I met Chris Leo the week he returned from Spain and the day he finally landed a job as a visa writer assisting O-1 applicants. At a glance this was the perfect introduction to one of those rare Brooklyn musicians drawing all over the page, living and looking beyond Bushwick for inspiration, but not quite singing the praises of Berlin just yet.
“I try not to spend twelve months a year in New York,” he says. “I feel like it’s bad for the soul.”
Unfortunately he’ll be the first to admit you pay the price as the former Van Pelt (Gern Blansten) and Lapse (Gern Blansten, Southern) guitarist and author is probably better known abroad than his adopted borough at this point in a career that started roughly twelve miles away.
“I was always here,” the New Jersey native says on a warm afternoon in Greenpoint. “I went to NYU and so maybe that explains a little bit more of why I like flights. Escape is like a constant theme. Even at my height of love for this city.” But mastering the balance, from choosing new neighborhoods upon returns to financially supporting such a transient lifestyle hasn’t been easy.
“It’s this weird sort of balance that I’ve yet to perfect, where I need to play music, where I can enjoy making it, [where] I can enjoy playing it and [where] I can be curious about what’s happening all around me,” he says after spending the past year in Mexico and Italy the year before that. “They don’t necessarily all fit together perfectly.”
Leo’s excellent new record and third under his Vague Angels moniker, The Sunny Day I Caught Tintarella di Luna for a Picnic at the Cemetery is out now on Expect Candy. A collection of ten swaggering narratives spat over a bed of driving, often chorus-less foundations, the best moments fit easily along side other playful and lyrically gifted songwriters like Dan Bejar, Eddie Argos, even Jonathan Richman, and are just about one knockout sing-a-long away from that actually happening.
“I kind of like taking form and working around form, but I still acknowledge form,” he says, noting how his older brother Ted “might take form and nail it” with his group of Pharmacists. Or the “classical meets reggae” muse that his younger brother Danny has been pursing for years in The Holy Childhood.
However, if you’re holding out for a family collaboration anytime soon you’re probably out of luck. “I made the offer a million times and he wouldn’t even return those emails,” Leo laughs mentioning the possibly of playing with Ted. “The fans don’t seem to overlap anyhow. It would’ve been cool like five, six years ago, but I feel like we’ve all gone in like totally different things now, which is interesting.”
Interesting and a serious understatement, as the 36-year old talks about his experiences outside of music with writing – he’s the author of five books, the most recent “Feathers Like Leather” (Heartworm Press, 2009) – and the often-frustrating relationship between words and music.
“You can say why you like writing, you can’t necessarily say why you like music,” he says. “Like when I succeed in this really inarticulate thing it just leaves me really uneasy.
“Unfortunately success comes from delivering our pain in some way. I’m not saying we make distraught, painful music, but anything short of dance music we’re delivering some sort of pain. And when I write I’m not really necessarily delivering any sort of pain.”
Yet it’s precisely what drove Leo to start what would ultimately become his first novel “White Pigeons” (Fifth Planet, 2004) in Bolivia following the breakup of The Lapse that included ex-girlfriend and current Enon singer/guitarist Toco Yasuda. “That’s what started my official ‘I like writing’ as a pure, pure form for me,” he says of the exile.
For now Europe continues to offer the only open road musically for Leo, including a tour this Fall with his backing band of Spanish musicians. “I would love to tour the States,” he says. “I just don’t know how.” You get the feeling this is probably more of a state of mind for a musician with some regional experience, rather than finding an empty room to play, as he admits there are plenty of bands that have taken the opposite approach.
“Maybe when I first started touring Europe was more exotic to me and when you’re on tour you tend to gravitate more toward the exotic,” he says. “Whereas now the States are way more exotic to me, but I feel like I missed that moment to tap into.”
“I just did a book tour in between Mexico and Spain… and it was totally awesome,” he says, clearly animated. “I met tons of cool people and there were people at the shows. I didn’t need to dig to find coolness in a city,” he admits, “but there was no money. We could try and it’s not the same as it is in Europe.”
And therein lies the moment of truth for any artist with the intimate experience of seeing how things should work outside of the practice space while trying to navigate the current industry playing anything other than dance music. Leo says after the second Vague Angels release, Let’s Duke it Out at Killkenny Katz (Pretty Activity, 2006) there was a serious questioning of how he might break the inertia for himself, of what it meant to be in a band, and essentially feeling like a “martyr to the night” after local shows in particular. He says the result “wasn’t a perfect fit” which, aside from rarely playing around New York anymore, ultimately led to more focus on the written word.
“They’re both incredibly therapeutic,” he says, “because when I finish a piece of writing I feel totally satisfied and when I finish a piece of music I don’t feel satisfied at all. I don’t want to just say depressed, because it’s not just depression, but I guess satisfaction can become a depression.”
Leo’s clearly aware of how whining has no part in what he does, but he needs and enjoys “going back and forth between the two,” evident in how the last of this new album was written when he was writing books. “They feed off of each other, whereas I can stall with music real easily,” he admits of the balance. “And I tell myself, you know, if I want to make one song a year I can make one song a year.”
Chris Leo might make one song a year, but it certainly won’t be in the same place.
Photo via Vol. 1 Brooklyn