robert zverina

sample works > writing > At Home with the Ladybug Transistor





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To 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 drain un-clogger.

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 secrets revealed.

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 combinations.

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, greenery, trees.

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 lush...

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 them.

How would you describe your music?

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 characters.

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 song.

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 Transistor sound?

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 delight.

Visiting Marlborough Farms, one can't help but get the sense that you're a family.

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 6.

Is Ladybug Transistor a family?

Sasha: Yes!

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First published at earpollution.com

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