One of the most acclaimed albums in the FACT cosmos this year has been Light Asylum‘s self-titled debut.
A collaboration between Bruno Cavellio, the man behind synth-pop outfit The Dreamies, and Shannon Funchess, a vocalist who has lent her talents to the likes of Teengirl Fantasy, Telepathe and TV On The Radio in the past, Light Asylum is more than the sum of its parts – in the words of our reviewer, there’s is “an astonishing meeting of minds”.
FACT’s Steve Shaw spoke to the Mexican Summer-signed do to talk about their passionate, polished take on ’80s industrial, synth-punk and No Wave influences, their political idealism and the power of the human voice.
“We are not leaders of men. We are conscious human beings with our humanity still intact and with the hope to reach others out there.”
How would you, as the composers, describe your music? but how do you perceive Light Asylum?
Bruno Coviella, Jr.: “We’re both influenced by so many genres but the choices we made sonically happened quite organically within the writing process. We aim to have people dance and we often draw from our mutual love of dance music culture within the production of the songs. In the same way a blues guitarist would use one set of scales to write a song, while a classical cellist uses others, we write with post-punk and dance music influences in mind, while bringing our personal energy to the writing process. There’s no reason really we couldn’t record some songs that make reference to other genres as well, but the influences you hear on the record are just that – the music that has been a huge inspiration to us.”
Shannon Funchess: “Most of the music I listen to – from ’30s blues guitarist and gospel, through late ’60s and ’70s American soul and r’n’b, reggae, punk, 80’s industrial, new wave and ska onto ’90s hip-hop – was conscious of its surroundings. Whether they were from the UK, Compton California, Detroit, New York or Germany, those artists all raised the level of consciousness with their messages through their music about demographic, political strife on a global level. I would like to carry on that tradition.
“I feel it’s our job as artists to convey what we see and experience on a personal level through whichever medium we choose to convey it. Not that it’s always an artist’s choosing to convey things. More often than not a genuine artist has a pressing need to make art or sing or paint or take photographs. It’s not as easy as black and white, present or future, or even reality that the artist is trying to express or convey their interpretation of the world. We don’t have a political agenda. We are not leaders of men. We are conscious human beings with our humanity still intact and with the hope to reach others out there.”
Our reviewer picked up on a cleanliness of many production techniques and synth parts, and there are also many instances of major key tonalities and chord passages…
BC: “With this record we did aim for a clean, minimal production to emphasise the stark quality of the tracks. We took advantage of the compressors and pre-amps in the studio to really hone the sound in the mixing process. Because the songs on the record are precisely the same as the way we perform them on the stage, we took the recording process to be like the ideal representation of how the songs would be performed live. While the live show has its own dynamic that is bound to whatever moment in time or place we’re in, our hope is that at every show we can give the audience the same songs they hear on the record.”
“The work on the Bruno and the Dreamies record is actually quite lo-fi – sometimes sounds were intentionally recorded into cassette tape through distortion modules. The Light Asylum record was intended to sound clean and not drown out the vocals, but instead to draw them to front.
“There are some major keys used on some songs on the record, but often they switch within the song itself to really provide a range of emotion in the composition. There is definitely an element of transcendence that comes across in our writing. In ‘Pope Will Roll’, for example, it starts out with a minor key pulsating house bassline to drive the angrier tone of the track, but then it opens up into a happy major key line that is more trance-pop. ‘Angel Tongue’, on the other hand, starts out in a major key with sparkling and chiming bells but ends in a sorrowful minor chord.”
“There’s nothing polished or shiny about how we write songs.”
How do you actually begin your compositions?
SF: “We like to start with a beat generally. Getting the sound and feeling of the snare, hi-hats and kicks where we want them, riffing on keys, basslines and vox as we go. It’s a very organic and raw process. Nothing polished or shiny about how we write songs. No laptops go into the writing process of a Light Asylum track until we are ready to record it. We don’t replace key parts with programmed key parts or anything like. We jam, we build, we structure all on hardware 50/50 for each song. Bruno brings his Dreamies and house production experience and I bring my 20 odd years of experience as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in every genre you can think of.”
Shannon, the delivery of ‘Angel Tongue’ and ‘Shallow Tears’ are incredible, completely changing the tone of what would already be powerful ballads. How did you come to sing in this way? Are you classical trained?
“[Laughs] No, but I did sing in church as a child and in middle school as a pre-teen until I graduated from the 12th grade. I’ve always admired the skill of breath in operatic, gospel and Arabic singers’ voices. Being able to belt out and hold a note for so long without gagging, it blows my mind!
“Contralto just came to me one day. I started Light Asylum as my solo project – a departure, if you will, from lending my vocals to other artists’ recordings and live performances, originally in 2007. It’s strenuous, but I enjoy the challenge of singing on many different levels, in varied pitch and tonality. The voice is the most powerful instrument in the world.”