Imagine. You’re stood at a warehouse party in some scuzzy, hyper-future manifestation of Berlin, surrounded by grungy, glamorous models clad in all-black. Sinister, tinkering synths tickle the hair on your arms, while rigid, pounding drums shake the walls, and a pure sonic boom of a voice pummels your gut, working its way through the entirety of your body, until you feel like your heart’s going to give out. Welcome to the sound of Brooklyn-based duo, Light Asylum.
Hearing the previous musical output of the band’s two members, however, you’d be hard pressed to work out how such a dark, visceral sound rose from the breezy ashes of two fundamentally lighthearted acts. Singer, Shannon Funchess, whose real-life persona is far more gentle than her intimidating glare in Light Asylum’s videos suggests, tells me that, before forming the band, she was, “purely being silly and having fun.” Besides some slightly more serious backing vocals on an early TV On The Radio EP, that statement means wearing mullet wigs, tie-dye hammer pants, and performing Lil’ Kim covers as one half of The Pumpstette & Derriere, an 80’s-tinged booty-bass rap project. Meanwhile, Bruno Coviello, the man heading up the other half of production duties, was singing and playing synth in Bruno & The Dreamies, an ethereal pop band with a markedly sombre sound, more reminiscent of a Cranberries-esque purr than the dramatic roar of Light Asylum.
That unlikely fusing of tastes perhaps explains why Light Asylum’s sound is such a tricky one to pin down, owing as much to blissed-out, synth-driven pop as it does to Black Flag, DRI and a shared love of early darkwave bands, like Bauhaus and Joy Division. Shannon, reminiscing about how that sound came to being, tells me; “We ended up on tour together, stuck in this little minivan for 30 days straight, and got chatting about how much we both loved all this post-punk, darkwave stuff, like Siouxie And The Banshees and Clan of Xymox, so decided we should jam together.” However, Shannon’s position as a touring backing singer for dance-punk band, !!! meant that their jam had to wait a couple of years, until 2009, when Shannon took a summer off from touring and finally had some spare time on her hands.
“We were both making pretty similar music around that time. Down-tempo stuff, mostly,” Shannon explains to me as she recalls the summer where it all started. “My stuff was really dark and his was really dreamy, which I suppose it still is when we write together, but I’d attribute the poppy element to both of us.” Shannon obviously hits a nerve of her own here, because before I can throw another question her way, she quickly asserts something that has clearly bothered her in past write-ups of the band. “A lot of people get this twisted, but Bruno is not my producer. We divide writing and production 50/50. If you were to split us apart and listen to our stuff separately, it would sound nothing like Light Asylum.”
I linger on that sound—that mammoth, towering sound—because, despite learning the two bonded over darkwave, a genre I’d be tempted to classify Light Asylum as, if I enjoyed making lazy, half-hearted classifications, something still doesn’t add up. Darkwave, to me, never quite has the unleashed, overt ferocity that comes through in Light Asylum’s music. Shannon agrees; “Punk was huge for me, growing up. I went to a ton of punk shows and dance clubs as a teenager, and the performers I always loved the most were the ones who got lost in what they were doing and really let you know how much they loved the music, rather than just standing there and screaming.” After punk, Shannon’s next live music experience was Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration tour in 1988. Now I get it.
New York is another undeniable inspiration for the band, unsurprising considering it’s the city where both members live. Shannon agrees. “I don’t think you can separate music from the environment it was created in, and I feel like New York’s pounding, dirty, industrial thing comes through in our songs as much as any musical influences.” With a sigh, she continues, “New York is too clean now, though, and I think our new record might reflect that. It’s too clean-sounding, and I want to get back to the dirt with our next one.”
Of course, Shannon has her opinion, but maybe unbeknownst to her, is that it’s precisely that—the perfect balance of dirty brashness and clean, harmonious melody—that makes Light Asylum so special.
Words: Jamie Clifton
Photo: Jason Rodgers