Leverage Models make music to be to, dance to, feel to, whatever. With an undeniably eighties aesthetic going on, the sound is more complex in creation and product than being that of a simple era raid. There’s a pop dance aesthetic drawing from the depths of enchantment. I chatted to Shannon Fields, the producer behind the evolving collaborative outfit. The edited interview is in Deli Magazine’s Spring Emerging Artists issue 2014.
Your musical style has morphed from folk to dance/synth – do you think that musicians must have a certain style, or is just a case of creativity and response to what is around you?
For a long time I looked down on the idea of making music within the framework of genre. I thought if that’s where your head was at that you were probably thinking too much about fame, fashion and other extra-musical things, and paying too little attention to the sounds themselves. But I’ve very slowly changed my mind over the past few years. I don’t know if sound can function very well, or gives us all that much outside of the passing conventions we make for it. You can’t really shake external references to the larger world, it’s impossible to make non-idiomatic music. It seems to me that the more abstraction that’s involved in song-based music, the less meaning and magic the music holds for most people because the less it’s referring to the things around us. Our ears aren’t reducible to the tympanic machinery -the sound has got to travel through all of the memories and associations that shape us emotionally and shape our world views before that sounds is really ‘heard’ in our brains. This is probably going to be taken wrong by some people whose work I hold dear and I don’t want to overstate it — I don’t want people to stop pushing the boundaries of traditional listening and a lot of very abstract music has been important to me, even changed my life (I would be a different person without the music of Francisco Lopez, Stephen Vitiello, Kevin Drumm, and Bernhard Guenter being in my life when I first moved to NYC). But for me, at the moment, I think being even just a little bit creatively disruptive within the very narrow confines of an established genre, one with a lot of participants at the table, is more meaningful and rewarding. It might have more of an impact on the conversation we’re all having than the music that pretends that it exists outside of all conventions and is in a sense more “free”, but which also belongs to only a few people. And this may account for why a lot of very free music can also be, ironically, incredibly boring (I’m getting myself in trouble again here, but I think it’s fair to say). These days I think I’m feeling less dismissive of the idea of emotionally connecting with people on an immediate level, in the moment, in a way that you can only do by presenting as much that is familiar and rewarding to people as you do the stuff that’s unfamiliar and frustrating. That push and pull is not an easy thing to do….but alienating people completely is a very easy thing to do.
As far as what conventions my music has gravitated too, that’s all been a matter of intuition and heart, so I’m not sure why I’m embracing the sounds I’m embracing these days. They just feel good. And my focus may change tomorrow. For me Leverage Models is more about putting my arms around the immediate present in an almost naïve way and trusting my gut, and less about the sounds I happen to be using. There’s no style guide I’m working off of.
Working with more than 12 people on your latest album must have been an experience! Was it hard, and was the process collaborative or did you have to ensure control?
If you feel you have to work hard to maintain “control” than you probably aren’t in the right situation (or you’re not the right person) to be collaborating in the first place. I’ve often found myself in that place in the past. At the moment, collaboration feels natural and easy. I’m definitely working with the right people who give me the right amount of criticism, encouragement, and whose contributions make me excited about music. I think having clear boundaries and being honest about those boundaries really helps. There is a lot of ego-driven baggage that can muddy the waters in a democratic band situation. And while I collaborate a lot, Leverage Models is still my baby, and everyone knows that. So people contribute what they feel good about contributing and I try to stay flexible and creative about how I keep certain collaborators engaged as much as they want to be, and how I can give back to them in their own work outside of Leverage Models. There’s a lot of mutual respect and love with the people I choose to work with, that’s criteria #1 for me. I also know myself enough to know when it’s the right time to seek out collaboration and when it’s the right time to shut myself away for 3 months in my upstate studio and not talk to or share music with anyone….just to take time to process what I’m receiving and where I think the real work is located in all of that noise. Collaboration doesn’t always make work stronger…often it can be the opposite. But it’s important sometimes to step outside of yourself and let other people frustrate or question your directions. And I even think that the volatility that sometimes comes from collaboration improves the work as well…in controlled doses, anyway…like a vaccine against an ego-driven creative rut.
Why did you move from New York City to Cooperstown? Does location have an impact upon sound?
I do think location can have an impact on sound…I think location has a particularly heavy impact on performances in the studio, especially when any real level of improvisation is involved. When I produce other bands from NYC I often try to convince them to leave the city to do it. For me I’m not sure moving has had any obvious or direct impact on the sound of Leverage Models aside from removing some outside influences I didn’t really find helpful. The move to the country (we live on a working horse farm) was a joint decision with my wife and it had mostly to do with the quality of our lives…and some decisions we had to make about the kind of people we did and did not want to be. But my bandmates are based in Brooklyn and Queens and I’m in the city every few weeks, so that creative umbilical cord is still important and intact.
You have played film festivals, MOMA, curated shows etc – what is the relationship between different art forms for you?
Oh, I don’t think I’m clever or articulate enough to answer a question so broad, not that it’s not a good question. Maybe the first step to talking about that would be to look at the fact that we use this common word – “art” – to describe a lot of activities that are strikingly different. And maybe the common thread there is that what “art” generally has in common across different media is that it’s all mostly useless!
I’m being flippant when I say “useless” but there’s truth in the joke. The idea of “Use” in music is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It plays into the question about genre a little bit too because since the later 19th century “Art” (with a big capital A) is this thing that started to separate from “craft”, as something that increasingly had an agenda of its own and was meant to challenge more than to give. It seems that since then, Art is something that is usually valued in part based on newness, innovation, and confrontation, a series of breaks from whatever recent past is judged to be spent, wrongheaded or backwards. Regardless of the medium or movement or scene it falls under, it seems like art that wants to be taken seriously as art is always a little obsessed with the notion that it must have this serious break with the recent past, and with convention, in order to gain respect. And it probably does.
It’s interesting though to think that about music the other way. Before popular music started to be taken more seriously as “art” in the 60’s, music worked a little more like craft – valued based more on how well made something was, in a sense it was shared and elevated if it was useful to the community. Good music was just music that a lot of people connected with, and you didn’t have the same cults of personality popping up around an artisan. I’ve described Leverage Models as ‘folk music’ online…it’s a little bit of a joke but I also mean it. Most pop/rock music has more in common with the logic of folk music then high art. Take three steps back and there really are no original songs at this point, just the re-shaping of the same material. That’s going to get me in trouble too — if you want to start a fight with any band tell them they’re not ‘original’. But see, I think that’s totally okay. The idea of folk music is that it’s not defined by the sound of a banjo or acoustic guitar, but as music that’s based on a more closely held set of shared techniques and values and musical structures. It’s something that’s communal, passed on, reused. And so those folk forms are not as caught up in inter-generational warfare. I’m more interested in thinking about what I do now as a kind of craft and less as art. With the plurality of values and the ease with which we can share techniques in a post-Internet geography, craft is more interesting to me than ever, no longer as provincial and culturally insular. I used to, but no longer feel so close to that smug and superior modernist urge to blow the artifice of culture apart and get at some ineffable truth that must be sleeping underneath it all. And as a result I also don’t feel as much need to rub my different-ness and eccentricity in everyone’s faces while daring them to blink, though I’m also not trying to pander. People are afraid to talk about the quality of music anymore because the values of “high art” are so fuzzy and qualitative. But I think it’s perfectly fine to have strong opinions about how well-crafted our pop or rock music (including lyrics) is and I don’t think there is enough of that conversation being had by critics. A lot of work that’s elevated in online culture is exciting based entirely on the newness and innovation of it’s production. But a lot of that is also just really mediocre from a total craft perspective. I do care about how well things are made but I also still care about what those things do, and what they say, and how they matter to people. I’m feeling like there is more political usefulness, as well as just creative satisfaction (working a long time simply to learn how to make a song or record really well), in thinking about my music this way. So I don’t know, maybe moving to the country did soften me. But I’m no less angry or restless then I’ve ever been.
The Guardian describes your music as ‘worship of 1982’ and a desire to recreate the sound. Is this conscious? Is any of the music making process conscious?
Hahahaha. They sure did.
Look, I think…like a lot of these things…a publicist threw up a reference to 1982 in a press release or an email and a writer decided to run with it. It’s a good press ‘hook’ for the story. But it also rhetorically disguises the gross reduction taking place (i.e., “look, 80’s music re-done!”) by using this very specific but also arbitrary number. So no disrespect to The Guardian….they seemed to like the music alright and I was very grateful for the exposure. But I want to be honest with you about where I’m coming from. I’m hyper-aware of the musical past I’m playing around with but I’m also not personally interested in pastiche. I’m not sure what MJ’s Thriller, ABC’s Lexicon of Love, The Associates Sulk, and Segun Adewale’s Ase (all made in 1982) have in common that could be picked out of a lineup of records spanning the late 70’s through the mid 80’s. They’re very different. A lot of records were made in 1982. I love records and, yes, I’m a bit of a music and music production nerd. But I’m not so much of a nerd that I could isolate the production techniques and fashions of 1982 (as opposed to 1981 or 1983) and claim to be an heir to them. There are also a lot of late 80s and 90s digital synths and guitar sounds on the Leverage Models record too. And a lot of auto-tune and current R&B rhythms and textures. Late 80’s Miami freestyle and 90’s New Jack rhythms made a dent in my subconscious for sure.
What draws me to a lot of the records I love from the late 70’s and early 80’s, is the really blatant combination of studio slickness and post-punk amateurishness, especially in some of my favorite vocalists of that time. There is a kind of hysteria in some of these records, a reckless abandon that I connect with. There is also a lot of really beautifully weird experimentation with early digital technologies sitting aside a very settled and perfected use of analog technology. That clash of traditions excites me. But I’m also inspired by things I have a strong negative reaction to…because I’m interested in all the baggage we bring to what is really just neutral sound before it bounces around against our inner experiences. I’d never really had much tolerance for slap bass or soprano saxophone before working on Leverage Models. I don’t know why those cheesy sounds started creeping into the music but my own knee-jerk dismissal turned into fascination and then love as I tried to find ways to make unloved or unfashionable sounds work in the music, to find ways to take those sounds out of the dungeon of my subconscious. Playing with fire like that was just a good way to force myself out of my comfort zone and arrive somewhere new. If I only focused on sounds that were currently in fashion then I’d sound like all of my sophisticated musical neighbors, some of whom sound like they’re trying desperately to get noticed by wearing the right sonic clothing this month, savvy as they all are. It’s a very easy trap to get caught up in. But I gave up on fitting in with any established scene a long time ago.
The bottom line is I’m not really a studio geek. I work on intuition. I never cared much for stuff that seemed emotionally manipulative, or rehearsed, or worn like a fashion accessory. I have a bit of an anti-American Idol aesthetic, and have a knee-jerk reaction to music that seems to parade its instrumental or compositional chops around. I still want to be caught up in the moment. That blasé, too-cool-for-school persona infuriates me. I want pop music to make the moment feel like it matters at the same time that I want to dance. I want to dance and shake around like my life depended on it…and to believe that. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m wiser than the things I’m dancing to, I don’t believe in guilty pleasure. Ironic appropriation of musical kitsch from the 70’s through the early 2000’s seems pretty fashionable right now – and I know Leverage Models stands dangerously close to that line sometimes – but I feel no kinship with that at all. It’s completely emotionally alien to me. I don’t really allow a place in my music for kitsch, blunt irony and pastiche. I’m just slicing myself open and draining it onto a record. Since I’m neither special nor unique, other people are bound to feel it if I do it well. And it’s okay if it’s disposable, as long as it matters to someone for a bit. I don’t believe that good art is timeless because we aren’t timeless – we’re on a very short timer, you and I.