Freak Dream: punk by other means—an interview with Elliot Langford

    1 of 5 2 of 5

       Elliot Langford has had some bad luck with past bands. The SSRIs, the band he was in from 2006 to 2012, were marked by a tragic death that nearly ended them. “In 2008, our drummer at the time, and a good friend of mine, Tommy Milburn, died after falling through a skylight on a restaurant's roof,” Langford explains to the Straight. “He was 20 years old, and I had actually been hanging out with him earlier that evening. There's no big reason ‘why’ he was on that roof, he was just goofing around with another friend after a few drinks, being a kid, climbing on a roof for fun. Falling through the skylight was, I take it, just a random mistake.”

      For a young band, the SSRIs were doing pretty well when the tragic accident happened. “We were starting to get some people other than just our friends coming out to our shows, and I feel like it was a band people liked, we were playing good local shows in Vancouver. We had done well in CITR's Shindig! competition and released some demos. But we were in our early twenties, and we were still just figuring out how to be a band, and we had never toured yet.”

      The SSRIs weren’t ended by the accident—a close friend, Tony Dallas, stepped in to play drums, and they recorded an LP, 2010’s giddily ambitious Effeminate Godzilla-Sized Wind Chimes, and embarked on their first cross-Canada tour. They finally called it quits in 2012, with Elliot moving on to take up the bass for the remarkable, much-missed Vancouver punk band the Rebel Spell—who, a few gigs with guest vocalists aside, were ended in 2015 when Todd Serious, their singer, died in a climbing accident.

      By the time of the September 2016 Rebels Sing gig—where the Rickshaw Theatre was filled with friends and fans of Serious, who performed versions of Serious’s songs in tribute to him—Langford had a new band, a project that he was excited to be fronting: Freak Dream. They played that night, with Langford offering a savage, industrialized reading of the Rebel Spell’s “Pride and Prejudice”, that was one of the evening’s standouts. But even then, you could tell from the jagged, piercing qualities of Freak Dream that Langford would be moving beyond the boundaries of punk rock as a genre.

      With only a short while before a West Coast tour—kicking off May 1 at the Red Gate—and a relatively new album, Into the Sun, out on Artoffact Records, Langford took time to answer a few questions from the Straight about the SSRIs, the Rebel Spell, and Freak Dream.

      Was any aspect of having to cope with Tommy’s death in the SSRIs useful or applicable in soldiering on after the Rebel Spell?

      When Todd from the Rebel Spell died, it was so fucked, it was so similar: he also died falling from a height because of an unfortunate mistake. I was out of town at the time and heard the news because my bandmate Erin called me, and amongst all the weird awful feelings that hit me immediately, I do also remember thinking "Okay, here we go again." I remembered the months of grief that had happened after Tommy's death, and similarly after Todd's death it was the same thing. Just dozens of friends of his destroyed by the sadness of it. So I guess the experience of having already gone through something similar made it like, I was a bit more prepared to deal with it. I was 22 when Tommy died and had never experienced the death of a close friend before, and I think of his death as like the real end of a phase of my youth. I was older when Todd died, and Todd being older it was also more complicated. He was in his 40s and had known more people, done more things, and was also almost a micro-celebrity: he was a singer and lyricist many looked up to, including many people that didn't know him personally. And sometimes those people would come to me to share their grief about his passing, which was at times strange or hard to deal with. 

      Is there any sort of influence on Freak Dream from your having played with the Rebel Spell? The music still has a punk side—“Billions” is pretty hardcore—but overall Freak Dream seems more industrial. Do you still identify as a punk, or with punk politics?

       I think the album is a punk album. Punk is important to me, even if I don't play in a band that plays a traditional style of punk. Punk's politics and culture have influenced my life greatly. But musically, my tastes are very broad and I'm musically ambitious and interested in a lot of sounds outside of the traditional sound of punk. It's cool that playing punk rock is accessible to anyone who teaches themself how to play a few power chords but, like... I went to school for jazz guitar for four years and I play piano as well as guitar. I loved playing in the Rebel Spell but for me, artistically, I feel like trying to form a traditional punk band would be inauthentic. But if the right group of people came together, I'd be happy to play more straight-ahead punk someday. 

      There are songs about the doomy state of the planet and a song about gender and the patriarchy that are political. “Billions” is a song about overpopulation and feeling like the idea of bringing another person into the world is maybe madness. I am a fan of political punk lyrics, but they are tricky to write without being preachy. Overall the lyrical theme on the album is the struggle to stay positive on a personal level when you look around and see a world with so many problems, I mean, from Donald Trump's presidency to articles about how we're past the point of return of global warming... it's hard to stay positive! 

      The album is so musically intense, though, that I don't want to be preaching at people, because it would be a lot to take in. 

      Where does the band name come from? 

      There's a Trent Reznor quote about how he came up with Nine Inch Nails: “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to think of band names, but usually you think you have a great one and you look at it the next day and it’s stupid. I had about 200 of those. Nine Inch Nails lasted the two-week test, looked great in print, and could be abbreviated easily.”

      I had been using the name "El Fanglord" for the project (a pseudonym based on my real name) but I didn't like that and didn't want my name in the project's name. I wanted the project to be unabashedly weird and extreme so I liked the idea of having the word "Freak" in it, to let people know what they were in for! So I was like Freak _____, I thought of calling it Freak Nails in tribute to Nine Inch Nails, actually, but my friend Hailey suggested Freak Dream and right away I was like "Hmm there's something to that" and seeing the words together, they are both five-letter words with "rea" in the middle, which seemed like it would lend itself nicely to logos and designs... it passed the two-week test!

      Also, after having been in a band called "SSRIs" which people were always getting wrong or finding hard to remember, and a band called "Sprïng" which was impossible to search on the Internet, I wanted to be somewhat pragmatic about a band name: easy to remember, easy to say to someone at a loud venue, and searchable. So the reasons for the name are maybe a bit boring and pragmatic but having been in bands where every time you tell the name you have to give a long-winded explanation for it... that gets old fast!

      You were in a band named for a pharmaceutical for people with mental-health issues, and now you are in a band that makes horrifyingly "disturbed" rock videos—and it makes me wonder if there is any particular interest in mental health or mental illness?

      "SSRIs" was not my band name, but I remember discussing it with my bandmate Jo at the time. We had both had the experience of having a period where we felt depressed and I remember going to a doctor and after a few questions she was writing a prescription for anti-depressants. I never ended up taking them, but remember being surprised at how easily they were prescribed. I'm not anti-medicine, but in my case, I'm just surprised the doctor didn't suggest I exercise more or sleep better or drink less or something.

      Aside from that I suppose I'm interested in my own mental health being good, as well as that of my friends, family, community et cetera and I'm empathetic to anyone's struggles. But I don't have a particular in-depth interest in it past that. 

      There seems to be a real interest in video with Freak Dream, because very few local bands that I have seen put this much work into their videos. I thought the video for “Don’t Wanna to Be That” was remarkable and terrifying and a really great use of resources.  So where is that coming from? Is video useful as a calling card for getting signed? What are (if I may ask) the budgets for your videos?

      It is obviously easier and cheaper to create high-quality photos, audio, and video than ever before. Let's say a band has a few thousand dollars they can invest somehow. Should they spend that money trying to get out of town to play gigs in neighbouring major cities? Or should they use that money to make Internet content (pictures/videos)? I think it's a question worth asking and the answer may depend on the band/artist: some are maybe still better served melting faces with a killer live show. But maybe others could get more heads turned investing that money in videos.

      There are bands and artists these days that focus on building up a following on YouTube or Instagram and then once that following is strong THEN they go on tour. That was't really an option before, unless I guess someone was rich and had the budget to produce a TV-quality music video.

      So many bands and artists complain these days about the fact that no-one buys recorded music anymore and that downloads don't pay anything, et cetera, and while I share those frustrations at times, I am also inspired by artists that are taking advantage of the fact that you can distribute your content globally and instantly these days, and the only thing really holding you back is the quality of your art/c ontent and your own imagination/ creativity.

      For instance, I'm a fan of this band Knower. It's a duo and they're both really talented jazz-trained musicians making synth-pop based music. Take this video for example:

      It's clearly low-budget and using simple props and beginner-level computer animation, but I found it totally engaging (and in the case of this video, sort of hilarious.) They've become a pretty well-known band in a certain scene (they opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers for some gigs even!) and it's all because they're really talented musicians and were creative and smart about low-budget DIY video content.

      For Freak Dream the videos have been useful in booking gigs, and also in getting people that wouldn't necessarily come out to a show to check out our band. It's a way of turning heads I suppose. I have also found that with weird music, sometimes it seems to make sense of it for people if there's a video element too. Years ago SSRIs had a video for our song "Clay Face Meat Boots" and I felt like some people who maybe wouldn't have liked the song on its own, liked it with the video.

      Visuals can help add a narrative that can make weird music easier follow, I suppose... for instance, how many people first got into Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring" because it's the music in the dinosaur sequence of Disney's Fantasia?

      Plus the “Bash Hop” video was fun to make. I hired my friend Alex (she plays guitar in Alien Boys) to shoot and edit the video. She had just graduated from film school and was keen to do something fun and weird, and so she gave me a friend rate, and I bought food and drinks for everyone else involved in the video. So the budget was very small. 

      Artoffact was interested in signing us because we had already invested our own resources into making videos and touring and they could see we were working hard, not expecting a free handout. The association with them has been useful for us as a proof of legitimacy and an association with other bands on their label.

      Do you ever use video in your stage show? (Haven’t seen you live since Rebels Sing, and there was no video then, but I don't know if things have changed...). 

      Things have changed a lot since Rebels Sing! That was our first gig and we were playing as a five-piece. I liked that configuration, but trying to co-ordinate the schedules of five people was hard, and given that they were playing music I had written and it wasn't collaborative and I couldn't afford to pay them really anything, I felt like I was twisting my friends' arms into doing the project somewhat. We are now playing as a two-piece, live guitar, drums and vocals, and there are synth and bass tracks that come from a laptop. For the last year and a half, we have also been incorporating visuals. Ryan Gambles, our drummer, works in design, and has been doing projected visuals for our sets for the past while using a video synthesizer called VSynth. I don't really understand it but... it looks cool! You can see some examples on his Instagram page.

      The "Bash Hop" video is one hell of a thing - what is the history there - the concept, the execution, the costuming, the... meaning? 

      It's (maybe obviously?) inspired by a scene in the movie The Fifth Element with this blue opera singer alien. I didn't start writing the song with that idea, but once I'd finished the song, the "diva"-esque vocals in the middle reminded me of it.

      I mentioned the idea to Alex and she was up for it and wrote a more in-depth treatment about it. There are screens the alien is singing to, showing news footage of atrocities and there's no-one in the theatre, so it's kind of apocalyptic. The lyrics of the song are about being bombarded constantly with horrible news from around the world to the point where you kind of feel numb and hopeless to it all, while at the same time also being bombarded by so much distracting fictional media which kind of desensitizes you to information in general. So I guess that's the world and vibe we were trying to create, don't know if I wanna speak too much more directly about "the meaning" other than that because hopefully between the music/lyrics/video some of that stuff speaks for itself or can be open to interpretation.

      Also the video was a lot of fun to shoot, we shot it at the Red Gate Revue Stage at Granville Island and had a fun evening hanging out drinking Hey Y'alls wearing these crazy costumes, so it's funny... I have a hard time watching it and not thinking about the fun day we had behind the scenes.

      Where did the cross-dressing aspect of the video come from? How have gender non-conformists responded to the video? (Have any of your videos drawn negative attention?).

      There has not been any negative reaction to it as far as I know, or at least no one has said anything to me. I don't personally feel like a super gender conformist, but I do present as a cis straight dude, I guess. I think part of me presenting that way has just been that it's been easier to get through life that way. I was bullied as a kid for being kind of femme-y, so I started dressing/acting more like a typical boy, and now I'm trying to figure out how much I'm a typical guy and how much there might be parts of me/ my gender expression that I repressed because of that. I also recognize that I benefit from being able to pass as a totally normal straight guy. I have dated queer people and am more interested in queer culture than in normal-hetero-straight culture, but am hesitant to call myself queer because I don't wanna take that word from others that need it more. I am definitely interested in the conversations going on in culture about gender and am in full support of unconventional gender expression, and I'm interested in Freak Dream incorporating that more in the future. I would love to have a budget for crazy clothes and make-up but it's just something I'm starting to learn about, I guess, and also sometimes at shows I get shy about it. In any case, I really hope in the video it didn't come off as some kind of offensive cross-dressing.

      The actual verse of "Bash Hop" was reminding me of something, and I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I realized: '80s U2. But in a good way. How did you end up creating a song with such striking contrasts? Was it originally two different songs?

      I really enjoy musical contrast, which I guess is unfortunate in a way, because in this streaming-playlist era we're in currently, people are always searching for things that stay more static. Anyhow, no, I think “Bash Hop” was always one song because the title literally refers to the first part alternating between a Bash-y noise part and a hip-hop kind of part. The idea was to do that alternating part, have a middle section that was like a ballad, and then go back to the first part. It's a pretty simple song. The U2 comparison makes sense, it's kind of atmospheric in that way. And the Edge is a guitar player that uses a lot of pedals, he's maybe even the sort of first guitar player that got really well known for these big sort of delay and reverb textures, so anytime you do that sort of thing one could make that association. I don't mind U2, and I think their musical formula, where the bass and drums are sort of standard, but the guitar is doing these big textural soundscape things overtop is kind of neat. I had a Greatest Hits of U2 CD in high school. They're one of those bands that so omnipresent and part of the cultural canon that you kind of can't help but know about them and be influenced by them, but it's not a band I have actively listened to in years. 

      What is your history with industrial music?

      For me, my biggest influence and obsession as far as industrial music has been Nine Inch Nails. When I was 14 I happened to buy a CD of The Downward Spiral at a garage sale. It was the heaviest and most electronic music I had been exposed to. Previously I was into pretty straight-ahead rock: the Beatles, the Who, Green Day... Nine Inch Nails was a whole different sound-world. I didn't even understand how the synthesizers and samplers were producing many of the sounds but I was intrigued. Trent Reznor remains an inspiration for his interesting sound design. 

      I'm more influenced by electronic music in general than "industrial", I think. I got into going to electronic music shows and dancing in my 20s, and drum 'n' bass/jungle. I've delved pretty deep into this producer from Winnipeg, Venetian Snares, who makes break-core (really fast dense drum-and-bass influenced music).

      Bands like HEALTH and Melt Banana that use weird un-typical-rock-sounds but are still rock bands are another big influence, though those bands are more noise-rock than industrial. I like strange noisy sounds, and I like noise, texture, timbre and rhythm being at times more important than melody or harmony.

      Are other members of the band, and their influences, relevant to the shape of the sound? Any credits I should be aware of? 

      So far on Freak Dream's recordings, I have played or programmed almost everything, except for drum tracks and my friend Ridley Bishop played bass clarinet on a few songs. So most of it has been me and my influences.

      Is this getting airplay in clubs? Is that an aspiration?I could see "Do U Now" getting people dancing... Not moshing...

       "Do U Now" is a bit of a tip-of-the-hat to Prince, it even starts the same as his song "Housequake". Prince is a major influence for me as a musician. I don't think any DJs are playing it at clubs, though, but that would be cool. The way I make music in this band is more like an electronic music producer than a rock band, i.e. I sit at a laptop and program and record stuff, rather than getting together at a jam space with my buddies. Maybe in the future we'll go in an even more electronic direction, so things might sound clubby, but I think it'll probably still be too weird for most clubs and DJs, ha ha.

      Anything else that needs saying about the album, the gig, or the tour? 

      Our upcoming gig is at Red Gate Arts Society which is a special place for me. I work there doing sound at shows sometimes, and I really love the space and people so much. It's so nice to play at a space that is first and foremost about music and art and community, rather than at a typical bar or club. There are a few of these spaces in Vancouver now that are very active and they're treasures.

      We're playing with a noise-rock band called Henchman, from France, which is exciting. They just toured from Winnipeg to Vancouver so I'm interested to hear how their tour was and what their impression of Western Canada was. It's also exciting for us because we toured Europe in 2018 and are hoping to go back soon, so making some new European friends will be cool.

      The tour is the last tour we're squeezing in before our visas expire. As a band in Vancouver, the best major cities to play nearby are the ones down the West Coast of the U.S., but it's a giant hassle to get across the border, and to do it legally is a really irritating and costly process. Anyhow, we did get visas and are trying to start making a name for ourselves there, so if anyone has friends in those cities, tell them to come out to the shows! We are also playing in Tijuana which is exciting for me, because I've never played a gig in Mexico before!

      I guess one other thing I have to pump is we're playing Terminus Festival in Calgary in July which seems like it should be a really cool festival, it's a lot of industrial and postpunk and gothy stuff.

      Freak Dream’s tour dates for May:

      MAY 12 - EUGENE, OR @ LUCKEY’S