Leveling the model playing fields of the future with Leverage Models

Model citizens — Leverage Models' Shannon Fields & Alena Spanger. (photographed by Shervin Lainez)

Model citizens — Leverage Models' Shannon Fields & Alena Spanger. (photographed by Shervin Lainez)

Cutting through the chaos and craziness of our current era is the emergence of Leverage Models' long awaited follow-up to their 2013 album debut. The core group of Alena Spanger and Shannon Fields cast conventional approaches to the music craft to the wind while grappling with the weirdness of our worlds and the unrest at work in our own lives with a creative form of constructive catharsis. The result is a genuine and earnest labor of love full-length titled Whites that ponders how our world has arrived at the mess we're in, the state of our fractured unions, the repercussions of our civil and social behaviors, how we cope with the PTSD triggered from the headline feeds and ultimately how we deal personally in our day-to-day lives.

Yet somehow amid our universal anxiety attacks, Leverage Models send us a sense of hope. You can hear the uplifting sentiment rising from the subterranean sewer synth catacombs on "Day One", shining beyond the derelict farce of the so-called dutiful classes in the situation rooms of "A Scout's Prayer (What a Man Knows)", to questioning the abilities and long-term effects of our craft with "Dark Pools (Music Will Not Save Us)". Aspects of economic crises are recalled on the nu-pop theatrics of "When the Money's Gone", questions of permanence and the temporal on the inquisitive electro-exhibitions of "If I Let You Stay", to the ballad of the seemingly powerless and so-called ordinary folks on "Very Small People", alongside the sinewy intimate civics lessons that find Fields and Spanger duetting and dueling with "Senators". Narratives of traumas and their life-lasting affects sing out on the piano pointed rhythms of "A Life Around Terrified Animals", to frank thoughts on the ode to fitness and the fittest titled "Your Healthiest Friends", right before closing the electric opera house curtain with "Runners" that finds Alena, Shannon and company setting off all their entrancing, expressive aesthetic fireworks that they have saved for the album’s grand finale. Leverage Models out of nearly nowhere brought the album we never thought we would get during volatile times that we never thought we would witness in our lifetimes.

Shannon Fields took the time to generously share some expansive reflections on the processes and perspectives behind Leverage Models’ latest works and more:

The formation and realization of the establishment of Leverage Models:

The road that lead to starting Leverage Models becoming what it is now was a long, more or less blind one. I never trained to be a musician and didn’t plan to be one. I was an angry, pedantic, moralizing kid (I grew up in a family of evangelists and that, alongside some childhood trauma I don't need to get into certainly had something to do with it) and even then I thought it was a little bit narcissistic, unrealistic and maybe morally irresponsible to put your time and energy into standing on stage vogue-ing for a living. I wanted to write. I wanted to be an academic (I romanticized it in ways I’m embarrassed about now). But I was always in bands that played house shows etc. when I was a teenager. For the same reasons most teenagers do it; escape, attention, emotional release, empowerment, because many of my heroes were musicians. As Neil Tennant put it in Pet Shop Boys, anyone who's ever opened up a closing door — those were my role models. Being in a band was a way to own your ugliness, own your marginalization, turn conventional and emotional weakness into a choice and a strength. When I moved to Brooklyn I kept making music on an 8-track recorder in my studio apartment because I didn’t know what else to do with myself outside of struggling to pay rent and couldn’t afford to go out and do much else. I was going through a rough patch and found myself immersed in some very abstract music, which felt less emotionally manipulative and so a little bit safer for me at the time (i.e., I was somewhat less likely to break down in tears or fly into a rage in the middle of a 30 minute sine-tone drone piece).

I’ll spare you the stories printed elsewhere, but two albums that I made at home under the name Stars Like Fleas started to pick up some buzz in the artier corners of the music world. I started a live version of the band (with somewhere between 8 and 30 people onstage given the night) that, even though it was probably one of the most inconsistent, strange, unlikeable, confusing bands in NY at the time (all qualities, by the way, that I’m proud of), it just got carried so far by the headwind of all this global excitement about Brooklyn music and art in the 2000’s. Even though I know that more often than not we alienated crowds over and over, we just kept getting asked to play bigger and bigger shows. We came up playing shows with Grizzly Bear, Akron/Family, Dirty Projectors, Man Man, Gang Gang Dance, Excepter, Beirut, Deerhoof, until we were headlining big museum shows, touring European art-music festivals and things like that, and then it just collapsed in on itself. We did a lot that I’m proud of (Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, even once came up to me and told me she saw us at a loft party in Montreal when she was in high school). And so many amazing talents came out of the band and have gone on to make incredible music (Sam Amidon, Jon Natchez, Shelley Burgon, Laura Ortman, Ryan Sawyer, Matt Lavelle, Shayna Dulberger, Ryan Smith) But it was emotionally exhausting, terrifying (we never knew what was going to happen onstage) and ended up being a band that had the worst qualities of any dysfunctional/abusive family.It couldn't have continued.

My wife and I left and moved far upstate NY and started a horse-breeding farm (her lifelong passion). I didn’t know what to do with myself but since I was free of being in a large band (where I couldn’t write or record a thing without going through endless rounds of dialog with other people), I just started making music quickly and intuitively, and without any plan other than to have fun and reclaim some kind of childish sense of play in making something. I don’t think I had much of that in my actual childhood and I needed it then. I shared some of these songs with my friends and former record label people and they flipped out and convinced me to make and release the first two cassette EPs and that was the beginning of Leverage Models. I gave myself a few creative constraints with Leverage Models in the beginning, one of which was that everything was fair game, but that the songs had to be completed quickly, they had to be melodic, I couldn’t spend more than a day or two inside my head with them, interfering with my subconscious too much. I also gave myself permission to be ridiculous, I allowed for the playfulness to take me into some pretty silly places. There is a lot of silliness on the first second tapes. I’ve always played little games with myself when I create, not so much to spark ideas, but to trip them up and yield unexpected results.

There’s more behind that approach then just a therapeutic one. With a little bit of talent and a few cheap, basic tools; almost anyone has the means now to make very slick, professional sound-a-likes of almost any kind of music that happens to be hyped. So if the main driver behind your music is to be seen, heard, hyped and adored and you know what KIND of music you want to make, than you’re probably going to do that and do it pretty well. You'll find an online audience quickly and you'll do well in the process of submitting tracks to bloggers. Even if there’s personal honesty in your work and in your disposition, the subconscious pressures are enormous to clone exactly what’s passing across your screen this week. Because you want that attention for yourself. And most people do. And as a result I hear and see a lot of very well produced, exciting, glossy (or low-fi or sloppy in only the most palatable and calculated ways), sexy music that all blurs together in a parade of sameness. As if most musicians have become sound-alike composers. Another way of looking at it is that pop music isn't meant to be original, that it's a folk form, like the blues. And that's okay. If you are okay with the disposability and utility of pop music as such (and I truly don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that) then godspeed. But I find it easy to lose myself in that gauzy cloud of indistinguishable jewelry. I don’t want to be drawn in by that adoration-chasing energy that just planes everything into polished manageable chunks of sound. The real truth is — and I don’t want this to be true — but maybe I have this very modernist, historically very male and certainly very American need to be seen and heard as a completely unique, idiosyncratic voice in whatever I do. There’s a negative side to that impulse. But, kept-in-check, I hope that it’s not all dark? So back to the creative process, and these games; I usually go playing little games with myself and my band that are designed to subvert whatever common sense tells us to do in any given moment. Often I'll make very incoherent, messy, dense, unfocused work in the early stages (and some would argue, even in the final product). But when it works, at the very least, it takes me into new worlds with their own physical properties, their own logic. When you know exactly what you want from the beginning, plot it out, execute and deliver on it, you get exactly what you expect. Which, if your vision is something that a lot of people connect with and you're a genius, is a recipe for success and for possibly great work. And it's super efficient. And, to me, horribly boring. What can you learn about yourself or the musicians around you in the process? When do you allow for surprise and wonder? When do you allow the possibility that you are wrong? When I don’t know where I’m going to land, then I land somewhere I never expected. And I get results from the musicians I work with, by letting them be themselves but helping them to get out of their heads, that surprise them too. And they, in turn, do the same for me because I’m not telling them what to do (and I often choose people to work with who I know are not going to have the same intuition as me). And if you’re very lucky, you land somewhere nobody has ever quite been before, at least not by that route. And it’s magical. And it prevents you from putting your priorities in what I consider the secondary concerns (the perfect snare drum sound, a streamlined chorus, a hit).

Alena Spanger and Shannon Field all tied up; photographed by Shervin Lainez.

Alena Spanger and Shannon Field all tied up; photographed by Shervin Lainez.

Short History of live performance:

After making the first two tapes I wasn’t sure I wanted to perform them. Or even continue on with the experiment. I thought maybe it had just been a bit of fun and an emotional palette-cleansing for my life. It was my old friend Ryan Sawyer who pushed me to perform. He put together a show at Union Pool that I couldn’t say no to and asked me to debut it there. My friend Jeff, who had played percussion on both tapes, helped me assemble and rehearse a live band. Shortly after that, my friend Anthony LaMarca (who ran the now dormant Primary Records) put me in touch with Max (drums) and Rob (bass) from JOBS, who were planning a five week tour with another band called In One Wind. They offered to be my backing band if I came along on tour and helped set up the tour (having been my own DIY booking agent my whole life, I had some contacts). I couldn’t afford to pay a band and decide to go ahead, even though I had no idea how to really perform this material, let alone with just bass and drums. Inspired by John Maus and countless young rappers (who I’d seen just perform over the top of their songs playing from an iPod and sell it on electricity and blood alone) I embarked on this five week tour that I came to dub the ‘Five Week Karaoke Parade of Shame & Humiliation’. I created a kind of ghost band. I ran saxophone stems to a little amp in the middle of the room, guitar solos from laptop to a guitar amp. Some shows were in clubs but a lot of them were just in gallery spaces and living rooms/basements, for a handful of people. So it really was like karaoke. In One Wind were this very organic, very dynamic band of conservatory students that played music with gorgeous harmonies, metric complexity, long improvisational passages and were very earnest and lovely. They could bring a room to silence and tears in record time. Nobody knew who Leverage Models was so they’d come for In One Wind and have to watch this 80s-riffing, completely synthetic, pop train wreck of karaoke show. And I knew what it was. And it was hard to do that very night. In a sense, it was the punkest, most confrontational thing I could have done. I couldn’t really sing, I didn’t play anything onstage. I just pressed play and writhed around on the floor, sang through auto-tune, shouted, went on long winding rants, knocked things over. In retrospect, that first tour was more of a performance art project for the purpose of reconnecting to music and finding a new way in. I figuratively (and close-to literally) ripped myself to pieces every night in an effort to connect. I left everything on stage (at least when there were stages at all) and ended up making numerous visits to walk-in clinics. I made every night life-or-death. I know the shows must have been largely terrible, musically speaking, but it did win many people over and two great things came out of it. I learned how to perform as a front-person and created an onstage identity that could both connect with people in a completely present way, and protect me (by taking me out of myself). And secondly, I made a life-long bond with Max and Rob, who then brought in Dave (guitarist, also from JOBS).

From there we put together a proper band, played a lot in NYC, toured up and down the east-coast and Midwest for a year or two, and put out the debut LP. Shortly after the LP came out, we were playing with Escort and the “Sweep” single had just been released (a duet with Sharon Van Etten). I wanted to play the song but Sharon wasn’t in town. I’ve spoken about this elsewhere, but Dave introduced me to Alena, whose voice and presence immediately grabbed me. When I saw her perform with her own band, (the now defunct) Tiny Hazard, I knew we were kindred spirits. She would wail like an early Elizabeth Fraser, hum and coo and vocalize like Meredith Monk…it was dizzying and hit all my buttons. I asked her to sing Sharon’s parts with us at Music Hall of Williamsburg and we decided to have her do the whole set. From the first rehearsal on she was just in the band. Nobody questioned it. It was special. It was a challenging setting for any singer (a band with two and sometimes three drummers, hyperactive synth arrangements, electric guitars). Those arrangements didn’t give her a lot of room to maneuver or to shine, but she knew how to carve out a space in all of the chaos of the live set, she knew how to outline my voice in ways that made it far more compelling, and she forced me to begin singing a bit differently. I’ve learned a lot from her, even just from listening to her handle the material, and I think we’ve both pushed each other out of our comfort zones in the right ways. So from there it’s just grown into a fully collaborative relationship and we both write to try to serve the voices. We’re still figuring out how to do that honestly, and she doesn’t feature on Whites nearly as much as she does on the music we’re working on now, but her presence does really alter the genetic makeup of these songs in exciting ways and it wouldn't be the same record without her (or as good).

Notable points and insights on the creative process and approaches to production:

I guess I’ve touched on this already, but if we have any guiding principles at all, they have to do with removing calculated gestures, default responses, really the ego, from the writing process. This goes for lyrics as well. While lyrics are very important to me, and I agonized over the lyrics on Whites (we finished the music in a couple months…I spent another 9 months on re-writing lyrics over and over). But when I write lyrics, as when I write music, most of the time it happens in a very modular way. A musical cell here or there will wander across different songs and sketches looking for a home. A couple of lines here or there that are looking for context. With lyrics I lean on my group as well — Alena, Andrew, and Dave are all brilliant lyricists in their own and their feedback is just enough outside thought from the right people. Some days I'll sit at a guitar or piano and write. And Alena primarily works that way. But often I sit down and play with material like play-dough, without thinking too much, just seeing what happens when I reform this shape into a more oblong mass, or add a new texture to this shape. It feels like finding the songs and finding the stories, rather than creating. I know this is a very common feeling for other artists and I just think it’s the best metaphor to describe a process that's very meditative and not too self-reflective at the time of making. It’s about working intuitively and relinquishing your plans and control so that you can find something within you that surprises you. It's a kind of emotional archeology sometimes. Alena works the same way, just at the piano and we can both take a very long time to find what a song wants to be from the time we begin working on it. Collaborating with other musicians works best for me when the other musician feels comfortable enough to throw a wrench in your gears and make you see the song in an entirely different way. This happens all the time between Alena and I, but also the rest of the band. And when I produce for other artists I've found a lot of the hurdle is getting them to stop talking, questioning and saying no and allowing themselves the freedom to play. Max had been touring a lot and barely participated in the writing or recording of Whites until it was almost finished. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t really connecting to what was then a very airless and synthetic world, and wanted to pull the record apart. Adding drums at the end of a process is completely backwards. And that’s what we did. I booked a day at a studio in Brooklyn and let him show me how he heard the material, song by song. And it changed everything. To take a more or less finished product and submit it to another person, in that fragile state, to question everything you’ve done, is hard. And not something I would advise other people to do. But I do it all the time! [laughs] You have to really trust the person, have a bond with them and already know that there is deep mutual respect and musical understanding. I didn’t use everything we recorded, and I didn’t accept every idea. But everything he threw out did change how I understood each song, and did affect my final mixing choices. Those relationships can hurt and they’re hard to manage, but they’re incredibly important to me. Which is why the band is not a collection of side musicians, but very much a small collective of friends who participate as a creative workshop to help realize Leverage Models ideas. As a producer I try to both initiate ideas, provide parameters, and give it final shape.

As for the nuts and bolts of production go, I produce the music and the process is usually like this....I sketch out material (usually instrumental with a nonsense vocal standing in because of my difficulty with lyrics), co-writing to some degree with Alena or others in the band. I may take just a percussion track from Jeff and build something on top of that, or just a vocal sketch from Alena. I may at this stage re-record basics live with the band — if so I will usually do this at the Isokon in Woodstock, with D. James Goodwin (‘Dan’, who I’ve worked with on every Leverage Models recording from the beginning). With Dan we’ll record everything in a really pristine way but also run a large number of auxiliary mics using very unorthodox mic-ing techniques and equipment (e.g., capsules in tomato cans or trashcans suspended in the air, boundary mics, analog triggers, old soviet broadcasting microphones, spring reverbs triggered by drum pressure….one of Dan’s favorite techniques is to mic the room with binaural microphones in a pair of latex ears mounted on a mannequin head). We’ll push auxiliary channels through old toy speakers, or the pre-amp on a broken consumer-grade tape machine, etc. When we mix Dan will do a lot of the same, sending channels out to odd analog gears, re-amping channels, etc. As with how I work when I write, when we mix and record we’re still just trying to maintain a sense of play that enables us to find something new (which you don’t do that when you’re frantically racing against the clock just to record and mix properly). It’s not hard to make things sound good. But to give each sound a particular sense of space and life and not drown your mix in the distractions, that’s a delicate balance and not easy to achieve.

Oh, but then sometimes I also like to drown my songs in distractions. Even if the mix doesn’t work in a conventional sense. Sometimes I want to kind of erase the distinction between background and foreground and let the mind exist in a state of free-fall for the first listen or two before it acclimates to this new order. I love music that does that to me, where I really don’t know exactly what I’m hearing, what kind of music it is, how I feel about it at first. This is NOT a recipe for success in the attention/click-economy that drives how most music bloggers and play-listers audition and write about music. But that’s just another homogenizing force on music that privileges only a certain type of very immediate music and we’ve just chosen to try to ignore that and make music that excites us, even if what doesn’t reward most people immediately & doesn't result in tons of exposure and press from ear-fatigued and email-bombed journalists.

Leverage Models wrapped in plastic; Shervin Lainez.

Leverage Models wrapped in plastic; Shervin Lainez.

The groundwork, foundations, inceptions and more that informed and inspired Whites:

God, I’m not really sure how to answer these questions. The first thing I’ll do is to refer you back to that Passion Of The Weiss phone interview I did, where I talked quite a bit about this. In that interview, and also in the press releases, I talked a bit about the history of this record. It was made in 2015. We toured it in 2015 and early 2016 too and the live response was incredible. It was the first, what I’d call mature, version of the band — the first time I felt like okay, this is what Leverage Models is. Just as I let songs evolve and show me what they want to be when I write them, I’d spent all this time thinking that Leverage Models wasn’t quite there yet, wasn’t quite working, hadn’t quite fully found itself, but I was excited to just let it find that identity through writing and performing with the other members of the band. Even when I write alone, each member of the band is like the hand on the planchette of an Ouija board…none of us pushing it by design, but all moving it closer to something that feels magical and unplanned. Anyway, finishing Whites and performing it, I felt like okay, this WORKS…this is something special, this is about more than just me and my little quirks and obsessions. And then everything just hit a wall. Hometapes was going to put it out but then, for reasons you’d have to ask them about, found they couldn’t do (and in fact disbanded the label shortly after). I played it for a few other labels. Lots of people were impressed with it but I couldn't find anyone who quite knew what to do with it. Nobody felt it quite fit (because, well, I'm not sure it fits with anything...it's always considered too X for Y, too this for that, stuck in a strange in-between genre). And the fear is that there is no audience. At the same time the election was happening and my personal life and my emotional life were all crumbling a bit. Well, a lot. And…it was my fault, I just withdrew. Our last show was in May of 2016 at Good Room. A practically sold-out show in the main room with an amazing supporting bill. Everything felt infinite. I should have been energized. But I collapsed. I just broke down for some reason, and I stopped. I didn’t plan to stop booking shows but it just got harder to face. And the longer it went the harder it got. I tried to write but I hated everything I made (when you hate yourself it's hard not to). What was happening politically in the world made me feel so small and inconsequential and music felt inconsequential and frivolous. And I couldn’t punch through those emotions creatively. They crushed my creativity and they crushed my self-confidence and they crushed me. I feel weak saying that. And I was weak. What I did in my time away I’ll keep to myself. But a lot of it had to do with tearing myself down and then slowly rebuilding and healing from some very bad things that happened to me a long time ago. Whatever. The more I was able to fix that, the more I could STOP seeing myself and my own feelings in everything and start facing the truly crushing headlines every day and the realities underneath. But without being steamrolled by it all. I allowed myself to be convinced by others that the album was worth hearing. And when I took another listen, after two years, everything on the album felt more meaningful, and more relevant to now. Not musically — I know it sits outside of what’s relevant in this or that chart right now — but it felt like it had something to say about now. It feels like it feels to go outside right now. It feels like it feels to talk to people who don’t agree with me right now. It feels like it feels to lie sleepless in bed with fear and racing thoughts about the country and my friends and family and the future. It feels like it feels to see the history of social justice rolled back in a few years and so many people trampled and to have to face the fact that it’s driven by more than just some abstract concept of evil, but by the people I grew up around, live around now and who are — like me — neither good nor bad. Not many people would choose to listen to a record that feels like that. But some people also just hear it as an eccentric pop record. Which is great! Things feel overwhelmingly bad right now. It feels like we won’t recover. There’s a line in “When The Money’s Gone” that goes it seems like we’ll sing anything, if the melody’s good [&] you can live in the beat….but it’s hard to rhyme about ‘secret renditions’ or ‘the final days of an American culture war that will almost certainly take us down. And that’s how it feels…like I don’t know how to turn this into a cute, pithy, relate-able pop song. And I don't think I want to. I don’t know how we can go on championing and encouraging cheap aspirational narratives about guns and gold and WINNING in the face of this. We don't need more winners. We need losers to take over and refuse to let the winners win. We don't need saviors who got out and made piles of money and inspire us to do the same. We need communities of average people making their communities better for average people who are okay being average people. Complicated, ugly, messy, not rich, not godlike, not giving us answers. I understand those songs start as empowerment anthems for the marginalized, for the victims of white supremacy and unchecked capitalism; but those songs have been appropriated by white supremacy and unchecked capitalism and now we’re all singing the same songs and they feel like they’re just accelerating everything that is taking us down. You know, I'm just afraid. The album comes out of that. And music won’t fix anything. Sometimes it helps other people get through the day and feel less alone. Which is good. But a small, good thing (to borrow the Raymond Carver line) is about the best it can do. And that’s all we’re trying to do. It may sound unambitious, but I’m done with ambition. Ambition kills. Ambition's collateral damage isn’t acceptable to me anymore.

Leverage Models' album Whites is available now from Anachronisme.