harmony. So you’re right that the songs could have been arranged for a smaller ensemble and still would have retained a certain amount of their identity. But the overall vibe of the record would feel a lot different without strings, winds, and brass.
There’s also a culturally symbolic dimension to employing a huge classical ensemble, a dimension which I didn’t consciously intend at all at the outset, but which is becoming clear to me now, and is super-charged in the political climate of 2018. The orchestra is a powerful and familiar symbol of “The West”, and the past 500-1000 years of European cultural development. Not just the sound and the visual image of strings and winds, but also the actual working process of classical music: a single author using a complex writing system to centrally and thoroughly control the actions of a large group of musicians, all in the service of his individual vision. For better or worse, it doesn’t get much more “Western” or post-Enlightenment European than that.
Right now, we’re in a massive cultural upheaval, where people are taking a deeper and more honest look at the violence wreaked by Europeans on the rest of the globe over the past millennium, and the legacies of that violence. In that context, I can imagine that a large-scale classical music project, especially one led by a white man, could be experienced by some as “problematic” (a mis- and over-used word nowadays, but probably apt here), or even distasteful. But, I find it really disturbing and sad that right now, the only people who are openly trumpeting the praises of “The West” and its cultural legacy are white supremacists. I hate racism, and I love classical music. If you’re going to write through-notated compositions for a huge classical ensemble in 2018, on some level you should be able to live with the creepy irony that classical music was basically the soundtrack to colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When you see a musical situation where a large group of musicians are obeying the highly-detailed musical commands of a single text, written by a single person, you’re seeing at once both the best and the worst that Europe has brought to the world.
On your Kickstarter page, you wrote of “four years of work and research” that went into Simple Answers. Can you trace the origins of the project, and how it evolved over four years? Lyrically and thematically, it seems like a very “now” record and symbolic of these times. But if you started cooking this up in your head four years ago, then that was prior to Trump and the divisiveness that’s come with it – not that the country wasn’t divided before. In other words, did Simple Answers start as something completely different, but then took on a new life of its own due to the shitshow America and the world as a whole are right now?
It really didn’t change that much with Trump. I’ve been talking about a lot of the same stuff for years. I just sound less insane now freaking out about the Holocaust and eugenics at dinner parties. I really started envisioning this record about six years ago now, and at first, I was focusing more on [Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia] Kristeva’s ideas about misogyny, and less about fascism specifically, although they’re completely related.
As the culture war really started heating up around 2014, I started to understand Kristeva’s ideas about the psychology of fascism better, because I saw so much of that psychology expressed so clearly in various internet cultures, not just by the alt-right, but also by centrist types (and to an extent, even by parts of the left, too). For Kristeva, fascist energy isn’t just about a contemptuous hatred of weakness, it also becomes a hatred of the intellect in general, and even of language itself (!).
The fascist attitude views intellectual concepts, analysis, criticism, words, ideas, all as weakening, impure elements which threaten to infect the pure, noble spirit which should be unreflecting, unconflicted, amoral, swift, violent, whole, hard, and should express itself as pure action (whatever that means LOL). There’s this feeling that the intellect is what the Weak use to sneakily bring down the Strong. Since Jews are seen as an intellectual people, a people of the book, it’s easy to see how and where the figure of the Jew fits into this worldview as a scapegoat (although for the record, I don’t think Jews are in any literal danger this time around).
What’s dark is, on some level I relate to the idea of might makes right. A lot of “decent” people do. Ever since I was around 10, I’ve been haunted on and off by those feelings and thoughts, the idea that POWER is the only thing that’s literally real. The idea that any other construct, intellectual, moral, or otherwise, is a fantasy of the weak. And the feeling that, if I can’t handle the fact that human life is nothing more than power play, if that fact makes me cry, then I must be too weak to handle reality. This is seriously the perspective of the cultural far-right, not even an exaggeration.
But the thing is, I’ve never held onto those demented feelings as politics, so for me they don’t end up spiraling off into some anti-humanist agenda (racism, misogyny, eugenics, mocking a disabled reporter on national TV, etc.). When I start feeling that way, when the Black Sun starts to take hold of me, I just look at it as depression, and possibly to some extent Jewish self-hatred. Listening to the new far-right, it’s like I’m hearing the most “inhuman” parts of my own human psyche transferred into the political register as actual ideology, where it becomes infinitely more dangerous.
Anyway, so we’re clear: This record isn’t necessarily some call to extend empathy toward fascist individuals. Unlike these assholes, I know how to deal with my problems, and if you’re at my show, chances are so do you.
Over that four-year stretch, Psalm Zero put out Stranger to Violence and The Drain. Synthesizers and drum machines are crucial components to PZ’s metal/synth-pop-centric sound, and Simple Answers, even with its 17-piece chamber orchestra, veers on a similar aesthetic path. Classical contemporary, metal, pop, and electronic music are all represented. I know you’ve discussed the influences of Julia Kristeva and Patrice O’Neal on Simple Answers (more on that later), but metal and its different sub-genres have been vital in your trajectory, so I’m interested to hear how metal – and metal artists – played a part in Simple Answers.
I wasn’t thinking about metal, or the idea of metal as a genre, on a musical level when writing this music, except for maybe the end of “Fascist Moments.” Simple Answers has those Psalm Zero synths and drum machines, but it isn’t based on guitar riffs, which to me are the musical heart of metal. In terms of lyrical subject matter however, this album probably owes something to the metal world. There’s a lot of metal culture, particularly black metal, which celebrates a kind of mystical vitalism, a primal life-force-based occultism, which isn’t necessarily fascist or even right wing, but isn’t necessarily anti-fascist either. It’s an amoral (not necessarily immoral, but possibly) belief in magick, and it has an anti-humanist bent to it, in that it’s about drawing primal spiritual power from “Nature,” a fiery animating force that exists before the individual, before the social, before any morality, and before the concept of The Human, which forms the basis of most left wing or progressive politics.
A great example of this ambiguous mysticism in metal would be the band Bölzer, who I love. Black metal bands who are into reading continental philosophy (there are quite a few) seem to largely get these ideas from Nietzsche, but it’s central to Kristeva, and I can see it in Deleuze, Bataille, Bergson, all the way back to Heraclitus. A lot of people outside of metal, and also many within metal, seem not to understand this sense of vitalism, and they assume it’s automatically “Nazi” stuff the second they get a whiff of it. I don’t blame them for being freaked out, because a lot of it is Nazi stuff, but that’s just a perversion, or a rerouting, of mystical vitalist energies. There are plenty of non-fascist, apolitical, and even left-wing metal heads who understand this.
Speaking of metal, the gatefold packaging design for Simple Answers was done by Zev Deans, known for his work with PZ as well as for Portal, Ghost, and Behemoth. What can you tell us about the design, how it relates to the conceptual themes of the record, and how/if it traces back to metal?
I just wrote Zev an email rambling about all the stuff I’ve been saying here, and he just whipped up a mind-blowing album design. The statues are taken from several Holocaust memorials around Eastern Europe. I told him I wanted fire and the stone on the cover, symbols that trace back to alchemy, the Hermetic tradition, and the realm of European mystery cults. These symbols were taken up and mobilized by Nazi occultists, and are central to the fascist obsession with wholeness and violent spirituality. They’re also all over metal and industrial culture, in lyrics, album covers, and band names. And on top of all that, fire and stone also serve a separate but parallel function in my lyrics, as metaphors for issues I’ve had with certain drugs. I won’t go into in detail here about that layer, as there have to be some boundaries of discussion. But certain people, with certain experiences, who dig deep in the lyrics, will catch those dog whistles as well.
Speaking of even more metal (ha), you and a few of your contemporaries in that landscape, Mario Diaz de Leon, Toby Driver and Kelly Moran (who plays on Simple Answers) are all artists who are combining classical music with various forms of metal, or coming from that world. Mario recently released Sanctuary with TAK Ensemble, Kelly with Bloodroot, I read Driver is working on a large-scale work, and you of course with Simple Answers. You all seem to be leading this generation of musicians who take classical and metal elements to new and different heights. Do you feel like you are outsiders in the vast metal spectrum? For example, Revolverdebuted a track off Simple Answers. Do you think people who read Revolver “get it,” or don’t think of it in the metal sense?
To say that people who read Revolver wouldn’t “get it” is highly elitist, but then again, elitism is a central value to a lot of areas of metal culture, so LOL. Depends what kind of elitism, we’re talking about I guess. Intellectual elitism makes a lot of metal people angry, as we saw with the backlash against Liturgy (Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is another one for your list of metal crossover composers), but elitism based on “authenticity” is a big thing in metal. Anyway, sure, I feel somewhat like an outsider in metal, as well as in indie, classical, and experimental scenes (I am indeed weird), but in another way I feel like I have multiple citizenship in all those different territories. I was into Morbid Angel in middle school, going out to shows at L’Amour and Castle Heights, back when being into metal earned you zero cool points, so I feel like I have little to prove authenticity-wise.
While there’s a certain amount of anti-intellectualism in the metal world, there’s also a lot of value placed on ambition, grand achievement, technical proficiency, the quality of purely musical content (harmony, groove, composition), and overall dead-seriousness of purpose. I think a lot of metal heads fetishize classical music as well, some for white supremacist reasons, but many others for cool reasons. So I think a lot of metal heads can find a lot to enjoy, or at least respect, in Simple Answers and my non-Psalm Zero projects.
On Simple Answers you point to French feminist psychoanalyst/philosopher Julia Kristeva and the late American comedian Patrice O’Neal as its lyrical inspiration (I’m assuming that spoken word clip is of O’Neal?). How did you manage to reconcile such disparate voices? And what were you reading / watching / listening to specifically of theirs that inspired Simple Answers? It also seems that you usually draw from unconventional influences for much of your work, be it PZ, Extra Life or Seaven Teares.
I’m not sure if I “reconciled” those voices, but I brought them together for both resonance and dissonance. I explained a bit about Kristeva’s influence on the lyrics. The books of hers which dealt the most with fascist psychology are Powers of Horror and Black Sun. As for Patrice, he’s my favorite comedian of all time, and is also probably the cruelest comedian I enjoy. The past few years I’ve been really into the so-called “Cellar crowd” of comics from the ’00s: Patrice, Bill Burr, Jim Norton, early Louis CK, the whole Opie & Anthony scene. A lot of these artists are able to make me laugh hysterically at things which I would like to think are completely contrary to my worldview. I’m not even necessarily talking specifically about racism or misogyny (though that’s there), but more generally, this depressing, fatalistic sense that power, not love, is the animating force behind all of human affairs.
Those Patrice samples I used on the album put forth a perspective that’s practically Social Darwinism, when you think about it. Bill Burr has numerous bits which, if taken seriously, espouse state-sponsored eugenics programs. This idea that “Nature” is an amoral, seething abyss of violence, and that modern man has become weak and needs to return to Nature: this is very much a fascist perspective. And yet none of these comics are fascists at all, in terms of their real politics! Maybe a bit conservative for me, but not dangerous psychos. These are great artists, who admit the seductive power of inhuman, anti-social world views, and yet remain undeniably human in the nuance and conflictedness of their feelings.
Again, this is not to promote these actual world views as actually being “correct.” When made literally political/ideological, they become fascist very quickly. But to confront that sense of might-makes-right from a conflicted human perspective, either as someone who’s scared of those ideas, or as someone who attempts to revels in the evil of it; that confrontation to me is the essence of a lot of my favorite dark comedy. The laughter is the painful dissonance when one’s moral convictions collide with this other more abject feeling that morality is an illusion. My favorite stand-up comics embody Kristeva’s idea of the sujet-en-procès (subject-in-process, or subject-on-trial), or my scatterbrained understanding of it. A person isn’t a unitary thing. We’re all walking around unraveling and re-weaving our subjectivity, continually torn apart inside by these conflicting psychic forces… TICKING BOMBS lolol. Jokes aside though, ticking bombs.
The song titles are super-bleak (“Ritual Fire, “Golden Flesh,” ‘Black Sun,” “Fascist Moments,” “Speak Until Death Comes,” etc.) but the songs have poppy hooks. Lyrical inspiration came from Kristeva and O’Neal, but where did the musical inspiration come from? Or are those pop hooks just ingrained in your songwriting?
The pop is just engrained. A ball-breaking fan DM’d me on Twitter to tell me he liked the single, but it had a Broadway vibe. I was like, is that coded anti-Semitism? 2018 LOL
For this performance of Simple Answers at National Sawdust, you’ve written that the record may not be performed again for some time. Is playing these songs a one-off type thing where you will only perform them with a full chamber orchestra and not, say, in more intimate settings, like you solo or with a smaller band? In your mind, does the record and its message only work with a chamber orchestra?
Last year, I did a small handful of shows around New York where I performed this material in much smaller group formations, with only piano, violin, and percussion played live, and all the other instrument parts played by MIDI backing tracks, or replaced with synth. These were either billed under my name, or as Charlie Looker Ensemble. Performances like this will continue in the future, and I think I’ll be re-arranging the songs more thoroughly, so they work even better with an almost all-synth instrumentation. Possibly I’ll add some visual/film elements as well. This will undoubtedly change the music, but not so much that the whole project becomes something else entirely.
You will be joined by special guests like Doug Moore (Pyrrhon) on what you describe as performing cover songs arranged by you for this occasion. Can you give a hint what covers they are and how you went about picking them and do they continue the themes Simple Answers explores?
No need for me to keep the covers under wraps. Doug is going to perform a radically re-imagined cover of the Pyrrhon song “Empty Tenement Spirit.” It will be a lot less overtly tech-death metal in its orchestral version, but many main elements will be preserved. I can’t say that the choices of guests or songs fit into the concepts behind the record is a particularly tight way. They’re just beautiful complex friends, singing beautiful complex songs that I arranged.
Charlie Looker presents Simple Answers at National Sawdust on June 14 at 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
Brad Cohan is a music journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Observer, the Village Voice,Time Out New York, Vice, and Noisey.
Boston composer Marti Epstein, whose music is paired with works by Webern and others in the Trinity Wall Street series "Time's Arrow" June 19 and 21, talks to David Weininger about her creative path.
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On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.