Fashion Forward: The Sounds Of Los Angeles’ Visionary ‘Les Sewing Sisters’
When Lun*na Menoh was conceptualizing the visual style of her musical project Les Sewing Sisters, she reached for dualities. “I wanted Les Sewing Sisters,” she explains,” as two women, to be something between a man and a woman, something between a robot and a human, something between an angel and a germ.”
As one might expect from a musical artist trained also in the visual arts and in clothes making, the costumes she created expound volumes even before a word is spoken — or as is sometimes the case with Les Sewing Sisters, before a word is chanted.
And the music — featuring Menoh and Saori Mitome on vocals, is no less innovative. All of the sounds, except for the vocals, are composed of samples of electric sewing machines, some altered, some presented in their plain state.
Menoh explains. “I wanted to use the sewing machine noise in the first place, and the sewing machine noise is not simple, so it’s like ‘dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah.’ It’s hard to recognize a melody, so it psychologically affects your brain, because except for the melody it’s the same over and over again, ‘tk tk tk tk tk tk,’ a really unstable melody could merge (into a beautiful one.”
Menoh’s first experiment with this approach to Musique Concrète was a complete 18 minute version of Ravel’s ‘Bolero,” featuring sewing machine sounds — and no traditional instruments of any kind — to reproduce everything, from the rhythm to the melodies.
The process involves sampling the machines and importing the sounds into Garageband on an Apple Computer, then manipulating them in many ways. “It takes such a long time,”Menoh says,” almost like cooking, just collecting sewing machine sounds and slicing them, like one million slices, and really making a stretch, so it sounds like a clarinet, or an oboe…”
The Ravel piece was played for a sold out crowd in 2016 at the theater at the Velaslavasay Panoroma Museum in Los Angeles, and now Les Sewing Sisters use the same approach to composition, adding vocals and playing around Los Angeles, including opening shows for Sparks. In these songs, Menoh and Mitome’s vocals present metaphors for everything from gender politics to the paradoxes of struggling in a challenging economy, all wrapped in stories about the art of the seamstress.
Writing and singing songs inspired by the world of fashion lends itself to double meanings, including commentaries on power and the financial gain that a woman can get from making clothes (“She Sews”), to the harm caused by a needle, or as some might interpret it, a sewing machine that isn’t functioning properly (“Needle Is Damaged.”)
Menoh’s journey to songwriting and performing began after a decade or so of putting on fashion shows — not commercially, but as art performances — in which the creations were all outrageous, “wearable sculptures.” She joined the LA band Seksu Roba in 2001, touring Germany, Italy and France, then in 2005 created the electro pop/performance art group Jean Paul Yamamoto, in which she played a Fender Stratocaster alongside late Devo drummer Alan Myers. Yet in the early days, Menoh only had an inkling about her desire or ability to perform musically in front of a band — until she discovered Karaoke.
“It’s really strange, at the time, as I started, I was like ‘hmm, it feels good!’ Then Seksu Roba started, and I became a performer.”
Fashion is the thread that ties all of these adventures together, featuring rock music and performance art, and costumes made by Menoh. And though she has never worked in a sweatshop, she playfully states “I made a sweatshop of myself — I work so hard!” From her days studying at fashion school in Tokyo, then designing costumes professionally and also for art directors of films, to her works on canvas in her busy studio, this seems to be quite true.
One theme that Menoh’s visual art approaches indirectly is the taboo of showing clothes that look like they have been worn (excepting perhaps the distressed jean trend). Menoh tackled this taboo by collecting hundreds of dirty collars from men’s white dress shirts, and among other projects, making a wedding dress out of them.
“The fashion industry totally denies, dirt or stains, that is a big no-no for fashion people,” she say. “So I thought I can do a whole fashion show, using all real stained collars.” On one occasion, she went “to the rag shop, or a recycling place, and got 500 of them.”
Some of Menoh’s paintings also break this taboo, including stunning depictions in white paint on black backgrounds, of collars of men’s designer shirts, all with the offending ring around the collar and dreary, graying edges. As artists often do, Menoh follows the creative process while withholding any explicit statement in her art.
“I have always had a love and hate relationship with the fashion industry, or fashion itself,” she says. “(But) I don’t want to say if it’s good or bad, or make a judgment. I love clothing, but clothing cannot be art, or fashion cannot be art.” I failed to ask Menoh that critical question ‘why’ clothing cannot be art, but I assumed that it’s because of the way visual arts and fashion are categorized separately by critics and other commentators on culture.
Les Sewing Sisters will release their debut album, recorded in Detroit, either this year or early next year, and it’s been produced by their friends, Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus of the electro punk duo “ADULT,” who hail from that same city. As Menoh’s husband, author Tosh Berman points out, “Detroit is sort of the symbol of factories and making automobiles…and for Motown.” Which all circles back to the fact that sewing machines came about during the First Industrial Revolution, while Maurice Ravel’s machine-like rhythms were influenced by the career of his father, an engineer, manufacturer, and inventor of the roller coaster.
So, if you’re curious and wondering what form the soundtrack to the latest iteration of Capitalism will take, as it toils into this, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, look no further than Les Sewing Sisters.
Originally published at http://www.synthbeat.com on September 5, 2019.