“When you create something, you have to leave holes in it for the other person to create their meaning.”
By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
By day, Erika June Christina Laing studies the functions of the brain at CMU’s Machine Learning Department. So when she talks about her other work, as the singer and multi-instrumentalist in The Working Breed, it should come as no surprise that the band’s songs also have many layers, in terms of musical influences and lyrical metaphors.
Unlike her neurological work, though, Laing believes that music shouldn’t be fully explained to the listener.
“When you create something, you have to leave holes in it for the other person to create their meaning,” she says. “Because if you try to define everything about what you’re doing, there’s no room for the other person to have an experience with it.”
Hieroglyphica, the band’s debut album, contains plenty of rabbit holes for listeners to fall into, in addition to an array of art rock and jazz, with a healthy dose of humor. Starting off with a track, “Mo Fo Ro Ro,” the group might come off as a little light-hearted. (The title is a cleaned up version of the chorus line, “Motherfucking rock and roll.”) But as things proceed, arrangements get more complex and — even as the humor remains at arm’s length — some of the lyrics get a little dark.
The Working Breed formed about five years ago when Laing met guitarist Mike Dugan and bassist Jonah Petrelli. She had sung in a few bands but songwriting was still new to her, so she sang an idea to them. “They looked at each other and [nodded]. And they started playing exactly what I had heard in my head to go with the song,” Laing says. “I was really impressed with how they communicated. It was exactly right.”
The group began working on what would become Hieroglyphica three-and-a-half years ago. Laing was dealing with a family emergency at the time but pressed the band to get it started before she went home to Florida. Along the way, a few drummers came and left the group. Current drummer Jeremy Papay and his predecessor Kieran Bittles both appear on the album. Keyboardist/vocalist Chloe Wiecz also joined during the sessions.
With the group’s solid backing, Laing brings a few random elements to the sound. She regularly pulls out the trombone between verses, and she’s also fluent on the trumpet. But the instrument that attracts the biggest response is the singing saw. Balancing the handle of the tool on her leg — its teeth pointing towards her — she bows with her left hand and manipulates the pitch with her right. Like her brass chops, this is no novelty performance either. Her tone on “Cicada” sounds like a cross between a theremin and a soprano vocalist. As an intro to the song, Laing found a sample of the exact species of cicada that she heard growing up in Florida, which gives the album its name.
She also used skills learned at her day job with speech synthesis to create “Mimosa Pudica,” which has a synthetic voice that was speaking backwards and was recorded backward and then played forward, which displaces the accents and stresses of its words. It precedes “Sensitive Plant,” a metaphorical tale of the person who, like the actual plant, closes up on contact. Elsewhere on the album, “Turtle Race,” something of a power ballad, deals with the aftermath of a relationship and includes the line, “If you love somebody, you’re fucked.”
Laing, who isn’t as cynical in person as that song might imply, revels in minute details, even going so far to record electromagnetic fields around an actual sensitive plant and upscaling them to an audible level. “There are animals who can see ultra violet and electromagnetic fields better than us. But we’re better than them? I don’t subscribe to that. I just think we should being a little more humble,” she says.
Laughing, she adds, “I think that’s the deep thread in the record.”