“We’re the first and only for a lot of things on Projekt,” says Ryan Lum, the multi-instrumentalist and driving force behind Love Spirals Downwards, darkwave label Projekt Record’s top-selling act. Lum is sipping on a soda in a RadioSpy conference room and choosing his words carefully. He’s speaking of his band’s use of saxophone riffs on a song from its latest release, Temporal, a career retrospective that includes a number of unreleased tracks. Lum was concerned that Sam Rosenthal, Projekt Record’s sometimes finicky founder, might be less than enthusiastic about the sax track. Rosenthal, himself the leader of a Projekt band, Modernist goths Black Tape for a Blue Girl, is not a person Lum is anxious to displease and hasn’t been entirely happy with the evolution of LSD’s sound. Try as we might, neither Lum nor I can think of another Projekt band that has ever used a saxophone on one of its songs.
The riffs are a bit jarring to hear on an album by a band that built its reputation on Lum’s gorgeously gauzy, almost formless instrumental vignettes and Suzanne Perry’s soaring vocals. But then, the Los Angeles-based band’s unexpected transition from ethereal bliss pop to electronica in the late ’90s was, for some, stunning enough to prepare them for anything the band might do.
As sumptuously comfortable as LSD’s early work may have been, neither the band nor its label, a stubbornly independent outfit that Rosenthal started as a way to distribute cassettes of his solo music, has ever resisted change wholeheartedly.
“[Rosenthal] actually made a positive comment about the saxophone. He said, ‘You know, it fits somehow,” recounts Anji Bee, Ryan’s self-described “partner-in-crime” and recent collaborator on everything from album art to vocals. Lum’s experimentation — with his sound and with the band’s direction — initially met with grudging acceptance from Rosenthal, who eventually warmed to the band’s new sound.
“It’s not his cup of tea,” Lum says of Rosenthal’s reaction to the band’s shift in sound from “shoegazer,” the ethereal style of feedback- and synth-drenched pop defined by British bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and the Cocteau Twins, to drum ‘n’ bass. “But we more or less have artistic freedom to do as we please. I guess being the top seller on the label doesn’t hurt us in that,” Lum says with a chuckle.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that both band and label are willing to adapt themselves to the ever-shifting dynamic of the musical marketplace, stylistically and commercially. Since he formed LSD in 1991, Lum has demonstrated a consistent willingness to embrace change within the group and the innumerable contexts in which they work — style being the most apparent of these but the emergence of the digital music marketplace running close on its heels.
“That’s something I’ve thought a lot about recently, and I’m not sure what to conclude,” Lum says contemplatively. “Check back in five years and see what’s up,” he says with a wry chuckle, knowing full well that five years is an eternity in Internet time.
But Lum, who works for a multimedia company that builds Web pages for major-market radio stations, is fully aware of the Internet’s potential to expand his band’s fan base and the need for independent musicians to move fast in order to capture an audience in the overcrowded digital music arena. On that front, LSD is already moving at light speed.
“Our site, Lovespirals.com, is a great source of information, and we update the news frequently, the guest book and all that stuff. You can buy our stuff, and you can check out audio from all of our albums. And we’re going through and updating that, album by album. Right now, from the latest album, Temporal, [the site has] some really nice, high-quality audio that you can hear, even on a 56k modem stream. It’s much better than the RealAudio that we, or most people, have had in the past. That’s one thing that I’ve always hated about Internet audio: You spend a year and a half to make this great album, put all this money and time and love into it, and you want to show people on the Internet. And it’s just these crappy samples.”
“It’s like bad AM radio,” adds Bee, who handles a lot of the day-to-day work on the Love Spirals Downwards Web site — answering fan mail, fulfilling orders from their store and administrating their forums.
“Yeah, it’s horrible,” Lum agrees. “But now, I can put something up and say, ‘Yeah. This is it. Check it out. In stereo even. It sounds great.'”
And for Lum, the rapid improvement of streaming audio quality has brightened the already blinding future of digital music distribution.
“I’m glad now, finally, that broadband is coming, so we can pump more bandwidth to people. But even now, the technology of encoding audio for the Internet has vastly improved over, say, two years ago. I think you’re going to see a lot this year with audio, like with RadioSpy and all is a great example of how the Internet is finally ready for audio — or audio is ready for the Internet. So now’s the time.”
Perhaps due to the Internet’s ever-increasing reach, LSD’s Web presence enables them not only to stay in touch with their fans (“You don’t have to print up a dumb newsletter or anything like that. You just put it up on the Web. It’s right there; you can give them way more than you ever could in a newsletter,” Lum explains) but has also helped them cement a fan base around the globe.
“It’s kind of interesting to see which regions seem to especially enjoy Love Spirals Downwards because you see a lot of [e-mail] from Spain and Italy,” Bee ponders. “It seems like they really like them over there. And of course, there are so many people in Mexico that are just in love with them. They write every week: ‘Please come play again! We miss you!'”
This solid support has, in turn, given the band a way to convincingly make their case for stylistic freedom. Fan enthusiasm for the group’s work, past and present, made Projekt Records demonstrably more willing to trust Lum’s artistic inclinations.
“I guess, as we proved with Flux, even though we made an album that’s so different from anything else on the label, people didn’t complain. [Rosenthal] though that people were going to say that Projekt [a label that typically markets itself to the goth and industrial community] or someone sold out, and none of that came out. So I guess he thought it was cool. He got a little paranoid at first, but mellowed out.”
Mellow seems to suit Lum just fine. While he has recently embraced the sometimes frenetic style of drum ‘n’ bass, electronica’s most energetic and quickly mutating sub-genre, he strives to maintain the thoroughly gentle and vibrantly warm ambience that made Love Spirals Downwards darlings of the dark electronic underground. This effort shines through in his appearances as a DJ (which have replaced LSD concerts as live exhibitions of his music) at the Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif. clubs where he regularly spins his own brand of drum ‘n’ bass.
“Most drum ‘n’ bass I don’t like, actually,” he explains. “A lot of it sounds like crazy machines gone nuts, and I’m into the more smooth atmospheric and jazzy drum ‘n’ bass. So yeah, it fits in perfectly with my sound. I guess that’s been the common theme with my [work], an atmospheric sound, and drum ‘n’ bass took the atmospheric sound that I like and just went to town with it — on the atmospheric side of drum ‘n’ bass. It’s rare that you see a whole genre of music that’s dedicated to atmosphere. And when I found that years back, it was like, ‘Yes! Right on! I can do this.'”
The transition from shoegazer goth-pop to drum ‘n’ bass unfolds more smoothly before the ear than the eye, a point that Temporal illustrates brilliantly. While technically a “greatest hits” album, Temporal takes on the not-so-obvious task of charting the band’s shift in sound. When heard one after another, LSD’s early, more ambient songs almost beg for the band’s current embrace of intelligent dance music.
“The only thing that’s different with my music is some of the sounds and maybe a little bit of the style,” he agrees. “But the vibe is still the same, meaning that it still comes from the same place. It’s still atmospheric music; it’s just done a little differently. Some [musicians], I think, consciously try to shock people and make a whole new kind of album. I’m not that radical. It’s still the same ‘pretty’ music.”
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