I knew of Moonshake before I knew of Laika. In fact for a year or so,
Moonshake's Dirty and Divine was a favorite album of mine. I have therefore
long been intrigued by Laika, whose Margaret Fiedler
and John Frenett split off from Moonshake and joined forces with
producer/engineer Guy Fixsen in 1993. Since then they've put out an EP and
three full-length albums -- Silver Apples of the Moon, Sounds of the Satellites and the newly-released Good Looking Blues. I find their brand of jazzy, dubby, hip-hoppy music to
be brilliant, and was therefore quite excited to spend some time with Guy
Fixsen and to ask him about making records, life in Laika and music in general.
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Splendid: I notice you're on a three-year schedule as far as full-length releases go (1994, 1997, 2000). Why does it take you so long to write albums?
Guy Fixsen: Touring takes up about a year per record and there’s always a big gap between finishing a record and it being released (we finished this new one almost a year ago) So all in all we spent 18 months actually making this record. Probably about 9 months writing and recording an electronic version of the songs and then another 9 months rehearsing the songs with the band, playing them at shows in Italy and Scandinavia to incorporate that side of things, overdubbing bass clarinet, turntables, trumpet, percussion, flute etc. editing those overdubs and mixing the whole dang thing… We take time to make sure our records are the records we want to make.
Splendid: In view of these extended breaks between releases what do you do to re-establish yourself each time out?
Guy Fixsen: It seems that people who buy one Laika record often buy another (so) we try to make sure they are lasting records that work on different levels and bear repeated listening. That way people are there for us when we make new music. It can be hard to make sure people know the new record is out - getting media attention is very competitive even for big bands. We make videos and do tours you know the kind of thing…
Splendid: Do you have "day" jobs? What are they?
Guy Fixsen: Nope. We manage to make a modest living out of Laika, combined with me doing the odd production for other bands.
Splendid: In the press release for Good Looking Blues Margaret Fiedler says, "...it's as if we recorded (the album) twice -- it went from electronic to organic. It's a very live album..." What does this mean? Did you write things electronically first and then "score" them for acoustic instruments?
Guy Fixsen: Yeah - we essentially made the record the same way we made "Sounds of the Satellites" ie in an electronic form and then decided that it was not enough of a move on and that it needed more of a live approach. In the past our songs have evolved quite a bit in a live siuation because the samples are played live and we wanted to capture a little of this on the record. So we turned drumloops into live parts, etcetera. Kinda like scoring it, I suppose.
Splendid: What is your production process like? Specifically, how did Good Looking Blues get from your collective mind to the public's ear?
Guy Fixsen: I can’t say the record ever was in our collective mind, really. We are a pretty anti-conceptual band and like to evolve our music rather than try to slavishly follow a predefined path. So songs start off with rhythmic loops followed by melodies, such as bass, rhodes or moog and then (at a fairly embryonic stage) vocals. We tend to use overdubs to stretch the harmonic and rhythmic possibilites of the raw tracks and find them being taken off in directions we hadn’t even anticipated. Often we will backtrack and keep only a very few elements of a version and strike out in a completely different version. We don’t end up using the very serial process that makes most records. The live thing informs the records too unlike most bands that use electronics.
Splendid: How do you decide a song is finished then? Or is your music
Guy Fixsen: The recorded version of a song is not the final version, but is the
definitive version. The songs evolve live and as I think I said a part of
this newest record was recording some of that. Having said that they've
moved on live since then, not drastically but in terms of feel and focus.
Like most things Laika, the decision to call a song finished is completely
instinctual -- we know it when we hear it and it takes "two thumbs up" from
both of us to get there. The interesting thing here is that actually our
newest record is the first record we have truly finished, in the sense that
we decided it was done rather than had to stop because we were getting
behind on the rent.
Splendid: There's a seminal piece of electro-acoustic music by Morton
Subotnik entitled "Silver Apples of the Moon". Was the name of your first album an intentional reference? If so, what is the importance of this composition for you?
Guy Fixsen: Yes, this was one of the places the title came from - it’s also a couplet from Yeats' "Silver Apples of the Sun, Golden Apples of the Sun". The Subotnik piece is interesting because it was the first electronic piece commisioned for vinyl and by a classical label at that - something of an acceptance by that fraternity that electronic music was valid. It was completely scored out, which when you hear it is especially amazing, as it sounds like a lot of random bleeps. It has a wonderful disjointed, spacious atmosphere to it.
Splendid: Who are other electro-acoustic composers that have influenced
you (for example, I've seen your name associated with Pierre Henry on occasion)?
Guy Fixsen: Yes - I love that piece "For a Door and a Sigh" - basically him recording the sound of a door creaking for ages! I have to confess my ignorance of a lot of this music, although Stockhausen did some great things in this area.
Splendid: How have those influences manifested themselves?
Guy Fixsen: In terms of an attitude to recording spaces and using dissonance in subtle ways. Also in a more open-minded approach to juxtaposition.
Splendid: Good Looking Blues differs from your previous albums in several ways. One thing that was obvious to me was your striking use of the bass clarinet. In my mind the bass clarinet will forever be associated with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. I found myself often referencing that album
while listening to yours. Do think there's any tie?
Guy Fixsen: I would like to think that we take something from the spirit of his early seventies recordings - when this fairly purist jazz musician discovered Jimi Hendrix and James Brown and put his trumpet through a wah pedal and got his rhythm section to play funk loops. He invented jazz-rock-funk fusion and although the musos made it a dirty word pretty quickly there’s a wonderful newness and excitement to "On the Corner" or "Pangaea". I think we used bass clarinet and turntables on this record because we are more confident these days and not afraid to show our influences. The track "Widows’ Weed" is Laika at our most Miles-y.
Splendid: In a more general sense, what other jazz has impacted your
Guy Fixsen: It gets you away from the squareness of rock music in rhythmic and tonal terms. It has its self-absorbed pitfalls like any genre but it is essentially the most open-minded form of music.
Splendid: Good Looking Blues also seemed to be less "sung" and more
rapped than your previous albums. Why is this?
Guy Fixsen: There’s actually only two rapped songs on the album - maybe the fact that they are the first and last songs gives you that impression. There’s also "Badtimes" which is spoken, Ken Nordine style. I just think there’s more dynamic vocally on this record it goes from those songs to quite "folky" singing as in "Go Fish", "Glory Cloud" and "T Street". Our other albums have had just as much spoken/rapped stuff. This new record does have some more obvious hip hop influences - the use of turntables (sometimes in 7/8, mind you!) etc. We’ve been less afraid to show our influences on this album - we’re probably just a bit more confident this time around. That shows in the use of bass clarinet which for us is a clear reference to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis.
Splendid: Good Looking Blues is the most direct acknowledgement of the Russian canine cosmonaut that is your namesake. Anything else we should take notice of, cover and title-wise?
Guy Fixsen: Every record we’ve done has the dang dog on the cover - in the stamps on Silver Apples of the Moon and wearing a space helmet in the snowdome on Sounds of the Satellites. She’s a bit bigger this time, I s’pose… This record is the first one not to have a space themed title. That kinda reflects the album being a more earthy, visceral thing.
Splendid: Some of you guys came out of Moonshake. I think that Laika and Moonshake have moved in a similar direction musically. What's your opinion?
Guy Fixsen: I haven’t heard what Moonshake have done in a while.
Splendid: The atmosphere of your music is often both dark and light, sort of menacing yet optimistic. Is this a deliberate dualism?
Guy Fixsen: We certainly want to make music that works on several levels - all my favourite records do. We also want to reflect life and life is a complicated thing… I like it when you can listen to a record quietly and enjoy the song element or loud and get into the intensity of the sound. MBV's Loveless is a good example.
Splendid: Is rock 'n' roll dead? What will be the music of the 21st
Guy Fixsen: I guess I don't really see music as a set of separate genres more as a whole
thing rock has been assimilated by all kinds of people (the Chemical Brothers and Miles Davis are two examples) In that sense all good lasting music lives on
in the music it inspires. I have no clue what the next sea change in music will be -- all I can say is
that it's well overdue.
Splendid: What's the most important album (besides yours) to be
released in the last year?
Guy Fixsen: My personal fave was Tied and Ticked Trio's EA1 EA2.
Splendid: Do you consider yourselves more a "studio" band or a "live"
band? In which setting does your music come across best?
Guy Fixsen: Put me on the rack and I have to say the records are more important to me in
that they touch more people and last more than live performances. Then again
our recordings take in what we do live and are heavily informed by playing
in front of people. There's a lot of cross polination. I can't say I enjoy a
good show more or less than a good mix. If there is a concept to Laika it's
about not falling into a well trodden groove. All good music has that
Splendid: Where will Laika be in ten years?
Guy Fixsen: In ten years.... I honestly don't know or care. Not too bitter hopefully.
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Noah Wane doesn't exist within the visible spectrum.
[ graphics credits :: header -- michael byzewski | photos -- various people :: credits graphics ]