by Gene Marrano
First, let’s get this straight: River Laker, who puts together programs for the Roanoke City Library system, is not a musician or a songwriter. At least he wasn’t, until the Laker Experiment came along. And his band, Laker? It’s really just him and one other person now, producer Josa Wakes, who plays several instruments but could just be manning a beat box when Laker takes to the stage this Friday night at Kirk Avenue Music Hall. The show will feature some or all of the 11 tracks River Laker composed for his musical debut. Other Roanoke area performances may be scheduled in the near future.
Those 11 tracks will be released in three stages in the EP (extended play) format, beginning with the first EP that will be available at Kirk Avenue Music Hall on Friday Nov. 25 during the 8pm show. A portion of the proceeds will go to Bethany Hall, a women’s center for recovery from substance abuse.
Laker’s music will also be available on The Uncmonwealth label (theuncmonwealth.com) run by Wes Powell, who has taken on the Brit’s latest excursion. Powell also can be reached through a Facebook page and on Twitter. You may remember the Car-less Brit, wherein Laker sold his Volvo, on somewhat of a whim, and then turned his life without a vehicle into a media happening, urging others to think about going without a car, at least in short spurts.
Then there was the month when Laker tried to subsist by bartering with others for everything – the plan was not to purchase anything. And of course, the incident at 202 Market where he shed his clothes on stage, which led to an inquiry from ABC officials.
The Laker Experiment and the band Laker is a lot less controversial but maybe just as interesting: can a non-musician who has never written songs compose a handful of them in a short period of time? That’s what River Laker did, using sounds on his iPad to come up with the beats he wanted. “River’s our first electronic dance group,” said Powell of the artists on his label, which has been up and running for a year-plus. He’s worked mainly with hip-hop artists from the Richmond and Charlottesville areas.
Laker helped Powell book the first live show for one of the bands he promotes, during the Emerging Artist series at the main library branch on Jefferson. Now Powell, who also works for the library system, is returning the favor. “He had a program at the library with iPads and iPhones, creating music, beats and stuff,” recalls Powell. “I think he got intrigued by it.”
With typical cheekiness, Laker jokes that, “I always felt I would be a star.” He’s never written music, never played an instrument. A program on his iPhone called Thumbjam helped him come up with the notes he wanted, in the sequences that turned into songs.
He saw another local band use electronic music during a show at The Coffee Pot, also taking cues from that. Laker hopes that his venture serves as inspiration for other creative types of all stripes, pushing them to think outside of the box. He documented the whole process on a blog, available at lakerexperiment.tumblr.com. There’s also a Laker page on Facebook.
“It’s taking a lot more time than I thought it would,” said Laker of the seven month process, which has also included the shooting of a music video for his band. At one time there were other members besides Wakes but the slow process of bringing The Laker Experiment to fruition may have led some of them in other directions.
“I hear that’s the sign that you’re a real band, that they come and go,” said Laker, who also recorded sounds like his foot scraping across a grating to use on one of his tunes. “Josa Wakes has been incredible, trying to simplify it so we can play it live,” he noted. “He’s not a technical musician … and I’m not sure he knows how to count,” jokes Powell, who attended the Art Institute in D.C., “but he’s progressed a lot in seven months.”
“I’m more nervous for this show than anything in my whole life,” said Laker, who started out wanting to create “perfect pop songs” but found what he came up with to be a lot more complex. He’s hoping for the best this Friday night, when he makes his debut as the leader of a band, singing vocals on songs he created: “I really don’t want it to be a train wreck.”
David Sylvian, the subject of Laker’s first single, was a real life musician in England when Laker was a teen. “I became totally obsessed,” he admits. Laker even tracked Sylvian down and spoke to him over the phone as his music hero asked him repeatedly how Laker had gotten his number (he had fibbed to the phone operator about being a relative who needed Sylvian’s number.)
David Sylvian, Cookies and Cream and You Would, Would You? are the three songs available this Friday and online as the first EP. Laker has also uploaded his tunes to an iPhone, where they are shuffled with songs from established artists. “It’s incredibly satisfying to listen to a song that you’ve totally made yourself… its really great.”
If it is indeed a train wreck (the first single, David Sylvian, is melodic, with Laker speaking most of the lyrics) those attending the show at Kirk Avenue Music Hall probably won’t be able to take their eyes off of River Laker anyway.