understand The Ladybug Transistor it helps to know
where their music is coming from--literally. The
band lives together in a quiet Brooklyn
neighborhood which one hundred years ago was
planned as an enclave for those wishing to escape
the hurlyburly of city life. Once home to the
"country" estates of the rich, the neighborhood
just south of Brooklyn's slightly wild Prospect
Park has gone to seed but has proved fertile soil
for Jeffrey Rush Baron, Jennifer Baron, Sasha
Bell, and Gary Olson who live, play, and have
recorded three albums named for local
streets--Marlborough Farms, Beverley Atonale, and
The Albemarle Sound--in the Victorian-era home
they call Marlborough Farms.
From the outside it is a house dappled by
treeshade, Japanese lanterns hang over the garden.
Inside it is a home, with couches, a kitchen, and
chores. Downstairs, the playroom--a 16-track
recording studio where the farmhands are free to
languidly explore and piece together intricate
tapestries of sound. Their most recent album, The
Albemarle Sound, was crafted over the course of a
year, assembled with the slow attention one gives
to gardening. It is a summer album, expansive and
exuberant, a departure from the slowcore roots of
Beverley Atonale. That album was all low gear in
the rain with hints of breaks in the clouds ahead.
On The Albemarle Sound the sun has come out full
force, the top is down, and you're going home.
Some call it '60s art retro-pop, likening it to
the symphonettes of Brian Wilson. Or maybe it's
retro '60s art-pop. Whatever you want to call it,
their music does not enter you--you enter it. It
is an architecture of sound, a place you inhabit
and explore, a mental space, a lyrical landscape
invoking nature and triggering memories. The dozen
tracks of The Albemarle Sound work together with
the harmonious accord of stones in a rock garden,
each solid on its own but also carefully
juxtaposed to create a larger space, a perfect
pocket of peace and reverie in an otherwise
discordant world. The way individual songs make a
record, so does each record build on the last,
evolving a three-dimensional map of time, space,
and sound. It is a body of work which incorporates
the weather, local geography, and all the moods on
the emotional barometer, each album a chapter in
an epic which is still being written.
Who does what chores?
Everyone: This is a super question! Okay, Gary
takes out the trash from the kitchen to the
outside, the bulk of it, and Sasha helps him lift
it. Jennifer takes out the trash in the bathrooms.
Let's see it's more like who does not do what
chores? Washing dishes is a constant escapade of
avoidance and sopping up dead tiny ants. Gary,
Jennifer and Sasha beat Jeff out in the dish race.
Sasha created the beautiful garden. Jeff, to his
credit, is a vigilant butter churner; recently he
learned how to make margarine. Mike discards the
dead mice from the pantry and Jennifer wipes up
the mouse excrement. Gary is a mean duster and
Do you write songs before or after you take
out the trash?
Jennifer Baron: We usually write songs while we
take out the trash, lots to rhyme about, humming
along with the crows in the trees as we merrily
complete our chores and stroll to the side of the
house. Songs about
recycling are quite popular these days. Living
together certainly allowed us to experiment with
arrangements of the songs on the new record. We
would each take our ideas descending down to the
studio where Gary is awaiting with his whip in
hand to beat our best out of us. We had the
opportunity to work with a wonderful group of
string players and a baritone sax player who were
guest musicians in the studio. Living together
allows us to also bounce off ideas in a type of
musical stream of consciousness way.
Jeffrey Rush Baron: Living together helps with
time to be as spontaneous as we want because
everyone is always around.
Sasha Bell: Sometimes the elderly gentleman, who
lives in the room next to me, makes strange
gastrointestinal sounds in the middle of the
night. I find that inspires my music.
Jeffrey: Listen closely to the lyrics of "Six
Times" and "Oceans in the Hall" [from The
Albemarle Sound] for some insight about how
domestic life together leads to our music....play
them backwards and you'll hear all the Ladybug
Did you have imaginary friends as children?
Sasha: I had the monsters who I
used to have to sing to whenever I
had to go upstairs alone. If I
sang "who put the bomp?" then it made the monsters
happy and they wouldn't hurt me--no joke.
Jennifer: No imaginary friends--just nagging
voices that made me repeat actions like counting
all the digits in every house number I passed
walking home from school, in different
Are you still trying to placate monsters
with your music?
Sasha: I'll answer for Jeff--yes. This time the
monster is the urban one, the grind of city
life... Jeff likes to write about the country,
Is the Marlborough Farms construct another
hedge against city living?
Sasha: Absolutely. you've seen our house. It's not
quintessentially urban. After living out here I
don't think I could stomach living in a concrete
box. The great outdoors, or at least the
suggestion of that is too important to me now.
Your Albermarle Sound cover art is super
Jennifer: The record artwork sort of chronicles
one of our journeys through nearby Prospect Park
which is an incredibly lush & green setting...
More wild and untamed than Central Park and a
constant source of escapism for us in a way. It
borders our neighborhood which was conceived as a
kind of getaway for city dwellers. The houses are
all rambling Victorian mansions with indoor
ballrooms, greenhouses, kitchen nooks. We like to
peer in and take strolls down the tree-lined
streets. The names of the streets all convey some
of this sense of place. Marlborough, Beverley,
Albermarle, Buckingham, Rugby, Stratford, Argyle,
Westminster. Kind of like a lost country town
dropped in the middle of a very urban borough.
Is touring another way to get away from the
city, or is it even more fraught with anxiety?
Jennifer: Touring can be heavenly at times and to
travel and take a break from New York is
absolutely crucial to us. I am daydreaming of
Scandinavia [where the Ladybug Transistor toured
in late July] already. The touring logistics can
be laced with anxiety but we all kind of fall into
a mode that you just have no choice but to accept.
It sorts of takes hold of you actually. Our
drummer San has some rather odd habits, like only
eating Kit-Kats and potato chips and never eating
the day of a show.
Visiting Marlborough Farms, one can't help
but get the sense that you're a family. In
what ways is living together a blessing, in
what ways a curse?
Jennifer: I guess anything that is so important to
you that you must do, has a kind of dichotomy
built in. Sure we are an intricately-related group
of people that don't only come together to write
music and who intimately share space, creativity,
and daily life. Having the studio so intertwined
in your daily life is an amazing experience that
allows for experimentation, extended time and
spontaneity all in the same project. You eat and
sleep near the songs as they are being given their
permanent life--in a way that is very different to
renting temporary studio space, or adapting to a
new environment that you bring the songs to. With
us it is inseparable. We may discover that an old
movie we all watched together finds its way into
the lyrics Gary has written or that an everyday
aspect of the place we have all made our home
figures within how we write songs or feel about
How would you describe your
Sasha: Sad and sincere.
Jennifer: When we create music, we think carefully
about arrangements and orchestration and how these
processes work together with melody, lyrical
ideas, feelings, or moods such as spaciousness or
a sense of place and memory. The music is carried
along by all of these elements relating to each
other in the form of a song.
You have what a lot of bands wish they
had--a 16-track recording studio in your
basement. How did that come together? How has
it affected your songwriting?
Sasha: William Wells, the elderly gentleman who
lives in the back of the house with us, owns the
studio equipment. He and Gary used to work at a
radio station together. Then somehow they ended up
living together so Bill could utilize the basement
as a studio. We've never recorded elsewhere. I
like recording at home at a leisurely pace.
Jennifer: The studio was developed over time by
Gary and our gentleman resident William Wells, so
Gary does play various defined roles that include
producer and engineer, but what is exciting to me,
is that we have all been able to learn from each
other and from having the studio environment so
close to, or literally in, the home. Many of the
songs required three sets of hands to mix, and we
are all strong-willed and opinionated about our
musical ideas, so the collaborative process exists
on many levels. While recording The Albemarle
Sound we would often leave notes on the kitchen
table with ideas for others to think about and add
to, especially during the mixing process.
Speaking of process, how was The Albermarle
Sound put together? You said that Gary cracks
the whip. Steve Malkmus has finally admitted
to being the "leader" of Pavement. Do the
Ladybug Transistor have a leader or is the
process more democratic?
Jennifer: Well, Gary actually prefers electric
shock devices. In truth, he exhibits no
master-mentality habits. Except for perhaps his
silent Swedish stubbornness of course. And since
there are three Libras (Sasha, Gary, Jeffrey) in
the group, I suppose the scales of democracy are
evoked more than the whips and chains of
oppression. The process definitely involves Jeff,
Gary, Sasha and I (San our drummer now resides in
Zurich!) on all levels and in different ways at
different times. We may each write songs, or begin
to, separately, but we all contribute our parts
and ideas to the songwriting, recording, arranging
and performing processes. We collaborated on the
design of The Albemarle Sound artwork with Mike
Barrett as well, and have been creating paintings
for our live shows based on the album's cover
Sasha: I think the making of the new record was
about as creatively a democratic process as it
could possibly be. Everyone contributed songs,
wrote parts, gave input on mixing, artwork, etc.
Gary doesn't crack the whip so to speak, though he
takes care of a large part of the band business.
Could you call him a Führer? Probably not.
The arrangements on Albermarle Sound are
very intricate and I was pleasantly surprised
to see you handling them so well in concert
(especially "Aleida's Theme"), even though it
necessitated switching instruments midsong. Do
you find it hard to recapture the richness of
your recordings on stage, or do you write with
live playing in mind?
Jennifer: Our songs can take on different lives.
Some may be entirely studio creations and may
never be heard on the stage, while others are
arranged for the record with particular details in
mind, and may be carried out in a slightly altered
form live. These are challenges that can be both
purposeful and unexpected, or brought on by
limitations, depending on the song's needs, or
what additional musicians are available to perform
with us. I enjoy switching from bass (which I
learned years after playing guitar) to guitar, and
as of late, adding the occasional organ or
melodica part to accompany a particular song live.
We think a lot about what needs to be accomplished
for a certain song, and what is the best way to go
about this process, both live and in the studio.
Now, we are playing with a cellist and violinist
live and this has added a rich dimension to the
shows. On our last U.S. tour, we frantically
mailed and faxed sheet music to string players
that friends recommended across the country, and
arranged for them to play with us in places such
as Athens, Nashville, and Norman, Oklahoma.
If we are touring with like-minded bands (like
what happened with Of Montreal and Beulah's
trumpet and French horn player), we will certainly
utilize their talents. We are now preparing for a
two-week tour of Scandinavia, and we'll be taking
our friend Julia to play violin. Sometimes we need
two guitars on a particular song, such as "The
Swimmer" or "Galveston" and we'll add a bass
player. Mixing our live sound can be tough though,
I think, since you cannot just "get the levels
set" and assume that a formula works for every
Sasha: I can't speak for everyone, but I
personally do not write with a live performance in
mind. For some reason, even though I've heard our
live recordings, I can never get a sense of how
our music sounds live. I know it can feel good or
bad or somewhere in between to actually play it,
but I'd love to be a fly on the wall at one of our
performances. I get very wrapped up in what I'm
playing, the switching, etc., and have a hard time
experiencing the live performance as a whole.
Your Merge bio stresses each Ladybug's early
musical experiences, which include family
piano factories, community center concerts,
and family groups. How much of that history is
factual and how much is a put-on?
Jennifer: One of my greatest discoveries about my
great-aunt is that she played the bass in my
family's group that included my great-grandfather
on violin and grandfather on various Croatian
stringed instruments, versions of the guitar. They
performed on radio shows in Pittsburgh every week
during the city's Industrial boom. Gary's dad is a
trombone player, so horns are probably hereditary
there, and Jeff's high school band, The Hester
Prynnes, often played the Mt. Lebanon Rec Center.
What brought The Ladybug Transistor
together? What did you have in common that
made you want to make music together?
Jennifer: I met Gary one summer in New York just
after I moved here from college. We were playing
the same show at the Threadwaxing Space, an art
gallery/performance space in SoHo. I admired
Gary's trumpet playing (with a different group)
and I was playing guitar with Saturnine. We soon
attended each other's shows as fans and then as we
became friends and my brother Jeff moved to New
York, I suggested that Gary call him about playing
guitar with The Ladybug Transistor. I then joined
for the first tour of Switzerland with
Sportsguitar and Sasha Bell joined us for an early
tour down to South by Southwest. Gary and I had
been admiring the drumming of San Fadyl, as we saw
him play often in NYC and wooed him to join the
group. Even before the five of us actually began
performing and writing together, I think we all
recognized elements in each other of what we would
like to do musically and in the love of similar
music that we share.
Sasha: Each person came to the band individually,
so it wasn't as if we were each seeking musical
soulmates--just so happens we all have a similar
musical sensibility, which is not to say we don't
have occasional artistic differences. We do. How
they are resolved depends on the weather really.
What were some of your early obsessions and
are those influences evident in The Ladybug
Jennifer: "Early obsessions" is a great phrase to
describe the way I felt about music during high
school, and probably always will. If I did not
desperately block out every sound around me while
walking to school with my Walkman blaring Smiths
or New Order tapes, than I somehow felt
ill-prepared to start the day. No moments seemed
as vital or as urgent as sitting in the sixth row
of a Pittsburgh movie theatre to see the Smiths on
the "Queen is Dead" tour, or smashing into the
Electric Banana to see GBH (whose music I did not
even particularly enjoy, but who and what
surrounded that music I did) on all-ages Sundays,
or making mix tapes for my friends with the same
bands on them over and over again--Game Theory,
Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, The Jam, Joy Division,
Lets Active, and dozens of others. Eighties music
like that was the one way for me to not exactly
rebel against (well maybe with the Butthole
Surfers), but at least start to break away from,
the musical preferences of my parents. Their
mainly '60s-based record collection was so
amazing, and clearly laid the groundwork for so
much of the music I love the most today, but
somewhere back there I had to find something they
did not hand to me. You're right though, so many
nights were spent alone in rooms staring
desperately into record covers, and so many
transitional times and events from memory are
inextricably tied to certain songs.
Sasha: My parents were big folkies so, by
association, I listened to much Arlo Guthrie, Pete
Seeger, Emmylou Harris, etc. My obsession then was
seeing how quickly I could flee the room when
"Alice's Restaurant" came on for the eight
hundredth time. I have to say that I grew up in
complete radio isolation and didn't get into "new"
music until my hipper-than-thou 10th-grade
boyfriend came along and turned things around. He
took me to see George Thorogood and the Delaware
Destroyers and bought me my first CD--some Swans
thing. I felt pretty cool then. As for what of
this hodgepodge turns up in The Ladybug
Transistor? It's in there, mmm smell it!
When I was in kindergarten, a girl laughed
at my boogie-woogie dancing. In third grade I
was dragged out of music class for finishing
solo the Sound of Music "Do Re Mi" song after
the teacher had told the class to stop. I'm
sure these experiences inhibited my later
musical endeavors. Can you think of any
experience somewhere in your youth or
childhood which set you down the musical path
you're on now?
Jennifer: Similar inhibitive situations may have
worked to actually lure me down the path you
avoided: Like never making District Chorus? Or
finding not an ounce of inspiration from my
neighbor-teacher during monotonous piano lessons?
Or having my hippie college guitar teacher insist
on having me strum along to his star-and-moon
inspired originals? Or being the only girl to walk
in and out of the Pittsburgh music shop with a
guitar in her hand for my weekly lesson?
The almost transformative musical experiences
started much younger, with my mom singing songs to
put us to sleep, or playing Leonard Cohen songs
downstairs once we were asleep (and then I'd wake
up terrified but transfixed). Or attending my
first concerts--Peter, Paul and Mary with my
mom--The Kinks with friends. This question goes
back to your last one and conjures so clearly
those early musical obsessions that for some
reason sparked the desire to make music and not
just love listening to it. For me it came later in
the form that it is now--that is playing in bands
with other musicians. Being a loyal fan of my
brother's high school bands was not quite enough
though, but it definitely planted the inspiration,
and eventually I gained the confidence to begin
playing guitar in college.
Sasha: I played in band in elementary and high
school which I really loved. I mean you work so
hard all year for like two concerts. Our conductor
used to get very emotional in rehearsal and cry
during the moving bits which made me embarrassed
and delighted. I think my musical life is a
continuing search for that embarrassment and
Visiting Marlborough Farms, one
can't help but get the sense that you're a
Sasha: In more ways than one we are a family. Jeff
and Jennie are bro and sis. Gary and I are
significant others. Pretty soon we'll be family by
common law if all goes well.
Jennifer: Jeff and I grew up in Pittsburgh, Sasha
in Cooperstown and Gary is a true Brooklyner, San
grew up in New Zealand, so perhaps it was a
twister that brought us together. Tornados do
recur in our lives while touring. I drove through
a tornado scare in eastern Nebraska in May and was
terrified but the others coached me to the Motel
Is Ladybug Transistor a family?
# # #
published at earpollution.com
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