Lakes: The Dark Arts
Lakes? Sean Bailey talks to SHAUN PRESCOTT about finding inspiration in the spirit world, the eeriness of Tassie and how his personal life became intertwined with new album ‘Solar Flecks’.
Sean Bailey has been a key member in Melbourne’s weird rock/pop/noise music scene since he moved from Hobart in the mid-?90s. In addition to running the Inverted Crux private press label and playing in groups such as Paeces, Wasted Truth and the now defunct Vivian Girls, Bailey’s dominant artistic pursuit nowadays is his solo project Lakes.
While the debut Lakes* LP was released on Chapter Music, *Solar Flecks* is the most recent in a series of vinyl records independently released on Inverted Crux, starting with 2008?s *Cloven* and closely followed by the 2009 7? single ?Tray of Fire?. His music resembles a strange cultish folksong: a traditional craft buried beneath rubble and haunted by weird ruminations, incantations, chants, drones and spiritual channelling. Lakes? limited run albums have also been reissued on Sydney’s R.I.P Society (*Cloven*) and the US label Foxy Digitalis (*Monument of Nests).
While initially rough to the ears, Lakes? music is marked by a strange austerity: to listen to these songs is to hear puzzles of occult imagery and allusion that beg to be deciphered. With a little perseverance, Lakes? recent work becomes a world of its own: a strange vista of forest silhouettes that becomes brighter and more colourful through repeated close listening. Frustratingly, little is known of Bailey’s motivations, and there are few clues as to what secrets are hidden within the often obscure lyrical themes on his records. Here’s an attempt to get a grasp on the hidden world of Lakes.
When we spoke in 2008 for another interview you were listening to Incredible String Band. What have you been listening to lately?
Lots of Death in June, Current 93, Coil and stuff like that.
What are you reading?
I’m reading a book called [Van Diemen’s Land](http://www.amazon.com/Van-Diemens-Land-James-Boyce/dp/1863951431). It’s kinda new, it’s been compared to [Robert Hughes?] ?The Fatal Shore?, but it’s focused on Tasmania.
You’re from Tasmania.
Yeah, I’m from there. For me it’s really interesting. Returning to those places now, I remember how I felt as a kid. It brought up a couple of things – the eeriness of the place.
You noticed that before exploring the rest of the country?
There’s definitely something there, in some areas.
Your background is playing in hardcore bands. What was it like playing that music in Hobart in the ?90s?
It was good because everything was all crossed over. The community was so small that everyone was friends, no matter what kind of music you played. So people who wouldn’t necessarily listen to hardcore would come to hardcore shows. My first band 50 Million Clowns wasn’t really hardcore, it was noisy, post-punkish rock, but I got into hardcore a little later during that band. I formed a band Head-Cleaner in Year 11, which was more straightforward hardcore. It was good [in Hobart] though, it was a very diverse music scene.
You moved to Melbourne in 1996. What were your impressions?
I felt like it was a little too big. I visited with my family in 1990 and was really freaked out by how big it was. I came back at the start of 1995 for gigs over here and I thought it was too much, couldn’t deal with it. But then I went back to Hobart and needed to get out, so I decided to move to Melbourne. I didn’t really like it, but I thought I’d give it a try. I moved into a house full of Tasmanians so it was a lot easier, because there were people living there who’d also recently moved from Hobart. It was kind of like a base to work from, to meet people.
Lakes is a totally different proposition to what preceded it. How do you feel about your old projects in retrospect? And what relation, if any, does Lakes have with the bands you used to play in?
I feel like the old projects are just as important as anything – it’s an evolution of music that has paralleled my life. When I look back, I feel that they have informed what I’m playing now. It was a slow evolution.
What desires, tendencies and interests inspired you to pursue Lakes?
Self-sufficiency, touring, and I find Lakes is a very personal thing. I’ve thought about having other people in the band but I feel a bit reserved because it’s always so personal. It just reflects my ideas and feelings, how I relate to the world, how I see the world.
There’s an urgency in Lakes? music – particularly on Cloven* through to *Solar Flecks – that has come to define it. Your voice always sounds fraught with tension. The tempo is generally fast to mid-tempo, but the beats are strong and forthright. Is Lakes pursuing a particular theme, or is it fairly open-ended as far as each individual song/album reflecting a different idea?
I think urgency is a good description. There’s a darkness, and expressing that side. I find it hard to talk about in a way. I’m definitely going for a dark urgent sound, and as a drummer I find the beat really drives the song, so it has that dominant rhythmic side. That’s what I always wanted to achieve.
Is it difficult to talk about because it’s very intimate? Or are the ideas very abstract?
It’s very abstract and immediate. It just comes out. I guess that’s my language, so it’s hard for me to articulate the way I write songs and the language. It’s interesting what people get out of it, and the [review](/releases/2000591) that you wrote was pretty spot on. It’s good that people can talk about it because I can’t.
?Lakes is about cycles, life cycles, feeling the elements. It’s about finding a poetic way of describing the experiences of living.?
Cloven* was a much cleaner album, but you’ve returned to distortion on *Solar Flecks. What caused this shift?
It’s funny because I wanted Solar Flecks* to be cleaner than *Cloven*, but it didn’t actually turn out that way. Once I got going I realised those songs needed to be dirtier. But I definitely wanted to do something cleaner. I’ve always loved music with that scratchy dirty element, and that’s what I’d always done with past releases. But then I thought I should honour the songs a bit more, and [therefore] make them cleaner. I thought I could use that same idea with *Solar Flecks but it ended up completely different. As I worked on it, I gave every song its own different production, because I’d come home from work and start mixing, and all that life stuff just gets in there, depending on what mood I’m in or what I’ve just done – it all gets in there. That’s what I mean when I say it’s personal, my life just gets in there.
So seemingly insignificant things affect the music?
Exactly, which is good. I like that unconscious stuff to get in there. I think that’s why I like to record analog as well because it’s a lot easier. I have a 4-track and it’s a lot more immediate. Cloven was a lot more laid out, while Solar Flecks is more immediate, and has a lot longer songs.
Would you agree that there’s something of a folk tradition running through the recent releases? The lyrics sound far from an afterthought.
There’s definitely a folk elements running through (Lakes) and I love a lot of folk music. When I moved to guitar, which happened on Monument of Nests [which featured a beaten up acoustic guitar] that took me to another place musically and I wanted to incorporate that. At the time I was listening to a lot of folk music so it kinda made sense to go in that direction. Acquiring a new guitar influenced that as well. But the lyrics are just as important as the instruments. The lyrics are less immediate than the music. Sometimes the music will come right away while the lyrics will take a lot longer.
Judging by the song titles on Solar Flecks, jagged, forest nightscapes are the prevailing imagery, with song titles like ?Old Feldspar?, ?Misting?, ?A Stone Garden? etc. The distorted guitar has a very rocky, coarse texture as well, which seems to reflect the imagery. Are these sonic/visual components deliberate?
There’s definitely a theme running through it. The way the lyrics and the jagged, stony music matched was something I only discovered halfway through. The theme is earthly, otherworldly … it’s hard to talk about. I guess what you said in the review, an estoteric, spiritual … [trails off] it’s like feeling the elements of nature and the universe. It sounds really hippy-dippy, and I can’t articulate it properly.
Listening to your lyrics, I don’t feel like I’m getting a distinct feeling, or story, or anything else that most would traditionally expect from lyrics. They sound like broad strokes of imagery.
It’s quite abstract, and that’s the way I’ve always written. It’s the same as my art – it’s all a bit hidden and unknown in a way.
But somewhere in there, is there some kind of confessional element? Are there demons being exorcised, to put it in a prosaic way?
Some songs, definitely. The song ?Solar Flecks? is about an experience I’ve had with lots of nightmares – waking nightmares – and having very intense nocturnal experiences and welcoming the ?flecks? of the morning. The night is over, so you can start to think about things in a certain way, rather than the weirdness of night. The night for me is so different. It’s different for everyone but for me it’s a different world. It sounds cheesy.
What kind of nightmares, or visions?
I used to sleepwalk a lot when I was a kid, and see stuff. It still happens as an adult. I was going through a period where it was happening a lot, and it was freaking me out a bit. My girlfriend Claire has witnessed a lot of it – waking up screaming and stuff like that. Usually it’s a recurring thing where I’ll wake up and not know where I am, but I feel like I’m trapped somewhere, and it takes me ages to know what’s happening. It’s always about being locked up, and not being able to find a way out. And then I realise what’s happening. It’s a recurring feeling. I got to the point where going to sleep wasn’t much fun.
It feels like a cliche for people to describe Lakes as oppressive and claustrophobic, but it’s quite accurate if that’s where it’s coming from.
That’s why I say it’s a really personal thing. But there’s also ideas in there, personal philosophy and spirituality. Getting gifts as well, gifts from the universe as well as the universe taking stuff away from you. And then it all being replaced in a cycle. Lakes is about cycles, life cycles, feeling the elements. It’s about finding a poetic way of describing the experiences of living.
Can you elaborate a bit on the overarching motivating factors behind Lakes, whether they be ethical, philosophical?
There’s an environmental element. Nature worship, and the spirit world being part of nature, and all these hidden elements we don’t see that influence stuff. I read something about the Nordic people and runes – casting runes – and divination. The bag that the runes is kept in is the universe, and you spill out the runes, and that is you: that is your world. It’s kind of like fortune telling – your past acts will inform the future and it’s up to you to cast your own fate. But definitely the universe and the unknown things that guide you [inform Lakes].
I grew up on teenage s’ances, and realising that there’s another world – a spirit world. That’s just a small part of it, but the universe as a whole is such a strange place. Discovering stuff along the way, after realising there’s a place other than reality – like tarot, Reiki healing, and other more esoteric activities.
Is that something you engage with regularly, even now?
It’s a strong element in my life, and Lakes is a way of expressing that. It’s kind of like a journey in my head, a meditation. I do meditation, and my own tarot readings. [I engage with] a lot of guiding elements, but positive stuff. There’s lots of dark stuff but I’ve had mostly positive experiences. It’s all about bringing positive stuff in, but expressing the dark elements.
A lot of city-based musicians make very urban sounding music, whether it be R&B, indie rock, noise etc. But your music feels very hermetic. Is there an element of escapism in Lakes? music?
I guess. In a way it’s trying to find another world, or a longing for something different. One of the songs is about imagining death, and where you would go, what would happen. Almost fetishising it as another experience. It’s escapist in that way, I guess.
What do you envisage in death?
A longing to go back to the beginning, not as a human, but to go back into the elements, back to whence I came from. Whether it be the dirt, the leaves, the trees. I feel that it’d be returning to the natural world. And then becoming another person, another time.
Is Lakes something you foresee reaching its logical conclusion eventually? Is there a goal to be reached?
I don’t really have a goal with it, it’s just my outlet for making music. So it’ll keep happening. I always think that I’m going to stop but then I write more songs and record more. Solar Flecks came out of nowhere in a way – I didn’t think I’d do another LP but then it happened, so that was a good thing. I think I’ll just keep going until I feel I don’t want to do it anymore. There’s no end in sight anymore. In the back of my mind I’m like, ?Shit, maybe I should stop.? It’s an eternal battle I guess.
Is there any reason to stop?
Not at the moment. Because then I think not many people go to my shows or buy my records but it doesn’t really phase me because what else would I be doing? Obviously I’d like more people to come to my shows, but it doesn’t phase me. I live for doing it.
Is performance just as important as recording?
Yeah. I like playing live but it’s different in a way, because during recording I use a lot of live drums and other instruments. It’s quite different from playing live, the songs sound a lot different. I just do the best with what I have. I also incorporate a bit of drum machine, which helps a lot live.
That’s about it, but I’m curious about what you alluded to at the beginning of our chat about your Tasmanian upbringing, and the eeriness you mentioned. It makes sense listening to Lakes. Can you elaborate on that eeriness?
It probably just comes from the violence of the colonisation. It’s really interesting, that book [Van Diemen’s Land], because it describes how Tasmania started off as a convict colony and then by the 1820s the real settlers came – the rich and the privileged – to change it into an echo of the countryside of England. They changed all the names of places that convicts or bushrangers had named, and they changed the name from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania.
It’s weird because Hobart is like an echo of England – like a lot of places in Australia – but not as much as I felt it in Tasmania. It tries to cover up this violent beginning with a feel reminiscent of England. I just get this feeling, after being away from it for so long, of the eeriness of some places. The environment is a lot different, the air is a lot cleaner. And I think there’s a feeling of isolation there. Lots of music that comes from Tasmania sounds like it couldn’t have come from anywhere else. It has that isolated sense about it.
Lakes? Solar Flecks LP is available through [http://inverted-crux.blogspot.com](http://inverted-crux.blogspot.com).