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The arrangements on Albermarle Sound are very intricate and I was pleasantly surprised to see you handling them so well in concert (especially "Aleida's Theme"), even though it necessitated switching instruments midsong. Do you find it hard to recapture the richness of your recordings on stage, or do you write with live playing in mind?

Jennifer: Our songs can take on different lives. Some may be entirely studio creations and may never be heard on the stage, while others are arranged for the record with particular details in mind, and may be carried out in a slightly altered form live. These are challenges that can be both purposeful and unexpected, or brought on by limitations, depending on the song's needs, or what additional musicians are available to perform with us. I enjoy switching from bass (which I learned years after playing guitar) to guitar, and as of late, adding the occasional organ or melodica part to accompany a particular song live. We think a lot about what needs to be accomplished for a certain song, and what is the best way to go about this process, both live and in the studio. Now, we are playing with a cellist and violinist live and this has added a rich dimension to the shows. On our last U.S. tour, we frantically mailed and faxed sheet music to string players that friends recommended across the country, and arranged for them to play with us in places such as Athens, Nashville, and Norman, Oklahoma.

If we are touring with like-minded bands (like what happened with Of Montreal and Beulah's trumpet and French horn player), we will certainly utilize their talents. We are now preparing for a two-week tour of Scandinavia, and we'll be taking our friend Julia to play violin. Sometimes we need two guitars on a particular song, such as "The Swimmer" or "Galveston" and we'll add a bass player. Mixing our live sound can be tough though, I think, since you cannot just "get the levels set" and assume that a formula works for every song.

[ the marlborough farm archetype ]

Sasha: I can't speak for everyone, but I personally do not write with a live performance in mind. For some reason, even though I've heard our live recordings, I can never get a sense of how our music sounds live. I know it can feel good or bad or somewhere in between to actually play it, but I'd love to be a fly on the wall at one of our performances. I get very wrapped up in what I'm playing, the switching, etc., and have a hard time experiencing the live performance as a whole.

Your Merge bio stresses each Ladybug's early musical experiences, which include family piano factories, community center concerts, and family groups. How much of that history is factual and how much is a put-on?

Jennifer: One of my greatest discoveries about my great-aunt is that she played the bass in my family's group that included my great-grandfather on violin and grandfather on various Croatian stringed instruments, versions of the guitar. They performed on radio shows in Pittsburgh every week during the city's Industrial boom. Gary's dad is a trombone player, so horns are probably hereditary there, and Jeff's high school band, The Hester Prynnes, often played the Mt. Lebanon Rec Center.

What brought The Ladybug Transistor together? What did you have in common that made you want to make music together?

Jennifer: I met Gary one summer in New York just after I moved here from college. We were playing the same show at the Threadwaxing Space, an art gallery/performance space in SoHo. I admired Gary's trumpet playing (with a different group) and I was playing guitar with Saturnine. We soon attended each other's shows as fans and then as we became friends and my brother Jeff moved to New York, I suggested that Gary call him about playing guitar with The Ladybug Transistor. I then joined for the first tour of Switzerland with Sportsguitar and Sasha Bell joined us for an early tour down to South by Southwest. Gary and I had been admiring the drumming of San Fadyl, as we saw him play often in NYC and wooed him to join the group. Even before the five of us actually began performing and writing together, I think we all recognized elements in each other of what we would like to do musically and in the love of similar music that we share.

[ sasha bell at the o.k. hotel ]
photo by robert zverina

Sasha: Each person came to the band individually, so it wasn't as if we were each seeking musical soulmates--just so happens we all have a similar musical sensibility, which is not to say we don't have occasional artistic differences. We do. How they are resolved depends on the weather really.

What were some of your early obsessions and are those influences evident in The Ladybug Transistor sound?

Jennifer: "Early obsessions" is a great phrase to describe the way I felt about music during high school, and probably always will. If I did not desperately block out every sound around me while walking to school with my Walkman blaring Smiths or New Order tapes, than I somehow felt ill-prepared to start the day. No moments seemed as vital or as urgent as sitting in the sixth row of a Pittsburgh movie theatre to see the Smiths on the "Queen is Dead" tour, or smashing into the Electric Banana to see GBH (whose music I did not even particularly enjoy, but who and what surrounded that music I did) on all-ages Sundays, or making mix tapes for my friends with the same bands on them over and over again--Game Theory, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, The Jam, Joy Division, Lets Active, and dozens of others. Eighties music like that was the one way for me to not exactly rebel against (well maybe with the Butthole Surfers), but at least start to break away from, the musical preferences of my parents. Their mainly '60s-based record collection was so amazing, and clearly laid the groundwork for so much of the music I love the most today, but somewhere back there I had to find something they did not hand to me. You're right though, so many nights were spent alone in rooms staring desperately into record covers, and so many transitional times and events from memory are inextricably tied to certain songs.

Sasha: My parents were big folkies so, by association, I listened to much Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, etc. My obsession then was seeing how quickly I could flee the room when "Alice's Restaurant" came on for the eight hundredth time. I have to say that I grew up in complete radio isolation and didn't get into "new" music until my hipper-than-thou 10th-grade boyfriend came along and turned things around. He took me to see George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers and bought me my first CD--some Swans thing. I felt pretty cool then. As for what of this hodgepodge turns up in The Ladybug Transistor? It's in there, mmm smell it!

[ today knows 7 inch ]

When I was in kindergarten, a girl laughed at my boogie-woogie dancing. In third grade I was dragged out of music class for finishing solo the Sound of Music "Do Re Mi" song after the teacher had told the class to stop. I'm sure these experiences inhibited my later musical endeavors. Can you think of any experience somewhere in your youth or childhood which set you down the musical path you're on now?

Jennifer: Similar inhibitive situations may have worked to actually lure me down the path you avoided: Like never making District Chorus? Or finding not an ounce of inspiration from my neighbor-teacher during monotonous piano lessons? Or having my hippie college guitar teacher insist on having me strum along to his star-and-moon inspired originals? Or being the only girl to walk in and out of the Pittsburgh music shop with a guitar in her hand for my weekly lesson?

The almost transformative musical experiences started much younger, with my mom singing songs to put us to sleep, or playing Leonard Cohen songs downstairs once we were asleep (and then I'd wake up terrified but transfixed). Or attending my first concerts--Peter, Paul and Mary with my mom--The Kinks with friends. This question goes back to your last one and conjures so clearly those early musical obsessions that for some reason sparked the desire to make music and not just love listening to it. For me it came later in the form that it is now--that is playing in bands with other musicians. Being a loyal fan of my brother's high school bands was not quite enough though, but it definitely planted the inspiration, and eventually I gained the confidence to begin playing guitar in college.

Sasha: I played in band in elementary and high school which I really loved. I mean you work so hard all year for like two concerts. Our conductor used to get very emotional in rehearsal and cry during the moving bits which made me embarrassed and delighted. I think my musical life is a continuing search for that embarrassment and delight.

Visiting Marlborough Farms, one can't help but get the sense that you're a family.

Sasha: In more ways than one we are a family. Jeff and Jennie are bro and sis. Gary and I are significant others. Pretty soon we'll be family by common law if all goes well.

Jennifer: Jeff and I grew up in Pittsburgh, Sasha in Cooperstown and Gary is a true Brooklyner, San grew up in New Zealand, so perhaps it was a twister that brought us together. Tornados do recur in our lives while touring. I drove through a tornado scare in eastern Nebraska in May and was terrified but the others coached me to the Motel 6.

Is Ladybug Transistor a family?

Sasha: Yes!

On the web:
The Ladybug Transistor

[ jeff and sasha ]

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