Twin Infinitives
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Splintering off from jam-obsessed punk outfit Wikkid, Telepathe began as a fairly typical new millennium experiment in electronic sounds, making songs built not so much out of hooks but from juxtaposed textures and beats. Their Farewell Forest EP, released in 2006 by the Social Registry label, showed promise but didn’t necessarily stand out from the pack of beat-niks exploring the same territory.

With the following year’s “Sinister Militia” single and its accompanying remixes, Busy Gangnes and Melissa Livaudais, the core of Telepathe, had hit on a formula more indicative of their underlying interests. The eerie mix of bass-laden beats, steely synths and evocative lyrics that would eventually inform the band’s full-length debut began to reveal itself. That full-length, Dance Mother, has been in the can for some time now—and is actually already out overseas—but will finally see the light of day in the States April 14 on Iamsound. It’s the jarring culmination of beat fanaticism, electronic moodswings, and top-notch production work from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. I spoke with Gangnes and Livaudais recently about how it all came to be.

I know you were in another band before, but when exactly did you first start making music as Telepathe?

Busy Gangnes: We started making music as Telepathe the summer right after our original band broke up. In May 2004, we did one last tour (with Wikkid), and then when the tour was over, we started.

Was there a point when you knew this was going to become your main preoccupation as far as music?

Melissa Livaudais: It was pretty early on. We were involved in all these other projects, and a few of them overlapped. This one, though, was really focused. We both come from a background of improv and endless jams. For me, it had started to feel like bullshit. I really wanted structure, and I really wanted to think about, like a Beatles song, where there’s a verse and a chorus or a bridge. You know—harmonies and melodies. We’d record hours of jam sessions, and every once in a while, there’d be an incredible melody that would happen for four seconds out of this entire mess of music. I was like, “Fuck this. I want a melody. I want to make hooks. I’m tired of this masturbatory improv.” That’s what I think of improv at this point. I’m not a very big fan of it. It felt way more challenging to structure something, and write and edit.

Busy, did you have the same sorts of things in mind?

BG: Yeah, I love structure and arrangements and crafting a song. So we definitely shared an interest in wanting to do that, especially with writing melodies. I still improvise—I like it—but I feel that it’s more for me than for an audience. It’s still enjoyable and good things come out of it, as far as song ideas, but it doesn’t turn into a song on its own. The other thing that we shared an interest in and a desire for was being able to have our hands in more aspects of the songwriting process, rather than just being a guitar player in a band or just being a drummer. Being able to write beats together...

ML: Or playing everything and being song arrangers.

BG: Yeah, we started calling ourselves “producers.”

ML: We woke up and realized we didn’t want to be a band anymore; we wanted to be producers. We love working with a producer on a record, so we decided to get it out of our heads that we were ever in a rock band and studied the art of production, from a home-studio perspective.

Was there a musical moment of epiphany when you realized the direction it would go in, instead of just these general ideas?

ML: Busy and I were playing shows and we needed to get a car to transport our equipment. We got a $600 Pathfinder, and the stereo in it sucked. We were really into hip-hop and wanted to hear the bass in our car.

BG: Yeah, so we went to Circuit City and souped up our car stereo.

ML: We bought a stereo system that cost almost as much as the car. It sounded amazing. We would listen to Hot 97, and then we started making beats and arrangements and paying attention to the bass of the songs that we liked on the radio. So we’d get our mixes down and test them in the car. It sounds crazy, but getting that car and that stereo was almost like an epiphany because it was like, “This is what we’re going for and this is how we want to hear it.”

BG: Also, in our own process, the first song that we ever made that kind of resembled what we do now was “Sinister Militia.” It had a serious bass line, and actually had a chorus and a verse that would repeat. So that was the first time that we embarked in that direction.

You’ve had different people come in and out of the band. Would you consider them members?

ML: We have people that we like to collaborate with, but the way we write songs now is so specific and we’re so used to doing it together that inviting another person just wouldn’t work. But it’s always nice to have someone come in and play. We’ll give them an idea and they’ll embellish it with their own style. But we’re very picky. We’ll either like it or we won’t. So yeah, we’re the only members of the band.

So they’re brought in for very specific roles?

BG: Yeah. We know so many talented people that we’re inspired by. Our friend Shannon (Funchess) is an awesome singer, and we got her to sing on our record. This guy Ryan (Lucero), we really like his guitar style, so he played guitar on our record. We even have a friend who is really good stylist and has a unique way of dancing, so for awhile she would collaborate with her styling ideas and perform. She was a dancer onstage.

ML: She would steal the show! She’ll probably be back. It just makes it more fun.

Using Dave’s studio and gear for this record, do you feel like the way it sounds is reliant on that particular equipment or could you have made these songs using anything?

ML: We could come close to it, but it had to be those things

BG: But we had already written the songs before we went in.

ML: We wrote one song, “Michael,” in Dave’s studio from the ground up, but everything else, we brought in our files and then Dave tweaked them and ran through them about $80,000’s worth of outboard gear. We were playing with softsynth on a laptop, but Dave had the real things. I don’t think there’s too much of a difference, but there’s no way it could have sounded as big.

How then are you recreating it live?

ML: It took us almost a year and a half to figure out how to do that because the songs have so many tracks. Basically, we started using this program Ableton Live. We use it like a sampler. We cut up loops and samples and trigger them using MIDI and then play synths and live drums over it. We have about eight channels and so it’s almost like a live band. Everything’s separated and there’s flexibility to improv—improv in a good way—but it’s all synched. It’s slightly different than the record, but we’re excited. At first, we were like, “How the fuck are we going to do this live?” It had to be like it is on the record, because the record is so dear to us. But now we like what we do live as much as we like the record. It is like a reproduction of the record.

BG: Yeah, it’s like we sampled and remixed on our own record. We’re creating different variations of our own songs, almost like we’re deejaying in a way, but we’re dropping in sequences. And the cool thing about having all the sounds separated is that our sound person almost becomes like a band member, with a lot of creative input.

ML: Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t know if they have very much creative input because I write out a list of instructions. I’m very particular, and I know I can’t hear it the same way up on stage, but I feel like there’s measures you can take to make sure it’s not being mixed like a rock band.

Has that been a problem for you on the road?

ML: Yeah definitely, because we were a rock band and the venues we play when we tour are rock venues and their in-house sound people are used to mixing things a certain way. The beat has to be the first thing and then next to the beat is the bass and then the synths. The vocals can’t be on top of the music; they have to be in the mix. We’ve gone from knowing just a little bit about live sound to knowing a lot. We got really anal about it and actually went to this studio that mimics a venue so you can nail your live sound. When we did that and actually thought about it, we gained language to communicate to someone that we’ve never met before how it’s supposed to go down. It doesn’t always work, especially because we’re women.

BG: Because they’re rock venues, they’ll take all the electronic tracks we’re running to them and put them on the side as ambient filler. And it’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s the heart of our music!”

Did Dave have much input musically or was it just sound?

BG: All the arrangements and melodies were already written. If anything, it would be like, if there was guitar on the song, he would double the guitar with a slightly different effect. We used his instruments and his samplers.

ML: He never told us musically what to add. He’d just be like, “Bring in the MS-2000, bring in the Yamaha DX-10. Now jam out.” And that was it. The way he works, there’s no limitations. He told us we were going to use everything that he had, and we thought he was joking, but we really did. He’d pull out stuff we hadn’t seen in three years. He would just build and layer and layer, and we’d wonder where our song was going. But he has a memory like an elephant and would go back and take stuff out. It would be more than 100 layers, and he’d be able to edit it down. Most people build things up from basics, but he just wanted us to go crazy and put it all in there. He’s not afraid.

B: The first day we went in, he had a circle of synthesizers set up in tiers. It was like an Emerson, Lake and Palmer record cover. It was all set up and on.

Did touring with Diplo influence the record at all?

BG: We had already made it.

ML: We were Diplo fans and were excited to go on tour with him. And ideally, we’ve always wanted to go on tour with deejays instead of rock bands.

You’ve mentioned your affinity for Hot 97. Can you see your music appealing to that audience?

ML: I don’t think it would ever make it on that radio station—not this record. But when we were touring with Diplo, so many people gave us copies of their mixtapes. They’d come up and tell us that they loved our beats and wanted to rap over them. So I think that shows that it can reach a wider audience than just an indie rock audience.

BG: I read this blog, and they were talking about “In Your Line,” but all the other topics were Estelle and other R&B and hip-hop acts. I was amazed that our song was next to all those other reviews.

So could a rap record be in the works?

ML: We’d love to work with an emcee, for sure! We have a couple people that we’d like to reach out to. Obviously, we’re not rappers and we don’t make hip-hop music, but I love the idea of working with an emcee.

Given the album’s title, do you expect people to dance to it?

BG: Well, so far people have danced.

ML: Here’s the weird thing about it: after we made this music with Dave, we had to play some shows. People were like, “Fuck this band. This is the worst band ever.” Then our record leaked, and we did the tour with Diplo, and there were people singing along to our songs and dancing in the front row. So I do expect to dance to it. “Can’t Stand It,” though, I don’t know how you could dance to that song.

BG: Maybe a waltz sort of thing...

ML: I don’t expect to see anyone waltzing. But that would be cool.

Do you think it’s odd for people to dance and have a good time to some of these songs, given their lyrical content?

ML: People feel rhythm, and we’re suckers for rhythm. Whatever the lyrical content is, it’s just another layer in the music and so people still feel it rhythmically.

BG: Yeah, the vocals were never intended to be so overt or even understood.

ML: That’s the thing about working with Dave Sitek. I mean, he’s recorded Karen O. and then Tunde and Kyp, and he’s used to working with professional vocalists. The last thing Busy and I are is professional vocalists. Vocals have always been an afterthought. So this weird thing happened, where he just treated us like professional singers.

BG He had to change his perception...

ML: I don’t think he did change his perception!

BG: So there was a little bit of “how should we do this?”

ML: It never fazed him, even though we had only been singing for about a year. Since that recording session, we actually go to a vocal coach and study voice because we take it really seriously now. But when we were working with him, it was like, “No, you got it all wrong. We play instruments! We only sing because we can’t pay someone to sing over our music.”

Are the lyrics an afterthought then?

ML: We place importance on them, but they’re not the most important thing. They’re always the last thing.

The lyrics dealing with death and darker themes—are those just interesting ways of telling a story or are they indicative of some larger world view?

ML: Probably both. They’re not meaningless. When we write, we do sort of an exquisite corpse game. We write things and then we go back and choose stronger meanings. We’re fans of literature and read poetry, and we steal stuff from the things we love. But it’s never a singer-songwriter thing where you write words first and then build a melody around them; we’re the opposite. We’re suckers for “marble” and words that are heavy and thick.

Do you think that it’s unexpected to have these serious themes in electronic music? People might expect something a little more ephemeral.

ML: Besides listening to hip-hop, I’ve been listening to a lot of ’80s cold wave, like Oppenheimer Analysis. I mean, they have a song called “Cold War.” A lot of it is heavy shit, so it’s not uncommon.

BG: I hope that our lyrics reflect the sound of the music, which is dark and minor-sounding.

ML: And it should be evocative. The lyrics are pretty cryptic, and you could really construct your own narrative from them, which is what I would want.