If you don't know about the Freight Elevator Quartet, you will soon. They're just about to release Becoming Transparent, a CD that drove George into such a tizzy that he almost took Oops!...I Did It Again out of his CD changer. (Bastard! That's supposed to be a secret! - Ed.) Not only is their new album lush and strange and lovely, but it's also full of dense, vibrant beats that will have your bunda shaking in no time. And as if that weren't enough, the FEQ can even pull it all off live! I'm fortunate enough to know the folks in the band a bit (Luke and I use the same plastic surgeon), and they graciously agreed to do a little Q & A about the history of the band and their new CD.
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Splendid: Tell us a little about the name of the band. I know there's a neat story behind it...
Luke DuBois: We were all in some way involved in something called Knuckles, which was a monthly multimedia party extravaganza thrown at Prentis (a building at Columbia University) from 1996-97 (Mark McNamara was one of the main culprits as well). At one such party, someone had the idea to bring everyone up to the third floor from the loading dock by way of the freight elevator, rather than having them use the normal elevator. So we rigged an outlet off of the fluorescent lights in the elevator, set up a PA system and all our gear, and played while shifts of however many people could fit in the elevator came in and were brought up to the third floor. The main planning glitch was that the only bar was also in the freight elevator, which meant that once people got in they tended not to want to leave, so it got pretty crazy in there after a while. The original instrumentation was cello, didjeridoo, an analogue synth and a drum machine. The four of us had never rehearsed or even come up with much of a plan for what we were going to play, but it somehow just worked. The sound was unique enough that a couple of weeks later we were asked to play another gig, and before we really knew it what had started as a one-off improv set had turned into a band. "The Freight Elevator Quartet" just seemed like an appropriate name.
Rachael Finn: Every month a group of artists would host a party that would incorporate art installations, music, dance and readings. The night before one of these parties I was asked to play with the guys -- hardly knowing any of them. I brought my cello to the party the next night and we played inside of a freight elevator that was bringing people up and down to the party. Quite an experience to be moving and playing simultaneously. Ever since then we have been known as FEQ.
Splendid: Did the early experience playing at parties have much to do with the development of the band's sound? Were you consciously trying to make party music? Crowd-pleasing music? If so, did it work?
Luke: Fortunately for us, the early parties we played at were more in the nature of art openings or multimedia events than dance parties, which gave us a lot more flexibility in terms of tempo and style of music. Our first record was a live album completely taken from DATs of performances, and our initial concern was less with making party music than with exploring all the sounds we could get out of our somewhat unique instrumentation. The second album we did was called the Jungle Album, and most of it was studio recorded, though there were some live tracks on there as well. With that album we were interested in exploring what we could do in and around a specific genre, which happened to be a dance genre. I think we have between the four of us a pretty good sensibility for writing music that's very listenable but at the same time has a layered, more experimental edge.
Rachael: I think playing parties, where music often provides a background ambiance, did lead to the development of our sound in terms of trying less to be composed and straightforward and more toward "experimental" and chaotic. At first we were creating music that was hardly danceable... I don't know if I'd say crowd pleasing, but certainly atmospherically enjoyable.
Paul Feuer: While most of our early performances were at parties, these performances were in a more ambient context than a stage one. Looking back now, I think this freedom was important for us in developing our sound and eventually experimenting with and developing new sounds and new styles.
Stephen Krieger: We were almost completely improvisational at the beginning, which came from playing in somewhat impromptu party situations and from figuring out in public just what we could do together. So I think it was probably least crowd pleasing in the beginning and more crowd-confusing. But starting out as a live improv electronically-aided band did lead us away from a sterile, "composed" computer music sort of feel. Much more in the direction of chaos, which at a party is usually acceptable. The first time we played, the gig ended when we blew the sound system.
Splendid: The instrumentation of the band has changed a little bit over the years. Who does what now? Are you pretty much settled into your roles, or are you still switching around, trying things out? What happened to the didjeridoo?
Luke: The initial idea of four people playing four instruments live has over the years given way to a more flexible approach to recording where we all tend to be involved at every level of the recording process. Stephen does the bulk of the production work, and does the overwhelming majority of the drum programming and sample preparation. I do most of the synth programming and a fair bit of the DSP programming, but I also play a bit of guitar and occasionally bass on the recordings. Paul plays keyboards and didjeridoo and has also written software for the band. Rachael plays cello. We have a very collaborative approach to song-writing where we all contribute in some way or another to the final form of the recorded track, so I'd be hard pressed to say there's one "song-writer" in charge of everything.
Paul: The didj used to be my only instrument in FEQ. And because I only had one, our music was necessarily constrained to a key...just shy of B, I think it was; you could almost describe our first album as an exploration of that key. I bring the didjeridoo in when it fits, especially when we improv with others, such as the folks in Gutbucket or with Elliott Sharp.
AUDIO: Downtime is Becoming Less of an Option
Stephen: We all have a variety of backgrounds and it has shown more and more as we have expanded our sound and our ambitions to make more complex and more composed music. At first it was didj and cello and so only one tonal element could play more than one note. So we've all broadened our pallets: Paul from didj to nord synthesizer, so that that original deep didj-like sound could be used to play all sorts of things. Rachael is experimenting with recording techniques for cello and synths and beyond. Luke has switched from the virtually unsynchable analogue synths to emulations he's written for the Mac G3 laptop that can do things unthinkable on the original synths. And while we started by recording live jams without any real pre- or post-production, in the last couple of years I've tried to make production style and techniques more a part of our "compositional" process, so that the song-writing and the production style become a continuum.
Splendid: When you play live, it's very clearly a group performing, as opposed to a leader and some backup musicians. Although Rachael sits up front with her cello, there's really no focus on a particular player. It's even hard sometimes to tell who's doing what! Is this pretty much how the band works in other respects (recording, writing songs, getting gigs, etc.) or is there a behind-the-scenes leader of some sort?
Luke: As I said, there really isn't any single song-writer, and that translates in the live shows into there being no front-person to speak of. One of the great things about our live gigs which has been commented on before is that there's a pretty substantial ambiguity as to who is making what sound on-stage, since we can all to some extent imitate each others parts. The lack of front-person is advantageous in that we work really well playing in collaborations with soloists (DJ Spooky, Elliott Sharp, etc.). The band's administrative work is shared among the four of us, so that Rachael does most of the planning for live performances, Paul handles the finances and runs the website, etc.
Paul: We've developed a distributed approach for a lot of things. I handle financial and web stuff, while Luke has been handling a lot of our dealings with Caipirinha (Records), and some bookings. Rachael handles some bookings, too, and Stephen, as much as he can given his current schedule, drives much of the composition process.
Stephen: I think it's a complex collaborative process that's rarely the same from one song to the next. Some things one of us has primarily "written" and then we all jam on the basic ideas together and flesh it out as a band. Others are developed from scratch by all of us playing together. When we play live Rachael's up front in part because she's the most pleasing to look at... and also because it's easier to tell what sounds she's producing than it is by watching the rest of us. So it's a good visual anchor.
We all work together on many facets of the band's existence. For instance, I design the graphics for our albums and promotional materials, and then Paul takes these graphics and derives our website design from them and generates a whole interactive world with consistent graphic design motifs from our most recent albums. In the same way when we record, I might write a melody, Rachael will play it and she will write variations and harmonies on it, and then Luke will take the recording of it and use his software to re-synthesize the part. So when we listen to the final work, it's impossible to say where one of our contributions ends and the next begins.
Splendid: Lots of electronic bands get something of a bad rap when they play live -- "He just pushed a button and then sat there for a half hour..." You all are clearly not just pushing a button and then sitting around while the songs play. Can you each describe a little bit of what it is you're doing exactly during a performance? For Rachael ('cello) and Paul (keyboards) it's fairly obvious, although you both do a good bit of noodling with knobs and switches while you're playing. Luke and Stephen are another matter entirely...
Luke: I used to lug around analog modular synths (a Buchla 100 Series, and then later a Serge Modular which I still haul out on special occasions). This looked pretty cool on stage because I had tons of wires and blinking lights everywhere but the synths proved incredibly unreliable both in terms of pitch (they always went out of tune) and timing (they always went out of synch). They were also pretty heavy and tended to electrocute me at random moments in rehearsal. Last spring we had a performance at the Kitchen and I used a Powerbook running Max/MSP and it worked so much smoother than the synths that I figured I could deal without the blinking lights and switched to a computer onstage. The Powerbook is great because I can do a lot more interesting things than I could do with the synths -- I can load samples, do different kinds of filtering, etc. But the basic sounds I make on stage are the same; I just make up weird loops of things and then manipulate them as I go. The controller I use on stage is a Wacom tablet -- it's used mainly by designers and artists so they can actually draw on their computer but Max lets me map everything I do with the pen (including pressure and tilt) to different parameters of the sound onstage. I also play guitar and electric bass onstage sometimes... sometimes I even run the guitar into the Serge or the Powerbook and run a sort of programmed wah-wah on it.
Stephen: Let's see, as for me, I'm doing the beats and the mixing live. I have a dozen or so loops in the sampler for each song and I'm busy running loops in and out, mixing the band, and cueing section changes in the songs based on what loops and beats I drop in and cut out. This allows for the length and moment-to-moment changes in our songs to remain improvisational, to allow for a more dynamic and a more flexible set, and to keep it a bit on the edge for all of us. I'm also running everything through a variety of effects which I use to shape the overall sound of the mix and to meld the end of one song into the beginning of the next, since one of the challenges of our sets is we never truly stop playing until it's over.
Splendid: Which tunes on Becoming Transparent do you think work best live? Are there any that are just unplayable?
Luke: The four tracks from the record we have in current live rotation are "Downtime is Becoming...", "Transform/Disappear", "Vindication", and the first track on the record, "Transparent". Those four were the ones we picked as being the most playable in the sense that we can perform something that'll sound like the right song without having to automate too much of the music. Some of the other tracks, like "Connection You Didn't Think Possible" and "Miles Away", have so many overdubs and random stuff going on that playing it live might turn out to be more trouble than it's worth. As we go along we'll probably put more of the tracks from the album into live rotation; we're especially excited about trying the songs that have vocals.
Splendid: How much is a performance of a given song like its friend on the CD? It seems that you've gradually moved towards more structured, song-like forms. Is that a direction you think you'll continue to follow? I'm thinking that as you release CDs and the audience gets to know individual tunes you might start feeling a certain amount of pressure to play things that people recognize, as opposed to just going off on tweaky space jams...
Luke: The basic idea is to improvise around a framework that we can all play along to and have fun. In the original configuration when we didn't use fancy stuff onstage like keyboards and samplers and computers the framework was historically a set of programmed beats that Stephen had made and which we would all play over. In the summer of 1997 when we started rehearsals for what became the first tracks on the jungle album we gradually made the shift to more stuctured tracks, with harmonic progressions, verses, choruses and all that good stuff. As we moved more and more into making all our tracks in the studio rather than reverse-engineering them from live performance, the frameworks we played around changed to more resemble the songs they were based on. While there is a tendency to play specific tracks off of our recordings, there is still enough improvisation going on that every performance is different.
Stephen: As for feeling pressure to play things people recognize, I think if someone has listened to the albums they'll recognize the tracks. But I think if anything it makes it more interesting for people to hear new, re-interpreted and reconfigured versions of the songs they know in a live context. We can't try to duplicate the subtlety of a studio mix live onstage (well, I can't), and instead there is the variability of improvisation and a form of "live remixing" if you will. Tweaky space jams...maybe that's one way of putting it...
Splendid: I've heard rumors of a video...
Luke: So have we. Just kidding. We're working on videos for a couple of the tracks of the new record. We'll keep you posted.
Stephen: Rather, we're sinking money into videos for a couple of our tracks, but we're not sure where that money's going...
Splendid: Caipirinha Records is a very cool label. They're probably best known at this point for the two films they've made, Synthetic Pleasures and Modulations. But for the last couple of years they seem to have been focusing on building up a roster of really interesting, often wacked-out electronic artists. How did the FEQ get involved with Caipirinha?
Luke: The initial contact was Paul Miller, who knew Iara Lee and was interested in Caipirinha as an ideal label to release the File Under Futurism record. They liked us enough to put out Becoming Transparent as well.
Splendid: So File Under Futurism was also released by Caipirinha. Who released your previous CDs? Were they DIY? Are they still available?
Luke: Our first records were indeed DIY. You can get them at several record stores in New York and New Haven and online from the Electronic Music Foundation's CDeMusic catalog. They are still available, though our stock of the Jungle Album is dwindling.
Stephen: At this point, the best and maybe the only way to get our older records is through CDeMusic.org or through our website. We've stopped updating the stores for the older ones. They're pretty rare items now, eh?
Splendid: The DJ Spooky album was the one that really got your name out there. How did that come about? Are there any plans to work with him again?
Luke: We met Paul Miller at a show he did at Columbia with Pauline Oliveros in the fall of 1998. I gave him a copy of the Jungle Album, and he liked it enough to want us to record with him. The original plan was just to do a track together, but the project had sufficient merit that it turned into the File Under Futurism album. We did a live improv score with DJ Spooky to the Walter Ruttman film Berlin: Symphony of a City in Portugal in May and Rachael played on a track on his latest release with Scanner. I expect we'll end up working together again, though he's one of the busiest people I've ever met in my life, so a lot of that will depend more on scheduling than anything else.
Stephen: We have a great relationship where we're each planning to remix each other's material in the future, that sort of thing. And hopefully we'll play other shows together, as the ones we've done have gone over quite well.
Splendid: There are a bunch of other people involved in the band in various ways...I know Johnathan Lee has been playing some bass and doing some producing for you, and Mark McNamara is involved in the video aspects of your live show. Do you think the FEQ will stay a Q, or do you imagine expanding in the future as you get the chance to realize some of your more ambitious projects?
Luke: We are all for collaboration, and the two people you mentioned have been involved in a pretty significant way over the years. Mark has been a great friend and was instrumental in getting us some of our early gigs. Since then he's collaborated with the band a bunch of times and has gotten me into interactive video and installation work. Johnathan Lee helped out a lot with the production of the last record, and played bass on some of the tracks. We've worked with a lot of other musicians both in performance and on our recordings, and I don't expect that aspect of our work to change, though I think it's safe to say that the size of the permanent group won't change anytime soon.
Rachael: We enjoy collaborating with various people who can bring different elements to our project. Originally we had thought of ourselves as a group that would constantly change its lineup, however we have remained mostly a quartet with an occasional guest or two -- sometimes in live performance but most often in recording.
Paul: We work very well as a quartet. With all our resources we come up with a very rich, thick and chocolatey sound, so sometimes it can be hard to incorporate additional players -- but Stephen, especially, has a very good ear for mixing all that information on our studio tracks, and on this album especially the results are much more refined so that each track doesn't come at you in a flurry. Because of this, Becoming Transparent, more than, any other of our records previous, has potential for a much broader appeal while retaining those gems beneath the surface that reward careful and repeated listening.
Stephen: Starting out as we did with this impromptu collaborative atmosphere, I think we've always been big on working with other artists. In addition to the work with DJ Spooky, we've also played live collaborations with Elliott Sharp, Ken Thomson and his band Gutbucket, Johnathan Lee on bass, Terry Pender from Minus Ted on mandolin and guitar, and the occasional vocalist. I suspect that the core of FEQ will still be FEQ, but we're always keeping an ear out for vocalists or musicians or multimedia folks to work with. I think the challenges that collaboration poses have broadened and strengthened what we can do musically.
Splendid: On a similar note, some of the tracks on the new CD have vocals on them, and they work quite well. Do you ever have guest singers when you play live? Is that a direction you're planning on going?
Luke: We'll probably take a crack at performing some of the tracks with vocals at our release party for Becoming Transparent. We're very excited about the vocal tracks (one of which, "Exasperation", is the first single from the album), so it'll be interesting to try and play them live with the vocalists. Most of the material we produce will most likely remain instrumental, however; groups like Massive Attack keep a team of revolving lead vocalists on retainer for their recordings and touring, and as a result have vocals much more integrated into their music than we do (plus two of the three core members of the group are vocalists). We prefer to use vocals to highlight certain tracks rather than form the sound of an entire album; it lets us work with a wider variety of singers in a broader range of styles.
Paul: We've performed once before with a singer, and almost twice. The time that was not to be, was not to be because we were performing without a power backup for our sampler and knocked the power out; I think Luke got really excited turning some knob, and out came the plug and off went our equipment. It was very dramatic and actually came at the right spot in the beat, so it got a great response from the crowd. Unfortunately, though, we couldn't recover at all, and had to cut the set short.
As far as performing with singers in general, it's difficult to coordinate rehearsing with all of our various schedules, since we're all working stiffs, and not even all in the same location always.
Splendid: Some of you come from pretty geeky computer music backgrounds, yet your music manages to sound completely organic and non-academic and groovy. Do you ever consciously evaluate what you're creating with an ear towards un-geeking it? I guess this sort of gets back to the first questions above. Becoming Transparent was created with lots of bleeding-edge techniques, custom software, really tweaky, geeky stuff -- but it ends up sounding exceptionally soulful and rich, not really the sort of thing most people think of when they think about "computer music". I'm wondering whether that has anything to do with the fact that you've been a live band since the beginning, and so have always had lots of feedback from an audience, as opposed to the stereotypical computer music person who sits in the studio for 3 months to make a piece and only emerges to play the piece at a conference somewhere. And then only once...
Luke: I think a lot of the "geekiness" that exists in computer music comes about more from the compositional process employed than from the technology involved. The fact that we're a real live, improvisationally-inclined band has a lot to do with the way we record in the studio. While we write our own software and use technology to the fullest potential we know how, we aren't using the computers to "write" the music for us. Occasional algorithmic procedures show up in the way things get processed, but the music is written and performed in a very intuitive manner that stems completely from the musical personalities of the people playing on the record. The final test of all our work is how it sounds, not how the procedures look on paper. That's one of the reasons why we keep the role of computers on stage to an instrumental one, rather than having a laptop that pretends to be a live performer... software developers have stolen the term "interaction" away from the realm of person-to-person communication and re-defined it to involve personal computing in some intrinsic way, whereas the truth of the matter is just the opposite... four people improvising in a room with a lot of neat equipment is by definition going to have a higher level of interactivity than four computers running the same equipment with some artificial intelligence software, even if a person occasionally intervenes.
Rachael: I think out of the all of the members of FEQ I'm the one with the least "computer geek" background. I have spent most of my life in the classical music realm. But I think the fact that we all come from different backgrounds feeds directly into what makes us who we are. I come from a background where music was all about performance, so my thought process is geared toward that "goal".
Paul: When it comes to academic computer music, we all have a generally similar response to what we hear. Luke, of course, as a graduate student in the subject, is exposed to much more of this than the rest of us -- and as such, I'll merely speak for myself here, but I really need to respond emotionally to the aesthetic of a piece in order to maintain my interest and keep me in the mix in order to explore it intellectually. I think that many people feel this way. It's pretty simple to patch some stuff together to mess with a sound file, but to do so with an intelligible, emotional, and intellectually engaging result is difficult. Luke's designs often act very subtly to accomplish this.
Stephen: I think playing live has had a lot to do with it, because when we began, if we couldn't generate it live, we couldn't do it at all. Now it has become a process of reverse-engineering what we've made in the studio do be able to perform some version of it live. While recording Becoming Transparent we were keeping an ear out for current music, and listening to the music in the clubs and then sitting down with it in the studio and deconstructing what we felt worked, what the smallest key elements of various styles were, and then translating them into our own style. So the music would not just work in a room full of computers, but would be constantly referencing and feeding off of current music in the world. In a nutshell, it was a balance between keeping it novel, keeping it consistent with "the FEQ sound", but also keeping it relevant.
Splendid: Despite the fact that a few of the tunes on Becoming Transparent have semi-technological sounding titles ("Downtime is Becoming Less of an Option", "Ping", "Connection You Didn't Think Possible"), there's nary a whiff of techno-fetishism on the CD. This isn't meant as a value question, i.e. techno-fetishism = bad, soulful = good. For instance, I really loved the first few Squarepusher CDs, which were entirely, totally about making loud, grating noises with a computer. I don't like his more recent "acoustic" stuff at all. With that in mind, how much do you think of yourselves as an "electronic" band? There's been sort of a rash of formerly guitar-based bands putting out "electronic" albums, sometimes successfully, sometimes not-so-successfully. But despite the obviously computer-based nature of your songs, they really don't strike me as being particularly interested in their computerized nature. Which is a bit odd, given that most (all?) of the sounds on the album would have been pretty difficult to create without the use of digital tools.
Luke: We're really interested more in how technology functions in music and culture in general, less than how technology can sound when placed in the spotlight on a recording. I think "techno-fetishism", as you call it, is a little too easy, whereas what we're trying to do is use technology to augment the human elements of what we do. Unlike Echo and the Bunnymen, who gave their drum machine first billing in their band name, we work more in the framework of "electronically-aided" music... You wouldn't be able to make a Freight Elevator Quartet album without a computer, but you definitely wouldn't be able to make one without the four people in the band, either. The title of the new album, Becoming Transparent, alludes directly to the fact that computers are becoming so immersed into our cultural discourse that they've become invisible...Everyone has an e-mail address, everyone is on the web, and computers are taken for granted in so many aspects of our life that it's worth reflecting on the way people, especially artists, interface with digital technology.
Paul: That are songs don't automatically register in your brain as electronica or whatever else, is due to our blending of different sounds and techniques in a way that doesn't shout "We're using a QWERTY keyboard right now and staring in a screen for a bazillion hours!" Well Stephen at least is. Anyway. Our techniques in signal processing and mixing and our outright instrumentation carefully avoid hackneyed electronica sounds and textures like you might hear in other pieces out there. In "Transform/Disappear," for example, we're pretty up-front about hip-hop drums, but those drums are situated among a rich and melodic cello line, lightly processed voice, a slowly changing background keyboard, and Luke's Serge line. The cello especially, pulls this piece out of those well-defined styles and makes it new and interesting for listeners.
AUDIO: Connection You Didn't Think Possible
Stephen: I think that in electronic music, right up to the current crop, there is a constant and audible interplay between process and product. And in the electronic culture, a digital production technique goes from being absolutely novel and unheard-of, to an often-heard genre-specific marker, to a total cliche in rapid succession.
What is "bleeding edge" technology while you're recording can be trite by the time the work is released. The fact that Luke writes a lot of the software that we use, and that other software we use is more prevalent in the academic/computer-music world and not in the popular electronica world, means that it is harder to generate "trendier" effects, but that they may sound novel somewhat longer. We also have a remarkably small array of club-music-friendly hardware gear: we use virtually none of the toys you see advertised in Electronic Musician or Keyboard, which also makes it harder to sound current, but ultimately easier to sound original. I do think there is some emphasis on "process" in our music since Luke writes software that we use like musical instruments, and we like to show off some of those aspects. But I think Becoming Transparent is our most richly crafted, well-written, and well orchestrated work so far, and it's those qualities, more than flashy demonstrations of "process", that are it's strengths. Although I admit, soulful orchestration will speak to some of our listeners, and the technological side will speak to others just as strongly. Electronic music is a little like web design in that way: if there's not a bit of the "how did they do that?" factor, it's just not as gripping.
Splendid: What's next for the FEQ?
Stephen: Becoming Transparent, the full-length CD is coming out in September, and Exasperation, the vinyl 12" EP with vocals by JMD and remixes by Kit Clayton, Datachi, and Federspiel is coming this Fall, both on Caipirinha Music...New website FE4.com coming in September...
Luke: A couple of weeks after Becoming Transparent comes out we'll be playing a release party. We haven't made specific plans to go back into the studio but I expect that's not too far off.
Paul: This is unusual for us that our next album isn't half-finished by the time our current album comes back from the press. But going into the fall and winter we're looking to make some significant progress on a new album.
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Irving Bellemead is a large five-petaled flower native to the Amazon basin.
[ graphics credits :: header -- michael byzewski | base photos -- aaron milestone :: credits graphics ]