Lovesliescrushing make shoegaze for a parallel universeNoah Berlatskyon July 21, 2021 at 11:00 am

Lovesliescrushing: Melissa Arpin Duimstra and Scott Cortez - JULIAN ARPIN-CORTEZ

“When I first heard Isn’t Anything by MBV, that was probably 1989,” says Scott Cortez, the Chicago-based musician who’s half of Lovesliescrushing. “And I was like, ‘I know what that is! It’s this one patch on this one specific effect.’ I remember people freaking out–‘Is there something wrong with my tape? Is there something wrong with my CD?’ And I was like, ‘No, this is amazing! What’s wrong with you? You don’t like warbling guitars?'”

Cortez had already been playing with a rack-mounted effects unit called the Alesis Midiverb II, using patches 45 and 49–both are reverse-reverb settings, labeled Bloom 1 and Bloom 2. Their lush, ethereal sound came to define shoegaze, so that when Cortez heard My Bloody Valentine, he felt like he was looking in a wavery, blissed-out mirror.

Other shoegaze bands–Ride, Slowdive, Sigur Ros–took MBV’s innovations and ran with them, even soared with them. But Lovesliescrushing have always seemed to operate in a parallel universe, making dense, beatless sheets of sound so disorienting you can’t see your shoes–the band’s music is turned inward so completely that the only thing you can gaze at is the inside of your own skull.

Cortez and his collaborator, vocalist Melissa Arpin Duimstra, have been recording and performing as Lovesliescrushing for three decades now. They haven’t exactly found fame or fortune, and they haven’t maintained a steady release schedule. But in that time they’ve put out around a dozen albums, earning a reputation as shoegazer’s shoegazers, widely respected among those who love the genre (Tim Hecker is a vocal fan).

To make the most of that reputation, Cortez has started to reissue old recordings on vinyl via his own Wavertone label. His only such release so far has been Lovesliescrushing’s first album, Bloweyelashwish, in 2016. But it did so well that it won’t be the last: he pressed 300 copies on vinyl, all of which sold out at the preorder stage, and they’re now fetching hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. “I saw it at Reckless Records for $250. And then it was gone,” Cortez says. “The next day, I was like, well, it’s not there anymore.” He’s planning to release more material from Lovesliescrushing and from his noise-pop project, Astrobrite, in the coming years. Next up is a reissue of Lovesliescrushing’s second album, Xuvetyn, due on CD from Projekt Records in August and on vinyl in November.

Cortez is originally from Saginaw, Michigan, and Arpin Duimstra grew up in Grand Rapids. The two met after college in 1991 in East Lansing, where Arpin Duimstra had just started law school and Cortez was working in a vintage clothing store. They had a number of musical interests in common: MBV, the Cocteau Twins, the Smiths, Joy Division, Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Philip Glass. Arpin Duimstra played piano and French horn. Cortez had been in a couple cover bands in high school, but at that point he was experimenting with his guitar and a Tascam Portastudio 424 cassette four-track, trying to create his own sound and looking for a vocalist to help. But they didn’t initially see each other as musical collaborators.

“I was not a singer,” Arpin Duimstra says, via Zoom from her Grand Rapids home. Cortez is sitting beside her on the couch, in front of one of her abstract paintings. “We were dating at the time,” he adds. “And I didn’t want to ask my girlfriend to sing. I didn’t want to bother her with it!”

After a number of vocalists had auditioned, though, Cortez still hadn’t found what he wanted. Arpin Duimstra saw he was depressed, and she volunteered to help him out. “She knew exactly what it was, because she’d been listening to the music for a couple of months,” Cortez says. She told him to go away, went in the room with the four-track, and came out with the core of the first Lovesliescrushing recording–the song “Valerian (Her Voice Honeyed),” which would eventually appear on Xuvetyn.

Not everything they worked on together was quite that easy, of course. “The only time we ever had an argument was over music,” Arpin Duimstra says. “Because I sometimes have an idea, like, ‘I think I really want to go this direction.’ And you’d be like, ‘No, we have to do this! Slow this down, or take this out!'”

Despite the occasional conflict, the pair continued to record in their living room, mostly after midnight, throughout 1991 and 1992. They discovered that their approaches to art were very similar. “I would take poems or snippets of things that I’ve written and have a loose idea of where I wanted to go, a feel for a song. But then a lot of it was just very spontaneous,” Arpin Duimstra says. “My process as a painter is, oftentimes I’ll do a complete painting, and then I scrape it away, and then I do another layer and scrape it or manipulate it. And that’s very similar to how I did vocals.”

It’s also similar to how Cortez creates music. John Cage’s writing inspired him to a broad appreciation of how music could be a place where, as Cortez puts it, “You let anything happen. Noise and silence.” Some listeners have assumed Lovesliescrushing use synths or other electronic instruments, but all their recordings consist exclusively of guitar and voice, worked and reworked and processed and reprocessed. “Without drum machines or synths,” Cortez says, “it smeared and reduced the music to its most minimal, all semblance of rockism crushed out of it.”

The early track “Silver (Fairy Threaded),” for example, was initially fairly upbeat, clipping along at 200 BPM. “It sounded like a country song,” Cortez says in disgust. Then he slowed down the recording dramatically, stretching it out to more than nine minutes. Arpin Duimstra’s pure, heavenly tone turns into a drifting drone, and the guitar becomes a pulsing roar, half church bell and half boiler. “I was like, there it is,” Cortez says. “That’s what it should be. It should be this weird.”

“Silver (Fairy Threaded)” ended up alongside “Valerian” on 1996’s Xuvetyn (pronounced “zoo-vah-TEEN,” the band tell me). Like most of the material on that album, those songs were among Lovesliescrushing’s first recordings in Michigan–and some went back even further, to Cortez’s solo experiments. They wouldn’t release that music for several years, but Cortez and Arpin Duimstra brought the unfinished tapes along with them when they decided, impulsively, to move.

“I’d lived in Michigan my whole life,” Arpin Duimstra says. “I just wanted to go someplace completely different.” In 1992 she abandoned law school, and she and Cortez got in her Toyota Tercel and headed for Santa Fe–which did not work out well. They couldn’t even find jobs in fast food, Arpin Duimstra says. Sometimes they had to get resourceful to stay fed: “We went to art openings and ate little cheese cubes.”

The couple quickly fled to Tucson, and in summer 1992 they began to record again, this time in a motel room without any air-conditioning. Later that summer those Tucson tracks became their first self-released cassette, Bloweyelashwish. “It was what we were doing at the moment. It was like, we just made this right now,” says Cortez. “It’s fresh. Let’s just put this out.”

Cortez says he has just one copy of that cassette release still in his possession. But you can hear a bit of what it sounded like from the first cassette version of “Babys Breath” that’s included on the 2010 album Girl Echo Suns Veils (Projekt). The song starts with a chalk-on-blackboard whistle-screech before opening up into a massive ambient wall that blends Arpin Duimstra’s voice and the processed guitar into an almost indistinguishable shimmering assault. It’s harsh noise wall, but pretty.

Cortez wanted to send out the cassette as a demo, but he quickly realized it would be futile. “There were no labels to send stuff to that would have appreciated us at all,” he says. The only one he knew that released ambient music was Projekt Records in Portland, Oregon. Label owner Sam Rosenthal saw Lovesliescrushing play live in Phoenix, augmented by additional musicians who allowed them to approximate the sound of their recordings. (When I ask how they managed to translate their music to the stage, Arpin Duimstra laughs. “That’s a very good question,” she says. The band have only played about seven shows in 30 years.)

Rosenthal wasn’t exactly won over. But an artist already on Projekt, Michael Plaster of one-man goth-rock project Soul Whirling Somewhere, convinced him to reissue Bloweyelashwish in a new mix in 1993–but only as a cassette. Ryan Lum of dream-pop duo Love Spirals Downwards, another labelmate, had to lobby Rosenthal to put it out on CD.

When Bloweyelashwish came out on Projekt, it was essentially the second complete version of the second record by a band that had been recording intensively for more than two years. But listeners didn’t know the earlier Xuvetyn material existed, since it wasn’t yet released, and most hadn’t heard the first cassette of Bloweyelashwish. So the Projekt version of the album was received as an intimidatingly focused debut.

Bloweyelashwish takes shoegaze to an unassimilable extreme of noise, fully formed in its refusal to cohere. Cheap digital technology had yet to make home recording ubiquitous, and at the time Cortez and Arpin Duimstra were among a small group of musicians to attempt something so ambitious outside a studio; among other things, their debut is a pioneering work of bedroom pop. “It’s like looking at an artist’s sketchbook,” Cortez says of his approach. On the track “Burst,” you feel like you’re actually inside Cortez’s guitar, every note an ocean of feedback, with Arpin Duimstra singing somewhere outside, her severed bits of melody floating past as you drown.

In 1993, the same year Projekt put out Bloweyelashwish, Cortez and Arpin Duimstra had a child. They eventually decided to move back to Michigan to be closer to family. Right before they left in 1995, Cortez finally took a week to mix down the early recordings they’d made together before they’d come to Tucson. When Xuvetyn came out in 1996, it seemed like a second album–longer, more experimental, more fractured–rather than what it was, an exuberant chronicle of a new duo finding all their odd sounds together.

By the time the material on Xuvetyn finally saw the light, Arpin Duimstra and Cortez were no longer living together. Cortez had been working on his other band, Astrobrite, for a few years; he moved to Toledo in 1997, and then settled in Chicago, where he still lives, in 1998.

In the late 90s, it wasn’t easy for musicians to collaborate on tracks remotely. Cortez and Arpin Duimstra stayed in close touch, but making new Lovesliescrushing recordings was a challenge they couldn’t yet meet. That didn’t stop the band from releasing new material, though: during their time together, they’d amassed a massive backlog of songs and snippets, and over the next decade Cortez kept working and reworking them. Scottish label Sonic Syrup advanced him money to buy an iMac, and he used it to put together Glissceule on that label and Voirshn for Projekt, both in 2002. Both albums (whose combined titles are an anagram of “Lovesliescrushing”) put the group’s older sound into a smoother slipcase. The Voirshn track “Glixen,” for example, opens with a blast of glitchy blips that are more electronica than electronica–even though it’s all still just guitar.

By contrast, the amazing 2007 album Chorus dispenses with guitar altogether: it’s made up entirely of old Lovesliescrushing vocal samples processed and arranged into new compositions. The result touches on Bjork and Enya before heading for no place on earth. Cortez creates rumbling bottom end and odd scratches and clicks–he’s turned Arpin Duimstra’s voice into a cascade of thrumming and static.

After more than a decade and half a dozen releases (including Crwth, a reworking of Chorus), Arpin Duimstra and Cortez finally got together in 2010 to make their first new recordings since their years living together. At Arpin Duimstra’s suggestion, they recorded Ghost Colored Halo (which came out on Projekt in 2013) by setting up in her basement and improvising live for four hours. “It sounds the most like us,” Cortez says. What’s most striking about the final recording is that it uses no overdubs but still closely resembles the obsessively worked and reworked tracks from the duo’s previous output–though it’s perhaps less delicate, with more visceral development in its tides of noise.

On 2012’s Glinter (This Quiet Army), the duo took advantage of advances in technology to work together remotely. Cortez recorded the music and sent Arpin Duimstra the tracks so she could add vocals. On its three 20-plus-minute tracks, the duo lean all the way into ambient Sigur Ros filmic breadth.

In 2014 Arpin Duimstra went back to medical school, and that was the end of new recordings for a while. But Lovesliescrushing remains active, and Cortez’s vinyl reissues aren’t the only project the duo have in the works. Arpin Duimstra has been seeking out classical musicians to rerecord Lovesliescrushing material in orchestral form–a natural context for the music, Cortez says, since he’s long been influenced by minimalist classical composition.

Cortez has also been working on more Astrobrite material, and after the Xuvetyn reissue he’s planning on releasing a longer version of Ghost Colored Halo, with extra tracks that weren’t on the original. Arpin Duimstra is just finishing her residency, so Lovesliescrushing hope to start recording new material together again. “We’re entering a new potential era where it’ll be more feasible for me to do some in-person collaborating,” she says.

There have been a lot of new eras for Lovesliescrushing since they started in 1991, of course, and Cortez and Arpin Duimstra know that they’ll never be a pop phenomenon like My Bloody Valentine or Oasis. But for those who love their music, nothing is quite like it: the more-than-flirtations with noise and ambience, the determination to turn every hook into a yawning void, the painterly approach to songs as sedimented layers.

“What makes me happy is when I hear people who still find something that they connect to, even in the recordings from 30 years ago,” Cortez says. “We made something beautiful.” With any luck, they’ll be making those odd, loud, beautiful somethings for the next three decades too. v

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