If you're one of the dozen or so people who saw Laurel Canyon, you may have noticed some familiar faces from the indie rock scene. In the 2002 film, star Frances McDormand plays a sexy, middle-aged record producer who takes a much younger lover--the lead singer of an English rock band, whose supporting players were portrayed by members of Lou Barlow's Folk Implosion. Among the players were Imaad Wasif (also of Lowercase) and Russ Pollard, both American, both longtime Barlow collaborators (Pollard was also a member of Barlow's sweetly tortured Sebadoh, rumored to be reuniting) who formed their own project, Alaska!, in 2000.
While the band didn't get too much screen time, the original music they contributed is solid, if unremarkable. That's more than Wasif can say about the experience of making the movie.
"I don't know if I really feel comfortable talking about that. I don't really have anything positive to say about it," says Wasif, who plays guitar and sings for the trio (Leslie Ishino of the Red Aunts plays drums). "It was a really terrifying experience, and that's pretty much all I have to say about it."
Alaska! Performs Tuesday, March 16 at the Gypsy Tea Room.
But Wasif isn't getting off the hook that easily. After all, this is the same artist who clicks "send" on the band's press release, touting the band's participation in the film. It seems only fair to press him a bit.
Turns out he has more to say, after all.
"Being thrust into that environment on that level of performance was completely different from the performance aspects that I'm used to," grouses Wasif. "I just didn't feel comfortable in that environment. We had vocal coaches and all these people insisting that we play a certain role we didn't feel comfortable playing. We had to have vocal coaches so that we could have specific British accents, and I don't know how necessary that was to the actual idea behind the movie. I think we would have been a lot more comfortable if we had been allowed to use our regular voices."
The experience wasn't a total wash, though. "It was a great thing meeting Frances McDormand. She's a fantastic person," Wasif says. "We've kept in touch since we stopped filming, and she came to the last show that we did in New York and screamed herself hoarse."
The way Wasif sees things, making Laurel Canyon was a one-shot deal. "Would I ever do a movie again? No, unless I got paid a ridiculous amount of money and I was broke. It's not my thing at all. I'd rather spend my time writing songs."
Like Wasif, many artists use I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it projects to fund more serious, earnest work. In this case, the work is punky folk rock with rangy guitars, chiming chords and lovely harmonies. In February 2003, Alaska! released its debut disc, Emotions, on B-Girl Records. The band is now in between labels--another topic Wasif is reluctant to discuss. Emotions is only in print on Flying Nun out of New Zealand, and the band is seeking a deal now that Wasif has emerged from a self-imposed writing hibernation.
"We did about six months of touring as Alaska! and Folk Implosion. We went through the States and Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, and I kind of went off the deep end and needed to recuperate."
Seems the rigors of globetrotting caught up with our hero, a not entirely negative experience, since it planted the seeds for the group's next record. The new songs are darker, more restrained than the material on Emotions. Where the earlier music is more expressive and vulnerable, perhaps even eager, the new stuff is guarded and withholds the rock.
"We're focusing on sort of capturing the essence of our live show. It's reached the point now where it completely overtakes us, and I think capturing that energy is necessary to these songs that we're playing."
Rather than communicating something to the audience, the songs seem more interested in communicating with each other, as well as with the musicians themselves. "They're all thematically linked," Wasif explains. "They're linked by the idea that--I was really obsessed with this writer named William Vollman for a while. His last book was called Argall [the third in Vollman's ambitious "Seven Dreams" series], and my idea for the songs originated from this idea of the links between songs in a series. I think this next record is going to weave in and out of itself." (Kind of like Wasif's explanation.)
It's clear, however, that the dynamic among the members of Alaska! is powerful, a passion that can breed intense creativity and, if not kept in check, destruction.
"A lot of the real beauty that I find in playing with Russ and Leslie is that when I bring a song in to them, they just kind of link into the emotion, both lyrically and melodically," says the singer. "After a certain point in our performance of it, we become completely fused. We've all felt it. At that point, we don't really stop until I end up breaking my knee or throwing myself through a window or something. I hurt myself all the time, mostly my knees.
"This is the most intense emotional relationship that I've ever had with anyone. Actually, both of them. We're completely inseparable. I've never experienced anything like this that I can remember since I've played music."
It's certainly a better relationship than the one he had with the movies. "I've become numb to that and gotten away from it because this is what I do and this is what I will do forever, and if I fall into that whole trap, it could crush me," he says.
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