Leafcutter John: “I don’t want another manufacturer to tell me how I should be doing stuff.” Interview by Innerversitysound.


Leafcutter John press image

Leafcutter John is a UK musician, instrument maker, software designer and performer who has distinguished himself via a series of challenging yet emotively resonant releases initially on Planet Mu, Staubgold, Tsuku Boshi and more recently Desire Path Recordings. His music is a curious mix of ingredients, from experimental electronics to sweet natured pastoral folk, often occurring concurrently within the same song – even at the same time. With the release of Resurrection, his first LP since 2006’s The Forest on the Sea, Leafcutter John took some time out to speak with Cyclic Defrost.

Innerversitysound: In your pre arts school days, what did you listen to as a child with your family?

Leafcutter John: It sounds like a counselling session.

Innerversitysound: Just trying to work out where the folk roots come from. You have this underlying folk element within your music is deeper listening experience, did you happen upon it or was it a family listening thing.

Leafcutter John: There were no musicians in my family but my dad was a painter and he converted one of the rooms in the house into a little studio. He would play stuff while working at night and I would hear that at night filtered through the floor; seeping into to my room. It was heavily filtered Queen, Genesis, Jean Michel Jarre, Simon and Garfunkel and stuff like that.

Innerversitysound: It wasn’t where I thought it would be coming from I thought it would be more traditional English Folk like Molly Drake and the nature mysticism that goes into folk.

Leafcutter John: I have never listened to that stuff. The closest I came to it was working with Lisa Knapp who is very much involved in that. It was kind of interesting being educated a little bit during that project. The magic element comes from… Oh I forgot one of the most important things was this tape of classical interpretations of sci-fi themes. It was one of those things that obsessed with as a kid. I had one of those Fischer Price tape recorders as a kid. I think there is a sort of spiritual effect on you because it sounds so magical and has this effect on you. I remember when me and my brother heard John Michel Jarre we started doing light shows in our bedroom.

Innerversitysound: He is quite monumental and on your recent album the last track, Gulps, is going for that monumental drone scape.

Leafcutter John: Yeah that track is about zooming out and getting a bigger picture about something. So the idea is to be always zooming out and getting a bigger picture.

Innerversitysound: In the period of time between the ‘The Housebound Spirit’ and ‘The Forest and the Sea’, something happened in that period, you actually expanded a great deal about how you were approaching music. The quality of the experimentation increased dramatically. What was going on with you?

Leafcutter John: There was a lot going on. It was on a different label, that environment is not to be underestimated. Your dealings with a record label can really influence your music if you are not really careful about it. Mike who runs Planet Mu records was really the only person who was willing to take a chance on what I was doing. He was the one who actually encouraged me to concentrate on my experimental side rather than my side that was really interested into Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Off the initial demo that I sent out he latched onto a few throwaway experiments at the end of the demo. So it’s really his fault that I am going down this experimental path. His approach was I like this music but it’s never going to sell. And after three records, spending years on these records it began to piss me off that he didn’t see it as a thing that had a commercial value. Maybe he was right but I kind of thought well what it would be like to work with someone else. Mike didn’t do anything particularly terrible but I slowly got tired of that attitude, he was getting into lots of different stuff that I could not really relate to. Markus from Staubgold, I can’t remember where we were introduced, or where the idea came from to release on his label. It may have been my friend Eric who was helping me at that time, he was acting as an unpaid manager. He was shopping that record around at the time and we found Markus who came to a gig, he flew from Germany. I just thought wow, that’s more commitment that anyone has ever shown in my music. I thought that was a really good sign. And he was really good to work with and I liked working with Staubgold. It just felt better in a way and that helped. It made me feel a bit more comfortable. The idea for that record was… I was aware that the press were calling me this ‘folktronica’ musician and I always considered myself as an acoustic musician. Someone who takes acoustic sources and treats them and that’s all I have ever done. Markus could see that and he just nurtured that record really.

Innerversitysound: You have been making a lot of equipment. Some really idiosyncratic pieces, build it yourself music equipment. The ‘grow your own’ microphone, the wooden box, I am not too sure what it does exactly, a new light musical interface. When did the build it yourself music obsession kick in.

Leafcutter John: Yeah I build everything. I think it comes from my dad and it also comes from my grandfather. My dad was the kind of guy that would fix something rather than buy a new thing. When I was about 10 he died in an accident and it created this sense… I remember really one of my biggest worries was that I didn’t know who was going to teach me to do stuff. I think in a way it is gives me a sense of solidarity from building things and also self-reliance. If you are a kid and you lose a parent you can feel really vulnerable and the more you can look after yourself the better that is. So that’s part of it and there’s also this thing were I feel like I don’t want another manufacturer to tell me how I should be doing stuff. And I don’t always want to buy into their design decisions and their sonic things. You said its an obsession and it kind of is, its complete fascination.

Innerversitysound: The Forester software, it got to its second iteration and then stopped. Has it been put on hold? Where’s that going?

Leafcutter John: It’s not going anywhere at the moment. I think it will go somewhere but it might take a while.

Innerversitysound: Markus Popp did a similar thing, he got someone else to help him build software for a project. There is this thing with some electronic musicians who take this approach, who go from elemental sound conceptual and project manage it into a systematic program. But yours seem to be these left field experiments, just odd shapes and you are not really trying to make something to connect with other people and send it out into the world. Your latest experiment the light triggered box is its second iteration and seems more of that capacity. Are you thinking of aiming in that direction at all?

Leafcutter John: What you mean like make a thing?

Innerversitysound: To make a thing that other people can use as well. To promulgate an idea out in the world that other people findseful.

Leafcutter John: The idea of the light thing has been coming along for a couple years and I have taken it out to different countries and tried it out on different people. It’s kind of a slow burn for me. I would be very happy to release the information on how to build it. It’s a matter of time, if you are releasing an album, and also doing one with Polar Bear, there is really little time to sit down and write a big PDF of how to do this stuff and then deal with numerous emails with people who are having trouble with it. Giving someone some free software is a really nice idea but you are not just doing that you are paying for the hosting and your essentially answering loads of questions about it. So it’s not really that appealing to be honest. You become a sort of caretaker of this thing, but I think it is kind of great. When I released that which is a couple of years ago now I got a couple of emails from record labels saying we are getting loads of demos that sound just like your software. So obviously it kind of hit on something at that precise moment. I’m not too sure there would be that much interest in it. Everybody is doing iPad apps and things like that and I don’t want to get into that.

Innerversitysound: So does the latest album, Resurrection feature the light hardware and software?

Leafcutter John: It does a bit. Not fully but when I play it live I play the tracks through the light controlled interface. I sort of surprised myself last week when we did the launch of the Polar Bear record in London, I was supporting trying out my lights on a really big system. I kind of surprised myself, it was really full on. Quite loud and physical. When I got offstage and someone grabbed hold of me. And I said ‘oh hello’. And she said ‘You know what your music does to people’ and I thought she was going to complain and say it had physically hurt her or something. And then she went on to spout this spiritual idea that everybody’s auras had left their bodies during the music. Although I am not too sure what I think about that it obviously had quite a strong effect on her. There is something about when you see and hear light and sound in synch. It’s quite powerful.

Innerversitysound: The introduction track on the album Resurrection has a textured feel, with a sense of orchestration and space, less concerned with a busyness of effects. It seems like more of a deeper listening experience than you have before rather than a concentration on experimentation.

Leafcutter John: Kind of, yes. I was going for a deeper listening experience but it is not my number one goal. It’s a reaction to being exposed to the Media’s ever present view on disasters and things like that. It can feel very difficult to be a musician when you see a picture of a town that has been washed away. There is a difficult rub between human suffering and your creative journey. So some of it is looking at that and looking at those discrepancies. So I tried to look at it in different ways on the different tracks. So the first one is made out of something which is slowly shifting. I tried to make it feel like tectonic plates that are shifting and occasionally there is a there is kind of rupture. There is a guitar and drum thing that comes out at the end which is released by the rupture. So the way I think of the tracks is that there are stories going on within them.

Innerversitysound: The title of the album, Resurrection, you released it around Easter and the idea of rebirth was this an underlying theme or concept in the album.

Leafcutter John: The story of the title is that there is no definite end to a thing and I think that is the only way I was able to reconcile some of the images I saw was that there are things that will happen that are part of the process and you are not going to be around for the end of that process. You are not going to be around for the end of that process and maybe there is no end to the process. So it’s a kind of reminder that you can be part of a resurrection, or you can resurrect yourself and you can be part of some kind of resurrection, some kind of growth or rebirth. I am fairly down to earth and it is kind of like ‘come on resurrect now’ or something.

Innerversitysound: Your Polar Bear side, is it a side gig or is it an essential part of what you do.

Leafcutter John: Well I have been in that band for over ten years. And I definitely have learnt a lot from that that process. At times I have been really drawn into doing stuff for that band. If you are not feeling really inspired by your own path through music, it’s kind of cool to slot into something else and help someone else’s vision. Which is what musicians like I do a lot, we do music for theatre and music for film and maybe music for the radio. It’s really easy to lots of little projects which other people come up with the motivation and impetus and you get paid and can carry on doing stuff. But somewhere during that time I kind of lost my own impetus and I think if it weren’t for a few people prodding me then I would never have done this last record. The only reason I started working on it was that Michael from the record label emailed me and said that ‘I like what you do and are you going to do some more? And he was just very patient for about two and a half years while I did it. So the Polar Bear is definitely important to me. It is all written by the drummer so it is kind of his thing. I care about them all a lot, it feels like we are on a journey together. I like the music and I like the people so it is kind fascinating thing and I feel re-energised for both things now.

Innerversitysound: Max/MSP how long did you pick that up before building your Forester software.

Leafcutter John: Forester is built with Max/MSP. I have been using it for over ten years now. It comes from the question of how you are going to perform live and Max helps me perform live. The light interface, all of the software is built in Max. It’s just the way that I can make things happen in a computer basically without having to resort to a prebuilt software like Ableton or Logic or Cubase
Innerversitysound: I notice with my friends who make music here, all the ones who go to arts school use Max/MSP and all the ones who make electronica or dance music generally use Ableton or Cubase. It’s quite a divide.

Leafcutter John: It’s interesting isn’t it? I was playing a lot in Germany when Ableton started and I think they really targeted it at people making techno music basically.

Innerversitysound: The Tunis album, made live at the Tunis festival, how did that come about?

Leafcutter John: I wrote some music when I was there using sound from the place, did the concert, took the recording back to London and sort of messed about with it a bit. But it’s basically a live album. It was basically the record label Tsuku Boshi wrote to me and said do you want to do a gig in Tunisia and part of the gig we want you to make a record. I thought well I haven’t made a record for a long time and maybe this is a good way back in and they released it. Very limited small release.

Innerversitysound: The last track, it has elements of drone, have you been listening to drone music or have you been experimenting with long drawn out sounds?

Leafcutter John: Well that track comes from a very unexpected source, so if I tell you about the technicalities of that track and that will change the way you look at it I guess? The source material is a Roland 303, which is the box that made most of the sounds of acid music. It is an acid line which is then stretched to 12 minutes, so you get this sort of spectral content from the 303 but then it doesn’t give you any more clue that it is a 303. It’s kind of a 303 transcending Acid in a way. So it’s this incredibly stretched out thing and when I listen to it… it makes me have a feeling of floating and getting higher and I guess being quite reflective.

Innerversitysound: In terms of instrumentation on the rest of the tracks what are your main sources, acoustic instruments…?

Leafcutter John: If you look at the history of my records there is one year between the first two records then there was two years and then three and then four years and then five years and then this one is six years. If you exclude the Tunis album this trick works better. It’s a lot of stuff from the last six years so I don’t really know what everything is. But basically my process is that experiments and investigations become part of this big library of sounds and then sounds get chosen for their suitability when I have got something to say. I might be looking at a photograph of say the tsunami in Japan and I might be trying to find a sonic equivalent for that force. The idea of rearranging forms made by humans by rearranging that by a very natural force and looking at the patterns that emerged out of that wave. So I might try to find sounds that have that feeling about them or somehow describe that. So there will be a load of stuff that I listen through and occasionally I will hear a sound that I think about something related to that and it will go off on a tangent. And then I will maybe use guitar or voice. On that last track there’s a clarinet player called Shabaka Hutchings. But it’s nearly all me on that record. The rule is anything can be a sound source as long as it’s right.

Resurrection can be purchased from here.

Leafcutter John’s website is here.



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