As we wait for new tour dates to be announced after their 2016 live show hiatus, Leverage Models have put together a mighty playlist of tracks that have influenced their new album Whites and they talk us through five of them.
Leverage Models began when composer/producer Shannon Fields disbanded his long-running art-performance group, “Stars Like Fleas” (who Paper Magazine once called “New York’s most sublime and continuously undiscovered band”…and also its most confusing), moved to the country, and began releasing equally confusing (in a different way) cassette tapes on Hometapes under the name Leverage Models, as “a form of therapy”. The music was received enthusiastically by critics and but he says lost him many friends.
Following favourable reviews of the preliminary EP’s Shannon joined forces with the Brooklyn art-rock band JOBS, Alena Spanger (formerly of Tiny Hazard), and avant-veteran percussionist Jeff Gretz, to form a band that built an audience touring North America for the next three years, and created the self-titled debut full-length album that some people considered remarkable and many others never heard. The music, on the surface, has been described as “Deceptively complex…intensely visceral, pleasurable, (literally and emotionally) moving music”. The music, under the surface, has been difficult to describe.
The band has been on live hiatus since the 2016 American presidential election and finally returned on October 26th with new album, Whites, with 50% of profits going to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As we wait for new tour dates to be announced, the band have put together a mighty playlist of tracks that have influenced the new album and below they talk us through five of them.
Nidia Minaj – Pra Fechar (CARGAA 2, 2015)
I think Principe Discos is the most exciting record label in the world right now. I haven’t tried to appropriate the rhythmic style or anything, but it was a heavy slice of my pleasure-listening while making Whites. There’s something about it that I felt an immediate, visceral connection to. Just about everything on the label comes out of a pretty small community of mostly (I think) 1st & 2nd wave Angolan immigrants living in and around Lisbon. They form this this small scene of beat-makers/DJ’s that have truly created something mercilessly idiosyncratic and fresh from scraps of Kuduro, Tarraxinha and Baile Funk (that is a lot of really pervasive non-western club beats that until the past few years my ignorant American ass was embarrassedly unaware of). Anyway, Nidia (she’s dropped the Minaj since this compilation) is one pretty inspiring example of that: spare constructions built from a small palette of heavy, airless, sometimes even gated drum samples (very reminiscent of the New Jack Swing, Go-Go, and Miami Freestyle beats that have inspired me since I was a tadpole), folk percussion samples, and most importantly, those constantly swung, dotted, or off-the-grid polyrhythms that keep you constantly disoriented, even as a heavy propulsive groove somehow emerges out of them. The metric magic tricks here are deep, the downbeats are mirages. Still, compared to something like Autechre or Aphex Twin, or other dance-related music comparably complex and elusive, something about a Nidia or DJ Firmeza or Marfox track just feels organic, like my own nervous system; like somehow completely natural and obvious forms that are juuuust alien enough that I have yet to fully crack the code, but somehow seem accessible to my body. In Lisbon I’ve seen people dance to this in frenetic, possessed sort of contortions that I can definitely get behind. For me, dancing is best when manic and unhinged (and on that count I do practice what I preach).
Yasuaki Shimizu – Tsuzuraori No Onna (Subliminal, 1987)
Shimizu’s catalog is an expansive head-fuck uniquely its own. He released Music For Commercials the same year he made this album, which sounds like a collection of unreleased Visible Cloaks or Nobukazu Takemura tracks, or like a wordless set of Julia Holter and Holy Herndon demos. In 1987! And I think he had something to do with the brilliant 1983 record by Mariah, Sora Ni Mau Maboroshi? Anyway, Subliminal is a collection of songs that sounds very of its time yet somehow feels very outside it — in spite of the familiarity of its elements, the way it breathes, the intuition behind his choices, behind the combination of these elements, are so….off. It has that Fairlight synth-influenced staccato feel for vocal horn and string sampling, and that dry, funky Trevor Horn-style production. But on songs like Kumi Chan or Tsuzuraori, I feel lost the whole time. More than in, say, a Laurie Anderson track of the same time period, where the conventions make it clear from the beginning that your’e in an alien landscape. What makes this special is that at any given moment you know exactly what this is (contemporary of late 80s Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Art of Noise, etc). But take one or two steps back, turn that 15 second listen into a 60 sec audition, and you have no idea how you got here. Very unexpected chord changes and key modulations that can go from blues to semi-tonality and back in the span of a break. Shimizu is a saxophone player and his arrangements are inventive and progressive, while his solos stick firmly with the most nondescript ‘hot sax’ solos imaginable. And his whole catalog is like this. Of this record he said “The way I see it, people operate within three realms: their local world, the world of information, and the world of myth. The closer you approach the last, the weaker reality becomes. Relating to the second, however, is more complex and you can interact deeply with information, and by willingly venturing into that world, even make it your local world.” Okay then. (?) I know I’m onboard though. And that it’s this combination of the deeply familiar and the deeply disorienting that creates fireworks in my nerve-endings. I didn’t exactly try to engineer that into Whites, but I was very conscious of not second-guessing those moments when they happened to appear in the course of mixing. Lately I’ve known many tracks like this to be dismissed by playlisters and bloggers as having ‘too much going on’. Which feels like an epidemic of the tragic lack of imagination to me. There’s joy in a shaking foundation.
Colin Newman – Their Terrain (Commercial Suicide, 1986)
I think over the past 4-5 years, when I (re)discover older music, I find I’m most drawn in by music that’s referred to as post-punk or art-pop, but which was drifting further and further away from British punk’s ‘year zero’…the guitars and destruction and blind anger and male rock and roll messiah tropes; further from the ‘edginess’ of analog synthesizers and instead embracing MIDI keyboards and light, synthetic sounds, reclaiming and re-contextualizing the otherwise smooth and sterile. That excited me. I don’t know why. For me, I grew up listening to a lot of noise (like, pure, subtract, harsh, unforgiving noise), and noise doesn’t just mean chaos and anger. Noise is often very controlled, very clinical. And I think it lacks a certain amount of emotional vocabulary to only be able to express complicated, dark emotions, anger, etc, through noisy sounds and minor keys, which seems like its default purpose in rock. Have I drifted into tangent? Yes. Anyway, like everybody else I know, Wire was important to me. I was particularly fascinated by Colin Newman’s dispassionate, detached delivery of almost academically dry and sometimes impenetrable lyrics. There seemed to be so much there. And can I say that ‘mystery’ (not vague, broad cliches, but opacity, nuance, provocation) is a lyrical quality I would be happy to hear a lot more often than I do. Truth: this song is gorgeous. The music is sentimental, purposefully naive, with ready-to-wear sounds, and harmonically gorgeous. But the real magic is sitting in the center of a triangle between the lovely grandeur of the arrangement, the lyrics (what?), and the fragile but mostly colorless way he sings them. (Doesn’t mystery usually manifest in threes?). I’ve spent some time chasing that, I admit. I’ve questioned my decision to use blatant, hard auto-tuning on almost every one of my vocals on the album. And I’m very well aware that it’s by far the most polarizing thing about the record. There were a lot of reasons I had for those decisions. Not all of them 100% sound. Some of those reasons were probably blatant provocation, the wrong-ness of it in context of this music, the pervasiveness of it on almost everything you hear. But the truth it that, mainly, I liked it. I like the way it dynamically flattened my voice into something human, but only just barely so. The way it drained the color out of my ordinary, unstable, ugly voice, and made the lyrics more transparent. Put another way, I wanted to get out of the way of the words and melodies. Like…I love poetry. Good poetry has always been very important to me. But I strongly dislike poetry readings. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a poem read aloud and enjoyed it. There is something about the way your brain takes it in quietly on the page versus the way your brain takes it in when it’s being emoted to you…at you…the meaning is changed when it’s interpreted too much (or at all). It takes on the quality of the person you see and hear in front of you. I wanted the focus to be more on the words, the phrasing and the melody, and less on the human transmission medium. So in a sense I turned my voice into a MIDI instrument.
Ray Lema – Nzola (Medecine, 1984)
My love for this track taps back into my love for that Freestyle drum machine palette that burrowed into my childhood brain via Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam, Expose, Miami Sound Machine, Sheila E., Whitney Houston, etc, as well as some early breakdancing jams (thinking about Newcleus ,Double Vision, Herbie Hancock). But the way the hand percussion functions in this song, and the songs Zairean polyrhythms that guide them (and yield these constantly surprising chord changes within what otherwise feels like an almost drone-like pedal across a single repetitive Clavinet groove). Ray Lema was apparently a budding concert pianist (in the western tradition) and later an ethnomusicologist, recording and studying the music of his native Congo (but living in Paris). But this song grooves so hard it doesn’t seem the product of anybody’s academic sojourn. The thing that I found particularly inspiring here was the dialog between the percussionist and the drum machine. My percussionist Jeff Gretz is a very sensitive, dynamic and masterful player. And I’m always caging him into these grid-bound, synthetic drum machine tracks to solve his way out of (to my ears, he always does). You don’t get the impression in this song that a percussionist has a pair of headphones on is just self-indulgently jamming on top of a drum machine track. It feels so fully and deliberately arranged so that every piece of the puzzle is in heavy conversation. It’s deceptively complex and *so* difficult to pull off without killing the momentum. I could listen to this album on repeat all day, and probably did a few times.
Scott Walker – Rawhide (Climate of Hunter, 1984)
I didn’t want to fill up space with music everyone else has already talked to death. But yeah, I know you know who Scott Walker is and probably have strong feelings about him already. But I wanted to talk about it for two reasons. Firstly, because it really had its hooks in me while I was working on this album, and for a good part of my life. And secondly, because this period of his work — from Nite Flights to Climate of Hunter (or maybe Tilt) — seems to me the least talked about and probably most difficult of his albums. It might seem counter-intuitive but I do think it’s more ‘difficult’ than Bish Bosch or The Drift. The early Walker Brothers and Scott records are pretty easy to love if you’re into that arch romantic 60s Phil Spector vibe. And the 21st century albums are pretty easy for people to just dismiss or ignore. I think the average person would encounter something like Bish Bosch, unfamiliar with him, and tend not to be very troubled by the music one way or another — it would be a quick “what? Huh? okay, yeah, FUCK THIS”. Current neuroscience suggests the brain is a prediction engine and a lot of what we experience as emotion comes from the way our body’s metabolic systems react when there is a gap between what the brain expects (based on its existing learned concepts about the world) and what it experiences. “I’ve heard this before, it’s jazz, jazz is boring, next”, all at a pre-conscious level. If you don’t have experience hearing, engaging, and enjoying some very abstract and high-minded modern music, you’re probably going to hear Bish-Bosch and your brain will immediately dump it into the category “Pretentious, Un-Musical, Arty Bullshit” and stop listening. Likewise, the average baby boomer might encounter a Walker Brothers tune and the brain processes it as familiar “nice tune, nice voice…sounds like the Righteous Brothers, who I like”. So I think in both cases, the body’s emotional response isn’t very strong (unless you’re maybe forced into an argument about it). But when I heard Climate of Hunter for the first time…for the 41st time…it was just “what the literal fuck?”… I just has so many instantly complicated feelings….like, physical feelings….and very little meaningful thoughts. It was thrilling but hard to describe. Things I loved, things I hated. I didn’t understand the intention of the music. As if it was trying to do something uncomfortable to me. On purpose. For so long I just had these surging, visceral reactions to the music. Some people when they have those strong emotional responses to something culturally unfamiliar, they get angry, they find it un-pleasurable and may have a knee-jerk reaction to dismiss and avoid it. Another person might feel those same feelings but have come to enjoy that feeling of surprise and agitation and confusion and wonder. I’m in the latter camp. At this point, I don’t quite have that experience with these records any more. I’ve heard them too often. I know what they are. They’ve influenced a lot of music I also love. They have created their own genre in my head and I just think they’re haunting and beautiful. But it’s that experience of music that I most seek out and value when I find it, and that’s what I try to do with my own music. And I know I shut out a number of people with that approach. But I also know I’m not special and I know I’m not alone in wanting that experience, even if Leverage Models’ way of getting there isn’t going to win any Grammys. I hear it all over even mainstream pop and rap music. That impulse to turn it all upside down. Most of this music is from the more distant past, but I think right now is an exciting time to love music. So much music out there is cannibalizing itself and ripping itself apart and discovering that thrill of weightlessness and pleasurable confusion.