“In general, authoritarian structures in artistic situations yield really cool results,” art-rock heavyweight Charlie Looker tells me, sitting by the bowling alley opposite Bristol’s Rough Trade venue moments before the show starts.
“But I have realised the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. If I’m running something, I make every decision ultimately, but if they know what they’re doing, you give them room to do shit.”
42-year-old Looker and the latest ensemble in heavy art-prog outfit Extra Life (Secret Chief 3’s Timba Harris acting as tour stand-in for Caley Monahon-Ward, violin/viola, Gil Chevigné, drums, and Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver, bass) arrived outside the Bristol venue on their European revival tour – the band’s first time playing live shows since the project’s disbandment in 2012.
Despite spending the last decade working on solo pieces as a composer, alongside an eight-year affair with industrial metal two-piece Psalm Zero, it was the grinding halt of the pandemic that first spawned the idea of an Extra Life reunion becoming reality in the mind of Looker, frontman and mastermind behind the project.
“Psalm Zero was on the road opening for Kayo Dot, and a week into the tour, Covid reared its head, and we had to go home. The idea of then reviving Extra Life and doing a sequel to the first record was almost a perverse joke. I really don’t like a lot of band reunions; it just seemed like the last thing I would do,” says Brookyln-native Looker, the mastermind of the project and the only member of the original band lineup to be on the tour.
“I just got this perverse thought of doing it, and I feel a lot more like myself [when I’m] doing this shit. Playing these shows like last night in Lille [Northern France], there were people calling out song requests and singing along, and I feel like I turned my back on something very deep that I had run away from.”
“At the time of leaving, I wanted to compartmentalise. I wanted to do composer art stuff, applying for grants and fellowships and writing for ensembles, then I wanted to do some nasty industrial metal shit with scumbags I was hanging out with in New York. But the thing is, the scumbag thing took off career-wise, aesthetically, and in lifestyle. Soon enough, I was like, ‘oh, I’m like this now?’ There were many hiccups and many bumps in the road with that. As far as disbanding Extra Life goes, it feels like a derailing, a straying from who I am, to an extent.”
“Anything I do is going to be quality, so there’s nothing of my work that I’ve disowned, but coming back to Extra Life is way more like who I am.”
The latest album, Secular Works Vol. 2 (released in July last year), harks back to the full-length debut release without sounding like a re-jigged copy of itself. Similar aesthetics arise, such as juggling basslines and the trademark mediaeval, melisma-soaked vocal deliveries; however, it is clear the refinement and maturity of the latter album hasn’t done away with any of the project’s previous glitchy art-rock tenets.
“This record was about self-consciously emulating shit from the first record. So the next one might change from there, but Secular Works Volume 2 is like a restarting point. A lot of the previous Extra Life work had vague sexual themes, and there’s a lot less in Volume 2. There’s also less narrative – there’s a ton of words in the old songs, with a ton of specificity that is very human affairs – the social worlds, sexual negotiations, friendships, and shit.”
“A lot of the stuff on the new thing is about exciting narrative and politics – none of my early stuff has been political, but it’s always asked, ‘what’s up with power?’ That doesn’t freak me out as much as it did; that’s relatively settled. It’s just called being a f*cking adult. It’s a more adult record, honestly.
“On SWV2, I modelled a lot of the songs after specific songs on Volume 1. The first two tracks are responses to the first two of the original; for instance, ‘What is Carved’ treats ‘Blackmail Blues’ as a genre. ‘Coming Apart’ is like ‘I don’t see it that way,’ and the third song, ‘The Play of Tooth and Claw,’ maps onto ‘The Refrain’ on the first record.”
“The writing style is way more like the first record, where for a bunch of the songs, I wrote everything down to the last drum hit, then I wrote everything other than the drums. Other than ‘What is Carved,’ Gil wrote all his drum parts. Caley came up with all of his string parts, and that’s major on this stuff. Timba is mostly playing Caley’s parts but embellishing them and taking them in his own direction.”
“In general, authoritarian structures in artistic situations yield really cool results, but I have realised the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism – if I’m running something, I make every decision ultimately, but if you know what you’re doing, you give them room to do shit.”
“To write every single drum hit can be sick for some things, but to let people bring their own artistry is compositionally good.”
Looker then goes ahead and very publicly proves his point when the four-piece takes to the stage. Opening the set with ‘No Dreams Tonight,’ the audience stands silent and still as Looker, donning a sharp red Fred Perry polo, recites the haunting track with a simple acoustic guitar. Timba Harris finger-plucks the violin alongside the hypnotic melody until the first song winds down to its elegant close. Somewhat polite applause arises, and the palpable skittish buzz before the band started seems to relax.
The brief interlude is shattered by the blood-curdling war drums of ‘What is Carved.’ Looker’s vocal delivery grows more forceful, and the room shifts forward. This is what they came to see.
The lineup continues through the latest additions to the band’s discography, including ‘Coming Apart,’ ‘The Play of Tooth and Claw,’ and ‘Diagonal Power,’ peppering older releases such as ‘The Refrain’ and ‘Headshrinker’ in between. One member of the crowd, an aging man with Brian May’s hairdo, stretches his hands out to the band in an act of sheer glee. Another stares intently at Toby Driver’s intricate bass playing, a mix of curiosity and awe in his expression. Another writes poetry in their notebook at the back of the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
For all its technical intricacies, the experience is thoroughly primal. The air now rich with excitement, Looker tells the room: “This reunion affair, this is a sequel to Volume One, a million years later, on the other side of the worst decade in human history.” Harris picks up a trumpet, piercing the room with the opening notes to ‘Diagonal Power,’ a clear fan favourite. An electrified shriek rises from the crowd, despite the relatively small audience. Then, the room again careens into a wall of highly-articulated noise, gravelly bass tones, and thunderous drums.
The 10-song setlist teems with slippery time scales, angular, rolling poly-rhythmic melodies, and church-choir vocals. Looker’s guitar serves as a motif more than a leading instrument, leaving the melody to be carried by bass, violin, and the metre of his singing – all of which culminates in a cacophonous rendition of ‘Blackmail Blues,’ stretching the closing notes so thin the song structure seems to collapse in on itself, rather than come to an end. Applause erupts.
It would seem your audience is more than glad to have you back, Charlie.
To listen to Secular Works Volume 2, check out Extra Life on Spotify.