Step Right Up: Lawrence English
Interview with Lawrence English.
“…my father would say: “close your eyes, listen, locate the general space where the bird is and then open your eyes”. I didn’t necessarily think about it at the time, but this was really the first moment I understood how sound functions, how it creates space and dimension.”
Words: Mark Carry
This August marks the eagerly-awaited release of Australian composer/producer Lawrence English’s new full-length album, entitled ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ on the ever-impressive Room40 imprint (which English runs). Two years in the making, ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ marks the iconic producer’s first album since the enthralling ‘The Peregrine’ released in 2011, which was Brisbane-native’s ode to J.A Baker’s novel (of the same name).
Drawing its roots from T.S Eliot’s poem Gerontion, ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ finds English continue his exploration with electronic music, and particularly, extreme dynamics and densities. Similar to his previous works (on revered labels such as Touch, 12K and Winds Measure), an emotional depth and gripping intensity permeates deeply from the shape-shifting electronic compositions.
‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ is available now on Room40.
Interview with Lawrence English.
Congratulations Lawrence on the wonderful new record, ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’. I love the contrasts that are super-imposed on the sonic canvas, where distortion and menacing tones are interwoven with beautiful ambient pulses and visceral noise. Please discuss the making of the album and what techniques and processes you feel were integral to ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ unique world?
Lawrence English: Thanks so kindly, always a pleasure to know it’s resonating out there! ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ is probably the first record I’ve made that very directly responds to my frustrations with what I see happening around me, here in Australia and also overseas. The record is born out of a kind of seething disappointment and moreover disapproval of what I see as a wholesale assault on the core values that I feel make humanity a worthwhile proposition. Here in this country, the past few years have seen what can only be described as a race to the bottom. Politicians fuelled by self-interest and cloaked in hollow ideology have played their constituents for fools.
In recent weeks our government has been accused of piracy, of undertaking refoulement and by doing so breaking the UNHCR treaty to which it’s a signatory. Then last week we had the government essentially endorse the notion that anthropomorphic climate change is a falsity through the repeal of a carbon pricing system. It amazes me in this day and age, with so much access to information that we can fail to have leaders who can enact that information, through considered thought and analysis, and devise some level of wisdom. ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’, the sound and textures of the record, are my small voice mustering all it can to express an outright refusal to accept such mediocre, callus, inhumane and ill-conceived rhetoric from those who would seek to represent us.
It was rather timely that I happened upon this notion of wilderness of mirrors when I did. I’d heard of it before, but it was quite by chance I came across it again at the end of making ‘The Peregrine’. The phrase seemed to capture both a metaphor for how I wanted a record to sound and feel, but also seemed to summarise what I was starting to see happening around me, those issues I mentioned for example.
Please talk me through the album-title please? I feel it embodies the music perfectly, in much the same way as the predecessor ‘The Peregrine’ which was your dedication to J.A Baker’s novel. Also, what themes do you feel are central to this record?
LE: ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ is a phrase that draws it’s history from T.S Eliot’s poem ‘Gerontion’. It is a profound and haunting piece of text that resonates well beyond the moment of its creation. When I first read it, upon thinking about the record, I was really struck by the way it opened out this sense of space in time. It reads with this deep sense of interiority, the words sink inside you and somehow recur in your mind almost subconsciously days and weeks after you’ve read it.
The phrase was also used to describe misinformation campaigns conducted by the CIA and KGB during the cold war. I thought this was also somehow a fitting metaphor not just for how I wanted the record to evolve, but also reflecting the more political concerns I had making the record. We see the ideas of misinformation exploited in new forms via social media and the 24 hour news cycle. All to often we see particular narratives spun and reinforced over and over through a variety of channels, narratives that may not actually reflect the situations occurring. Foucault was right, discourses to systemically form the objects of which they speak!
For me, the themes are very personal, reflecting, as I mentioned before, these concerns and frustrations I have, and I feel others have also, about the direction of issues relating to the conditions of modern humanity. The record is in some way a soundtrack to an awakening about what it means to be a thinking and conscious human. I sense a lot of people out there are slumbering, lulled by the ever-growing range of distractions that occupy time and potentially may end up eroding the opportunity for a whole manner of experiences that require something more than a passing glance or a momentary acknowledgement. This record is me yelling, with whatever I have inside me, and I hope some people choose to join in the chorus of discontent.
I was very interested to read that three separate live performances – from Earth, Swans and My Bloody Valentine – had a big effect on you and channeled the new music into a certain direction. I would love for you to recount these concerts and the inspiration you drew (and continually to draw) from these like-minded artists?
LE: I have to say there were a couple weeks last February where I really was so fortunate to get to hear two bands I have respected for a great many years. Both SWANS and MBV were in Australia for an ATP related event, thought I caught each of them at sideshows. The thing about these two groups, and also Earth whom I caught at another time during the making of the record, is they have come to understand the possible force of sound off the stage and how that can be used to create a physiological transformation in an audience.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the body as ear, sound is such a seductive force, it penetrates our flesh and vibrates us, it makes us feel it and it’s easy to forget this when we’re spending more and more time with headphones on. The pleasure of music isn’t just for the mind, it’s for the body too. So specifically the live concerts I experienced reconciled this as something I wanted to try and invest into this record and certainly into the way the music transcend the record into a live setting. There’s just something so unsettling and evocative about intense sound pressure and low frequency saturation – that sense you almost need to gasp for air, that the words you might choose to speak are choked the moment they try to escape you mouth, this I love.
My current favourite is the sublime tour-de-force ‘Another Body’, a piece of music that is filled with human emotion. Can you discuss the construction/layering of this track, Lawrence? Also, it’s the aesthetic quality of the record that comes into sharp focus here. What process of the music-making process proves to be the most challenging or time-consuming?
LE: It’s interesting as ‘Another Body’ was actually one of the very last pieces to come into focus for the record. The first section of the track, that kind of oceanic tidal wave of distortion was something I happened upon almost as the album was done, it was from a very, very early session for ‘Wilderness’ that I just happened to revisit as I had no memory of what those recordings were let alone sounded like. After discovering that section, the album was really in its final stages of taking shape. ‘Another Body’ is kind of two co-existing pieces, one spilling out of the other. There are several pieces on the record that, during the process of making the album, basically became entangled and in some cases one consumed the other entirely.
For me, almost all of the music I make is process driven and more often than not context driven. Albums like ‘Kiri No Oto’, ‘The Peregrine’ and this one are very much drawing directly on the contextual ideas directly and the music takes much of its aesthetic qualities from that. This record particularly, given the sense of feedback, iteration, erasure and reflection, really does bare the marks of process. What may have started as melodic is lost in iteration, resulting in a shimmering distant harmonic shadow of what was originally recorded.
You have produced records for a wide array of awe-inspiring artists, ranging from the psych-folk ensemble, Tenniscoats to Iceland’s Ben Frost. I would love to gain an insight into the role of producer and how you set about producing an artist’s work? For example, does the process differ significantly depending on the artist and type of music that is being made?
LE: I love collaboration, in all its varied and murky forms. I count myself fortunate to have had the chance to work with a bunch of musicians who I feel create work that is utterly their own. People like Tenniscoats for example, they are truly wonders to me. You can give them anything and they can make it musical. I’ve watched them pull melody out of the metal grill of a heater, actually that melody is on ‘Temporacha’, which was one of the projects we worked on together. They have such a natural way with music, whatever they come in contact with becomes a tool for beauty and song. This astounds me, as is not really an affinity I share, though I wish I might.
As for folks like Ben Frost, I’ve always been a huge supporter and fan of what he does. He is one of those people who is hell bent on making an impact with music and is tireless at making that happen, I respect that determination so much. I’ve had the pleasure of being a catalytic collaborator on his records, contributing parts or something like with AURORA more addressing some structural and arrangement/timbral questions. We had a great time together last year when he visited working on that record and in fact Ben offered some invaluable commentary for ‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ on the final morning he was here. There are a number of musicians who I would call dear friends and certainly Ben is amongst those.
Take me back to your earliest musical memory? How soon did you realize the importance of music in your life?
LE: I’m not sure there is a moment, an early one that is, where I suddenly realized music was going to be a big part of my day to day. I do however clearly recall the first times I thought about sound in a serious way. When I was a little kid I’d go bird watching with my dad at this derelict section of our old port. It was a large stretch of abandoned grasslands and swamp. In these swamps was a bird called a Reed Warbler, seriously this bird has a call that sounds like a Synthi AKS, it’s just mind blowing when it gets going. Anyway, they generally hide deep in the reeds and are camouflaged, so what my father would say is “close your eyes, listen, locate the general space where the bird is and then open your eyes”. I didn’t necessarily think about it at the time, but this was really the first moment I understood how sound functions, how it creates space and dimension.
Music was more of an incremental incursion into my life. As a kid I listened to a lot of classical music, as that’s what my parents listened to on the radio. As I got a little older I started listened to the Beach Boys and a lot of music from the 60s, which I guess reflected the age of other people in my family. It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I started to get really deeply into music. Around that time I started trading tapes, then I started a fanzine when I was 15 and then my first label when I was 17. My first release was a compilation tape of lots of bands that no one had heard of, outside of underground niche zines. It was in the days where making a CD was still crazy expensive here in Australia. That feels like a long time ago now.
Discuss the improvisational aspect to your music. The range of collaborations is quite staggering, from the likes of Terry Riley, Keith Whitman to Damo Suzuki among many others. How does the act of collaborating feed into your own solo work?
LE: As I mentioned I consider myself very fortunate to have a chance to perform with a great many people over the past decade or so. Some of those artists were in fact central to me developing Room40 and my own practice, their support was very crucial as back when I started Australia was still a long way away from the rest of the world. At least that’s how it felt.
People like David Toop, Scanner, David Shea and DJ Olive were very generous to me and offered me some amazing opportunities to flex some of my sonic curiosity. During the early 2000s actually I was also really focused on improvisation stemming from what was happening in Tokyo’s epic minimal approach to sound structure and space. I had the chance to perform at Offsite in Tokyo and formed bonds with a great many musicians there who I deeply respect.
The people you mention, Keith and Terry, actually that was during the same performance. Terry, Keith and I made an improvised work together. It was really a pleasure to be able to perform with them both. I respect both of them greatly, each have really contributed some amazing sound over the years and continue to inspire!
I think what collaboration offers, at its best, is the opportunity to reconsider your processes, your ears even. None of us hear the same way and working with other musicians opens you to a new perspective, a new vista if you’re willing to perceive it. There’s been so many wonderful collaborations over the years, Slow Walkers with Liz Harris was a pleasure and right now I am working on a new project with my dear friend Jamie Stewart. This one is really great brutal fun!
What’s next for the Room40 label, Lawrence? What releases can we look forward to?
LE: The rest of the year is looking pretty full for both Room40 and A Guide To Saints, our tape label. On Room40 there’s new editions from Chris Herbert, Steve Roden & Stephen Vitiello, Ueno who plays guitar for Tenniscoats and also Eugene Carchesio’s archival series continues. With A Guide there’s some new editions from Daniel Rejmer, Tom Smith/Marcus Whale and also from Ross Manning, who is a genius from here in Brisbane. Should be fun! In 2015 it’s our 15th anniversary, so we’re going to have a pretty big year I think.
‘Wilderness Of Mirrors’ by Lawrence English is available now on Room40.