Charlie Looker Revisits Extra Life’s Made Flesh with Sam Goblin

“It’s like a bad smell in the room.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Charlie Looker’s work — under his own name or in projects over the years such as Zs, Extra Life, Seaven Teares, Psalm Zero, Nothing Human, and others — “Voluptuous Life” is maybe not the place to start. I’d recommend Psalm Zero as a more palatable entry point, but if you insist, the leading track from Extra Life’s now almost 11 year old Made Flesh should definitely give you a good idea of whether you’re likely to develop an enduring fascination with Looker’s music, or whether you’ll immediately have to turn it off and go scrub yourself down with a steel wool loofah. 

Maniacal synth arpeggios fade in, giving way to a churning groove that sounds like some kind of horrible, salivating, three legged beast charging you down. By the end, the instrumental is convulsing in time with the lyrics, “Spasm, spasm, spasm, spasm/Pleasure unto death/Extra Life to death.” Quite the mission statement, that, and I was way on board when I first heard it. Brutally heavy and deeply musical, Extra Life sported a potent, totally bizarre mix of medieval and modern influences infused with a self-conscious absurdity ratcheting up and down in opposition to a real tenderness. Particularly on this album, they also had  what I can only describe as a Shudder-to-Think-on-Cialis kind of thing going. But to summarize is to reduce, and I’d encourage you to seek it out and develop your own inadequate descriptors. Like I said, Made Flesh is not the most representative of Looker’s catalog, which is uniformly sick in my opinion, but it’s definitely the most extra.

As Looker described the arc of his career and the end of Extra Life when we sat down on Zoom to chop it up, it sounded to me like all the information, stylistic choices, and ideas being crammed into the container that was the band just became too much and eventually needed to be siphoned off into other creative endeavors. With that in mind, it’s great fun to revisit Made Flesh, picturing it as a can of ginger ale shaken up and ready to blow in seven different directions. Incidentally, talking to Looker is a bit like hanging out with such a ginger ale (in a good way!). He seems like a sweet, cerebral guy, but definitely a heavily carbonated one with a lot going on and a lot to get out. Toward the end of our conversation I said something indicating that it might be about time for me to call it a night (not out of a lack of interest, just because I’m an early-to-bed lame ass). He graciously agreed, but added, “I’m always down to keep going.” And I have no doubt that he will. Extra Life to death, motherfuckers.

Sam Goblin: I was curious — so you said that you hadn’t listened to Made Flesh since it came out pretty much.

Charlie Looker: Pretty much, no. I listened to “Head Shrinker” like six months ago because I was doing a live stream solo show. I wanted to play the song and I couldn’t remember how to play it, but otherwise no. I kind of like that, too. I don’t know how the whole end of the song “Made Flesh” goes. “The Body is True” I actually don’t know how that goes at all. It’s kind of fun.

Sam: Huh, so is there a reason why this album in particular you wouldn’t want to go back to?

Charlie: I think it’s just the way I sing on it. I didn’t realize how different it was from Secular Works. It’s really, really nasally, and I don’t know why I was doing that. When I would get a negative review I would often be accused of being, you know, “affected” in the vocal style, and a lot of that I think it’s really unfair, but for that record I was kind of forcing a certain vibe, maybe subconsciously. I don’t know why that was. I wish I had been more throaty. I like the way I sing on Dream Seeds. On Secular Works, I wish I were more in tune, but that’s basically the style I use in Psalm Zero and how I sing on Simple Answers and in newer stuff, so I don’t know what it was about Made Flesh. There’s a lot I still like about that record though, it’s just so over the top.

Sam: Yeah, it goes there for sure. I think I know what you mean, maybe on the song “Made Flesh” where there’s a kind of extended breakdown where you’re just kind of like, nosing?

Charlie: Yeah, there were also just a lot of vocal takes. Like, splicing together half a line, getting this half of a word right. It’s very rabbit-holed out, whereas now I just do three takes and then have the engineer comp it together. I remember hearing that that’s how Bjork does it, and it’s diminishing returns after that. That Frankenstein thing of splicing, even if the splices are seamless and you can’t tell that they’re splices, the general energy of splicedness gives it a certain vibe. I’ll have to go back and listen to it. There must have been some reason I didn’t.

You learn on the job though, you know? I’ve learned so much about making records since Secular Works and all these projects, but there are people who are just like, “Dude, Secular Works is the best thing you’ve ever done, face the facts.” It is interesting to love an old record knowing that aspects of it are cringe, but I guess it’s all part of it. The path is made by walking. So, you like Made Flesh more than Secular Works though? That record means something more to you?

Sam: I think actually of all the projects in that band, I like Ripped Heart the best.

Charlie: Me too! I’m glad to hear you say that.

Sam: I think I gravitated towards Made Flesh though, just because it’s maybe the easiest litmus test for that band. I remember being on tour with my old band, I’d kind of slide it on the aux thing and wait for someone to notice. I had one bandmate who was pretty into it and the other one would always be like, “What the fuck IS THIS?” You know?

Charlie: It’s like a bad smell in the room. I love that. I love that shit. It’s interesting, things mean different things though just depending on the cultural context. You like to think, I have a vision, my vision is what it is and I plug it into the world and see how it fares, and then you get older and it’s like, wow. I’m really starting to realize how much external factors affect what I have channeled at different points. You have your personality, your interests, but there’s a lot of just collected intelligence and collective ideas that are always shared no matter how unique a thing is.

Even the lyrical content on Made Flesh and this kind of examination of uncomfortable sexuality from a very hetero male sort of standpoint. Asking questions about how power relates to sexuality in 2010 being who I am, would be very different than putting that stuff out in 2020. Nowadays you’d have to reconcile those energies with firm ideologies that other people have. There was that whole thing of, where’s the line? Well, people aren’t about that whole “where’s the line?” thing now. It’s like, “here’s the fucking line!”

Sam: I feel like there’s an interesting contrast on that album though, because there’s the kind of hedonistic, hypersexual stuff… I mean, not that I know exactly what you were thinking when writing the lyrics…

Charlie: Yeah, no, that. What you said.

Sam: Right, but then there are these tender, kind of warm moments. It’s not all this “mama told me not to stop until I bust a nut” kind of thing.

Charlie: Yeah, it’s conflicted. I was really into this maximalist thing, like every possible vibe I have in my heart just turned up to 10. I have kind of in a way moved away from that in other projects over the last 10 years. At the beginning of Psalm Zero, it was like, I’m gonna funnel the rock energies, the dark, non-tender, non-humorous, cold-blooded aspects of my stuff into this, and then Simple Answers will have more of those Extra Life elements.

At the time though, I never thought Extra Life would break up, because it was essentially just a moniker for me in the model of people I really looked up to at the time, like Dave Longstrength and Jamie from Xiu Xiu. I actually got to play a couple guitar solos on the new Xiu Xiu which I’m really pleased about. That’s kind of what I thought Extra Life was going to be, but as it solidified it accrued this aesthetic — baggage is the wrong word, because it makes it sound negative — but I broke up that project because I wanted to make a break with the elements that were essential to Extra Life. Humor, hypersexuality, and hyper-complexity being the main things. Have you read much Mishima? He was a huge basis for Made Flesh.

Sam: Yeah I’ve read Spring Snow, and maybe another one… But I know about his whole thing.

Charlie: Yeah, the one I really latched onto was The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. Just gorgeous writing, but you know he was full on, axis power, actually tried to stage a right-wing coup to reinstate the emperor, you know what I mean? But to me at the time that didn’t even register as “politics” you know? Like imagine nowadays doing a press run and saying, “Yeah, this album is loosely based on writings by a Japanese fascist.” And then being like, “What, what’d I say?” There was this sense of safety back then, talking about these dark issues in a humorous way, like there was room not even to experience things as politicized.

Sam: I know what you mean, up until embarrassingly recently I had this kind of carefree attitude toward politics, like, “Oh, yeah, we did this thing in Iran back in the day…” There was a sense that there wasn’t a consequence for not being up on shit.

Charlie: Even people who were interested in politics at the time, it wasn’t really boiling down to the social field because online culture hadn’t really hit that level where every aesthetic and every take implies ideology and you have to explain it. You have to do footnotes for that now, and I know there are good reasons for that.

By the time we got to 2012 though, I think I was spiritually, cosmically, quantum-field keyed in to some worldwide zeitgeist shit, because something in me just died. I mean not permanently, but I just felt this cold wind blow through everything. For me I thought it was mental health, back issues, physical stuff, but in retrospect that was Obama’s second term and all this stuff I didn’t know about, like the alt-right and the rise of this harsh culture of the 2010s was happening. I predict though, under Biden, we’re going to see a return to like, precious, collegiate, unapologetically preppy orchestral pop music will come back. Like, white men making effete, high-budget pop.

Sam: I’m gonna be at the fore, man. I’m going to be the next Grizzly Bear or whatever.

Charlie: Yeah, I actually do predict that, and I think it’ll actually be really embarrassing. I don’t know for who. Like, everyone who was really riled up on that Trump era thing of “Dude! Either you’re a fucking nazi or you’re punching nazis.” That kind of energy is gonna dissipate I think, and those people are gonna be like, “Yeah, I’ve been listening to some edgy standup comedy recently,” and then a lot of those internet racists are going to be like, “Yeah, you know, I was kind of being a dick.” Then we’re going to regain naiveté about the real horrors of the world, these things that never went away and are steady going despite these shifts in the culture war. I’m not saying that’s good, that might be a bad thing.

But I’ll tell you what’s coming back though, in the stuff I’m working on for the future. I can’t say for what project, but I’m going back to that technical complexity. For a while I had a kind of prog shame, I felt like I was just not maximizing my potential to reach people because I was getting too complex. That’s great too and I’ve made a lot of great music since then that is simpler, but I’m really returning to extended forms and real complexity, so if you liked Extra Life you’ll be excited.

Sam Goblin currently lives in Tallahassee, FL and plays music with Mister Goblin and Deady. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.