Brooklyn's Telepathe began when Melissa Levaudis and Busy Gangnes decided that they were tired of playing in a math rock band: The conventional means of creating and performing music in a rock band seemed stifling to the duo, and so they abandoned that method of creating almost entirely. Freely experimenting with electronic instruments, the pair focused on trying to come up with a unique sound that also served as an artistic outlet to express emotions and ideas in a more free-flowing fashion with a broader palette.
Before long, Telepathe caught the attention of fans in its hometown, as well as that of TV On the Radio's David Sitek -- who produced Dance Mother, the act's full-length debut -- with a combination of electronic dance music, R&B and resonantly ethereal guitar work that sounds more like a synthesizer. In advance of its show this evening at City Hall, we caught up with Gangnes who discussed Telepathe's origins, its evolving use of technology and its songwriting.
Westword (Tom Murphy): What math rock band were you and Melissa Levaudis in before Telepathe, and what was the moment you remember thinking you wanted to do something else?
Busy Gangnes: We were called Wicked. We were in that band for two years. That's how we met. We both wanted to start a band with a mutual friend, and ended up in the band together. I was the drummer and Melissa was the guitarist, and I think we got tired of being limited to one instrument and only writing music in a rehearsal room setting, jamming out together at the same time.
We wanted to basically have wider instrumentation, freedom and band members to write different kinds of melodies and do more vocals -- have more creative freedom, and to sit down and carefully put the song structures together. That was our impetus to writing music that way, and we also became more interested in using electronic instruments and samplers.
WW: Why did you call your first full-length album Dance Mother?
BG: About two years ago, on Halloween, right before we started recording that album, we played a show, and we made these scary outfits that included these hideous masks that we painted. We had a guitar player performing with us at the time, and all three of us decided that we wanted to make our own t-shirts. So we got these white t-shirts, and painted "Dance Mother Fucker" on them, and then we sprayed them with fake blood.
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They looked really cool! I feel like our intention in writing that was that, often, in New York especially, you have a lot of arm crossers coming to your shows. Even if you're playing something dance-y, they won't dance or get into it. Halloween is a fun night, obviously, so we were trying to convey that image. Melissa and I were talking about it, and we were actually considering calling it that for a while, but we shortened it to Dance Mother. We liked the sound of that, but the album has two names, but Dance Mother is more mainstream, I suppose.
WW: How did you come to work with David Sitek of TV On the Radio, and in what ways did his production change the sound of your songs on record or did it at all?
BG: We had written every song on the record except for "Michael," which we wrote in the studio. We had a couple of our songs on Myspace, in particular "Chrome's On It" and "Can't Stand It," at the time. We had put them up three or four months before we started working with him. A mutual friend played those songs for him, but we had never met him before. Melissa met him at a bar a week later, and he's very forward, direct and really enthusiastic. At that meeting, he offered Melissa a month in his studio for our band. Literally, three weeks later, we were recording in his studio. He was excited and we were excited, so we went for it.
As for adding to our sound, he does have a very specific style, which we both love, and he has a huge collection of vintage synthesizers and drum machines. So we took the files from our bedroom studio from Logical Audio, and we started layering on them -- adding layers and layers and layers. Editing them down later, we ended up with a broader sound with those sonic layers. That's his thing -- he just likes to go for it and not put any limitations or instructions on what you can do in the studio.
WW: I saw in some interview that there were one hundred tracks on at least one song, and I was wondering how you leap that hurdle live?
BG: Those hundred tracks are on all the songs. Performing it live is basically impossible. We can't afford to hire a hundred musicians! We ended up getting to a new creative place with Ableton Live, which we'd been using for a couple of years.
We're using Ableton for a sampler now. We basically sampled sounds from our record and rearranged them and got new stuff. Our live set is kind of a remixed version of our record. We're dropping stuff out, adding live drums and, of course, we use live vocals from both of us. Maybe someday we'll hire an orchestra to play it.
WW: Clearly, electronic music of various types is integral to the music you make. What first sparked your interest in electronic music, what inspired you to make it yourself and are there any other artists who make that sort of music that you find particularly intriguing at the moment?
BG: I can speak for Melissa on this too, but we both love the Fever Ray album that came out this year. I love the beats and her dark sound -- it's poppy at the same time. Going back to the whole rock band thing in our old band, Melissa got a laptop toward the end of that, and we started using Garageband.
We had no experience or any idea how to do it so we made one song in Garageband, and then got Reason. Then we used the virtual drum machines, and then we got Logic. It was a learning curve. We had some advice from friends on making beats, and we used to use an MPC as well.
We just kept going with it, learning more and more about it the more we dove into it. Melissa and I used to share a room in a loft. We both decided we wanted to work on music in our daily schedule as often as possible. We synchronized our schedules, where we worked only two days a week and shared a room and paid really cheap rent.
We started working on music non-stop. We had Logic and a MIDI keyboard. Compared to our old band, it didn't make as much noise, and we didn't have to confine it to the schedule of a rehearsal space, and we could make music endlessly.
For this record, especially, we wanted to make a new genre of music, or a non-genre. We wanted to dive into the deep end and discover a new sound, so we started working with what we had and started making our own patches. Even though they were virtual synthesizers, we still had a lot of room to be creative and explore.
WW: One of my favorite songs from Dance Mother is "In Your Line." Can you tell me a bit about that song?
BG: The beat was taken from a live drum sample, and it has a really bizarre tempo. It's 1-2-3-5. That's because I took a loop from a live drum part I had played, and then we started adding drum samples on top of that. We also had the idea we wanted to turn it into a marching band, big beat sound.
Then we started making layers of minimal ethereal guitar loops and synthesizer melodies. When we took it to Dave's studio, we kept bringing in more ideas like that. As far as vocally, I remember Melissa wanted it to sound like an R&B style vocal -- an R&B duet so the two of us take turns singing like we're singing to each other. We really wanted to emulate that sound.
WW: How do you find that the reactions of audiences and critics are different from various countries and how is it the same?
BG: It's actually very different from country to country. I feel like before our band participated on this level, I never understood how a band could be big in Spain but not big somewhere else. It's different from region to region and even country to country, in Europe. I'd say we have a much bigger audience there than in the United States. France, Germany and Belgium, especially, get our music.
Even cities within those countries have different reactions. Some dance, some don't. Even if you're performing in front of an audience that seems dead, ten people will come up to you and say how much they loved the music, and you'll think, "That's crazy, because I thought I was totally boring you to death." Last week, we played in Miami, and even though that's a major city, touring bands often pass it by. Not many bands make it down there but the audience is so appreciative.
WW: Is there any music in the world you've been particularly interested in or excited about of late?
BG: That's such a hard question to answer. In the past year we both got into "coldwave" - '80s dark synthpop, stuff like Oppenheimer Analysis, Ivo Pritzan, Clair Obscur and Asylum Party.
WW: Now that you have your first proper album finished, how would you say your musical ideas and songwriting have evolved since that time?
BG: Writing those songs was a long creative process. We didn't have the intention of writing an album like we were home studio musicians. We lived together, and we worked on music all the time because that's what we wanted to do. Creatively, I feel that what happened was that the more we got into that process and having that time set aside to be musicians, we got more and more into the idea of working with pop structures.
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And so, every song we wrote became more and more poppy -- but not in a conventional way, just taking a verse, chorus, bridge, verse and being able to structure a song together and not make it seem too forced. The last song we wrote for the album is "So Fine," and to us, it's the poppiest song. It was also the most challenging, though it only took two days to write.
For the next record we want to explore more into that idea of keeping our music concise but with a really strong melody. Less is more.