Firefly Chat: An Interview with Lightning Bug
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Listening to Lightning Bug feels like flipping through an old photo album. Singer Audrey Kang has a sepia voice that soothes your soul, while multi-instrumentalist Kevin Copeland and producer Logan Miley add their talents to whisk you away to the halcyon days of youth. (Yes, I’m still in college, but I’m feeling a bit emo after being kicked off campus for senior spring, let me have this one!) Their sound evades easy classification, jumping from the noisy shoegaze of “Vision Scraps” to the languid, Grouper-esque ambient folk of “The Root” to the IDM breakbeats of “FlowerAfterFlower”. It’s impossible to think of anything else in this pandemic, so it’s with regret that I inevitably place their music in the context of COVID-19: Lightning Bug’s music glows with quiet strength and hope during this tumultuous time.
Originally slated to perform at SXSW 2020, Lightning Bug are now sheltering in place in Brooklyn, where we hope they and their loved ones are staying safe. But they’re staying active in fostering community in quarantine by covering Townes Van Zandt in Fat Possum’s KAGED series, sharing sourdough recipes, and performing in a livestream benefit concert next week. In lieu of meeting up with them in Austin, I emailed Audrey to get to know her and the band a bit better.
JG: Like everyone else, my mind is on the COVID-19 outbreak. The "cozy grandeur" of October Song (as Pitchfork puts it) is definitely on my Music to Get Quarantined To rotation. How have you been holding up in Brooklyn, and has quarantine been generative for you?
AK: I'm a pretty solitary person, so I don't think the jump from "normal" life to this new reality has been as stark as for some others. I've been focused on making my house feel like a home - I sold all the furniture I owned last summer and took down all decorations, and it's been empty till now. I didn't have the time to focus on my place between music and work and everything else, but now I'm here all the time, I've re-painted, put up shelves, scrubbed the floors etc. So I guess this downtime has been generative for me in terms of nesting. I also get to play the piano more, and closely observe the birds in my backyard. Both very fruitful activities.
JG: How did you start making music?
AK: I'd made little melodies and poems for myself and played piano/violin since childhood, but I don't think anything substantial would have come of it if I hadn't met my friends. Meeting other musicians - Dylan, Andrew, Mikey, Logan and Kevin - was instrumental (get it? instrumental, haha) in me becoming a fully-fledged musician. Kevin especially sort of unlocked the ability, or maybe the confidence in me to write and arrange a song from beginning to end. All very talented people, I'm extremely lucky.
JG: You mentioned in an interview that fellow Brooklyn band P.E. are your friends; are you heavily involved in the Brooklyn arts and music scene?
AK: To be honest, I'm not very involved in the Brooklyn scene. I think I've always been somewhat of an outsider. It never really came naturally to me to like seamlessly become part of any scene, music or not. I guess that goes along with being pretty solitary, like I've mentioned. Jonathan Schenke mastered Floaters and October Song, and he's a member of P.E., so that's how I know them.
JG: When "The Onely Ones" dropped, I couldn't stop listening to it. The Cocteau Twins/Faye Wong-esque vocals really got me. I also took a peek at the playlist you made for The Family Reviews and saw Faye's 分裂 on there, from my favorite album of hers! Is she an influence for you?
AK: Love Faye Wong. She's an influence vibe/style/confidence-wise, though perhaps less so musically.
JG: In your interview with Murmur Podcast, you mention your family is from Taiwan. Your video for "September Song" also features traditional Chinese dance. How does your family's immigrant background factor into your songwriting?
AK: I was born in New York, but my parents moved here when they were almost 30, so I grew up with a very Taiwanese upbringing. I learned Mandarin first, and was slow to start using English. It's hard to answer the question of how that background factors into my songwriting. Everything I've ever experienced influences my songwriting, so it naturally follows that my family's immigrant background does too, but it's more difficult to pick out in precisely what way it does. There's a loneliness and a courage to being an immigrant. I think there's a loneliness to Lightning Bug's music, and hopefully there's a courage, too.
JG: My own family's from mainland China, but last summer I went to Taiwan to do a photography project on its underground music scene. Many of the people I met were fans of the C86 indie pop sound as well as shoegaze, so I feel like your music would be well received there! Do you listen to any Taiwanese bands?
AK: Wow, what a beautiful little zine you've made. And I loooove this band called 落差草原 WWWW/Prairie WWWW. I would cry tears of joy to one day play in Taiwan.
JG: In the same Murmur interview, you mentioned the "ambrosial hours" from 3-5am being a big part of your life when you worked at Bakeri. My first WHRB show was from 3:30-5am, so that definitely resonated with me. Are there other times, places, or situations that you find particularly inspirational and generative?
AK: I spent a summer and autumn baking bread in Stockholm. That period of time was hugely formative for me, as a person and a musician. Something about being isolated from everything/everyone I knew, and also having to wake up early for work, so again, having those ambrosial hours to ruminate...and all of the alone time spent devoted to discovery. It's hard to explain, but I really felt like I was born again. I feel nostalgic for Stockholm the way people do for places in their childhood.
JG: Your song "I Looked Too Long" nods to Ennio Morricone; what are some movies that you've watched recently, and how does film inspire your work?
AK: Some movies I've recently watched: Your Name, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Pina...I think film is inspiring for life in general. For instance, after I watched Your Name, I suddenly had clarity on problems in my life that I had been puzzling over for ages. And eventually those realizations are translated into songs.
JG: Relatedly, what other art is your music in conversation with? Musically, I hear elements of Grouper (The Luminous Plane), MBV (Vision Scraps), Yo La Tengo (September Song), Boards of Canada (FlowerAfterFlower) as well as Cocteau Twins/Faye Wong as I mentioned earlier. Visually, I'm reminded of Kanghee Kim's photography in your album covers. You've also acknowledged Virginia Woolf and Louis MacNeice in the release of torment of love. How does your art reflect these influences?
AK: I think poetry and literature actually wield the strongest influence on my songwriting, more so than other music, weirdly enough. I think when I write a song, I'm very concept driven - that goes not only for lyrics but also for instrumentation, arrangement, and even sometimes the mix and the way it's recorded (though I can't take credit for those parts, for Logan is truly the mastermind there). It all has to be saying something together. I do love a lot of those artists you've mentioned, though. Haven't listened much to Grouper or Yo La Tengo, but I should start! I think in terms of musical influence, classical music is a huge one for me. I'm really into counterpoint, so Bach and his Fugues are a maze of inspiration.
JG: This question might be a bit confusing, and it's hard for me to put words to it but I'll try giving it a shot. I've been reading The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing, which is about the matsutake mushroom picking communities in Oregon and how these activities at the margins show a way forward from the aftereffects of capitalism. For me, local indie music scenes negotiate global capital in a similar way. What does music making/consumption mean to you (collaboration, performing, attending shows, etc)?
AK: That book sounds incredible and I shall read it. And I think I understand what you're asking, though I think the answer will be equally difficult to put into words. I think music and all art is about that impossible task of translating the shifting mess of thoughts/feelings/sensations inside you into an external, fixed form that someone else can experience. So in the end, making music and consuming music is all about connection. For instance, I may be solitary, I may be an outsider, but when people listen to Lightning Bug, we are instantly connected in a way that years of acquaintance can't even achieve. Music and capitalism...then that gets muddy. I try to separate capitalism from consumerism - the two are often conflated because they're so intertwined. There's a lot of pressure to sell yourself as an artist these days, probably because there's soooo many bands. But there are always going to be artists who aren't making music with the aim of being popular/sellable, so there's always going to be a way forward for music from the aftereffects of capitalism.
JG: Are you planning to come up to Boston after things settle down? We would love to have you at our studio! Lowkey jealous that Princeton got y'all first :'<
AK: We'd love to! Thank you! I'm looking forward to that already.
James Gui is a DJ for the Record Hospital.
Thumbnail - From left to right: the torment of love, FlowerAfterFlower, October Song, Floaters, The Onely Ones. WHRB is not associated with Nintendo or Animal Crossing: New Horizons (although it’s a great way to get a thumbnail photo in lieu of in-person photography).