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Interview: Light Asylum

by François Zappa

With only an album, released in 2012, Light Asylum got a faithful group of followers that only regret not having been fed with more records. We have talked with Shannon Funchess, one of the most original and unique voices of the scene. Theirs will be one of the most awaited concerts at the W-Fest where they will play on the 22nd of May.

Your beginnings were in the funk rock band Imij already in 1994, right? What can you tell us about these days?

—No, I was the lead singer of Inebriated Arsonists at age 13. We did a hybrid David Bowie cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and I tried to sing it like Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. Legends, both of them.

—After this, you played in an album of TV on the Radio (2003), a couple of Telepathe releases, two albums of !!! (and some touring with them) and an album of Teengirl Fantasy in 2010. Were you doing more things related to music in these years? How were these experiences?

—I love collaborating musically, whether writing lyrics and melodies or producing or both and I’ve had wonderful opportunities in the last few years. Producing two songs and singing on both with ADULT.’s Nicola Kuperus and Adam Miller while an artist in residence at their home in Detroit, Michigan in 2015. You can find those songs on their Detroit House Guests LP on Mute Records (2017). I also did a remix for one of the songs, “We Chase The Sound.” Google it! Prior to that, a collaboration with brother sister duo, The Knife (Sweden) for their final album Shaking The Habitual for the song “Stay Out Here.” After Shaking The Habitual, they released Shaken Up Versions where I sang a duet of their classic single “Pass This On” with The Knife’s own Karin Dreirjer. I was then invited to be a touring member throughout Europe and North America in 2014 and 2015. Besides producing music with other amazing artists I regard as dear friends and working on new Light Asylum material, I’ve done a bit of performance art and acting for art film exhibitions around the world with the likes of A.K. Burns and Michelle Handelman. All of these experiences have been illuminating and essential to growth in my human process and I’m very grateful for every opportunity I get to collaborate with my peers in all mediums.

—You recorded an album with Gerard Smith as A Rose Parade. Honestly, I could not find any information about this work. When was it recorded? What can you please tell us about it?

—Wow! I hope you’ll take this as a compliment … it’s rare to find a music journalist who does their homework in this copy + paste internet age. I’m impressed. This was a passion project of Gerard Smith (Tv On The Radio) and mine and was the culmination of years of friendship akin to siblings, including not “seeing eye to eye” on things. Sadly, Gerard passed away in 2012 after losing the battle to lung cancer. A death sentence for most people in a society with little to no health care (America). I have a friend battling the same disease now but, luckily she has the finances and the support of a knowledgeable community in the healing arts that combine natural medicine and less toxic therapies and beat cancer’s ass. Whereas, the “normal” doses and rounds of chemotherapy prescribed by western medical practitioners for hundreds of thousands of dollars decimates the body of the subject and they end up dying from the treatment. The album was never released but, we poured our hearts and souls into those songs and I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with him while he was on the planet.

—In 2007 Light Asylum was created. How was it at the beginning? I read that there were even guitars. How did you meet Bruno Coviello?

—Sure enough … and there will be guitars again! Haha. I have so many influences … too many to name here but, there was synth, guitar, bass guitar and live drums in the beginning. I have two albums in the pipeline and one of them will have all these elements. I miss being on stage with a full band but, I love what I do and have always had a soft spot for duos. I founded the project in 2007 and released a single on Glue Magazine’s imprint label. After meeting Bruno on a tour that he was playing guitar for another friend’s project, I asked him to play keys in my project. He left the project in 2012 shortly after the debut LP was released to pursue other things.

In Tension is the band first EP (2010). Was it first sold at your concerts? For a first release, there are two of the band’s best songs, Dark Allies and A certain Person. Were these songs already composed in the past?

—Yes, as a CDR and cassette tape with the artwork of artist and friend Amber Iberreche on a sticker on the sleeve of the CDs. Real DIY release, circa 2010 for the tour. The EP was officially released on Mexican Summer in late 2011 on limited edition grey marbled colored vinyl and on cd. I’m always drumming up ideas, melodies and lyrics and recording them on my phone in my daily life so, I can listen back through them for inspiration. Kind of like an audible journal. It was an accumulation of life experience with a little bit of light shining through and channeled into these dark anthems. I love structuring songs to tell a story and leave just enough space for the listener to inject themselves into the song…. to make the song their own.

—With a voice that has been compared to Andrew Eldritch’s and at the same time having sung in church, which one has been your influences as a singer?

—Both really. Huge fan of Sisters of Mercy and Patricia Morrison as much as Mr. Eldritch’s. I love a strong duo. Like I was saying, I have a lot of different influences and it’s a dream to play the same festival with some of them at WFEST 2020. Heaven 17, Fuzzbox, ABC, Front 242, A Split Second, The Stranglers … the lineup is INSANE.

—The band has played in some Art events, would you say that Light Asylum is, in a way, an arty band?

—No more than Throbbing Gristle, CAN or Kraftwerk.

—I read that in Austria you collaborated with Laurie Anderson, doing some improvisation. Can you please tell us more about this?

—Yes, that was an amazing experience, both the performance itself in Graz, Austria and back in New York after the performance when she invited me to her home for her annual Christmas party. I met Lou Reed, what more can I say! I invited her to the studio while we were recording the S/T LP for some feed back. This is obviously a highlight in my career. Having been fortunate enough to have an electronic music pioneer encouraging my work. Priceless. Shout out to CocoRosie for curating Donau Festival 2012 and putting us in touch in 2011.

—How do you see your first album Light Asylum seven years later? When you play the songs of this album, do you play them similar to the album version?

—They still hold the same power for me they did when I wrote them and I’m so grateful that people are still playing and discovering “Dark Allies” on dance floors and playlists thanks to the devoted fan and dark music lover. Thank you! I play between an intro-less version to the full-length version of “Dark Allies” but mostly stick to the original versions.

—Some of your songs like “Sins of the Flesh” and “IPC” have an important political and social message. Do you think that it’s possible to change (at least a bit) society with music?

—Music has a way of finding its audiences and they change the world.

—You have been also DJing. How would you describe your sessions?

—Yes, I am a DJ for 25 years now. I play a wide range of styles but, I like to ask the promoter of the events what they’d like and try to complement the night. They are always very much “play whatever you want” and give minimal parameters of the night which today is mostly techno, house and club though it’s getting more experimental as of late and gabber is back! I want to take people on a journey through music. Somewhere we all need to go regularly to get away from the day-to-day stress of existing on this plain and dance it out.

—I saw a list of some of your fav albums and I would like you to comment what you find interesting on these albums and how they have influenced your music:

The Selector—Celebrate The Bullet—All around amazing production and vibes

Kate Bush—Hounds of Love—The only gift I received on my 15th birthday was this cassette. Game changer.

Big Black—Songs About Fucking—Steve Albini taught me it can always be harder, faster, louder. Always.

This Mortal Coil—It’ll End in Tears—I’m a huge fan of the 80’s and 90’s 4AD catalogue and the quieter, more reflective moments come from a love for this amalgamation of artists by the label owners to do mostly covers of artists from the ’70s.

—We are also big fans of Grace Jones (something not very usual in this scene), how do you think an artist like her has been important for you?

—She’s the G.O.A.T., hands down. First woman of African descent to be visible in the ’80s world of mainstream music that would become an early role model of androgyny and unapologetic, arresting staged and non-staged antics. An original voice, style and energy paired with legends Sly and Robbie Dunbar as the rhythm and the beat. Majick {sic}. No holds bar.

—I think that the only collaboration, we haven’t talked about yet, was the 12″ with Ford and Lopatin and Tamaryn. How was this project born?

—It was to promote the 100th release of the label Light Asylum was on at the time and features the vocals of Tamaryn and myself and the production of Joel Ford and acclaimed producer Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never.

—When are we going to have a new Light Asylum’s album? You were supposed to publish one in 2016, what happened?

—I’ve been through a lot the past 8 years trying to get back to Light Asylum. Hopefully by the time the new album comes out in August 2020 all the old struggles will be buried and far behind me. There are new obstacles but, I’ve finally closed the lid on the first chapter and look forward to releasing new music. Letting the earthworms do their work. The earworms are on their way. Be not afraid, it’s all part of the process.

—As you said before, you have done a remix for an ADULT. track right? Has it been your only tried at remixing?

—No, one for S.C.U.M. (UK) and SALEM (US).

—Raphael, the new member also plays in Ice Choir. What can you tell us about this project?

—Raphael was the touring keyboardist late 2012–2013

—How is going to be the band’s concert at W-Fest?

—AMAZING. I can’t wait.

Photos: Helge Kramberger

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