Interview with Lawrence English by Bob Baker Fish



Over the last fifteen odd years Australian composer, field recordist, experimental musician, curator and multi media artist Lawrence English has built up an imposing body of work, with releases on a myriad of labels around the world including Cronica, Touch, 12k, Baskaru, Important records and a gaggle of others. His music has run the gamut of genres and approaches, from sparse field recordings to electroacoustic and more ambient atmospheric work as well as sound based installations. He’s collaborated with the likes of Francisco Lopez, Minamo, Stephen Vitiello, Tujiko Noriko, and John Chantler on recordings and performed live with some of the most cutting edge experimental musicians around. Then of course there’s his iconic label Room40 which has issued editions from everyone from DJ Olive to Robin Fox, as well as curated numerous performances in his native Brisbane. His latest work, Wilderness of Mirrors is curiously his first LP to be released on his own imprint. It’s an overwhelming multisensory work equally influenced by TS Eliot, Swans, and the current dire state of Australian politics.

Cyclic Defrost: How long did it take to record the album? Was there a specific process involved?

Lawrence English: Wilderness Of Mirrors took about two years in total. The initial ideas were boiling away as The Peregrine came to a close. I’d revisited the T.S. Eliot poem during the making of The Peregrine and had tracked that development of the term and found it a pretty fitting metaphor for how music can function in a process-led studio practice. I found it particularly resonated with how I felt contemporary politics was headed, a whole lot of spin going on and a whole lot of blinding people with the overabundance or complete absence of information.

In terms of a process almost all the pieces are a process of layering and erasure, and at the heart of each song is basically an entirely different work. There were a number of very early drafts to this record and they were used as a kind of agitation agent, something to cause a friction. I wanted to work against something. This process was aided by some friends along the way include Ben Frost who offered some excellent feedback early last year. We had been working on AURORA in the studio here for a few days and on the final morning we were together I played him some of these root parts. His comments helped push it in the direction of where it ended up, so for that I am most grateful.

Cyclic Defrost: If you don’ mind my asking, what did he say to push the music in this new direction?

Lawrence English: Basically we just had a listen to two streams of work – one was for another project that is still boiling away. For those early wilderness elements I played, he basically just gave me a sense of what excited him, some did, some didn’. His ears just confirmed what I was thinking and that’s hugely valuable. He also just taunted me by saying I should come to the Greenhouse and work on it. I still owe him a visit….it has been 10 years….I feel bad Ben, sorry! I will come!

Cyclic Defrost: I’m interested in what you said about the Wilderness of Mirrors being a fitting metaphor for how music can function in a process-led studio practice. Can you expand upon this?

Lawrence English: Basically, how I interpreted that metaphor directly was through applying the same techniques as some of the examples of misinformation associated with the phrase. Creating an element and then responding to it, then removing that element and responding to what replaced it. It’s a process of echo if you like, but where the initial sound is removed as source. Basically the reflection becomes amplified in a very simple process of re-exposure and before long there’ a vastly different, but relational sound existing in the piece.

Cyclic Defrost: What were you thinking about when you were conceptualising Wilderness of Mirrors? Were there specific intentions you had or specific influences?

Lawrence English: The pieces really started to take shape over the past 18 months, fuelled by what I can say is a wholesale disappointment with the Australian (and also many international) government. We had a race to the bottom that started last year and continues to this day. Amazingly, just when you think we’ve reached a new time low, there’ a deeper depth to plumb. We’re watching an unprecedented corruption of ethical and considered political conduct and vision.

The recent issue surrounding these Sri Lankan asylum seekers, it’s so utterly confounding that something like this can take place in Australia. We have let ourselves down immensely. This blind obsession with policy over and above the impacts of that policy, in this case the very human impacts, are ignored. This is a gross failure of the duty of care governments are imbued with. On the positive side though, at least personally I feel very motivated and the results of this aggravated motivation can be heard in Wilderness Of Mirrors. I’d like to think the album can be a soundtrack to waking from the slumber of apathy. A great many of us had it easy in this country, and we’re lucky to be able to say that. But with this comes a responsibility to respect and care for those who need assistance. There’ still time to move in the right direction, but it needs those asleep to wake and act, even the littlest bit.

Cyclic Defrost: You mentioned in the press release that each of the full on evil bands that you saw “ reinforced my interest in emulating that inner ear and bodily sensation that extreme densities of vibration in air brings about.” Can you talk more about this? Are you talking about sonic immersion or something more?

Lawrence English: There was this period early last year where within two weeks I caught SWANS and My Bloody Valentine. Two bands I had wanted to experience for a long time, and then shortly after that I experienced Earth. What each of these bands recognises is the way sound off the stage can completely pummel the body and create a physiological shift in audiences. Sound inhabits the body it reaches, through the mind and the ears, a kind of psychological effect and then the physiological affect of the body as ear. For Wilderness my interests were two fold – one was to create a mid band saturation that scorches the ears and makes them function in certain ways, even when listening on say headphones and then I spent a good deal of time working the low end spectrum of the record to create something that when heard live or on a very nice home system can eat your body whole.

Cyclic Defrost: What do you feel like you learned in the process of recording the album? Did anything surprise you?

Lawrence English: I learned that somewhere inside me beats the heart of a humanitarian who can be outraged and put that rage into something personally useful. There was a time when I would not have imagined this so to be such a prominent part of who I am, but it’s there, the circumstances just need to be right to bring out the hulk so to speak. I also reconciled my interests in dynamics I feel, finding the place for both loud and quiet, saturated and clean. This has taken a while, but I feel on this record it’s the clearest expression to date of this interest.

Cyclic Defrost: There’ a real warmth, a real softness to the title track. I really found myself thinking of the Blade Runner score in terms of lushness, but much warmer I guess because Blade Runner is quite cold. Is it something you strive for, a certain warmth in the drones?

Lawrence English: It’s funny I don’ think of this music as drones. I think that maybe because I can recognise the parts working together and make up this wall of sound. But really in there you’re hearing hammer dulcimer, piano, organ, some guitar and whatnot all drowning in a sea of turbulent electronics. I’m certainly interested in the idea of warmth and more than that harmonic distortion, which is something that has guided many of the records over the last 6 or more years. Unlike Blade Runner I suppose, most of what you’re hearing is instruments not synths, just recorded in particular ways to create a certain uneasiness. That opening tone is an ebow on a piano string for example, just recorded super hot and close. It’s a game of dimensions, perspectives on the ways the sounds are captured and then brought into relief with one another.

Cyclic Defrost: It’s funny I definitely hear drones, but they’re more sweeps of sounds and brimming with complex life within. Then there’ some of your compositional decisions. I’m thinking of something like Another Body where the bottom end in particular just erupts at a certain point with a kind of grand immense strength that actually feels like a field recording – reminding me of something Geir Jenssen’ – Stromboli, recordings of a volcano erupting.

Lawrence English: It’s a question of time isn’t it? For me, Tony Conrad’ early works or Eleh’ records epitomize the notion of drone. Layers or even just harmonics of sound that evolve with a glacial pace and in the process reveal this huge depth and richness. I love this kind of work, and I’d argue my Lonely Women’ Club is a response to these ideas. For me, Wilderness Of Mirrors perhaps exists at a slightly less glacial pace, the pieces are evolving more rapidly and that kind of exposes itself more as the record wears on. The later part of the record is very much pulse driven, at least in my books, and I wanted to kind of allow the record to reveal its core as the record moves on. I think when it’s compared to pop songs, then for sure, this sounds slow and the tones could become drones, but compared to some minimal music it probably feels more up tempo.

Cyclic Defrost: What do you continue to find, or perhaps search for within your music?

Lawrence English: I want to create solid mountains of sound, which bury the listener, encasing them like a tomb. And then I want the mountains to be collapsed with a moments notice and suddenly you can breath again. There’ those reports of people who survive near drownings that a euphoria sets in after the body has given itself over to this thing that just won’ let up. I want people to feel that euphoria, but I want it to come at a price. Nothing lasting is earned easily.

Cyclic Defrost: To what extent do you still use field recordings? And to what extent does a new space or new recording influence your sounds? Can you talk about particular sounds or spaces that inspired Wilderness of Mirrors?

Lawrence English: Well I still actively record works that are entirely based around field recordings. Most recently I completed Approaching Nothing, a work based on a visit to Vela Luka on the Croatian coast where Luc Ferrari recorded his legendary piece Presque Rien. The work is a response in some way to Ferrari’ piece. I presented it as a diffusion a couple of months ago in Zagreb actually.

As for Wildnerness Of Mirrors, the only field recordings I used are infact inaudible and were used as control information for shaping through processes like sidechaining. They’re spectral if you like, haunting the sounds but never totally present. I will say some experiences in environments definitely shaped how I approach ideas like reverb on this record and delay as well, trying to recreate experienced I has in unusual architectural spaces and the like.


Cyclic Defrost: I’m really surprised to hear that there are not more field recordings on Wilderness of Mirrors or The Peregrine. Do you remember when you felt the desire to focus more on traditional instrumentation? Though I do remember this album you did on Sensory Projects under the moniker Object about 7 years ago which was also used lots of organ and processing, though it felt more digital – but it did seem to deal with notions abstraction and clarity. Is there a link?

Lawrence English: The thing about field recordings, at least for my ears, is they need to have a sense or presence that speaks beyond the moment of recording. There’ nothing wrong with recording for your own memory or reflection, but these don’ need to be published. I think there’ a bit of a crisis with field recordings and Salome Voegelin wrote a great piece in The Wire along a similar line. Basically the crisis is one of opportunity to record, but a failure to edit or recontextialise the recordings.

For me, I undertake a few recordings each year – maybe 3-4 very focused trips, and from those come materials that increasingly have ended up on focused field recording editions – for example I have a new LP Viento coming later this year on Taiga, it’s all wind recordings from Patagonia and Antarctica. Also I have just premiered a new work “Approaching Nothing‘ which is a direct response to Luc Ferrari’ Presque Rien. I visited Vela Luka, where he recorded that work in the late 60s and essentially reframe the investigation. So a good deal of my recordings find there way into very focused commissions and projects these days. I’ll still certainly weave the two practices together in the future, but I need to find how it is that there’ a meaningful engagement between those elements. For this record that sound just wasn’ part of what was needed for my ears.

Cyclic Defrost: I asked about field recordings because everything is pretty indistinguishable, a beautiful immersive amorphous wash of sound. Is the obscuring of sound, or the recontextualisation of sound something that holds much interest for you?

Lawrence English: I think part of what I’m doing is allowing people to hear how my listening to music is. I love the opportunities afforded by the studio to make new sounds from very familiar instruments. Other musicians who can achieve this affect captivate me so very much. I had this experience listening to Chris Abrahams play a piano solo, I swear at some point he transformed the piano into an organ, the sounds he achieved simply were not those of a piano. They were alien, otherworldly. I hope that I can achieve some of this for other pairs of ears.

Cyclic Defrost: I’m intrigued by the final piece, Hapless Gatherer, it’s recurring loop feels outside the swell of sound, so not only is it quite apparent, it makes the piece feel a little different from what’s come before it. Can you talk a little bit about the piece and perhaps also the decision not to obscure the loop? And later you almost enter riffing territory.

Lawrence English: There’ actually quite a lot of pulse on this record. On the first half of the record is is heavily obscured and cloaked, but the whole album kind of opens out on the second side. The horns are more appartent, the concert bass drum too. I wanted to let the elements expose themselves and maybe on the next listen through people’ ears are retuned to the instruments. Like a great many things, the eroticism is in the reveal, it’s the seduction and the journey not the end that is really satisfying and memorable.

Cyclic Defrost: How do you describe what you do to people who aren’ well versed in experimental music? Or even those who are?

Lawrence English: To me, what I am making on say Wilderness Of Mirrors is not experimental music. Whilst the sound or shape of it might be unfamiliar to a lot of listeners, the processes and compositional ideas are pretty well rooted in the musical world. I actively push the ideas much further than some of my contemporaries perhaps, but still that’s not so much about experimentation as much as about dynamic expression or something like that. I don’ want people to be instantly at ease when they hear this, that’s a certainty, what I want is for them to be consumed by it. To be be lost, to be found, to be smothered in saturation, ultimately I want this music to be a memorable journey for old and new listeners and to be something that people can return to and discover new perspectives. It’s dense and unrelenting at times, that building tension can hurt, but it makes the release all the more commanding!

Cyclic Defrost: I’ve noticed over the years you have a strong commitment to performing live. I regularly see you playing in far-flung places, what does the live performance provide you you? Is it more a personal thing or do feel there is a direct correlation with how it effects the music?

Lawrence English: Honestly over the past couple of years I took a bit of a break from the more heavy touring schedules. This was partly to do with the fact I wanted to rethink what I was doing live and how it all happened. Especially I wanted to maximize the experience for people coming to the shows, so I have added a lot more possibility and sonic physicality with amps for example. Live music is one of those amazing transformative experiences when it’s done right, I know because I have experienced such things. I want to offer that to people as much as possible when I perform. The time away from regular shows really paid off I feel. I played the new Wilderness material in Zagreb and Serbia earlier this year. It felt great to play live, so now I am really itching to do some more concerts. It’s good to feel refreshed and alive again.

Cyclic Defrost: How would you imagine people would listen to Wilderness of Mirrors?

Lawrence English: I think this record is built for open air listening. Headphones are fine, so long as you have decent ones, but it’s a record specifically designed for stereos, old style stereos with big speakers and a living room when everyone is out of the house. I think people playing the record on their laptops at volume will be disappointed when their speakers start to crack up and malfunction. It’s kinda not meant for those speakers, they are for convenience listening, there’ nothing wrong with that, it’s just I don’t have any interest in pandering to a less than optimal listening experience. Life is short people, the grave calls us every second of every day, lets live well and do stuff that makes us feel humane, fulfilled and just a little bit dangerous every once in a while.

Cyclic Defrost: I read TS Eliot’s Gerontion that ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ came from. I particularly liked:
“History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions”

Surely it’s about Australian politics right now?

Lawrence English: There’ a reason Eliot continues to resonate as one of the most compelling voices of his time. Every artist should aspire to resonating beyond the moment. I hope that even for a second I might have that opportunity.

Wilderness of Mirrors is available at Room40

photos by tricia king/itchy eyes


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.