Chrome's still on it
It has been a year since we last bumped into the slender, hard-jawed girls of Telepathe, and rather than tracking Busy Gangnes and Melissa Livaudais down in the heart of (East) London, this time we put our boots on and hiked up north to the vibrant streets of Leeds where they’re set to showcase at the Stag & Dagger festival.
As we filter our way through the ambling hipsters with beer can appendages, scanning their timetables for tonight’s hype, we find the Melissa-shaped half of the Brooklyn duo taking cover upstairs at the Library – the pub that is, not the dark oak-walled building crammed with books.
In the two years between the band releasing their ‘Farewell Forest’ EP in 2006 and the ‘Chromes On It’ EP in late 2008, they’ve been on a rollercoaster of hype. Much like Oblivion at Alton Towers they climbed all the way up only to be shot straight down. At the beginning of last year we couldn’t wait for their heels to hit British soil, but by the time their show at Concrete and Glass had come around we seemed to be becoming steadily less impressed.
Drowned in Sound branded them “an indie-electropop group gone horrendously and quite fascinatingly wrong,” while the Londonist said of the performance before TV On The Radio that it was like “trying to distract a child with a carrot when they’ve got their eye on a cream bun.” Following this they had trouble getting back into the country to play a headline show at Catch because immigration wanted to deport them, and perhaps they should have taken this as a sign because even the NME described their show that night as “karaoke”.
So now, having forced their ethereal, pop-laced debut ‘Dance Mother’ into the world, heaving life into its quivering synthetic lungs, are they willing to make the ascent again or are they just not fussed by the limelight? “We like attention, we’re total hams,” splutters Melissa, propelling the words into the atmosphere as if they were searing her tongue. “But when it came down to it, that wasn’t our first priority at all.”
It was nearing the winter of 2007 when Telepathe got mixing in their home lab to piece together ‘Dance Mother’ – splicing electro with world beats and chanting over test tubes brimming with Depeche Mode-esque synth lines, all under the humble glow of their laptop. And it wasn’t until a year later that TV On The Radio’s highly acclaimed Dave Sitek came onto the scene. It took another three months to get the record out in the UK alone (for it was pushed back in the US by a month), which makes us think that perhaps they just didn’t want to let it go.
“It just turned out that way. It wasn’t a conscious decision at all. We were eager to put it out but…” Melissa pauses for a second, visibly scanning the recesses of her mind for answers. “I feel that rather than being something that’s overnight and fading away into nothing we wanted to make a decision that was like: ‘Ok, we know that we can only make music, we’re not good at doing anything else and this is all we want to do. So, we want to make the best decision possible to maintain this lifestyle.’”
No doubt the avant-garde dance ditties of Telepathe have skimmed your eardrums in the past, but if you managed to miss their entrance they’ve been fusing together those pulsations in the chic suburb of Brooklyn, New York City since 2004. Busy and Melissa decided to reform their prog-punk experimental band Wikkid, with third member Allie Alvarado, who a year later left them free to collaborate with others and branch out audibly with the limited means of instrumentation that they had at the time. They scoped influence from US hip hop by the likes of Three 6 Mafia and DJ Assault to the South London dubstep of Digital Mystikz.
“Someone asked me,” Melissa continues. “‘Are you going to strike while the iron is hot?’ But that’s not what we’re thinking about really, we’re just thinking about the finished product and that we want it to be in the right hands. It’s like when you make a piece of art and you’re handing it over to somebody. You want to make sure that you’re going to trust that person.”
Plus, she informs us, they were in discussion with a number of different record labels and it took time to decide whether to release the album on one label internationally or concentrate on three individual areas. “We have an American label, a Japanese label and then Cooperative [V2] which covers the UK, Europe and Australia. For a minute we talked to 4AD, which is Dave’s [Sitek] label, but I like Cooperative’s body of work, I feel like it’s so expansive, they put out so many things that we love – it wasn’t just one particular 4AD sound – I feel like they really got our music the most.”
And of course they had to pick one that could cough up the fat paycheque that Sitek would be demanding… “Uh…I don’t know,” Melissa states cautiously. “I really don’t know how much he had to do with it. We made the record before we signed to a label. Actually, we did a version of ‘Chromes On It’ before we worked with Dave, which we put up on our Myspace and labels were already writing to us before anyone knew that we were working with Dave.”
Sitek tracked down the girls after he overheard a mutual friend playing their Myspace tracks and they met up with him in a bar in Brooklyn. Two weeks later they were recording in his old Stay Gold studio in Williamsburg, where he became somewhat of a mentor to them. But with the possibility of his big name blinding their judgment, were they apprehensive about adopting a similar sound to other NYC bands he’s worked with (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pink Noise, Liars)? “No, not at all. He has a lot of expertise and I knew he could bring that to our music. I knew he could take it to another level, but I was never worried that it would sound like TV On the Radio or whoever. You can definitely hear his hand in it because he has this way of making things sound really, really big, but I think musically it’s totally different to the other stuff that he’s done.”
Although, earlier this year they mentioned in an interview that some of Sitek’s ideas made them nervous. “His ideas made us nervous in a way in which we thought, ‘Really? You can do that?’ As a mentor we’ve taken so much from him and we’ve learnt to trust his ideas – running a guitar through an outdated filter or running it through a filter on this very outdated sampler and then through this guitar pedal and then through a synthesizer…
“It’s not that we doubted him but in the past we worked with engineers or people who had very meagre suggestions. We were just surprised because we had never worked with someone who had no sense of time or efficiency. It was excessive but in a really, really inspiring way. He was just like: ‘You gotta do whatever the fuck you want to do.’” Including, it would seem, taking their makeshift, mantra-like rhythms and slapping a cleaner-cut, pop ring to them.
“In Brooklyn there is a lot of experimental music and a lot of knob-twirlers and we got tired of living in the margins of that music and constantly being grouped in with that,” explains Melissa, fairly flustered by the subject. “It’s not that we don’t respect that sort of music, but we want our own identity. I mean, we didn’t even listen to that kind of music. We were listening to a lot of commercial hip hop in the US and we thought: ‘Why don’t we try and up the ante, challenge ourselves and make music that we actually want to listen to?’ – song structures with a verse and a hook. We wanted hooks,” she exclaims, shifting her conversational gear into full throttle. “Then all of a sudden making a hook became a fun challenge and that’s how it evolved. To us it was so leftfield compared to what we were doing before, we felt like we weren’t even thinking before, I don’t know what we were thinking about.”
As Melissa describes how much “it sucks” to be dumped into genres such as the Brooklyn experimental music cluster, we’re aware that mentioning their close seating to Gang Gang Dance in previous write-ups could either disrupt her current outpour or push her over the edge completely. Luckily for us it’s the former we discover as we hold our breath during her abrupt pause before she sets off on her tirade. “I’m so sick of that! I’m so fucking sick of it,” she fumes. “It’s crazy because I respect what Gang Gang Dance do, but honestly I don’t think there is anything similar between the two bands other than that we used to share the same label [Social Registry]. We were thinking: ‘Wait a minute…are we just advertisement for Gang Gang Dance?’ Argh. But you know what? It’s happening less and less. Now I feel like people get it and think we’re genre-benders making refreshing new music that doesn’t sound like anybody else.”
Which could be why they’ve been getting so much interest from other artists wanting to remix their work – Tanlines, Atticus Ross, The Big Pink, to name but a few… “A couple of people just wanted to do it and then some people, like The Big Pink we just asked. On our American label we released the album with three remixes by Chairlift – they’re really good friends of ours – we got them to do a remix of ‘So fine’, and also my friend Lauren Flax who’s a producer and a DJ. We love Burial and we really wanted to…” she stammers for a few seconds, trying to get her words in order. “We were like, ‘Oh fuck, we really want Burial to do a remix’. But we don’t know him and we don’t know anybody who knows him. We contacted the label and they said: ‘You’d be better off asking him yourself’, so we didn’t ask him, we chickened out of that one,” Melissa affirms coyly, chuckling a little at the childishness of it all.
So now that they’ve changed their direction, it can only be assumed that some of their fans have shunned the oh-so-artsy beats in favour of tracks heavy with brash yet languid synth-lines. “I definitely think we’ve gained a much larger fan base for sure,” muses Melissa calmly “but I definitely feel like we’ve lost some fans too, especially with Brooklyn. People have expectations, especially in the experimental scene – it’s like a wolf pack and we say: ‘Fuck the wolf pack!’ I’m having more fun and it is way more creative and challenging to do what we do now than what we were doing before and we are getting to see the world, so I can’t complain.”
Comments have flitted about that Telepathe are a fairly laid back band. It’s easy to see from witnessing their live show why people are brought to this conclusion, as onstage Busy and Melissa are so concentrated on the hundred or so tracks they have to deal with layering upon one another that they may come across as detached and perhaps a little blasé. But Melissa assures us that they are pushing themselves to the limit. “I don’t know in what sense we’re laid back – maybe that we’re trying to have as much fun as we possibly can doing this – but everything is intentional. And we have a lot of touring plans, pretty much until December and we have a ten day break in which we’re going to be recording more material. We’re work horses. Maybe it’s cool if externally it comes off like that, but I’d say we’re pretty neurotic and intense about making music.”
She goes on to describe how much the audience can affect a show and how it reflects back onto them. “Even though we’re always playing the same songs in different orders it just depends on the energy of the room. We just played in London at 93 Feet East and the energy felt crazy,” she expresses with ebullience. “Kids were dancing and singing along to our songs and it was packed. Then we played at ULU, opening for School of Seven Bells and it was a much older audience, at eight o’clock at night, and it just felt really formal. It slowly went by and then it was over. I guess it just depends what kind of vibe is in the air, but generally we try to amp it up. We try to make it fun for everybody.”
Following a bad show like that the girls try and ignore the press for the next few weeks, but sometimes it’s as difficult as trying deftly not to stare at a road traffic accident. “I try not to pay attention to that stuff because it’s de-motivational,” Melissa states in an authoritative manner. “Before, because we’d made the record, all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, come and tour…’ and there was no time to map it out and make it happen the way we needed to make it happen. We’ve actually done that now in a way that sonically does the record justice. We were under a lot of pressure from our previous manager to just perform. And it’s not like a rock band, it’s not like you just stand up and there’s a drummer and bass player. With our music it’s a lot trickier than that,” she explains before turning onto the opinions of the press.
“I took a lot of advice from Dave Sitek because he was our mentor, and his thing is to ‘log out’. There are some [publications] that I’ve been reading for a long time and those are the ones that I read about our music and would be totally heartbroken if they were bummed [reviews]. The press has been a lot better about our live shows and I know that’s because we’ve been playing them better, but they always start off weird, with comments about us like ‘skinny arms’, but then it says, ‘Oh but they put on a good show.’ I don’t know, I don’t read comments about skinny arms and underfeeding but I just think, ‘Really? There are so many scrawny guys out there and you’re making those comments about us?’”
With their hectic touring schedule they probably don’t have time to keep up with the press, let alone ignore them, but of course this also means that they have a limited amount of time to write new material as they can’t write on tour. “We definitely work better in a studio, we love it, but I think it’s the best thing to do for us not to lose our minds. This whole thing feels like an exercise in futility to be creative and write on tour, but it’s a little bit hard with electronic music. I feel like we’re pretty spoilt – we have monitors so we like to listen to stuff loud when we do. Working in a van and listening to it on headphones and being cramped on top of each other is like training ourselves to do it in a more stripped down way.
“But we are releasing an EP. In the ten days that I said we have off between our touring we’re going to Los Angeles to work on it and that should be out late fall. And then from December on it’s time to make a new record, which I’m really psyched to do. That’s what Busy and I do best, we’re producers.”
With ‘Dance Mother’ receiving quite polarised reviews, or “extreme” as Melissa puts it – “I feel like we’re really extreme, so it makes sense” – we can guess that the Telepathe to come will only test more boundaries. “I don’t know what’s in store for the next record but as far as Busy and I are concerned we definitely intend to carry on working with Dave, but we also want to branch out. We’re not looking to make the same record again, obviously. It’ll definitely sound like Telepathe – we love rhythm and we love melody and there’ll be a lot of it. I’ve been listening to a lot of freestyle, but we’re not into recycling a genre of music. I think we’ll put our own twist on it and it’ll be more poppy.”
Telepathe will be back in the UK in July, when you can decide whether their next ride on the hype-machine will take them soaring or plummeting to the ground.