The versatile, unclassifiable Lucky Dragons head for New Zealand shores late September to perform their unpredictable, multifaceted live act. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM finds out from Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara what the band has in store.

DESCRIBING themselves as “artists who make music”, the Californian Lucky Dragons fuse performance art, sampling, folk music, computers, and improvisation into one unique combination. Having performed at illustrious museums such as the Centre Pompidou and The Hirshorn Museum, alongside music venues, the band’s blurring boundaries have translated well for diverse audiences. Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara are the band’s line-up in a loose sense, frequent collaborators and the audience themselves become part of the ensemble in the band’s live shows. And it’s the live shows that have had audiences buzzing, with audience collaboration becoming part of the spectacle and their shows reflecting the spontaneity and communal feel of music at its best. But their unclassifiable music is fascinating too, incorporating a vast array of instruments and sounds.

Both Fischbeck and Rara studied at Brown University, with Fischbeck studying music and Rara comparative literature. Rara never formally studied music but says “I lived and worked alongside a lot of amazing musicians and their love of music rubbed off on me and radically changed my approach to art making.” She has found herself drawn to percussion and drumming recently in particular. “I never thought technical mastery of a single instrument was important. That aspect of the process is new to me, specialization and sometimes being the ‘drummer’ having that role. Initially I was interested in the ways that music can be made and distributed on multiple scales, from homemade CD-Rs to records pressed by major labels. There is a great deal of support among musicians and a lot of possibilities that I think are closed to artists to an extent.” The band’s unconventional approach to distribution and exhibition has meant “we’re figuring out ways of sustainability, how to make this work financially. It’s important to us that the music we make be performed in many contexts and include house shows, museums, forests, punk clubs, stadiums, and any other place imaginable – that’s something that’s been possible so far and continues to expand.”

The band’s link with art came naturally with their backgrounds, and Rara says she “first started making videos and then began integrating musical instruments and soundpieces into what were essentially visual works involving animations and dances. Now the boundaries have almost completely disappeared, and the projects I’m working on today are as driven by visual ideas as by sound experiments, but even further out than that, I think sometimes we’ve almost gone beyond the categories art/music and started making things that could be more like social groups, communities, or simple activities integrated into daily life. At a certain point I wonder if the drawings, videos, and songs will be necessary or if we’ll find other ways of gathering people together.”

Their recorded music seeks to glean moments off the everyday, a fascination that has led to the inclusion a wide, wide variety of recorded sounds in their work. Rara says “we always forage around the house for good sounds, but then these sounds are paired with a lot of things that are completely fabricated and don’t really exist in the world until they come out of a speaker. The everyday and the fantastic coexist in the finished songs as partners. Making something beautiful out of garbage and a mess out of a pure sine tone are similar though reverse approaches. Total translation/transformation.” Fischbeck says “one of the things we hope to do with the things we make is to somehow elevate or improve the ‘everyday’ in its actual sense, starting with people’s perception of it, or the way people interact with the world and each other. Sometimes our approach to that is to isolate and draw attention to specific details of perception or interaction – to expand on them or comment on them in some way. Sometimes our approach is just to throw a filtered lens on everything at once. In our recordings we often try to present a crystallized view of the everyday, made up of these details – sometimes real and sometimes imagined – arranged in a harmonic way. Also it’s us trying to collapse the distance between listening and speaking.”

The incorporation of the audience into the making of the music subvert the power relations inherent in a lot of music consumption. The veneration of auteur or star figures, the power imbalance between audiences and performers, all seem to deny the collaborative/collective origins of most music. Fischbeck says “we just start with the assumption that music or art are naturally collaborative things. Even when there is a virtuoso guy making this amazingly developed thing, without the interpretation or response of an audience, or the influence of a culture surrounding him, it doesn’t exist. This is just our assumption, our starting point. If we start from there, all of the power structures and barriers between audience and performer seem to be arbitrary choices that can either be positive or negative, and can effect the thing in a good way or a bad way.” Fischbeck says the “blame can’t fall on the music itself, or even the performer, or the audience either, it’s a contract everybody has silently, automatically, agreed to.”

“I think sometimes we’ve almost gone beyond the categories art/music and started making things that could be more like social groups, communities, or simple activities integrated into daily life. At a certain point I wonder if the drawings, videos, and songs will be necessary or if we’ll find other ways of gathering people together.”

Rara suggests that “the master to pupil (or mentor to protege) relationship is something that has guided the evolution of music, the idea of passing something down to the next generation; someone fills the master’s shoes and makes a slight change, either purposefully or inadvertently. Unfortunately, this system has left a lot of people out – the result is often a very gendered and incomplete lineage of thinkers/musicians. We’ve been excited by Jacques Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster that discusses a theory of education in which two ignorant parties can learn something together, a research group without any leaders or masters. Music could easily be like that, and it already is to an extent.” Fischbeck adds “maybe music is just a way for societies to act out, or illustrate, the things that hold them together: traditions, ideologies, stories, technologies, rituals, a celebration of the things we have in common. When much of what we have in common are not individual things or multiplicities, but great dualities – good / bad, buy / sell, basic / advanced, amateur / professional, master / pupil. Music mirrors this.”

Given that the collaborative nature with the audience is an emphasis in their live shows, I wonder if this is difficult to maintain during a live show. Spontaneity can, after all, be hard to contain. Rara says “I enjoy dissolving during a performance, connecting totally to an instrument or with a group of humans doing something very basic. That said, the instruments and the show we’ve designed guide the activity a lot. There are certain limitations that come with the formal choices we’ve made. The tuning of the instruments gives a harmony and cohesion to whatever people might do with them. There are rare and incredible moments when the audience takes over and starts making music with objects I never imagined would be instruments, or doing things in unison that were never choreographed, then the tables are fully turned and that is a joy to experience.” For the most part audiences respond positively too. “There is usually always a positive outcome, because the performance scenario presents the audience with a set of choices that also includes being a bystander if that is what an individual prefers. The group of participants is always self-selecting, and the performance is totally voluntary. I encourage people to play, but it’s always all right if they don’t want to. I often go to the back of the room and do a flute solo for all the people hidden back there who are shy; I’d like to meet them and engage with them too. There’s always a skeptical guy standing in the middle of it all saying ‘but it’s just a rock and a stone can’t make music.’ We need that guy to voice his opinions, he’s part of the magic transformation that takes place when a closed definition suddenly opens up.”

Computers are frequently cold when used in a live setting, but somehow, Lucky Dragons manage to turn it into a utopian connectivity. This has translated into the distribution and promotion of their music too. Rara says “the internet has definitely opened up something that has deep utopian potential – something that is all ages, all people, all languages, all systems tangled together. In terms of human connectivity, there is nothing deeper than the internet. Half of the artistic collaborations and face to face friendships that I’ve experienced this year have come about through chance meetings on the internet.”

The band have a considerable musical output, albums, mini-albums etc. all forming the framework for their liveshows. But that makes it difficult to categorise or pigeon-hole. Rara says each “track begins with an improvisation, or by walking around the house testing different sounds out – listening to everyday things more acutely.” Fischbeck says “I like the idea of being able to have these tracks that go out into the world and get into a dialogue with people in their own worlds, without us ever meeting directly, or even without them having any idea what we’re up to in other things. The sense that music can really be made to speak for itself, and essentially work as a gift we can give over and over. That’s the crucial part. I think marketing and publicity and things like that can be ways of establishing these connections in the world, but I’m still not convinced that categorizing or historicizing music is all that helpful, so we ignore that part mostly! We do like listening to music so much, so we try to invoke the celebratory sense of listening, rather than evoking a particular reference in order to better shape our own specific place in history. Doesn’t history keep changing? Also we focus on multiplicity, giving things away while selling them in material and in immaterial ways, collaborating with as many different kinds of labels and distributors as we can, speaking to one person while speaking to another at the same time. These are the kinds of thematic ideas we explore in recorded music as a thing.”

The band are politically active too, especially given that their performances depend on equal-power sharing, discussion and interaction. (They also run the Sumi Ink Club, a collaborative drawing project). The band’s very name refers to a human tragedy too. Lucky Dragon (Daigo Fukuryu Maru) was the name of the Japanese fishing-boat which was caught up in the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing in 1954, exposing the crewmen to nuclear fallout. (The incident also inspired the Godzilla movies). “We liked the way the name ‘lucky dragon’ shows how what a name refers to, and how it is used, can change: an anonymous fishing boat, a tragedy, a news story, a symbol (more than a boat!) of worldwide anti-nuclear sentiment. I’m not sure if the story is widely known now. Most people think ‘lucky dragons’ reflects either a preoccupation with fanciful, mystical things (dragons!), or chinese restaurants (there is a ‘lucky dragon’ restaurant in almost every city). But in truth the name, as we chose it, refers to the fishing boat caught in the hydrogen bomb fallout in 1954. Although i do like the almost generic sound of the name! The other reason for picking the name is the way the symbol of the boat, and the name ‘lucky dragon’ invoke this historical moment, eight years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when all of the sudden worldwide public emotion against these weapons, suppressed as it was, was suddenly opened up. So, the effect we are going for: the sense that a name is a container, and the image of the spontaneous opening up of things in common yet kept silent.”

The Lucky Dragons’ music and live show is coming to New Zealand for the first time for four shows. The show will be impossible to categorise given the band’s propensity for improvisation and risk-taking. And it will depend on what the audience do too. However, one thing that can be guaranteed is a unique music listening experience, one which subverts the power relations inherent in a lot of mainstream contemporary music, and crafts it down to music’s collective roots.