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Friday, July 18, 2008

Pop Levi goes slightly wrong

Staff writer

"It was a very obsessive thing," says Jonathan Pop Levi about the recording of his new album of warped pop music, "Never Never Love." "It took six days a week for 12 hours a day for four months to get it to sound that way. Especially in the vocals; if a computer could do a perfect impression of a human, I wanted it to sound like that, you know? Slightly wrong."

News photo
MySpace cadet: Pop Levi writes about "love in the Internet age."

This new album by Pop Levi (his stage name; people call him Pop) merges Prince, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and T.Rex into one oddball package that springs from a quite singular mind. It bears a slightly eerie, almost emotionally flat sound that is strangely compelling: Songs are muted and compressed, and the vocals heavily treated to create a psychedelic sound that fuels the imagination.

One standout is "Mai's Space," which stretches a melody reminiscent of 1950s doo-wop over a robotic skeleton to create a bare piece of electronic singalong pop. A restrained and manipulated voice give the song's joyful melody an unworldly texture that is so weird, yet so right.

"It's a song about love in the Internet age," he explains. (And it doesn't take a genius to realize that "Mai's Space" sounds like "MySpace.") "The whole album is about that sad, forlorn love-pang feeling that doo-wop is all about. I like the way that doo-wop would talk about, at the time, cutting-edge cultural things that were happening; I like the idea of referencing that in a way."

Pop was born in London and grew up in Liverpool, northwest England, before moving to Los Angeles four years ago, after visiting as bassist with neo-electronica band Ladytron. "The first day I woke up here, I knew I wanted to move here," he says. "In every way, it's the opposite to Liverpool."

With his band Super Numeri, he began releasing records through British label Ninja Tune in 2002. He soon fell in with Ladytron member Danny Hunt, joining the band as bassist for tours and recording sessions in 2003 and 2004. Signing to Hunt's label, Invicta Hi-Fi, he began releasing solo material as Pop Levi while simultaneously making Super Numeri records for Ninja Tune. Keeping three music projects on the go was a strain, and Super Numeri pretty much bit the dust as Ladytron tours took Pop far from home.

"It was pretty amazing for me at the time," says Pop. "I got to go to some seriously weird places; it blew my mind. I haven't really come back from that, to be honest."

Nowadays, Pop works only on his solo project. He released the album "The Return to Form Black Magick Party" in 2007 on Ninja Tune imprint Counter, a collection of skewed but organic pop-tinged electronic rock tracks. "Never Never Love" represents a total change in direction, which Pop says was intentional.

"In this day and age, people hear different kinds of music next to different kinds of music all the time," he says. "For most young people, life revolves around MP3 players and iTunes on their computers. It's a totally modern way, to listen to everything at the flick of a switch, all kinds of different music, and I wanted to make a record that reflects that. I think it's pretty weird avant-garde pop music, and that's what I've always been into. I wanted to make one of those records that, if you get it, you really love it."

Despite having toured extensively with Ladytron, including three weeks in China, Pop has never visited Japan. But he has a clear affinity for this country. His MySpace page describes his musical genre as J-pop; he recorded a version of his song "Mai's Space" in Japanese with the help of avant-garde Tokyo singer Miel Fraga; he goes by the nickname San Juu Shichi Chan (a reference in Japanese to his dream-fueled obsession with the number 37); he has a video on YouTube that shows him flirting with a group of Japanese girls at Geneva Airport; and so on. Japan holds a particular mystique for him, he says.

"I think it's the imagination of it," he says. "Everything that is exported, all the imagery, all the classic things. If you were to reduce any country to its obvious exported imagery and culture, then Japan has a really good one going on. I hope to play there as soon as possible."

Referring to the J-pop classification on MySpace, he says, "It's slightly tongue-in-cheek. I wanted to make a new sound that was kind of like mass-produced electronic toys making soul music. And that's why I wanted to call it J-pop. It's also my initial as well."

Pop is already working on album number three, which will be titled "Records" and built around hundreds of hours of found sounds he's collected on Dictaphones for the soundtrack to "World Empire Inc.," a movie he's making himself. He says the two will tie together somehow.

"I like to do it different every time," he says. "A band like The Beatles got themselves by fluke into a position where their experimentalism was celebrated, whereas I think nowadays people don't like it. Once they find a format that works, they want to keep exploiting it. But I don't feel that way about it; I'd rather crash and burn, and do exciting things."

He pauses, before adding, "I've never lived before, obviously. But I'm assuming that if you stick to your guns and do what you want to do, and express yourself in your art with excitement and grace, then the day will see you through, you know what I mean?"

"Never Never Love" is out now.

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