Leah Callahan has been in some of Boston’s finest, most memorably skewed pop ensembles —from the expressionistic, strangely optimistic No-Wavers Turkish Delight through to the jazzier Betwixt (who, in addition to their own loopy originals, did a mean Lee Hazlewood cover) and her own, charmingly eclectic solo material. Ever enterprising, in-between bands Callahan drew on her attraction to theatrical outsiders to create, aided by co-conspirator Jonathan Vincent, a ribald reworking of Genet’s The Maids that had its Boston premiere at notorious drag bar Jacques'.
Her new band, The Glass Set, isn’t quite as cabaret-centric, but the echoes remain in Callahan’s arresting, honeyed vocals. The music, however, is noticeably moodier, a driving, hook-laden, sometimes aggressive, sometimes lyrical sound anchored by ringing guitars and downtempo synths. (Think equal parts Mancunian gloom, No Wave skree, and effervescent pop confection.)
As always, Callahan’s uplifting, deceptively sweet sing-song vocals —which rush headlong with a sense of wide-eyed wonder—temper the world-wearied tone of the lyrics, which deal eloquently with loss, regret, and the complicated business of living in the world.
A recent chat with Ms. Callahan went something like this...
How would you summarize the band's sound to people who were unfamiliar?
It’s constantly evolving, but in a nutshell I would say now we're playing some stuff live which is kind of trancey. It's melodic and driving, like a weirder, heavier Stereolab or like the band Breathless (ex-This Mortal Coil) which is a favorite of Allen's (The Glass Set's drummer).
Leah: I think we're getting away from sing-songy choruses, then again just as I will try to describe our music our songwriting will inevitably change -post-punk, post-rock, shoegaze and the occasional pop hook will slip back in.
Our recent CD Something Unknown has a definite post-punk (ie Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees) New York No-Wave (Sonic Youth and their predecessors) and because of my vocal style and being female, reviews have referenced the 90s riot-grrl thing. [Wha—?! –Ed.] In my opinion though my vocals are alot more influenced by say Dagmar Krause of the Art Bears than Sleater-Kinney or one of their main influences – Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex...
If the Glass Set were a film, it'd be…?
”Teorema” by Pasolini, definitely! It transports you to an otherworldly place (if you let it) —which is unsettling. | cont'd>>
The band has changed drastically since its inception in 2005. How did the group evolve, personnel-wise?
Well, to make a long story short: Allen (the drummer) and I decided to make a go at it from a studio project for a musical theatre project I was doing in ‘05. We grabbed the studio keyboardist and her husband who were amazing musicians, then recruited a guitar player, Joel.
There [can be] a great deal of tension which happens when you get a lot of creative people together in a collective situation. Some decisions had to be made because one half of the band wasn't getting along with the other half. Then the problem just solved itself and we instantly got our great bass player Dan from just one post on The Noise Board. The guitar player brought his keyboard into the practice space one day and now I am playing it. So now we're a pretty full-sounding 4 piece.
Both Betwixt and your solo outing (2003's Even Sleepers) had a lush, cocktail-hour feel to them. By contrast, the Glass Set's music seems markedly darker (though no less elegant) —it's angular at times, hallucinatory at others. How did the group's sound come together?
Thanks for the "elegant" and "hallucinatory" comment! I think you will find our newer stuff is somewhat less dark and more towards hallucinatory (although that might be just our sneaky way of hiding how scary and dark we are!). The shift is because of the people I am working with - each member inevitably brings his or her own influences. Due to the musical tastes of my bandmates, there's alot Joy Division/Siouxsie/Cure influence than, say, Betwixt or my solo CD had!
And as far as lyrics, it’s not complicated at all, it’s fun and it comes relatively easy. I write alot of lyrics on the spot, just like the guitarist, bass player or drum player writes his stuff on the spot in the practice space. There is the occasional song I can't think of words for, but it's not due to the genre... I wish everything was as easy as songwriting (lyrics included) is for us! It’s all the other stuff that's hard...
Were the songs on Something Unknown conceived as a song-cycle? How does Gore Vidal factor in? Besides Christopher Isherwood and Vidal, what were your lyrical inspirations?
Ha ha, Gore Vidal has nothing to do with it. You're referring to what was a hurried phone interview for the Boston Phoenix. They decided to give a few sentences to what is the past several years of my musical projects! Christopher Isherwood doesn't have much to do with it either, although I originally saw a film still of the movie “I Am a Camera” and thought it would make a cool title for our CD. It was very loose reference to Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" which is basically about struggling bohemians...
I think my lyrics are influenced by such disparate writers as Duras and Bukowski. There are too many writers to mention. If I had to pick apart each song, I could probably tell you what influences dominated. I am lucky enough to have a friend who owns a bookstore so I have access to hundreds of great books whenever I want them.
I am fickle with books and music. That's why I love short stories (Ring Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Faulkner & Hemingway as of late) —there's no commitment ;)
Recently someone gave me an 80s comp and I managed to listen to the song "One Step Ahead" by Split Enz about 100 times over the course of three weeks —mesmerized by the amazing songwriting and production. Around that same time I got a British import world music compilation from 2003, it had Elizeth Cardoso on it who I already was a fan of. The song she sang was was “Manha de Carnaval” —turns out it's from the 1959 film Black Orpheus which I haven't seen. (I have seen a modern version called Orpheu which has a soundtrack by Caetano Veloso. I love Brazilian music —it's so sad and happy at the same time.) Upon hearing the song played by Luis Bonfa and interpreted by Elizeth Cardoso, I had to hear it over and over again...I cried profusely.
I often get annoyed when I hear reviews about this or that current artist who will bring you to tears and I just don't think most artists merit that —the description is overused. If I could ever convey a fraction of the emotion that Cardoso conveys by simply humming a melody —or compose a melody as haunting and gorgeous as Luis Bonfa...
What bands would you cite as primary influences on the band's sound?
The band is easy -anything underground, dark, post-punk and/or British late 70s to the present. Me - well everything at one time or another. I was weaned on Alternative major label music that never sold too many records in the US -Music like The Smiths, The Cure. Wandered into more avant-garde Noise territory later on. Exposed myself to alot of world and jazz -everything from Django Reinhardt to my my favorite singer right now Elizeth Cardoso. I love silly Euro dance music, 60s soul . I'm not a big fan of new country or really mellow introspective indie-folk (unless you can jump around and dance to it)...
After Even Sleepers, were you surprised to find yourself in a band again? Did you miss it?
Hee, hee it wasn't a surprise, it was blood, sweat and tears to get one together. It’s not easy.
Yes, I missed it, otherwise I wouldn't have struggled to do it. when I decided to do the solo thing it was because I had said "never again" to bands —they are a lot of work and a lot of compromise. I always think I know everything so it's tough to keep my mouth shut sometimes, but the collective band experience is the only way I really respect. Or, it’s the only way I think true connectivity and good song-writing will happen (for me anyway).
How has the Boston scene changed since the days of Turkish Delight?
Well, some people will say it was easier to fill the clubs or get promotion on the radio, but I think that was even before my time. IT was tough when I started [and] it’s tough now. You want to create art but you have to worry about how many people you'll bring into the clubs...
Do you still have the first beat-up cassette/45/8-track you ever owned? What was it? (Mine was Nena, "99 Luftballons.")
Hmm, the first 45 had was "Cinderella" from the Disney cartoon. My parents had some pretty cool stuff which I listened to a lot, like Roxy Music and 70s David Bowie. My first cassettes were Echo and the Bunnymen's "Songs to Learn and Sing", Siouxsie and the Banshee's "Once Upon a Time: the Singles.”
Favorite guilty pleasure (musical or otherwise)?
Traveling! When I should be spending the money on other things...
What musical artist will you just never 'get'? For me, it's Elvis
Costello, for you it's…
Patti Smith. I bet seeing her in the late 70s would have been amazing and she is a goddess and an avatar. I just can't get into her music...I feel awful about it!
The Glass Set are currently listening to:
Daniel Gill, bass player: Fad Gadget - Back to Nature | John Foxx – Underpass | Front 242 - Take One
Allen Esser, drummer: Comsat Angels - Not A Word | The Sound - Contact the Fact | Joy Division - 24 hours
Leah Callahan, singer: Elizeth Cardoso - Manha De Carnaval | Betty Mabry Davis - Steppin' in Her I. Miller Shoes
Joel Cohen, guitarist: Deerhunter - Spring Hall Convert | Beach House - Master Of None | Can - Soup
The Glass Set can be reached at their MySpace page. You can order their CDs through CD Baby.
UPCOMING LIVE DATES:
May 10th: Abbey Lounge, Somerville
May 30th: WFNX New England Product Night | Baseball Tavern, Boston [8 PM]
Jun 14th: Hennessey's Upstairs | Boston [8 PM]
The Glass Set, “Hong Kong Papercut”
PHOTO BY IRINA ROZOVSKY