Extra Life: Beyond Comparison

Some musicians flounder when asked to create and perform new material on short notice. Extra Life frontman Charlie Looker isn’t one of them.

In 2006, Looker was asked to perform a solo set at The Stone in the East Village. Looker didn’t have any solo material, as he’d been spending his nights exploring the esoteric angles of his guitar as part of the Brooklyn avant-garde noisenik act Zs. Yet, instead of passing up the opportunity, Looker tried something new.

The result of that one-night experiment is now Extra Life, a caustic and moving band often unfairly compared and associated with a project Looker spent a short time in: The Dirty Projectors. Looker performed on the Projector’s breakthrough album, Rise Above, and toured with the band in 2006. That was it. But, now that the Projectors have shared the stage with David Byrne and Björk, received praise in The New York Times, and grabbed the No. 65 spot on the Billboard 200, Looker can’t seem to shake the constant comparisons.

However, the futures of the Dirty Projectors and Extra Life were hardly on Looker’s mind when he prepared for his Stone gig. His focus was on the job ahead.

“I just wrote a couple songs,” Looker says. “That Stone show got me psyched about starting an actual band.”

Those songs ended up on the first Extra Life EP, and Looker’s enthusiasm for a band of his own soon took a physical form. Shortly after his set at The Stone, a side project of Looker’s called Seductive Spring dropped off a tour with Dirty Projectors bassist Nat Baldwin.

“The other guitar player didn’t want to go,” Looker says. “It was too late to cancel it, so I ended up just doing it as ‘Extra Life,’ solo.”

“I was just doing a kind of improv set, singing songs I had written for The Stone thing. I got really into it, so then I just kept writing more and more songs that became the first Extra Life record.”

Almost four years later Extra Life is a fully realized quintet with Looker at its center and a brand new sophomore album, Made Flesh, under its belt. Released in March on LOAF Recordings, Made Flesh sounds like it was produced by a band with lifetimes of musical experience, plenty of chops, and enough wisdom to fill a library.

Although the individual musicians in Extra Life have the kind of pedigree many experimental bands would kill for – with former members of Yukon and Little Women fill in on drums and sax/keyboard, respectively – it’s Extra Life’s evasion of all-things-experimental that makes them a great act.

Like many of the successful, art-rock bands that have come from Brooklyn, Extra Life has managed to carve out a balance between pop apotheosis and avant-garde weirdness. TV On The Radio, Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors have all gained some form of notoriety for their accessible pop tunes. If precedence and a just world have anything to do with it, Made Flesh should make Extra Life a band to name-drop.

What could have been a messy, unlistenable disaster, Extra Life’s album is quite the opposite. The record features a pastiche of sounds that draws upon music as disparate as hardcore punk and Gregorian chant equally. Fortunately, Looker and company have the skills needed to execute such a mind-bending album. The band is able to deftly transform a dense wall of sound into moments of near-acoustic grandeur at the drop of a hat, and make it listenable. Songs like “The Body Is True” deftly move through cataclysmic blasts of noise and haunting moments of near silence without losing a step, while tracks like “Voluptuous Life” go for the jugular and never let go.

Having established the current Extra Life lineup following the release of the group’s first album in 2008, Made Flesh benefits from the pitch-perfect execution of a band with immense talent. What may set Made Flesh apart is Looker’s creative collaboration with his band-mates, a marked departure from previous efforts where he was practically the sole member. It’s a change Looker adapted to with ease.

“For most of the songs, I would write everything out on actual sheet music,” Looker says. “But then, once we got into rehearsals, even those songs we would start to tweak a little bit. I take suggestions based on how people play naturally, and then some songs people wrote their own parts as well.”

No longer the remnants of a one-off improvised solo set, Extra Life has become Looker’s main project. For some reason, however, he just can’t seem to evade the memory of that small-time gig he had with the Dirty Projectors. His short spell as a Projector haunts every Extra Life review, with critics pointing out aural similarities between the bands.

“There’s too many comparisons,” Looker says. “I understand how it is.  Sometimes they [critics] need a quick reference point, and maybe they’re interested in the first place because of my really peripheral involvement with the Dirty Projectors.”

While this insistent connection may irritate other musicians, Looker tends to prefer the silver lining.

“I don’t mind the attention,” Looker says. “If having been in a band for a second gets people checking out Extra Life, I’m fine with that.”

Extra Life – “Head Shrinker” (NSFW):

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