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Interview Mon Feb 16 2009
Hailed by Tyondai Braxton of Battles and Stereogum, Brooklyn's Extra Life have made a name for themselves with their hypnotic combination of math rock and chamber pop. Extra Life hits up the Empty Bottle tonight in support of their album, Secular Works, released last year through Planaria Recordings. Gapers Block had the chance for a quick chat with lead singer and guitarist Charlie Looker before the show.
Gapers Block: Where did the title Secular Works come from?
Charlie Looker: The title Secular Works is a reference to Medieval and Renaissance music, periods which I am deeply into. Composers from those periods wrote sacred music (masses) and then also would write secular songs in the popular forms of the time. When you buy a CD of Early Music, you will often find records of so-and-so's "secular works". So for Extra Life, the title is somewhat ironic. However I'm very influenced by Early Music, both sacred and secular. I have also become interested in religion, simply as a human phenomenon, an outlet for the human will.
GB: I've heard that you don't prefer to be associated with prog rock. Is this true, and if so, how would you describe Secular Works?
CL: As for the prog label, people can label Extra Life any way they find useful. I just don't listen to music labeled prog. To me, most of that music feels soulless and unemotional. People might call Extra Life prog because the music is technically complicated. But for me this complexity is only about creating emotional intensity, nothing else. I'm trying to move people. Most prog bands use contrived complexity to mask the fact that they have no conviction about what they're doing, and haven't had any life experience other than practicing their instruments. I didn't get into writing epic complicated music through prog. I got into it through 20th century classical composers like Iannis Xenakis and metal/hardcore bands like Converge.
GB: Secular Works is an intense and involved record. Do you find it difficult to translate the complexities of the album into a live format? What can we expect when seeing Extra Life live?
CL: Extra Life live is just like the record, but more intense because it's live. The pieces have actually been fleshed out somewhat since then, more keyboard parts, plus the violist from the record has been replaced by violinist Caley Monahon-Ward who brings his own vibe to the band. And we also now are playing a bunch of newer songs which aren't on the record.
GB: How does your songwriting approach for Extra Life differ from your work with Zs?
CL: Zs was a big compositional outlet for me for years, and my work with them was quite different from my work in Extra Life. In Zs my pieces were largely instrumental, with vocals only really being introduced toward the end of my tenure. Even then, I was writing duo vocal parts with the other guitarist, so I wasn't singing as a solo voice. In Extra Life, where I'm the "lead singer" I have developed a more distinctive personal vocal style, more variation in sound and expression.
Another difference is lyrical content. The few lyrics I would write for Zs were more philosophical and intellectual in nature, somewhat abstract. For Extra Life, I write about more immediately human things like sexuality, relationships and death. It's not all autobiographical; I always maintain a slight distance from the material. But it is still way more personal.
GB: What's next? What have you been working on?
CL: Extra Life will continue to be my main focus for the indefinite future. We have enough material for another full-length record, and we'll probably end up going into the studio with that within the next year. We're also touring Europe for the first time in May.
I'm also really excited about my other projects. One is Sculptress, a duo recording project with Chuck Stern. Another is Period, an instrumental project with drummer Mike Pride and other guests. Third, I'm planning on returning to writing various chamber music and orchestral music which I used to do more of and I've been missing for a while. All of those projects will be steadily flowering in '09.