Exit Interview: Charlie Looker on the Life and Death of Extra Life
After its Saturday night performance at 285 Kent, Extra Life will be no more. On November 13, the band shared news of the "amicable" breakup on its blog: "While it's somewhat difficult to articulate exactly why, let's just say that the inner creative momentum driving the band has stalled." In short, it's over. If you never found the time to experience the bizarre, mesmerizing, cathartic and sometimes discomforting music of Extra Life, this is your last chance.
After stints with Zs and Dirty Projectors, the guitarist and vocalist Charlie Looker started Extra Life back in 2006. Evolving through several lineup changes, the band ended as a trio with Looker, violinist Caley Monahon-Ward and drummer Nick Podgurski. The band released three EPs--Extra Life (2008), A Split (2008), and Ripped Heart (2011)--and three full-length albums--Secular Works (2008), Made Flesh (2010), and Dream Seeds (2012). Deeply inspired by Renaissance and Medieval music, Looker's unorthodox vocals and penchant for jolting rhythms grounded what gradually became more of a collaborative project. But just as it hit its stride as a band, with last year's stunning Dream Seeds, that stride suddenly stopped.
When I spoke with Looker a few days ago, he said something quite profound. "People always talk about life being short, but it's not," he said. "Life is actually really long." In a strange, beautiful way, he managed to sum it all up. What follows is a conversation we had that traces the life of Extra Life, from the beginning to the end.
What were you doing before Extra Life?
I was in Zs for about five or six years before Extra Life. That was my main thing, and I started doing that in college. I studied music at Wesleyan; my education was pretty liberal arts-y. Extra Life has a real technical complexity, as does Zs, so people tend to assume that technical musical training played a direct role in these bands. But that's not exactly the case. Most of the study I did musically was on my own, even though I did study music. But it was a very loose, chilled out program. All the technical stuff I studied was on my own, like studying 20th century composers and analyzing scores. I also got into Renaissance and Medieval music. Around the same time as Zs, I was also playing in very short-lived hardcore and metal-ish bands. And I was writing chamber music and doing more non-band, composition-related things.
You've done some work with Nat Baldwin, who also went to Wesleyan. Did you meet him there?
We weren't at school at the same time, but he was in the area. I've known him since I was 19 or so. That was before we were in Dirty Projectors together. We both joined that band separately by a weird coincidence. Nat and I used to do free improv stuff back in the day. Extra Life did some touring with Nat playing solo, back when it was me and Caley just doing guitar and violin. We did stripped down versions of Extra Life songs. Nat has a pretty high threshold for tour bullshit, but I remember that tour being beyond tolerable for him.
Tell me about forming Extra Life. What were the initial plans and ideas?
I didn't have a worked out vision, to be honest. But looking back at the first album, it does seem really coherent to me. But there was no plan--no concept or anything. I was getting tired of my role in Zs, and wanted to do something as a leader. I'd been playing these solo shows in the summer of 2006 under the name Extra Life, which were a mix of quiet and loud stuff. I wanted to do a band version of that. Once I finally got a band together, it became a completely different thing. But I wrote a lot of that stuff really fast, and without a concept. There were no genre cues. I was clearly influenced by things, but I wasn't conscious of what I was going for, or what Extra Life would become.
What was the initial line-up of the group?
The first record had none of the members who were there for most of the time. It was me, the drummer Ian Antonio of Zs, Karen Waltuch on viola, Tony Gedrick on bass, and Travis Laplante on keyboard. After that record I hooked up with the drummer Nick Podgurski and violinist Caley Monahon-Ward. The first line-up that did live shows was me, Nick, Caley, Travis, and Tony.
On the first album, Secular Works (2008), my understanding is that you composed the songs for all instruments.
Yes. It's strange because it doesn't sound like it, but the process of writing it was very much a composer process. I used notation, and then we memorized the music, so we didn't read sheet music onstage. It was written on sheet music, though. Once we started playing it, people would have ideas and creative input, but it was pretty much written by me. There's a real limitation to that--there are certain things that can only really be achieved this way that groups of people would never come up with. There are some things that sound really unusual on that record--people from a rock or heavy metal background thought there were odd things about it rhythmically. A lot of that is due to the fact that it came from one person's head. The social process of making music really impacts the aesthetic, whether it's one person writing, many people bringing in ideas, and so on. A lot of times, that enters into people's minds just as much as conscious ideas.