Words by David C. Obenour
For as many column inches that have been dedicated to the merits of vinyl over plastic, a deeper discussion on the past and future of the pop music recorded therein remains largely unhad. Pop culture has a short attention span and even shorter memory, so it’s hard to imagine a time when the guitar, bass, and drum model didn’t dominate the airwaves. But it existed and it will exist again. Maybe even soon.
Not content to be a relic of an artform in evolution, Justin Moyer (El Guapo, E.D./Edie Sedgwick, Antelope) is exploring a simple sampler pad for a new outfit, Light Beams, along with Sam Lavine on drums and Arthur Noll on bass. Releasing their debut album, Self-Help on Don Giovanni earlier this year, the trio burst with energy and ideas for a new decade.
Off Shelf: Self-Help is a very upbeat record. Did you find it at all personally challenging to make music like this in our current climate that feels so inundated with anger and fear?
Justin Moyer: It is incredibly difficult to make any kind of art in a world hostile to it — or worse, indifferent to it. I’m not sure a particular political climate, aside from outright censorship in many areas of the globe, makes it harder. More relevant is the artist’s struggle with themselves.
OS: Why do you think upbeat music is important in a time like this?
JM: I’m not sure “upbeat” music is required. I think music that grapples with the self in the Socratic sense is required. That grappling might take “downbeat”/negative or “upbeat”/positive forms, or emanate negative or positive “vibes,” for different artists. But the grappling is essential.
OS: The materials for Self-Help talk a lot about the problem of staleness in popular music and your effort to try and shakeup the formula. A lofty ambition, why is that important to you?
JM: In 1970, artists didn’t while away hours pinning away nostalgically for Gramophones or Tin Pan Alley. So why in 2020 are so many trying to recreate 1970 or 1980? We should be searching for new, exciting, challenging forms, whether they hit or miss.
OS: How important is the evolution of the live performance aspect of popular music to you?
JM: A bit like asking how important oxygen is to breathing! The live performance is, or should be, the center of popular music. Recordings can be great, but are a shadow.
OS: You formed as a band in 2017 and had a limited run cassette release. How have you evolved since then? How has touring and performing live helped in that evolution?
JM: We perform without set lists and mostly without stopping, so live performance is the crucible where we succeed or fail. The more we play the more we learn how to succeed — we learn what material works and what does not, which songs fit together and which don’t, how to play songs at preset tempos of some samples. Playing live doesn’t really contribute to our existence — it is where we exist.
OS: On a large or small scale, who else do you see out there as pushing the envelope or redefining popular music?
JM: I’m not sure I’m in a position to say at 42. I would say I’m more personally touched by performances I see than by ones I hear. So I’m impressed by Escapism. And Algiers. And this band shimmer from Philly. And I’m more interested in random hip hop I hear on the radio than random rock and roll I hear on the radio.
OS: Can you talk about your use of samples? I heard that you initially started performing in a band with them as a way for an ailing bandmate to still contribute.
JM: Yes, Sam [Lavine] and I were in a previous band that stopped partly because of a bandmate’s illness, and our sample pad was initially thought to be part of the solution that turned out not to be a solution.
The pads are really unwieldy to use. In fact, the process of using them is horrible, where parts have to be written on other instruments or discovered in the environment, then recorded and placed on to the pad through a pretty annoying computer process, and then fine tuned as the song develops, which means going back to the computer.
But the pads are only horrible until they are completely amazing. They free you of any sonic limitations. Any sound in the universe can be included in your songs. They are also easy to play once a band gets the hang of them. It’s sort of like being in a band with a Simon Says. A sampler like mine is a very naive, childish thing to have onstage, which brings great energy. It’s not a computer or a synth, which is a very energetically heavy, corporate, awful thing to have onstage. I’m a real evangelist for pads; I think they should become the default performing option just as the guitar was once the default performing option from about 1950-2000. I already started a different band in Light Beams format where I play drums.
OS: You refer to your music as “Block Rock” – can you describe that further?
JM: Because of the sampling process, the music exists as literal blocks of data. The name also evokes the city, which is ever- evolving. This isn’t “roots” music, or “organic” in any way. In some ways, it’s Music Concrète in the classical avant garde sense. Though it’s also not avant garde.
OS: As for the evolution of Light Beams, now that you’ve recorded your debut full length – where would you like to see the band going from here?
JM: We are just trying to stay alive — physically, emotionally, psychically. We have a lot to figure out — an emotionally viable way to tour, for example, is sort of elusive given the conditions live performers face in 2020 with the proliferation of depressing festivals and a generational disinterest in leaving the house. We also face technical struggles — our solar powered studio, Solar Power Station, is in need of constant upgrades that, like iPhones, might render our current equipment unusable. We might collapse at any moment, like Austalia! But we are still here.