The original idea seemed simple enough: put together an interactive album release party that would showcase the psychedelic spontaneity of experimental DIY sextet LONER and involve a variety of Atlanta artists. Yet what emerged from the mind of frontperson Joshua Loner was anything but easy and straightforward.
Two months of relentless planning and collaboration have blossomed into Celesthesia, an intergalactic noir gala starring a veritable treasure trove of local musicians, artists, and personalities. Dotte Comm stars in the lead role alongside MonteQarlo, Carter Sutherland, Drake Hamilton, Shane Dedman (Shae Edman), Leo Heikkila, Maggy Roolz, Chris O Mcgrath, and Kiwan Benson.
As if the cast wasn’t impressive enough, Loner was also able to wrangle some of the wildest pop acts from Atlanta and beyond to perform, including the aforementioned MonteQarlo, Brooklyn art-pop sensation Oshwa, and synthpop stalwart Sequoyah Murray.
It’s rare for a DIY stage production to reach this level of complexity, and it’s even stranger that Loner and company seem to be pulling it off which such panache. Despite their crazy schedule, vocalists Loner and Edman took some time off from organizing the show to stop by the Immersive office and discuss the planning of Celesthesia, the band’s new album In the Tides of Time, and the evolution of Ben Horne in Twin Peaks (no spoilers).
Celesthesia has expanded way beyond a simple album release show. Has it morphed into something bigger than you imagined?
Shae: Originally, we were just going to do it on a rooftop. But now it’s turned into a brainchild.
Joshua: Yeah, we were going to do it on top of Eyedrum, but then a touring band hit me up and I set a deadline. Then I saw the new Guardians of the Galaxy at the drive-in, and it really hit me with bright colors and crazy alien plants. It was like overdrive sci-fi where you don’t have to explain anything because it’s all sensory overload — it’s pulpy, and that’s kind of what I wanted. From there we got Lex Miniel and Diamond Walker involved to work on the comics and they just dove in. Then we went to Shanisia for the poster, who did really well. We modeled it after some ’70s space opera sci-fi — like Star Wars is the classic example, but also Foundation by Isaac Asimov is one of my favorites. So it was a very grand scale production, but I’ve always liked murder mysteries and I wanted to integrate that in, because at the same time I’ve been binge-watching Twin Peaks.
Shae: And also the Flaming Lips.
Joshua: Yeah, they were blowing up all these inflatables and these huge light curtains and confetti. It was pretty expensive when put together, but still DIY. So I realized that if I started doing something theatrical now, I’d start to accumulate all these stupid props we made. And also, I have a tendency to overwork myself.
How long ago did you have the initial idea?
Shae: Two months ago, Josh called me when I was at an artist residency in Greece, and Josh called me and said, “I have this crazy idea.” And I was like, “I can’t do anything, I’m out of the country.”
Joshua: Pretty much. Monte[Qarlo] and I were originally bouncing ideas back and forth after I booked him on the show. We thought we could convert the release into a gala, and then I wanted a detective who was omniscient. So then we got Dotte involved, who plays the lead, and she’s just a really high-energy person who is really good at improvising and dropping one-liners. We don’t want it to be too rehearsed — it’s still going to be slightly shitty, but very endearing because it’s just a bunch of friends working on this instead of some high budget thing.
Shae: With pantyhose and googly eyes.
Without giving too much away, what can the audience expect from Celesthesia?
Shae: For their entire evening to be otherworldly.
Joshua: Not knowing who is an audience member and who is an actor. We want to confuse everyone. Some people are going to be in on these little jokes.
Shae: It’s like theatre mixed with sitcom mixed with cheesy horror mixed with sci-fi.
Joshua: It’s all just a bunch of bad sci-fi jokes. But in terms of music, there’s a lot of good bands playing — Sequoyah is even playing with a full band.
So will the bands be a part of the play?
Joshua: Actually, the bands aren’t really a part of the play, for the most part. I have a small bit part and Shae will be involved though.
Shae: It’s like a gala, so in-between the set up and breakdown, there’s going to be increments of bands playing.
Joshua: Yeah, people are going to be surprised. The bands will be playing, and then all of sudden, we’ll be back in the performance, but the bands will be in the middle of it. I’m encouraging the players to reach out and be interactive with the audience — it will be like a participatory thing. Maybe that’s a strong word, but just random moments of chaos. It’s more likely that people will be a little stunned. Imagine if you were watching a play and one of the actors jumped off the stage and asked you what you thought. You’d be like, “What the fuck? What do I think?” But there’s not even going to be a stage.
Shae: And they’re asking you in alien, not in English.
You mentioned that your new song “Bioluminescent” reflects a key part of the plot. If someone listens closely enough to the track, can they figure out the ending?
Joshua: Some of the lyrics play a part in the overall script, but I really don’t know if they would figure out who the killer is by listening to the song. It’s kind of like the Giant in Twin Peaks. He’ll say these lines of poetry which are clues and you don’t really know what they mean until Dale solves something and then you’re like, “Oh, so that’s what it meant.” So it really just confuses you as the plot is unfolding. There’s a mystical element to Celesthesia that crosses into fantasy, and that’s really what the lyrics cater to.
How do you feel about the new season of Twin Peaks?
Joshua: It’s so good! I’m really fucked up by it honestly.
Shae: Have you heard about the headphone thing?
Joshua: I think that’s just a pretentious thing that David Lynch said. That you shouldn’t watch it with computer speakers. Like everyone has a home entertainment system they can use. Not me, David Lynch! I love Twin Peaks so much though. It’s like another big influence. Like the kitschy, over the top nature of it. But as things unfold more and more, honestly Ben Horne is one of my favorite characters.
Shae: Eww, why is he your favorite?
Joshua: Just because of the way he’s revealed to you. Like at the beginning you’re like, “This guy is a little bit sleazy.” And then as it goes on you’re like, “Oh my god, he’s so sleazy!” He’s just so complex, and there’s an element of humanity, though not to say anything he did was justified.
What’s been the most difficult thing about putting all of this together?
Joshua: Trying to find the cheapest way to do everything. Because we really don’t have any money. Making sure that I don’t go completely in over my head. In the very beginning it was just a hard to get people in on it, but only at the very beginning.
Shae: Yeah, just because of the nature of Atlanta, with transit and other issues it can be hard to schedule things. But after getting everybody in the room, it was really electric. Everyone was really pulled into what we were doing.
You’ve mentioned that it’s important to sell tickets to this because you don’t think album sales are a viable way to fund recording. Can you explain that?
Joshua: Yeah, there was almost a financial necessity to do something that wasn’t just a show, to do something different that would draw people. I think for various reasons, it’s just hard to get paid as a musician. It sucks that you even have to worry about it in the first place, because you really just want to make music, but at the same time if you want it to be your living you are almost forced into that. I had to learn promotion, and communication skills, and team-management skills. It’s business, not art. In order to be sure that my art would flow when I made it… it’s almost like I’ve spent more time doing administrative work than making music over the past year. But then I figured that since I had to learn those skills, I might as well put them to the test and do something that is still a creative endeavor, but a big project.
Shae: Yeah, I have a lot of experience in coordinating people for projects, so I was really into it — especially doing something different, that’s not boring. I think album release shows have just turned into normal shows. There’s nothing very spectacular about them anymore, so this being every genre of art basically, I was all in.
So you weren’t skeptical at all when Josh brought this idea to you?
Shae: I was like, “Uhh…” I was halfway across the world at an artist residency, so I was like, “How are you going to do all of this by yourself for the next two weeks?”
Apart from experiencing it through Celesthesia, what is the best way to listen to In the Tides of Time?
Shae: In the car, honestly. I don’t necessarily think this is a concept album, but there is a flow. It’s slow at times, but very engaging. We’ve listened to it multiple times on hot summer nights, driving down Key Road. It’s just a good album for processing and contemplation.
You’ve mentioned that all the songs on the record exist in a fluid state and you don’t consider songs to really ever be finished in the traditional sense. Did that make it hard to record them?
Joshua: I like to think of islands of composition. So there are planned stops and stutters which keep the band tight, and then between those stops there are opportunities for improvisation. So it’s dynamically and rhythmically improvisational, but the words and chords will stay the same for the most part. Like, sometimes if the crowd is responding well, then we’ll cut the bridge or change the rhythm. Once we played “Say” with a Reggaeton rhythm and we were on stage just figuring it out.
Shae: And that happens a lot, and most of the time it’s all just eye contact. We’ve played like 60 shows in the past year, so being on stage together that much has been a really strong suit.
Joshua:: Yeah, even verbal communication. It’s a major part of how we try to approach performance. The songs are still rehearsed, but I like to let them breath. If we’ve been playing a song the same way for a year, then it’s time to change it.
Shae: And within that, each person has found various ways that they enjoy playing. I don’t know what you would call that.
Joshua: When we started playing I was reading some philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari that involved striated and smooth space, and I tried to apply that to music. Smooth space is frictionless, but striated space is like the week, it’s measured. I also read this book called Rhythm Analysis too, which talked about how when you’re in the city and the lights are changing and people are crossing the street, then these things become rhythms. Like, every time you smoke a cigarette could translate into snare hits. So a lot of these things are trying to subvert the idea of time, beyond going to odd time signatures. I wanted it to be arrhythmic but hyper tonal, and when we first started playing it was arrhythmic and atonal, and it sounded like shit.
LONER has had a fluid cast of members as well. Has the rotating cast made it more difficult to play off each other and try these complicated things?
Shae: I don’t think it’s made it more difficult. It’s made it more interesting and dynamic. Not just the interpersonal dynamic, but the timbres of different instruments and languages which people bring, and what they typically fall back on — what’s their bag of tricks, and how far they push themselves. The biggest thing is how much people actually listen. This is the first band I’ve been in. I came from a musical theatre and show choir chorus background. I was very afraid of bands for a while because of the outwardness of ego and how egotistical people can be, but being in such an environment that allows everyone to listen and find space has meant a lot to me, and I’ve learned a lot.
Run me through a typical LONER practice.
Shae: Everyone’s usually 30 minutes late.
Joshua: Let’s just say everyone’s on time.
Shae: Everyone’s ridiculously busy, so when we practice everyone’s usually pretty tired. But it’s communal so we work on what everyone wants to work on. Also, recently we’ve sort of gotten tired of playing the same songs so we’ve been working on a writing process that’s more communal as well.
Joshua: It’s significantly different now than it was like when we started. Originally it was more of like a party. Chris and I were practicing a few songs and then I was like, “I’ll call everybody I know. I know a flautist, I know a saxophone player, I think I know a vibraphone player.” That’s why we had so many people at the start, because I was just like, “Yeah, come through!”
Shae: Yeah, it was refreshing. The more you collaborate, the more you hear something come to life, even pieces you were never expecting.
Joshua: In October I stopped drinking and doing any drugs, and that’s when we formed more structure, because originally we were drinking a lot.
Has getting sober affected the writing of the new record? How do you continue to capture the psychedelic nature of your music?
Joshua: I’ve definitely used a lot of acid in my life, so the psychedelic nature is still with me to some degree. I think it’s permanently affected my taste in a way. We went into the studio maybe only a couple of weeks after I went clean, and it was really, really difficult. It’s kind of been a theme of the band throughout, that I felt like my life was a train wreck last year even though the band was doing well. We’d play these shows and people would respond well but I’d go back to my life and be like, “Oh, fuck.” The only thing that was good was the music.
I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m kind of a workaholic now. I would always drink when I was sitting around, so it made me realize that if I kept my hands busy I wouldn’t end up in situations where I would do those things. It really gave me this level of desperation, being sober, because there is this thing called post-acute withdrawal syndrome, which is a two-year long period of chemical withdrawal. So if you drank in periods of stress, but now if you feel stress, all of the times of drinking over the past ten years would come out, even in stupid things like changing my oil.
I think there was all that emotion behind just feeling like I had to do this. And I think that process is what the next record is going to be about. I’m thinking about writing about addiction and trauma and the middle section is going to be about that resultant darkness. Because, I was having a much darker time than I was willing to admit before I got sober, and then once I did there were all these consequences that I wasn’t ready to admit existed before.
So you are already writing a new record in the midst of this?
Shae: Yeah, when inspiration strikes…
When can we expect that record?
Shae: I have no idea.
Joshua:: Maybe in a year. We’ll just go right back into the studio next winter and be stressed out on my birthday…. get ready for Celesthesia 3! Because there already is a Celesthesia 2, by the way.
There’s a Celesthesia 2?
Shae: There may be a cliffhanger.
LONER will celebrate the release of In the Tides of Time tomorrow, July 21, at Celesthesia: A Space Noir Opera at the Mammal Gallery. Sequoyah Murray, Oshwa, and MonteQarlo will also perform. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $10. All ages.