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11 March 2011

Interview: Brad Laner of Medicine and Electric Company.

Guest writer Josh Davis (see his awesome previous pieces here and here) has, once again, brought to When The Sun Hits something exceptional that we are more than proud and excited to share with you: an interview with the illustrious, legendary and prolific Brad Laner. Brad is probably best known for his absolutely seminal work with shoegaze/psychedelia-oriented band Medicine, as well as his exceptional later electronic project, the Electric Company, but he has been making outstanding music in various bands since 1981, starting with the punk/noise band Debt of Nature, and continues to do so right up to the present. His public music career perhaps possibly started as early as 1979, when Brad nearly got killed by an angry mob of kids for trying to play a version of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” at a junior high dance. We can't think of a more kick ass way to start your career, frankly. Brad Laner truly is a legend in rock music, as well as an important part of the later glitchy/electro scene, and perhaps nearly everything experimental, noisy, and essentially bad ass going on in music in between those. Thank you, Josh, for doing such an incredible, in depth interview with one of our idols, and thank you Brad Laner, for being so amiable toward us, and for just being you. Without further ado, we present to you Josh's interview with the one and only: Brad Laner.

Medicine. Heads.

1. You've been playing and performing since you were young. When did you first start playing, and what instrument(s)?

I started piano lessons at 5 years old but I remember messing with my grandfather's reel-to reel tape machine well before that age. I'm pretty sure I popped out this way.

2. How did you get involved with the LAFMS and Steaming Coils? Which came first?

I was only involved with LAFMS in that I was a huge fan boy and pestered the likes of Rick Potts and Tom Recchion mercilessly until I got them to play with Steaming Coils and Debt of Nature (my concurrent sometimes solo electronic/sometimes noise punk band/ sometimes big live improv ensemble). Steaming Coils existed from '84-'89 and virtually every little noise we made is available for free at Mutant Sounds blog.

Steaming Coils. Proposed Pink City (live).

3. Amongst all the other activity from around this time, you worked with two previously established bands, Savage Republic and Three Day Stubble. How did you come to join them?

Same story as LAFMS for Savage Republic. They knew me as a fan and also because Debt of Nature frequently played on bills with SR. Three Day Stubble were great friends and so much fun to play with. I met them at the Cathay De Grande club in 1983 when they played on a bill with another friend's band. I started Steaming Coils with David Chrisman, who was a member of 3DS at that time.

4. All this weirdness doesn't seem to lay much groundwork for Medicine. How did the idea for that band come about?

It truly all started with the discovery of the sound I could make with a guitar and a 4 track cassette recorder. It was "high concept". A band led by a device, you could say.

Medicine. Aruca.

5. There's a picture on your blog of a "very early Medicine" lineup. How many lineups did it take to get to the band that recorded Shot Forth Self Living? And how did that lineup come together?

It was just friends and people I knew from other bands. But there were a couple of different female singers before Beth Joined. First was Mari Grubbs (who's in the picture you mentioned). Where are you now, Mari ? Then there was Annette Zilinskas, who of course was in the Bangles and Blood on the Saddle. We used to work together at the Licorice Pizza record store in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Our very first shows were with both Annette and Beth singing. Eventually Annette left because another band she was in (The Ringling Sisters) got signed to A&M.

6. Was there any music that specifically inspired what Medicine sounded like?

Sure: Eno, the JAMC, Sonic Youth, MBV, Velvets, Beatles, Can, Faust, TG, Whitehouse, Beach Boys, etc. The usual suspects.

7. You've said your use of a Yamaha 4-track as a distortion unit was not an aesthetic choice, but rather one of affordability. Can you explain?

I had the 4 track machine but no distortion pedal. Not having much dough back then, it was nice to not have to shell out for a pedal once I figured out I could play guitar through the 4-track into an amp.

8. What's the story of Medicine signing to American (if there is one)? How about Creation?

The early 90's were a magical time in that one could glean large sums of money from major labels by making weird indie music. American (actually Def American at the time) were very nice people and they indeed let me do whatever my heart desired (at least as far as the making of the records was concerned). Creation picked up our first LP for release in Europe after we had already signed to American. Our A&R guy (Marc Geiger) knew Alan McGee and played it for him.

Medicine. 5ive.

9. What was the reception of the first album like? Big shows, radio play, stuff like that? Or was it more underground?

Well it was commercial suicide, obviously, haha. We got plenty of college radio play, but people like Rodney Bingenheimer and John Peel were the only ones that played us on commercial radio. We toured a bit with Smashing Pumpkins and Sugar and the JAMC around that time and those were pretty much the biggest shows we ever did. To say we were greeted with general mistrust and confusion would be an understatement.

10. Did you feel a kinship with any other bands at the time?

Not particularly. We certainly didn't emerge out of a scene.

11. After the first album, Eddie Ruscha and Jim Putnam left the band. How did that change the next album, The Buried Life? Did you approach writing/recording much differently?

Well the first album is basically the whole band live in the studio with lots of overdubs put on the best takes. The Buried Life I built from the ground up myself (along with Jim's drums and Beth's singing of course) and didn't have to answer to anybody else's insecurities (I had plenty of my own to deal with) , but that also made it an epic chore. It took months and was really difficult but I like the way it came out at least !

11. How did you come to work with Van Dyke Parks?

I sought him out and hired him at considerable expense ! A fun way to spend stupid major label money.

Brad Laner. Arlie.

12. Eddy Offord, who recorded many Yes albums, was an unexpected choice to record Medicine's third album...

I'm a huge Yes fan and I love those albums he produced. I had heard he was in Los Angeles and looking for work so I hired him. Not one of my best ideas, but it's an interesting detail isn't it ?

13. Was there any indication at that point that the band, in that incarnation, was towards the end of its existence?

Oh yeah. We very nearly broke up after a horrible European tour earlier in '94, and we probably should have, though I was talked out of it. Not a happy time for yours truly. But I'm glad to say that I've learned to love that record now. It's not as much of a bold statement as the others but it has some nice moments on it.

14. Was Amnesia leftover songs/energy from Medicine, or was it a separate project?

A few of the songs were indeed leftovers, in fact most of "Cherry Flavor" was written at the end of Medicine. I was searching. A bit lost. How funny that Island Records wanted to let me make those confused records. There are some good things in there, but those aren't my best work.

15. When did Electric Company begin?

In 1994, when I bought my first sampler. I had just split up with a girlfriend and spent a week making A Pert Cyclic Omen in my home studio. Very therapeutic ! To my delight American offered to put it out. And that made it a thing.

16. The first Electric Company record, A Pert Cyclic Omen, feels organic to me, despite being clearly electronic. Two years later, Studio City was more sterile and artificial. They sound like two very different records. What contributed to this change?

The Electric Company records were always the sound of me grappling with and learning how to use musical technology. Trying to escape the limits of being a "rock" guitar player. Studio City was an attempt at making music with an MPC3000 sampler and some ADAT machines.

No computer yet at that time. It's a mess ! It's been called one of the most uncommercial major-label albums of all time. I certainly hope so !

17. Why only two Amnesia records? Did the end of that band have anything to do with the more computer-based sound of Electric Company?

Because it was the end of the road for that type of songwriting and record-making for me. Wanting to go further into experimental electronic music was indeed a big part of it.

Brad Laner. Lovely World.

18. Was Lusk a studio band, or were they meant to be more? Was there only one record planned? How'd you end up in the band?

It was very much a studio project. It was recorded leisurely over several months at various homes and weird rehearsal studios. They did attempt a tour (without me) but that was more of an after-thought in my opinion and didn't come off very well. I knew Paul and the other guys from Tool socially and when he left Tool and got offered a deal to make a record he asked me to help, knowing Medicine had just broken up. I think we could have done more with the idea but every participant seemed to have a different idea of what it was supposed to be. That's probably what makes it such an interesting one-off project !

19. How did Electric Company get aligned with Kid606 and the IDM/glitch scene?

As I dove into that world (because that's where I thought the most interesting music was being made at the time) I made the happy discovery that some of these kids (including Kid606 and Alex Graham from Lexaunculpt who is now my partner in The Internal Tulips) that were 10 years younger than me were also big fans of Medicine. So of course I took advantage and went about learning as much as I could from them. That also put me in the middle of Kid's burgeoning Tigerbeat6 label which was a wonderful outlet for my Electric Company stuff for a few years.

20. Why re-activate Medicine in 2002? Is it still technically active?

Well obviously I didn't exactly re-activate Medicine but rather used the name for a new project. There were several reasons for that. Firstly, Kid606 in all his belligerent genius was constantly goading me on to use the name for something new. Secondly, was the fact that at the time I was desperately trying to get a crappy UK dance music outfit to stop using the name. I had heard that they were about to sign with Wall of Sound, so I contacted WoS and ended up doing the record with them ! Not only that but WoS payed my legal fees to fight the group that tried to be "Medicine". I also had a fun year of DJing massive clubs in England, hanging out with Banksy and other assorted random madness that came from being on that label. Thirdly it just seemed kinda poetic to call it Medicine since the original band was in The Crow with Shannon Lee's brother. She really liked that connection. The whole thing was a weird chapter in my life and I know the record pissed a lot of people off, but it was a cool adventure.

No, it's not technically still active. I'd sooner have a root canal than reform Medicine.

21. Why was Creative Playthings the last Electric Company album?

It was the last record I did before my son was born and I knew I was going to take a break for a few years. By the time I started really making music again I found my desire to do instrumental stuff had pretty much disappeared. Almost as if I had graduated from learning about technology to simply using it transparently to compose music. If some other huge shift in music-making technology emerges, I'll have to start up Electric Company again while I learn to use it.

22. You guested on Brian Eno's album, Another Day on Earth. How'd that come about?

He sampled a big chunk of an Electric Company track and built a couple of pieces around it. Astonishing, really ! I asked him to give me a "playing" credit on it and he agreed. One of the coolest things that's ever happened to me. I'll be bragging about that to people until I drop, haha.

23. Any other particularly memorable guest appearances you've done?

Pretty much the exact same thing happened almost simultaneously with Caribou, who I also love. I got my hands on a leak of their 2nd album and heard my guitar intro from Medicine's "One More" flying out of the speakers! I got in touch with Dan Snaith and told him to just credit me with playing guitar so Rick Rubin wouldn't come after him, haha !

Medicine. One More.

24. Neighbor Singing became the first official Brad Laner album, in 2007. Does putting your name on the label change how you approach the music?

No, but it was the first batch of tunes I'd made that I felt made sense to release under just my name.

25. Do you write songs with a specific project or album in mind, or does the structure become clear when the songs are done? Have you always done it that way?

Yes, I'm very album oriented. It's my medium of choice, the 40-odd minutes of music divided into 2 "sides". It's a good format regardless of the media it's presented on.

26. Natural Selections came out late last year, and you've got a split 12" out soon with the Finnish band Joensuu 1685. Anything else in the works?

Oh yes, I'm deep into solo LP number 3 and also the second Internal Tulips record. Both of which should see the light within the next year or so.

27. How'd you get the sweet gig at Dangerous Minds?

Richard Metzger (main DM dude) and I have a mutual friend who introduced us in 2009 when he was just starting the blog and he had a notion that I might be into contributing. I was and still am! It's exciting to see how much it's grown in such a short time. It's been a pleasant battle for my attention between making music and blogging lately. I hope to be able to keep on doing both for a long time !

30. What are you listening to these days?

Well that's easy to tell now that I'm posting my musical obsessions to Dangerous Minds regularly , especially the radio show we've been doing. My favorite recent discovery has been the 70s and 80s private press records by a guy named Bobby Brown. Not the r&b superstar, but rather the one man band/instrument builder and inventor who's also a tremendous singer. Seek out and download "Enlightening Beam of Axonda", "Live" and "Dreams of a One Man Band". Stunning, utterly unique stuff.

Interview by Josh Davis, aka the Fucking Wizard.


Electric Company.