INTERVIEW: In Lightning on Composing, Live Shows, and the Power of Funk!

In Lightning bring a special kind of joy to their music, which blends funk, prog rock, and orchestral scores into something both easily palatable and wholly unique. For the last several years, the ensemble have been making waves in the local scene, playing a string of big name events, including the Highlands Summer Concert Series at QDoba, which they created, and have even popped up on WFPL. What they have done so far is to release an album, and that’s set to change on August 26th. You can check out the video for Turn It Wild, the lead single of their upcoming debut album, and catch them at their record release show with The Tunesmiths, Wilder Stallions, and DJ Alli at Headliners. We caught up with them to ask about their music, telling a story with no words, and willing The Flash into existence!

Never Nervous: What is In Lightning? I mean that both metaphorically and literally. What is the band about and also what is literally in lightning?

Lamar Cornett: In Lightning is literally a seven piece instrumental rock orchestra, composed of bass, drums, guitar, keys, violin, cello, and french horn. Philosophically we are the embodiment of outside the box, proof that there aren’t limitations to what a rock band band be.

“Philosophically we are the embodiment of outside the box, proof that there aren’t limitations to what a rock band band be.”

Ben Short: I’m very happy with our band name, haha. One of those that sounds cool and intriguing, I believe, like Explosions in the Sky. In Lightning is a play on words, as we intend to perhaps enlighten listeners that music doesn’t have to have vocals to be awesome and engaging.  It’s electric, it’s powerful, energetic, in motion.

NN: How did the band come together? Tell us your origin story.

LC: Ben and I met each other when I joined another band that he was already in. Sometime later he happened to need a roommate right around the same time that I needed a new place to live, so that worked out. We spent a lot of time hanging out and jamming, and eventually started brainstorming the idea of this radical instrumental rock orchestra. Some of those jams, along with some other stuff that he had been working on, became the foundation for the first crop of songs. One we had enough music together, we began recruiting the others.

NN: How do you describe your music to people that may be otherwise unfamiliar with the genre? For that matter, what do you identify as your genre?

LC: Ultimately we’re a rock band, but there are bits and pieces of stuff from lots of other genres, from hip hop to heavy metal.

BS: Genre stuff is hard. I just had to officially choose our genre for online distributors like iTunes to organize us, and really struggled with it, haha. If I’m describing the band to someone in person, I have typically settled on, “If the Red Hot Chili Peppers worked with Hans Zimmer to write movie scores.”

NN: What are the stresses involved with organizing an ensemble of this size?

LC: I think the hardest thing is just getting that many schedules together. We all have day jobs, and most of us have other projects that we’re working on.

BS: So because of that, we need to be extra organized and communicative when trying to book a show or even a rehearsal. For everyone in the band, Monday night has been reserved as InL night no matter what, since June 2012, whether we need to practice, band meeting, or just hang out.

NN: Why did it take so long to get the debut album recorded? What can we expect from the record? Where was it recorded?

LC: We started recording over two years ago, but we didn’t really expect the post production stuff to be as challenging as it turned out to be. Then Ben had to take some time to work on some real life stuff, so that put us behind a bit more. But more than all of that, we just wanted to make sure it sounded good. What’s the point of finishing the album quickly if it sounds bad.

BS: That real life stuff was two herniated discs in my lumbar spine, which through some bs ended up in me losing my day job. It was ultimately a good thing, as now I have a job I’m much happier with, but I financed the production of this album all myself, so no more income after losing my job, meant no more progress on the album for awhile.

NN: Who is the “leader” of the band? How important is it to have responsibilities distributed to the constituent members of the band? How are those roles filled internally?

LC: Ben is the band leader/composer/manager/booking agent/sound man for the band. In Lightning is his baby. I tend to think of myself as second in command. On stage, I’m the conductor. Off stage I help with arranging songs.

BS: My approach from day one has been to have the attitude to lead by example, and prove to my bandmates that I am going to be a leader that is going to steer us toward success.  Ya know, there’s been very little money relative to the time commitment this band has required, especially since everything we make is split 7 ways. So I have tried to not ask our bandmates to have to do much more than donate their time for rehearsals and gigs. With the hope that as we achieve and succeed, In Lightning may prove to be something all 7 of us may be able to make our job one day.  Also I’m bad at delegating tasks.

NN: How do you write? Does one person bring in a composition or do you write collaboratively?

LC: Ben writes everything but my parts and most of the solos. I help with arranging the parts, and setting the overall feel of the songs. Most of the songs began as jam sessions. We’d record them, listen to them and pick out sections that we liked and expand on them. Then Ben would disappear into his room for a couple of hours or days, and come out with midi recordings of all the new parts that he added to each of the bare bones recordings we made. Now that we don’t live together, he usually has a song pretty well structured before he brings it to me, I add my touches to it, then he’ll go and compose everyone else’s parts.

BS: Lamar’s pretty much right on there. Usually it starts with a feel/groove and a bass line. What are the rhythms, what are the chords? Once you have that skeleton, it’s just filling out the rest. What I initially write on my bass may become a part for one of the other instruments instead. I’m often thinking of our violin/cello/horn as our “vocalists,” working together to create lush and harmonized melodies.

I like to compare composing to being an archeologist digging for dinosaur fossils. Once you’re onto something, you know there’s a 100% complete fossil that exists down there – a 100% correct fulfillment of this song that exists from the universe. It’s my job to uncover it the best that I can.  A few of our songs are 100%, I think.

“I like to compare composing to being an archeologist digging for dinosaur fossils. Once you’re onto something, you know there’s a 100% complete fossil that exists down there – a 100% correct fulfillment of this song that exists from the universe.”

Also, Lamar brings songs to life like no one else I’ve ever heard. He is The Band Doctor of Louisville. When he joins a band, they get better, both on stage and behind the scenes. And luckily for Louisville music, he’s in like freaking 10 bands.

NN: When is a song done? Does it evolve in the moment or is it a static reflection of a moment in time?

LC: As far as I’m concerned, they’re never really done, I regularly change up what I’m doing just to keep the songs fresh.

BS: A lot of things evolve and improve from the time that I pass out sheet music, to the time we perform and record.  The music I pass out has no markings on it whatsoever.  No dynamics, no articulation, etc.  Just notes and rhythms.  So everyone continually works together to be “editing” the songs, evolving them, making them better.  Certainly, my bandmates often have ideas that were better than my original ideas.

NN: What is the best show you’ve ever played and why? What constitutes a bad show?

LC: For me, best show is a tie between the Free Week show we did at Zanzabar earlier this year, and the Pride Festival show we did just in June. We played our asses of at both shows and we had extremely positive responses from the audiences.

Bad shows happen when everyone isn’t on the same page. A lack of focus causes people to miss parts or play wrong notes or whatever, and with so many moving parts in this band, something could cause a chain reaction and everything gets sloppy. Fortunately, that kind of thing isn’t very common for us.

BS: In my opinion, we’ve only had one bad show. And we were quick to resolve it afterwards. Also, some of our best performances have been for under 10 people.

NN: How does your environment inform your music? Does your practice space influence your writing? Do the venues you play influence how you play? Is there a sociological effect to playing in Louisville or the midwest in general?

BS: From the beginning, we’ve known that we would need to be outside the box when it comes to booking shows. We’re not exactly a bar band. And for the most part, the kind of music we play will be completely unique to the average, “I listen to whatever’s on the radio,” person. But we believe in our sound, intriguing, fun, and positive. And people in Louisville have responded! It’s been a priority of ours to play outdoors as much as possible, play at neighborhood festivals as much as possible. Play where speakers will carry our sound blocks away, rather than containing within brick walls.

“We’ve known that we would need to be outside the box when it comes to booking shows. We’re not exactly a bar band.”

We’re fortunate to be in Louisville, in this pocket of a more open-minded culture, here in the middle of this southern/mid-western vibe. We no doubt benefit from that.  (Shout out to Never Nervous! Contributing to that culture in a huge way!)

editor’s note: ah shucks, guys.

NN: Why instrumental only? Have you ever worked with vocalists?

LC: Why not? Most of the music throughout history is instrumental. On top of that, having words puts us back in a box. With words our songs would have a more definitive meaning and would be less open to interpretation.

BS: Our songs are all very story-telling.  They are dramatic, and they end in a different place than they began. We want our listeners to be able to make up their own stories to our music, if they wish.  
For me, my experience in listening to music has always been to hear the notes, the individual parts. The lyrics have always been the last thing my brain would pay attention to. There are Chili Pepper songs I’ve probably listened to 1000+ times, but I couldn’t write out the lyrics for you. BUT, I could notate out all of the vocal melodies and harmonies!

And for my music snobby answer, “Would someone have asked Beethoven, ‘Hey man, you ever thought about letting someone sing and put words to your compositions?!'” haha

NN: How do you tell a story without words? Actually, are you trying to tell a complete narrative with your music, or is it only meant to occupy aural space without any kind of visual -imagined or otherwise- story?

BS: Ooh, great question! Yes, some of the songs have a specific story I am telling, and it is told through the progression of the intensity and the mood of the song. Flagship is a great example, with sections of feeling chill, melancholy, angry, or determined. I wrote Flagship about my experience of losing a best friend.  But of course, no lyrics means it can be whatever the listener wants it to be!

LC: I don’t consider that we’re necessarily trying to tell a specific story as much as convey a mood or evoke emotion. We want the listener to hear the song, and decide for themselves what it means to them, that way the song is unique for everyone that hears it.

NN: In what ways do you believe the power of funk should be utilized? Tell us how funk can or should change the world.

LC: Funk is our mentality. You can hear that in the way that the bass and drums lock in together and play off of each other, in the guitar and piano rhythms. Before every writing session, Ben and I would listen to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Jamiroquai, Parliament, or any thing like that to get ourselves in the right head space. We may be a rock band, but we’re funk musicians.

“Funk is our mentality. You can hear that in the way that the bass and drums lock in together and play off of each other, in the guitar and piano rhythms.”

BS: In Lightning music is fun! That’s that funk. And we’re here to spread positivity.

NN: If you could will one superhero into existence, who would it be and why? How would they interact with the world?

BS: There are few people in the world better suited to answer this question than Lamar Cornett.

LC: The Flash. He had the best ratio of power and humility. He could do a lot to help people, not just by stopping bad guys, but by providing abundant clean energy to the world. But he wouldn’t try to impose his will or judgement on everyone the way a lot of other superheroes probably would.

NN: What non-musical things have you excited lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth discussing?

LC: Stranger Things. Have you seen this show? Its like Stephen King and Steven Spielberg in their prime got together and made a TV show.

I’m also cautiously excited about the movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, my favorite series of books.

BS: Man, I’ve been so hyper-focused since the beginning of the year on making this album release happen, I don’t even know. I’m a pretty high level GoT nerd. And I’m looking forward to playing the PS4 remastered The Last Of Us that my man here let me borrow, as well as Uncharted 4 eventually.
The album release show is August 26th, and I’m super excited for it. But there’s a big part of me that is really looking forward to August 27th, haha.

NN: What are your top three desert island albums and why?

LC: 3. 2001 A Funk Odyssey by Jamiroquai. A beautifully diverse, and funky album. The performances are top notch and every song makes you want to get up and move.

2. In Rainbows by Radiohead. My favorite album by my favorite band. It’s incredibly atmospheric and emotional.

1. Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest album ever recorded. 21 tracks, 2 LPs and a seven inch, covering multiple styles and genres, and every song is absolute perfection.

Plus Stevie recording most of the record by himself. It’s just an amazing record.

BS: I would be more than content with Lamar’s choices there. I also just want to shout out Ratatat’s Classics, as that is the album that unlocked my belief in this path of writing fun, engaging, instrumental music.