Experiencing a Peaking Lights show is a bit like flying in a spaceship from a 1970s sci-fi movie, with meditative bits of space-age psychedelia. When the duo of Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes performed Feb. 23 at the Frequency, their show was just the remedy after a lineup that ranged from insanely loud (Milwaukee's the New Loud) to just plain insane (Madison's Alex DeGroot).
Coyes made bursts of noise and ambient sound from a variety of electronic contraptions he's wired together. Sometimes a record player provided a backdrop of sound, and sometimes Dunis sang over the top of it all. She also played a variety of keyboards that Coyes has fashioned out of found objects. Hitting the stage at 1 a.m. on a school night, Peaking Lights made a stylish séance circle out of an audience that might otherwise have been inclined to overdose on irony.
It's no surprise Peaking Lights can draw a crowd. They have serious cool-kid credentials - Dunis co-founded Numbers and Dynasty, two of the decade's most admired post-punk and dance-punk groups, while Coyes shows off some major do-it-yourself skills in crafting melodies and instruments for Face Plant, Unborn Unicorn, Black Label and the couple's other project, Rahdunes.
What's refreshing about Dunis and Coyes is that their focus is the music rather than the hype. In fact, it's the hype that they were looking to escape, to some extent, by moving to the Madison area from San Francisco last spring.
Madison native Dunis, 36, says that she and Coyes, 32, who were married at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin last summer, wanted to live closer to her family. However, they were also looking for a good place to put down roots for a variety of projects, from an upstart record label, Aldebaran Record Farm, to a new vintage clothing and record store, the Good Style Shop, 402 E. Washington Ave.
The couple eventually settled in Spring Green because of its rustic, scenic qualities and its affordable price tag. "We knew we wanted to get a place in the country, somewhere beautiful and affordable compared to our little apartment in San Francisco," says Dunis.
The size of the place has already proved to be a big benefit. "Being able to afford an entire house with a studio and land to hike around on - and have some money left over to open a business - is really amazing," she says. "We have places to put everything and places to just get away and think."
Having a place to put everything is especially important for Peaking Lights, since Coyes builds most of the group's equipment out of found objects, Craigslist castoffs and thrift-store wares.
This includes Dunis' synthesizers, which are made out of a variety of clunky, outmoded electronic objects that scream Dig 'n Save. Thanks to Coyes' hacks, the switches and dials of these machines take on a new life and a new purpose.
Then there's the issue of storing the couple's huge collection of records and the clothing they're tailoring for the Good Style Shop, which opened March 1.
"We're DIY in pretty much every sense of the word," says Coyes, a native of San Luis Obispo, Calif., who's lived everywhere from Mexico to New Zealand. "We're doing, like, everything ourselves, including recording - so [the Madison area] seemed like a great place to do things that way, to live the lifestyle we believe in and maybe do even more of our own stuff."
The breakup of Dunis' band Numbers was also a precipitating factor in the couple's move. Otherwise Peaking Lights might never have gotten started.
"It was 2007, in the fall. We were on this big tour when we broke up," Dunis says of Numbers' implosion. "Things were a little crazy at the time, so we had to make some decisions."
Like Peaking Lights, Numbers grew out of a love of '70s-style electronics - think Can and Brian Eno - and a deep appreciation for the experimentation of that decade. Composed of Dunis on drums and vocals, Dave Broekema on guitar and Eric Landmark on keyboards, the band formed in Madison in 1999 and migrated to San Francisco soon after. The trio's unique sound fused a No Wave style of minimalism with a chaotic blend of pop, post-punk, noise and retro electro.
After heading west, Numbers released music with stylish labels like Tigerbeat6, Troubleman Unlimited and Kill Rock Stars, the label that launched the careers of '90s icons Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. But it was Numbers' live shows - dance-punk spazzfests with deadpanned lyrics and explosions of noise - that generated the most excitement and spawned numerous tours.
Soon after Numbers' breakup, a planned tour with Dunis and Coyes' other band, a three-piece project with bassist Nate Archer called Rahdunes, didn't materialize. The group had received an invitation to play at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, but Archer wasn't up to the task.
"He decided that he didn't want to go, and Indra and I had decided to move back to Madison but had already committed to the festival," Coyes recalls. "So we decided that maybe we should start our own project to play some shows at South By Southwest."
The couple moved to a one-bedroom basement apartment on Winnebago Street, set up some guitars and keyboards, and let their creativity lead them. The result was Peaking Lights.
At first, it was just plain awful, says Dunis. "Both of us couldn't remember anything about our songs, and it kept happening over and over again, all the way down to South By Southwest," she recalls with an amused sigh.
The musicians had taken on some significant challenges. Dunis, who'd played drums in her previous bands, took up playing keyboard, only to have her beloved Multivox piano chewed to bits by mice. Plus, all their material was brand new.
So by the time Peaking Lights reached Austin, their confidence was shaken. It wasn't until a chance meeting with one of their idols that the band's future began to look rosier.
Dunis and Coyes had scheduled some shows as Rahdunes despite their bandmate's absence and, to their surprise, generated more buzz than they'd expected. "We had a total teenage moment when [Sonic Youth's] Thurston Moore came up to us and said, 'Hey, you're Rahdunes. I just picked up your record.' It was that kind of in-awe moment," Dunis says.
The encounter led to a gig playing a party with Moore during the festival. That gave the pair the momentum they needed to finish a Peaking Lights album, Clearvoiant, when they returned to Wisconsin.
Since last year's journey south, it's been a whirlwind of activity for Dunis and Coyes, from recording another Peaking Lights album, Imaginary Falcons, to going on a recent five-week tour as Peaking Lights one minute, Rahdunes the next.
This identity-shifting isn't too confusing, the musicians say, since each of the bands takes quite a different approach to songcraft. While Rahdunes draws on some of the same influences as Peaking Lights - from Cluster and Flaming Tunes to Brian Wilson, Robert Wyatt and tons of reggae - it's not quite as structured.
"Rahdunes has a definite sound, but it's not always the same sound, and it's much more improvised," says Dunis. "When the three of us get together, we don't always know what we'll play beforehand, but we'll talk about what instruments we want to use and what feeling we want to invoke."
As for the new Peaking Lights album, the couple have made a point of invoking a feeling of past-meets-present by issuing it on vinyl and, of all things, cassette.
"Everybody has MP3s, CDs feel so disposable, and the quality of a tape is actually much better than a CD," says Coyes. "Plus, tapes last longer and you can make art with them like you can with a vinyl record. They've also got this tactile sensation that sticks with you instead of just flying past you."
Coyes and Dunis attest that there's a growing force of revivalists and DIY diehards making a serious rally for a cassette renaissance - and perhaps even the second coming of boomboxes. They carry music on tape alongside the vinyl in the Good Style Shop.
Meanwhile, they're peddling estate-sale and thrift-store finds - carefully gathered while they're out on tour - and trying to promote recycling by allowing patrons to trade their old duds for new ones, or new-looking old ones. Though some of the store's items are from decades past, Dunis and her mother alter many of them to give them a slightly modern edge.
While the treacherous economy has steered many would-be retailers away from opening shops, the couple say they're not too concerned about the prospect of staying afloat, given the renewed interest in secondhand goods the recession has spawned.
They also have a trusted safeguard: their very own set of lucky numbers.
That's right, lucky numbers. The band name Numbers wasn't a coincidence, and neither is the shop's address. Dunis and Coyes both subscribe to the tenets of numerology and use it to make important decisions, even which building to rent for their business. The name Peaking Lights also was chosen to achieve a certain numerical harmony. And to be searchable on Google, which Numbers really wasn't.
Of course, there's more to Peaking Lights' name. It signifies the experience of rising to an emotional apex, or taking a spiritual roller-coaster ride.
"It had to have a drug reference, even if it's really not, for that psychedelic sort of sensation - and the idea that you're 'peaking' like you'd peak on acid or mushrooms," says Coyes.
"Or any life experience," says Dunis with a laugh. "And we should know."