Cruel Optimism: In conversation with Lawrence English


Lawrence English has been a one of the most prolific Australian sound artists and musicians of the last decade. From his base in Brisbane he runs the Room40 label which became the home for many of the collaborations he has done with others. These collaborations began with his Fabrique nights at the Brisbane Powerhouse in the early 00s which brought an incredible flow of international sound artists to Brisbane for short East Coast tours – and usually a related release on Room40. Room40’s sound was always complemented by a strong visual aesthetic initially created by former Brisbane deign studio Rinzen. Even though the early years pitched each new CD release as an ‘object’ with an elaborate folding card design, Room40 was also quick to embrace digital distribution and was one fo the first indies in Australia to be running their own download service. Lawrence’s own sound, too, has shifted from delicate field recordings to the dense, visceral, grit of his latest album, Cruel Optimism.

On the eve of Cruel Optimism’s release, Lawrence and I exchanged a flurry of emails.

SC – Its been a tough start to 2017 already. Trump’s first week, the passing of Mark Fisher, domestic violence and mental health fuelled carnage here in Melbourne. I’ll come back to those as we chat. Tell me a bit about Lauren Berlant and her relationship to your recent work and the new album.

LE – Yeah it has been a difficult slide into 2017, but also already a hopeful one. At least that’s certainly how I felt watching all those bodies on the streets for the Women’s March. If nothing else it’s a reminder that there’s many concerned, progressively minded individuals out there that are engaged and reaching out to one another. It’s not necessarily going to change anything, but it’s the foundation of solidarity from which change can come and remain into the future.

As to the untimely passing of Mark Fisher, I must confess to being very affected by this loss. I had a huge level of respect for his work. He has an uncanny way of marrying a critical listenership with critical theory in ways that were often only distantly connected to sound. His reading of film too was just masterful and especially his insights drawn from Children Of Men in Capitalist Realism were sublime. We were meant to meet once in Zagreb, but missed each other by and hour or so. I regret so much not being able to tell him how much his work meant to me and indeed, inspired me.

In terms of Lauren Berlant’s writing, I should start by stating I feel she is one of the most important critical theorists publishing in North America today. This idea of Cruel Optimism that she theorised is one means by which we can seriously interrogate the conditions that have led to many of the phenomenon we see around us. Brexit, Trump and the underpinnings of other geopolitical unfoldings are all able to be meaningfully examined through Berlant’s theoretical lens. It has never been more timely to ask ourselves, individually and collectively, why is it we struggle to abandon the fantasy objects that fail us or are of no use to us in finding any kind of contentment or satisfaction in our day to day. In reality these fantasy objects can readily become the barricades preventing us from finding this contentment. For me though, in terms of this record, it’s Berlant’s writing around affect and specifically trauma I found particularly moving. In one section she describes trauma in our lives through saying ‘we know that we cannot possess a trauma, but are possessed by it’. I found this thought critical, as I think there’s a sonic reading of it that very much extrapolates some of the thinking around bodily affect in performance that came out of the performance situations afforded through Wilderness Of Mirrors. Specifically that in performance that idea of possession Berlant describes is replicated by the sound in space and time. That it occupies the body (and bodies), that experiences are individuated phenomenologically, but collective in a political sense.

SC – Tell me more about the performance of Wilderness of Mirrors and how that touring has influenced Cruel Optimism. It feels like you’re moving into a much of physical sound – heavier, more ‘all frequencies’ – in fact I can hear the SWANS as much as much Godspeed You Black Emperor and Ben Frost in the new record.

LE – After The Peregrine [2015] was released, I was really unsure about what a performance meant. By this I mean that when I performed that material, I felt that it really did not have any affective meaning. In some respects the differentiation of the studio and the stage wasn’t really as clear as I felt it should be. Around this time I barely gave concerts at all and when I did I found the experience incredibly problematic and generally without real value. I started working on Wilderness Of Mirrors and the nature of the material suggested a certain kind of material presence of the sound would be needed if the pieces were going to translate beyond the studio setting. It was around this time that I have the opportunity to hear SWANS, My Bloody Valentine and Einstürzende Neubauten in the matter of two weeks. And also Earth a few months prior. I found all of these performances incredibly inspirational and they each suggested to me a certain kind of performative aspect that the stage allowed or moreover actively encouraged. So some of that thinking, about what that relationship is about between performer and audience, about bodies and sound and the like, became a genuine focus for me.

When I took Wilderness Of Mirrors out on the road I completely reconfigured how I performed the material and spent a good deal of time exploring ways I could bring about the particular sonic affects I was interested in. Both psychologically and physiologically. I learned a great deal during that time and some of those learnings have fuelled the approaches for the recording of Cruel Optimism, specifically around questions of density and harmonic distortion. What has been most satisfying is that the explorations did not lead to the places I may have expected. On example is my co-opting of Lemmy’s ‘everything louder than everything else’ to be concerned with density; ‘everything denser than everything else’ and in doing realised that density is not relational to amplitude. Some of the quietest sections on Cruel Optimism are the most dense.

SC – And on live performances, there’s definitely much better and ‘more efficient’ live sound in many venues nowadays. Those Swans, MBV and Neubauten shows definitely make use of the new speaker and amp technologies in ways that certainly increase the physical impact of their shows. Similarly I remember getting sent the spec sheet from Kevin Martin for one of his shows as The Bug and it was specifying minimum, non-negotiable, sound pressure a certain distance from the stage as a performance requirement! How do you deal with live performances and the range of venues you play?

LE – I have a great deal of respect for Kevin Martin and that’s an example of why. He is interested in creating a particular physiological and psychological state in his audiences and I think we probably share that interest and desire. Hearing him perform Sirens at CTM a couple of years back was an utter bodily pleasure. Challenging physically and aurally to be sure but also utterly unforgettable and profound. I think sound, at volume has an incredibly profound impact on us, something we don’t often get to truly experience and when we do it’s very affective. This is both psychologically, as our minds have to decipher meaning from what at times can be incredibly dense sonic information, and physiologically through our bodies. It’s important to recognise that our body is also an ear, it just listens differently to acoustic stimulus.

With Cruel Optimism in mind, I have been thinking a lot about this relation of the body and sound. In concert there’s a very powerful thing that happens, in that our wholistic experience of sound, is individuated, but at the same time collective. It is shared in time with those around us. Ultimately sound consumes us in a way that other sensory inputs perhaps don’t. By this I mean that in a situation like a concert to escape the sound, particularly physical sound it requires the removal of the self from that sound field. Sound occupies the body and generates a very special power relation that I am conscious of in concert. I’m interested in how is it the tension and relief of sound in performance can be maximised and become an empowering relational for an audience. I truly feel this setting is a chance for us, collectively in that space, to form a type of public assembly where we can share an experience of the profound, affective capacity that sound generates.

SC – Yesterday I listened to the new Kid Koala record, and today I went to hear Suzanne Ciani talk and perform at 3RRR, and just last week, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith too. There’s certainly been a marked resurgence in lighter ‘ambient’ music – almost a buccolic Californian thing – Matthewdavid’s label and all the Laraaji reissues, too. I was talking about this to others as ‘music for self care’ and it reminded me of DJ Olive’s Sleep (and the two subsequent records in that trilogy) that he recorded for his friends immediately after 9/11 [and were released on Room40]. Where do you position these sorts of recordings in relation to your own more recent work? These seem ‘differently’ political if they are read as self care rather than escape.

LE – I’m not sure I ever think of music as escape. Possibly as extension, but not escape. I’d like to imagine that the experiences of the music, whether that be personal listening or in a concert setting resonates in time for that listening and is something they can return to in their day to day. Sure the intensity or context of those resonances might be different, but they ideally should still hold value. I think the idea of self care and a general state of realisation of the self through an appreciation of affect is truly one of the things we need to relish in what music provides for us. To have deep and lasting connections to sound is all I can really ask for when people encounter my work and the art form more generally.

SC – I remember going back maybe 15 years or more, when I first met you and Room40 was just starting out, that there was a subcultural movement towards ‘proper listening’. I’m thinking here of Impermanent Audio in Sydney, perhaps. The rareified world of ‘sound art’ had collided with the remnants of the heavily socially-focussed ‘ambient’ resurgence of the early 90s. Your work, and the work you were making audible either through curating events or releasing albums, was also deeply individual – solo performers, solo artists, making sounds that perhaps I might unfairly suggest were optimised for solo listening. Now with Cruel Optimism, but also in Room40 and SomeoneGood’s releases, I’ve been seeing more collective practice. Now we are at this critical juncture in both music and politics, am I right is reading this as an alignment with the value and importance of the collective, of collaboration, and of community – over the individual?

LE – It’s an interesting question Seb. I feel I could almost reply differently depending on my role in some sense. As a curator for example, the conditions of possibility for producing a show 10 or 15 years ago meant that, by virtue of economics alone, solo performers were all that could be afforded. The payment was reasonable for a solo artist, but unfair for a band. So I do think that played a role into those choices, at least from my side as I always tried to pay artists as well as I could. I believed they were worth it. As a musician, there was an economic side to performing solo also. 15 years ago I think I was very interested in collaboration and the first few solos I made were very much geared towards that. I relished the chance to be inspired by other artists who would often share materials or ideas with me that pushed in new and unexpected directions.

In those early days I was incredibly fortunate to be part of groups like I/O3 with Heinz Riegler and Tam Patton and also to have the opportunity to collaborate with artists that have since become dear friends. People such as David Toop, Scanner, DJ Olive and David Shea. To this day I am so very grateful to these artists who quite honestly gave me the confidence to recognise some worth in what I was doing; both as an artist and with Room40 more broadly. They, in some important ways, showed me that there was a wider world out there of people exploring similar things to me and that connections were possible between geographically, if not socially, different groups.

As to the return to a sense of collaboration, I think you’re right, this is something that bares the marks of broader concerns and interests. Since the later part of the 00s, I haven’t really collaborated with groups of players on solo material. I wanted to flip that on its head and reach out to people who I admired and who I knew would provoke in me different ways of approaching my work in the creation of Cruel Optimism. That was certainly the result of the collaborations. Each of the players brought a wealth of dynamics and energy to the pieces and I am dearly indebted to each of them.

SC – Tell me more about the specific collaborations on Cruel Optimism. Some relationships you have cultivated over years, others are more recent?

LE – The record grew in a series of stages I guess you could say. It was without question the most challenging record I have ever undertaken, at times very frustrating. The subject matter, and by that I mean the research I undertook into the ideas where the music emanates from was pretty harrowing. Watching all that footage that ended up being used in the Negative Drone film for example, I found very depressing and difficult . . . it’s also sobering to recognise the potentials of all this technology and how it is deployed in the field. The collaborations by contrast were a source of genuine joy. I’d not had so much engagement with other players for many years and I found the whole process helped open up new possibilities.

Lawrence English – Negative Drone from ROOM40 on Vimeo.

I am a huge admirer The Necks and SWANS, and am on record as saying they are two of the most powerful bands presently operating on the face of the planet. They have a way of assembling collective sound that I find utterly transcendental. They take separate elements and make them work for and against each other to create something very powerful and unique. Individually the members of these groups also have amazing solo practices. Take Norman Westberg and Thor Harris for example, both of them have made wonderful solo recordings that have surfaced in the past couple of years. Working with both of them was ear opening. They both have such distinctive approaches to what they do. Thor’s sense of harmony is just mind boggling, and best of all completely different to mine. Norman’s ability to produce the most beautifully menacing sounds from a guitar is also breath taking. I’ve always been a huge admirer of his playing and what he brought to Cruel Optimism unlocked a few ideas I have had about the role of guitar in this kind of music. The contributions from Chris Abrahams, Werner Dafeldecker and Tony Buck were done remotely and all of them were kind enough to indulge my cryptic messages and strategies for gathering individuated musical elements. I hope next time I can record with them in real time, as I think again this would open a completely different way of approaching the work.

And then there’s the contributions from people like Brodie McCallister, who literally played all night until his lips couldn’t move any more – an effort that was simply beyond belief. Vanessa Tomlinson too just played with a fierce tenderness that completely opened out some of the rhythmic elements of the record and helped shape how they function in the pieces. The Australian Voice too were critical in transforming the character of the record and I hope in the future I can work with them again on a larger scale project.

SC – Every time I speak to a label or an artist, nowadays, I ask about the economic structure of their work. Room40 and your own work has moved through a number of different phases and I expect you’re now what arts funding bodies (or the few that still exist) call a ‘mid career artist’ which brings with it commissions and hopefully less of a ‘media hustle’. How have you seen this change yourself and as a label owner? Is there any remote sense of stability in operations? Or just continual adaptation? I also note that Room40 was an early adopter of its own digital distribution with WAV/MP3 downloads on its own hosted site – well before Bandcamp.

LE – My friend Stephen Vitiello had a great anecdote about the ‘mid-career’… a curator once said to him something along the lines of ‘oh, congratulations on reaching your mid career, I hope you’re prepared because it’s a desert!’ I think that curator’s comments might have been a bit melodramatic, but in some sense they were right in that there is a weird period between ‘arriving’ and becoming ‘senior’, I’d call it ‘late-mid-career’ where things can be very thin on the ground and I know many artists who have or are now suffering under this condition. That said I feel I have been exceptionally fortunate to this point in my life. I mean I’m lucky to have started out from a great position, with a supportive family who were ok with me occupying the black sheep mantle. They quietly encouraged me in my late teens to reach out to the areas that interested me. It was a great starting place to set out from. In some way it also was an encouragement to push as hard as I could during my 20s and I really did. I was not really much of a social being in some sense, I worked like crazy, sometime too much, but I was determined to maximise the potential of those projects as much as possible. I truly believed the work the artists were making was that important. And to this day I am satisfied with that decision to just work as much as possible and frankly I have tried to maintain that ethos as much as is humanly possible to this day.

About the nature of releasing music, I feel you’re right in using the phrase ‘continual adaptation’ I think anyone who says otherwise is either delirious or operating under conditions which are not the same as the rest of us. The whole nature of music and the culture that surrounds it has shifted so radically. I often talk about what I perceive as the fundamental shift within music; that being a move in the dynamics of exchange. 25 years ago, money was the primary asset exchanged around music. We, as listeners, had limited resources to acquire music from a field where the cost of production was still high and distribution was somewhat difficult by contemporary standards. Now, the unit of exchange is time. When we make work as artists, we are asking people for their time and the investment that is made in time is the primary value of the work. In the past it was a la carte, now it’s a smorgasbord where access is a given through structures such as Spotify. Figuratively, and for most purposes literally, everything is available all the time, so when we make work I feel as though the stakes are incredibly high to make that engagement the richest and most affecting it can be. After all, time is the one non-refundable asset we have. We can’t buy more of it. So I am conscious of this both with the label and my own work. Not everything needs to be public or needs to be widely published. Somethings should just be for us or shared with a few friends. Other things should resonate more widely, being able to determine where a work falls is now another task for artists to consider.

SC – Yes, its definitely all about ‘time’. Time – and control over it – is the primary currency of the affluent, which has deep ties to the other measure of a ‘good life’, good health. How might we rethink the economics of a label or an artist’s own production through that lens? I’ve been interested in a number of experiments that museums have been doing around this by making exhibitions, or their whole building, ‘free’ but then asking you to ‘pay what you want’ on the way out – after you’ve given your time to the experience, had the experience, and now are in a better position to ‘value it’. I’m also drawn to what pretty much everyone our (rough) age says – “if I hadn’t had limited access to music, I would never have given the time to force myself to understand/appreciate [insert difficult band/artist X]”. What advice do you give younger artists, or, for that matter, younger labels?

LE – Critical thinking is paramount. That’s a given in the current setting we find ourselves in. A lot of the institutions that have shaped modern society are presently failing to continue that process of positive influence and shaping. They have become static and serve a vision of ourselves that is tethered to the past. The crisis around political institutions is a good example of this issue where serious thought is required. The level of critique and theorising needed to begin to imagine these new and necessary possible futures is not an easy undertaking, but it is a worthwhile one. I mean look at schooling, we just accept that structure as the way things should be done, but we have to remember that it is a product of the industrial age. The processes of schooling and the ways in which information is learned I think fails to address the critical shift we need toward knowledge creation and ultimately the production of wisdom. Schools are essentially products of the industrial age trying to service a post industrial society. At the macro and micro levels it’s all disconnected.

Another point of disconnection is around the way the value of culture has been developed in the past century, particularly the past 20 years. When you go back through the policy documents created by successive governments in this country for example there’s a determined shift to reframe the cultural, as primarily understood through an economic lens. It’s hardly surprising, capitalism makes it business the economisation of the world. But I think the overlay or more concerted neo-liberal policies trace a heavier line through how cultural worth has been theoretically (and actually) diminished in countries like ours. The conversations in North America about the NEA are telling also. A return to the Reagan administrations momentary assault on this institution. I truly believe Foucault was right, discourses systemically form the objects of which they speak, and the discourses around culture and art over the past 20 something years, and I mean those outside of the insularity of the zone of fine art theory, have progressed the erosion of what culture and art practice can mean. How we speak of culture and art, in a mainstream sense, is relational to how it manifests itself.

More broadly though, I honestly think we need a wholesale rethinking of how it is we live. What it is we are striving for and what is it that constitutes the ideas of ‘lifestyle’ and what ‘work’ means more generally. The last four decades, which has seen the rise of an upwardly mobile precarity and all of the pressures and frustrations that come with that has decimated too many of us. My mind instantly goes to Mark Fisher’s writing when talking about this. In this moment we’re seeing that problem of social erosion through anxiety and insecurity expressed across so many levels of society. I think if there was one piece of advice I could put forward to young musicians, artists and people more generally is think the unthinkable; to co-opt a phrase from Berstein. By this I mean push yourself to ask, with ferocity, with restless curiosity and determination why things are the way they are. Moreover who benefits from this situation and how is it that power structures can be bent or broken to better serve an increased sense of self and collective worth. From this investigation, we can begin to imagine that which lies in the darkness of unthought and inaction, waiting to be conceived and realised. It’s not easy doing this, it requires effort and a commitment to feeding your mind and constantly expanding your intake whilst refining your ontology, but in doing so your life becomes richer, not necessarily easier, but infinitely more fulfilling.

SC – I’ve always felt that Room40 – especially being based in Brisbane – has been very ‘generous’ in its operations. Bringing people to Australia, connecting Australia outwards to the rest of the world. Tell me more about how Brisbane has been a useful homebase to work from when others have migrated to cities closer to the New York/London/Berlin axis.

LE – When I started moving towards what would become Room40 in the late 1990s, Brisbane and I’d say Australia more widely, was a very affordable place to live. Rent was cheap and the kinds of places you could get access to were amazing. We had a house, admittedly on a main road, with five bedrooms and it cost AU$105. I’m talking about for the whole place, not a room! We had David Shea stay there, DJ Olive came to visit and Scanner too. It wasn’t fancy at all, really it was a bit of a dump, but it was completely functional. This is why I decided to stay in Brisbane . . .that and the fact that the mangos are so good in the summer!

In all seriousness though, what Brisbane afforded me was the ability to dedicate myself to this work. I was freelancing as a writer and doing various other design jobs and whatnot back in those days, but a majority of my time could be spent organising releases, tours and events for people whose work I believed in. It was a huge privilege to be able do that and I wanted to leverage every possible positive outcome from that. I still think about things in these terms! Australia felt a long way away from the rest of the world back then, and I wanted to reach outward and make connections. I wanted us to be able to benchmark our work against international artists and to make connections and networks that would benefit local artists and international artists alike.

The other factor to consider with Brisbane was that everything was in play back then. The cultural landscape was an amorphous lump of clay and I had always loved that scene in Ghost, so I channeled my inner Patrick Swayze and that was it . . . clay everywhere!

SC – Brisbane 2017 is not that place. Nor, it seems, is much of Australia, all that friendly to culture. Where does Brisbane now fit? What are the cultural support structures to support the next generation of Room40 artists?

LE – Honestly, I don’t know. Though to be fair the arts, at least the end most of us persist under has always been precarious in Australia. It’s a real issue in this country. That there’s broadly two distinct universes of funding – the ongoing, largely under-examined, and by this I mean artistically speaking, heritage arts organisations and then everyone else. When you look at the funding distributed by a body like the Australia Council you have these organisations soaking up over 90% of the entire pool of available funding. That money is tied up in an ongoing sense and due to this it forgoes the opportunities for newness and renewal to occur in this end of the arts ecology. Essentially it’s a question of equity and right now there is none to speak of.

That said, at the other end of the spectrum, the micro to medium sector you might call it, there’s in some respects never been more opportunities, but the ability to leverage those in the longer term is the issue. These people and organisations can’t just assume because they are, that’s a good enough reason to continue. It’s sad, but given all the pressures and uncertainty, people burn out very quickly in this zone. It’s understandable too, the passion is high, but the economic outcomes are often low. The issue is as people leave that period of their lives where standard of living is not a real concern, for example share housing is possible, they are without ongoing obligations etc, the pressures mount and it’s very difficult for people to persist. Only the fortunate and the belligerent, I fall into both those categories I believe, make it through.

I’d argue that a great many artists who were making incredible work had to leave that behind and find other employment. Quite simply the scale of this country and the mechanisms for support available here could not sustain them in a reasonable condition. For me, I’ve never had the opportunity for any kind of ongoing funding. I always see funding as a leverage point, something to grow and resolutely firm the foundations upon what future endeavours might unfold. I can speak personally to this idea of leverage in that I was awarded a Myer Creative Fellowship in 2015 and to be frank it has completely changed the possibilities of what I can achieve. I’ve been able to take all the opportunities for my work and the work of those I support and maximise the reach of that work. I’ve been able to take new risks and reach new ideas and possibilities because there was room for experimentation and time to seriously think the unthinkable. Something, we all need to do more of quite frankly.

SC – Going back to that notion of time, time is also something comes into distinct focus as a parent. How do you manage this yourself? And how do you encourage, as a parent, the time commitment as a child to listening?

LE – It’s simple really, I am the past. They are the future. Everything I do must enable them to be as supported and loved as they need, into their future. I truly believe their generation and their children will face the hardest decisions and problems accelerated by their grand parents and great grand parents. We’re a strange transient generation that contributes to problems but recognises (or at least should recognise) that things need to change and hopefully we make whatever offerings we can towards that change. The negative influences of power expressed by those holding institutional force, for example top political office who are largely of the baby boomers generation, are who we must be pressing back against. Time will tell if our pressure has any (lasting) meaning.

Cruel Optimism is out on Room40 on February 17, 2017. Digital version at Bandcamp and deluxe vinyl and CD at Room40.


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.