Brad Laner is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, engineer, and producer whose discography is as varied as it is in size. Long before he formed the influential band Medicine, he played drums, guitar, and electronics for Steaming Coils, toured and recorded as the drummer in Savage Republic, and even played and recorded with microtonal composer and instrument maker, Kraig Grady. His early‘80s teenage band, Earth Dies Burning, used cheap Casio VL-1 synths backed by rough drums and broken cymbals, to unique effect. This spirit of experimentation, fun, and individualism is what keeps Laner's work interesting, and his ideas fresh. Look for the current release of his new double LP, Micro-Awakenings — four sides of instrumental collages drawn from six years of recordings.
Tell me about the solo guitar gig you're doing with the Los Angeles Free Music Society.
When Medicine reformed a couple of years ago, I finally built a proper pedal board. Since we've sort of stopped actively doing Medicine again, the board itself has evolved into being a solo composition engine, where really pretty much anything can be plugged into it. Multiple things are looping, in various directions and speeds. Hopefully it goes beyond just the "boring-ass guy with a guitar looper" type of thing. It's sort of a texture machine. I got the invitation to do this show and thought, "Here's an excuse to put it to real use." For the first time, maybe the last, I'm going to try to do a live improvisation with it in front of innocent victims. Everyone and their mom has a guitar looper now, but hopefully it'll be more interesting and less transparent than that sounds.
When you are working with loops, do you have a specific process?
For the live purpose there will be loops generated, in the interest of building up layers and doing more than just one guy playing notes. But for studio composing, I use Logic. It lends itself to a modular approach to composition, which hopefully isn't terribly apparent when you listen to it. I think that's kind of a disease of current music, where you can hear where things are Logic or Pro Tools-ed to death. It induces in me a kind of existential dread. I happily use, and exploit, digital technology, but I'm not convinced it's the best thing for music. Being able to fuss over every little thing can be the death of interesting music. I try to fight against that, but I also do love complexity. I look for complexity in the things I listen to, and I've always aspired to it in my own work. I grew up obsessed with Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica. It's music as complex and organic as a tree, you know? I also grew up loving Yes and Henry Cow. That's the wonderful thing about digital technology. It allows me to build up that kind of complexity by my lonesome, but I'm still not convinced it's as good as anything that's just [thrown] onto a 4-track that you can't fuss with too much. I think about that type of thing all of the time.
On the other hand, being on a budget when you're paying for studio time forces you to make decisions quickly because your time is limited.
Right. With the old Medicine records, which I had a decent budget for, I was in a constant state of panic. It was my first time really working in a 24-track studio. It wasn't pleasant, but now, when I listen back to those records, I still agree with most of the production decisions I had to make on the fly. I had plotted out what was going to go on each track in advance, which of course you don't have to do anymore.
Tell me more about that.
[I used] standard 24-track[ing] sheets because you had a finite amount of space. I didn't yet have the technical smarts to cleverly expand upon that limitation. We talked at times about chaining two 24-track machines together, but we never actually did it. The place we worked at, Hammer Sound Recorders, in Chatsworth, California, was relatively affordable. It isn't operational anymore, unfortunately. It was in a little industrial park, next door to a bigger studio called Cornerstone Recording, where we also did a little bit of mixing. Hammer Sound was this great, grungy, get-in-there-and-work-your-ass-off kind of place, helmed by a wonderful and very open-minded engineer, Chris Apthorp. I spent a couple years in there doing the early Medicine records before the home recording technology really got good. Then I got into ADATs for a while. I had three ADATs chained together, as well as a Mackie 32 x 8 board. That was my jam for a while, before falling into the computer.
An engineer I work with uses two 16-track ADATs for his mobile rig.
Those were really great to chain together. Those really communicated nicely. You could have the one remote control three of them, and they'd catch up with each other. That was a huge change. The records I did for Island Records, under the name Amnesia, were all done with that ADAT set up.
Were those solo?
Yeah, mostly solo. I'm not crazy about them, to be honest. I'm perfectly happy to have those be completely obscure; but, strangely enough, it was the biggest money record deal I ever got. I bought a house on that deal, just on the cred I had built up from Medicine, perversely enough. I definitely had no business doing those records, artistically or commercially. But it was an opportunity I was obliged to try to make the most of.
How many did you do?
Two. Well, there are two Amnesia records, and one Electric Company record [Studio City], which I do like, even though it's amazingly primitive. It's hilarious to hear now. Those were all done with the ADATs. That's around when I discovered the [Akai] MPC 3000. My friend, Chris Pitman, who is now a member of Guns N' Roses, and with whom I did the Lusk record [Free Mars] with in 1997, taught me about printing a track of SMPTE [time] code in order to sync various devices. I'd print a track of SMPTE (which the MPC could generate) for the duration of the song, and then feed the SMPTE code into my MPC so I could overdub, and each overdub could at least start and stop at precisely the same time. That's the story of that record. It's SMPTE code feeding the MPC, and then 24 tracks of madness that have been sync'd to SMPTE code.
Is it a pretty time-consuming process?
Oh, yeah; it was ridiculous. You can imagine I was very happy to dive into the computer, once it became a viable thing.
What is your relationship with the Hometapes label? How did that start?
I met them on the Internet. Hometapes is a married couple; Adam and Sara Heathcott. They started the label shortly after I met them, via a dicey pre-bit torrent file sharing network called Hotline in the early aughts. Good times. They're visual artists, first and foremost. I had made my first solo album and offered it to them. Their mission was to glorify the records they released with incredible packaging, which they did to great effect with all three that I made for them. It was 100 percent a labor of love art project. Not a commercial enterprise at all; just a ‘go for broke and spend too much money making it beautiful' venture, which is fine because all three of them were recorded right here in my house and I didn't charge myself much.
The packaging element of it is great. It encourages people to consider purchasing the hard copy, since you won't get all of the artwork with the digital download.
Oh, yeah. They're absolutely beautiful visual objects, meant to be tactile and pleasant to hold in your hands. Those three records are super important to me. It's truly post-Medicine, finally. It's just me doing whatever I want, without any worry about fitting into any genre. Those records are like the truest expression of me, as a musician or as an artist, without any concern for anything whatsoever, other than just doing what excites me. I don't expect anybody to pay attention to them. I don't expect any sort of glory from it, at all. I just look at those and think, "Look what I got to do." I feel like those are my mature works, in a way. They started when I was 40. Basically those three records are my 40s. I'm going to be 50 this year. The first one, Neighbor Singing, is almost like my easy-listening record in a way, where I felt like it was finally okay for me to not go totally nuts and maintain that feel for an entire album. Since my signature seems to be noise, and there's precious little noise on that record, it was fun to escape that.
Are you playing mallets on the Electric Company record, 62-56? You can really hear the attack on what sounds like a xylophone.
No, that's very much early Logic usage, where I was starting to actually make music rather than producing work, despite limitations in my knowledge of the technology. I always say that Electric Company was myself learning new music technology in public. By the time I got to 62-56 and the record I did for Planet Mu called Slow Food, it wasn't as much about learning the technology as it was finally flowing and making music with the skills I had accrued. I like 62-56 too, because of the long ending piece where I was dragging these IDM [Intelligent Dance Music] kids into the realm of free improvisation. They weren't terribly comfortable with it, but I think that's what makes it interesting to hear.
They were improvising on their laptops?
Yes, five people with their own laptop-based setups, as one did circa 2000.
How did you record that?
A stereo mix into Logic. Everybody had a channel into my Mackie. This was when I had the board.
So was it sort of like live mixing, in a way?
Yeah. It was jazz style. We got what we got. It was a stereo mix at the end. It was a good experience. I was ten years older than any of them. That's the other thing about Electric Company, the other story of Electric Company. Me taking advantage of my position as the notable guitar guy from Medicine, and finding talented electronic music kids who were willing to teach me their secrets. I didn't know anything at all about making electronic music after Medicine ended, so I started hanging around with people like Kid606 and another kid named Alex Graham, who did wonderful records under the name Lexaunculpt, and with whom I later did the Internal Tulips record on Planet Mu. These were true whiz kids who knew how to program intricate, tricky beats and do all of the other arcane digital magic that I desperately needed to learn. This was around 1999-2000.
Were you doing loops with Medicine or with Savage Republic? Because on some of the credits under your name on those records it says, "Tape." What would that be?
In the ‘80s I used to do a live performance thing with my 4-track recorder. I would have a few 20 or 30 second loop cassettes, and I would have four individual tracks of loops on each of them. So when Debt of Nature would play live, that would be my main instrument. You can see there's a built-in mixer on those lovely old 4-track machines, so I could pan, cross-fade, and so on. [It was] sort of a primitive sampler. So when I'm credited with "tapes" on Savage Republic records, generally I was mixing some of my loop cassettes. It was one of my main axes, at the time.
I wanted to ask you about the Brian Eno [Tape Op #85] album, Another Day On Earth, that you contributed to.
It's a footnote, but it's a significant footnote.
How many tunes on that album are you on?
How did that come about? Did you work remotely?
Yes. I didn't really work at all, to be perfectly honest. Around 2000 Brian Eno took a strong interest in Kid606 and the Tigerbeat6 label, which was then releasing my work as Electric Company. He met with Miguel De Pedro (Kid606) in San Francisco, and Miguel handed him a pile of CDs. A couple months later I get an email from Brian Eno and he wrote, "Hey, I got these CDs from Miguel, and I took a big sample out of this one piece. Is this you?" I wrote back, "Er, yes!" He said, "Listen to this track. I made this new piece out of your piece of music. Can I use this? How do we do this?" I said, "I don't want to license the track to you. I want you to say I played on it, and I want you to give me an Eno-esque credit." So there's this piece that's built on an Electric Company piece on that otherwise very wonderful record. It's called "Going Unconscious." I'm credited with "pulse loop," which is a very nice, properly Eno-esque credit. My favorite thing about this story is that I got the initial email from him the same day we did the ultrasound for my then pregnant wife, and we found out we were having a healthy boy human. It was like Christmas. I still, to this day, want to be Eno when I grow up.
You were on Def American? Or was it just American at that time?
No, it was Def American when Medicine signed. I don't know if you've seen the ridiculous picture of Rick Rubin, Reverend Al Sharpton, and myself? They had decided to lose the word Def and become simply American. They had an elaborate funeral/press opportunity for the word Def, which was so dumb. The word became cool again the second Rick Rubin decided that it wasn't. It was a fun event though; star-studded, as most of that label's events tended to be.
Did Rick Rubin have any say in the production of the Medicine records at all, or did he just leave you alone?
Mostly the latter, though he called me at the studio when we were making the first record [Shot Forth Self Living] and gave me advice that I pretty much ignored, for better or worse. He said, "You get a really cool guitar sound. Try to do something equally interesting with the drums." I said, "Okay. I'll try." But my whole trip then was making the drums quieter. I wanted the guitars to be fucking loud. At the time it was "all drums, all the time" in popular music, and still is. I love rhythm and everything, being a drummer. But I was into the perversity of burying the drums. That was a big turn-on for me in the early ‘90s, what they call "shoegaze" now. "No, the guitars are going to swallow the drums, and the drums are going to be implied underneath there." In retrospect, I think the drums sound very nice on our records. We got a nice, roomy sound. Jim Goodall, who's my life partner in music, does amazing, kickass drumming on all of the Medicine stuff. So that was the extent of Rick Rubin's involvement. He was always cordial when we'd meet. We'd talk about Beatles bootlegs, mostly. Rubin's one of those guys, who when he was on the ascendant in the ‘80s, I always had this instinct that I'd somehow end up involved with him, however tangentially. We weren't exactly going to sell him a million records. A thousand, or three, maybe.
A lot of people would be very happy having the reputation and the influence that you've had.
Thanks. I'm super proud of the work I did in that situation, and thankful that I have that to hang my hat on. Of course I wanted us to be on the radio, but it had to be on our terms. So that's why, consciously, the first album we did starts with a full minute of a piercing tone. It was constructive commercial suicide. I just thought that would be more interesting than the legions of bands that were being signed at the time and playing it safe, to the point of assured obscurity. I frequently say that the early ‘90s were a lot like the ‘60s, in that you had a lot of clueless businessmen throwing shit tons of money at tons of bands — just throwing it all at the wall and seeing what stuck.
Looking back to Rick's comment, it's interesting how drum sounds can define an era or style.
That big, gated reverb thing, which was so gross; even when used ironically nowadays. The ‘80s were terrible for drums, until the late ‘80s, when people finally started going back to great drum sounds. I think well, there's Rick Rubin. He was one of the ones who started doing "good" drum sounds again in the late ‘80s, like the Masters of Reality record. Do you remember that one?
With Ginger Baker?
No, the one before that [Masters of Reality]. I love the one with Ginger Baker too [Sunrise on the Sufferbus]. And things like the Talk Talk records in the late ‘80s; Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. Those were absolutely mega records for me. Yeah, the ‘80s were incredibly frustrating for drum sounds, and production in general. Pop records, you know? I'm not one of those people who gets a big thrill out of that ‘80s-style of production. For the last few years, that seems to be the hippest thing. It's unfortunate.
When did you start engineering and learning?
It was from when I was a kid and had portable tape decks. Little portable built-in speaker, mono things. I had two of them. I was overdubbing by playing one into the air and playing along with it, and building up monumental amounts of tape hiss. I was just desperate to be able to overdub. I did so many tapes like that as a kid. It's funny, because years later I discovered the composer Alvin Lucier. He has this beautiful piece called "I Am Sitting in a Room"  where he recorded his voice onto tape. He then read this statement, "I am sitting in a room. I am recording my voice." He has this radical stutter, so he's stuttering while he's talking. He claims part of the reason he did this was to smooth out the inconsistencies in his speaking voice. So he took that tape, played it into the room, and recorded it on another machine, and then took that new tape and played it back into the room and into the other machine. Eventually, 40 generations down, it becomes beautiful music. It becomes very musical tones. The resonant frequency of the room takes over, and it gradually becomes chords. I highly recommend you check that out. He's a Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and a contemporary of John Cage. He toured in the Sonic Arts Union with Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma in the ‘60s.
What format do you like to work in now? Do you still use Logic?
Yeah, Logic is where I live. It's the point to where I feel like I'm virtually a cyborg with it. Logic is part of my body; I don't have to think about it. That was my goal learning it. I spent ten years venturing into the computer. I could not stand the idea that there was this whole new vocabulary of sounds and techniques available that, as a dumb rock guitar player, I was not able to access. I didn't write a song, or play guitar, for many years while I was doing this Electric Company stuff, as a means of immersive learning.
So you aren't playing guitar on the Electric Company material?
Not until the last two albums, when I started to become comfortable with the technology. And then it was time to end that project. Keyboards were the only connection to the old world of "played" instruments. I was determined to access the new vocabulary and techniques. There's been no such quantum leap since then that I could think of that would make me say, "I have to leave everything behind it and go there." Those three solo records under my name are really the point where I got to learn, and I was actually making music with what I had learned. That's when the guitar came back in. That's when the singing, songwriting, and the drumming came back. I plugged a mic in again, finally.
When you were recording the Electric Company records, were you using any guitar effects to get those sounds, even if you weren't playing guitar?
That's the crazy thing, even on the Medicine records, a lot of [the effects are] just in the box. It's almost entirely in the box. For old-school Medicine, during the American Recordings era, I had my 4-track setup, and I was playing through the 4-track for distortion.
Is that how you recorded your guitar, with some of the early Medicine projects?
Yeah, I'd run the guitar through the 4-track, crank the gain, and then into an amp. That's how I got my distortion. That's how the Medicine sound was discovered. "I can use this as an effect." I can't turn it off; it has to be in pause, play, and record all the time. I toured the world with that setup.
So now you are using a vintage Tascam GS-30D Guitar Amp Simulator instead of the 4-track in record-pause mode?
Yeah, with a couple of wah-wah pedals. You can see I have two there. A few years ago my friend and frequent collaborator, Thom Monahan [and Tape Op contributor], quite helpfully pointed out to me that I didn't have to use an actual 4-track, that this crazy piece of technology [Yamaha GS-30D] is actually the same as a 4-track. You can get this for $20 on eBay. It's not really a guitar amp simulator. That's one thing this is not. It's the guts of a 4-track, and all the gain stages of a 4-track.
How do the two wah-wah pedals work around it?
One before, and one after it. The one before is the traditional wah, and the one after is evil treble distortion mayhem. It would actually go: wah > reverb > 4-track > wah > amp. The distorted reverb is a big part of the sound.
Did you have a preferred reverb?
Yeah, an Alesis Microverb 3. It never changes. It's on Chambers #4 [setting]. Everything full blast. It's the same one I had back then with Medicine. It's totally ridiculous to have on a pedal board. When I built this [pedal board], the guy building it was like, "Why are you putting that on there?" The guy was disgusted with me for building this. [Plays guitar through pedal board] You can see how I can easily build up these sounds. The sustain on this thing; I'm barely doing anything.
What's the Count to Five pedal [by Montreal Assembly]?
It's like a sample/resampling pedal. I'll hold it down, and it'll "catch" some sounds. Then I let it go, and it loops at various speeds and directions. An [expression] pedal controls one of those speed/direction dials. It's so complicated that I don't even know how to describe it. It allows me to build up layers; to have a note, or chord, to play on top of, Frippertronics style.
What amp would you use with this rig?
I'll probably bring my [Roland] JC-120. I used two [amps] with Medicine. I would go through a JC-120 and a Fender Super Reverb, chained together.
So you recorded drums for the Medicine reunion records [To The Happy Few and Home Everywhere] here in this room?
Those Medicine records are all recorded entirely here. Drums were sometimes in here, or in the next room. It's 100 percent in the box. Done in the same way as the solo Hometapes records were, on a little Mac, a MOTU 828, and a couple of decent mics.
Did you record the bass and guitar through an amp and direct, at the same time? Or did you mostly record direct?
Mostly direct, though I played both, so they were overdubbed. Beth [Thompson], the singer, kindly left her Mesa/Boogie in here for the duration of recording both albums, so there were some guitar overdubs I did through the Mesa/Boogie, and that's it. The guitar was straight in with a pile of plug-ins, most of the time. Never the same. Just carving it out, case by case. Space Designer is one I particularly love. The impulse response capability is great. I made my own impulse responses; I sampled each room in the house. The right way to do an impulse response is using a starter pistol. They'll go to a cathedral and shoot a starter pistol. I set up a mic, I clap, and I record that in the room. This room here, and the hallway leading up; the acoustics are amazing. I'll clap here, and I'll have an impulse response of the room on the recorder. I can feed that into Logic and have this room.
Was it a good feeling to revisit Medicine?
To the Happy Few may be my favorite thing I've ever done. Home Everywhere is probably just as significant. It's the second, lesser-known one. By the time we did that one, it was, "Wait, you're not allowed to do two reunion albums! What are you talking about?" They were released a year apart. To me, making records was the point of reuniting the band. We did seven shows, total, over the period of a year. The shows were fun, but that wasn't the point of the reunion for me.