Gel Set's Laura Callier on aggression and growing as a producer
The Chicago electronic outfit plays July 1 at Mickey’s ahead of a new album, “Human Salad."
Gel Set, the electronic solo project of Chicago producer and vocalist Laura Callier, finds it sharpest expression yet on Human Salad, a new album due out July 7 through Chicago’s Moniker Records. Callier was a relative newcomer to electronic music when she started putting out music as Gel Set in 2012, having mostly played in rock bands around Chicago. Like many musicians who come from non-electronic backgrounds and get seduced by synths, drum samples, and Ableton, Callier was able to develop a distinctive approach on a series of EPs, singles and splits. Releases like Gel Set’s 2012 EP Cell Jets and her 2014 split with Milwaukee’s Stacian found Callier creating stark, pulsating dance-pop songs overlaid with her entrancing talk-sing vocals. Callier quickly grew adept at making minimalist electronic pop, but has consistently pulled it off with a strong element of playfulness and flippancy—she’s even said in previous interviews that she liked having her music turn out sounding a little janky.
That said, Human Salad builds on that approach with a purposeful clarity. The beats (sourced from Callier’s collection of vintage drum-machine samples) are a bit more dense but still full of eerie open space, the hooks are well-defined and concise, and most importantly, there’s a whole warped vision and persona that comes through. To listen to the mangled mating dance of “Predator Or Prey,” the Spanish-language “Hola Puta,” the horror-movie-inspired “The Basement,” or crunchy album closer “Ether Or" is to be charmed and menaced at once. The more I listen to it the more it gives me the feeling of an apex predator in playful repose, even though Callier kind of dispels that interpretation for me in this interview.
Over the next few months, Callier will be working on putting together another Gel Set EP and a release from God Vol. 1, her collaboration with fellow Chicagoan Nicole Ginelli, and she also wants to make her live set more hardware-oriented. Ahead of her Wednesday, July 1 show at Mickey’s Tavern, Callier talked with us about the ideas behind Human Salad, her evolving approach to production, and trying to become more purposeful as a songwriter.
Tone Madison: There’s almost a theme on this album about predators, and a sinister vibe running through it. Where does that come from for you?
Laura Callier: Well, I guess I didn’t consciously think about the predatory tone. The one song that’s blatantly predatory, “Predator Or Prey,” to be honest, I was thinking about dating—I don’t mean like sexual predator, but sometimes I feel like in the dating world, it’s just so harsh and cold and it feels like lions and deer tearing each other apart. I’m trying to think what else you might have seen as predatory.
Tone Madison: Well, in “Double Vision," you’re talking about having all these different senses and it kind of suggests a competitive thing or some kind of superiority.
Laura Callier: In that song, to be honest, I listen to a lot of radio pop when I’m in my car, and I’m just intrigued by how many songs that get played on the radio are very braggadocious, like, “I’m the best, I’m the shit, my songs are the best, I make the best rhymes, I’m the hottest, I get the most bitches.” So I was thinking about that and went, what if I wrote a song that was weirdly arrogant? Like I’m arrogant but what I’m saying doesn’t really make sense, so in that one I wanted to brag about having this special power when double vision’s not a special power, obviously—it’s something you get when you have a migraine. I guess I wasn’t really thinking about the predatory nature of anything in that. I was thinking about arrogance in lyrics.
Tone Madison: And just more generally, the album is dark, but it’s also playful.
Laura Callier: Yeah, I mean I think that’s definitely what I try to go for. I sit down any time I make music and go, “Today I’m gonna write a really happy pop song. It’s gonna be great. I’m gonna finally do it!” But it always ends up a little dark. I do feel very lighthearted about my music. I don’t take it super seriously. I like for that to come through lyrically with puns and jokes. I try to keep it playful, because then it’s fun, and I want it to be fun.
Tone Madison: And on the song “Hola Puta,” you’re using the Spanish word for bitch or slut, so that has an aggressive connotation, but even then there’s this weird playful note to it.
Laura Callier: I gave a lot of thought as to whether I should include that song on the album, because the word “puta” is pretty loaded, but I chose to include it because I just don’t think that calling a woman a slut or a prostitute should be an insult. That’s one reason why I wrote it and decided to put it on the album, because just being a sexually liberated woman, I don’t see why that’s an insult, but it is. It’s a word you use to really get a woman at her core. But the reason I wrote it is, there’s this Italo disco band called Righeira and they have these two songs they wrote in Spanish. One is “Vamos A La Playa,” and the other is “No Tengo Dinero.” And they’re just really playful songs written in Spanish, and the Spanish is really simple because it’s not their native tongue, and they’re just these party songs. I was listening to those and I said, “I want to write some really fun party songs in Spanish,” so I was sort of inspired by those two songs to write “Hola Puta."
Tone Madison: The album does sound really cohesive. Was there a set of themes or sounds that you were trying to thread throughout the record, or did it just kind of turn out that way?
Laura Callier: Well, I guess a little bit of both. Last year, for about four months, I went and I lived in the Appalachian Mountains. My dad has a house in far west North Carolina, and I was living there by myself and I was like, "I’m gonna live in the woods by myself and I’m just gonna get feral.” I just wanted to be a hermit and be free. A lot of it was written there. To me, I think a theme in the album is loneliness, because I was very lonely when I was living in the woods. I didn’t purposely pick out a theme and do it, but that’s where it was born.
Tone Madison: How do you think your approach to songwriting and production has changed since you started this project?
Laura Callier: I’ve just found that I’ve gotten really obsessed with writing beats. That’s by far my favorite part of making music. I didn’t really know how to write beats when I first started, so that’s definitely a big thing for me. I would definitely like to keep growing and changing the way I think about songwriting, because I’ve always just gone about it without a real specific direction or purpose in mind. I just kind of sit down and write a beat and play around on a keyboard and see what happens. I think in the future I’d like to be more purposeful.
Tone Madison: Do you think you’re starting to get closer to that, to where it feels more purposeful?
Laura Callier: Yeah. I guess I feel like my beats have become more complex. I guess this album’s kind of in a poppy direction, but I do like pretty harsh sounds and harsh dance music, so, maybe it will be more in that direction. I don’t know. I really live pop. I love it when things are really catchy and fun.
Tone Madison: You’ve said in interviews before that you got into electronic music kind of late, after playing in bands for a long time and so on. Do you think that coming to it from that perspective enabled you to have a fresh approach and mess with the form a bit?
Laura Callier: Yeah, for sure, because I think I didn’t really go, “OK, I’m totally gonna make an album that sounds like Detroit house.” I didn’t have these set types of frameworks. I would just sit down and go, “Oh, this is a cool conga sound” and “Yeah, I like this weird sawtooth wave,” so I felt like a little kid just poking around and exploring. I hope that gives a sense of originality to some things in a way, because I’m not trying to base it on anything. I’m just playing around and creating things in the moment.