Charlie Cooper of Telefon Tel Aviv is back in town from Chicago, where the electronica duo -- with partner Joshua Eustis -- is based. Eustis recently moved back to New Orleans, but Cooper just arrived and is ready to eat.
Later, over lunch, Eustis explains to the band's new singer, Damon Aaron, "We come from the time when the RC Bridge Lounge was a place where you saw music, and Abstract Cafe was where we could play because we weren't old enough to go to RC's or Monaco Bob's. It was a whole different thing; every kid had a band, but the rave scene took over everything. That came in and all the kids would go to the rave party."
Telefon Tel Aviv's second album, Map of What Is Effortless, isn't rave music, though it is electronic. "My Week Beats Your Year" is funky, but more typical is "At the Edge of the World You Will Still Heal." The song is lush, moving at a late-night tempo with Aaron's plaintive voice singing, "There was a place/ Where I belonged." The track is sonically dense, with dub echo effects and electronic pops and clicks adding texture, but it's defined by grand, sweeping strings. Where so much electronic music stresses its synthetic nature, these pieces are nakedly emotional.
"So much in electronic music and a lot of what's on the radio is done really cheaply," Eustis says. "It sounds so canned and half-assed to me. We wanted to take the elements of the new stuff -- the fun aspect of it -- and we also wanted to look at what made these records from the '70s and '80s sound so great. What were they doing in the production that made them sound so wonderful and so huge? Oh, they used a real orchestra. There's 14 people playing this thing.
"We wanted to go back to the production values of Stevie Wonder records and Marvin Gaye records where it's like, 'We're going to pull out all the goddamn stops on this thing to make this a huge, awesome-sounding, involved emotional journey of a record.'"
Reviewing great productions also led them to re-examine The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, though Trent Reznor might not obviously fit in the company of soul giants. "He fooled everybody," Cooper points out. "The ultimate sound clash. The guy made this textured noise-rock-pop opus and people bought it. Can you come up with a record like that and get people to buy it? Hell no. No shot. Not only did they buy it, but they bought it in large quantities. Nobody does that -- takes chances. That for me was inspirational, putting together a lot of things and make it work. I find that in a lot of soul records."
Part of MAP's evocation of soul is Aaron's voice and how deeply felt his vocals are. When he sings, "Now the truth is blown all over" in "I Lied," there's an obvious sorrow in his performance that is uncommon in indie and electronic music. "Any attempt to be emotional or really honest is relegated to your Christian artists, your jazz artists," he observes, but Cooper is prepared for whatever criticism might come as a result. "People are going to call us brooding and corny because this guy's actually saying what he means in a direct way."
Central to Map of What Is Effortless' sound is the Loyola University Chamber Orchestra, which provided strings for five tracks. To record them, Eustis took advantage of his connection to Loyola, where he studied in the Music Composition Department. "February of last year, Charlie and I were saying wouldn't it be cool if we could get an orchestra on here?" Eustis says. They first laughed the idea off, but then he recalled that for students, "it's a little-known secret you can bring your work in if you have your parts prepared, and (music professor) Dean Angeles will let the chamber orchestra sight-read your work." As a graduate, Eustis approached Angeles and was granted one class period. Remarkably, they got everything they needed in 45 minutes. "Track 5" -- the title cut -- "they got it in one take," Cooper recalls.
Now the band has the challenge of playing the material live, and "we have to get it together in six days," Eustis says. The first night of rehearsal has everyone excited because "we were able to play it without any computer help," Cooper says enthusiastically.
"The parts are being played by humans," Eustis explains. "The things that are going to be pre-fab are the things that can't possibly be played by humans. A lot of these weird, washy ambiences and little, skittery electronic stuff was never played by humans and never will be. The orchestra stuff for now, we'll have to wing that because we can't get 30 people."
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Telefon Tel Aviv makes nakedly emotional music on Map of What Is Effortless.