“The result is contemporary classical music,” says Charlie Looker. “Who even checks that shit out?” He's describing the disconnect between music and life that happens when composers get too deep into theory for its own sake. “I mean, it sounds awesome, but who even knows about it? It's cut off from life, so it's dying. Even though it sounds amazing.”
Bold words from someone whose own work is frequently (and deservedly) classed “avant-garde”. As the creative force and frontman of new, ominously jolting art-rock outfit Extra Life, the mid-20s guitarist (formerly of experimental ensemble Zs) is responsible for all of its more outre (and compelling) peculiarities: the microscopic attention to rhythmic variation and interplay, the monolithic rumble and dissonance, the medieval-chant-based intonations. But academically complex construction aside, Extra Life possesses a visceral urgency, a metal-like heaviness and frenzy, that affords them their billings next to punk and noise-rock bands (on the upcoming tour in March they'll play dates with Magik Markers and These Are Powers). “I'm trying to break out of that cloistered art vibe,” Looker explains over a cup of coffee. And he has.
It comes down to a break between music that exists only for itself, and music that points to something more. “I've become very critical about the idea of pure music,” Looker says. To that end, he has thrown himself into composing meaningful lyrics. In Zs, Looker had flirted with incanted words as compositional elements, but in Extra Life, they're the bedrock, the “plug back into life.” And working in something like the traditional singer/songwriter format for the first time has proven productive: Extra Life debut Secular Works will be out this spring, to be followed almost immediately with a second album of new material written since the recording of the first. A third work, “The Mouth and the Hand” will take the form of an essay set to music, exploring Looker's own move from hand (instrumentation) to mouth (voice) juxtaposed against the historic shift from mouth to hand that took place in Western music as middle ages choral arrangements gave way to classical instrumentation.
It's a fitting topic for a project that constantly seems to be bridging the two. While Looker's voice channels a “monophonic song” predating harmony and his meandering structures and variation recall a time before symmetry was the compositional norm, he also pulls in jazz fluidity and modern classical atonality and formal tinkering, along with more familiar elements. “I'm definitely not trying to avoid being poppy.”
Somehow it all comes off as cohesive, perhaps because (recent research into medieval music aside), Looker has internalized his old sources to the point of unconsciousness. The more technical aspects emerge on their own to suit a song's needs, not the other way around.
“I don't listen to prog. I can't say that enough.”