The Lepers: From a Dark Place
Adversity drives The Lepers’ new sound.
by Tim McMahan
If there are moments on The Lepers’ new album, Feels So Good, that sound desperate, it might be because the songs were born out of a desperate situation.
“It was the moment when you realize that you’re out of gas, your cell phone is dead, you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re fucked. There is no lifeline, there are no more resources,” said guitarist/vocalist Owen Cleasby, who fronts the duo with drummer/percussionist Ken Brock.
Cleasby said the band hit “rock bottom” upon discovering that the tracks they spent two and a half years recording with five different people were gone, technically unlistenable. “We were going to mix them and our engineer tried to pull up the files and they were screwed. The whole album was lost.” He immediately tried to track down an archived version, only to discover that one didn’t exist. “It was the most empty that I’ve ever felt. I was ready to say fuck this. I felt cursed.”
That was in 2007, five years after the duo’s last album, Love From Above, was released on Lincoln’s now-defunct Caulfield Records. That album captured the Lepers’ then-signature sound with one impressive, drawn-out noise symphony after another, each as bleak and disturbing as the next, an orgy of dark brooding that bordered on dread and fear. Not exactly toe-tapping stuff.
Cleasby said the music on the lost tracks had continued in the same dismal, art-fractured direction. But he was so frustrated by what had happened, he had no appetite for trying to rerecord the material. “It left the taste of bitter shit in my mouth,” he said. “I didn’t want to sing those songs or deal with it. I spent a month sitting at my desk with that feeling like winter was never going to end.”
And then, the first sign of spring arrived in the form of a used bass guitar. “I ran across this bass at a pawn shop for $130,” he said of the 80-pound Harmony that’s now his favorite side arm. “It was a huge turnaround.”
Switching to a bass from a guitar was evolutionary to The Lepers’ sound. Instead of the usual drone-over-tribal-drums layering, Cleasby and Brock’s new approach borders on club music. The poppiest moments of Feels So Good (the first two songs, “Baby Blues” and “You’re Not the One”) find the band reaching for a dark groove, desperately trying to reinvent simple punk-beat music reminiscent of Factory Records, Joy Division, Gang of Four and even Love and Rockets. At its least poppy moments (the rest of the album) the band gives worship to Sonic Youth, amping the noise with Brock’s ever-present toms and Cleasby’s thick, fuzzy bass lines that drive the songs forward while he barks out lyrics of isolation with an atonal yelp.
“The first thing you hear on this record is a kick drum and that beat,” Cleasby said. “We had to find a new way of making music to stay interested in being a band. I think it rocks a little more, and is less of an art project.”
Recorded in a South Omaha apartment with Engineer Mark Wolberg on two 8-track Tascam analog decks, and mixed in the spring of ’09 by Joel Petersen of The Faint, Cleasby said he sent copies of Feels So Good to a handful of labels and “got some chatter but no one sealed the deal. It was the most attention we’ve had from any previous project, but it was still a little disheartening.”
That didn’t stop them from pulling together artwork, finding a reasonable CD manufacturer in Texas and pressing the album themselves. “Now I’ve got a bunch of CDs in my living room again,” Cleasby said. “It feels great to be able to do what I want to with them. I think it was a huge step in the right direction to put this out ourselves.”
Plans call for touring later this year, as The Lepers try to find a niche to fill hat will help them make money off the album. “If you’re not making money doing what you’re doing, you’re facing a labor of love, but a bleak future for your endeavor,” he said. “Or you become a local legend or the undying hobbyist.”
Neither of which, he said, he’s interested in becoming.
The Lepers play with Bazooka Shootout and Kyle Harvey, Tuesday, May 25, at The Brothers Lounge, 3812 Farnam St. Showtime is 9 p.m. For more information, call 558.4096.