By: Zachary Schepis
Photo courtesy of Brad Laner.
Brad Laner is somewhat of a dynamo in the indie rock community. He founded the shoegaze pioneers Medicine, released a Grammy-nominated album with the bass player from Tool, collaborated with Brian Eno, paved the way for post-rock according to Pitchfork, and even featured a hit single in the cult-classic The Crow (1994). He’s a lightning rod in the studio too: so far he’s collaborated on over 300 albums. One might imagine it impossible to overlook Laner’s most recent release, an offering from his solo project which dropped just last month. But even in the wake of Medicine’s unexpected reunion earlier this year, Nearest Suns (2013) is not to be eclipsed. The album forges new ground for psychedelia, with lyrics that entertain both the metaphysical and the highly personal. Laner’s compositions offer an ideal amount of density and smolder under his trademark noise-heavy feedback. The result manages to be both raw and refined at the same time; the work of a seasoned artist who has lost neither his boldness nor his penchant for exploration. BTR sits down with Laner to discuss an important year and the songwriter’s plans for the future.
Tell me a little bit about your background as a musician. How did the journey begin for you?
Without a doubt it was early childhood, I was transfixed by my parent’s Beatles records. They’ve told me that I was proclaiming to be John Lennon. I mean, I don’t remember doing that, but it was before I could even really talk. I think I pretty much predicted my whole future there, except for the world-wide fame and success of course (laughs).
How have your musical influences developed since the days of being John Lennon?
Man where to begin… all of the classic ’60s “dad-rock” stuff for sure. You know: The Who, The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys. Later it was a lot of the Kraut stuff, like Can and Faust, Guru Guru and Kraftwerk. A lot of British prog stuff too, and King Crimson – definitely them. As a guitar player Robert Fripp was a huge influence on me. I could go on and on. But yeah, a lot of old stuff.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists over the years, are there any that stand out as particularly memorable?
Yeah man, I got to sing at the fucking Hollywood Bowl this year with M83. I don’t know much that can top that as far as memorable experiences can go, especially for an LA boy like me who grew up going to concerts there. It was so heavy. My kid was there and it was the first time he’s ever seen me perform. And it was a song that I wrote with them too. Other than that, getting sampled by Brian Eno was pretty cool.
What was that like?
I mean the extent of actually working with him was just a couple of email exchanges. He had an extremely obscure CD that had some of my electronic music on it, and he basically built a track on this beat that I created, making it the basis for a whole new composition. It was mind blowing really, completely insane. I just get an email from him one day out of the blue saying, “can I use this?” and I’m like “are you fucking kidding me? Of course!” (laughs) All I asked him was to just credit me as playing on it. I thought that would be cooler than having him say that he sampled it. He has this cool history of giving names to things, like “cricket menace” and “snake guitar.” I really wanted him to give me an Eno-esque designation, so I ended up playing “pulse loop.” That’s bragging rights forever there, for what it’s worth.
Photo courtesy of Brad Laner.
How did it feel to reunite with Medicine earlier this year? Do you plan on making more music with them in the near future?
Oh yeah, we’re definitely going to be making another record, we’ve just started figuring that out actually. It’s already kind of begun; we’re sorting through this massive accumulation of material right now.
Obviously it’s been great, we’ve played a handful of shows and it’s been super fun. There’s been talk of us going to Brazil next year to play, which I’m very excited about. Overall it’s just nice to re-approach the whole thing as sane older people.
Do you think coming from this new and more mature place has affected the energy of the music?
It doesn’t seem to have toned it down. The shows were all very high energy and I think the record is definitely turned up. I mean everything ultimately affects it, but we’re not a kinder, gentler band – we’re still noisy as fuck (laughs). We’ve always been super melodic too, even when we were younger, so we’ve still got that balance of noise and melody, which is what Medicine is. Hopefully it’s going even more in each direction.
What prompted the reunion?
Well it’s a well-worn tale already, but we did the reissues of our first two albums. I hadn’t spoken to either of the band members in 18 years. I presented the reissues to them as sort of a peace offering, and everyone ended up being so overwhelmed with how well it turned out and how well they were received. We started playing together again, very cautiously at first, and it all started coming together. We made the whole record in secret too. It’s very dicey when bands get together for the first time after so long. And I guess I did that out of my own neurotic need, to be free of external input. It was tricky, but well worth it. The whole thing has been just the right level of activity to prevent it from becoming a nightmare. Because no one really wants to tour, you know?
It can be very time consuming.
Yeah, I mean it’s no way to live really. That’s why we broke up in the first place – we just toured too much in the ‘90s.
Last month you released the album Nearest Suns with your self-titled solo project. Has it been hard juggling work between these two bands?
I’m always making music. That album’s been in the process for two years now, and it’s only just come out. It’s all stuff I was working on right before the Medicine reunion, so I don’t think I have plans to do another solo album like that anytime soon. I definitely want to put all of my songwriting focus on Medicine for the time being. It just seems like we absolutely have to do another album – for ourselves. So that’s where all of the energy is going now. I know it appears like I just kind of plopped out multiple albums this year (laughs), but the majority of that material had been on the shelf.
Hometapes, the guys who put out my solo records, they really are wonderful, and were very exacting and careful about the packaging. It comes out when it comes out, you know? It sort of has to gestate long enough there for it to make the most sense. The record was a true collaboration, where I provide the music and they provide the visual. And I love that, even if it means I have to be very patient.
What was that collaboration like? The album artwork is pretty incredible.
They managed to get the brilliant Robert Beatty to do it, who we were all absolutely geeked-out fans for. He’s done tons and tons of amazing sleeves over the last few years. I mean I just said to him, “do an idea that you’ve wanted to do.” I didn’t want to tell him anything in other words because when you get someone that good you just want to let them do their thing.
I think he was interested in trying to do a really limited color palette instead of something super psychedelic. I mean, the image itself is super psychedelic, but he was more interested in using these harsh yellow and red tones, so it became this very limited not-color thing. I see it as profoundly metaphysical.
When you look at it do you see a connection to the music on the album?
Yeah absolutely, I think it’s a perfect fit. I know he listened to the record before he cooked that image up. And it’s a pretty evocative album title I like to think also.
What were some of the inspirations for the album?
It’s a lot of super personal stuff; I actually didn’t print the lyrics because a lot of it was too personal. It’s sort of talking to myself in a way, just to hear myself say things. I’ve always been one for having people make their own interpretation of my lyrics, but I was definitely going through a rough time – especially my marriage. And then there are your typical scorpionic meditations on death and sex (laughs). It’s a jumble of many things, and I guess there isn’t a central theme in other words.
To be honest, very frequently I’ve just been making music, and it’s been very stream-of-consciousness, so a song might not directly be about something, but it still ends up revealing things.
Has your songwriting process always been stream-of-consciousness?
The lyrics generally come after the music, so it’s always kind of been the case of singing along nonverbally and then having the words start taking shape. It’s sort of free-association and then edited by experience. Having done this a really long time, I’ve developed an aesthetic sense as to what works as rock lyrics. I guess I’m looking for an ease, a certain flow, a mysterious process that hopefully works. Jim, the drummer in Medicine, he calls it “chewing on words.” I’m not entirely sure I understand it, but it’s a good thing (laughs). I feel like it’s a skill I’ve been practicing that I’ve only just recently started to get good at.
Playing a guitar through a four-track recorder has become a part of your signature sound. What made you decide to start doing this?
God, it must be because I lived with my four-track cassette recorder. It was like my entire universe in the ’80s. It was so revolutionary to be able to do that, to be able to record overdubs without building up mountains of tape hiss. I started when I was a little kid with two portable tape recorders and I ‘d record something on one cassette and then play it into the air while playing along with it, and record that onto another tape recorder. It was my first real taste of experimenting.
Then the four-track came along and became a huge thing to do; you could essentially make records with them. It became my constant companion. It didn’t take me long to realize if you plug a guitar into it and crank up the volume you get a nice distortion. It overloads, you know, like what The Beatles did on “Revolution.” I started making song after song where that was the distortion I wanted, and one day I thought hey, I wonder if I can plug this into an amp. Lo and behold, this wicked sound (laughs). So consequently I ended up schlepping the four-track around with me all over the world.
I’m not the first guy to do it though. The Rolling Stones did it on “Street Fighting Man,” when I talked to Lindsey Buckingham (the guitarist for Fleetwood Mac) it turns out he did a lot of that stuff on Tusk. Line distortion is just really sweet on a guitar. It’s not a secret, just the way that I wrangle it and treat it that makes it my sound. Anyone else is welcome to try it. It’s just a bit unwieldy, you can’t turn it off. You know what I mean? It’s not like a guitar pedal where you can just bypass it.
Did it take you a while to get used to that wild unwieldiness?
No because that’s what led to Medicine. The song “Aruca” on our first album, that crazy huge noise intro, that’s what happens when you plug the thing in and start messing with it. The unwieldiness is what the sound is really. That mixed with some rocking, the rocking and the rolling.
How about your recording process, what’s that like?
Well it’s actually the same for my solo project as it is for Medicine. It’s all recorded at my place on a powerful Mac, using Logic. A couple good mics, a good sound interface, and that’s it. The technology has gotten so good that anybody can make something decent or passable. Between myself and Thom Monahan, the brilliant producer who helps me mix the stuff, together we have the means to make a very respectable and interesting sounding record using consumer software. I love that, because I grew up in a time when everything was super expensive and only the elite could produce. I feel like my generation is very lucky to have known it both ways.
Recording in the house around your family, and with your son seeing you perform for the first time with M83, do you think he will take up the musical tradition like his father?
He definitely has ability and skill, but not necessarily the interest. He’s certainly not obsessive like I was. But I predict he’ll be a lead singer, once he comes around and realizes that girls love musicians (laughs).
What’s something interesting about you that fans might not know?
There’s my unlikely childhood appearance with The Captain and Tennille. Some of my close friends know about it, but not a lot of the people who listen to my music do. When I was in seventh grade I played bass in a junior high-school band, we played behind The Captain and Tennille on a TV show called Kids Are People Too. It was 1979 and we were all wearing disco leisure suits, and I had a pretty good mullet going on (laughs). It’s hilarious, and it’s on YouTube. The funniest part is this extremely abstract synthesizer solo in it. I was the bass player, but there was this kid on keyboards in the group, Joelle, and The Captain sort of spontaneously offered him a spot to take a solo. He did something really abstract and random, and you can see The Captain panic a little bit (laughs). It’s definitely one of my lesser known collaborations.