Phoenix darkwave pop duo Body of Light are an exercise in duality | Phoenix New Times

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Meet Phoenix darkwave pop duo Body of Light

Brothers Alex and Andrew Jarson readily explore the depths of pop and darkwave on their latest, "Bitter Reflection."
"Bitter Reflection," the new album from Body of Light, is out now.
"Bitter Reflection," the new album from Body of Light, is out now. Andrew Jarson and Peter Shikany
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Phoenix's Body of Light are seemingly obsessed with duality. There's two brothers (Alex and Andrew Jarson), two sets of instruments and gear, two writing styles and an interest in sounds both organic and artificial.

It's hard to argue with the results: The brothers Jarson have forged a compelling blend of pop and darkwave across a suite of projects and albums. (The pair helped co-found the Ascetic House collective, and have contributed to projects like Mundo, Blue Krishna and Somali Extract.) Choice, it would seem, is overrated.

"We don't necessarily like to say we have a specific genre or anything," Andrew Jarson says. "Not to do the whole reflection analogy, but every album is like a mirror. We're trying to figure out every layer of ourselves and trying to expand on the past. Every album is looking back and then trying to see how we can progress forward in a new and exciting way. That's exciting to ourselves mostly, but also hopefully the fans will think the same."

Adds Alex Jarson, "I think the context is always important to what's going on in the world, and how people are feeling and how the culture is changing. And I think every album, you have to look at the context and how things have changed so rapidly in the world. We sort of mimic that as well."

While it's a tendency that's played out across their entire career — the band have been going steady since the early 2010s — it's especially true of their latest album, the recently released "Bitter Reflection." The band's perpetual shifting and bounding between ideas gave them some novel opportunities to really explore.

"[2016's "Let Me Go"] was like a reintroduction of us," Andrew says. "And then this one, it's us circling back to that in a way where it's like a reintroduction, but it's also got that kind of romantic sensibility that that album had, too. Whereas 'Time to Kill' was a lot more just like electric and a little more like sardonic and fun and dark."

Yet amid that ceaseless evolution, the band retain a few basic qualities. No matter the idea or sentiment they're chasing, it's always about authenticity and purpose.

"But for us, it's really based on feeling and emotion," Alex says. "And also there is the technical aspect of like, what gear are we going to use? Like, do we want to keep using this synthesizer or do we want to try to expand and use other gear from different eras? We just blend all of those things together, and it just comes out the way it does."
It's ultimately about using the tools they have available and striking some balance in the name of whatever feels most interesting.

"This [album], we wrote it in a very human way," Andrew Jarson says. "There's some meticulously programmed stuff for sure, and we programmed a lot of it using some pretty ancient gear and really old software from the mid-'80s. We approached it in this way where a lot of it was really hand-played. A lot of it was recorded in and kept there, like after the first time it was recorded. So it's really and deeply human compared to our last stuff, which sometimes could be really mechanical and technical on purpose."

To a larger extent, that process isn't just born out of their artistic whims; it's very much a reaction to a specific set of circumstances.

"It's weird how this record was written, too, because we had started it in between tours in 2019," Alex says. "And once the pandemic hit, we also both ended up moving around a bunch. And moving our studios was really hard to do. There's tons of gear and the way that everything was set up was so involved."

That distance, then, expanded the brothers' already complicated dynamic. In response, they figured out ways to write even more organically and authentically.

"I've got a bunch of old, strange synths and samplers and stuff, and the way that everything was written, it wasn't like I could just show up and set up in a new house and bring the song back up, which is commonly how people write nowadays," Andrew says. "Like, 'I'll just pull it up on my computer and you can start from there.' There was no ability to do that, and so a lot of these songs were recorded and then put to tape as a demo. So we had to almost ride off of the last demos."

He adds, "So we're writing in a way that is, for sure, pretty uncommon now. So that's what I mean when I say spilling your guts — I don't want to say one take, but it was that kind of thing where it was written in a day and then put down and that was the song. And in the studio we brought them back to life, and made them into something more real."

Part of that process was bucking their own process across previous records, and embracing something else. It was a natural extension of that "one and done" concept, with the brothers finding other ways to grow these songs.

"On ‘Time to Kill,’ or really all of our other records, we replaced a lot of our synths with other things," Andrew Jarson says. "But on this one, we didn't do that much replacing, and we really just added other stuff on." He goes on to add that "they're super nostalgic sounds. There's a lot of referential sounds that aren't very specific, but we definitely utilize them pretty subliminally. They're not directly referential."
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Body of Light is composed of Alex and Andrew Jarson.
Jamie Parkhurst
Luckily, the Jarsons weren't alone in this entire process, as they'd enlisted producer Josh Eustis of the band Telefon Tel Aviv.

"[Eustis] was really delicate," Andrew says. "And the way that he produces is really awesome. He ended up shaping the songs and just polishing them by adding these really minimal things. He would call it 'putting crystals' on it and just making them shinier. It made them completely different songs."

Yet Eustis's presence really was more of a guide; the Jarson brothers used the bulk of "Bitter Reflection" as a deeper exploration of their lives, their many creative changes and what it all truly means.

"This whole album is like a look back for us, at least for me, during COVID. I was re-examining my life; I think a lot of people were," Alex says. "And it was a lot of unconscious effort of replaying memories and then just remembering how things used to be and how they are now and just trying to figure everything out. I think even with getting Josh to help do the record, it sort of fits in that category, too."

Rather than try and make a kind of concept album, which wouldn't have felt authentic, the brothers instead decided to use their genre-based explorations as a foundation for creating the record's narrative arc.

"We started to know how it was going to turn out when it was being sequenced," Andrew says. "We tried to tell a story musically and in terms of the genres we explore in each song. It's like we're hand-holding in the beginning and then it's like, 'Well, we're going to throw something new at you.' And that was definitely the point. I think if we went into it heavy-handed and had a full-on concept, it wouldn't land in the right way."

Alex adds, "You just got to commit to a process and you keep trying to understand what the process is telling you. And it usually has a meaning, and you can pick that out. Toward the end, it starts to become a little bit more obvious. And so for those ambient tracks, which break up the album, we weren't even sure if those were going to go on the record. But once we had the songs ready, they just fit so perfectly."

Ultimately, as evidenced by an album standout like "Fortia," it was a story about the brothers themselves.

"We've sampled whole movies and stuff. But here we got to use our memories as instruments in a way," Andrew says. "Like, there's so much subliminal stuff in there that really only we know what it is. And so it's really cool in that regard. There's Alex singing at 6 years old hidden in there, and it went with the track perfectly. So it was one of those things where it's just a trip, and we can bring it full circle in a personal way."
Alex says, "[The songs] had so much of us in them. They have home movies and memories in there. People in our lives who aren't in our lives anymore. And so it just added that layer of emotionality for us. And I think that made the record so much more special to us, and in a way that I think records in the past weren't even as special to us."

The record also allowed the brothers to bridge the gap between their own writing/recording styles, and explore that dissonance in novel ways.

"I don't want to speak for Alex too much, but Alex writes in a different way ... in the sense that he has a lot of really polished sounds," Andrew says. "He makes these really elaborate intros and outros. I'm a lot more rough in my approach; I have a really trashy sound. So there's a lot of grittiness mixed with hi-fi in the album, and that's a balance that we ride out a lot and I think we'll probably continue to do."

All of these different ideas and approaches ultimately resulted in an album that's about honesty — an honesty for themselves as artists, the art they love and something utterly real within the world (with a dash of nostalgia to boot).

"Because this world has become so artificial, everything has become a reflection of the real truth in a way," Alex says. "And I do think that was sort of conscious of, 'How are we going to tell the truth in a way that resonates in the same sense like when we were growing up in the '90s.' When you listen to a lot of those albums, like R.E.M., it's super emotional and super organic sounding. I think in some ways I do think music has lost that in some ways. I'm not super pessimistic, but we wanted to keep that kind of thread for sure."

There's little denying that the process has changed how the band operates, and the way they continue to approach their multifaceted careers. Take touring, for instance; it's no longer the be-all and end-all for Body of Light.

"We've been a band for something like 12 or 13 years, which is insane to think about," Andrew says. "But a lot of that history was us touring. Like, immediately, that was the goal: We record something and then we're just going to tour as much as possible. And so a lot of the work that went into this band has been road work — sleeping in parks in Europe and just trying to figure it out that way. I think COVID really allowed us to chill on that a little bit and focus more on the music. I think we did really develop a solid base of sound that we didn't necessarily expect, but it really has given us this base that I don't think was there in the past records. We've finally allowed ourselves the confidence to dive into our own selves."

That even extends to the actual live shows, including a just-completed tour.

"So I think because the album's so personal, I think it's allowed us also to be more personal with the audience," Alex says. "So we do spend a lot more time in the audience, and I'm trying to confront the audience in a way with more emotion."
He adds, "I kind of want it all, you know? I want motion and I want some dancing. I want an experience that I can remember and that people can remember."

The actual commitment to playing hasn't changed. What has changed is the value of the shows and what they're able to do within each respective set.

"I played a show with a 103-degree fever in New York like five years ago," Alex says. "I always want to try to bring the best of it out, and so that hasn't changed really. But in the sense that things have slowed down a little bit and there's a lot more space within the music. It just allows a more organic performance."

Still, at least one important thing has changed. The band are going to rely more heavily on hand-playing as opposed to pre-programming synths ahead of time. It's a slightly scary prospect, but one that will allow them to be more present in the moment. It's just another element that speaks to their dual natures, and what happens when you embrace all ideas with gusto and passion.

"I definitely want to keep trying new stuff in that regard," Andrew says. "Just really performing and pushing it. Every show will be a little different. Like, I might actually mess up a part. But it's good in electronic music to have that possibility of imperfection."
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