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Time Has Told Me: K. Leimer

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Interview with Kerry Leimer.

“There was a sense of the many quiet nights spent bewildered by tape recorders and analog synthesizers, stuff just constantly getting away from me and the few moments when ideas and ability met on level ground.”

—Kerry Leimer

Words: Mark Carry


RVNG Intl. is a Brooklyn-based music institution that operates on few but heavily fortified principles, dealing with forward-reaching artists that ceaselessly push the sonic envelope. From visionary luminaries such as Julia Holter, Holly Herndon, Blondes, Maxmillion Dunbar et al, RVNG Intl. has consistently delivered some of the most adventurous, enthralling and breathtaking records this past decade. One of the label’s cornerstones has become the awe-inspiring archival series which has featured (and celebrated) musical pioneers Craig Leon, Ariel Kalma and K. Leimer. The third installment of the archival series — released last year — was Seattle-based sound sculptor, K. Leimer and a vast treasure of ambient voyages entitled ‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’. I simply cannot think of a more special musical document to have graced my life this past year than Kerry Leimer’s resolutely unique and deeply human canon of pioneering ambient music.

A glimpse into Leimer’s creative process is touched upon on the compilation’s liner notes: “The loop provided an instant structure – a sort of fatalism – the participation of the tape machine in shaping and extending the music was a key to setting self-deterministic systems in motion and held clear relationship to my interests in fine art.”

‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’ offers the perfect entry point (across an exhaustive double-album and thirty spellbinding tracks) into the beautifully enthralling and ever-revolving world inhabited by the special soul of Mr. Kerry Leimer.

Recently released on Leimer’s own imprint Palace of Lights, ‘The Grey Catalog’ encompasses an entire spectrum of enthralling sounds and textures; incorporating percussion, electric guitar, bass as well as found sound, digital and analog synthesis and sampled instruments. Album opener ‘Allegory’ gently fades into focus with gorgeous string passages reminiscent of the likes of Kranky’s Christina Vantzou and Leaf Label’s Murcof. Drifting tones of chimes and soft electronic pulses envelop the electronic balladry of ‘Ritual Thinning’. Elements of analog synths and bass are wonderfully incorporated into ‘Clasp’ before the drone soundscapes of ‘Gesture’ evokes ethereal and surreal dreamscapes of blissed-out sounds.

One of the album’s defining moments arrives with the hypnotic ‘Sung’ built on a returning violin motif that is masterfully melded with piano and bass, in turn, creating an utterly transcendent electro-acoustic exploration. Field recordings and thudding percussion expands the dynamic range on ‘Poesie’, further highlighting the wonderful diversity on display throughout ‘The Grey Catalog’. Neo-classical elements are masterfully embedded in the cinematic cut ‘Europe’, whilst the proceeding ‘Casual Suffering’ – the album’s longest piece – further expands the sonic envelope with dense strings reminiscent of the Touch catalog. The stunning closer ‘At Remove’ feels a distant companion to the opening ‘Allegory’ with its scintillating strings that ebb and flow into the forefront of your heart’s mind.


‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’  is available now on RVNG Intl.



Interview with Kerry Leimer.

Please discuss for me your childhood and your early exposure to music while growing up in Chicago. Was there a strong musical background in your family? What records would your parents have been listening to at home?

Kerry Leimer: There was no musical background to speak of. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from post WWII Austria, via Canada. They gradually adopted American MOR of the time, stuff I refer to as misogynist cocktail pop — repulsive on many levels. As befits a lad of Austrian extraction I was given a few accordion lessons, mostly focused on learning the accompanying dance steps. It strikes me now that I was most probably tone deaf: music made no sense to me whatsoever. Tonality was something I had to learn to recognize, and given the environment, there was no real compulsion to do so. Early rock was completely lost on me — experiencing even a two minute song from that period remains nightmarish. So I came to an interest quite late, and it took some very specific exposure. A von Karajan recording of Mozart’s Requiem; ‘Epitaph’ and ‘Dust be Diamonds’ managed to cement an interest that had begun to make itself known a few years earlier, through some ill-defined attraction to parts of ‘Revolver’ and most of ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. This interest expanded rapidly but to mostly obscure music. I had a suspicion of and dislike for widely popular forms.

Your family permanently settled in Seattle in 1967. Can you please describe Seattle in the late 60’s/early 70’s? What music of the time resonated powerfully for you that would inspire you to create your own unique blend of music?

KL: Seattle’s effect on me was principally depressive. The town was referred to at the time as The Space Needle and the Box it Came In, the box being the only office tower downtown, headquarters for what was then SeaFirst Bank, no doubt the money laundering arm of Boeing. It was a blue collar town, nice landscape, with an unremarkable manscape bereft even of sea shanties. The only things of immediate interest were learning about the Wobblies and to somehow live in nearly perpetual dark. Most of the people I met and went to school with were actively hostile to the arts, pro-war and, between bullying sessions, deeply involved in various sportsball activities. But my overriding interest was the visual arts, so early days were preoccupied with a study of 20th Century art that isolated me from what I took to be an ignorant and angry social order. In many ways, the ideas I pursue were shaped by the visual arts.

Please take me back to your first experiments with sound. What equipment did you have at your disposal? I believe you collected instruments from the local pawn shop- I am sure you must have some beautiful stories – and magical discoveries – born from these trips. I wonder do you feel the creative process involved, very early on has changed or altered in any way over the subsequent album releases?

KL: That would be tape collage with a little AIWA reel-to-reel. It had a splicing block and some splicing tape and I’d just cut up voice recordings, sometimes shredded to unusable size. It was all there: speed change, direction change, odd juxtaposition. Great fun and instantly rewarding: much less work than drawing or painting and generally neater than collage. Then found sound: mic’d stuff off television, radio, random sounds in- and out- of doors. The equipment was always of greater interest than instruments, if such distinction need be made. I found parts in pawn shops, built a primitive bass guitar, located an echoplex, then acquired a few MXR boxes, a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase. Thanks to an interest I had in piano my parents acquired an electric organ — I still do not comprehend this — so first up were loopy echoed drones between rote instruction of “Beautiful Dreamer” and the like. Multi-tracking was still some years off for me, so things were restricted to a single pass and a very few bounces. The first “albums” were done with an art school friend. John Holt had a Les Paul and we produced two cassettes of these sorts of mash-up titled I’d Rather Cadaver, probably a reference to the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, and Grey Cows which culminates in a sparkling interpretation of Faust’s ‘The Sad Skinhead’.

In terms of ambient music, who do you feel have been pioneers of the genre? I was very interested to read that you felt Cluster’s II record was a key revelation early on. I would love for you to discuss this particular record and its significance on you as an artist and sound sculptor?

KL: All the early work of those artists — Cluster, Harmonia, Neu! –– even to some extent records such as IrrlichtCyborg and Zeit –– seemed in a very particular sense to be simple and within reach. I wouldn’t call them ambient and, given the manner in which the meaning of the term has changed, I wouldn’t really call much of what I do or am interested in to be ambient. The horrors visited upon our understanding by genre definitions remains an issue for some other discussion, but the general attractor for me was a form of simplicity, free of grand gesture, self-regulating and owning to the often overt presence of tape or some recording medium.

In the liner-notes of the RVNG Intl’s compilation ‘A Period Of Review: 1975-1983’, you describe the “instant structure” and “sort of fatalism” the tape loop provided you with. This sense of wonderment and fascination with sound is dotted across the multitude of beguiling tracks contained on this very special compilation. I would love to gain an insight please into the looping process that is inherent in these sonic creations and indeed the layering of the various sounds.

KL: The open loop’s appeal is twofold. If the work is to be additive, the open loop is a very efficient tool for piling up a lot of sound without a lot of instruments or tracks — things that were in very short supply at that time. The other is that it’s somewhat self-deterministic. It doesn’t have to be, but it tends to behave as an automatic way to set limitations and then keep you within them.

There is very much a DIY aesthetic to your unique and revelatory music. I love how there are a myriad of ideas in each and every pristine ambient cut. It must have been a fulfilling project for you to cull together these – many of which are previously unreleased – tracks that offers a wonderful snapshot and retrospective of your work? Which songs in particular do you feel you’re most proud of or in a way surprised you, when you first listened back to the final recordings?

KL: Writing and recording are actually pretty difficult for me. Listening to the work, no matter how far removed in time, becomes a sort of chore. The memories are usually about the particular struggles and consequent shortfalls. There was a sense of the many quiet nights spent bewildered by tape recorders and analog synthesizers, stuff just constantly getting away from me and the few moments when ideas and ability met on level ground. In this instance, at the distance of A Period of Review, there was a bit of nostalgia for other people involved or in proximity. But recall that APOR was curated by individuals other than myself and that at least as many pieces were left out as were included.  There’s simply no point in favourites for me: now that it’s been circulated listeners make their own interpretations and the music assumes its own, independent, life.

You launched the Palace of Lights record label in 1979 with your wife Dorothy Cross. A plethora of innovative albums, on various formats would see the light of day on this pioneering label, including your own solo works. Please take me back to the label’s origins and the year of ’79 when the label was given its wings, so to speak? Can you recount some of your most cherished memories from the Paradise of Lights’ musical venture? 

KL: I need some time to consider this question. It’s Palace of Lights and still exists. It started in 1978, a few years before Dorothy and I met… it was a lot of work and many people wanted us to make them stars, which wasn’t the idea. So the memories oscillate between the great joy of building a studio / label and the utter disillusionment of being confronted with people seeking fame and fortune…



‘A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983)’  is available now on RVNG Intl.


Written by markcarry

January 29, 2015 at 3:32 pm

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