Left Brained? Right Brained?
Lazer/Wulf Turn Mind Into Matter
“I think too much,” admits Bryan Aiken, speaking of his ideas concerning his band Lazer/Wulf and the music he writes for it. Think he’s just joking? The trio’s debut full-length album, The Beast of Left and Right, is a mostly instrumental, heavy prog/experimental affair arranged as if it were a palindrome, where song five is the center and the compositions on either side correspond to each other in opposite ways. So there are guitar riffs that are other riffs backwards. Some songs, like track one and track nine, are two versions of the same song, but one’s major key and one’s minor. And the whole album, says Aiken, is about Lazer/Wulf’s decision to reform and play music again after the members took several years off to pursue careers in the straight world.
“That center track is about that decision to stop making music, and then the tracks on either side of it, one through four and six through nine, are about the two paths – about not playing music and playing music, and deciding at the end of that left path why I was unhappy and I was filled with regret… That’s how I wrote this album, to signify that. You’re not supposed to think about it that way when you’re listening to it [but] that’s what it means to me personally,” explains Aiken. “When we were at the studio, I came in with notebooks filled, like, ‘At two minutes and 57 seconds, I want the sound of marbles rolling down the stairs…’ I brought marbles. [The producer]’s like, ‘Dude, you need to chill out!’” he laughs. “There’s a lot of sound effects on this record that I was recording live. Like, standing around the microphone holding branches and blowing on the microphone so it sounds like leaves. That’s the kind of stuff I want to bury into our records to give it texture… I think too much about all this stuff, as you can probably tell!”
How much is too much is in the eyes (or ears, in this case) of the beholder. But one thing is certain after spending an evening listening to Aiken discuss his music, the motivations behind it and his ambitions for it: this is a deeply focused, determined and sober dude with a helluva work ethic. I have to assume his two bandmates – bassist Sean Peiffer and drummer Brad Rice – share his dedication. They are all monstrously badass on their instruments –their confident manhandling of the dense, complex pieces on Beast confirms as much. And they’re even more intense live, where they lock into a thrilling three-way symbiotic web that threatens to spiral off the confines of the stage at any second. They’re not tech-heads simply wanking off a flurry of convoluted notes just because they can. There’s purpose behind this potent maelstrom of sound, and if you can hang on with white knuckles while it spins you dizzy and rearranges your pulse rate, once you re-catch your breath you’ll be like wobbly-leg riders stumbling off the Goliath at Six Flags: “Whoa! Let’s get back on and do that again!”
“I had always wanted to be in a band, since I was a baby,” claims Aiken, who was born blind in his right eye, though you’d never realize it if he didn’t mention it. “My parents brought me to concerts when I was little. My first memory’s a Def Leppard concert in like 1987. So that’s all I ever wanted to do with my life.”
When he started learning guitar at age 14, his then-girlfriend’s dad introduced him to the intricate music of 1970s prog-rock groups like Yes, King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Genesis. Another lasting influence from his formative teen years was Soundgarden. “4th of July” from Superunknown was the first song he learned to play.
“Even though Soundgarden is simple three-minute rock songs, every song’s in a different tuning, every song’s in a different key… which is something that I try to do too, because it stays interesting the whole time,” he says. “[That] made me challenge myself as a guitar player. That’s the kind of music that I wanted to make – something that isn’t going to mean what it’s going to mean to you on that first listen. It’s gonna take a little while.”
Discouraged by the lack of kindred spirits at Tucker High School, a visit to Athens, and specifically a house show where We vs. the Shark and Cinemechanica performed, changed that. Athens was in the midst of a small math-rock wave, and upon seeing two of its more prominent acts, Aiken figured, “Well, I know where I’m gonna go to college…”
“I still saw that spirit of experimentation there, but then I was seeing it through the punk context,” he elaborates on the math-rock scene. “Because all those bands in Athens were inspired by everybody like Drive Like Jehu, those noisy ‘90s bands. So having those two worlds meet is what I think Lazer/Wulf is. Having sort of rigid, conceptual prog running through a ‘I don’t really care how it comes off live’ sweaty house party context.”
He met Peiffer around 2006, at age 19, through mutual friends, and shortly thereafter they formed Lazer/Wulf with a drummer (they went through a series of them in the early days) and a soon-to-be discarded singer.
“[The vocalist] got sick and couldn’t play some shows that we already had booked, so we played both shows instrumentally, and people were like, ‘Wow, you guys are way better!’” Aiken laughs. “He’s still a friend of ours and everything, but it just opened our eyes to the fact that if we do anything to make us different, it actually is gonna turn heads more than trying to find what’s popular.”
Their instrumental concentration sets them apart from most acts, certainly, but it proved a challenge when trying to convince record labels to make an investment.
“I understand the issue of not knowing how to market something, and asking, ‘Well, if you fit this mold, it would be way easier for us.’ Because they’re juggling a lot of bands, I understand it’d be way easier for them if they knew what to do with us. But as an artist,” stresses Aiken, “that’s not interesting at all. Especially not right out of the gate.”
Still, Aiken says he’s reigned in the more indulgent fringes of his songwriting since the early years of the band. “When I first started writing music, I didn’t think about the logistics of set times,” he laughs. “So it was more about finishing writing a song when it was done. And if that meant 12 minutes, then fine. But now we’re doing national tours, where we get 25 minutes to play, and it can’t just be two songs anymore! It could be, but I wanna show more things. And brevity has never been something that I’ve done. I don’t do anything haphazardly. Everything I do is my baby. I think too hard about it. So I become married to everything I put out. So if I’m going to have a four-minute song, it has to be originally conceived as a four-minute song. I can’t write 12 minutes of music and cut it down, because I thought about all of it too much! I care too much about all of it.”
Luckily for Aiken (who freelances as a graphic designer, including work for Stomp and Stammer) and his bandmates (Rice joined in 2011 upon their reformation), they have a growing number of fans and allies, a few of whom are in a position to give them a boost. Most prominent of those is Kylesa, whose guitarist/vocalist Philip Cope produced The Beast of Left and Right, and will release the vinyl version on his independent label Retro Futurist on July 15th. That’s the day Lazer/Wulf returns to the U.S. after a five-week tour all over Europe as Kylesa’s opening act.
“When they [first] saw us, it was ten people in a basement somewhere,” remembers Aiken. “And they said, ‘You guys are rad – you wanna go on tour?’ And we were like, ‘Why? What do you stand to gain for that?’ They’re like, ‘You’re awesome. Why not?’ They feel like we can turn heads if someone gives us a chance. Nobody’s given us a chance. So they’re like, ‘Why not? What do we stand to lose from helping them?’ I mean, we don’t sound very much like them, but I think their fans have an open mind, and would be into it.”
Yeah, but are they open minded enough to detect the Kanye West influence? Okay, so it’s not like it’s a direct influence, but get this: “I like to listen to major pop music to keep melodies in my head. Because if I get too sunk into technicality, then it’s not a song anymore to me,” confides Aiken, now 28. “I don’t like proggy stuff, which is, I realize, ironic, but the really shreddy, Joe Satriani sort of stuff, that’s my least favorite kind of music, ‘cause there’s no songs there. So when I’m in the middle of writing something really dense, if I’m listening to a lot of pop music, stuff like Kanye, which I realize is sort of abhorrent to an extent, but it’s about hook, and it’s about melody, so if I can stay in that mode and appreciate melody and hook while writing really dense music, I think that’s where my style is going.”
And then, of course, “it just sort of falls apart live, which is what I like most about out shows,” adds Aiken with a grin. “I try to write these really intricate pieces, but it’s about the moment, more than it’s about the harmonization, to me. So if I end up abandoning my guitar and jumping in the crowd, that’s fine. That’s not any betrayal of the piece. That’s what music, to me, is supposed to be. About spontaneity. And with all those proggy players, everything live comes out the same, and it’s all so rehearsed, and then it’s soulless to me. I’d much rather have some intricate piece be totally devolved into chaos live. That’s fuckin’ jazz!”
And that, despite his doubts to the contrary, is not thinking too much!