Oyster #95: Light Asylum
When you're an entertainer that's like a drug in itself.
In Oyster issue #95, Alice Cavanagh caught up with Brooklyn-based duo Light Asylum. Here's an excerpt from our interview.
In a third-floor walk-up in Berlin, Shannon Funchess is wearing leopard-print pants, huge boots and rocking a Grace Jones flat-top. She certainly looks the part of a fierce frontwoman - and it's only lunchtime on a Monday. After spending much of the past decade as a backup singer for some of NYC's finest - including !!! and LCD Soundsystem - she joined forces with bandmate Bruno Coviello to form Light Asylum. Combining the darkest of new wave with Funchess' powerful baritone, the (usually) Brooklyn-based duo have been making an impact since the release of their debut EP, In Tension. I spoke with the pair about - surprise, surprise - the music industry, as well as making it past 27.
Shannon Funchess: Can I just have a moment to brush my teeth?
Alice Cavanagh: Of course you can. I've got a few questions but it's usually pretty relaxed, so Bruno and I can start.
Bruno Coviello: Please, brush your teeth!
You guys don't live together?
And why Berlin? Why did you decide to settle here for a few months?
Coviello: Partly to play European dates; we were getting booked here.
It's great that you're touring Europe - Germany must be considered quite a niche market for American bands.
Coviello: When we first started, people kept telling us we would be more popular in Europe anyway, so it always just seemed natural to come here.
How did the two of you meet?
Coviello: I had a solo project called Bruno and the Dreamies, Shannon was in another project, and we were both opening acts on a tour for this band called Bunny Rabbit. We got into a van together for 30 days and toured the country. That was in 2007.
Shannon, now you're back I want to talk about the theme for our issue, which explores Young America, or Young Ambition - this notion that the traditional idea of the American Dream has been lost, and there is a new cultural identity forming. How do you think the music industry has changed of late?
Funchess: Well, the days of million-dollar contracts are gone. When they were around, it wasn't like many people were getting them anyway, but everybody was going for them, and trying to regurgitate the music that the people who had the million-dollar contracts had already made. There were, like, 100 000 copies of Nirvana coming out, or whatever it was at the time. That's not happening anymore, because there is no million-dollar gold ring on that carousel - it's gone. People are just making the music they want to make.
That's a great thing.
Funchess: Yeah, because it was all an illusion in the first place. Everything was recoupable, and none of the bands that were getting these things were actually doing anything with it. They were in a position to say something and do something really spectacular, but they were just making average, dumbed-down music.
Well, making music is so accessible now, isn't it?
Funchess: Yeah, it's really accessible because of the internet and that immediacy of being able to produce a song in your bedroom, post it online and share it immediately. Programs like Pro Tools and Logic ? all these things you can make music with, without even owning a piece of real music equipment.
Do you see that accessibility as a good thing or a negative thing?
Funchess: I think when people don't engage with their audiences and they're just staring at a laptop the entire time, then the musicianship is lost.
Rebecca Black is an interesting example of a DIY career.
Funchess: She went to some cheesy Hollywood hit-maker; it was a birthday present or something from her parents. For, like, $1000, probably more, you can make a video and a track. That's what she did. That accessibility and immediacy is a bad thing in that example, or at least this was not the most intelligent piece of music - if you can call it that - that has come about because of the internet. But for other musicians it can be good. Rents are really high in New York, so it's hard to rehearse; most people don't own cars, so they're always taking a car or a taxi service to get to a show; and then there are studio rentals? All this is really expensive. So, I think people now are no longer catering to the industry and what the industry is telling them to do. I think that is really good for music and the arts.
So, of the more credible bands that did well in America, which ones inspired you?
Funchess: Nirvana, I think, inspired both of us, for sure. I grew up in Seattle; I went to thousands of live shows, including Nirvana, and just growing up and seeing that from start to finish - being able to go from a completely underground rock band to superstardom - I think they did it really well. So that's inspiring. Although the wanting to kill yourself thing?
You obviously heard about Amy Winehouse? [who had died the day before]
Funchess: Yeah, that's such a shame.
Another 'Club 27' thing, isn't it? Like Kurt Cobain?
Funchess: Mercury in retrograde? or is it Saturn return?
Coviello: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were in there.
Funchess: I think all these people were deep in the music industry. I don't know if they're really misguided, or if the people around them don't really care about them? At that point in time you're in a place where you can go either way.
What is it? Is it just drugs? Is it the adrenalin from performing and getting all that attention, and then coming down from that?
Funchess: When you're an entertainer that's like a drug in itself?
You're a frontwoman, you're in the spotlight now; a lot of people are comparing you to Grace Jones. Does this kind of attention worry you at all?
Funchess: No, because I've been doing this for a long time. I've seen my friends blow up and I've seen how they've dealt with it. I know that it's not something that lasts forever, either, so I just focus on the music and I don't worry about that sort of thing. I don't ever think about being that large in the scheme of things ? I think our music is accessible, but at the same time it's not Britney Spears pop, so I don't have to worry about people following me around. And if they did, I already shaved my head, so it wouldn't be a complete shock.
Maybe at that level you're in a bubble and you can't rationalise your experiences.
Coviello: I think artists are sensitive, you know? Even before they hit it big, they're sensitive people, probably since childhood. And then, to put that kind of pressure on them? I don't think people look at artists that way, though; they just think, ?Oh, it's so great they're getting all this attention, they must be so happy.?
Funchess: Like they just want attention or something.
Coviello: And they might, but they also?
Funchess: Want their privacy and want to be left alone.
Some of our favourite Light Asylum clips and tracks:
Light Asylum, 'Shallow Tears'
Light Asylum, 'Dark Allies'
Light Asylum, 'Angel Tongue'
Photography: David Fischer