The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: John Lemke

leave a comment »

Interview with John Lemke.

“I’m really excited by the tension between the acoustic and electronic, especially those places where the lines start to blur. Again, I think it’s where the idea of the acousmatic comes into play as well. Then it’s just about getting the balance right.”

—John Lemke

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Denovali Records is a Germany based independent music label founded in 2005. Recent releases include the mesmerizing jazz noir of ‘Quatorze Pieces De Menace’ by Dale Cooper Quartet (featuring guest vocalists Alicia Merz of Birds of Passage, Zalie Bellacicco, Ronan Mac Erlaine and Gaelle Kerrien); the latest electro-acoustic treasure by Argentina-born Sebastian Plano, entitled ‘Impetus’, and the melancholic bliss of the latest ‘Gone’ EP by Floex. Denovali has also been responsible for the incredible dub-infused electronic opus ‘Where We Were’ by British composer Greg Haines and the debut album by Glasgow-based composer John Lemke. The album is entitled ‘People Do’ and was released earlier this summer representing yet another milestone in the treasured Denovali artistic output.

‘People Do’ is one of those records that defies categorization as a seamless array of styles simmer beautifully throughout: modern-classical and ambient touchstones are immersed on a sprawling canvas of fluid dance beats. A gorgeous space is forever inherent across Lemke’s sonic creations that in turn conjures up a beguiling atmosphere and the hallmarks of a fulfilling journey. Originally from Berlin, the Glasgow-based composer and sound designer works across a wide variety of media (his extensive work as a documentary composer for the BBC and Channel 4) that effortlessly seeps into Lemke’s explorations with sound on the highly impressive debut, ‘People Do’.

The seeds of ‘People Do’ were sewn with Lemke’s desire to ultimately create an album that would exist entirely in its own sound world. The resulting works offers a deeply immersive and compelling voyage that encompasses a multitude of sweeping soundscapes (warm guitar textures, cinematic piano notes, looped field recordings) etched across a sprawling, vast sonic terrain.


Congratulations John on the stunning debut album ‘People Do’. What is most impressive is the seamless array of genres and textures embedded in the sonic creations. There is very much a dance-oriented sound, combined gorgeously with modern-classical, ambient and electronica. The album results in a truly innovative voyage. Please discuss for me your aims from the outset for this record, and the creative process involved, that is inherent in your work?

Thanks Mark, I’m really glad you’ve been enjoying the record. Describing the process and aims is a tall order, but I’ll give it a try!

I guess at the very beginning there was simply a desire in me to make music that was danceable, or failing that somehow at least rhythmical – both traits that are largely absent from my compositions for film & TV. Secondly and probably even more importantly I wanted to create music that was independent of any visual input, that stood on its own feet. Ultimately an album that would exist entirely in its own sound world seemed like the best vessel for these ideas. The plan had been around for a very long time but I think it was only about two years ago I felt comfortable enough creating the kind of music I had been imagining for years.

When it came to starting the process I first chose some main sound elements and treatment methods I wanted to use, plus some rather orthodox limitations which I considered useful – of course only through a lot of trial and error. Slowly but surely I realised that I really wanted to move away from traditional and obvious instrumentation, mainly as a way of avoiding the same compositional patterns which I often fall into with film music. First I experimented with abstracted guitar textures (my first single ‘Traveller’ was the result of this) and then decided to apply similar techniques to the piano. Another theme that I wanted to explore from the outset was that of travel more broadly. I was lucky enough to work on the album in various places around Europe that were all inspirational in very different ways. Many field recordings from those places ended up on the album to add depth and dimension. To reflect this sense of voyage sonically I wanted to send a lot of the individual sounds ‘traveling’ as well – whether by running them through guitar amps, tapes, effects or simply re-recording them through room to capture the characteristics and impurities of the spaces. This may all sound a bit intellectualized to start with, but it actually happened fairly organically, mainly because creating a body of music with only myself in charge was completely new to me. Limitations and loose concepts helped me keep things clearer, although I didn’t end up sticking to my much more orthodox, initial plan. Maybe I should try that on the next record…


I was interested to read the piano on some of the album – possibly on the two ambient solo piano pieces ‘Dorothea I’ and Dorothea II’? – is in fact from your Grandmother’s piano instrument. I’ve memories also of my Grandmother and her special piano sitting in the living room of her home. Tell me how this provided a source of inspiration for ‘People Do’?

Yes, apart from an added field recording, these are the only two pieces that feature solely the piano, which was indeed my grandmother’s. It’s an instrument with an incredible history as it initially belonged to her dad, who accompanied silent films on it back in 1920’s Berlin. Of course I only remember it through her though, playing upstairs in her room on weekends – its sound was so familiar to me in all its imperfections, let alone its strange micro-tuning (it’s about one and a half semitones above standard tuning, making it near impossible to play along to). My grandmother was probably not the greatest player, but deeply passionate, performing even the slightest of pieces with a lot of gusto and feeling. After she died I starting teaching myself to play on it – very badly it must be said – but the sound of her piano has always remained very special and dear to me, plus I’ve always imagined that the spirit of the golden twenties is somehow trapped inside its wood and wires. Therefore it seemed a really natural choice for a starting point of the record. Even though most of the sounds ended up being abstracted to some extent, I think the essence somehow shines through.

In the beginning I started writing tracks directly on the piano, but then ended up mainly preparing it with kitchen instruments, sampling drum & percussion hits, muted strings and other unusual sounds from it. These became the backbone of most of the tracks on ‘People Do’, especially the drums and percussion elements. Working in this way re-kindled my love for acousmatic sounds – sounds that give no definitive information about their source. So I started applying similar methods to electric guitar and other instruments to establish a sort of vocabulary for the record.


The recording process involved many techniques, from playing back and re-recording sound through a room, and the use of homemade field recordings from all around Europe. I would love to gain an insight into the recording techniques you used to capture the sounds of ‘People Do’? I am intrigued by the vast collection of field recordings you must have collected to date. Can you shed some light on some of these, and what ones have particular resonance for you?

Field recordings have a certain magic to me and I guess they are my way of keeping a diary. I rarely travel without my trusted recorder, as you never know where the next interesting sound event is going to take place. When I look back on the library I’ve been gathering over the last few years, the recordings that particularly resonate with me are actually the most quiet ones. I suppose I’m with John Cage on this one, as in that silences are completely different everywhere, whereas noises and concrete sounds tend to be more similar wherever you go.

One of my favourite silences I ever recorded was last year in Spain, in a place called Salvatierra de Tormes. The recording is from a lakeside at night-time. This particular lake was once a small river which got flooded when a dam was erected nearby, burying half of the nearby village underneath. Now, when the tide is low, you can still see the top of the church tower poking out of the still waters. The nighttime silence of this place had something deeply eerie, yet calming at the same time, which is why I ended up using it on the ‘Dorothea’ pieces – it just adds some depth, despite its subtlety. I enjoy the notion of these two very different spaces coming together as one in a piece of music.

With regards to recording techniques, I’m fascinated by the idea of sounds going on their own journeys. All different methods used on the album represent aspects of traveling sound: whether it is worldising (playing and re-recording a sound through a room), running high fidelity sounds through extremely lo-fi equipment, passing sounds through tape or synthesizing them. I’d say most listeners won’t care too much where the sounds come from or how they are produced, but for me it’s a really important part of the process, as it introduces a very exciting element of unpredictability, keeping me on my toes – I suppose it’s a bit like having a second band member to bounce ideas around with.


My current favourite (it does change a lot) is the album closer ‘When We Could’. I love the feeling of motion and depth that exists in the piece. There is a beautiful guitar melody that runs throughout, conjuring up the sound of Keith Kenniff’s Helios project. Can you talk me through this piece of music please? I love how the layers of sound – electronics, piano – effortlessly floats onto the surface.

I’m glad you’ve picked out this one – it’s also very special to me and a really personal piece. It’s one of the few tracks where I actually achieved exactly what I intended to produce initially, which doesn’t happen often for me as tracks tend to build up a life and personality of their own and I follow their lead. But ‘When We Could’ from the beginning was all about that naive, very beautiful sense of possibility & wonder, from a perspective of nostalgic remembrance.

Fittingly there is a field recording of an old wind chime in my mother’s garden in the breakdown section, which was my starting point for the piece. It then grew from me playing an old Casio organ, which has a lovely, warm tone to it and a very rudimentary but adorable drum machine too. The melody came up very early on and it then occurred to me that the track needed a strong helping of live piano, in a less abstracted way than on the other tracks. It really is a very simple piece of music that somehow comes alive through the layering, sonic details and small, interlocking melodies I think. There is of course a hint of electronica throughout it, but, as with so many of the album tracks, it was important to me that all the root sounds were as organic as possible.



Your album is home to the truly awe-inspiring independent label, Denovali. This in itself must be a wonderful feeling to be part of. I am a huge fan of your label-mate, Greg Haines and funnily enough I see a lovely parallel between ‘People Do’ and Greg’s latest record ‘Where We Were’. You’re drawn to a dance-oriented sound, whereas Greg’s is rooted in a dub terrain, but fusing all these plethora of elements together so immaculately. Were there records and specific composers and artists that provided inspiration for the making of ‘People Do’?

This is true – I really couldn’t be more delighted to have found such a home for my music. The Denovali catalogue and artist roster is truly impressive as it is inspiring, but what’s even more important is their dedication to let the music come first and speak for itself. There are absolutely no compromises involved, which is an incredible luxury.

It’s funny you should mention Greg. I met him for the first time when we were touring with Poppy Ackroyd this May and I was very impressed with his live show and then got into his record after, which is also a great piece of work.

With regards to influences and inspirations it’s very difficult to pin down exactly which of those helped shape the record. I guess it really just is a lifelong process of accumulation and taste development through both good and bad examples along the way. There’s a lot of music I deeply admire, but I’m not sure it necessarily shows directly in my own work. When I look at the period of time I worked on the album I would probably say that Krysztof Penderecki had quite an impact. I saw a concert of his at the Barbican (with Jonny Greenwood) a couple of years ago and was completely blown away by it: the innovative use of orchestral instrumentation and the implementation of the graphic score, which both resulted in an incredibly emotive performance. I think this synthesis was a real eye-opener to me. In a more general sense I suppose that I’ve always admired artists with a completely uncompromising work ethic, so in that respect perhaps the likes of Scott Walker, Portishead or Boards Of Canada have had their share of inspiration on me too.


You have been heavily involved in many projects, TV documentary music, film music, film sound design, production library work and corporate music and sound design. How does the process in terms of composing music, differ from each line of work, and does making your own solo music follow a similar path?

Due to the collaborative nature of most of my other projects there is generally a lot less freedom, musically speaking. In many cases I’m providing a very specific service and have to cater to the needs of a larger body of work. This is by no means a bad thing and I really enjoy the challenge of finding the appropriate tone and method for each project. I think my solo work has somehow emerged as a reaction to this: sometimes because I can’t explore exactly what I want or because I find an interesting starting point within a project that I want to take further. The wonderful thing is that when I get to work on my own music, I’m completely free, because I’m independent of image or questions of appropriateness, catchiness or commercial potential. Of course being left completely to your own devices can be pretty daunting, which is why installing limitations is often a good beginning. And as I described earlier, with my solo work I try to leave conventional instrumentation and work methods out as much as possible, relying entirely on my own sounds and generally making my life difficult with very convoluted recording practices.


I adore the dance-based ‘Illuminations’. It reminds me of John Talabot’s work. The strings are placed so wonderfully beneath the deep bass groove and rhythmic piano. With which instrument did this begin from? I’d love to learn more about the electronic side of your work, and how you fuse this into the acoustic instrumentation of piano/guitar/strings?

Great to hear that! It’s also a favourite of mine. I actually had the initial idea during a walk in the park. I had leg it back home to put the idea down – first on a very basic synth; then I added the piano percussion, bass and preliminary strings. During my next trip to Berlin (where my grandmother’s piano lives, in an attic) I swapped all the synth parts for real and prepared piano, which is when the track really began to take off. The final touch was replacing the string parts you mentioned with viola, beautifully performed by my friend and very talented musician Kim Moore. Even though those parts sound quite simple, there is a lot of modulation going on and she managed to capture the spirit I had envisaged from the start perfectly.
I’m really excited by the tension between the acoustic and electronic, especially those places where the lines start to blur. Again, I think it’s where the idea of the acousmatic comes into play as well. Then it’s just about getting the balance right. I’d quite happily keep exploring this terrain even further – but ‘Illuminations’ is probably a good first step.


What’s next for you, John?

At the minute I’m just finishing the score for a documentary series for the BBC and starting a new one for Channel 4. I’m also just back from a residency in Portugal with NUX dance company, exploring the relationship between sound & movement and there’s another score for a dance piece in the works, based on the chaos theory. What I should really be doing though is preparing the live show for my tour together with Poppy Ackroyd and Floex in November. And ideas for the next album are already piling up too – I’m hoping to make a start on this as soon as possible. My fingers are itching…


What albums have you been listening to most during the year?

It’s been a strange year for me so far – instead of discovering new music I keep mostly being drawn to a lot of old stuff: I can’t seem to get enough of Scott Walker (‘Scott 4’ especially), Can & Harmonia these days. Having said that there’s also been a lot of minimal stuff on the menu recently such as Pole, Porter Ricks, Thomas Köner and the new Boards Of Canada album, which I think is tremendous as well as the latest Grouper record.


‘People Do’ is out now on Denovali Records.



Written by admin

October 14, 2013 at 10:37 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: