Interview: The Ladybug Transistor
Published on November 8th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Last week saw the 15th birthday celebrations of Sean Price’s Fortuna POP! label, which took the form of three straight nights of live performances from associated bands at the Scala venue in King’s Cross.
Rocksucker eyed with interest the presence on the final night’s bill of The Ladybug Transistor, an old favourite from a few years back having been introduced to the considerable delights of their 1999 and 2001 albums The Albermarle Sound and Argyle Heir by a friend from across the pond.
Furthermore, this Brooklyn band came branded with the musical high-water mark that is affiliation with legendary Athens, Georgia psych-pop collective The Elephant 6, the founder members of whom went on to form the unanimously amazing (at least “IMHO”, as is the vernacular of the day) The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The Ladybug Transistor may not be at the core of the E6 itself but they join an astonishing supporting cast that includes other such cast-iron Rocksucker darlings as Beulah, of Montreal, The Gerbils and Summer Hymns, not to mention Olivia Tremor Control splinter groups such as Circulatory System and The Sunshine Fix.
There are many more besides. In terms of Quality x Quantity, it’s one of the all-time great musical communities.
If not the greatest.Yours truly won’t score journalistic brownie points for admitting to taking my eye off the ball in terms of following the last few years’ worth of The Ladybug Transistor’s progress, so that self-same eye and its counterpart were opened somewhat to find out how much they had missed.
Namely: three subsequent albums, the sad passing of drummer San Fadyl (who had also been a member of Elephant 6 cohorts Essex Green, also excellent) in 2007 and a production credit for Ladybug main man Gary Olson on one Kevin Ayers‘ last studio album.
Rocksucker downloaded – legally, since you ask – the most recent Ladybug Transistor album Clutching Stems, released earlier this year, and feasted repeatedly on its laid-back smart (in both senses of the word)-pop as if they’d never been away. And, midway through the first track of my listen, I looked down to notice that there was a ladybug (or ladybird, as they’re known somewhat more inaccurately over here) on my leg. Now how about that?
Anyway, off I popped to the Scala on Thursday evening for the gratefully received opportunity to interview Gary face-to-face before the show.
Since Darren Haymen & The Secondary Modern were soundchecking at the time, the interview was conducted in the quietest place we could find: the ladies’ toilets. First time for everything and all that… (Disclaimer: there we no ladies in there at the time.)
What’s your connection with Fortuna POP!?
I guess we’ve been coming to London for a good ten or eleven years and Sean used to promote some of the early shows we did here, and always took care of us pretty well. Then when we needed a UK label to do the album before the new one [2007’s Can’t Wait Another Day], he was happy to step up to the plate for us. That was the first record he did for us and the new one is the second.
Do you know much about the other bands on the bill tonight?
Will you be doing it tonight?
I read an interview with you in which you said that your guitarist Mark Dzula was involved in the writing process for Clutching Stems. To what extent was he involved?
Early on in the process, I often look for other people to help start things musically and if someone’s up for it then I encourage any kind of scraps of a song, or a sketch that people could send me. It’s kind of the process I use, I guess. So Mark really took on the assignment and wrote all these little pieces. In the end, there were about twenty of them over a year. He sent me two little MP3 demos a month and we chose about seven of those to work on for the album. Some of them were really simple acoustic guitar demos with a thread of melody and some of them were a little more fleshed out. It was the first time I worked with Mark and he eventually became a band member of the process of recording the album.
Your songs are quite ornate and colourfully orchestrated but are invariably underpinned by an acoustic guitar strum. Is that how they start life, with yourself – or indeed someone else – strumming an acoustic?
I think so, yeah. Uh huh.
What made you decide to switch to a more digital recording process for this record?
I’d never had a digital setup before. I do a lot of studio work – that’s sort of my occupation – and I found that I needed to balance it a bit with all the analog gear I have, just to be able to work. So, after avoiding it for a long time, I was the last person to get Pro Tools or Logic. I found some use in it for recording the new album but, with Ladybug, we’re not up to too many tricks. We don’t do too much crazy editing or anything like that. We were using a lot of the same gear otherwise, just using the computer as a recording device. We did start the project off on tape, though.
Do you swap production tips with Rob Schneider?
Yeah, I really like his stuff. We sort of got our start not too long after The Apples in Stereo so, in the early days, we did get to visit him when he was living in Colorado, at the studio where I think they did the early Neutral Milk Hotel records. He’s a good guy.
Are you guys playing at the Jeff Mangum ATP?
As far as I know, we aren’t! (Laughs) I’d really like to go. We did do a couple of shows with The Olivia Tremor Control recently so we did get to see a lot of that gang.
They’ve got new material, haven’t they?
Yeah, I think they’re working on another album now.
Is there still much of a ‘collective’ kind of feel about the Elephant 6 these days?
I guess we’re sort of indirectly related to all those bands so I don’t know if I could answer that probably! Someone from Athens would probably know better than me. But it seems like something is happening right now. It seems like that whole bunch of people are healthier and happier than they’ve been for a long time.
How did you come to be involved in the production of Kevin Ayers’ last studio album The Unfairground?
Kevin Ayers’ manager had got us in touch with each other. We’d done a Kevin Ayers cover ages ago – a cover of “May I?” – back in maybe ’98, and we actually got Kevin to sing it in French as it was for a French pop compilation. We never met him at that time – we just sent him some tapes in the mail and he sent back the vocals – so when it was time for him to make an album, which I think was five or six years after they found us for that, he came over to New York to meet us and decided to go with the project. Kevin came back and was living in New York for about a month, then the bulk of the it was recorded in Arizona.
There were so many great names working on that record: members of Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and even Roxy Music!
It’s funny…after he was done in the US, it was really left in my hands and I came here to London to work on it for a couple of sessions, but it still needed some finishing off. I met people years later who told me they worked on that record but we’d never met before! It’s funny, I was there for the bulk of it but then we just sent the tapes off. I’m pretty happy with the way it came out in the end.
I recently tried to get an interview with Kevin but apparently he’s completely disengaged from music these days. Can you think why that might be?
I think he seems happiest just in the little town in the south of France where he lives, keeping it quiet and going fishing. That seems to be his main hobby, just to live life pretty simply. I would love to see him playing again though.
San played on The Unfairground too and it’s hard to avoid asking about him. How much do you think the strong emotions you all must have felt after his passing seeped into Clutching Stems? Which, if any, songs in particular dealt with that?
I think that the last song “Life Less True” always conjures him up a bit to me when we’re playing that one.
In your recent interview with Clash Music, you said: “If you have a look at the album cover and the credits, you might be able to unlock a mystery theme or two. Julia’s red gloves are one clue.” Erm…a little help here?
(Laughs) There is a kind of underlying way that we were trying to tie a few things together. We went to do that photo for the cover out at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, which is kind of known for its Russian community. There were all these red flags up on the beach and Julia had her red gloves one – and there’s a song on the record called “Oh Christina” which is about a girl from Brighton Beach. A Russian girl! (Laughs) So nothing too heavy in there.
How’s your Bed and Breakfast going?
It’s getting there, I think. I think I need to have my house somehow made a designated landmark, then I could get the B&B fully operated. (Laughs)
I saw a mention somewhere of it being a place to accommodate Scandinavian bands, or some such presumed half-truth…
From early on, we got a lot of Swedish bands and friends staying…
Yeah, Jens Lekman is a regular over there – he’s an old friend. We’ve had more than our fair share of Swedish sub-letters! They seem to love to come to New York.
Are there any journalistic clichés that you’re sick of hearing or reading as a description of The Ladybug Transistor?
Erm…there must be something I could think of…
(Laughs) Yeah, “lush”! Er…what’s the other one…(mulls)…something about a “baritone” voice! “Honey-toned baritone” or something like that!
Now that you mention it, your vocals do seem to be a bit less ‘croon-y’ on Clutching Stems than they have been in the past. Was this a conscious thing?
Maybe, I can’t tell. It’s hard for me to be objective about it. But they could be – there may be a few keys in there that I hadn’t sung in regularly until now.
Finally, if you had to name – right now, off the top of your head – your top three albums of all time, which would you pick?
Ooh, I’m always so bad with lists. Um…can I cheat and look at my iPod?
(Takes out iPod, tries to scan a playlist and laments the fact that his iPod is “conking out” in the form of half-annouyed muttering.)
Okay, alternative final question. This might be massively premature but do you have material or a direction in mind yet for the next Ladybug Transistor album?
It is a little early to say, yeah! Yeah, it is early in the writing stages for whatever is coming next.
Oh, also, any more production gigs on the horizon?
And there’s a band from New York I’m working with right now called Ava Luna who are really good and getting kind of noted in New York. They sound more like Shuggie Otis or something like that. It’s kind of soulful, and a bit different to other stuff that I’ve recorded before.
And Mark Monnone from The Lucksmiths, who’s actually playing guitar with us tonight – we’ve been working a lot on his solo record this year when he’s been in New York. We’re almost done with that, actually – it just needs to be mixed now. It’s called Monnone Alone and I think people will really like it. People who are really missing The Lucksmiths right now will be glad to hear that they’re being given something!
Gary, thank you.