Artist Feature: Peaking Lights
Since 2008 the US-American duo Peaking Lights – consisting of Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis – has been releasing other-worldly, psychedelic-influenced pop music. So far, they have released more than eight albums on labels such as Night People, Not Not Fun, Mexican Summer and the Domino imprint Weird World. You can add to that more than a dozen EPs and seven-inches, plus tapes and countless live shows around the world. For a while, the married couple also ran a second-hand record and cloth store in Wisconsin called Good Style. But after relocating to Los Angeles with their kids, Coyes and Dunis began to focus on only music. This wasn’t necessarily a radical change for either, Dunis was previously part of the then-San Francisco based indie-rock electro band Numbers. Coyes, meanwhile, has played in numerous bands and projects, as well as DJing in the Bay Area and recording bands like the Chromatics.
For Carhartt WIP Radio Coyes dug deep into Peaking Lights’ vaults, excavating old, unheard material from their pre-Peaking Lights jam sessions, and blending it with newer stuff – sounds from other Peaking Lights periods, as well as remixes, his very own solo excursions as Face Plant, and other musical projects like Rahdunes and Leisure Connection. In addition, he also spoke to to us about his personal journey as a music-fiend, and about the pulsating Peaking Lights’ oeuvre. Read his answers below and enjoy his deeply esoteric, dubbed-out mix for Carhartt WIP Radio.
Can you introduce yourself for our readers?
Aaron Coyes: I’ve been making weird tunes for two decades now, I used to play in superfast hardcore punk and powerviolence bands in the early and mid 90s, and then played in a goth band that was something of a mix of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees in the mid-to-late 90s, also in the mid 90s I got into electronic and experimental music through the filter of Nurse With Wound, Muslimgauze, Bastard Noise and stuff like that. I also played in a psych band which injected a love for Kosmische. I lived in San Francisco in the mid to late 90s which was a crazy time. Worked in the Castro at a gay cabaret called Josie's Juice Joint and was playing in punk bands and at night I would start by going to see a punk band then go to a Hip Hop show and finish the night at a rave. San Francisco was really an awakening. Then the first dotcom boom happened in the late 90s. I left there after the owner of the house I lived in basically bought everyone out. I moved to Mexico for a while and also bought a bunch of recording stuff. When I got back from Mexico I moved to Oakland, which was much cheaper, and got a job for a bit at a record store called Saturn Records. Scott my boss was known for making these amazing bootleg CDs of boogie, funk, soul, reggae & afro stuff – all super rare stuff. He went in on the largest collection of soul, disco, boogie that had ever come up – over 200,000 records which was split four ways between him and two other collectors. My job was to sort through it, listen and price out the records through the old Goldmine & Manship books. Ebay had just started so record prices were nuts! There was no popsike yet or online pricing. That was kind of a jump-off point as well. When my goth band broke up I decided I was only going to focus on electronic and experimental psychedelic weirdo music, which I was already doing in parallel but then just went deeper. When Peaking Lights initially started we had this idea of "Fucked Modern Pop," which was kind of this weirdo take on how we filtered pop-culture around us, in a way it was more of an artistic statement with lots of noise and slowly as we learned about our art things got tighter. Currently I'm doing a bunch of different projects outside of Peaking Lights, still doing one-off shows with Rahdunes. Nate who I do that with is also in Leisure Connection and we're working on new stuff. Then there are a slew of solo things: Image Club just put out a record on Two Flowers, also the PLSD (Peaking Lights Acid Test) stuff which Golf Channel released a while back.
"When Peaking Lights initially started we had this idea of "Fucked Modern Pop," which was kind of this weirdo take on how we filtered pop-culture around us, in a way it was more of an artistic statement with lots of noise and slowly as we learned about our art things got tighter."
How did you first get into music, DJing and producing?
Aaron Coyes: I got into music at a young age, my parents got me a Casio at some point and I use to take it everywhere. I’d make little mix tapes with songs I wrote and stuff from the radio recorded on the jambox. In high school I sang in a thrash band, then sang in a punk band eventually I started playing guitar with a couple friends in a punk band because we didn’t know how to play. I really got deep in recording when I was able to buy a bunch of gear after getting evicted in San Francisco during the first dotcom boom. I recorded a lot of bands in Oakland and a lot of my own stuff as well the first Chromatics EP, this band on Alternative Tentacles called Fleshies, and a slew of other experimental stuff. That was definitely the start of taking it more seriously. I had always been a record collector but living in San Francisco had changed my taste. I got into all this different stuff. In Oakland I started DJing a bit but was mostly just a collector of sounds, a deep selector. I built a very solid record collection and in 2003 sold it and all my music gear for $24,000 and went to live in Australia and New Zealand for a few years. I didn’t really start “DJing” again till about 2008 when I got back and Indra and I started a record/vintage clothes shop while living in Wisconsin. My record collection swelled to about 20,000 records – so much great stuff from buying up collections around the midwest. I think I only really became a “DJ” when I started my weekly radio show on Dublab in 2012. It's actually really given me a drive I guess, forcing me to find new music weekly and I've gotten much more in to actually "mixing" which I was never able to do very well. I'd always just try and find amazing tracks and let them play out all the way. I've always considered myself more of a selector and curator but can definitely rock a party when needed...
What is your creative process like?
Aaron Coyes: We just went through a big change in that department, actually taking a step back kind of. We've been writing the last couple records in the studio primarily so we decided to go back to just jamming it out. Our live set was so different from our recorded material that now we are trying to record like we play live – which is essentially jamming with a few parameters. We've almost always played that way live but started recently making songs in the studio and then flipping them at the live shows. Now they'll just be flipped recorded and live.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Aaron Coyes: They're kind of the same at this point, maybe composing and arranging are kind of in the overdub and editing world for us. The last couple of records were always a bit of a struggle to be honest. We'd write in the studio and then spend a year playing them live and adjusting them, flipping them to get something that resonated more with the audience. When we recorded our record 936 we had played that record out live for over a year before we recorded it. Improvising is when we work best together.
Do you like to produce alone or with others?
Aaron Coyes: I love working with other people in the studio, I just haven't been able to do it a lot over the last few years and have recently had the opportunity to start again. I just helped this amazing MPC-based punk band that sounds like Suicide meets The Cramps for dinner at Phil Spector’s house, it's great stuff that will probably be out soon, they're called Warm Drag. Hopefully more of those opportunities will present themselves!
What's your setup like at the moment? Analogue? Computer? Presets?
Aaron Coyes: 50/50. I mean live is mostly dubbing for me, I have the small 16-inch board I tour with and a larger 1978 Soundcraft Series II 16-inch 8mix for the studio. We track in Pro-tools but also use Ableton for sequencing a lot of synths/weird drum machines and homemade synths, I have a list of synths I'd love to get, but we can use anything. We also have an Otari Mtr12 tape machine we can hit for sounds and the synths are analogue, we don't really use soft synths that much, not opposed to using them just don't have any.
"I mean live is mostly dubbing for me!"
Do you have any advice about arrangements?
Aaron Coyes: In my own personal music I like the arrangements long and syrupy, slow and not tons of changes but with movement. Lots of weird sounds subtle changes and atmosphere, sneaky shit, density management, use less, don't try and sound like anyone else just try and sound like yourself...
Which of your Peaking Lights tracks are you most proud of?
Aaron Coyes: I think our last record was the culmination of a specific idea, like a closure of sorts. But to be honest, the stuff we're working on now is the most exciting. I think everyone says that. It's a fully different process, for the better. We're at this point where we just want to do what we want, like it or not, no worries! Trying to record the same way we play live, the tracks are coming out so much more heavy and super rhythmic with the dub elements being really strong. They're way more experimental.
What do you want to accomplish with the music you produce?
Aaron Coyes: I love it when people have a response to the music we make. To make people feel good, to make music I'll enjoy playing years down the line, to have people feel it. I love when we play and people come out to dance!
What kind of music would you make in a world without electricity?
Aaron Coyes: Use rocks and sticks, make some tubes to hit, homemade marimbas, coconut shells & palm fronds, very percussive with lots of chanting.
What general advice would you give to producers, DJs and musicians who are just starting out?
Aaron Coyes: Do your own thing your own way. Don't follow trends, don't worry about being the best and biggest, focus on being creative and your skill will follow, learn from the world around you, be conscious and respectful of others, don't be cocksure of your status, be humble, expect to fall and be prepared to get back up, all the while have fun and always love doing what you do. Recognize your insecurities and do the best to remove them from your being, treat yourself with kindness so that's how you treat others, don't take advantage of others, if someone asks you to manage you make sure you get a contract and are clear about their role, don't be afraid to fire people or be fired and always stick up for yourself ...Again, love what you do. This is some dad advice.
What are five words that would describe the Peaking Lights sound perfectly?
Aaron Coyes: Tune in and turn on
What do you personally consider to be the decisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Aaron Coyes: That's not come yet. We're still relatively young 40+ year olds.
"L.A. runs deep in a way. It offers this ability to travel in your own city and have so many experiences. It's like an endless discovery!"
Music-sharing sites and blogs, as well as a flood of releases in general, are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it?
Aaron Coyes: We're just able to be connected with so much more very quickly which is really cool. That's why DJ’s are so important right now, they are the curators of all this information, the ultimate algorithm! Pop music goes through its ups and downs but with music in general, there is always good stuff in every generation. People have to seek it out. We're at this ultimate information overload where the world is super connected with each other. With the exception of the US, which tends to be a bit more how should I say, xenophobic and inward looking... I think the capitalist approach to art is ultimately going to be the undoing of the US's hold on culture abroad some of the youth is connected here, but all over the world people are coming together now it seems. Like there is a “universal rhythm” developing and the US is trapped in this bubble, aside from a few thrill seekers. I’m really hoping this will change, I see the underground building right now.
How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences?
Aaron Coyes: It's all about money and advertising, literally pump money into it and it will grow. Find a wealthy investor and you can touch the moon. A lot of folks who make weird music already have a bit of a “fuck it and fuck you” attitude and don't give a shit about the mainstream audiences or falling in line with that way of capitalist life, so who's going to invest in it? I think at this point it's about spreading ideas to make that change. Bringing people together, the shamans dance! Already I'm noticing a huge change in art, the US has been falling off for quite some time artistically, there are pockets of it here and there but I personally think that other spots in the world are really blossoming. We'll see what happens in the future...
What exciting stuff do you have in the pipeline?
Aaron Coyes: We're working on a Peaking Lights EP for Dekmantel and something(s) for Music For Dreams in the coming future! I'm trying to DJ more so hopefully some tours up and coming. I do solo material under the name Image Club and have a single coming out in February/March. Also an old project with longtime collaborator Nate Archer called Leisure Connection has an EP in the works.
How does living in Los Angeles shape your sound?
Aaron Coyes: I grew up in the area, and was coming to this city in the early 90s for punk shows, my roots and family has been in LA since they immigrated here over 100 years ago or something like that, so LA runs deep in a way. We try and stay out of the “cool neighborhoods” which are essentially filled with the newly transplanted. LA is huge! For us we like being surrounded by the diversity. Our neighborhood has zero cool coffee shops, it's great! And we're just steps away from other neighborhoods with completely different vibes! I think LA offers this ability to travel in your own city and have so many experiences. There's so much different crazy stuff here. I played a really crazy show with Image Club the other night at this old drag bar out in the San Fernando Valley, the spot was amazing totally blew my mind... It's like an endless discovery!
"America is so f****** backwards, it's like it took the UK to "discover" Jimi Hendrix and Europe to "discover" Detroit techno and Chicago House because here we still believe that Elvis is the king of Rock 'n’ Roll, not Chuck Berry who is the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. We can't even see our own beauty until it has become whitewashed. I really want to believe is that it is changing."
Aaron, you once said in an interview, for you “Style wins over technical ability.” What makes up your style at the moment?
Aaron Coyes: Laying down some sick dubs ! And not knowing shit about technical ability...
Do you think style is easily faked?
Aaron Coyes: To some degree if you don't know how to see through the bullshit. A lot of people are fooled, but a lot see through it though... Major labels have been tricking people for years though, right? Trying to trick the population into trends or pick them up and see if they stick. I mean the whole EDM thing here in a way actually opened a lot of youth to electronic music, but it’s essentially a horrid whitewashed version of what black culture in the states has been doing with techno for years! America is so fucking backwards, it's like it took the UK to "discover" Jimi Hendrix and Europe to "discover" Detroit techno and Chicago House because here we still believe that Elvis is the king of Rock 'n’ Roll, not Chuck Berry who is the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. We can't even see our own beauty until it has become whitewashed. I really want to believe is that it is changing. There's more of a crossover here than there has been in years though, which is great. I've been playing electronic music for 20 years now – which is crazy to think of – and I feel like it is bigger than ever, people are getting way more into the underground stuff.
Was starting the label Two Flowers a decision to be in total control of your own releases
Aaron Coyes: We wanted to control our own releases and have an outlet to potentially help other people. We want to be a label that can help other musicians grow and become more successful. We're still building it up to be able to that eventually.
Do you think the status of a label, the name and catalogue they have built is important in order to get a certain perception and crowd in times where most labels use the same channels to promote music?
Aaron Coyes: Yes definitely, one of the reasons we took on doing our own label is to have the freedom to work with other labels as well. At this point if you're a musician I think that it's important to have some control over your own material. Even if you work with other labels make sure you retain a percentage on the mastering side. It's important to work with labels that can help promote your art. Let’s face it, a label is like a “brand” and people are really in to “brands” these days. It's a great creative exercise to work with a team of people bounce ideas around sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but it's all part of the learning experience of being an artist.
Do you think the period of buzz and interest around new albums has shrunk? And how does this change the way you want your music to be presented?
Aaron Coyes: That's a hard one, because I think that as an artist in the US we don't have any government funding it's all through capitalist means that an artist is able to survive which kind of sucks. When I've spoken to people who work in sync-licensing they say you have to have an album to really get music supervisors psyched, but then they are usually only pitching a few songs, so what's the point? Albums are a cool workout for an artist. But then friends with labels in the US and other countries I've talked with say they don't even bother worrying about full records anymore because they sell more singles. I think the rock world is still very much in need of the full length. Ultimately, we'll just will continue doing what we want and working with people we enjoy being around.
In general, do you think, “if it’s good it will eventually be heard” still has some truth and relevance in the 21st century?
Aaron Coyes: Yes. There are more diggers now than ever and the internet is a huge record store! And in the physical world it's mind-boggling how many reissues come out, It could be decades til amazing stuff that's being produced now is heard... Which is amazing itself!
How did you select the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Radio show?
Aaron Coyes: We wanted to take from a bunch of different periods and feelings also what's become our insane catalogue of remixes and solo excursions. I started out in the experimental electronic and noise world so there will be a bunch of that stuff, early experiments mixed with newer stuff, and maybe some practice tapes.
Are there any key albums from your adolescent or early years that you find yourself revisiting and enjoying in the current era?
Aaron Coyes: Funny you should mention this! Was just thinking about how I've been really embracing my past gothy and heavy tunes!
You are also deeply involved in LA’s finest Dublab radio. What are your feelings about the hype of web radio stations all around the globe. Is it too much? Or is it good that so many small cells can make some noise against the big wave of mainstream audio assaults?
Aaron Coyes: There is plenty of room for small radio stations online. I know however that corporate influence is taking hold of some of these stations which is a real bummer. Again it's that branding thing people are really in to branding and branded things right now... Eventually it will flip though.
You are located in Los Angeles What are your favorite spots and secrets in your hometown that you would recommend to somebody that comes around for a visit?
Aaron Coyes: Getting food in the San Gabriel Valley, warehouse and underground parties in LA. The beach (Malibu north), Verdugo Skatepark, the people and rich diversity in different neighborhoods is really the key. I try and find the old LA I knew in my youth which was always an adventure and filled with secret spots.
Peaking Lights discography