We take a stroll around the Peaking Lights universe in a conversation during which Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes reflect on their creative process, their life as a couple and their vintage synth fetish.
With the brilliant “Lucifer” (Weird World-Mexican Summer, 2012), Peaking Lights confirmed that they are one of the most seductive groups on the present underground scene. In person, the couple formed by Indra Kunis and Aaron Coyes is as enchanting as the music they make together. They're different personalities, but they're united in their love for adventurous music, vintage synthesisers and their connection with nature. So it's no wonder they see their songs as an extension of the life they share. We were invited into their world for a tour.
Let's start at the beginning. Where do Peaking Lights come from?
Indra: We knew each other vaguely about ten years ago. We were both living in the Bay Area, and involved with the music scene. We met at a gig of my old band Numbers. Although, to be honest, I don't remember the exact moment we met.
Aaron: She's prettier than I am... [ Laughs]
I: I have vague memories of when I met him. But anyway, around 2006 we became close friends, through a friend we had in common. Aaron had just got back from New Zealand, where he had been living for two years, so he was in this returning to the city phase. We met again and, unlike the first time we met, I was single, so one thing led to another and we started dating.
"Between our son - who comes first - and the band, we end up working 48 hours a day"
So you started dating before making music together?
I: Yes, we started dating, and soon after we started to play together, not writing songs but just jamming. I think we both liked the fact we were in a relationship that was a creative one at the same time, we both felt the link was really exciting, even though we came from very different backgrounds at the time. Aaron was very much into noise, and I was in a band that, well, we were writing songs [ laughs]. The thing is when we got together, we had a lot to offer each other, even though we weren't aware of it at the time.
Does the fact that you're a couple have any influence on your music? I imagine the level of implication is different from you previous projects and bands. Do you think that, in a way, your music is an extension of your life together?
A: Yes, I definitely think our work is an extension of our life together. Unlike my solo projects, being in a band forces me to be more communicative and communication is very important to us. I feel that in a way we're navigating through the tension by being very communicative towards one another.
I: It's much more intense if you're in a relationship, you really have to communicate. If something annoys you or you feel something isn't working, you have to put it on the table, because you can't be like “fuck you I don't want to see you for a week or so”. We have to live together, we have a son... so we have to keep things really clear, if not, it wouldn't work.
Keeping that in mind, are you able to disconnect from the music or is it something that absorbs you completely?
I: Well, it depends. There are times when we only focus on writing, but the rest of the time it's usually non-stop working, because there's a lot to do; organising tours, remixes, artwork, answering emails, there's always work to do, constantly. But the good thing is we always work from home, so we also spend time with our boy, so everything gets mixed up.
A: Yes, between our son - who comes first - and the band, we end up working 48 hours a day.
Let's talk about music. “936” was a big revelation to many people. How did that particular mix of psychedelic pop and dub come about? Was it through experimentation, or was it something you specifically sought after?
A: I think we got to that sound by experimenting, our first records already had similar elements, but they were more focused on playing with the rhythms. I don't know if you know those records, but on “Imaginary Falcons” there were songs like “Wedding Song”, and “Owls Barning”, within which - I believe - lie the roots of our present sound. Right after writing that album, we tried to play them with dub rhythms played live by Indra, and that's when she came up with those kinds of rhythms. We started to play around with Afro rhythms, polyrhythms, syncopated rhythms - and then we added reggae and 4x4 rhythms. It got to a point where - for instance on “All The Sun That Shines” - I tried to write a rhythm that would go forward, and one that would go backwards; so they would do the same thing, but the other way around, so that you would lose yourself in those loops created by the rhythms. Then the bass had that open structure in order to get that dubby feel.
I: But it's not a reggae beat, anyway. I'm saying that because maybe it sounds like I'm trying a reggae rhythm, but I'm not, we never tried to be a reggae band or something. But in a way we interpreted it, or we could say we tried to make something parting from that sound. But, in general, our sound isn't premeditated. To be honest, we didn't expect much, we had no idea so many people would like it! We had released underground music before and I knew there were people who liked it, but I never thought we would reach so many people.
And what do you think is the reason for that sudden popularity?
I: I think that one of the big differences was that our previous records were recorded at home and for “936” we could record in a studio. It added a bit more fidelity to our sound and made some elements of our music come to the surface, whereas before they would get lost in the lo-fi recordings. Suddenly, you could actually hear what we were doing...
A: Instead of a blur of faded sounds...
I: Yes, that helped quite a lot [ laughs]
"Our way of working is similar to Kraut-rock, where the composing was much based on improvisation and using the recording technology to frame it"
With “Lucifer”, you maintain your sound, but at the same time it's more open and diverse. What was the starting point for this record?
I: We started to write shortly after our son Mikko was born, I think we wanted to do something more groovy, more danceable.
A: It all started with the rhythms, again. As I said before, on songs on “936” - like “All The Sun That Shines”, and “Marshmellow Yellow” - I tried to write rhythms that would clash with each other but still work, so on this record I tried to go deeper into that idea. I never was a drummer, but I've always listened to the rhythms in my head, and Indra is a very good drummer, who knows how to play them.
I: Curiously enough, even though I'm the drummer, Aaron writes the rhythms.
A: But I didn't write them on my own. Indra helped me find the balance and take them to where they should go. I thought “I know they have to work”, but sometimes I didn't know how to do it, then she stepped in and she would tell me to leave out this or change that....
I: The rhythms were probably what we worked on the most...
A: Yes, and the bass lines.
I: So when we went into the studio, we had the rhythm section covered and we started to improvise over them.
This time you recorded the record in the Mexican Summer studio. Was it much different from “936”?
A: Yes, definitely. We could take much more care of the details.
I: We could be in the studio for a month, which was a lot for us. Remember that “936” was recorded and mixed in three days. This was luxury to us.
A: There was so much equipment we could play around with... We used our own gear, but afterwards we could put it all on tape and then pass it through really good pre-amps and we could use incredible mic pre-amps to record with. They had a small room with a roof about 12 metres high, which is crazy to record in. Ah, and they had really good guitar amps.... a lot of things we could play with.
I: And a grand piano!
A: So everything was an evolution. Remember that for us, writing music was like “let's record an album on tape”, that's how we started out. It's about keeping an open mind to everything you have access to, and trying to learn while you're using it and seeing what sound you can get out of it.
Improvisation is very important in your way of working. When do you know you have 'something'?
I: We just feel it; it's a very intuitive thing.
A: Sometimes it happens you come up with something you like, or you feel comfortable playing something, but all of a sudden it only works for some time.
I: And when we have something we really like, most of the time we have to go back and give it structure, or condense it a bit, because otherwise our songs would last twenty minutes.
A: I think that in a way, our way of working is similar to Kraut-rock, where the composing was much based on improvisation and using the recording technology to frame it. That's kind of what we try to do.
"I think living in the countryside, or in nature, makes you really look inside yourself, listen to your own voice"
Your music oozes a pastoral feeling. Do you think coming from an area like Wisconsin has been of influence?
I: Well, in fact, I'm from Wisconsin, Aaron is from California. We met in the Bay Area and we've been living there for over ten years, so our history is much more connected to California. But I grew up in Wisconsin and we had the idea of going back there for a couple of years, live in the country, without needing a lot of money, so that's what we did.
So do you think living in touch with nature influences your music?
A: Oh yes, definitely. I grew up in the countryside as well, in the woods. And that has definitely influenced me. I like the city and I like the countryside, I like the two extremes; both life in the big city and living in the woods. I'm a bit between those two things.
I: I think living in the countryside, or in nature, makes you really look inside yourself, listen to your own voice.
A: And it makes you listen to other voices as well, not in a schizophrenic way... You listen to the birds, and the sounds of nature, they have a different rhythm.
I: Yes, you can hear music if you listen to nature. It makes you slow down, and, as I said, it makes you look at yourself and it helps you connect with your own creativity.
Another aspect of your songs that fascinates me is that kind of diffuse light they spread. It gives them a very special vibe, between narcotic and hypnotic, but sweet at the same time. Is the mood something you pay a lot of attention to?
A: To us it's important to create something like cinematic soundscapes, music for your imagination. Music is such a different force... When you make music, you don't need to use words, you're actually in this strange silence. When you're a musician, or simply someone who loves music, if you really appreciate music, it doesn't matter what you're listening to, you can always find beauty in it, like when you're looking at a piece of art... The imagination plays a fundamental role.
It also sounds like you put a lot of emphasis on the way the tones of all the sounds merge with one another. This is something quite characteristic for dub as well.
A: We put a lot of care into how we tune things and we do it differently in every song.
I: Your guitar is tuned kind of oddly. On the other hand, Aaron makes his own synths, so they're sounds only his synths make. And that's all Aaron; he spends hours trying to find the right sound for the synths, fooling around with the cables.
A: I even sometimes build a synth to complete the sound a song could have.
"I would love to be able to buy super expensive vintage synthesisers, but you have what you have. That's what it was about, to experiment with what we have at our disposal"
So you can build a synth specifically for one song...
A: Yes, yes, definitely.
I: Sometimes we also write a song around a particular synth sound.
At first you built the synthesisers because you couldn't afford to buy what you wanted, or simply because you couldn't find the sounds you wanted?
A: Of course, I would love to be able to buy super expensive vintage synthesisers, but you know, you have what you have. The truth is I love to experiment with sounds. That's what it was about, to experiment with what we have at our disposal. In the 90s I started to manipulate tapes and was fooling around with small synthesisers and at the turn of the century I got into circuit bending. To me, discovering Robert Fripp's frippertronics was a revelation. That thing he did - putting in line up to eight tape decks in order to get really crazy guitar delays - that was like a moment of initiation for me. And at the same time I was getting into dub; both things led me to think about the idea of the musician as a sound engineer.
I deduce you produced the records yourself.
I imagine it would be a very long list, but could you briefly describe what equipment you use?
A: A lot of old synthesisers, filters I built myself, old and new filters, manipulated synths, tape recorders we manipulate the sound with...
I: When we recorded “Lucifer”, there was a piano and a Wurlitzer in the studio, we basically used whatever sounded right at the time.
I suppose you go to flea markets a lot.
I: When we started, I didn't even have my own keyboard. Well, I did, I had an old Univox I liked a lot. But it got eaten by the mice.
A: Yes, when we were living in the countryside, the mice used to chew on the cables. They died - of course - and the smell was horrible.
I: So after that, I didn't have a synth I would use for everything, so I got a couple of old Casio keyboards from second-hand stores, because that was the easiest thing to do. The SK1 has some cool sounds, but I ended up having like six lined up, because each just had one or two sounds I liked.
A: Yes, I also like to play around a lot with the filter box, and then pass it through a secondary filter to get strange sounds. Basically, the idea is to treat and process everything, process it old school style, not just pass it through a processor.
I: And the filters Aaron builds also change the sound a lot. Even so, I have to say I also like the “simple” sounds of vintage keyboards, whether it's a clean piano, a Hammond, or the sound of a Wurlitzer. I recently bought a Nord which I think has great reproductions of those sounds, so I like to use those classic sounds mixed with all those strange manipulations.
It's obvious your lives have changed since “936”. Especially with regards to playing live. How do you manage it? Having a baby makes it difficult sometimes, I suppose. Do you take him with you on your trips?
I: He always comes with us. He's very little still, so he needs his mum and dad, so we have to make it all fit together. We tour, but never too long. We always try, for example, to play three days and have one day off, so that in the end it's like half touring, half family vacation. But it's true that it's a bit harder; every gig is like a special event, it requires effort, because we have to think about many things. But it's great to take him with us, because we spend a lot of time together.
Regarding your live shows, how do you take such a layered sound to the stage?
A: We bring a lot of pre-recorded sounds we trigger through tapes, some stuff we play through the MIDI, many filters and delays. Indra plays keyboards and I do some, too, but at this point I’ve stopped bringing too many synthesisers, because they're very fragile and it's hard to bring them on tour. So we try to do like dub versions of the songs, which makes it sound more psychedelic.
I: Yes, I play keys and I sing, so some things we play live and others are pre-recorded or programmed, and we're using ever more MIDI stuff....
A: It's hard to describe, but it works.
[Mikko enters the scene in the company of his nanny]
Now that Mikko's here, I'm reminded of that song on the new album, on which he sings. What was that like?
A: It was an incredible experience, because it was like the first time he became aware of the fact that talking into a microphone, his voice sounded through the speakers, and then we put some delay on it and he was like woooow.
To finish, I would like to ask you about the “Lucifer Mixtapes”. Listening to them made me realise you're a real digger. There are some rare tracks on there. Are you a record collector? Up to what level?
A: Yes, yes, I'm a big digger and collector. I dig a lot; I used to do it six days a week, driving around and spending hours in the record stores. If it's a good store, I can go there for several days in a row until I've seen everything they've got, going record by record, until I end up with hundreds of rare records... and I also buy entire collections. I have bought collections of up to 20,000 pieces. And then I keep like 400 and the rest I sell. I used to sell a lot on eBay, but now I do it privately, in our garage.