Disco From Deep Space
Jan 26, 2012
Body Language’s squiggly, headphone-worthy electro-soul feels very... 2011-ish. Social Studies, the band’s excellent EP (with its sugary synth pads and smooth percussion), may harken back to the glistening, disco-lite pop of the early ’80s, but the songs seem linked genetically to this decade, if for no other reason than the music press’s fascination with genre trends. Perhaps unfortunately, Body Language has arrived smack-dab in the thick of the chillwave moment: where anything with keyboards, programmed rhythms, and reverb has been lumped together into one easy-to-define category.
But, as vocalist Angelica Bess points out, Body Language is a real band, not some lonely dude strapped to his laptop. The Brooklyn quartet—which also features producer/instrumentalists Matt Young and Grant Wheeler, as well as percussionist Ian Chang—originally formed back in 2008, sprouting from Brooklyn’s dance-remix club scene, where the band turned heads with their sheer live force and ass-shaking grooves. Though Social Studies is still fresh on their resume, the band is already head-first into work on their follow-up effort—that is, when they can find breaks from their intense tour schedule.
Under the Radar recently spoke to Bess over the phone, as the singer prepped for an upcoming New York gig. Along the way, we spoke about the band’s winding origins, their much-hyped live powers, why it sucks getting boxed into a genre, and what it means (or, perhaps, doesn’t mean) to be a “glockenspiel guru.”
Ryan Reed (Under the Radar): So you guys have a show tonight in New York, right? Looking forward to being back in town?
Angelica Bess: I actually have soundcheck in an hour! [Laughs] Just got back from Massachusetts, awful traffic, had to run home to deal with a leaky ceiling. It’s been a crazy day for us.
I know you guys probably talk about this in every interview that you do, but could you explain to me, being a nerdy white guy from a small Kentucky town, exactly what a “dance remix party” is and how guys got involved in that scene?
Well, basically, I guess I could talk about how we started with the music. Matt and Grant—I met them when I was in college, in Hartford, and they used to DJ at this dive bar called Vegas Boulevard, and that’s when they started DJing and remixing all these dance-y tracks. I’d also been a fan of dance music and so many other kinds, and they had been in an electronic band prior to this project, so once we kind of formed and locked eyes, it kind of meshed with them working with dance music and DJing at the dive bar. And I had done a few vocal parts for their electronic band in the past, so it was kind of a mesh of everything.
What was the name of that earlier project, and what was it like?
It was called The Landau Orchestra, and it was kind of a jazz-experimental project they made when they were in school, which was a few years before me. And then I guess, my senior year, when I was pretty much done with school, we had decided to start this project and move to New York.
When did you come into the picture exactly, and when did they initially start playing together under this name?
I guess the other project started back in 2002, when they were freshmen or sophomores, and Body Language, which started in like 2008—writing songs and playing a couple local shows. Our first show was in a basement at our friend’s house. And we were also a trio, but when we moved to New York, we started doing a couple small gigs at some pretty small venues, and then we were the backing band for the hip-hop artist Theophilus London, and that’s when we met Ian. We kind of re-grouped and formed an even bigger project incorporating drums, having Ian more affiliated with the writing style. It’s so complex when it comes to the writing style because Matt will kind of write a beat or Ian will develop it a little more, leaving room for me to come in with some vocal harmonies or vocal ideas in-between, so it’s all very collective—who starts with a beat or a sample.
These are often very physical, danceable songs, which makes me wonder how often you guys are in a room together, playing instruments while you’re writing. At the same time, though, these tracks are clearly the product of studio tweaking, so that also makes me picture you guys huddled around a laptop. What’s the truth?
Well, it’s actually a little bit of both. We spend a lot of the basic minimal writing on the computer, so we’ll have a general idea of what we want the song to be like, but when we’re recording, it’s everything that we use live. We have drums. We have glockenspiel. We’ll have a few different kinds of keyboards that create a great element to the song, incorporated into the recording, but we’re all recording together. So a lot of our sessions are definitely very much—one person starting off with the computer stuff, and then we all come in for a full-band session where all of us are recording our instruments.
I think that’s really cool that you guys do both of those things because with a lot of bands, it’s usually one way or the other.
It’s really important because we weren’t doing that in the beginning, and we were getting a lot of comments saying that our live presence was so much better than our recordings! [Laughs] So we were like, “Ok, there’s something we’re doing wrong!” We have a friend with this beautiful space up in Fort Washington, and he was like, “Just record in my living room! We have so much space.” So that’s basically what we’ve been doing—using live rooms to create more of a studio—more of like an effect that’s more in line with what we do live.
Yeah, you guys have definitely earned your reputation mainly as a great live band, but these days, you’re starting to become more of a presence in the studio. Do you still consider yourselves a “live band,” first and foremost?
Actually, to be honest, we’ve been playing shows non-stop over the past year. We’re just, as of next week and the end of February and March, we’ll be in the studio working on the album, no question. So I think it really depends on where we are as a band. Before, we weren’t doing as many shows, and we were in the studio like crazy, writing songs. So I think it just depends on the tide—like last year, we were doing a little bit of both, had access to a church and were recording vocals every weekend. And this year, it’s just like non-stop shows to where we can’t get any weekend time, so I think it just depends.
Tell me about making Social Studies. First of all, I want to know this: What the hell is it? Your website calls it a collection of singles. I’ve read that it’s an EP. I’ve read that it’s a full-length album.
Originally, we did establish it as an EP, but when it was re-released, we decided to add a few more songs, so it kind of generated into an album with the extended remixes and all that stuff. We had eight to ten tracks, so we might as well call it an album! [Laughs] I’m just like, “What did we make here? What is this?” [Laughs]
Where and when did you guys initially start working on the record, and how quickly did it all come together? Was it done in a couple sessions, or was it over the course of a longer time?
It was definitely over the course of time—we were moving studios, rebuilding the studio over the past year-and-a-half, so that’s pretty much what the situation was, but the guys, especially Matt, really never stopped writing songs. So we’ll write songs on the road and then go home and work on them. This coming year is going to be a real serious collection of sessions because it’s just been so scattered with the shows that we’ve had in-between.
I imagine you guys dying to get in there and work on some new stuff.
Very much so. We’ve been itching because we ran out of opportunities to write new songs because we feel like we’ve been getting ahead of ourselves! We’ve been playing new songs live, and we haven’t even had the chance to record them yet! [Laughs] So it’s like, “Alright, guys—we’re really jumping the gun here. We really need to catch up with ourselves and even it out a little bit.” So there’s definitely some anxiousness there from all of us!
Well, Social Studies is really great, and that’s obviously what we’re here to talk about. But what’s the status on this new album?
The writing is mostly done—it’s mainly just mixing, adding drums, adding a few acoustic instruments to create more of, like I said before, more of a live element that a lot of the earlier recordings had apparently been lacking. So that’s been the main focus right now: I guess just re-forming a draft. Starting out with a draft—not much like a skeleton, just adding on and reconfiguring. Or if there are some more ideas—like adding a hook, which is also a writing style—adding them in there. So the writing is there, but there can always be more.
How much collaboration is there in the writing process? Does a song pass through all of your hands before it’s all said and done?
Absolutely. Matt and Grant definitely do a lot of production of the tracks, but Ian does drums, and I’ll do vocals and add glockenspiel and maybe just a few instrumental melodies that are in my head that we can incorporate.
Also, all four of you are singing on the album, right?
Yes, we all sing—some of us more than others. [Laughs] But Matt and I are the main leads, and Ian has been remarkable with backup vocals, and Grant as well. So we’re all kind of there, and I think that’s extremely important to have all of our voices in the recordings because it doesn’t really seem—for instance, if you have a band with a “front-girl,” it seems more like it’s “Sally and the Blah-Blah-Blahs.” [Laughs] So we don’t want to do that! We want everyone to sing, and we want everyone to be involved in what we’re doing because we are a band!
Your website bio says you’re a “glockenspiel guru.” Is that a joke, or are you seriously the master of the glock?
Absolutely not! [Laughs] That phrase has literally gone through every review like an STD. It’s gone through every review, and it’s not even true! [Laughs] Piano was the first thing I learned how to play when I was really young, but I stopped playing because I had an awful teacher and was really into sports at the time. I was just doing so many things when I was young, but I was like, “I love music, but I can’t do this right now.” I always loved music—I was always listening; that was something that never went away, which is something that has definitely influenced why I’m in this project right now. But I definitely wasn’t touching any instruments from age 12 or 13, when I stopped, up until I met these guys. I was at the studio all the time, and these guys are, like, keyboard whores! They have so many—baby grands, organs, and I was just surrounded by all these instruments, and I couldn’t get away from it! I loved it so much! And they had a glockenspiel—and since Matt was already playing keys, and Grant was doing electronic stuff, for the live set—since I loved playing it all the time in the studio—they were like, “Oh, why don’t you just play it for the live show?” So that’s basically what happened. They were just like, “Take this and add it. We need some acoustic element for our live set.” And then it wasn’t up until six or seven months ago that I started buying my own equipment.
So, to answer your question, I’m definitely not a glockenspiel guru! I’ve only been playing for like four years, but when you like something, you don’t stop playing it, and you’ll eventually get better, but I’m definitely not an expert! [Laughs] And it’s something that I haven’t stopped using—you see it at all our shows and hear it in the recording, so it’s definitely there. It’s definitely a part of our sets, but I wouldn’t necessarily list that as my form of expertise. If anything, it would be vocals, as far as contributions to the band. I would like it better if they said I was a “vocalist guru,” but that’s fine. [Laughs]
Journalists, being a lazy bunch, do latch onto quotes like that, especially stuff from press bios.
I know! And people just believe anything they read, so they just copy and paste. And that’s fine, but you might want to find out if that’s true! [Laughs] Literally, the glockenspiel guru quote has been there since before we even had Ian! It’s ridiculous! It’s kind of faded out to me, but whatever! [Laughs]
So... is there anything else interesting you’d like to mention?
I’m just glad you didn’t ask me what I’ve been listening to, or my influences, because that’s the hardest question.
I’m always afraid to ask that question. It seems so boring for the person being interviewed.
I’m just afraid my answers would be really uninteresting because—well, I listen to everything, but what I listen to now…[the reaction will] be like, “That’s weird. That doesn’t sound anything like your music!” So I just feel like it’s kind of alarming when I tell them. I was doing this one interview where they were like, “Have you been listening to any new albums?” And I was like, “Oh, I’ve been listening to the Parallax album by Atlas Sound like non-stop,” and the girl was like, “I have no idea who that is!” And I was like, “He’s amazing!” It was kind of disappointing because he’s a huge influence of mine, and as far as experimental elements, he’s someone I aspire to be like. He’s so extremely diverse, and I found out about him through Animal Collective, and since then, I listen to anything relatively indie, so it all kind of just came together.
Parallax is a great album. I’d say you’re right, though—that’s definitely a bit of a surprising influence.
I just read this interview he [Bradford Cox] did the other day, and he was like, “Chillwave is dead!” And I was like, “Yeahhh!” because a lot people have been saying he’s this chillwave god, and he’s really not at all. He’s, if anything, a very diverse, experimental rock and roll artist, you know? He does doo-wop songs! It’s not all clumped into one thing, guys! We don’t all surf this one riding wave that goes on for a year. It’s kind of silly. I mean, that’s great—it’s a great, great genre, but it sucks when you’re put under one umbrella when you don’t even sound like it, or when you’re not even trying to sound like it!
You guys have been lumped under that umbrella, too. But then again, anything that has synthesizers and reverb in it is considered “chillwave” or...“post-chillwave” or something stupid.
Yep, exactly. We don’t even have reverb in any of our sets. Sometimes we’ll ask for a slap-back delay or something for the vocals, but I can’t stand reverb when I’m singing live because I feel like it’s already there when we’re playing a huge venue. I don’t need anything more added on. This one time when we were playing in Chicago, and I was watching the sound guy. I could see him in the back all the way from the stage, and he was raising his finger on the board every time I hit a long note. I wanted to be like, “Dude, you don’t have to do that!” [Laughs] But he was really feeling it, so I let him have his fun, but I feel like it’s redundant sometimes.