For Toronto's LAL, the phrase "find safety" serves as both album title and mantra. It's also the name of the duo's fourth full-length studio effort and the overarching vibe of their recording facility, Unit 2.
The electronically fuelled music LAL (Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray) create — intimately rootsy, groovy and political — deserves a space like Unit 2, which functions as a DIY music venue and recording studio. With life partners and owners Kazi and Murray, Unit 2 serves not only as the duo's primary residence, it acts as a home space with an emphasis on social justice activism and queer and/or black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities.
"We really wanted to create something alternative. Especially for marginalized people who don't feel safe in a lot of environments. Luckily this place came up, we looked at it and asked if we could have it. We've had it for like six years," says poet-lyricist-vocalist Kazi.
Unit 2 is nestled in a Toronto neighbourhood recently known as a creative enclave of artists, writers and musicians. Formerly owned by a photographer, the space feels at once lived-in, expansive and intimate. With its small stage and high ceilings in the living room-slash-performance space and cozy bedroom-slash-recording space, the location crackles with creative energy, a frequency that LAL both soak in and exude.
LAL have been together as a musical entity for nearly two decades and it shows in the duo's energy and easy-going demeanour. The nearly three-year process of making Find Safety — which was recorded in the space — stemmed from a need to develop a project that was danceable, socially aware and harnesses both Kazi's maturing activism and vocals, and Murray's ever-evolving approach to ambient sounds and electronic experimentation.
The acoustics in Unit 2 are "pretty good," says Murray. "We have limitless sound possibilities here: we can be as loud as we want. We often record vocals in the space with the high ceilings, which isn't always great for vocals but the vibe is amazing," he says. "Drums kind of weirdly disappear in this space, unless they are miked. And when it comes to acoustic instruments, the wood floors help."
The album was recorded mostly in the key of D minor using Pro Tools 11 and Maximus P, Murray says, and it's a collaborative process that mostly involves synth and drums. A Siel Orchestra synthesizer was involved in the workflow; Murray adds he mostly used a Kurzweil PC3 — but doesn't have it anymore. "That always happens with me. Whenever I do a record, I always have this one specific [piece of] gear that I use for the whole record, and then I just get rid of it. So I can never make that record again. The Kurzweil is a little rack mount synthesizer that had this amazing [setting] called infinite reverb. It would reverberate these sounds into these beautiful room tones and I used that [for] every sound," he says. "We recorded the vocals in here, using an AKG C 414 microphone that we've used since the '90s."
"We've always been downtempo-ish — whatever the name is — but I'm really into techno and dancing," Kazi adds. "When you make political music that's pretty hardcore — talking about trauma and pain — I don't want it to be heavy. We actually did a whole record, mixed and mastered it, and then decided that we didn't like this. So we scrapped it and we did it again. Part of this was influenced by Nic's brother [Stephen Murray, aka Phen Ray] who is also a great producer who's done stuff with k-os. He remixed a track and we loved it, so we used that as a framework."
Murray, who started off sampling records back in the '90s, is big on a non-theoretical musical approach, including organic and "found sounds," that manifests itself on this record. "I like the sound of computers; [I'm] not into the idea that everything must have this feel of humanism. For me the magic happens with the contrast between the two things."
The album is called Find Safety for a reason, Kazi says, adding that this involves a close alignment with progressive movements such as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. "Just being able to articulate some of the racism, homophobia and sexism in a way through music, but also have a conversation without yelling it out. Because everyone has some shit going on in their lives, so politically, the sound has become more compassionate," she says.
"Politically, I feel that I am more radical now than I was in my 20s," Kazi continues. "Because I've let go of this idea of trying to break into the music industry. Politically, moving away from this idea of being a part of this corporate system to actually understanding that we don't need that system and we can create our own. This idea that music and dance can really unite folks — but also I'm going to address some shit if it comes in our way.
"The space can't run without the people who come to it. It's really a communal effort, be it BIPOC folks or people of colour or folks coming out of different situations. It's really a community," says Kazi. "Over the last four or five years, a lot of it has been geared towards these issues, around safety, around trying to feel safer. The album [exists] to encourage people to take up room, be careful, make some shit and don't let people tell you what to think. It's about that freedom — talking about that hard stuff — but showing that we are resilient and we have been for thousands of years."