Reborn From the Flames: How Charlie Looker Brought New Life to Extra Life
“Living in the past is so depressing to me,” says Extra Life vocalist, guitarist and composer Charlie Looker. He’s on a Zoom call from his current home in Los Angeles, where he relocated from his longtime stomping grounds in New York City a few years ago. He’s referring to his misgivings about the returns of bands that played a formative part in his own development as a virtuoso of eclectic musical weirdness, such as Faith No More and Godflesh.
“It’s not even that most reunion things suck, because actually some of these reunions might even be good,” he explains. “But I just don’t check them out even if my friends tell me they’re good.”
Despite his ambivalence about veteran bands striving to recapture their glory days, Looker found himself in 2022 resurrecting Extra Life, the group he originally formed in 2007 to play compositions that combined eerie chamber pop melodies, metallic grooves, math rock rhythms, liturgical polyphony and caustic lyrics. For Secular Works, Part 2, a reunion album explicitly positioned as a sequel to the group’s debut, Secular Works, Looker needed to pull together a new lineup that would pick up the mantle.
The result is an impressive ensemble that features original member Caley Monahon-Ward on violin/viola, Belgian drummer Gil Chevigné of Helium Horse Fly and—most notably for the readers of this Toilet-themed blog—Kayo Dot main man Toby Driver on bass. Trumpeter Nate Wooley and hornist Michael Atkinson also put in appearances to help bring Looker’s pieces to life in all their overwhelming sonic richness and forlorn majesty.
“One of the things that bothered me about early Extra Life, or something that just nagged me, is that people say it’s musicians’ music; all your fans are musicians,” Looker says. “I was like, man, I want to branch out. So, I’ve embraced that more. But one of the things that’s so sick about making musicians’ music is that it’s easy to find people who want to play with you. You know, it’s not easy to find people this awesome to play with you, so I don’t take that for granted.”
By its nature, this new project obligated Looker to reckon with his feelings about the previous incarnation of the group. After all, Extra Life came to a halt in 2012 following the release of their third full-length album, Dream Seeds when the frontman chose to refocus his energies on the somewhat more straightforward industrial/goth metal he wrote and performed with Psalm Zero.
Reflecting on that decision, Looker says, “When I broke [Extra Life] up, quote unquote. It was kind of like splitting with Nick [Podgurski, former drummer,] and Caley as musicians and as a lineup, But it was really more than that. It was splitting with a whole bunch of aesthetics and aesthetic….you could say aesthetic baggage, or you could say a rich aesthetic foundation, whatever. But I was sort of cutting off what Extra Life had been and starting this new thing.”
However, Looker had plenty of opportunity to reconsider his creative trajectory around the time that Psalm Zero’s 2020 tour with Kayo Dot, in support of third full-length Sparta, was cut short by you-know-what.
“Right before leaving for that Psalm Zero tour that got truncated, I just started writing some stuff that I figured would be the next Psalm Zero record,” Looker recounts. “It was the intro stuff from ‘Diagonal Power,’ the horn thing. And I was doing it on keyboard and imagining it with two metal guitars. But then I’m like no, actually, this should be horns, and then it just becomes not as metallic. The guitar tone I’m picturing isn’t that. And then I’m thinking I wanna do more complex vocal-type stuff and the piece starts to come together, and I’m like, where do I remember this from? What influence am I drawing from? And then I’m just like, ‘Bro, so, this is kind of Extra Life-y.’”
Accepting this latest turn in his songwriting required Looker to adjust to the idea that his musical past was not dead and not even past. But he ultimately dived into the Extra Life resurrection by creating a series of songs that explored the myriad possibilities of the style he’d previously left behind. Befitting the band’s genre-bending nature, he took a fluid approach to composition and recording that saw him adapting various methods to suit each song.
For the melodic, string-heavy prog of “The Play of Tooth and Claw” and the sardonic pressure-cooker “We Are Not the Same,” he followed a traditional rock band approach, originating the tunes on guitar and then welcoming his collaborators to develop their own parts. On the other hand, he maintained far tighter control of “What is Carved,” notating the composition down to every drum hit to develop the off-kilter, industrial-inflected, at times Tool-like rhythms that drive the song. On the existentially fraught closer “How to Die,” he went solo, contributing overdubs to swell majestically and add an air of impending doom that periodically overtakes and shoves aside a main acoustic guitar line that recalls the Johnny Cash version of “Hurt.”
As a gestalt, the final product is an often challenging but uniformly engaging record that touches on the whole spectrum of elements that made Extra Life unique. Looker paid close attention to the overall structure of the album, thinking of the ways Metallica’s classic albums ebbed and flowed with their opening crescendos and varied tempos. But as the composer reclaimed the sounds that he’d once purposefully strayed away from, he needed to confront his sense that for many of his most ardent supporters, none of his later records had ever quite measured up to the standard set by the very first Extra Life full-length.
“The idea that Secular Works, Volume One which is now the retronym for Secular Works, is the best thing that I’ve ever done is a horrifying, toxic idea for me,” he says. “Your best work’s behind you. You’ve committed to a life as an artist till the day you die. You peaked at 28. Now you’re old. Your shit’s fine, but you’re never gonna top that.”
Looker sees a self-deprecating humor in taking on those doubts head-on, presenting new work in a way that will intentionally draw comparisons with former glory days. But one aspect he wanted to approach differently was the lyrics. On the latest album, he eschews much of the highly specific personal psychodrama as well as the political musings that have preoccupied him in the past.
“I think some of the baggage I wanted to get rid of when I broke up [Extra Life] was this total navel-gazing kind of thing of it just being about me; I mean there’s a narcissism to it,” Looker explains. “I just wanted it to be more about music and spirituality, and, really, I wanted to have fewer lyrics on a quantity level. But also, I think a lot of what I love most about Extra Life was just the music, the power of the music and less the sort of inward looking kind of thing. Also being older, man, I’m just not as fucked up as I thought I was.”
“I wanted to just disappear into the music a little bit, and I mean a lot of the record, it’s about exit,” he continues. “There’s the sense of removal from, I guess I’ll say, politics, but when you say politics now it doesn’t actually mean politics. It means like you are in the world and relating to the meaning of what you think and these implications. I wanted to step away from even that.”
Looker was particularly inspired by an idea from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze of “becoming imperceptible,” a concept of escaping one’s own subjectivity by evading the perception of others and even oneself. For the composer, this concept of a slipperiness that allows the individual to break away from ideology and state apparatus set the stage for a focus on alchemical, mystical creativity. He explains his interest in the Greek messenger god Hermes and particularly the hermetic tradition of mysticism— referenced in his lyrics for the epic, heavy prog tune “Diagonal Power”— in terms of a shift in his own outlook:
“I think in the past my whole vibe with alchemy is like you turn lead into gold, you take the darkest, most vile aspects of life, and who you are, and you turn it into gold by going deeper into it and transmuting it. So I think a lot of Extra Life—and some stuff in the meantime, too, throughout [2018 solo album] Simple Answers and Psalm Zero—was trying to go to the darkest shit that was in my psyche. But now when I think about Hermes and I think about the hermetic tradition and alchemy in general, I do think more about dodging shit: going into hell like the psychopomp and emerging reborn from the flames.”
Another thing Looker chose to handle differently than he has in the past was the actual release of the album. Rather than working with an outside record company, he self-released through his own Last Things label, and he didn’t enlist a publicist to get attention. Instead, he relied on the audience he’s built up over years of recording music, touring, streaming videos and recording podcasts, presenting just one song as a preview to the listening public as a taste of what to expect when they purchased a digital copy or pre-ordered a double LP.
“It seemed like releasing it in a weird way would be the most appropriate way for people to hear about it, you know, for it to just suddenly be there,” he says. “So, we got the mastered version of it, and I just released it the next day.”
So now that Looker has wrestled with his past and emerged with a compelling new work that gazes back without turning into a pillar of salt, what’s the next step? More Extra Life activity, it appears, with the frontman putting together a touring lineup to hit the road and starting to look forward to a follow-up album.
“I’m pumped because this isn’t a one off,” Looker says. “Extra Life is now what I do.”
Extra Life’s Secular Works Vol. 2 is available now for download and for preorder on vinyl.