To understand The Ladybug Transistor it helps to know where their music is coming from--literally. The band lives together in a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood which one hundred years ago was planned as an enclave for those wishing to escape the hurlyburly of city life. Once home to the "country" estates of the rich, the neighborhood just south of Brooklyn's slightly wild Prospect Park has gone to seed but has proved fertile soil for Jeffrey Rush Baron, Jennifer Baron, Sasha Bell, and Gary Olson who live, play, and have recorded three albums named for local streets--Marlborough Farms, Beverley Atonale, and The Albemarle Sound--in the Victorian-era home they call Marlborough Farms.
From the outside it is a house dappled by treeshade, with Japanese lanterns hang over the garden. Inside it is a home, with couches, a kitchen, and chores. Downstairs, the playroom--a 16-track recording studio where the farmhands are free to languidly explore and piece together intricate tapestries of sound. Their most recent album, The Albemarle Sound, was crafted over the course of a year, assembled with the slow attention one gives to gardening. It is a summer album, expansive and exuberant, a departure from the slowcore roots of Beverley Atonale. That album was all low gear in the rain with hints of breaks in the clouds ahead. On The Albemarle Sound the sun has come out full force, the top is down, and you're going home.
Some call it '60s art retro-pop, likening it to the symphonettes of Brian Wilson. Or maybe it's retro '60s art-pop. Whatever you want to call it, their music does not enter you--you enter it. It is an architecture of sound, a place you inhabit and explore, a mental space, a lyrical landscape invoking nature and triggering memories. The dozen tracks of The Albemarle Sound work together with the harmonious accord of stones in a rock garden, each solid on its own but also carefully juxtaposed to create a larger space, a perfect pocket of peace and reverie in an otherwise discordant world. The way individual songs make a record, so does each record build on the last, evolving a three-dimensional map of time, space, and sound. It is a body of work which incorporates the weather, local geography, and all the moods on the emotional barometer, each album a chapter in an epic which is still being written.
Everyone: This is a super question! Okay, Gary takes out the trash from the kitchen to the outside, the bulk of it, and Sasha helps him lift it. Jennifer takes out the trash in the bathrooms. Let's see it's more like who does not do what chores? Washing dishes is a constant escapade of avoidance and sopping up dead tiny ants. Gary, Jennifer and Sasha beat Jeff out in the dish race. Sasha created the beautiful garden. Jeff, to his credit, is a vigilant butter churner; recently he learned how to make margarine. Mike discards the dead mice from the pantry and Jennifer wipes up the mouse excrement. Gary is a mean duster and drain un-clogger.
Do you write songs before or after you take out the trash?
Jennifer Baron: We usually write songs while we take out the trash, lots to rhyme about, humming along with the crows in the trees as we merrily complete our chores and stroll to the side of the house. songs about recycling are quite popular these days. Living together certainly allowed us to experiment with arrangements of the songs on the new record. We would each take our ideas descending down to the studio where Gary is awaiting with his whip in hand to beat our best out of us. We had the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of string players and a baritone sax player who were guest musicians in the studio. Living together allows us to also bounce off ideas in a type of musical stream of consciousness way.
Jeffrey Rush Baron: Living together helps with time to be as spontaneous as we want because everyone is always around.
Sasha Bell: Sometimes the elderly gentleman, who lives in the room next to me, makes strange gastrointestinal sounds in the middle of the night. I find that inspires my music.
Jeffrey: Listen closely to the lyrics of "Six Times" and "Oceans in the Hall" [from The Albemarle Sound] for some insight about how domestic life together leads to our music....play them backwards and you'll hear all the Ladybug secrets revealed.
Did you have imaginary friends as children?
Sasha: I had the monsters who i used to have to sing to whenever i had to go upstairs alone. If i sang "who put the bomp?" then it made the monsters happy and they wouldn't hurt me--no joke.
Jennifer: No imaginary friends--just nagging voices that made me repeat actions like counting all the digits in every house number I passed walking home from school, in different combinations.
Are you still trying to placate monsters with your music?
Sasha: I'll answer for Jeff--yes. This time the monster is the urban one, the grind of city life... Jeff likes to write about the country, greenery, trees.
Is the Marlborough Farms construct another hedge against city living?
Sasha: Absolutely. you've seen our house. It's not quintessentially urban. After living out here I don't think I could stomach living in a concrete box. The great outdoors, or at least the suggestion of that is too important to me now.
Your Albermarle Sound cover art is super lush...
Jennifer: The record artwork sort of chronicles one of our journeys through nearby Prospect Park which is an incredibly lush & green setting... More wild and untamed than Central Park and a constant source of escapism for us in a way. It borders our neighborhood which was conceived as a kind of getaway for city dwellers. The houses are all rambling Victorian mansions with indoor ballrooms, greenhouses, kitchen nooks. We like to peer in and take strolls down the tree-lined streets. The names of the streets all convey some of this sense of place. Marlborough, Beverley, Albermarle, Buckingham, Rugby, Stratford, Argyle, Westminster. Kind of like a lost country town dropped in the middle of a very urban borough.
Is touring another way to get away from the city, or is it even more fraught with anxiety?
Jennifer: Touring can be heavenly at times and to travel and take a break from New York is absolutely crucial to us. I am daydreaming of Scandinavia [where the Ladybug Transistor toured in late July] already. The touring logistics can be laced with anxiety but we all kind of fall into a mode that you just have no choice but to accept. It sorts of takes hold of you actually. Our drummer San has some rather odd habits, like only eating Kit-Kats and potato chips and never eating the day of a show.
Visiting Marlborough Farms, one can't help but get the sense that you're a family. In what ways is living together a blessing, in what ways a curse?
Jennifer: I guess anything that is so important to you that you must do, has a kind of dichotomy built in. Sure we are an intricately-related group of people that don't only come together to write music and who intimately share space, creativity, and daily life. Having the studio so intertwined in your daily life is an amazing experience that allows for experimentation, extended time and spontaneity all in the same project. You eat and sleep near the songs as they are being given their permanent life--in a way that is very different to renting temporary studio space, or adapting to a new environment that you bring the songs to. With us it is inseparable. We may discover that an old movie we all watched together finds its way into the lyrics Gary has written or that an everyday aspect of the place we have all made our home figures within how we write songs or feel about them.
How would you describe your music?
Sasha: Sad and sincere.
Jennifer: When we create music, we think carefully about arrangements and orchestration and how these processes work together with melody, lyrical ideas, feelings, or moods such as spaciousness or a sense of place and memory. The music is carried along by all of these elements relating to each other in the form of a song.
You have what a lot of bands wish they had--a 16-track recording studio in your basement. How did that come together? How has it affected your songwriting?
Sasha: William Wells, the elderly gentleman who lives in the back of the house with us, owns the studio equipment. He and Gary used to work at a radio station together. Then somehow they ended up living together so Bill could utilize the basement as a studio. We've never recorded elsewhere. I like recording at home at a leisurely pace.
Jennifer: The studio was developed over time by Gary and our gentleman resident William Wells, so Gary does play various defined roles that include producer and engineer, but what is exciting to me, is that we have all been able to learn from each other and from having the studio environment so close to, or literally in, the home. Many of the songs required three sets of hands to mix, and we are all strong-willed and opinionated about our musical ideas, so the collaborative process exists on many levels. While recording The Albemarle Sound we would often leave notes on the kitchen table with ideas for others to think about and add to, especially during the mixing process.
Speaking of process, how was The Albermarle Sound put together? You said that Gary cracks the whip. Steve Malkmus has finally admitted to being the "leader" of Pavement. Do the Ladybug Transistor have a leader or is the process more democratic?
Jennifer: Well, Gary actually prefers electric shock devices. In truth, he exhibits no master-mentality habits. Except for perhaps his silent Swedish stubbornness of course. And since there are three Libras (Sasha, Gary, Jeffrey) in the group, I suppose the scales of democracy are evoked more than the whips and chains of oppression. The process definitely involves Jeff, Gary, Sasha and I (San our drummer now resides in Zurich!) on all levels and in different ways at different times. We may each write songs, or begin to, separately, but we all contribute our parts and ideas to the songwriting, recording, arranging and performing processes. We collaborated on the design of The Albemarle Sound artwork with Mike Barrett as well, and have been creating paintings for our live shows based on the album's cover characters.
Sasha: I think the making of the new record was about as creatively a democratic process as it could possibly be. Everyone contributed songs, wrote parts, gave input on mixing, artwork, etc. Gary doesn't crack the whip so to speak, though he takes care of a large part of the band business. Could you call him a Führer? Probably not.
photo by robert zverina