The first time I saw Charlie Looker, I felt bad for the dude. Here he was with his band Zs, playing Philly for the first time, pouring every ounce of energy and spirit into the performance. I was a young buck, only 16, smoking cigarettes outside and waiting for headliners Les Georges Leningrad to come on when my friend sent me a stern text from the belly of the beast: “Dude. Come in.” So I curiously re-entered my favorite church basement to find six airtight musicians blasting away with horrible symmetry, squawky sax shards playing against dissonant guitar chords and wonderfully unpredictable rhythmic cells. To put it simply, Zs took me to the nether regions of musical abstraction and I never looked back. Unfortunately, the majority of the crowd was less receptive. Between songs the young band endured some pretty brutal mockery. If anything, I think that response was a good indicator of how forward-thinking, how much musicians’ musicians Zs truly were. And hey, all’s well that ends well: Several years and performances later, Zs had attained legendary status in the New York avant-community, playing some of the most mind-altering new music ever laid to space, with balls to boot. How many new music ensembles have you seen where the drummer breaks his bass drum playing too hard?
Charlie Looker was a founding member of that band “back in 2001 when I was just a tiny shoot,” as he put it to me. As a student at Wesleyan during Zs’ formative years he would commute down to New York for rehearsals, the rest of his band being enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. He even traveled to the Czech Republic for a music conference with members of Zs. As Charlie once told me, “we were really up in each others’ heads” (how else could one make music so f-ing tight?). Clearly, the incredible uniformity of the band’s expression was an extension of their personal connection, their countless hours spent together poring over the smallest of musical details. So you can understand my surprise when Charlie left Zs to pursue his solo material as Extra Life.
Extra Life marks a certain departure from the music of Zs. Although Charlie was responsible for one of the only (and best) Zs songs with lyrics in “Nobody Wants to be Had,” very little of the Zs material displayed the wonderful melodic sensibilities that have been put to the fore in his solo material. “This was my return to singing, which had been a part of my music pre-Zs but had fallen by the wayside,” explains Charlie. “It was my return to my voice, but in a way it was my real beginning as a vocal stylist with my own vibe. I got so inspired by the solo songs that I decided to form a band and do tight arrangements of them. I got so into the band that I left Zs to do Extra Life full-on.”
Extra Life still retains some of the compositional moves that made Zs such an intriguing force. The element of rhythmic abstraction, a topic I had the pleasure of discussing many times with Charlie, is still retained in all its glory. Check the asymmetrical sludge of A-side “I Don’t See It That Way.” It’s a true feat of the manipulation of musical time. You want to sway with its giant, lumbering riff, but the temporal irregularities make you quiver as though at the feet of a stumbling drunk monster. This is one of the best examples of a consciously non-metrical rhythmic style, where the rhythm is freed from traditional parameters and given a new range of unpredictability and expression. The song also reveals Looker’s gift for textural contrast. The high-tone accentuated hi-hat triplet is a wonderful move that gives the melody an even more dynamic quality and makes those bass tones seem all the more fearsome. Looker traces some of these moves back to his days at Wesleyan when he was fortunate enough to study under modern musical deity Anthony Braxton: “I was never a deep disciple of Braxton, but I took classes with him in college and played a little with him. He is deep. I can say that playing Braxton’s music exposed me to a certain rigorous approach to very irregular rhythms. That shows up clearly in the music I wrote for Zs and on a lot of the first Extra Life record.” Of course, this shouldn’t be taken as an opportunity to pigeonhole looker as some kind of prog nerd. Looker’s manipulation of musical material goes far beyond the look-what-I-can-do aesthetic of many similarly technically proficient musicians. He once described his compositional process as letting the notes tell him, so to speak, the rhythmic organization, as opposed to entering the creative zone with a preconceived idea of which moves to employ. In more recent correspondence, Looker hints at a new direction: “Nowadays my rhythms are straightening out again (relatively speaking). So who knows where the Braxton influence has gone. That rhythmic language isn’t really specifically Braxtonian anyway, it’s part of modernist classical music too.”
Extra Life’s influences run much deeper than 20th century abstract alchemists: “Some of the music that has moved me most deeply over the years has come from experimental metal, modern classical composers, Medieval and Renaissance music, free jazz, goth and new wave pop. My lyrics are always somewhat informed by what I’m reading, which over the past year has included Georges Bataille, Oscar Wilde and the Sopranos. When I write music I draw upon everything I have ever loved, but so much of that is unconscious. It’s often hard to say where certain elements or aspects come from. I don’t make music as a direct reference to influences from the past, the way most current bands in indie rock do. Whatever I may be informed by, my record or book collection isn’t the topic of the music.”
This is what gives the music of Extra Life its particular power. Rather than constructing a lineage of influences, Looker constructs a lineage of experience that is both intensely private and cosmically radiant. When he sings about the dog-eat-dog mentality of modern life on “I Don’t See It That Way,” he’s not just painting a confession of personal experience, he’s letting us in on the discussion as if to say, “you’re a part of my world, you’re implicated in this giant social web, where do you stand?” As Looker explains, this is by no means accidental: “What inspires Extra Life on a more general level are my personal experiences and feelings, conscious reflection, pure willpower and most importantly communion with the most unconscious levels of intuition. The unconscious processes are what’s most important because that’s what imagination really is. Any sensitive person can have intense emotions, any intelligent person can reflect on them, and willpower can always be summoned; but when these things resonate with the Unconscious, both personal and collective, that’s when the music takes on the mystic power I aim for. That’s why very different people can relate to Extra Life, people with different experiences, tastes, backgrounds. No matter how personal or esoteric the source is, Extra Life aspires to the universal.”
B-side “I’ll Burn,” an acoustic version from a split 10” with the Dirty Projectors’s Nat Baldwin (Shatter Your Leaves, 2009), originally on the debut LP Secular Works (I and Ear, 2007), foregrounds one of the most present forces in Extra Life: Medieval music. Listen to how Looker flexes his melismatic muscles like a modern-day Machaut, a fittingly gorgeous vehicle for sad, humble lyrics. “Medieval music is beautiful and cold,” he told me, ”It’s some of the most gorgeous, serene, entrancing, transcendent music ever. Even though it’s thoroughly pleasing to the ears, and hardly ever dissonant, it’s still so alien in many ways. The medieval sense of melodic unfolding is so exotic and subtly nuanced, I can’t even claim to have a full grip on it. There are a million nerdy musical details which I love about Medieval music. But I think for me it’s really about the spirit of it. This was a time when not only did everyone believe in God and lived every minute quaking in fear and love of him, but they had a correspondingly devout belief in the power of music to change consciousness. All medieval music is just radiant with the deep belief that music is a movement of the soul. You can feel that conviction emanating from it. They believed that tuning systems and musical intervals corresponded to relationships of the planets and stars. Cosmic harmony, music of the spheres. To them, how two notes were combined wasn’t just an issue of aesthetics but one of the highest cosmic, moral and spiritual order. Half the bands in Brooklyn right now can’t even work their guitar pedals. You see what I’m getting at here? I also love Medieval music because I feel it has this real sense of humility, in a way which I could see as both dark and enlightened. It doesn’t sound proud or self-congratulatory like classical music or later European music. There’s this sense of Man as a tiny insect crawling the earth, totally humble in the face of invisible forces which could either uplift or crush him. It’s shrouded in darkness and abasement but it aspires upward toward the divine. It’s the sound of a culture starting over from nothing after Rome burned. The start of the Age of Pisces, Christ’s age. I think you can feel this in the music. In a way I guess it’s a far cry from our current cultural spirit, but if our civilization destroys itself we’ll find ourselves again in something like this Medieval state: hanging our heads before God, picking through ruins and using our imagination to interpret omens while we pick through burnt books, shards of bones and cell phones.”