INTERVIEW

Psych dub adventurers Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis speak of how their 7-month-old son has simply become part of their tour party.

Photography by Leon Diaper

Photography by Leon Diaper

HAVING A BABY JUST MEANS INCREASING THE TOUR PARTY BY ONE

It’s unusual for us to walk into an interview and be met with a seven-month old baby, but Wisconsin duo Peaking Lights aren’t your average kind of band. Comprised of husband-wife duo Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis, they’ve progressed from goth and post-punk bands, respectively, to psych improv in their 10 or so years together – growing and experimenting with unconventional song structures and vast soundscapes as a band – and the small factor of a baby isn’t going to off-road their musical ambition.

“You’ve just got to do things a little differently, it’s not impossible to take your child with you on the road,” Indra says of Mikko Lorenzo Dunis Coyes, who is currently grinning in awe at the situation, bobbing up and down on his dad’s knee and clutching onto a biscuit that’s bigger than his hand. “When we play a gig,” she continues, “I do a lot of running back and forth and I’m really only at the venue for the set. So Aaron has to do all the setting up and breaking down and selling merch and talking to people.” It sounds isolating, but Indra assures me she only misses the usual drinking with the guys and watching other bands sometimes. “But being with [Mikko] is so much more important to me that I don’t really mind it in the long run. It’d be nice to hang out, but the trade off is so worth it. And he’s just a baby. He’s going to grow up and then I can do that again later. I don’t feel like I’m missing much. I’m just happy that we’ve made this work. This is the first tour we’ve done since he was born. But he’s doing really well.”

When Indra and Aaron are on the road they have a nanny with them – here it’s Claire, who is smiling politely from the other side of the room – but most of the time baby Mikko is with them. And it’s not just touring that the little one has effected. They’ve noticed a shift in their songwriting too. “For sure,” Indra declares, “probably in more ways than we realise. Your whole life changes when you have a child. For one thing he’s new subject matter, but he also listens to what we’re creating. So if he likes it, it’s a go and if he starts crying in one of our practices then we might take that as a sign that we’re going in the wrong direction.”

“I think it’s gotten tighter,” adds Aaron. “More smooth or something. More groovy,” he smiles over Mikko’s head.

“[Mikko] likes beats and bass tones,” says Indra, “so we’ve got more of that. I mean, we already did, but I think on the next record there is going to be even more of it.”

It seems surprising that they’re already well into their second album because we only got ‘936’, their first, in November 2011, even if it’s been doing the rounds since February over in the States. It’s an upbeat collection of songs with a sense of leisurely fun, especially on tracks such as ‘Amazing and Wonderful’, which undulates in pitch and is one of the few songs to contain Indra’s hypnotic vocals, and ‘Synthy’, the fluttering synthetics of which were wholly improvised – a technique that the two often favour. “We’ll record the rhythm section,” Aaron explains, “but it always changes a little bit. We have a lot of visual cues too.”

“We have practiced our songs how we play them on the record,” Indra cuts in to assure us, “so that we can do them that way, but most of the time it’s kind of hard to remember and it’s more fun to feel it out.” She laughs and jokes about digging themselves into a hole, but it’s intriguing to meet a band whose live set is ever evolving; whose no two shows are the same. Because they play everything between the two of them, they have to pre-record the rhythms and bass lines, all of which is done analogue, “on quarter-inch tape,” Aaron clarifies. A lot of their tracks sound like layers of computerised sounds that they could just create on stage, but you can see why pre-recording is necessary when you listen to songs like ‘Hey Sparrow’, one of the most conventional tracks on ‘936’, which may carry a simple guitar line and a plod-along melody as Indra sings about a bird, but it’s all on top of numerous layers of noises you can’t quite pinpoint. And they all work together to invent the image of a sparrow trotting around the ground – you can’t avoid the good mood it puts you in.

Of course, they could use laptops, but DIY and back-to-basics ethics is part of their charm. Aaron even builds his own synths, which he informs us he had no idea about when he first started. “I still don’t,” he laughs. “The first one that I ever built was when I was probably 22. Just trial and error circuit bending a little keyboard or something. But it’s all a visual thing for me now. I kinda know what it is, so I can direct it a little bit more.”

Before Peaking Lights were making this brand of psyched out, dub-heavy synthtronica, before they’d even met, when they were teenagers, they were playing good old punk and over the years their influences have expanded to include the likes of reggae, dancehall, dub and traditional African rhythms like Sukos. “Latin, afrobeat, a lot of boogaloo stuff, Ethiopian psych,” Aaron runs off, “Ethiopian jazz, American jazz, krautrock, house music…” Now they’re not afraid of anything, but when they started playing together, they still had a learning curve to broach. “I was afraid of improvising live,” Indra admits. “And Aaron was afraid of writing something structured.” Now they’ve worked out a happy medium. “The songs that we wrote for ‘936’ are written,” she says in an attempt to enlighten us about how Peaking Lights approach penning a song, “but there’s a lot of room for improvising. It’s pretty much jamming. We branch off and come back, but we try to keep an overall structure. I think we started to form a method of writing during that record and a style. It became more solidified and we started to lay down beats and bass lines first, which was a new thing for us, and then we’d write on top of that. So that’s a method that’s stuck. But otherwise, a lot of it is improvising.

“In fact, on this tour we didn’t prepare an encore – just our set – and the first night we actually got an encore. That was in Amsterdam. Aaron remembered that we had some ideas of a song on one side of a cassette tape we’d brought with us, so we put that on and jammed to it.” She smiles triumphantly. “We kind of came up with a new song that night. We started using it again every time we had an encore. We even recorded it for our BBC session. So we can [improvise] if we need to. It makes playing more exciting and keeps it fresh.”

So this is how they’ve grown together as a band, but if they hadn’t of met, Aaron doesn’t think they’d have separately gone down this musical route.

“I think we’d be doing something with similar feeling,” Indra counters, “but maybe not like this exactly. We were already leaning towards doing this kind of stuff. I had moved from playing drums in a previous band to keyboards and singing and writing songs, so I think that I would probably still be doing that.”

“Or starting your Doors solo band?” Aaron grins.

“Yeah, start my Doors cover band. That’s what I was working on in a sort of round-about way,” Indra blushes as Aaron starts crooning ‘LA Woman’.

Shortly after the UK release of the duo’s debut album came the ‘936’ remixes EP on December 19th, featuring the likes of modern boogie funketeer Dam-Funk, Oakland rappers/producers Main Attrakionz and our very own Adrian Sherwood, a producer who has remixed everyone from Sinead O’Connor to Primal Scream and Depeche Mode. “We just put our heads together, came up with some names and the people that were available did it,” Indra puts plainly. “But our list was insanely long,” she smiles.

“Adrian Sherwood was really high up, he was like top five,” enthuses Aaron and Indra laughs about the other stars on their list. “I mean, there were people like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, people that the chances with were very slim. But we got Adrian Sherwood, so that’s cool, we’re happy with that.”

They’ll definitely be doing another remix album as Aaron was “super into it”.

“I didn’t think I would be as much as I am,” he says, “but it was cool to hear how different people approached the remix. I like that there are a lot of remix albums going around at the moment because it connects artists with their contemporaries, even if it’s not the same style of music. It’s something that happened a lot in the ’60s, when bands would cover each other’s songs. It really makes you approach things in a different way. Like, the Dam Funk one, he did ‘All the Sun That Shines’ and all the people who did an ‘All the Sun That Shines’ remix totally disintegrated it. Completely tore apart the song and changed it,” he gushes enthusiastically, even though he’s talking about the death of one of their tracks. “It’s cool to see different people’s interpretation because it’s nothing how I would have imagined.”

But in terms of the follow-up LP, Aaron informs us it is like the night time version of ‘936’. “Everyone that we played the record to has said that, which is cool,” he reflects nonchalantly.

Seeing the two together in such a laidback manner – Aaron with tattoos escaping from his shirt down his hands and up his neck to meet a bush of receding grey hair and Indra with long brown locks and the style of a mum doing the school run, not to mention Mikko in his skeleton jumper – you’d be hard pushed to conclude that what you’re looking at is a band. But where their aesthetic differences stand out a mile in the real world, they blend beautifully in music. So when you’re listening to a Peaking Lights record, you’re not just hearing a cacophony of sounds, you’re hearing an entire fantasy opening up before you, and it’s an expansive, far-out, free-formed place to explore.

By D K Goldstein

Originally published in issue 34 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. January 2012

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