Saturday, March 12, 2016


BY HILARY HUGHES 8, 2016 | VILLAGE VOICE|  Photo Jill Greenberg

Go on, call me the one who's gone insane/Oh, I will be the one who's gone 

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe have just finished screaming into each other's faces. It's a rainy Tuesday night at the Gramercy Hotel's Rose Bar, and the singers are catching their breath before a wide-eyed crowd that witnessed the pair howling over the din of the band behind them. Wolfe and Laessig — who together provide the singular voice of indie-pop quintet Lucius — are used to sharing a microphone. In the studio, they stand face to face while singing into the same one, eyebrows arching and lips curling in unison as they work their way through a verse. Onstage, that mirror image extends to include their respective stations — mics, keyboards, drums — situated a few feet apart. A single dynamic microphone serves as a magnet here, as it does in the studio, but it's a boundary as well: If they leave their perches to convene during the set, it marks a line they approach but don't cross.

With the carbon-copy swirls of blood orange updos, kohl-painted eyes, and resplendent gold capes flecked with metallic sequins and fringe, Wolfe and Laessig seem less like identical twins than a conjoined pair from another planet. And just like siblings, they have their...moments. The fury that unfurled at Rose Bar — a reenactment of a real fight between them in the studio, now immortalized in song — was the climax of "Gone Insane," a track off their forthcoming record, Good Grief, out March 11; it's one of five from the album that they're performing for the first time before a live audience on this dreary January evening. "Gone Insane" is a runaway train of a skirmish, set to music: Laessig and Wolfe seethe at each other before their voices split off from the same melody and spiral up into two merciless, sparring tornadoes: You can't call me the one who's gone insane/'Cause we know you're the one who's gone insane. On their own, the lyrics of the chorus would be familiar to anyone who's received a blow below the belt (or thrown one), but the sound of these two women whipping each other with their vocal cords feels especially ferocious. Lucius fans are used to seeing Laessig and Wolfe as two halves of the same whole, weathering the dips and swells of brutal ballads or buoyant pop. They are not accustomed to Laessig and Wolfe turning on each other, their words serving as ammo in a battle of volume and verses.
The recording of "Gone Insane" is even more frightening in its viciousness. Onstage, the song still roars, but it remains relatively contained. There's an art to controlling the emotional chaos, and Lucius — which includes Peter Lalish, Andrew Burri, and Dan Molad (also Wolfe's husband) in various arrangements of drums and guitar — have mastered it just in time for Good Grief's live debut. Of the two hundred people jammed into the confines of the Rose Bar, only a handful have heard it in its entirety. Some of them murmur their approval of the band's choice to keep "Gone Insane" relatively civil in a live setting — while raising knowing eyebrows over how far the record's most daring song really goes. "Well," someone whispers to the person standing next to them, "they adapted that for the live show just perfectly."

Lucius did, in fact, adapt "Gone Insane" perfectly. The furious color eventually retreated from Laessig's and Wolfe's cheeks; their eyeliner didn't even run this time. But "Gone Insane" is merely a glimpse of the tempestuous power of Good Grief and the might of this new Lucius, who left New York to make it — and returned to the city a band transformed.

Lucius haven't seen a crowd as small as the Rose Bar's since their earliest gigs in New York, back when Wolfe and Laessig moved to Brooklyn together in 2007. They'd started collaborating as students at Boston's Berklee College of Music after moving there from the San Fernando Valley and Cleveland, respectively; their songwriting duo gradually expanded to the current quintet, with Burri's addition in the spring of 2012 rounding out the lineup as we now know it. They hadn't yet released a full-length album by the time, the following January, that they taped a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR showcasing five songs from their 2011 EP, Wildewoman, a study in catchy, complex pop. Later that month they sold out the Mercury Lounge, which can pack 250 people into its skinny bar and backroom, on the strength of those tracks and the endorsement of NPR's Bob Boilen.

From there Lucius went on to finish up their first LP, also titled Wildewoman; they hit the festival circuit months before its October 2013 release, with stops at South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, and the Wilco-curated Solid Sound preceding a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom that December. Laessig and Wolfe cut their hair into bobs so closely matched that they were frequently complimented on their new "wigs." ("I can't tell you how many times people have tried to touch our heads to see if they're fake," Wolfe notes with a giggle.) The tours grew longer and reached farther the following year, as did the list of high-profile appearances: "Turn It Around" became the soundtrack for a Samsung commercial, and the band earned glowing reviews for performances at Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and Newport Folk. By the time they returned to New York in December 2014, they were headlining a sold-out night at the 3,000-capacity Terminal 5. It was a meteoric rise. But a flame needs air to burn, and in Brooklyn, Lucius found themselves running out of oxygen.

"Just coming back from tour and being away for literally two and a half years, it started to feel really heavy," says Wolfe. Two days after the Rose Bar performance, she and Laessig are sitting at the Farm on Adderley, a favorite restaurant in Ditmas Park. "We wanted to feel like we could have a real respite, and [New York] stopped feeling like that. This was home for a long time. I still consider it our hometown in many ways. Our baby was sort of birthed here."

They're wearing their hair in matching jellyroll styles and sporting twin capes again, steely gray over cerulean dresses that offset the stark red of their locks. They had stayed at the Gramercy the night of the Good Grief preview performance, but now they're stopping by their old haunts, pointing out the spot across the street where Laessig used to work and gushing over the Sycamore, the flower shop–bar hybrid owned by their friends next door.

"The last year and a half we toured, we were home a nonconsecutive thirteen days," says Laessig. "Ditmas Park is special, because it does feel more restful than other places in New York, but New York in general is sensory overload. We were just like, 'Give me space!' and that's what Los Angeles did."

Los Angeles is home now, or at least it is for Laessig, Wolfe, and Molad (Burri and Lalish still live in New York when they aren't on the road). For Wolfe, who grew up in an L.A. suburb, this is a return, though that doesn't diminish the significance of ditching New York. "It was really difficult to make that decision to leave, but I think it was time for some change," she says. "So we thought, 'Let's just pick up, move across the country, and see how it goes.' "

"We drove from New York to California in the van," Laessig adds. "It was like, 'The last thing I want to do is tour anymore! I'm at the end of the rope!' We were like, 'Well, let's just drive across the country. That'll be relaxing.' It actually was."

My heart's so heavy, I'm gonna need your help/Losing my grip while holding everything else.

The route Lucius traveled from Brooklyn to Los Angeles resounds throughout Good Grief, which they started writing here and finished out west. "Madness," Good Grief's opener, was written in Ditmas; urban intensity echoes in its extravagant orchestrations and blunt-force severity ("I had a dream where you were standing there with a gun up to my head" are the first words we hear on the album). The verses of the closing track, "Dusty Trails," took shape in the Joshua Tree before the band drove north to L.A., and that stretch of desert is present in its ambling acoustic guitar and Laessig and Wolfe's cloud-climbing vocals. You hear concrete, chain link, and laughter in crowded bars on the tracks that were written in New York; you hear lonely dawn drives, swaying palms, and wide-open spaces on those penned in California. This is what makes Good Grief a true (and rare) bicoastal record.

Laessig and Wolfe love to locate Good Grief's songs geographically: where they were written, the structural details of homes where the group stayed (the New Haven brownstone, the Long Island beach cottage, the Echo Park bungalow). A hilltop house made of reclaimed materials in L.A.'s Montecito Heights stands out as a favorite landmark, the place that provided the respite they'd left New York to find. The property, which Wolfe refers to as "the Mountain," is a popular retreat for musicians: The Head and the Heart worked on their forthcoming record there before Lucius moved in, and Jim James, My Morning Jacket's frontman and the house's current tenant, followed them after they moved out. (Meat Yard and Psycho Pomp, the two prehistoric-looking, kale-munching turtles that also reside on the Mountain, would have some pretty good stories if they could talk.) With views that sweep from the Pacific to downtown's neon bustle and up over Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood sign, the Mountain was the perfect location for Lucius to feel removed from the sprawl of their new city as they finished up writing Good Grief and began arranging and recording it.


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