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'The World Is Absolute Nonsense': The Cosmic Quest Of Cate Le Bon

Cate Le Bon's fourth album, Crab Day, was released April 15. (Courtesy of Drag City)closemore
Cate Le Bon's fourth album, Crab Day, was released April 15. (Courtesy of Drag City)

On a recent March evening, the Welsh songwriter Cate Le Bon performed at the Masonic Lodge located within Los Angeles' Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the final resting place of Tinseltown's golden sons and daughters from yesteryear, from Cecil B. DeMille to Jayne Mansfield, musicians including Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, the gangster "Bugsy" Siegel and Terry, the beloved Cairn terrier who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Le Bon, who once noted that she'd toyed with naming her debut album Pet Deaths instead of Me Oh My back in 2009, might have been right at home.

Words like "haunting" have since become synonymous with Le Bon's angular tunes, which mention dirty attics and mithering ghosts. Le Bon has yet to see a ghost in real life, but she's "open-minded" about the possibility, especially given a recent brush with the great beyond. While recording her new album Crab Day last year at a recording studio in Stinson Beach, in Northern California, she had an encounter with a recently deceased friend in a dream. "We were in a bar, and we sat at a table and she hugged me. I remember the feeling of our cheeks touching. And then she went," Le Bon says. "I woke up with that bittersweet feeling that I had been with her again, and also remembering that she was no longer with us." She shudders slightly. "Strange stuff. I don't think I've had a dream like that before. I genuinely feel like I was visited by her."

FaceTiming from her parents' home in Cardiff, Wales, Le Bon says it wasn't so disquieting to see her friend back from the grave (though she notes that the Stinson Beach house is rumored to harbor other spectres). "She was a massive inspiration," she says. "A wonderful woman." Her friend's presence is absolutely felt on Crab Day — Le Bon's wonderful fourth album and first for the label Drag City. Something like the spirit of Le Bon's departed friend may very well hover over a song like "Yellow Blinds, Cream Shadows," where Le Bon notes: "I'm alive in your window." Coupled with bombastic instrumentals that feature both saxophone and xylophone, Crab Day listens like a celebration of her life, and life as a whole. "She'd write a song or she'd make a piece of writing and go, 'It's good isn't it?'" Le Bon recalls. "I had such admiration for that, the directness and the honesty and, well, why would you make something if you didn't think it was good? When she died there was this conscious effort to try and be a little bit more like that and try and manufacture the positivity if it wasn't there. Because I think it's important and nice to be able to stand by something that you and a hell of a lot of people have gotten together to make."

Le Bon's music is carefully concocted from both chaos and control. It's a combination that bred the akimbo psychedelic pop of Cyrk, her 2012 effort, and the slanted, enchanted rhythms of her last solo album, 2013's Mug Museum, where her vocals oscillated between funereal and festive sometimes in the same breath. But the way that Crab Day unfolded was odd, even by her standards. "I think this is the first record I've made that is completely, absolutely no inhibition whatever," she says. "When you can stand by something and go, 'well you know, it is what it is and it couldn't be any other way' ... it's strange." Crab Day certainly contains multitudes: Le Bon's guitar is as freewheeling as ever on the likes of "We Might Resolve," recalling the no-holds-barred ethos of Krautrock. The album's lovely "I Was Born on the Wrong Day" (which perhaps nods to the fact that she'd been accidentally celebrating her birthday on March 3 instead of the actual date, March 4, for years) is lysergic pop at its finest. But there's a more focused method this time around, especially in the tightened rhythm section of songs like "Find Me," an approach she says was partially informed by closely listening to old seven-inch punk singles. "She'll flip an idea upside down and look at it from a totally strange perspective. Which is her strongest point," says Tim Presley, a friend and collaborator who records under the name White Fence. "She comes out of Mars with ideas."

Née Cate Timothy, Le Bon (she says she drew her musical moniker from "a joke that went too far") grew up in the rural Carmarthenshire region of western Wales. An oft-told story goes that Le Bon's teenage world shifted when her father handed her a copy of Pavement's then-new album, Brighten the Corners, one day as an alternative to the music she and her classmates were listening to, such as Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Wales of Le Bon's formative years was a creative hotbed, with bands like Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci fast on the rise. "They were insanely creative, genuinely kind of bats*** at times, but were writing about politics and proper psychedelic s*** that had no anchor and was really beautiful," she recalls. "There was so much melody. And to be exposed to that from a young age has been instrumental in the scene in Wales, where there's no lucid sonic similarity between bands but kind of doing it for yourself."

Le Bon took a while to find her own sonic signature, but she had believers. In 2007, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys saw her perform live at several club nights in Wales, then swiftly asked her to open for him on his solo tour and eventually perform with his group Neon Neon. It evolved into a kind of mentorship when he produced her bare-bones first album, Me Oh My, in 2009. "He's uncompromising in his art and his creativity is boundless," she says of Rhys, adding: "He'd never offer guidance. If I asked him, he would kindly give his opinion." Next came 2012's spectacular Cyrk, a whimsical waltz of tinny pianos and eerie hums that found her tightening melancholy melodies into a signature style. She moved to Los Angeles to mold what would become Mug Museum, a sparse, spectacular opus that found her perfecting a singular kind of psychedelic pop. Perhaps she got too creative with the pre-orders for that 2013 record, though, when, on a ceramics kick several years ago, she sought to make a personalized mug for the first fifty pre-orders. One domestic territory mix-up later, Le Bon was tasked with making about 150 mugs. "It's like when your parents make you stop smoking and so they make you smoke and they make you smoke 10 packs of cigarettes," she laughs. "After that it was like, 'I don't ever want to do this again.'"

Around this time, Tim Presley and his band were asked to open for Le Bon in Los Angeles. "You get a lot of offers, and if you haven't heard of them you're skeptical," Presley says. "But [she] moved me immediately. You know when your brain takes to a certain music and it feels correct? That's what her music is to me. It can do no wrong to your mind and ears and body and soul." The pair didn't talk much that night, but they quickly formed a cosmic connection afterwards hinged on a rare, shared musical language. That first became apparent when Presley showed Le Bon several demos from a '70s cover album he was working on (and is still under wraps due to legal conflicts). "In a way I was expecting her to be like, 'Oh cool, I'll sing and play guitar on it.' [But] she completely rearranged it, and it was 10 million times better than what I had come up with. That's the first time I was like 'whoa,'" he recalls. "'You have an amazing brain!' She is really not afraid to come in and step up. We work well in that respect: I show her something, she can deconstruct it and then it's this cool collaboration."

It's led them to collaborate on a ramshackle project under the name Drinks, and Le Bon recently produced White Fence's as-yet-unreleased new album. But Crab Day's claws are firmly entwined in the Drinks era, when the pair was recording its debut, Hermits on Holiday, a free-form, punkified jazz album that drew out their strongest psychedelic inclinations. That experience proved to be invigorating for them both, and Le Bon wrote what would become Crab Day immediately after that. "We were just trying to make music that excited us both, and that made me remember that that's the only reason to make music," she says, noting that she had been feeling a "little jaded" after touring for Mug Museum for several months. "That [Drinks album] kind of reignited my love of writing and performing and also made me remember that you choose to do this. You don't have to do this. It's a choice to be a musician."

She toasts to that choice on Crab Day, which also introduces a formidable backing group comprised of producer and multi-instrumentalist Josiah Steinbrick (Devendra Banhart, Har Mar Superstar), Josh Klinghoffer (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; take that, dad), Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) and longtime collaborator Huw Evans (H. Hawkline), who recorded the album with Le Bon at Stinson Beach. Le Bon says Crab Day was the first time it felt like "our" record instead of hers, which is a testament to both the musicians' talents and how she articulates ideas. "With Cate, she's so confident in the people that she's chosen that and leaves space for us to do what everyone does best, but also never for a second loses her grip on her kind of idea or how exactly this very song on this very album is going to sound," Mozgawa says, noting that it felt almost like re-recording an album that had already been out in the world. "It kind of felt like, 'Oh wow,' she's accessing some memory that's so assured."

The Crab Day recording group has since evolved into BANANA, a "semi-improvisational, semi-experimental" group that Le Bon's brought on the road with her to give audiences an experience from the moment they walk through the doors until they leave into the night. The Crab Day run includes a whimsical, percussion-less improvised set from BANANA, an experimental short film she made with the visual artist Phil Collins in Berlin, curated synth scapes humming over the loudspeakers in between sets and then a full run-through of the new album, which sounds colossal live. Le Bon insists that the group, who all wear woven mohair hats onstage that make them resemble a group of runaway beekeepers, isn't inspired by Andy Warhol's infamous touring troupe that included The Velvet Underground, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (though they are called BANANA). Yet BANANA orbits the Velvets in that listening to them is like observing a series happy accidents, from a group of avant-garde superstars led by focused, freewheeling ringleader. You almost imagine that at some point, someone may have broken a glass and dragged a chair across some aluminum studio plates (as the Velvets infamously did on "European Son") just to see what kind of sound might answer back.

That call and response between the bizarre and beautiful is the core of Crab Day, whose title doubles as a made-up holiday in Le Bon-speak. It's reflective of her larger ethos, as well. "The world is absolute nonsense," she says, "And things can be important to you, but you should never expect them to be important to other people." Everything may be nonsense, but there's a sense of longing for a cohesive connection amidst the confusion; she "want[s] to makes sense with you," as she confesses in "I'm a Dirty Attic." Yet in between talk of coat hangers, crabs and cream shadows, Crab Day is Le Bon's most accessible album to date, probing fear, anxiety and the cognitive dissonance of weighty words such as "love," which she does on the woozy "Love Is Not Love." She says: "You can have this universal word everyone recognizes and you think can have a universal meaning, but it doesn't. It's polysomatic in a way. The spectrum of a word that is so powerful and the range is huge, and yet it's supposed to be this symbol."

That's not to say that Le Bon can't find the utility in a good symbol, though. The sea, universal and vast, is a constant well of wonder for Le Bon, who often croons about lunar tides or being adrift. "I was given a pair of binoculars for Christmas, which has enhanced my strange existence as a retired schoolteacher," she jokes. "I go and look at the ocean with my binoculars like a creep." She says she often thinks about fellow Welsh cohort Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's ditty about the ocean, "Only the Sea Makes Sense." The favorite song also served as a mantra that drove Crab Day, recorded by an ocean whose immensity "quietly mocked" her and her musical cohorts out on Stinson Beach. "We were making what seemed to us at the time the most important thing, then you look around and you see these spaces and things that have been there longer than you can even begin to fathom," she says. "It kind of puts everything into perspective in a really lovely, comforting way."

Copyright NPR 2016.

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