Q&A: Extra Life's Charlie Looker On Dream Seeds, Being A Music Schoolteacher And Thinking Antony Is Awesome
Charlie Lookerschoolteacher, classical music composer, guitar improviser, ex-ZS member, Antony and Morrissey enthusiast and visionary behind Brooklyn's niche-less trio Extra Lifeis celebrating the release of Dream Seeds (Northern Spy) in his typical, adverse fashion: on a bill with black-metal terrorizers Liturgy. The just-released and revelatory conceptual sprawl opens creepily, with a child whispering "No dreams tonight," and veers into meticulously crafted, sublime avant-folk and orchestral art-rock damage articulated by Looker's singular voice and deliciously fucked wordplay.
Sound of the City caught up with Looker via email to talk Dream Seeds, his musical endeavors and his day job.
You seem to be the focus and face of Extra Life. Is Extra Life a musical vehicle for Charlie Looker or is it a collective "band" effort?
It has changed over the four or five years of its existence, especially on Dream Seeds. In the beginning it was really creatively micro-managed by me. As I became better friends with Nick [Podgurski] and Caley [Monahon-Ward] and got to understand them as creative musicians, the process opened up more. On the new record you're hearing a real band thing. I write the "songs" and Caley and Nick arrange them and work out their parts, which are really integral to music's identity. The songs I'm writing now are simpler and more open so there's more room for their ideas.
Are you averse to working under own name as opposed to Extra Life, or does the band name have some sort of significance?
At the very beginning "Extra Life" just meant whatever my main band was, with whomever. Now, the name specifically means me and Caley and Nick. If this lineup changed or dissolved, I'd want to change the band name.
As for working under my own name, I only do that when I'm really in composer mode, working in the semi-Classical world, notating music on paper and having it played by people who I'm not in a band with. I just had a chamber piece premiered by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Players and I didn't use a moniker for that.
You wrote this on your blog: "Dream Seeds is definitely a concept album, the themes of which I won't elaborate on here, but it's very much of a piece." Can you talk about the conceptual angle of Dream Seeds and how you arrived at it?
The record is about children and dreams. It's about kids, dreams, dreams about kids, and also about dreams as the children of the unconscious. Your psyche shows you these embryonic dream-children and you can either raise them [seek to understand them] or abort them [forget or ignore them] which is also a valid choice, though difficult. The first song on the record is about smoking weed before bed to deliberately block dreaming. The second song is about choosing abortion. I feel like they're a linked pair.
When I was writing the lyrics for the album I was having this series of really intense dreams, many of which didn't make it to the record. I wanted to write lyrics that were purer than the Made Flesh lyrics. Less humorous, less perverse, less multi-layered. More direct. Maybe actually purer in a moral sense? Some of the Dream Seeds songs are about real life and real kids, but I knew I wanted to have some songs just be straight-up transcriptions of the dreams, without even offering any interpretation or spin on them. And these dreams, as fucked up as they were, had a real sense of morality to them, issues of responsibility, honesty and innocence. Carl Jung says that dreams are always inherently moral, a statement which I'm not even sure I completely understand but it's a deep idea which informed this record. Jung also says that the archetype of the Child in dreams is a special bearer of this morality.
I've read you are an elementary schoolteacher. How much of Dream Seeds and your songwriting is inspired by working with and teaching kids? How old are your students? Are they aware you are a musician? What do they think of it?
I teach general music at a K-8 Catholic school. Occasionally I'll mention to the kids that I play in a band just to get them psyched about music in general and to show them that I'm really living it. But mostly I play it down. The last thing a nine-year-old needs is to check out Extra Life. You need to be as tall as this sign [inverted cross] to ride on this roller coaster.