Lookbook's young hearts run free

Dance-pop duo headlining First Avenue for the first time

 

A HUSH FALLS over the First Avenue Mainroom as the curtain slowly rises to reveal a young couple standing side by side, staring down in quiet reflection. Grant Cutler, dressed plainly in a T-shirt and jeans, his shoulder-length hair combed back away from his mustachioed face, steps up to a small mixing board and presses a button that causes the foundation of the club to shake. A loud, looping, distorted electric guitar part bandies between two notes, coming close to falling out of time and then regaining the beat, never letting up.

As the momentum builds, Maggie Morrison raises her head to look coolly out over the audience and raises the microphone to her mouth. She starts to sing, gently, almost nervously at first, letting out a squeaky little yelp at the end of her first verse. Her face is expressionless, serious, an icy stare cutting a jagged line through the crowd—until the end of the second verse, when she looks over at Cutler and shoots him a knowing, sideways smile.

Eric GY Petersen
Nick Vlcek
Nick Vlcek

Cutler hits another button and nods his head, and a bass drum part and whirring synth sounds dive in and crash over the persistent, oscillating guitar loop. Cutler picks up his own microphone and hits the machine again; all the music cuts out into silence for a split second and then blasts back into the chorus, with Morrison and Cutler singing the hook together and grinning like little kids.

Lookbook have played the Mainroom before—a few times, in fact—for various showcases and parties, and each time they clamber onto that big black stage their power seems to grow exponentially. After spending the past three years gigging nearly every weekend, starting out at small clubs like the Kitty Cat Klub and the Hexagon and eventually gaining enough of a following to spill into bigger venues like the Mainroom, Lookbook are preparing for their biggest hometown show yet.

This Friday night, on the heels of a three-week tour of the U.S., Cutler and Morrison will return home to play First Avenue for the first time as headliners, a rite of passage that has come to signify a local band's leap onto the national playing field.

SPEND FIVE MINUTES in the audience of a Lookbook show, watching Morrison and Cutler exchange sultry glances and scintillating vocal harmonies, and chances are you'll hear at least one and possibly all three of the following queries uttered by neighboring concertgoers:

Who is that girl? She's hot.

Is that Maggie from Digitata?

Are those two dating?

Like practically every male-female duo that has preceded them, Morrison and Cutler are accustomed to being grilled about their relationship, enduring assumptions from onlookers that range from innocent to downright sexist.

"Of course, we get asked all the time if we're dating. You know, it's always going to be like that, no matter what," Morrison says.

"Or married," Cutler says. "'Is that your wife up there?'"

"Yeah," Morrison agrees. "Are you married, or are you brother and sister?"

In reality, the pair have cultivated a complex and intimate friendship since forming their band. They have found that working so closely together means their personal lives are bound to bleed into each other's as they interact professionally.

"We're very close, and we talk about everything," Morrison says. "We talk a lot about the music we want to make and the music we do make, you know, we get excited about shows and about performing, but all that does translate into how we feel about our regular lives. Because we talk about how our lives are going and how our days are. What you get, in our music—it's not just music, it is our relationship, and it's how we feel about our personal lives and about each other and about the world."

"I like our band enough that I'm willing to work through any personal problem with Maggie," Cutler says.

"I can't replace Grant with another producer to still be Lookbook, and vice versa," Morrison says. "We are very reliant on each other—and when we go on the road it's especially apparent, because we really only have each other. We ran into a few situations where we very much need each other."

"There's probably not anybody else in the world I could spend as much time with as Maggie," Cutler says. "We have some weird thing. I've spent more time with Maggie than anybody else in my entire life probably. Because when we go on the road, we don't have any personal space really. And that would usually drive me crazy—but sometimes I spend probably 72 hours in a row without Maggie being four feet away from me. And it works out okay."

GRANT CUTLER WOULD prefer that no one know he was ever in a band besides Lookbook.

"Will you not even tell people that I was in Tomhanks?" he says, only half joking. "Or any of my other bands, ever? I like the new stuff that I do so much better."

After spending his childhood in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Cutler moved to the Twin Cities to study music production at Music Tech (now known as the Institute of Production and Recording). While interning at various music studios around the Cities, Cutler formed a punk band with fellow sound engineer Joe Mabbott, who has recorded a glut of prominent local hip-hop groups such as Atmosphere, Heiruspecs, and P.O.S.

"I started a screamo band with my friends called Passions, and then Tomhanks, and that's how I met [Maggie]," Cutler says, during an abbreviated narration of his history over beers at his dining room table.

Passions and Tomhanks were two extraordinarily different musical endeavors. The former was a loud, brash, screeching metal-punk band, while the latter was Cutler's solo interpretation of Har Mar-esque pop music. Neither project resembles the work Cutler has been doing with Lookbook, but they do speak to his creative, almost chameleonic ability to throw himself into different genres and projects.

During Cutler's time with Passions, his and Morrison's musical worlds started to collide, despite the fact that the two rarely spoke to each other.

An Eau Claire native, Morrison grew up surrounded by musicians (Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Adam Hurlburt of Solid Gold, and Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun are just a few others who started out in the same place). As her childhood friends slowly trickled toward the Twin Cities, Morrison came to Minneapolis to study at St. Catherine's and join her first band. She started out playing in Dave Matters's Kentucky Gag Order, singing backup vocals with Cloud Cult violinist Shannon Frid, before joining with Eau Claire friends Ryan Olson and Drew Christopherson to front the electro band Digitata.

Morrison and Cutler co-existed in the same scene for years—Cutler's Passions got a shout-out on P.O.S's breakout album, Audition, which also features guest vocals from Morrison—but it took a few years for Cutler to work up the courage to invite Digitata to share a bill.

"The first time [Grant] specifically asked Digitata to play a show at the Entry, we opened," Morrison says. "It was the funniest lineup—it was Digitata, 24 Reasons Why, Incommunicado, and then [Passions]. It was kind of strange, but it was really fun."

"Yeah, that was an awesome show," Cutler says. "I think I played the gong that show, like I tend to do from time to time, and I do believe I was wearing makeup."

"Really? I don't remember that," Morrison says, laughing. "I didn't talk to you at all."

"That sounds about right. I don't think I talked to Maggie, basically, until I asked [her] to start doing this shit," he says. "Maggie's kind of intimidating, as far as females go."

Morrison rolls her eyes, pulling a strand of hair up to her face to examine a nonexistent split end. "I don't think so, but he does."

The two exchange glances and laugh knowingly, as if sharing an inside joke. "We were going to make a joke band called Tina Turn-On," Cutler continues, "and it was going to be Maggie and her friend Abby."

"We're still going to make that band," Morrison insists.

"And we practiced a little bit, but then Abby moved away, and then we kept trying to make music for a little bit, and then...," Cutler pauses and sighs. "It just clicked. It just worked."

As happens at so many points in their conversations with each other, as soon as things are about to turn serious, they laugh it off and start telling jokes. "One night...," Cutler begins, smirking, looking to Morrison to finish his thought.

"One night a shooting star fell out of the sky," she says.

"It did, and it landed right in front of us, and we both touched it, and looked into each other's eyes, and we knew."

Morrison rolls her eyes again, and Cutler clears his throat and stands up, motioning to a back room in his house. "Want to see where we make all the music?"

LOOKBOOK'S PRACTICE SPACE is small and unassuming, a minimally furnished office tucked into the back end of Cutler's house in south Minneapolis. While most bands' practice spaces are littered with drumsticks, cords, amps, and instruments, Lookbook's space is clean and sparse—basically a computer and microphone.

Sitting down in front of the computer, Cutler rifles through some old files and pulls up one of the very first tracks he recorded with Morrison, back when they were still called Tina Turn-On. The old song is buoyant and harmonic, like a lighter and poppier take on what would later become their more brooding dance aesthetic.

"This song still gets stuck in my head sometimes," Morrison laughs.

"There's a whole bag of 'em," Cutler says, opening a folder of files. "I'm going to play all of them. 'Punk Truck'?"

"You can't even bring up 'Punk Truck,'" Morrison says, bringing a hand up to cover her face.

"I love 'Punk Truck,'" he replies.

"That's the stupidest name ever."

"It is not, it's cool!"

"I was like, I'm going to be really screechy!"

"It's totally Yeah Yeah Yeahs-y."

"But it was just really archaic. The beat was really—sorry, Grant—but it was really bad."

Though Lookbook have been together for only three years, their sound has progressed dramatically. Their first record, the six-song I Fear You, My Darkness EP, is slow and plodding, almost dirge-like in its seriousness and spaciousness. Morrison and Cutler sing together on the title track, but Cutler is relegated to call-and-response harmonies only, an understated response to Morrison's drawn-out vocal lines.

Morrison's vocals are almost impressionistic, with reverb and echo effects softening the edges of her voice and blending it elegantly into the accompanying slow-burning synth and distorted guitar parts, at times drawing the sparse background parts out so cinematically that the album transitions from pop songs to ambient music.

The closing track is so spare that the under-five-minute song is bookended by eight or nine minutes of crickets chirping, at times getting so quiet that it's easy to forget that the record is even playing.

Their full-length, Wild at Heart, in contrast, is a dance record. The pace is quickened, the beats are thicker and more filled out, and Morrison's lyrics, though still occasionally dark and contemplative, have a more playful tone. The tracks on Wild at Heart are still staples of Lookbook's live show, with tracks like "Over and Over," "Yesterday's Company," and "True to Form" becoming crowd favorites and entering into heavy rotation on local radio stations. While I Fear You, My Darkness was an explorative record, and saw Cutler and Morrison still adjusting to each other musically, Wild at Heart was more of a finished product, a triumph at the end of more than a year of searching for their sound.

With their next record already in the works, Cutler says they are making another leap in sound. He pulls up a new track and plays the opening line, a looped guitar part that is warped and bent so far out of shape that it sounds as if it's being played backward, while a booming, whooshing current of feedback persists underneath.

"All those sounds are actually mostly manipulated guitar sounds," Cutler explains. With a few clicks, he peels back the layers of effects he has added to the guitar parts with computer software (a program called Ableton Live) and brings the song down to its most basic elements, two different, equally plain and methodic electric guitar parts. "In this song there are two guitar tracks," he says, then clicks a few more times to layer the computerized effects back in, twisting the beat and bringing back the echoing roar. "The main thing that this is built around is that big 'zhuuuu zhuuuu zhuuuu.' Our whole album is going to sound like that, pretty much. Big, growing zhhh zhh zhhh sounds the whole time. I'm really into that."

"So all the music is like an accident waiting to happen?" Morrison asks, watching Cutler tinker with the software's effects.

"It's not an accident, it's all about experimenting and using new sounds—because everything is so boring now. Sounds in music, I mean. It's nice to make new things that people haven't heard, because everybody knows what a guitar sounds like, and who cares anymore? I don't."

THE NEXT NIGHT, hunkered down in a small studio space in northeast Minneapolis, Morrison and Cutler are hard at work laying down the tracks for their forthcoming LP. Almost everyone in the studio is shoeless. Morrison has kicked off her black-fringed moccasin boots and is padding around in bright pink socks, while Cutler lounges barefoot, and co-producers Joe Johnson and Matt Masurka, who is more commonly known by his DJ name Gigamesh, listen intently to Morrison's most recent vocal take.

Morrison fills a glass with whiskey and pages through a notebook full of lyrics, crossing out lines and scrawling notes in the margins, wincing as she listens to her voice falter slightly on the recording that's playing overhead.

Cutler knows just what to do.

"Here's what you're going to do this time," he tells Morrison. "You're not singing this from a studio. You're singing this from a mountaintop."

Morrison grins and nods, walking back into the recording booth and positioning herself in front of the mic. As she slides on a pair of headphones, Cutler continues his mystical narrative, coaching Morrison with images of open pastures, mountain peaks, and beams of space laser light.

"I made Maggie a good singer," Cutler tells me later. "Nobody knows that. Nobody had ever given her any direction before."

In contrast to her more experimental performances with Digitata, where she collaborated with producer Ryan Olson (most recently of Gayngs and Marijuana Deathsquads) and drummer Drew Christopherson, Morrison's vocal work with Lookbook is increasingly focused. Though she still occasionally lets out one of her trademark yelps between verses, she has veered away from the pops and screeches that marked her earlier work and developed a more controlled, soulful delivery style.

As the night in the studio wears on and the whiskey flows, Morrison loosens up, pushing her voice and trying a different style with each take.

"I used to do all of her vocal tracking myself," Cutler says. "I would give her a shot of Jameson before each take, and by the seventh take it would get really good," he says, laughing.

Morrison decides that it feels too unnatural to sing into a mic that is suspended from the ceiling, so before long she has removed the mic from its holster, clutching it with both hands like she does at live shows. A few minutes later, she tears off the mesh guard separating the mic from her mouth, then drops to her knees and shuts the lights off, bending down to the ground and singing until her voice goes hoarse.

After the last take she sits in the booth in darkness. Back in the main room of the studio, Cutler, Johnson, and Masurka discuss the latest results, cheeks flushed with excitement over Morrison's uninhibited, trial-by-fire approach to pinning down the right take.

Cutler and Morrison have started collaborating more closely with Masurka, a Twin Cities native now working out of Miami who has recently found success as both a remix artist and a pop producer. A song he had a hand in producing, Mike Posner's "Cooler Than Me 'Single Mix,'" is currently sitting at No. 31 on the Billboard charts and the No. 14 spot on the iTunes single charts. "I'm not really trying to be a pop producer as Gigamesh, but this kind of happened by accident," Masurka explains.

Masurka met Cutler and Morrison while playing a show with them a couple of years ago (Masurka used to play in electronic group Nobot). "After their set I asked if I could do a remix of one of their tunes, and things grew from there," he says. "I think two-piece male-and-female acts automatically have a certain mystique, especially when their vocals blend as well as Grant and Maggie's. But for me what really sets them apart is their songwriting—they know how to write extremely catchy music while maintaining variety and integrity from song to song."

"Matt makes everything sound way better," Cutler says. "He just mixes it, basically, and makes sure that the layout makes sense, so there's not like big dumb, long parts that don't do anything."

In truth, the effects of Masurka's mixing are immediately audible in Lookbook's newer tracks. Much as Wild at Heart expounded on I Fear You, My Darkness's sparse sound, the newest beats are even fatter and more substantial, taking advantage of the full dynamic range of Lookbook's unique instrumentation and adding a sheen to their already catchy hooks.

"We don't want to make it sound like the '80s anymore," Cutler says, reflecting on their new sound. "We're tired of what everybody thinks we sound like."

"We're going to try to sound like the '90s now," Morrison adds, laughing.

"Yeah, now we're up to the '90s," Cutler says. "Do you know that song "Tootsee Roll"? I like how right at the beginning of that song—I don't remember when it came out, I think 1993 or 1994—but like the first thing the dude says is '1994!' And then the beat drops. I think we should do that with ours, to just date it immediately. So people won't even have to guess anymore. 'What are these guys going for?' We wanted that 1994 sound."

LOOKBOOK perform with Slapping Purses, Bight Club, and Zoo Animal on FRIDAY, JUNE 18, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.338.1775

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