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Q&A / Music: Shannon Funchess

Light Asylum's fiery front woman plans to wake up the masses

Shannon Funchess is one of those women who just make you say “WOW”. Not only are her vocal and drum skills (trained in a choir, moulded by Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure) forces to be reckoned with but she’s also not afraid to say what she thinks about literature, art, politics and impending chaos... A popular figure in the US underground scene for years, she’s done punk with Seattle’s IMIJ, sung live for Canadian dance-punksters !!! and lent her vocals to the soulful indie-rock of TV on the Radio. Now leading the way in her own band Light Asylum with friend Bruno Coviello (he’s making those industrial synths pop) she just wants to inspire as many dance parties as possible. So why might that be a problem in New York?

Dazed & Confused: You’ve said that Light Asylum are a band for a time when people are afraid to express themselves properly. Does modern pop culture bore you?

Shannon Funchess: Now, I complain a lot about how New York isn’t cool any more but I live there. Am I not cool? We make things what they are. We want people to just dance or let themselves go. I hope people come and get excited by what we’re doing because we’re making dance music and putting the glam and the style back in the underground. It’s like when I first heard new wave or EBM groups like New Order and The Communards – I found my niche. I was from a small town and felt like a complete freak as a teenager but with these bands, I finally found all these places where I did belong. If there was a club night – even if it was just for one night – that I could go to, it was amazing. You know, just communing in the same place, knowing that we were the freaks but it was OK because we had that music.

Dazed & Confused: What do you think is the biggest problem with New York’s music scene?

Shannon Funchess: People need to start throwing more parties. There are powers that be that are making New York uncool or not cool by closing down small bars or clubs and fining them, having cabaret laws that mean you can’t dance or have to have a liquor license with a kitchen. It’s like, it might as well be Prohibition time! (NYC mayor Michael) Bloomberg and his predecessor (Rudy) Giuliani don’t want people to dance or show their creativity. They closed down galleries so artists have fewer places to show their work and fewer studios to work in. All of this is destroying the nightlife and the art and the energy that so many people have made the pilgrimage to New York to be part of. It’s not so inspiring any more to live in New York. I’m much more inspired in London. It’s rapid and rabid in New York.

Dazed & Confused: It happens in London too...

Shannon Funchess: These young 20, 30-something yuppie Republicans are moving into the neighbourhood, and once they are there you can’t be there too. The artists’ backyard is the bridge that these people walk into their lofts or flats or apartments over. Artists make an area visible then get kicked out. We’d been living with shitty landlords, shitty apartments, cockroaches, the ceiling cracking, and bad porcelain in the tub or the sink. Nothing was nice about it but it was affordable! The powers that be have cleaned up the city to the point where an artist can’t afford to live in it, even past Brooklyn. You have to graze where there’s cheap rent and those places are fewer and fewer.

Dazed & Confused: Do you think everything is becoming more conservative too?

Shannon Funchess: Yeah, like fashion. There are khakis everywhere and it’s terrible. Designers can’t make edgy or risky clothing because they’re trying to sell their line, or get backers or sponsors to produce their work. It costs a lot of money for a young designer to produce anything so they show their line and someone with money will buy it and knock it off. They’ll dumb it down and have it at Urban Outfitters. Scrape off the edges and make it for the masses. The mindless, wiggling, sleeping masses.

People need to start throwing more parties. There are powers that be that are making New York uncool or not cool by closing down small bars or clubs and fining them, having cabaret laws that mean you can’t dance or have to have a liquor license with a kitchen

Dazed & Confused: Why do you think that the masses are asleep?

Shannon Funchess: You know, maybe as technology is advancing, humans are going backwards. We’re being desensitised by consumerism and the internet and TV and billboards. Everywhere you go, in the back of the taxi there’s a little screen; it’s like Times Square is seeping into everyday life, everywhere. People are tethered to their phones, iPods – they’re walking around with earphones in and not interacting. They’re in their own little world. People don’t engage in human contact sometimes, unless to say, ‘Hey, you bumped into me when I was texting.’

Dazed & Confused: Do you think people are afraid to like something ‘different’?

Shannon Funchess: Yeah, people think they have freedom because they have choice – ‘I can have the iPhone or the Xperia!’ – but you just have choices of different items to consume. There are no alternatives really. There’s no utopia. There’s a dystopia but we’re not going to do anything to change it. We’re comfortable with our heating and the constant buzz.

Dazed & Confused: Do Light Asylum make dystopian music?

Shannon Funchess: Yes, but also hope inspires us. I hope it won’t ever get too bad and people will still say, ‘No! I want to keep dancing!’ People can take responsibility for the role they play in the world, whether that’s protest or like, recycling or helping out their fellow man or woman on the street when they see someone being harassed. Or if somebody is being racist or abusive because of religion or sex or the fact they like, buy... Ke$ha albums. Basically, take responsibility for your actions or your choices because they affect everyone.

Dazed & Confused: Do you think a younger generation will step up at some point?

Shannon Funchess: Yeah. Occupy Wall Street is like, young college students, and people are following their lead. It’s good. Generally it is college students who step up first, and I don’t know what it’s like in the UK but in the US there will be a trillion- dollar debt for student loans. This debt means we don’t value higher education. We actually penalise people for trying to get a higher education in America! That’s the cause of the problems in America. Don’t get an education, just listen to more crap and buy more crappy clothes.

Dazed & Confused: Have you played much in Europe?

Shannon Funchess: Greece is hurting too, right? Yeah, we’ve been over here more now. We’re going to Rotterdam soon and then Brussels. We’ll be playing some art events.

Dazed & Confused: Do you feel very connected to art as a band?

Shannon Funchess: I’d love to do more visual art collaborations with set designers or lighting people. For our last show of this leg of the tour in Austria we’re collaborating with Laurie Anderson, doing an improv. We got together with her a couple of days before we left and we just set up and improvised.

Dazed & Confused: How are you feeling about your forthcoming album?

Shannon Funchess: I’m so excited for the record to come out! It feels like a proper introduction to the Light Asylum sound. We just want to keep making music and do what we do and reach as many people as we can in the rest of this year. I’m also singing on a track on the new Knife album. I recorded with them after we left here last time, and in a couple of days I’m going to Berlin to record some more. That’ll come out in September 2012. They’re totally sweet people!

Light Asylum’s self-titled debut album is out now on Mexican Summer

Photography by Pedro Koechlin