Working Breed is a Pittsburgh art rock collective that embellishes its driving rock ‘n’ roll tunes with esoteric and intellectual accents like insect noises and plant magnetic fields. Their song “Cicada” was previously covered by Bored In Pittsburgh. Frontwoman Erika Laing was kind enough to share her thoughts about the band, its music, and the Pittsburgh music community. Check it out below:
Who are you? A mission statement for Working Breed, if you will.
Working Breed is an art rock alt-pop group in the business of melding the diverse musical minds of its members. Our latest release, Hieroglyphica, was crafted by the brains of frontwoman Erika Laing on vocals, brass, and saw, Mike Dugan on guitar, Jonah Petrelli on bass, Chloe Wiecz on keys, a mixture of drummers including Jeremy Papay and Kieran Bittles, with songwriting contributions by Sam Stein and production contributions from sound engineer Matt Vaughan. We like to bring the audience new experiences while building something unique from the amalgamation of our individual musical abilities and interests. We are serious about our music, but it is always balanced by a large dollop of fun and humor. Our music is always evolving and taking new shapes, kind of like life in music form!
A cliché question right off the bat; who/what are your influences, musical or otherwise?
We all have slightly different influences, I’m a little quirky, Dugan a little indie, Chloe a little jazzy, etc. We definitely share a solid rock interest with love for acts like Motley Crue, Fleetwood Mac, and Steely Dan, but also for groups that stretch and transform like Radiohead, Mr. Bungle, and Esperanza Spalding. Because we allow each member to express their background and future interests, we wind up with elements from all over the place.
How did Working Breed come together as a band?
The nexus of the group was a five-piece that began in 2014 and we’ve had the joy of playing with a few different individuals throughout our history, all of whom are indelibly printed on the vibe of collaboration in the band. We will always be a band that fondly embraces the musical minds of its members, past, present, and future. From day one we have enjoyed creating together; as Dugan said in our first ever rehearsal, “This thing’s got legs!”
You identify the band’s music as art rock; what does this term mean to you?
It is kind of a catch-all term that lets us concisely stay unbounded, but we also fit the proper definition since we are a rock band that incorporates atypical instrumentation and plays around with genre bending, theatricality, and mood. A more modern term that might describe us is alt-pop, especially after the album wound up sounding so shiny and professional thanks for 3.5 years of perfecting in the studio with Matt Vaughan of Hollywood Studios plus the immense mastering skills of Frank Arkwright from Abbey Road Studios. We are bouncy and fun and sometimes brooding, but all the while still pushing into eclectic territory.
Heiroglyphica has been described as a concept album; what is the concept? (Or is that something listeners can determine for themselves?)
Heiroglyphica is a collection of songs from the first 5 years of our songwriting together, opening with Mo Fo Ro Ro, a ribald and tongue-in-cheek portrayal of our rock and roll dreams penned by Jonah Petrelli. It acts as a kind of overture to what’s to come on the album, which is funky, fun, and serious all at once. From there on is when the fuller concept really begins, as lyrically the remaining songs are all from my point of view and are ordered on the album to tell the mini-story of my emotional life throughout the prior decade. Under the many layers of metaphor and razzle dazzle, the story arc tells the tale of a guarded, independent woman who endures existential loneliness (Sensitive Plant), unrequited love (Cicada), introspective whimsy (My Chimera), the healing power of true friendship (Daffodil) that enables deep healing after a vulnerable loss (Turtle Race), and the grand finale of a star-crossed love with tragic figures that puts hard-learned lessons to the task (Orange Fluff). Life and love are complicated, intertwined and ever-changing, and the songs on this album reflect that through its lyrics and music.
What inspired you to use sounds derived from the Mimosa Pudica on “Sensitive Plant?” How did you actually manage to capture these sounds?
There are a lot of natural elements threaded throughout the album: poetic underwater scenes help paint the complication in Orange Fluff, metaphors of animals and plants are used to represent people and emotions in Sensitive Plant, Turtle Race, and Cicada, and there is also a philosophy of life’s purpose represented in Daffodil. In fact, the whole album is named after a specific species of Cicada, the Neocicada Hieroglyphica, whose sounds were also snuck into the record.
After we got samples of the Hieroglyphica cicada for the album, I had the bright idea that we should also capture the sounds of the Sensitive Plant, Mimosa Pudica. I am an electro- and magneto- encephalography expert for her day job, though usually applying the techniques to human brains for clinical and research purposes. However, I knew that I could apply similar methods to be able to record the teeny tiny electrical signals made by this plant, which is a special plant that will emit an action potential when touched, after which it rapidly closes its leaves. I recorded these impulses and the ambient world of the plant with special sensors and then scaled the recordings up into the auditory spectrum of human ears, further layering on top a strange synthesized speech poem written from the perspective of the plant. It can be hard to understand his ‘accent’, but once you get it, your brain snaps it all into place, and the ‘white noise’ in the background is the organically soothing soundscape made by the mimosa pudica plant itself.
Do you have a favorite Working Breed song? (I know this might be tough to answer!)
We all super-love to play My Chimera because of the sheer fun of it! It is always a highlight of our performance for us!
What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh music scene? Have you seen it change over the years? If so, how?
For sure it has changed. For one thing, there are many more bands playing, all over the place. There are also many more concerts and festivals with an emphasis on local music, and increasing numbers of programs that bring young or disenfranchised musicians into the self-expressive world of performance. Pittsburgh is a great place to get started as a musician, because it’s not too hard to get your first few gigs, but for some it is difficult to grow or there is a ceiling. We need to continue deepening the work that’s just beginning to integrate across genres and build a cultural attitude where live music is appreciated by general Pittsburghers extending beyond the other musicians in the city.
I personally don’t like the word “scene” and I think it does our community a disservice. If you were painting a picture or penning a story, the ‘scene’ is just the backdrop for whatever is in the foreground, whatever is the focus. I’d like to see local Pittsburgh musicians be the spotlight, not the scene. The scene should be a cultural affinity for live, local talent, not the talent itself.
What’s your favorite Pittsburgh venue to either play or watch a show?
Tough one! We have loved playing so many places, and our favorite shows have been all over the city, usually tied to the awesomeness of connection with the crowd. We loved playing at South Park Amphitheatre because it was a crazy rush to play for ~6000 people opening for Jefferson Starship (and the sound was amazing!), and we have also had similar great experiences at The Rex, Mr. Smalls and outdoor festivals like Deutschtown Music Fest and Kaya Fest. It is usually about the people we connect with, not the place, and we’ve had just as memorable shows in smaller venues like Liveburgh Studios in Glenshaw, house parties, Howlers, and Spirit Lodge.
Any other local artists that you’d recommend for people who like Working Breed?
YES! Well so many, but if you like Working Breed, you’d probably also be into Wreck Loose, The Telephone Line, Chrome Moses, Feralcat, Starship Mantis, Donora, Meeting of Important People, Flock of Walri, Cisco Kid, and many others. You can also hear more from our band members in their side projects, like Dugan in The Nerd Herders, Chloe in Hunnycomb, me in Erika June and the Tunes, and Jeremy in about 12+ other projects like Squonk Opera, Jack’s Shadow, and The Regal Sweet.
Is there anything else that I forgot to ask or that you’d like people to know about yourself, your music, or anything in general?
Just that we believe that everyone has some kind of music in them, because everyone has a voice that should be heard. Express yourself!
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