Lawrence English: ?I Want It to Be a Seduction
Brisbane composer Lawrence English is one of the world’s most acclaimed ambient/drone artists, and yet he admits to feeling ?like a ghost? in Australia. Nearing the release of his dense and noise-wracked new album, English answers a round of email questions from DOUG WALLEN.
Like his voluminous yet fleeting music, Lawrence English (pictured at right with longtime friend and colleague Ben Frost to his left) is everywhere and nowhere at once. Your chances of encountering the Brisbane mainstay’s work isn’t limited to his solo records, but span his celebrated label [Room40](http://room40.org/site) (also the name of his outlet for bringing people like David Grubbs and Damon & Naomi to Australia), its cassette spinoff [A Guide to Saints](http://aguidetosaints.com/saints) and his hand in mastering records by many Aussie acts, not all of them so experimental in sound. Yet his overall profile is quieter here than it is overseas, such that he can feel like an almost invisible presence working mostly behind the scenes in Australia.
His holistic embrace of music’s potential shows up across English’s new album, Wilderness of Mirrors. It never feels like a one-dimensional listening experience, but something living and existing on multiple planes of reality simultaneously. And if you think you can say that about nearly any drone or ambient release, that’s simply not true. English’s gift lies in taking that slow-morphing, layer-intensive approach to further and yet more natural-feeling reaches than most, not just enveloping us with passive instrumental lushness but gaining sway over our sense of time and space – in addition to blurring our perception of what exactly we’re even hearing. For that reason, it’s naggingly difficult to write about the new album: whenever you stop to try and describe a given moment, it’s already just passed you by. The details, too, are everywhere and nowhere – they slip through your fingers if you try to hold on to them.
A former music journalist himself, English gave typically thoughtful – even philosophical and moral – responses to a simple round of email questions we sent him. In the process, he touched on much more than just his new record.
Can you explain how the title phrase – and the idea of ?campaigns of miscommunication? – influenced the making of Wilderness of Mirrors?
When I was working on the material that became Wilderness of Mirrors, at the start was this one grain, element or in some cases other piece of music that was a kind of point of agitation, something to work against. I’d record one layer over that initial element, then another and then the original element would sometimes be erased. I’d repeat this process of creation and collapse throughout the making of the record so often, what may have been some kind of melodic phrase became this shimmering echo of itself. I liked the idea that in some respects you create feedback and reflection out of something that is no longer there and in some cases was never there.
This very much folded into how those processes of misinformation [dubbed ?wilderness of mirrors? after a line from T.S. Eliot’s 1920 poem [Gerontion](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerontion)] worked during the Cold War. There’s so much that occurred based on nothing more than a whisper. I wanted to respond to that idea, that the quietest utterance can be magnified into something utterly maximal.
How wide (or narrow) a set of tools did you use this time around? In terms of instruments, equipment, et al?
A lot of what you hear on the record is actually acoustic instruments, but they’ve been recorded in ways that might not readily identify them as acoustic. That first sound on the record, that is actually a piano being played by [an ebow](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EBow) – the recording was just made very close and very hot. So instantly there’s that saturation in there that can’t be removed. The proportion is completely unlike what you expect from a piano, and I tried to find that sense or quality in a few of the pieces on the album. Like the gongs in ?Wrapped in Skin? or the guitar in ?Another Body?: they are elements not everyone will pick out, but they were a major part of the character of how the record sounds. There are obviously organs, drums, horns, piano and synths in there too, like my Juno and SH-101, but those electronic instruments aren’t so much the focus of the sources on this record.
You’ve said the album was inspired partly by live performances from Earth, Swans and My Bloody Valentine. Can you elaborate on that?
During the making of Wilderness* I was pretty blessed to be able to hear a number of groups I’d not had the pleasure of experiencing live. These are bands I have the utmost respect for and admire how it is they use sound off the stage as a way of enveloping the body. I think for me, what this encouraged me to reconcile in this album was an approach that has been boiling away since [2008?s] *[Kiri No Oto](http://www.touchmusic.org.uk/catalogue/tone31lawrenceenglishkiri.html), a kind of approach to saturation that mimics how your ears respond to live sound pressure.
I love that sensation that there’s just too much sound pressure: your body becomes an ear, any words you try to utter are lost in this vacuum of vibration and your ears try to compensate for saturated frequency bandwidths by almost kicking in some kind of organic compression. Hearing Earth on their first tour here got me thinking about that experience, and then experiencing Swans and MBV within a week of each other just put the nails in the coffin for that approach. I owe those experiences a great deal for this record.
?Why is it we feel compelled to name music??
You’ve got some quite harrowing track titles here, like ?The Liquid Casket? and ?Guillotines and Kingmakers?. What was your process of minting titles, and how early or late did most of them arrive?
To be honest it’s a very mixed approach. Sometimes titles pre-empt a piece; other times they come at the very last minute. It’s funny the idea of naming pieces of music when you think about it. In some respects it’s an entirely foreign idea, especially when it comes to instrumental music; with voice I imagine it makes sense to reference what is sung, but really why is it we feel compelled to name music? I suppose it’s purely for recognition and a kind of shared reference, so for me I try and find titles that invite imagination. I like a title that provokes a sensation or a thought, no matter how fleeting or how deep.
?Guillotines and Kingmakers?, for example, is one title that suggests a whole range of readings. To me there’s an innately political reading, of revolution, of bloodletting and of aspiration. At the end of the day, if words need to be part of this process they have to have a sense of worth; if they are there, they need to hold their own. Otherwise untitled should do the trick, no?
Speaking of titles, how exactly are the tracks ?Graceless Hunter? and ?Hapless Gatherer? connected, in your mind?
This might seem a long way around answering this question, but there’s a  film called [Nanook of the North](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanookofthe_North). In that film there’s a sequence of some Inuit hunters spearing a walrus. It’s a beautiful and haunting sequence. The hunters are tugging of this creature, trying to pull it ashore. It is resisting with every ounce of strength it has. Its partner tries to free it and it’s clear this walrus wants to live. But so do the Inuit hunters – they have families relying on them. I found myself returning to this sequence a number of times in the past few years whilst making this record. For me it summarised a kind of exchange, a very simple energy flow which I think is something we’ve lost touch with today. We are now graceless hunters.
To me, those two works extrapolate a certain frustration I have with how most of us interact with food. I guess Morrissey really laid the turf here with [Meat is Murder](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MeatIsMurder), but perhaps I don’t feel entitled to that hard a line as I have been both a vegetarian and a flesh eater. To me though, where the problem lies is in this one-step-removed approach to meat and vegetable produce we have. We just take it all so much for granted and in that process we condone a bunch of acts that quite simply I don’t agree with.
?It’s like stripping: there’s nothing sexy about some body wandering out with all its bits just hanging out.?
When I am here, at home, I try and know about what I eat. If I am going to eat a pig, I want to know how it lived and how it died. I have to reconcile this act of eating it, in that I need to recognise that I have effectively killed this animal for my sustenance and ultimately a culinary pleasure. Same goes for crops: is what I am eating the result of a wholesale decimation of an environment for cropping? What other factors effect that production and consumption process. I honestly think too many people just don’t care about it, and it’s a problem. It leads to a kind of entitlement of the species, which I think pervades into a wide range of situations.
The worrying thing is the talk surrounding these new so-called [?ag-gag? laws](http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-18/farmer-support-for-ag-gag-laws/5532122). This is a very bad direction for the conversation to be headed. We need to know more, not less, and we need to be able to exercise choice in who we support and why. Moreover, these kind of gag laws set an undesirable precedent for other industries. Changes to legislation can be a very slippery slope!
The track [we premiered](/news/4663942), ?Another Body?, is presented with a three-minute coda (?Wrapped in Skin?) on the album and without one as a ?single.? Why make that distinction?
Actually, the coda is more just about how the album works as a format, I think. Those two pieces were recorded at very separate phases during the making of the record, and originally the sequence worked another way. I think this is perhaps a nice summary of what makes albums so great as a format. They work at both ends of the spectrum, as wholesale long-format works and then as microcosms of activity. I like this about the LP as a format, that you can create both large- and minute-scale contours that shape a certain kind of listening experience.
I’m struck by the way the different layers coexist (and thrive) simultaneously in a track like ?Another Body?. Is it always a delicate balance to figure out when something has too much going on, or not enough?
I think that might be the great trick for textural music, aside from its magic when it comes to temporal engagement and bending time. With songs, often once a voice is added, you can have almost nothing else and the work is somehow complete, like the humanness makes it a done deal. With this kind of work and maybe with a lot of work that leans towards the deconstructed edges of music, it does certainly change the way composition might work.
For me it’s about a kind of struggle between almost nothing and almost everything. Sometimes one sound can be too much and other times 50 layers seems lacking in the depth you want to convey. I think at the heart of this question is dynamics, and I feel that’s very much what this album is about. It’s a slow reveal, I want it to be a seduction. It’s like stripping: there’s nothing sexy about some body wandering out with all its bits just hanging out. That’s so utterly boring – the sex and provocation is in what is not shown.
Similarly, it’s like Slavoj ?i’ek?s reading of The Sound of Music* in *[The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ThePervert’sGuidetoIdeology): what he highlights is that often what is not said is the most powerful. In the same way, sometimes what is almost not heard becomes that hint, that seed that germinates in your mind. You imagine these counterparts by what is suggested, not necessarily by what is there. A wilderness of mirrors, if you will.
?If you give people nothing but what they expect, eventually they get bored and tune out.?
You’ve still managed to keep up your mastering work, on top of everything else. What about that do you find appealing?
Mastering is an art form all unto itself. Honestly, it’s not just a universe, it’s a parallel reality – and I think it’s this that I really love about it. You find yourself just working to make something richer, more compelling. I’ve learned a lot through doing it, not just about technique, but also about form and the capacity for the ear to perceive. It’s a real joy.
We’ve talked in email about how it’s a frustrating time to be covering adventurous, experimental or in any way obscure music in Australia. Has that made you want (or simply need) to focus more on overseas for press coverage?
Like anywhere, Australia has some amazing writers and lovers of music, and thankfully a great many of them taken an active interest in a wide variety of work. As my wife says, the plural of anecdote is not data, but anecdotally I would say that there’s a kind of anxiety with some areas of the music press here, unlike other parts of the world, particularly those that are servicing the dailies where a kind of instinctive conservatism pervades, like somehow the reviewers should only pitch stuff that is a safe bet. In the UK or USA that doesn’t happen quite as much and you have a richer experience for it. That’s certainly what I have found over the years.
Some reviewers seem rather nervous about any risk-taking and, rather than occasionally pushing the envelope, they’ll err on the side of caution with a ?That’s not for our readers? line. I can appreciate that I guess – not everything needs to be for everyone – but similarly I feel it’s this kind of approach that is just shovelling dirt into the grave of many dailies and some other traditional print outlets. If you give people nothing but what they expect, eventually they get bored and tune out. A little shake from the fringes is healthy to give people the occasional raised pulse, I say!
A Guide to Saints hasn’t released any tapes since we interviewed you about it [last year](/news/4619235). We didn’t jinx it, did we?
Ha! Not really. That said, we took a momentary breather just due to the string of room40 releases we had coming up and the time needed to plan those editions properly. Also, to be frank, I was away so much in the first half of this year, it has been difficult with production timelines and the tapes are very labour-intensive. That said, a couple are in the final stages of production now. In fact, they’re due in September.
?I really do feel like a ghost here [in Australia] sometimes.?
We’ve discussed your album alongside new records by [John Chantler](/news/4654796), [Ben Frost](/articles/4661024) and [Robert Curgenven](http://www.factmag.com/2014/06/17/hear-two-pipe-organ-tracks-from-robert-curgenvens-astounding-new-lp-sirene/). How does it feel to be included in that diaspora, even though you’re still based in Australia, and do you see those guys as kindred spirits?
You know, I really do feel like a ghost here sometimes. And I mean that in a really positive way. I think I have played maybe 10 times as many concerts abroad in the past few years as I have here, and I’ve not been touring all that much. Also, I almost feel as though I’ve never really slotted into a scene or moment here. That’s a nice position to be in – a kind of fugitive position, perhaps meaning I can move very freely and pretty much just get on with the job of making stuff I think has some worth.
Those three gentlemen you mention are good friends – John and Ben are amongst my oldest friends, in fact, and I hold them very dearly. They both make incredible music, as does Rob, and I am very pleased to be held in the same sentence as them.
Does the crossover attention around Ben Frost’s [A U R O R A](/news/4647388) give you hope for a wider potential audience for noise- or drone-based music?
I can say this without reservation: Ben Frost is making amazing music. He is such a dedicated and focused artist, it’s a pleasure to see him getting exactly the kind of dirty, filthy love he deserves! Seriously, A U R O R A is a kick-in-the-face piece of music – exactly what is needed right now. I had the pleasure to hear the record develop over the past few years. Ben and I spent a few days working on it in the studio here last year and even at that point it was outstanding. The additional time he spent really took it to the next level of teeth-splitting, kick-in-the-face assault.
?Nice is worse than death.?
In terms of audience, I think people like good music; they like something that makes them feel uneasy but aroused. That is what Ben makes, and, I’d like to think, what I make. I think both Ben and I have always shared an interest in avoiding nice. Nice is worse than death.
Are you planning any performances around this album?
I had the pleasure of debuting the record in the Balkans back in May. At the end of the show in Zagreb, honestly I was depressed I didn’t have another 10 shows following that. It was such a pleasure to play this music live. It’s made for big PA’s, amps and sweaty bodies – that simple. Anything less and you’re just not going to reach that sound pressure that makes this kind of work transcend and just utterly invade the body.
####?Wilderness of Mirrors? comes out this Friday (Aug 1) on CD, vinyl and digital through [Room40](http://emporium.room40.org/products/529199-lawrence-english-wilderness-of-mirrors). Stream the album in full on [Soundcloud](https://soundcloud.com/room40/sets/lawrence-english-wilderness). Read Andrew McMillen’s 2010 [?Icons? interview](/icons/4136672) with English, and revisit English’s [thoughts on John Cage](/articles/4528061) from 2012.