Lali Puna is the sound of now. What began in 1998 as an arty drum-and-bass solo project by singer/keyboardist Valerie Trebeljahr has evolved into one of the more singular Avant Pop units of our age.
Hailing from Munich, Germany, the band now features four full-time members — Trebeljahr, multi-instrumentalist Markus Acher (of Notwist fame), keyboardist Christian Heib and drummer Christoph Brandner — and boasts three full-length recordings in five years.
The freshly minted Faking the Books finds Lali Puna at its apex, adding a healthy dose of guitar into its already potent mix of atmospheric keyboards, fidgety rhythms and laconic, hypnotic vocals. The new material effectively merges its earlier esoteric, electronic-heavy approach with more traditional hook-laden song structures. Think Emperor Tomato Ketchup-era Stereolab, but with a more discerning sense of Pop savvy. Or as the band's cultified record label, Morr Music, promises in a press release, Lali Puna — along with label mates Duo 505, Styrofoam and The Go Find — will "treat audiences all over U.S. and Canada to a night of proper Indie Pop and live electronics."
It's the band's first such jaunt in our particular Midwestern territory, and Trebeljahr and Acher are eager to spread the word. Following a few aborted attempts at communication, CityBeat's questions finally reach the pair via cyberspace. Their responses, tackled tag-team style, arrive just before Lali Puna boards a plane for North America.
"All the electronic music that dominated the music scene the past years was a big influence," Acher says of the band's computer-enhanced, Eurocentric roots. "But we also discovered the limitations of pure electronic music and started to work more with 'real' instruments. We're also very much influenced by a few Krautrock bands — Can, Neu or Harmonia. Their way of playing together as a band without falling into Rock clichés is still very impressing and modern."
From its velvety, textured opening track to its low-key closer, Faking the Books is undeniably informed by the aforementioned Stereolab, a connection Acher only plays up, both on a sonic and personal level.
"They found a totally individual style in combining Krautrock rhythms, electronics, Pop melodies, political lyrics and '60s psychedelia," he says. "But we also met them, and they are very nice people and have a great way of handling all the music business things. They are still mainly music fans, looking for new music and interested in everything unconventional."
Contrary to the notion that electronic-based music is distant or cold sounding, Faking the Books is a warm, densely layered and, yes, quite humanistic experience (the thoroughly alluring "Grin and Bear" is just one of Faking the Books' many addictive pleasures). Trebeljahr says the warmth is no coincidence. "We're definitely searching for warm sounds — old synthesizers, bad microphones, various noises — to work against that clean electronic sound that is there when you work with computers."
Not only content to create rich soundscapes, Lali Puna takes great care in its visual aesthetic as well. A swanky Web site and distinctive, minimal record sleeves are other weapons in the band's well-crafted arsenal.
"It puts a new dimension to the music," Acher says of their visual care. "The sleeves are always designed by Jan Kruse, who designs all the Morr Music covers. He is a very unique artist. We tried to always have a very simple and clear artwork, to have enough space for the music. Jan made this possible, and still succeeded in making something very recognizable."
Like most effective art, Lali Puna revels in contradiction. Trebeljahr's socially conscious lyrics are offset by her dreamy, melancholic vocals, a juxtaposition not often employed.
"Well, I always say that I don't find our music so melancholic, but apparently it is," she says of her oft-characterized vocal delivery. "Generally I try to write about the things happening around me, things that concern me. That can also be social and political themes. I try to see them in a personal way, because they are: You can try to ignore political decisions but they will affect your life anyway. I believe that music or a good book or movie can make (you) aware of issues. In the best case it makes you think or deal with something you didn't really think about before. But I don't believe that musicians should make politics — in that case you should go directly into politics — because music should be something everybody can read differently. It shouldn't sell something."
True to that ambiguity, Faking the Books — both the album's title and its like-titled opening track — can be read in a multitude of ways. But, at least this once, Trebeljahr reveals her truth.
"Faking the Books is meant in a quite political way," she says. "It refers to faking history books or faking the votes — (related) so quite directly to what happened in the U.S. after 2000. But the lyrics themselves have a more general view on it, on political power, on people losing their integrity and credibility. It's a very cynical song."
Which brings us to her thoughts of the recent U.S. election. "I was depressed," she says. "And what was strange, too, is the whole world was watching and staying awake all night. But we couldn't vote."
Thankfully, Lali Puna is here to soothe our collective post-election anxiety.
LALI PUNA headlines the Morr Music Winter Tour 2004 at the Southgate House Saturday.