Le Loup, Schubas, Chicago 3/28/2008
interview by Gina Pantone
photos by Jeremy Farmer
There is something to be said about a band’s transition from studio to stage. While recording, sounds can be altered, harmonies can be programmed and pitches can be corrected among multiple takes, but it is only in a live setting that the safety net is removed and every fragile note is exposed. Washington D.C.-based octet Le Loup has appeared to master this often-bumpy journey, and they’ve only barely been around the block.
With their verbose debut album, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (Hardly Art), Le Loup explores life’s existential mysteries through synthetic soundscapes, comforting banjo and floating vocals.
Founding member and primary songwriter Sam Simkoff appears wise at his young 23 years. He is at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, deeply pondering the venue’s respectable jukebox. Armed with a beer and a disposable razor (no suitable shaving facilities on a bus), he sits down appearing pensive and mildly furry. In just over a year, Simkoff’s band has gone from a personal basement recording project to number one on National Public Radio’s Top 10 Great Unknown Artists of 2007, and is right in the middle of a world tour.
“I’m always surprised,” Simkoff comments of Le Loup’s expanding fan base despite a lack of major circulation. “Wide distribution is subjective. Anyone can widely distribute these days. I’m surprised it’s been listened to as much as anything. It’s been somewhat of a shock.”
It’s not only the rising interest that is surprising for such a new band, it is the way Simkoff went about building his vision. After moving from his native Portland, Oregon, Simkoff journeyed cross-country to Washington D.C. where he made some home recordings, posted them on My Space, advertised for a band on Craigslist and hoped for the best. Within months, Le Loup was formed and grown exponentially — adding layers of colorful instrumentation and new blood to the original recordings.
The Throne… was done entirely through the help of friends in the D.C. community, utilizing local artists, web designers, sound engineers and street teams to get the project off the ground. This local camaraderie is thematically linked Simkoff’s muses — the Old Testament, artist James Hampton (whom which the album title and the track “Le Loup (Fear Not)” references) and above all his personal demons.
“I was taking personal events and blowing them out of proportion and using noise as a starting point,” Simkoff explains his haunting and at times calamitous lyrical imagery. “I tend to have a sort of random imagination and that is a way to escape real world problems and filter them and deal with them — so you get points on the album that are sort of over-dramatic. I wouldn’t say I was inspired by ideas of annihilation. It was more my own life decisions and situations that were translated through these songs as an apocalyptic thing — it’s a very personal album.”
It is both Simkoff’s self-awareness and the D.I.Y. inspirations responsible for The Throne… that comes across tremendously in the band’s chemistry. Onstage at Schubas, Le Loup’s seven (the eighth member and longtime collaborator/guitarist Christian Ervin has temporarily left to finish an architecture degree) barely fit on the tiny tavern platform, each helping each other set up and tune. Simkoff jumps from instrument to instrument, calculatingly taking turns strumming his trademark banjo, plucking piano keys and banging whatever piece of percussion happens to be nearby.
The real gem of Le Loup’s live show is the new identities their songs have taken on since their original conception. Keyboardist/brass player Nicole Keenan wails on her French horn for “Sea Took Me” — an amalgamation of pop balladry and experimental jazz concluding in an epic instrumental explosion. Guitarist Mike Ferguson’s lead guitar solos replace the banjo riffs in the recording, livening up “In the Stars! In the Night!” among others.
The band took on a tribal motif with a new syncopated introduction on “Canto Xxxiv,” hand clapping on “Outside of This Car, the End of the World” and concluding with Arcade Fire-esque spontaneity on new song “A Celebration” where each member grabs a random surface and transforms it to a drum.
Though the setlist was missing quieter moments (would have been interesting to see “Planes Like Vultures”), Le Loup have no doubt graduated to an incendiary energy and a genuine youthful excitement not seen everyday. Though Simkoff started this project, his influences melt away to reveal a cohesive ensemble rather than a backing band. He sees his art higher than just notoriety — taking the cues from James Hampton, but a lot more grounded. “To me, music takes the place of spirituality.”