We had a chat with the brilliant and wise producer and Room40 label owner Lawrence English shortly after listening to the stunning release “Wilderness Of Mirrors”, his latest album after the widely appreciated one inspired by J.A.Baker’s novel “The Peregrine”, which came out in 2011. This album also keeps drawing inspiration from literature as its title is a phrase from T.S.Eliot’s “Gerontion”. Lawrence English is experiencing one of the most thriving moments of his hopefully long career. Besides the above-mentioned “Wilderness Of Mirrors” (on Room40), which we mentioned in this amazing interview, two remarkable collaborative releases have been recently released onto the market: “Fable“, Lawrence’s second collaboration with Stephen Vitiello on Dragon’s Eye Recordings and “Shadow Of The Monolith“, the second title by Athens-based label Holotype , who decided to print 500 copies of this excellent collaboration between Lawrence and Austrian composer Werner Dafeldecker. I can assure our followers that all three of them, as well as most of Lawrence’s stuff, deserve a closer listening. In the meanwhile, enjoy Lawrence’s replies to our questions!
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Lawrence. How are you?
Lawrence English: I’m well thanks; Enjoying a bittersweet progression into summer. I was on the Gold Coast in the weekend, a timely reminder of just how amazing this country can be. I came back to Brisbane to find it a ghost town; everyone has left in advance of the G20 which takes place here this week. There’s helicopters circling the city center, barricades, road closures, new legislation that severely limits social freedoms, honestly it’s abhorrent. To have completed Wilderness Of Mirrors this year and now to have G20 here in my home city, it’s a powerful alignment of my concerns over power, politics and the degradation of the social contract.
Chain D.L.K.: Even if I don’t think you really need any introduction, could you introduce yourself in your own words?
Lawrence English: Lawrence English, professional listener, gentleman about town. I also like to make stuff happen.
Chain D.L.K.: Room40 is one of those label which is really pushing the so-called ambient or soundscape over its limits. First of all, could you tell us something about its birth? Did you name it after 40 O.B. (NID25)?
Lawrence English: Actually yes, I did draw on those histories as part of the idea behind the label. When the military started to work on code breaking at that time, they realized quickly that the most unlikely of candidates would produce very unusual, but often brilliant results. They had chess players, crossword puzzlers, military strategists, philosophers and all sorts of other people coming together to explore the sole idea of code. As obtuse as it might seem, I felt the idea of bringing together very disparate approaches of all the people interested in one concept, in the case of Room40 sound, was a fitting metaphor. It very much summarized what I wanted from Room40, and as much as people might attest there’s a sound to the label, I honestly feel it’s not really homogeneous. I mean take Tenniscoats or Chris Abraham’s work, for example, in contrast to John Chantler or DJ Olive. Aesthetically, these artists are quite isolated from one another, but what they do share is an attentiveness to sound. They want to create opportunities for really engaging the ears!
Chain D.L.K.: Have you ever changed your mind about the direction that Room40’s releases had to follow since the turn of the century?
Lawrence English: I can say this with great certainty, I admire and respect each and every artist we have worked with. I feel incredibly proud to have had the opportunity to work with them. I’ve never had to second guess the direction, thankfully. I put this squarely down to the amazing musicians and artists we have had the chance to work with. I’ve always described Room40 as a friends and family label. More and more, this idea is central to how I operate. I really feel a very strong connection to all the people I work with and I want to support them as best as I can. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to do that.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there any Room40 past releases you’d like to revamp? If so, why?
Lawrence English: That’s an interesting question. I think to re-vamp in this day and age presents some interesting challenges. I mean, the nature of the digital archive, ideas of access over ownership, I mean that everything is always present. Everything is available for consumption, but how is it people’s ears find that item on their menu.
I think one of the great challenges with making work now is not just finding the audience for it, but inviting that audience to give it the time it needs to infiltrate them. I know this from my own listening, this year and the last, I have actively tried to listen to less new music, but when I discover something I love, I want to spend time with it. I want to know it and I want it to shape me. I want music that changes something for me, or better yet in me. I want music that bends time and makes me be present in a very different way. I think the buffet isn’t always that interesting, to use a culinary metaphor. Sometimes, less is so very much more.
Chain D.L.K.: I was reading some lesser known facts about you…is it true that you got described as “Moses parting waters”?
Lawrence English: I’m not often in for assuming the role of prophets, but yes that is true. I once played a show at Bridge in Osaka. It was an amazing venue in a very strange and now destroyed shopping complex near Tennoji. I played a set that would eventually form the foundation of Kiri No Oto. At the end of the show, a young musician, Ytamo, came over to me and described my set that way. I was humbled by it. She really found an eloquent way to describe what I was trying to do at that time. Ironically, I became a huge fan of her music. She needs to release more of it! Her debut is still something I return to often, it’s so very unusual and individual!
Chain D.L.K.: What could you say about the mania to make snapshots of the bed you sleep in every time you go on tour?
Lawrence English: No one has called that a mania before. I suppose it is one. I think I am not alone in this kind of investigation. Blixa Bargeld had a series called Searialbathroomdummyrun, where he documented hotel bathrooms. To me, the bed is the one place you occupy on the road – no matter what form it takes. It is a kind of uniting theme, that space you are more often than not, tied to for a few minutes or a few hours every day. Sometimes it offers the only moment of quietude. As well, I think the bed is a private place, and by this I mean there’s an invitation to interiority there. It is where you dream, where you are trapped in yourself. I think there’s something very telling about them in a material sense. They can be seductive and repulsive at the same time.
Chain D.L.K.: Which microphone or device did you rescue by challenging the tropical Antarctic waters? Were you recording the stuff you used for the forthcoming collaborative project with Werner Dafeldecker? Could you tell us something about this release?
Lawrence English: I had set up a hydrophone on a small outcrop which opened onto the bay in front of Esperanza. It was the one location I could reach without needing a boat that opened out to the ocean. I set up a recorder and threw in the hydrophone some distance. The sounds I monitored were amazing. So I left the recorder there, in order to go and check on another recording I had set on the far side or the peninsula. I’d been walking for about 20 minutes when I heard a huge boom carry across the bay. It was really surprising as it had a physicality that was unlike a lot of the sounds I’d encountered there, in that stage. I wasn’t sure what had happened.
A few minutes later I arrived at the other recorder and I looked out into the far side of the bay. I could hear a rushing tide and then these waves colliding with the shallow cliffs in front of me. It was then when I realized a large section of the glacier on the other side of the bay had broken off and had caused the water to rise up and surge. It was then I decided to head back to the hydrophone as the water was rapidly rising. By the time I got back there, the rocky outcrop I’d placed the recorder and preamp on was largely underwater and I could see the recorder floating, still attached to the hydrophone. I stripped off my clothes and had to swim out to it. The water was, as you’d expect, very cold. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do, but I was lucky and am still here to tell the tale.
Chain D.L.K.: Would you say that you, staying at the site of an atomic blast, influenced your music?
Lawrence English: Earlier this year I was working on a research project with the folks from Symbiotica, an incredibly progressive bio-art organization. We were interested in looking at bio-time stamping. As part of that project we flew out to the Montebello Islands, which is the site of some of Australia’s nuclear testing. It beggars belief to think this testing took place. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, so much life there. We flew over a Finn Whale on the way out there; it must have been 35 meters long, and dolphins, turtles and huge sharks. It’s an incredible part of the world. But in the 1950s they conducted a series of nuclear tests. What we were interested in, was tracing the effects of that upon the microscopic life of those islands.
As to how this affects the music, I’m not sure yet. I have to say that place was something unusual. A powerful reminder of a natural warning, that even at our most destructive, we’re eventually ghosted. We are not even a trace in the longevity of the planet. Those kind of reminders are important to have every once in a while.
Chain D.L.K.: When I read the title of your last solo-album, I thought of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Then I read it was taken by Eliot’s Gerontion.. Why did you opt for such a literary quotation?
Lawrence English: I find the phrase “Wilderness Of Mirrors” provocative and more than that, evocative. To me, whilst being a very visual metaphor, it opens up strong sonic readings. It brought to mind layers of feedback cycling into one another, creating a total white out of white noise, where source and reflection are impossible to distinguish. There’s a promise of disorientation and confusion which for me reflects how I feel about certain aspects of the political economy and society, in general. The record very much reflects my concerns and frustrations with the ways in which certain expressions of power are enacted. There’s a wholesale assault on who we are and who we can be, an undermining of the core values that, in my opinion, make society worth persisting with. The social contract is being erased, one liberty at a time, it’s the cancer of our age.
Chain D.L.K.: Could you explain the reason why you defined “Wilderness of Mirrors” a “reflection upon reflection”?
Lawrence English: When you stand between a pair of mirrors, in front and behind you, your image feeds back into itself one iteration at a time. In a wilderness of mirrors, these reflections are not merely in two directions, but propagate in endless cycles of reflection. I liked the idea that one element, inserted into this wilderness of mirrors, could be reflected around indefinitely. To escape, one would need an intervention, an active participation of an outside agent. It could be a prison of reflections. Without an agentive force, in my case compositional strategies, bending and breaking the reflections, it might as well be.
Chain D.L.K.: Music can sometimes say more than words do, but have you ever experienced the situation when you find your words after you firstly expressed the feelings by means of music?
Lawrence English: I think there’s a wonderful simplicity and vagueness in the poetics of text. It opens doorways to thought and interior impression. I think with sound, there’s a greater complexity that is available should someone be open to it. That complexity is not always welcome though, you need to be able to translate it, shape it internally. It can be overpowering or liberating. I find it liberating and when it is overpowering, that’s also utterly satisfying!
Chain D.L.K.: I perceive a deep sense of tragedy in “Wilderness of Mirrors” together with an eruptive resolution, as if you caught and “sanctified” the birth of a thunderstorm…would you say the same?
Lawrence English: I’m not sure the tragedy has arrived just yet. It is looming, but we have a chance to avoid it, should enough people be interested and active. In my country, sadly, we seemed to have slipped quickly into a quagmire of political actions that go against common human decency and respect for one another. We have, for example, failed on our duty of care for asylum seekers. We have failed on our duty of care towards the environment. These failures will haunt us in the future. I hope that the thunderstorm you mentioned wakes those asleep in apathy. The slumber is deep.
Chain D.L.K.: What did you have in mind when composing “Graceless Hunter”?
Lawrence English: Graceless Hunter refers to us. The modern us; as people so very disconnected from our surroundings. It stems directly from some interactions I had with a range of people over the past couple of years. These interactions typified a true disconnection around how it is we, as consumers, come in contact with and develop understandings of the food we consume. I would like to think of myself as a conscious eater. I recognize that when I consume something, it comes at a cost – for example with meat, my consumption effectively equals the death of that creature to satiate my needs and desires.
When I am here, in Australia, I take as much care as I can to eat food that I know at least something about. I like to know how my food lived and died. I want to minimize the suffering I cause, I want to acknowledge that not all farms create products in ways that reflect, at least in some small way, on a wider concerns and future visioning. If we don’t think, if we eschew our responsibilities to those species around us, I think the flow caused by that is utterly toxic and ends in the propagation of inhumane slaughter and unhealthy, not to mention unsustainable, industrial farming practices. We deserve better, and so do the animals and cropping that we come in contact with.
Chain D.L.K.: You said that taking part in some live experiences such as the concerts by Earth, My Bloody Valentine and Swans deeply influenced the aesthetics of “Wilderness Of Mirrors”…can you tell us how?
Lawrence English: There’s a moment in live music where air pushes and compresses in the most unnatural ways. This is the point at which low frequency and mid band sound saturates. I had three amazing experiences like this in a short period, performed by the three groups you mentioned. That physicality, the sensation of your body becoming an ear, is something I wanted to translate into Wilderness Of Mirrors. I found that ,using various approaches to harmonic distortion, really brought out this quality in the music.
Chain D.L.K.: Are you going to bring “Wilderness of Mirrors” on live stage?
Lawrence English: Indeed. I’m actually in Europe twice in the next two months – In December, in Madeira. Gig and to work on a project in Iceland, and then I am back for a Room40 15th anniversary tour with John Chantler, Rafael Anton Irisarri and Heinz Riegler, in January. In 2015, I’ll be touring in the USA, Japan, Canada and the EU quite a bit. It’s going to be a good year, I feel.
Chain D.L.K.: As I mentioned Dorian Gray before, there’s a sentence in its preface saying: “All art is, at the same time, surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”…what’s the symbolic content of your sonic art? What’s your piece of advice to listeners in order to go beneath the surface with no risk?
Lawrence English: There is a certain exhilaration in risk. To be alive and to live are two radically different things. I want to live. Wilderness Of Mirrors is an invitation to anyone who hears it to join me.
visit Lawrence English on the web at: www.lawrenceenglish.com