Girl Detective Interview

Rani Woolpert and Jay Oppman are Girl Detective, a Chicago-based postmodern/alt-rock duo who create lush, often shoegazey sounds that call back to the best of the 80s-era 4AD bands. Since Woolpert featured Turntabling’s “house band” and DJ multimedia project Paisley Babylon a while back during her stint on Transistor Radio, we thought it was high time to return the favor. Especially since Girl Detective performs live on Monday, April 30, 2012 at 8PM at Martyrs in Chicago located at 3855 N. Lincoln Avenue.

Describe the Girl Detective sound–your press kit defines you as an experimental, cerebral…listening to tracks like “Life’s A Movie”, it would be easy to associate GD with the as-of- then defined “Post-Modern” sound, that later got shoehorned into “Alternative”. But what are YOU thinking?

Rani: Boy, for me that’s a super tough one. I listen to tons of music, but have never been very good with labels or genre tags. I’m going to leave that to Jay to elaborate on any specific titles. People who have heard our music have used those labels you mention, and that is where we got those from. I saw it and thought… yeah, that sounds like us. I can say more of where we come from, though, as far as our influences.

When I first heard Jay’s music, I had been working with someone else to write songs and was having difficulty trying to create melodies and vocals. I was using this other musician’s songs, and they were more electronic and I felt like I needed a solid guitar sound in there to give me a background to come up with vocals.

I did a Craigslist search through musician postings and found Jay on there and linked to his page. I had been looking for someone with a Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins) – type guitar sound, and when I heard Jay’s samples online, I was totally blown away. His music was really dark, and made me think of Depeche Mode as well, which is one of my all-time favorite bands, and I was really impressed with his guitar playing and just the overall sound. I contacted him and we did a little with that other project, but I said I’d also like to see if I could try writing some vocals over his music, as I thought it was just so cool! A bit more about what I’m into… I listened to those other bands I mentioned, but also to Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jesus & Mary Chain, The Smiths—just so many of those fantastic 80s bands.

They have been in my bloodstream, you could say, since they were part of my teen years and I’ve never been impacted by music in the same way since–that is the language I speak. In the creation of a vocal sound, I don’t try to go for anything. I’m just singing, but I think what I love does come out someone in there. I think Morrissey, Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), Peter Murphy and Sinead O’Connor are all mixed in there somehow, as those are the people I most sing

I can say more about what I’m going for as a person coming from a visual arts background. I have a background professionally in motion graphics and some audiovisual art direction and I have an interest in creating/crafting rich environments like Bill Viola has done with some of his sound/video installations and like Laurie Anderson was doing with her performance art that also integrated A/V and kinetics. I sort of live in this rich dreamscape in my mind and it’s multi-level.

Jay’s songs are a rich soundscape and they already have that going on. For me, as a vocalist, I want to tell stories and go to some other place with what I’m doing. So, when I come up with vocals (which are usually completely improv) I am kind of accessing that state to make them at all. And, I think that the music is actually being received that way, as that is some of the feedback we’ve been receiving—that sense of otherworldliness or something. It’s astounding, as I have that in my head, but would have no way of knowing how to put that out musically. But I think it’s just happening. What would you call that genre?? Again, that’s a tough one!

Jay: If music was a drink and you wanted to order a Girl Detective you would mix The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, Joy Division/New Order, The Church, Dead Can Dance with maybe a touch of The Beatles and Pink Floyd.

Girl Detective is a duo, so there’s obviously a bit of a challenge re-creating the lush sounds of your studio work on stage. What do you and bandmate Jason Oppman do to keep the music as multi-layered as what you’re doing in the recording studio? Or have you stripped the sound down to a more basic approach for the live gigs?

Rani: Yes—that is a challenge. Our sound is a really rich tapestry and we want people to experience the depth of it at a live show. I know when I go to see music, I really want to be taken out of my day-to-day thoughts. Just like with movies. I want to live in that world for a while. And, we want to do that with our live shows—to envelop the audience within a blanket of sound. So, we wouldn’t want to strip the songs back any. Actually, kind of the opposite is true. Vocally, I’ve been pleased with my voice just given some house reverb, although we are working within our own arsenal of tools (Jay has tons of expensive gear!) to create a more fine-tuned solution for the live sets.

Jay: As Girl Detective is in the early stages, we are using our backing tracks of drums/bass/piano/synth from our studio recordings and doing all guitars and vocals live. As we evolve we may play bass and piano live, too. I would imagine for certain shows we may possibly go with a stripped down version of a few songs depending on what type of venue and event we are playing, but at this point we want listeners to first hear the songs with the lush sound before taking any layers away as we want them to become familiar with our sound/style.

On stage it can be tough for a duo to feel like a “full band”. Some groups rely on additional fill instruments–keyboards, percussion, etc–to provide a larger sound and stage presence. How does Girl Detective cope with that issue? Is the band comfortable in its current form? Seeking a third member? Or do you find it’s not even an issue, with audiences being much more accepting of sequences, loops, etc than probably any other time in the last 40 years….

Rani: We’ve kicked this one around a bunch and keep coming back to the same conclusion—that we’re kind of a lean, mean, band machine. We’ve both had experiences with other bands and know it can be really cumbersome adding additional members. So much more is on the table—personalities, schedules, musical preferences and styles, joint decisions, etc. We’ve looked at bands we love—Cocteau Twins, others—and also a bunch of contemporary solo and duo acts—and keep saying… hey, if it’s working, let’s just go with it!

We met almost two years ago and started sending tracks back and forth and the odd thing is that neither one of us really has anything to say about what the other is doing. It’s a really fluid collaboration in that way…oddly enough, we haven’t needed to lean on other people to get things done. Our expenses are low, we can write collaboratively (while in separate places), and our weekly practices are possible because it’s just two people who are balancing music with their separate lives outside of the band, as opposed to a bunch of folks doing it. I’m still a bit freaked out about how easy this process has been.

Oh, and I’ll also mention that my interest in creating installation art, video, and the like means that we’ll have a bit more going on onstage during most of our shows than just two musicians to pay attention to. I’m very excited about that aspect as well. And, I dabble with the guitar and drums, so perhaps at some point you’ll see me stepping up in those areas, too.

Jay: I think with the energy that Rani brings to the live stage and the fact that our vocals and guitars are played live, we do feel like a full band on stage. Rani created a light box that was placed on stage for our first show where a drummer would go, which made me feel like we had the stage presence of a full band and with having the backing tracks of drums/bass/piano/synth playing on my Mac we do create the soundscape of a live band as well. Until the first show I had no idea how the songs would sound being pumped out of the system at Reggie’s Music Joint, but during our sound check I realized that as a duo we sound just fine. Adding another member is a possibility in the future, but for now things flow so well from a songwriting and collaboration standpoint that we don’t really want to mess with what we have together.

Girl Detective **seems** to be part of a small cult of independent artists fascinated by, well, girl detective imagery. There’s a San Antonio synth pop duo called Hyperbubble, for example, that has on occasion name-dropped Nancy Drew, put that sort of influence into some of their visuals, etc…and there’s even a Death Metal band located in Michigan called Nancy Drew. What is it about this bit of cultural ephemera? Should the name of the band not be considered a jumping off point for further exploration of a theme, or is there a developing idea there hinted at by the name?

Rani: I think there is kind of a theme hinted at, but not too heavily. It comes from my own background. I read Nancy Drew as a kid and really loved her and felt that I was her in many ways. And recently I ran across my diary from the fifth grade. I read an entry about how I had just started a detective club. I was very much into that sort of thing. I also played the drums in the fifth grade. I was sort of a tomboy, but still girly.

And as I’ve grown up, I’ve been really disappointed by the lack of role models for this type of girl/woman. When we started the band originally, we called ourselves Dream Theory. I thought that was cool, but eventually Jay found a band with the same name out there and we had to regroup and find a new name. I was out walking and Nancy Drew was on my mind—I had been researching her and thinking about what she represented. I considered using that name as our band name and ran it by Jay. We both thought it was too concrete, and then I thought of Girl Detective. I really love the name. It’s kind of a label for me.

And Jay thought of a funny joke… that I’m a girl detective, and he’s a guy detecting girls, like a detective who is on the lookout for clues about girls… something like that. And sometimes he signs his emails to me as “Guy Detective.” We get a kick out of it. Also, I love the illustrations, both cover art and internal art, that were used in those books, and will likely do some of our band art in a similar style. We’ll lean a bit on the name and its associations. One of our songs is called “Dress and Smoking Jacket” and paints a picture very much in keeping with that aesthetic. And I’ve always been interested in noir fashion and the idea of sneaking about and “gathering intelligence.”

That’s sort of my way. I’m a Scorpio (born on Halloween) and my personality profile says I should have been a detective. I definitely research anything I’m interested in to the nth degree. I like to get to the bottom of things. And, like I said, there are few female role models like Nancy Drew. I’d like to revive her image as the type of girl/woman that those of us who are female can look to as a role model.

Jay: As Rani is the Girl Detective, I believe she can answer this question with much more intelligence and awareness of the trend than myself as I’m not a Girl or a Detective.

There are hints of a Girl Detective vinyl LP. Care to elaborate?

Rani: Oh, we would love to put out vinyl!!! We’re both super into older technologies (even though vinyl is new again!) as well as considering the packaging of music to be just as important as the music itself. And, I know through having co-founded Transistor that people love vinyl. There’s a collectability factor with vinyl and an element of art that is just so fantastic. First will be our EP, which will be out by summer. We also have enough material for a full-length, and are shooting for the fall for that. How I wish I could just do this full-time and we could get these out there sooner (‘course, Jay would have to quit his job, too, as he’s our engineer)! So, yeah—vinyl is on the radar!

Jay: Yes, we plan on having a limited release of our EP on vinyl, with LP’s making a very welcome comeback in my mind. It will allow Rani to put her artistic touches to a retro medium that allows you to approach a release differently than a cd or digital release.

Where is Girl Detective going from here? You’re gigging, recording… any tour plans? What’s next for you and Jason Oppman?

Rani: We are looking to do more gigs, but our main focus now is in releasing the songs. But we’d love to do some festivals, especially with so much going on here in Chicago. Once we have a solid release out, we’d love to tour. And then, more and more writing. Jay has roughly 700 songs on various disks, even floppy disks! It’s nuts. He’s been writing and recording for 16 years, so there’s an endless stream of material.

And everything I’ve heard to date (maybe 50 of those, if that) has been fantastic. So, I’m like a kid in a candy store. I like to take one of his songs, bring it into GarageBand, throw on a headset mic, and hit record. Sometimes I have lyrics that are thought out and somewhere that I can read them, or in most cases, I have a bunch of books I’m reading that are open all around me. Having never heard whatever the song is before (it’s just kind of being revealed to me on the timeline), I hit the record button and sing whatever pops into my head or whatever words fly out at me from the various texts.

I do that a few times and then listen to the tracks and cut stuff out of each layer and mix the levels high and low and just see what comes out of it. That’s how the vocals for the demos that are currently online where all recorded. So, it’s a lot of fun to write in that manner, and I can’t wait to start working on more songs! With all that material, we’re hoping to be putting together music for a long time! We’re both super serious about this.

Jay: We plan on finishing up our first EP and then touring locally to promote it to keep the momentum going. As the EP will probably be about 3-4 songs we will want to follow up our first release with a full length album that includes the other songs we are playing live that are not being included on the EP. Additionally, we have a huge library of songs I’ve written over the years and I continue to write about 20-30 songs every year, so we’ve got new material that we can bring into our live set. Rani and I have a large list of cover songs we want to learn, and we’ve toyed with the idea of playing a show of only cover songs—not that we want to be a cover band, but to pay tribute to those who influenced the sound that is Girl Detective.

See Girl Detective on stage Monday, April 30, 2012 at 8PM at Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. You can hear Girl Detective at ReverbNation or visit the official Girl Detective site.