Peaking Lights

Peaking Lights Talk Thrift Store Strategies, Tom Tom Club and Parenting

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 10.28.14 in Features

It’s 8 in the morning in Los Angeles, and Peaking Lights‘ home is already enveloped in an ambient hum. Not the musical kind, though — the buzz is coming from electric fans. Though it’s autumn when we connect, Los Angeles is deep in the throes of a heat wave. A few days before, Indra Dunis, the group’s singer, saw the temperature hit 107 degrees on the car’s thermometer. “That was pretty nuts,” she says. “That was out where our kids go to preschool, a little bit farther east, a little more desert. But it’s definitely been 100 where the house is.” Consequently, they’ve got fans running all over the house, and I’m having trouble hearing them above the whirr.

‘The idea is that a lot of times, especially as we get older, we look back on certain times in our lives as the golden times, and maybe we latch onto those a little too hard. — Indra Dunis’

If there’s an irony here, it’s that, as a band, Peaking Lights are coming through clearer than ever before. For most of their six-year history, the married duo of Dunis and Aaron Coyes trafficked in lo-fi haze, dubby undercurrents and the twinkle of cheap synths, coming across as a pair of homegrown mystics ensconced on a throne of Casio keyboards and warped King Tubby tapes. Their album Imaginary Forces, in 2009, sounded like what might happen if Grouper recorded for the Sublime Frequencies label; 2011′s 936 commingled post-punk grit with a beatific new age glow. The following year’s Lucifer turned fully towards the light, as evidenced by the double-entendred “Beautiful Son,” a tribute to their first born, with Dunis’s vocals wafting like breeze over watery arpeggios and country blues. Lucifer in Dub, meanwhile, made good on their echo-besotted 4-track obsessions. The duo’s new album, Cosmic Logic, sweeps away the cobwebs in favor of a crisp, bubblicious brand of dance pop that’s deeply indebted to the Tom Tom Club’s perky, plastic funk. Overlaid with Dunis’s incantatory lyrics — “Telephone call, telephone call from space! Calling all, calling all the human race!” — it sounds tailor-made for mind-expanding jump-rope sessions, or cavorting beneath fire hydrants that are spouting rainbow-colored streams. It simultaneously suggests childlike awe and a grownup sense of wisdom — a parents’ guide to finding your way back to your inner child, perhaps.

It seems fitting that their first album for heavyweight indie Domino might have found them expanding their sound, but I don’t think anyone expected this — well, save perhaps Coyes and Dunis, who describe a long, deliberate path to the new LP, one that took them from a barn in rural Wisconsin to the comparative urbanity of Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood.

I’ve always thought of you as a quintessentially SoCal band, but you spent some time in Wisconsin. When did you move out west?

Indra Dunis: We’ve lived in L.A. for three years, but we lived in Wisconsin together just for about three and a half years. We moved there from the Bay Area, so that might be why you associated us with California — we met in San Francisco. We got to a point where we were tired of the high rents and dealing with that hustle. We had this dream of living somewhere really cheap where we could have a whole house and a studio. Since I grew up in Wisconsin, and my dad and stepmom lived in the country for a while, I knew you could rent really cheap out in the countryside. So we ended up moving there and doing that. That’s pretty much where Peaking Lights was born. We had a big four-bedroom house and a barn, and we set up our studio inside in one of the bedrooms. Then in the summer we would jam in the barn. It was great. It was like $600 a month.

There were economic reasons that didn’t last, though. There’s really no work out there, because Wisconsin has really cold winters. There’s some tourism and stuff in the summer — we lived right by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen, which attracts a lot of tourists. So we were doing seasonal work, and then in the winter, we both really love thrifting, so we started finding things and selling them on eBay. That became our thing: we were going around to thrift stores in little towns, buying stuff, reselling it on eBay and barely making ends meet that way.

Was it particularly good thrifting out there?

Coyes: In Midwest, electronics and stuff like that is pretty good. We found rad synthesizers for cheap. Although the West Coast, still — I have a 1972 [Fender] P Bass that I found for $200. It’s insane. It was in perfect condition.

Dunis: We mainly bought clothes and shoes and then resold them. This was like 2009, and it just so happened that some of the ’90s stuff was starting to come back [in style], and there was a lot of that just sitting in thrift stores. So I just went around and collected ’90s boots and shoes. We ended up opening an actual store in Madison, which is the closest big town. But really, our hearts were in music. We were hoping the store would take off and become a self-supporting thing that would also support our music so we could go on tour, but we ended up spending too much time just manning the store. We were also missing the West Coast — it was pretty isolating to be out there, after living in California for a long time. When Peaking Lights started to receive some recognition, we got enough cash together to move back.

Did moving back west have any impact on the music you were making, or the way you were making it? It must have been tough to give up that barn.

Coyes: [Our labels] Domino and Weird World have been incredibly supportive of us. They weren’t looking for us to just pump something out on a yearly schedule. I think that was the biggest difference with having [our environment] change. That, and having a studio in our backyard. We work out of our garage. So it’s similar, but this time we had more time, and more gear. With 936, it was all recorded onto quarter-inch tape, and from quarter-inch tape dumped down to cassette tape, and from cassette tape we went into a studio and blasted the cassette tapes through amplifiers. And with Lucifer, we wrote and recorded that whole record in three weeks. And with this record, because we had just had our baby, we had full-on studio time. We were in the studio for a year and a half straight, working on it. It had so much more time to develop.

‘Everyone hates on me for being like, “I like some EDM stuff,” but that’s a huge cultural movement — why would I not listen and try to figure it out?
— Aaron Coyes’

Dunis: Well, juggling that with also watching two kids every day [laughs].

There’s been a noticeable shift in the band’s sound with the new album.

Coyes: That was kind of our idea. We wanted this to be something new. We didn’t want to rewrite an old record.

Dunis: Aaron in particular is really good at pushing us to try new things. Sometimes it’s easy to get locked into, say, “This is our sound, and we’re just going to stick with this,” but he was looking at it like, how can we use our sounds in a new way? And then also, you know, [start to incorporate] some of our other influences — things that are a little bit more catchy, maybe more crisp-sounding and more dance-influenced.

It’s definitely very crisp. I hear a lot of the Tom Tom Club in the record, and maybe even the Cure — but not the early, gothic cure, more like Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, once they discovered color.

Dunis: That’s a definite influence on this record, the Tom Tom Club.

Coyes: It’s funny that you mention the Cure. We’re of the generation that listened to the Cure growing up when we were kids. Just the way the Cure changed their style, I think, is really influential. We were reading about the Cure, earlier on, how Robert Smith was always trying to change the band, even though you can always tell it’s the Cure.

Right. The Head on the Door seemed completely out of the blue, at the time. And then by Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, he was wearing hi-tops and hockey jerseys and singing silly love songs.

Coyes: I remember reading this interview with the Tom Tom Club, or it might have been David Byrne, talking about the importance of pushing yourself to develop, not to stagnate in one sound. You can still be part of the modern sound, but you can do it your own way. I like a lot of music that’s contemporary. Everyone hates on me for being like, “I like some EDM stuff,” but that’s a huge cultural movement — why would I not listen and try to figure it out? It’s not like I have to play it, but it’s there, it’s part of our culture. It’s a huge part of the U.S. culture right now. It’s here. You can’t stop it. No matter how much you try and fight it, it’s here. It’s going to change the landscape culturally and sonically, that’s just how it is.

Dunis: We both like a lot of different kinds of music. It’s not that we only like lo-fi, noisy, hazy stuff. We like a lot of pop music. There’s so much, why limit ourselves to one type of sound when there’s a lot of stuff to explore?

Coyes: I would love to write pop music. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be a thing, but it would be awesome if we could write pop music.

Do you write the lyrics together?

Dunis: We tend to write the lyrics together. I probably wrote three or four of them on my own. We had an idea of wanting to make the songs about things that were somewhat universal. Like, you know, “Breakdown,” the single, is about being on the edge of losing it. “Everyone and Us” is about living in the moment, basically — and staying open to new experiences. The idea is that a lot of times, especially as we get older, we look back on certain times in our lives as the golden times, and maybe we latch onto those a little too hard.

Coyes: It’s like the whole thing with parents being like, “I just don’t understand that!” When my parents started listening to Elvis and the Beatles, their parents were like “How do you listen to that crap?”

‘It’s OK to be a starving artist when you don’t have kids, but when you have kids, you’re not going to let that happen. — Indra Dunis’

Dunis: People latch onto this idea that the music of their youth was the good music, and then they see their kids’ music as being so crazy and bad — each generation does that, it’s kind of ironic.

Did parenthood have an impact on your songwriting?

Coyes: It made us focus more. There’s definitely more intent to make the music be more relatable. It’s not like we’re stopping doing insanely psychedelic music, it’s just morphing and becoming more directed.

Dunis: I think having kids really forces you to focus. All of a sudden you have this responsibility — like, “Shit, I gotta get my act together.” Our first son, Nico, was born right when our record 936 started to receive some attention. And we thought, “Well, this is what we want to do, let’s just really take this seriously and go for it.” Luckily we had an opportunity to do that. It brings a whole level of focus and hustle to your life that we didn’t have before. It’s OK to be a starving artist when you don’t have kids, but when you have kids, you’re not going to let that happen.