[Interview] The Silver Lake Chorus at LACMA, Part 1


It isn’t an everyday occurrence to step into a gallery and have the opportunity to see and hear art – I don’t care where you live. As such, it’s even more satisfying when early 20th century meets modernity at a crossroads, and last weekend this crossing was at LACMA. The scene was set and well lit up outside with the whimsical sounds of San Francisco-based DJ, Tycho, ushering guests in. Lead further into the space, guests were surrounded by pieces of Cézanne, Matisse, Münter, Signac, and van Gogh.

As though the visionary appeal was not up to standard (I assure you, it certainly was), LACMA threw a fastball and it was so well-executed it stopped everyone right in their tracks. Not only did people have the chance to see the narrative of over 90 paintings, they were going to be a part of another story, this one featuring indie chorus, The Silver Lake Chorus.

Picture this: a first-look at an assortment of pieces that are decisively adorning the walls, only to be pushed several levels when people start realizing a section of the exhibit is being prepped for a performance. Are you picturing it? Do you have the image ready in your head? Great. It was even better.

Curious spectators crowded around to see a few instruments and a group dividing into three rows. The harmonizing began and instantaneously onlookers were silencing others to make sure The Silver Lake Chorus had the floor. TSLC may not have initially been the main attraction, but they certainly left no room for doubt.

Equipped with sounds and tones to cover a wide musical spectrum, TSLC smoothly went from one song to another, a compilation of rare tracks provided exclusively to them by well-known artists. The crowd wasn’t just intrigued – they were transfixed, refusing to move from their spots to trek onward and continue viewing the artwork. No, TSLC had the exhibit all to themselves, and for very good reason. From the conductor’s devotion to waving his hands and mouthing the words to the tenors and the sopranos and the altos and the basses bouncing off his energy, every angle had something different to offer – visually and audibly. Cameos were also made by a few instruments.

Two songs away from the end of their set, the lights happened to go out, and instead of falling out of place it was as though the puzzle pieces had found a more seamless way to present what the crowd didn’t even realize they had been waiting for. Spectators were now a part of the show, as one by one people lifted their phones up to give the chorus an arrangement of spotlights that truly left a magical afterglow – both on the walls of paintings and the singers’ faces. There was something cathartic, especially in the performance from then on out, to the point where people were groaning when the lights were flickering back on. Perhaps that was one way to bring the audience back into reality; nevertheless that experience was distinguishably everlasting.

I was able to catch up with TSLC for an interview about their sound, performance, and future.

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Question. How did the idea of creating a chorus come to mind and what were the beginning steps to making it happen?

Mikey Wells: The dream was to create a place for people who love to sing to come together and sing in harmony. There aren’t a lot of opportunities out there to sing like you did growing up, in large groups of people, with friends and family, or in school or church choirs. There is something immensely timeless, human, and healing about the sound of a choir that speaks very deeply to people. I think that’s why people reacted so strongly when The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens came around. Hearing so many voices singing together is both a very powerful and nostalgic thing.

We got all of these people together who wanted to sing and became an indie-chorus, taking the elements of choral music that are so transcendent and prolific and fusing it with the elements of indie music that are accessible and full of character.

Q. How was the audition process? Is TSLC open for new members?

Wells: Flyers went out around town and posts went up all over the internet, which landed us a very diverse group of people from all different backgrounds. We had people sing something by themselves and then harmonize with others. One of the things we had people sing during that very first audition was “Because” by The Beatles because those harmonies are both simple and challenging to hold down on your own.

We do continue to hold auditions on an as-needed basis.

Q. What is the music making process in the studio like?

Wells: Heather and I take a few weeks to do the vocal arrangements and bring them into rehearsal. We figure out what is working and not working and keep making tweaks until it’s just right. At that point we usually know whether the track is going to have instruments or if it’s going to be a cappella. If we want to go forward with exploring instruments, we get together and try out different ideas to see what elevates the arrangement but doesn’t get in its way.

Q. The idea to reach out to popular artists for new/rare tracks is a great one. How was that first executed and were you surprised by the response?

Wells: Our producer, Ben Lee, came to one of our rehearsals early on. He sat on the floor and we stood around him in a circle and sang a haunting rendition of Beck’s “Lonesome Tears.” It seemed like the idea came to him pretty quickly. He pitched us the idea that night and we went with it.

Q. Are you looking to approach any new artists for tracks?

Wells: We are finished with our current album, but we absolutely look forward to the next adventure and future collaborations.

Q. Would TSLC be open for collaborations? If so, who could be potential prospects?
Wells: Definitely. We’re incredibly grateful to all the musicians who’ve written us music so far and look forward to more. Naturally we all have a dream list of artists that we’d be beyond thrilled to work with (Jenny Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, you know where to find us).

Q. How was TSLC approached for the Muse ’til Midnight spot at LACMA?

Wells: I was hanging out with one of our basses at the LACMA cafe when we ran into an old friend, Meghan McCauley, who happens to put Muse ‘til Midnight together. While we were catching up, we noticed that there was a stage set up for their Friday Night Free Jazz series and mentioned that we’d love to sing there one day. Meghan said an indie chorus might not be the best fit for a jazz night, but that she had another night in mind that might work. We stayed in touch and five months later we were singing next to Van Gogh.

Q. How does everyone prepare for a show? What is the performance ritual?

Wells: We rehearse once a week, which is when we can try out new material or run-through our set. As a show approaches, there are notes to check, cut-offs to align, vowels to unify, dynamics to explore, and in the midst of all that we try to remember not to get too much in our heads, to make sure that we are having a blast making something beautiful together.

Victor Mazzone: I start with some vocal exercises while I shower. That’s followed by an apple cider vinegar/honey regimen to loosen up any phlegm. That, of course, is followed by some really attractive hacking to clear said phlegm. Finally, I close my eyes and take four deep breaths to get centered and focused.

Ben Fordham: We typically take a little focus moment as a group right before we go on, including a pep talk from Mikey. We even do a “hands-in-the-middle-say-TSLC-on-three” thing, which is what I imagine sports teams do to get pumped. It works!

Heather O’Malley: I drink lots of water and try not to chat too much during the day of a show. My favorite group warm up that immediately helps me tap into TSLC’s sound and vibe is Mikey leading us in fluid, semi-improvised chord progressions. Something about all of us singing “ooh” on unexpected pitches, moving together and watching our conductor always helps me prep a “ready-for-anything-as-a-group” performance mentality.

Anthony Starble: We prepare for shows differently depending on the venue. A show at The Satellite is different than a show in an echo-y church sanctuary, but we always make sure to encourage attentiveness and good vibes!

Lijah Barasz: Besides warming up my voice and drinking lots of water, it’s become my default ritual that I never have time to eat before a show and end up scarfing a granola bar en route. Does that count?

Ani is a twenty-something SoCal native driven by all things pop culture. Armed with a Master’s in communication studies, she spends her days analyzing her surroundings, enjoying live shows and film, traveling the world, eating pho, and being an opinionated individual. She also happens to be the biggest I Love Lucy fan of her generation.

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