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
"I've been doing this long enough that
when I make music," he says, "I'm not thinking, 'Okay, now here
comes this musique concrŹte element, here comes this Beatlesque melody.' I
just sit down to work, and whatever comes at the time, it's sort of an
In the past, Laner's composing process
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
"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
Yeah, all the work they put into the
production of these pop recordings, and all people want to hear is that
"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
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
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
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?'"
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
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..."