Chosen One: Lee Noble
Interview with Lee Noble.
“I record in my room in Los Angeles on a digital 8-track mixer. The way I tend to work is by first making small improvised recordings on battery-powered tape recorders with acoustic instruments like banjo, guitar, mbira, or on my casio sk-1 or another small keyboard. Then after a while I have a little collection of tapes to build from. This is the first album where I’ve also done a lot of editing and collage after most recording is done. I don’t mind leaving in all the audio artifacts of this process. So often you’ll hear the sound of tape recorders being turned on, or the record buttons being pressed on the 8-track, chairs moving around, background noises. I’m not interested in cleanliness of sound.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Lee Noble is an L.A based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. Earlier this year saw the release of his new album, ‘Ruiner’ on the ever-dependable Bathetic Records and is undeniably one of the hidden gems of 2013. The eerie atmosphere of the lo-fi folk haze of ambient swirls and Noble’s drifting vocals immerses the listener into an otherworldly dimension. The mood that is captured is what is most striking about ‘Ruiner’, where I feel a desolate landscape dotted across the sonic terrain. Beneath the depth of darkness, lies an illumination of hope and solace, such is the magic of Noble’s sonic explorations. The songs serve as one organic whole, where a gorgeous ebb and flow of enchanting sounds beautifully heightens all that surrounds you.
The instrumentation of guitar, banjo, church organ, vocals and samples are masterfully employed by Noble throughout the album’s soundscapes. The songs themselves – some worked on as far back as 2011 – originated from Noble’s L.A bedroom, equipped with the musician’s sacred digital 8-track mixer. An infinite array of possibilities are attained. I feel there is a remarkable closeness to Noble’s experimentation with sound as artists such as Benoît Pioulard and Grouper. A similar ethereal dimension is formed by the fusion of the organic and synthetic, creating in turn, a beguiling sonic tapestry that unleashes fragile emotion.
‘Ruiner’ comprises of gradual music, in all its power and beauty. One moment, vintage analog drones serves a pulse to the song’s bloodflow, while the next, a meditative swell of harmonium seeps into the slipstream. Deeply affecting music is created. A passage from the essay “Music As A Gradual process” by Steve Reich, I feel captures the essence of ‘Ruiner’:
“While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it.”
Album opener ‘Covers’ begins with cleansing mbira notes, before dream-like organ synthesizer fades into the foreground. A delicate lullaby, which serves the ideal prologue for the sonic voyage ‘Ruiner’ takes you on. Noble’s heartfelt vocals coalesce with the music, forming a beautiful sea of cinematic wonder. The outro of church organ notes effortlessly flows into ‘December’. This ambient gem is drenched in gorgeous reverb and swells of organ, amidst the electric guitar strum of minor chords and a drum machine’s winter beats. The brooding vocals are reminiscent of Thom Yorke that resonates into the captivating atmosphere.
‘Demon Pond’ is all about building on layers of sound. A sweeping harmonium provides a haunting backdrop to the song’s opening sections. I feel the sonic artifacts come to light from the recorded improvisations. The song cycle encompasses all stratosphere of sound from ambient, drone to folk music. The vocals and banjo accompaniment that unfolds six minutes in, is perhaps ‘Ruiner”s defining moment. Heavenly harmonies and stirring tones of field recordings and background noise, creates a wholly fulfilling experience. Noble’s voice is like a prayer for forgiveness from the depths of despair. ‘Rewilding’ closes Side A, with an uptempo organ-led instrumental and drum machine. A bright sun rises on the horizon, as the irresistible pop hooks form a compelling groove. ‘Remind Me’ is a slowed down re-working of ‘Rewilding’ that perfectly flows into one another. ‘Remind Me’ is another gem that finds Noble at the interface of the organic and synthetic.
‘Disintegrate Ideas’ is a swirling organ-based instrumental, that creates a wonderful sense of space to the music. The acoustic-based ‘Wring The Rag’ is a sparse lament of tortured souls. The intimacy is immediately evident. The organ/synthesizer is at the heart of album closer, ‘I Don’t Blame You, We’re Having The Same Dream’ that brings Lee Noble’s latest sonic exploration to a fitting close.
Interview with Lee Noble.
Congratulations on the latest opus, ‘Ruiner’. The album is an utterly transcendent tour de force. I love how your songs possess that magical spark, forever inhabiting a cosmic space. Please discuss the recording of this album and the inception of the songs that make up this incredible record?
Thanks very much! That is very kind. I started working on pieces that appear on the album as far back as 2011. I record in my room in Los Angeles on a digital 8-track mixer. The way I tend to work is by first making small improvised recordings on battery-powered tape recorders with acoustic instruments like banjo, guitar, mbira, or on my casio sk-1 or another small keyboard. Then after a while I have a little collection of tapes to build from. This is the first album where I’ve also done a lot of editing and collage after most recording is done. I don’t mind leaving in all the audio artifacts of this process. So often you’ll hear the sound of tape recorders being turned on, or the record buttons being pressed on the 8-track, chairs moving around, background noises. I’m not interested in cleanliness of sound.
The instrumentation of guitar, banjo, church organ, vocals and samples blend so effortlessly together that creates one large cohesive and organic sound. The songs are reminiscent of other luminaries such as Grouper and Benoît Pioulard. I would love to gain an insight into the process of assembling the various layers to your sound and the creative process at the heart of your unique sonic creations?
Not too long ago I got this great organ synth, a Yamaha sk10, and it has a beautiful warble that seems to go along well with everything, from synthesizer to banjo. I can’t seem to specialize or focus on one instrument, so I end up with many. My skills are half realized with all of them. I see some correlation between folk music and older synthesizer music, the edge where those two things touch is a great place to explore. There’s a way to manipulate an organ or guitar or synth tone so that at the end you can’t tell what you’re listening to – it’s just this warm sound. I supposed if I was technically better at mixing there might be more separation, but it’s not something I aspire to at the moment.
My favourite song is the epic ‘Demon Pond’. A song cycle that seems to flow through all stratospheres from ambient, drone to lo-fi folk. The moment the banjo comes into the mix is one of the defining moments on ‘Ruiner’. I would love to hear how this song was born and the various stages in which the song bloomed into its final entity?
I wrote the banjo piece at the end first, and recorded it. Then later thought it needed a lead-up, so I added the harmonium. I had these other pieces laying around from other recording experiments and I just ended up throwing them all together, taking the pieces that stood out. They were all much longer pieces initially, mostly made with a pedal that does long looped delays. But they are more efficient together.
As a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, I would love to gain an insight into your fascination with sound? What are your memories of first experimenting with sound?
My dad is a musician, a guitar player, so there were lots of them lying around the house growing up. I wanted to play piano when I was a kid, and started taking lessons, but I hated learning songs so I quit. Just wanted to make stuff up and not study. Just wanted to bang on everything.
The songs on ‘Ruiner’ feel an amalgam of many discrete ideas that forms one cohesive whole. I’d like to think the songs are akin to a gorgeous abstract painting that reveals more hidden truths the more you immerse yourself into the artist’s world. What are the guiding influences behind your work and that has shaped ‘Ruiner’?
I don’t know what I’m doing. It seems like I worked on the songs on the album for so long, I’m not sure what they are. Just what I’ve worked on. Mixing field recordings with songs. Soundtracks. Textures. Anything with analog push-button drum machines.
Please discuss the vintage analog drones that you have collected over the years? What is your most preferred instrument at the moment?
I have a Moog synth called The Source, and a Korg MS10. Lots of little battery keyboards like Casio sk-1, sk-5. And a couple of these organ synths. Trying to find the perfect instrument. I have been playing nylon-string guitar more. It’s really hard to string up, and I broke the high E string, so it only has 5. I’ve been playing it like that, tuned to B F# B E B. I also got a really tiny euro-rack modular set-up I’m trying to learn.
What records are you listening to lately?
This Japanese band Mariah made an album called Utakata no Hibi in 1983 that I’ve been really into lately.
Check this song out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67c_PyzUXUk
Do you plan to tour Europe? I sincerely hope so.
I did a tour in March but didn’t go to the UK. I was in Germany / Austria / Czech / France / Italy / Switzerland. I want to go everywhere. I just need to figure out a new set. And of course save up for the trip.
“Ruiner” is out now on Bathetic Records.