Body of Light exists at a strange crossroads of scenes and sounds. Alex Jarson—the founder of the Arizona duo, which also includes his brother Andrew—was responsible five years ago for co-launching Ascetic House, a cassette label and collective of experimenters based in Arizona, that sought, in their own words, "the destruction of a culture which dictates the forms our art may take." The music the label's released over the years has largely followed on that promise, from sun-baked punk tapes, to grizzled noise, and warped techno—their catalog is more united in their refusal to obey genre borders than anything else. And over the course of their five years in existence, the Jarsons' own compositions have largely followed suit.
Alex started out making concrète noise collages and synthetic abstractions under the Body of Light banner back in 2011, using those techniques to go on abstract electronics excursions across genres ever since. Of late, they've slowly been honing these synth-impulses and directing them in a more focused way—inching toward pop songwriting. It's become clear over the years that their music is less about subscribing to specific forms as it is with breathing ecstatic life into their obsessively perfected synth patches and programmed drum tracks. This mode of working has never been as potent as on their debut LP Let Me Go, out this week on Dais. Drawing on the whole history of their recordings—both their gnarled as well as dancefloor-friendly impulses—they've crafted a collection that's emotional, but controlled, each angst-ridden track a focused assault on both flesh and spirit.
But despite the seriousness of the songs they make, the Jarson brothers are relatively low-key in conversation. On a recent phone call with THUMP, they spoke with careful consideration about the long path that's led to their debut album. Read that conversation below alongside a full stream of Let Me Go in advance of its July 29 release on Dais.
THUMP: So you're brothers, I read somewhere that you have no problem recording with each other because you've been assholes to each other your entire lives. Did you guys make music together when you were little kids or is this a recent thing?
Andrew Jarson: We haven't been musicians our whole lives or anything, we always shared a love of the same music. Being the little brother he definitely introduced me to the stuff I liked.
Alex Jarson: Our dad always played guitar so we were always around music, we always listened to records and stuff. I actually didn't get into any techno or synth music until after college. It didn't interest me really. Us being in the punk scene, it kind of seemed too easy to make electronic music. Once you get into it you kind of see how complex it is and how interesting it can be.
You came up in the punk scene right?
Alex: I think it just goes back to experimentation and trying to create something new, for yourself. For me that's what punk music always was. Getting into electronic music and using synthesizers was just finding a new way to experiment with sound.
Andrew: For me I wasn't necessarily into synthesizers until around 2010, but I had kind of started making my own music with samplers and a 16-track. The approach of doing everything yourself was really what I needed. I was in bands and had a lot of fun doing that and took it seriously, but I probably wouldn't be into synthesizers today if I hadn't felt a need to make music by myself and in my own mind. That's kind of what brought me to doing that, coming from punk bands into a synth band. I'd say I probably make electronic music only now.
Alex: I had stumbled on some punk and hardcore shows, and it was really awesome at first, but then I started to feel bored with hearing the same thing over and over again. I ended up listening to My Bloody Valentine, and they were the first band that sounded really insane to me. Listening to it now isn't like that, but the first time I heard them it didn't even sound like music to me. It didn't even sound like a guitar. Listening to old 80s stuff like David Bowie and Brian Eno also [led me here]. I also got really into soundscape music, drone, noise, and power electronics as well. I just really like the idea of building landscapes with music. I really like traditional punk music and pop music in general. Body of Light started as more of a noise project because I didn't know how to manipulate the tools. It eventually evolved into a pop project that takes from noise and techno.
So you made noise before?
Andrew: More like drone stuff, I liked doing a lot of processing of loops and stuff. I started messing with tape loops when I was first in college. I really like the idea of taking a sound and processing that and using that as material—kind of the musique concrète approach in a way. I really like sampling particularly, looping and sampling is a great way to compose at least for me. I wasn't fully "noise dude" at that time.
It's really interesting then that you've come to think of your music as pop music, given that you come from a more experimental background.
Alex: Yeah I mean, pop is amazing. I remember listening to this Prince track when I was writing "Wayside City," I remember thinking that the drums were amazing and trying to emulate them. I sat for hours trying to program drums on Ableton and on my sampler and I tried to make it sound as good as possible. It probably didn't come close. I also just dove heavily into the history of synth music. I watched documentaries on every artist I could find. It's kind of a weird history lesson that I went through.
Andrew: Body of Light started out as Alex's solo project, I didn't really join until around Wayside City. I hadn't really played synth live before, that was kind of challenge for me. It was fun to play a different kind of music. I wasn't just playing guitar on stage which gets really boring. We started playing more and more and I started growing more attached to performing in that way. Just getting way heavier into sequencing synths, before I had an MPC for probably six years but I hadn't really gone the whole technical route with it. After Wayside City we really decided to be a full-form synth band, it wasn't as loose of an idea.
Was it tough to teach yourself all that stuff?
Andrew: I didn't know too many people who were messing around with synthesizers and MPCs. I just did a lot of trial and error. I like just messing around and shit, you just gradually start to pick things up. When you look back on your approach to electronics, you're always going to think "oh wow, what was I doing?"
You just start to pick up on it from your peers, and realize that it's not that daunting and you can actually do it. In the punk scene it seems so weird that people go from punk music to electronic music, but in the scene when people are playing with synths on stage, it's a different medium and it excites people. You see a lot of noise bands and people taking on that experimental approach. People see that and say, "I can do this too, it's not just for nerds."
What about the past couple years has prepared you to finally release a full-length LP?
Alex: We had been doing the tape thing for a long time, and it just made sense to do a full length. I think we also just dialed in our recording a little bit more. We had a sense of what we were doing, whereas on the early recordings it was a little more rough.
The tracks seem more song-structured this time around, was that by design?
Alex: It was certainly in the back of our minds. As a songwriter, you start to see different patterns in music, so every time I'd listen to a song, I'd always be like, "what are they doing in this part that makes it a good song?" So yeah, I think we were definitely ready to expand on past ideas. At the same time, we don't go into writing new songs with any other thought process than "we need to make this better than the last album."
How do you guys tread the balance between pop music and experimentation? Or do you see your music, at this point, as purely pop?
Andrew: Well, the thing about pop music, and dance music as well, is that it has this public perception as being mindless and hedonistic. Something you can dance to and sing along, and escape to. But there certainly is a level of reality that acts as the backbone—it's in the songwriting, the lyrics, the electronics. I don't know how to make fluff. I can only move forward.
Alex: A lot of what we did on this record was using the pop format as a backdrop, hollowing it out, and inserting something intimate. What you're being sold in mainstream pop music is formulaic and detached from the experience of the artist. Our record has production value, but all in all, it's a very raw album. For us, genres seem sort of meaningless. I really feel like the future lies without category. All we're trying to do is write music that is meaningful to us, and we hope that other people can find something valuable in what we are putting out there.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misattributed several of Alex's quotes to Andrew and vice versa.
Oliver Kinkel is THUMP's Intern. He's on Twitter.