Sydney percussionist Laurence Pike is a restless musician. Aside from his work in PVT (formerly Pivot), Triosk and Szun Waves, he’s also collaborated with the likes of Australian jazz pianist Mike Nock and German electronic duo Flanger amongst numerous others, as well as releasing a few solo albums on the side. His latest solo record is Prophecy and it was partially inspired by and written during the recent bushfire crisis. We posted a video of the first single from it, ‘Nero’ a while back, a piece that highlighted the stripped down highly percussive orientation of his solo work, demonstrating his ‘one take’ studio performances for drum kit and sampler. Prophecy though is much more than an exercise in technique, with its ethereal samples and restrained inventive percussion, its a gentle and beguiling listen that leaves a lasting impression. It makes you want to know more, so we took the opportunity to do just that and asked Pike some questions about how Prophecy came about.
Cyclic Defrost: A solo album for a drummer. Even as a big fan of percussion it can be concept that is a little terrifying. Did you have any touchstones in mind when you first ditched the band?
Laurence Pike: Ha, which band? I’ve never really thought about my solo work as being just about the drums to be honest, nor viewed it as an adjunct to any particular band I play with.
Music is inextricably linked with my inner world, and my external life too. I felt I needed to go to the bottom of the well and see what I came back up with – to try and define a highly personal voice in my music making. I’d taken a lot of inspiration from Keith Jarrett’s solo concert improvisations actually, and was interested in pursuing a way of playing that required a much deeper commitment to the music, in both process and expression. I also think solo performance is the ultimate way to test this. It requires a level of focus that you can’t get in other formats. There’s literally nowhere to hide, you have to face the music.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve obviously developed your own unique approach when it comes to solo composition. Can you tell me how your technique developed and what you were thinking about at the time?
Laurence Pike: I’d considered undertaking a recording project alone for a few years, but it wasn’t until I realised I wanted it to be driven by performance, as opposed to studio production, that I felt the time was right. Up until that point I’d spent a lot of time exploring the possibilities of post-production manipulation of acoustic sounds with other projects, but I found that process pretty laborious at times, and often counter-productive to my strengths; mainly as someone that can improvise and translate ideas pretty effortlessly on an instrument.
I started toying around with using the sample pads as part of the drum kit in early 2015, as a means to extend the dimensions of the instrument – by sampling myself and being able to access and respond to extra layers while improvising. I quickly saw the potential of this as a way to use external sound sources in an intuitive way, free from software, or my attention being divided. It took a while to develop a kind of seamless performance language between the kit and the samples, it is in a way like playing two instruments at once, but once that became second nature, it opened up a world of possibilities for me.
Cyclic Defrost: What does your setup looks like?
Laurence Pike: It’s a pretty standard jazz-sized drum kit set up really, with the addition of a Roland SPD-SX sample pad unit, and extra bits of hand percussion. I’m interested in how the perception of something as well-known as the basic drum kit can be reframed for the listener through performance and language rather than studio manipulation, or without turning the instrument itself into a MIDI controller.
Cyclic Defrost: In my review of Prophecy I suggested “You get the sense that his four weeks of composing this material were spent jamming things out creating composition on the fly before listening back and refining his approach.” Is this how things went down?
Laurence Pike: There wasn’t any listening back as such in the preparation, just listening while doing. I don’t like listening back much generally, even in the studio.
I think of the process more like painting – the month of preparation is about assembling the information, a palette of colours so to speak, and doing studies to explore and refine how I can frame the ideas through playing. From there it’s a matter of committing to a day to capture them in the recording studio. It’s essentially a jazz approach to making records.
Cyclic Defrost: You also mentioned that this was a time when you could smell the smoke from the surrounding bushfires, which is pretty shocking when you live in a capital city. How do you think this affected you?
Laurence Pike: It raised pretty serious concerns for me about how sustainable the way we exist as humans is. It also made me question the role and privilege of art, and how it contends with such existential issues. I felt like I needed to reflect this period somewhat overtly in the presentation of this album, rather than my usual instinct to just let the music to speak for itself.
A few people seem to have interpreted that as some form of activism, or poetic response, which wasn’t necessarily my intention. I think this period made me realise that ultimately I want the music to share the sense of freedom and possibilities it gives to me, because I believe the experience of music can change a person’s perception of the world, which in itself is a force for change in society.
Cyclic Defrost: So you recorded the 10 tracks in the studio in a day? They almost sound like live takes?
Laurence Pike: Yeah, they’re all live takes for drums and sample pads. I think the value in working like this lies in me having no choice about the music – the limitations I place on the process ultimately become about acceptance – the music is what it is, and I am a participant in it. I engage in the process and accept the results. I’ve also come to realise on personal level that’s also an invaluable way of being in life at times.
It also frees me from the arduous nature of post-production; If I like the result, I mix it and release it. By working like this I’m able to make a series of decisions that I could never make had I sat down and built it piece by piece at home. I’m also actually capable of working like this, when not many people necessarily are. The simplicity of this approach may limit the production options, but anything lost in that area is made up for in having a real sense of humanity in the music. That trade-off is well worth it I reckon.
Cyclic Defrost: From Triosk to PVT to your solo work the notion of the electronic meeting live percussion has been a constant. What continues to interest you about this approach and what do you think you’ve learnt over the years?
Laurence Pike: I think at the heart of it is a love of sound, well before any sort of allegiance to the drums. I’ve always been draw to music that is in search of new spaces, or defining something singular in expression. Miles Davis was a very early touchstone for me. From the age of 13 I became obsessed with his music, and I always assumed that his way of thinking was just the way to be – searching, with a real focus on building new sound worlds, rather than individual virtuosity. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that kind of approach was more of an exception than the rule. On some level, I think those parameters apply to so many of the artists that have been influential on me, whether it’s Brian Eno, Autechre, or Coltrane. I guess the drums have proven to be the most direct way for me to express myself over the years, so it’s natural I continue to try and find ways to reframe them in the spirit of my mentors, and at the same time encapsulate my broad interests as a producer.
Cyclic Defrost: How do you go about choosing/ gathering your samples? What are you looking for?
Laurence Pike: It’s a balance of experimentation and reaction. I might start by recording a short improvisation and take some grabs from the audio – any moments that when isolated feel microcosmic; like a musical world within themselves. That’s the quality I’m after, as inevitably they can act as springboards for improvisation. Then it’s often a matter of just following the thread – bouncing off that moment, matching or contrasting it, slowly building an ecosystem of related fragments, and then exploring ways to connect them and frame them with the drum kit. I always try and work very quickly through this process though, as I want the sampled elements to maintain a sense of spontaneity in the music despite their concrete nature.
Cyclic Defrost: Prophecy has a pretty low key kinda downbeat feel, it reminded me quite a lot of some of the music I loved that LEAF were doing about 20 years ago. In fact while listening I grabbed 310 and Eardrum and of course Susumu Yokota, and I felt that tonally it really existed in a similar world to those artists – yet I was really fascinated by this notion as you’re creating the works in such totally different ways. How do you react to these thoughts? Can you hear it too?
Laurence Pike: I’d say that Susumu Yokota’s album ‘Sakura’ was definitely an influence on me when it came out. I still think that album sounds good. There’s definitely a lineage to Japanese ambient and environmental music there too that has played a very significant role in my music since – the music of Hiroshi Yoshimura for example, but also contemporary artists such as H. Takahashi. I don’t know if I’m conscious of it in terms of there being a ‘Leaf sound’, but perhaps there’s something inherent that the label hears in what I do. I have been working with them on and off for 16 years now (!). It’s become a home of sorts for my music, which I’m grateful for.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m really intrigued by ‘Death of Science’. It’s such a bizarre piece, please tell me it’s your vocal grunts and groans?
Laurence Pike: Yeah, that’s me. I didn’t really think twice about using the vocalisations, they were kind of spontaneous. For some people adding voices into the instrumental mix seems like a statement, but increasingly this music is about me as a musician, not limited to just the drums. I just follow my impulses. That track has a slightly different architecture to it I guess – more about interlocking rhythmic ideas in the samples, and the acoustic drums playing a foil to them. I’m interested in that area where you can create momentum and energy without ever having to resort to playing ‘beats’ (If anything I avoid that, there’s just not much interest in it for me). I think a big part of this concept comes from my love of free music, and wanting to maintain a sense of unknown possibilities, but also most of the electronic music I love doesn’t rely on the pure function of beats to create rhythmic interest or momentum.
Cyclic Defrost: Since I’ve got you. I was really impressed by the work of you and your brother on Flanger’s Spirituals album in 2005. How did you manage to find yourself on this album, which was a pretty different album for them, and did they talk to you much about the conceptual aspect of the album?
Laurence Pike: Oh, thanks. Man, I haven’t heard that album in years. Richard (Pike) and I met Burnt Friedman when he toured Australia in the early 2000s. Pivot did a bill with him and he loved the band, and we became friends.
The first Flanger album Templates was a favourite of ours in the late 90s. That record was basically a digital creation of what him and Atom Heart imagined jazz music improvised by a computer band would sound like. To think they made it bar by bar on an old desktop Mac back then is pretty astonishing. The ‘Spirituals’ album was an extension of that concept I guess, but focused on digital manipulation of early jazz, and Burnt asked Rich and I to be involved. I think in concept it was exciting, but I’m not sure if the album fulfilled its promise, for me at least. There are definitely some moments though. We did do a memorable European tour as a live band for that record, Flanger’s first live shows ever I think. Traveling all over Europe with Burnt and Atom in a tour bus, hanging out at Burnt’s place in Cologne, having cups of tea with Jaki Liebezeit who lived downstairs. It was a beautiful time.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m also aware of your work with pianist Mike Nock. This feels like a very different project for you. Can you talk about the experience of improvising with Mike and what you gain from the experience of working with him?
Laurence Pike: It’s not so different really. I think the headspace required to play expressive, creative music is the same regardless of the setting, and certainly I’ve become less compartmentalised in my thinking about defining ‘projects’. My music has become more of a continuum of practice now. It’s definitely a way of thinking that Mike generously encouraged in me from a very early age (I think I was only 18 or 19 when I first played in Mike’s trio), but it took me 15 years at least for the penny to drop on a lot of the things he’d tell me back then. I’d say the trip to Oslo we made in 2015 to record our second duo album with the late engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug was incredibly important for me. I made a lot of musical breakthroughs in my thinking from that experience, not least of which was the start of using the sampler which ultimately led to me making my solo music.
More than anything, playing with Mike has taught me the central importance of commitment to the music, whatever it is, and a sense of openness to it. That culture is something he brought back with him from his decades in the US working with some of the great jazz artists of the age, and it’s something he’s tried to instil in generations of musicians here. I think his influence has been profound in that regard. He’s a mentor and a good friend.
Cyclic Defrost: When you did a Cyclic Selects for us it was at the time of your Holy Spring album you spoke of feeling like the music already existed, and that it came from an unconscious place. Was Prophecy different, or are you still able to mine that unconscious place for your music?
Laurence Pike: Very much the same. I think what I’m talking about there is the application of a way of making music, and a way of being in the world. At its heart making the solo albums has been an exploration of this process. It’s a headspace that I increasingly realise is where music exists for me, and one that I am striving to be able to access more readily as time goes on.
Cyclic Defrost: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on your music making? What has it been like for you?
Laurence Pike:: If nothing else, it’s been an introspective time. It’s obviously hard for everyone to maintain some sense of purpose and motivation at the moment. I’m unbelievably privileged to be relatively shielded by the effects of it for now. I know a lot of musicians that are doing it tough in this period, and I feel very fortunate to have the sort of living situation and practice that can sustain the blow, and that I’m still able to continue to make work. Fortunately, 20 years as a professional musician teaches you a bit about dealing with uncertainty, and an artist also has to be inherently self-motivated I think.
It’s obviously disappointing to not be able to travel to Europe to perform this new album, and we also decided to postpone the release of the third Szun Waves record this year. I miss making music with those guys, and connecting with the community and family I have there, but, the positive side is; it’s been a good time to connect with musicians at home, reconsider what my role is in the local community, and realign ideas of what is essential in my playing and my practice.
Cyclic Defrost: What next for PVT and Szun Waves or whatever else you are up to?
Laurence Pike:: The PVT question is ongoing. I’m not sure to be honest. I feel like we’ll make another record at some point, but it’s about certain things lining up, and even then, it would have to absorb all of the ways we’ve been individually working and thinking for it to make sense.
As I mentioned, Szun Waves has a new album finished, so that’s a matter of deciding when to put it out. All three members have put out solo records this year instead.
Aside from releasing ‘Prophecy’, a lot of the last few months has been dedicated to finishing the new Liars album, which has been a dream to be part of, and I’ve been talking to Jack Ladder about starting work with him on a new recording shortly.
I have ambitions for a new solo album of bigger scale next year, potentially in collaboration with some people internationally, but the pandemic has put the brakes on that slightly. I think I’m waiting for a greater sense of what exactly that will be. As with everything these days, I’m waiting for the music to tell me.
Prophecy is released by the Leaf label, you can find it here.