Words by David C. Obenour
Instrumental music occupies a unique space in how we allow it to hit us. It can suggest a mood as background music; soundtracking an afternoon at the office or a Friday night party or a morning run. With focus and intent it can also captivate the imagination, exploring vistas and themes closely familiar to the listener but completely unknown to the performing musician. In both ways, it becomes a very personal yet varied and universal experience.
L.A. Takedown is the project of Los Angeles-based musician, Aaron M. Olson. Through his three albums of predominantly instrumental music he has worked on his own, with a band and with collaborators – all as he maps out his own style of retro-modern and beyond synthesizer driven music.
For his latest album, Our Feeling Of Natural High, Olson evolved his sound with the help of a number of guest drummers – including one who contributed vocals. With relaxed melodies that unfold over extended jams, the resulting songs sounds more like a Sunday morning at your apartment than a Saturday night at the club. Well, to this listener that’s how it sounds anyway.
Off Shelf: The ’80s are now four decades ago, as far back as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were in the early 2000s, how do you think this additional distance has changed how we view the music of that genre?
Aaron M. Olson: I think the passage of time allows for more willing acceptability or serious consideration in hindsight. We’re at a time in popular culture where pretty much anything goes; if it’s existed already, it seems like the youth – I’m sounding old now – more or less readily accept it as “of importance” on some level, and irony is pretty much gone or dissolved into some other kind of appreciation. Things seemed a little more rigid in my youth, more judgmental. Time is weird! Will there be a revival of the 90’s version of the 60’s? Is there already? And then will there be a revival of the 2020’s revival of the 90’s revival of the 60’s? I guess to simply answer the question, I think time has changed our view in that we now look back at things with a less-discriminating lens. One could now listen to a record by The Archies side by side with a record by The Red Crayola and consider them similarly on some level, more so than someone would have back when they originally came out.
OS: Can you talk about some of your own history with synth pop? Was it an early discovery or later on for you?
AO: I got more into synth pop in my twenties. I always liked interesting synthesizer sounds, but I grew up in a time where the 80’s were still somewhat considered cheesy to a teenager, so I didn’t give serious consideration to 80’s synth pop that I eventually did in my twenties. There were albums I grew up on that had plenty of synth stuff on them, like Stop Making Sense [The Talking Heads], but they were anomalies in my teenage know-it-all brain. In junior high and high school the bands Trans Am and The Fucking Champs really opened up some doors for me — incorporating a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor with a clear appreciation and respect for past music genres and sounds. That really opened me up to being able to examine amusing music through a lens of humor and irony while also through a lens of serious examination. And that eventually just led me to pure appreciation. I don’t really think L.A. Takedown is synth pop, but I guess that’s really up to the listeners to decide.
OS: What excites you about the style and aesthetic that go along with the genre?
AO: I don’t try to think about genre when I’m writing the music. I tend to like the sounds and instruments that are associated with synth pop, so maybe that’s what excites me most, the sounds of synths! When I started L.A. Takedown as a recording project I was absolutely trying to work within a genre — that of 80’s synth scores a la Tangerine Dream — specifically for my friend’s short films. Then I found that the instrumentation and genre were a comfortable and satisfying framework for my compositions, and as time passed it became normal for me to write using these instruments, sounds, and moods, and now I feel that the music has moved away from that original genre.
OS: Los Angeles as a place seems equally tied to the genre. What about the city do you think inspired and still inspires that?
AO: I’m not really sure. There does seem to be some L.A. association with neon things and synthesizers and I feel like the new album is maybe subtly moving away from that. If synth pop is the musical analog to sunsets and palm trees, then the new L.A. Takedown album and myself in general is 9am morning light and ficus trees. But to answer the question, maybe it’s the amount of time people spend in cars here, and the need for a type of music to score the experience and push one through to their destination?
OS: So much of the retro-futurism of the genre was about what life would be like in the times we are now living. How do you feel it’s different to play and experience this music in the modern setting?
AO: I think the times we’re living in are really scary and that the past kind of nailed it with some of their versions of the future. A lot of current things look and sound like they were predicted to in the past, and maybe that’s because the predictions were good, or that the past led us knowingly into becoming those things, or that the present looks back at the past and takes cues from it. It’s probably all of those. I think music incorporating past elements is great! The results can range anywhere from being a complete throwback to being something entirely new that was built from a familiar source point.
OS: The video for “The Swimmer” was adapted from a simulation your father was involved with from a scientific experiment from 1981. It almost feels too perfect of a connection, can you talk about how that came to be? Had you seen his work before?
AO: I grew up seeing my Dad’s work, so it’s kind of always just been a part of my life. “The Swimmer” video came to be as follows: My Dad has some old animations/simulations from way back when and he occasionally will put them on YouTube. I had previously made some music for another video of his called “A.D.A.M. A Dial Activated Man.” He’d originally used a Terry Riley piece as the score and wanted rights-free music so he could put it on Youtube, so when it came time to put his Tomato Bushy Stunt Virus film up he asked me again for some original music. It worked out that I had just wrapped up the new album and that the song “The Swimmer” was just about the exact length of the video. I put them together and it worked perfectly! Voila. The painting on our previous album’s cover – airbrush of two fingers pinching a pill – was the one painting my Dad ever made in 1975 and it had always lived in our house. So that worked out similarly serendipitously. We have a connection, I think.
OS: What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages in playing instrumental music in a genre so vibrant in its imagery?
AO: I’ve always been a fan of instrumental music. I like that it allows for more openness of interpretation on the listener’s part. The listener can invent their own story and images, or equally listen to it passively. It requires an engagement and patience from the listener, if they choose to listen actively. But it also makes for fine background music or as a general mood setter. It’s like a painting in a living room — it can just hang there and add vibe to the space, but one could also choose to spend more time with it, inspect it closely, take it in, and interpret it.
OS: From song to song, Our Feeling Of Natural High has a great flow to it. Can you talk about how you sequenced the songs?
AO: Thank you! I really wanted the album to touch on some general concepts, one of which is patience, so I always had it in mind that the album would lead off with the longest, most slowly unfolding track, “There Is A Drone In Griffith Park”. It was originally a couple minutes longer and unfolded quite a bit slower, which I preferred, but we had to cut it down to fit on the record. And then the final song, “When It’s Over,” is about endings, as well as what might come after, so that seemed the fitting conclusion to the album. The album actually opens and closes with sounds from the park across the street from my house. I thought that was fitting with some of the other general concepts I wanted the album to address or at least imply – nature and the question of what is nature/natural. The rest of the album was sequenced from there inward, with flow and shape in mind. I’ve always been a fan of albums and the complete statement. There are songs from some of my favorite albums that I don’t think I’d even like if they weren’t where they are in the album sequence. I like the concept of the parts working together for the whole. And I suppose that all fits in with the patience concept. I want people to sit down and listen to the whole thing, though that’s definitely not up to me!
OS: Your third album, was there a statement for Our Feeling of Natural High opposed or inline what you had done before?
AO: This album has more of a statement than the previous two albums. The compositions, song titles, album artwork, and even lyrics, there are two songs with vocals, all hint at some concepts/statements, and I’d like to leave that somewhat up to the listener to discern — though I did go into some of that in the previous question. The previous two albums were more just about the compositions, flow, aesthetic, and overall feel. That said, this isn’t a concept album per se, and it does bear much in common sonically/aesthetically with the previous L.A. Takedown material.
OS: L.A. Takedown has been a revolving cast of contributors. What excites you about the band as it exists on this record? Will they be performing live with you?
AO: This album is kind of a combination of the first two records in terms of its creation. The first record was basically a bedroom solo record, recorded at home by myself. The second album was the full band in a studio with a producer/engineer, the great Shane Stoneback. This new one, Our Feeling Of Natural High, was largely initially recorded by myself at home as demos, then taken to Jason Quever’s studio where live drums were recorded, sounds were re-amplified and recorded and various other processes took place. So it’s basically me and a bunch of drummers on this one. The drummers include Miles Wintner, Mose Wintner, John Herndon and Marcus Savino and I am extremely grateful for their contributions! I was also fortunate enough to have Nicholas Krgovich do some ghost vocals in unison with my vocoder tracks to give a light human feel to the song, “Moved”. And I was amazed and honored that we were able to get Yukihiro Takahashi – also a drummer, go figure – to sing lead vocals on “When It’s Over” accompanied by the amazing Nedelle Torrisi on the choruses. Miles, Mose and Marcus have all played in the band through the years and we’ll just have to see how schedules line up for tours and shows as far as who’s in the live band this go around. I’d be stoked to have any and all of these people play in the live band.