Laura Callier, aka Gel Set
Seventeen months ago, Laura "Lulu" Callier—aka solo electronic musician Gel Set
—packed up her things and moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with her steadfast canine companion, Dixie.
She didn't leave her home of 11 years because she had anything against Chicago—or against Pilsen, where she was living when she decided to leave. Her parting was more bittersweet—a teary-eyed, really-mean-it "I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me."
Callier had just earned an MFA in sound from the School of the Art Institute, and she was ready for new challenges. Los Angeles seemed to hold out the prospect of jobs to be had in video and sound editing, which she hoped would allow her to continue her creative life—not just as Gel Set but as a multimedia artist.
She arrived in LA in June 2016, moving into the Koreatown neighborhood, and somewhere between the early rush of novelty and settling into the new reality, she hit the "Holy L. Ron Hubbard, am I lonely!" stage that all big moves have in common. The realization started to sink in: the people she'd left behind, the ones she still half-expected to run into each day and night, were no longer around. "I lived in Chicago," she says, "long enough that pretty much anywhere I would go, I knew someone, or recognized an acquaintance or even a face."
As Callier rode out that loneliness, she began noticing doppelgängers everywhere she went: on sidewalks, at gas stations, at supermarkets, and at shows, she saw people who looked almost but not exactly like the friends and acquaintances she'd left behind. She calls them "body copies"—and they're also why she titled the new Gel Set record Body Copy
. If albums document a specific time and place in the life of the artist, then Body Copy
is a snapshot of Callier neither here nor there, living in that disorienting mix of past, present, and future that so often occurs during transition.
Since then, Callier has started to settle into life in LA. Because I moved there myself
this summer, after two decades in Chicago, for our interview we could meet in person.
On a Sunday in late October, during game five of the World Series, we conduct a fruitless search for body copies while walking around Koreatown—Callier has since moved out of the area, but it's where she made the new album, working in her bedroom studio. Over drinks in a back booth of a bar called HMS Bounty (despite its name, not a doppelgänger of Chicago shithole the Mutiny), she laughs about the way some interviewers have tried to pigeonhole her as the proverbial lonely girl in the big city.
"I'm not lonely!" she insists. "I have friends!"
All the same, Callier's Chicago record-release party Thursday at the Empty Bottle
feels to her like a joyous return to a city she's missed. It's a reunion with the music community that gave her the support and space for Gel Set to evolve from its somewhat jokey beginnings in 2012 into what it is today: still capable of being a super-fun ass-shaking party, but always leaving plenty of room for the prismatic and wide-ranging sounds, moods, and themes that seem to swirl inside Callier's playfully creative head space.
The 11 songs on Body Copy
demonstrate her drive, focus, and evolving talents. She draws on deep knowledge of a wide spectrum of electronic music—house, techno, synth-heavy 80s movie soundtracks, synth-pop past and present—but a distinctive avant-ooze also seeps into every corner of the album, keeping it weird for the weirdos who just wanna get fucking weird.
She began working on many of the tracks in Chicago, but she finished every one of them in Los Angeles. The contrast between the two cities seems to come through in the music—sometimes it sounds like a John Carpenter montage that could score Snake Pilsen [sic!
] staging Orchestral Manoeuvres in Echo Park.
In its sound, mood, and lyrical content, Body Copy
constantly swirls and jolts through head-spinning dualities: pathos and humor, close and faraway, warm and cold, familiar and remote, goofy and cool. It's as though all the letters in the Myers-Briggs personality test came to life and started a band.
Callier doesn't confine herself to electronic music either. Moments before playing her LA record-release show, she turned to me and joked that maybe she wouldn't do the set she had planned—maybe instead she'd give a performance of John Cage's 4'33"
. (The score for that infamous "silent" piece instructs the musicians not to play their instruments.) Callier occasionally uses the Gel Set Facebook page to post musical obscurities—Blue Gas, Zenit, Erkin Koray
—that make even a with-it, in-the-know, and extremely important music writer such as yours truly scratch his trivia-besotted head and wonder how he'd never heard of them before.
A recurring theme in Callier's music and visual art—including the upcoming video she made for album opener "Don't You Miss Me?"—concerns the impact of the Internet and social media on our relationships and emotional well-being. "The addiction to our phones," she explains, "and the line between self-love and narcissism."
But a light-hearted "fuck it, let's dance" attitude has also been part of Gel Set since the beginning, informing what Callier self-deprecatingly refers to as her "vapid pop songs."
"But," she's quick to add, "I love vapid pop songs!"
Callier also loves plays on words—if Tinseltown had made a high-concept thriller about her, it'd be called "Pun Lulu Pun." Wordplay often sparks her creative process, and it appears in many of her lyrics.
When she came up with the phrase "You drop me like I was acid," it became a gateway to the Body Copy
track "Bounce," an unstoppable freaky-deaky techno banger. In the seductive "Odds," lyrics about gambling with cards and dice take on new meaning. "What do you got? You got a queen?" Callier asks in a talk-sing-whisper. "You got a pair for me?" I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but somehow I don't think she's talking about Potawatomi
And then there's "Sex Numerals." Over the slow pound of what could be a movie score for mismatched blade-running policebot partners who have to put aside their differences to fight Felonydroid 3000s in a desolate urban wasteland, Callier counts up from 61 and then down from 78 in two verses of rhyming couplets, evaluating each number as though it were sex position: "Sixty-two? / I didn't wear the right shoes . . . Sixty-seven? / It's gonna take an hour for this bread to leaven . . . Seventy-six? / Ugh, it makes me sick! . . . Seventy-five? / I knew a girl who died." Finally she arrives at the inevitable: "Now it's time / To sixty-nine."
"I heard somebody refer to 69 once as the 'sex numeral,' and that stuck with me," Callier says. "Because we know why it's called '69.' But what about all the other numbers?"
The clip for "Bounce" was made by video artist Jason Ogawa, who played in the band Tarnation when he lived in Chicago (he's also moved to LA). More videos from tracks on Body Copy
are forthcoming, directed by friends of Callier's in Chicago and LA whose work she admires.
Callier says that bringing other people aboard eases the go-it-aloneliness that's part and parcel of a solo project like Gel Set. The cover art for Body Copy
, which in its original form consists of linen hand-embroidered with silk, cotton, and linen threads, is by her good friend Anneli Henriksson.
"Being a solo artist can feel so narcissistic," Callier says. "I'm alone when I'm writing music. I'm alone when I'm practicing. I'm the one who has to promote. I do a lot of the booking, so there's so much 'Me me me!' and 'Here's me, everyone!' So any type of collaboration feels really good.
"It's not even collaboration so much as me saying to them, 'Do what you want.'"
Same lipstick, different light
While the loneliness of Callier's new life in LA helped inspire her to write the songs on Body Copy
, it was a scare she got in the city's notoriously horrible traffic that pushed her to get the album done quickly.
Sitting in her car during a rush-hour jam between Santa Monica and LA, Callier noticed a lump on her jaw she'd never felt before. Lacking the wherewithal at the time to see a doctor, she turned to Dr. Google—and as anyone who's ever tried to self-diagnose via the Internet can tell you, the prognosis looked grim.
"It came out of nowhere and was this giant lump. So I thought I had a tumor, so I was like: 'All right. What if I do? What have I not done with my life? What have I not finished?' I had all these unfinished albums."
Callier immediately devoted all her energies to completing the uncompleted, spending all her free time in her bedroom until what would be Body Copy
was recorded. Then she finally made it to a doctor, who told her that what she had was thankfully just a swollen lymph node from a cold.
She sent rough mixes of the songs to a few people she thought could help find her a label, among them Numero Group cofounder Rob Sevier. He connected her with 2MR Records in New Jersey—a label that, in an odd coincidence, sells a T-shirt with a drawing of Kindergarten Cop
-era Ahhnold saying "IT'S NOT A 2MR!" Callier's deal with 2MR allows her to make three records with the label, Body Copy
being the first.
The release party at the Empty Bottle
is the second of two Gel Set dates in Chicago this month—last week Callier played Smart Bar for the first time. She's also making a quick midwest tour with her friend Jenny Polus, aka Spa Moans. But even with a new album out and lots more to come, she seems happiest simply to be in Chicago again.
"I hope people come to the show," Callier says, "but whether or not they do, I'm just so excited to come back."