I’d been talking with Australian sound artist Lawrence English about sitting down for a lengthy in depth chat for a couple of years, but we never quite managed it. Something always seemed to get in the way – usually the myriad of remarkable sounds released via his Room40 label that has picked up pace to ridiculous proportions during the pandemic, offering a creative lifeline to some of the most incredible artists in operation at the moment, everyone from PINKCOURTESYPHONE to Rafael Anton Irisarri. Then there’s his own releases from 2020’s Lassitude, a pipe organ work of minimal drone, to his field recordings from the Amazon (A Mirror Holds The Sky), in Antarctica (Viento), the Pacific (Oseni) and Queensland (Field Recordings From the Zone). We never quite got there, but always felt like we’d touch base after the next release.
His sounds feel otherworldly simultaneously reaching deep inside you, but also deep within the wider cultural milieu, often using his own connection to culture as a launching pad for his creative explorations. His work is littered with these connections, everyone from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky brothers to Werner Herzog’s delusional ramblings in the Amazon jungle, to J.A. Baker’s incredible 1967 book of nature writing The Peregrine, which inspired his 2015 solo album of the same name. These connections can even guide his collaborative work such as the grey industrial Hexa with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, which initially came together to soundtrack an exhibition of David Lynch photographs, and of course the bleak and terrifying Eternal Stalker with Japanese noise legend Merzbow – which again references Tarkovsky’s iconic 1979 film.
His work makes new cultural connections developing new representations layering new meaning, and invites the listener to dive deeper. His most recent work Approach explores his connection to Yoshihisa Tagami’s seminal manga Grey. He views it as a soundtrack to the manga, but it is so much more. Partly its a retrospective attempt to grasp at the near forgotten memories of teenage emotional tumult, yet its also a rumination on the resonance of Grey and similar cultural expressions in his own life. It’s a work of deep drones and ecstatic transformational beauty, a kind of jaw dropping maximalist ambience populated by gentle moments of lulling beauty alongside searing transcendent density.
The release of Approach felt like the perfect time to finally sit down to explore not only this work, but also cast an eye over his imposing oeuvre and approach to sound in general.
Cyclic Defrost: What does it mean to dedicate your life to sound?
Lawrence English: Well this is one opener of a question! Actually, I am not entirely sure of how to answer, but I can say that one thing it means is being a listener, and being a listener requires a state of receptivity and availability.
What I can say is that I am still genuinely curious about sound, and about listening and about how sound suggested a kind of embodied way of knowing.
Cyclic Defrost: In terms of listening there are times where I’m in an environment with others and I’m like losing my mind over some sound and no one else hears, or I’m totally obsessed and trying to track down something and no one else even notices. I’m wondering what the concept of listening means to you because it feels like more than a choice, almost something that’s indelible.
Lawrence English: I think what you described there is how I think about listening. You can have three people together in the same space at the same time and each one of them will listen differently in that space. You might all be having a conversation and you might be listening out for that sound that you hear that is going on that is your point of fascination in that moment over this vanilla conversations going on between these other two people that you are with you, and you actively seek to trace out that sound as a preference to the other material that’s going on around you.
The idea of listening I think we have to recognise that it’s not a kind of absolute position. Its a listening from within many possible listenings that happen in time, and you can’t absorb everything, you’re kind of negotiating in real time the things that you follow. It’s like if you’re in a restaurant and someone drops a cup next to you. There’s that interruption, there’s a dynamic shift that means that your attention is pulled away from one thing that you were engaged with towards another, and maybe you stay with that or you don’t But there’s a kind of chaotic flux that is going on all the time in different ways and often we’re not actually listening at all. I would argue that, in fact, human beings are much better at filtering out the world than they are at actually absorbing it. There’s a lot going on all the time and it can be very fatiguing.
We develop a very strong orientation with our eyes because of things like screens, television, photography and text. All of that stuff relies on our eyes. But with our ears, I mean obviously there’s communication and listening to birds or whatever you want to say, but we don’t spend as much time attuning that sense as we do. It’s definitely still secondary or maybe in some respects tertiary. It’s not the primary way that we engage and that’s interesting to me.
Cyclic Defrost: I can understand that. Many of us think we’re good listeners even to each other, but there’s a difference between active listening and preparing what you’re going to say next, but not really hearing what’s being said to you.
Lawrence English: Well, I think we assume that semantic listening, which is what you’re describing, is the primary function of listening. But there’s so many other things that can operate. It’s a way of sense making. There’s semantic sense making, which is around conversation and communication, but there’s lots of other ways that we can use that sense to help us understand and negotiate in a very kind of fundamental day-to-day way as well as I would argue a creative way or whatever the case might be.
Cyclic Defrost: So in listening to the sounds that occur around you, do you feel like it’s a sense making activity that’s occurring?
Lawrence English: Even in a subconscious way it can be a sense making situation. When you are walking along and you’re wearing shoes – I have these like shoes that have like small heels on them that are like quite loud to walk that become like Akio Suzuki’s stones. You know, this sound that goes click, click, click. I can hear, even subconsciously, I can sense the thing that is around me, like the material content of the world around me. But also the spatial content, like how far away the wall is, or if there’s no walls. That very simple thing of just clapping your hands in a space and listening to it – that describes so much.
Akio is a great example of someone working with sound and with listening. The way that he is able to do that process of ‘throwing and following’ is what he calls it. He’s essentially sounding out the space and the materials around him. It’s kind of like this inverse reveal, we can maybe see it, but it’s a way of deepening our understanding of that place in that time in that environment that he’s doing it in. So for me, I think that’s where the sense making comes in. Even if it’s not like an absolute position, it’s something that is very much about deepening your capacity to receive and be in a place.
Cyclic Defrost: Early on how important was a certain degree of musicality for you. I ask because I just put on this weirdo cd of illbient industrial oddness by Iczer One (you didn’t know I had that did you?) and was reflecting on how far from beats and basslines you seem right now. Do you think much about sound vs music? Do you draw these differentiations? Do they help or hinder?
Lawrence English: I think the short answer to this, for me at least, is I think about music as one of the dialects of sound. They share so much, but also offer chances for articulation, which are unique and powerful.
The iczer project was a real moment in time I have to say. Around then, which I guess was the mid to late 1990s, I was working a lot between multiple worlds and for me Illbient brought those worlds together in a way which to this day I think is brilliant and beautiful. I was so inspired by that work and the methodologies it suggested.
Back then I was working alongside a bunch of musicians who were working with everything from the early waves of Aussie hip hop, some acoustic dub projects and industrial music through to the kind of materials I am interested in now. For me this was a really experimental time as I was very open to failure of ideas and Iczer, which later become simply the live unit I/O3 was a kind of process of iteration through collaboration. I wanted to bring in artists who would take the ideas in ways I did not expect, nor sometimes even truly understand, but that forced me to really think about how I operate and explore ideas in sound, and ultimately in music. I had to experiment to find ways to approach those offerings.
I remember from that time the ensemble moved between trios all the way up to a kind of big band approach. It eventually settled on the trio format with Heinz Riegler and Tam Patton. I have a great fondness for those folks and for what I learned through their generous provocations. Some of that learning I carry forward to this day.
Cyclic Defrost: I know you have a strong interest in weaponised sound, the effects on the body and the use of it by law enforcement. Do you think that stems from an Interest in the approaches/ frequencies/ volumes being used and whether these techniques can be used for sound pieces?
Lawrence English: Right now, the way sound is being groomed as an agent for power is something I think we all need to be aware of and keep an eye, or ear, on. It goes beyond the weaponization of sound into other bodily senses, and into questions around AI, machine audition and other forms of acoustic surveillance. Sound is amazing as it opens up new ways of knowing, those ways are always going to be tested, and they should be, but we need to have a dialogue at a societal level around how we want sound used and by whom.
For me, at least from a sonic perspective, I certainly am aware of the notions of how the body fits into our lives as listeners. The body is an ear, it senses too and is more susceptible and receptive to certain frequencies. It’s critical we pay attention to the how and why of what is happening around sound’s use as a weapon, without a critical exchange around that we’ll find ourselves in a very dire situation.
Cyclic Defrost: ‘Sound is being groomed as an agent of power.’ I’m very interested in that, sound is free and available to all, but it can also occur without our consent. Like we can’t close our ears, can we?
Lawrence English: There’s no earlids as they say. I used to think of that as a really kind of defining quality, but actually I’ve recently have been doing a lot of research. I’m working on curation for exhibition that’s happening in 2024 in Los Angeles for the next Pacific Standard Time – which is the Getty’s large scale exhibition program in Southern California. A lot of the research has been around the nuclear testing that happened at various places in North America, but also off the coast of Australia.
There were some nuclear tests that happened off the coast of WA, the second largest apart from Maralinga, which obviously was the largest terrestrial nuclear test in Australia. There were a series of tests that were conducted off the Montebello Islands, which is on the North Western coast – out from Karratha. We went out to the blast site and they were above ground nuclear explosions so the blast site is still intact. It’s like the concrete thing that they had the bomb attached to is still there.
That thing about the eyes having eyelids is relational, because like a lot of those soldiers that were present for the testing were told to cover their eyes, to put their heads into their elbows, or to turn away, but the light was so intense from those blasts. We’re currently talking about it with a number of researchers around what it was that they were experiencing. All of them report the fact that they could see through their bodies because the light was so strong. It was brighter than the sun essentially, in those seconds. You can completely burn your retinas by just having them open when the blast happens. So quite extraordinary documentaries from some of those survivors in the UK who were out here actually doing some of the tests and American troops that were doing it at Mercury in Nevada. It’s incredibly intense, but absolutely fascinating to learn about and kind of depressing at the same time, obviously.
Cyclic Defrost: What about sound in relation to the blasts?
Lawrence English: Well, I mean, it’s definitely a huge sound component to anything of this size. The testing now that we have in terms of the ability to register sonic events on the face of the planet is radically different to what it was a few 100 years ago. The reports of Krakatoa when it erupted people were hearing that thousands and thousands of kilometers away, this kind of traveling pressure wave that they could sense and then there’s a sound wave coming behind it.
That Tongan volcano earlier this year, because of these new systems that we have, that blast wave travelled around the Earth eight times, and its terminus was actually in southern Africa, I think. It certainly was on the other side of the hemisphere in the South. So basically the blast wave would break out and go round then hit a point then come back sort of like an ebb and flow thing.
Cyclic Defrost: So what about in terms of man-made sound? We spoke a little bit about the weaponized of sound like drones?
Lawrence English: I actually have done this project for it must be like six or seven years looking at the forward facing impression of those military drones. I did this exhibition piece called exotic birds of prey and their environs. Which is basically like a pulled image examination of the public face of those things, because they are presented in certain ways. and those ways that they’re presented depend on, you know, who’s presenting them. So there’s incredible photos of Afghani soldiers with drones that they’ve shot down, which are completely antithetical to the same locations of the US side of the of that conflict. But what’s really interesting is in terms of that weaponization of sound thing. I mean, there’s obviously the physiological stuff of the LRAD’s that are going on. But there’s also the psychological component, and the drones are a great example of that. There was a fantastic study that the UN did, it’s probably nearly a decade old now called ‘living under drones’, which basically looked at the impacts on communities that had that experience. So you had those Afghan communities where people would only go out on cloudy days because they knew that it wasn’t possible for the drones to see them, and if they heard the sound, it would completely change the dynamic of those communities in those moments. Because it’s highly plausible that they are a target.
Cyclic Defrost: It becomes like almost like a post traumatic experience, doesn’t it?
Lawrence English: Not even post, it’s a persistent trauma. So I think that’s where we need to recognise the full scope of what that means to be. I think we arrive at a lot of these things. I mean, Chuck Johnson was just here on the weekend and there’s this thing called Riverfire, which is like a kind of fireworks display. But it’s also a showcase of Industrial and local military machinery. There’s flybys of these growlers, the F18 Super Hornets and you know other military choppers and stuff like that. The Growler is designed to create a very strong physiological sound reaction, it flies directly over our house, like it literally does the curve on our house here every year. And I actually ended up writing this piece that’s in the conversation about this idea of the pornography of war. The normalisation of that machinery. I think things like Riverfire are a great example of that, because in a military sense you describe it as shock and awe. Here it’s purely awe because we see it as an object of industrial fascination.
Cyclic Defrost: But we don’t get the impact.
Lawrence English: No, but if you are a refugee from Syria or you are recently arrived from the Ukraine, what you hear is potential death. The really profound separation and absolute privilege that we have here to not associate that.
Cyclic Defrost: One thing that I was thinking about when you were speaking is that for you sound and context are connected. For others it’s not so much.
Lawrence English: They’re interdependent.
Cyclic Defrost: You seem to be very much connected to what it all means and so you’re not going to divorce yourself from that for, I don’t know, artistic pleasure?
Lawrence English: No, I mean, I think even if you appreciate the timbre of something, there is an affective relation in that that has to do with all of the history that you carry with you. Ultimately we understand tuning and rhythm and all those things through a kind of socio cultural lens. It’s the point to which we’ve accumulated all these bits and pieces that we carry forward with us. Like when you listen to when a lot of Western people listen to Gagaku. They’re put off by the tuning because instead of being 440, it’s 432. It’s a confronting retuning of the ear that’s not possible for everyone to make because they can’t imagine a tuning that’s unlike what they’ve heard before, which I think it’s totally valid.
I mean, imagine you had rods and cones in your eyes that allowed you to see additional colours and then that was taken away? Or the inverse?
I understand. I don’t begrudge people that feeling I just think that it’s important to have a conversation around it so we can actually realise the full capacity of what that experience can be. It doesn’t have to be that all the time. You listen to Cure song, you’re not necessarily going to be thinking about the political context of Britain during the early 1980s, but maybe you can hear some of that in there if you choose to.
Cyclic Defrost: But maybe you should be aware of it regardless?
Lawrence English: You’d like to think so. If you’re actually engaged and interested then hopefully. I mean, that’s the fascinating part. I mean, I think this new record in a lot of ways is a good example of how things need to operate both in both ways at the same time.
If you listen to Approach, it can just be this journey. Maybe it’s like, oh, it’s quite industrial or there’s a lot of soundscapes and sustains – whatever they can read it in that way, or you can read about it and be like ‘oh I’m interested to know what Yoshihisa Tagami was doing and then you can also read about the actual content of the Manga and the stuff that it suggests and the political dimension of it and the class politics and Harlan Ellison’s introduction to it. All of that is an opportunity to go deeper into something and you don’t have to do that. I mean, not everyone does that, but there’s an invitation to do it if you’re interested. I think that’s what I find really great about being involved in this is that you can start conversations that I always learn something from and hopefully are enjoyable for other people to encounter. Like this, for example. You know, we’re talking about things that are much broader than like how something is recorded or what a melody is or anything like that.
Cyclic Defrost: This seems to be really important when making albums. You seem to have been very clear about the direction you’re heading or the inspiration that you’ve had. I think about the Tarkovsky stuff we spoke about or even Approach. Is this an important way for you to consider artwork that you continue to create?
Lawrence English: I’m not the kind of person that can just pull stuff out of the air and then it’s like a thing. I actually don’t enjoy it to be totally honest, I don’t like making work that’s just invented from nothing, because I don’t think it’s really true. I’m not some kind of genius person that is having new ideas. I’m someone that really loves culture and loves ideas, and I have the utmost respect for these people.
There’s a couple of reasons why I made this record, but one of them was just to pay homage to what Tagami’s Manga had had done for me during that time, when I was very much not in not in the best place in the world. Those kinds of things, and other a lot of other beat cinema and stuff that I was consuming during that sort of five or six year period, and music too, were the tools that allowed me to push back against stuff that that I wasn’t interested in being part of. That was important and I wanted to pay tribute to that.
Cyclic Defrost: But not just this record, I think about The Peregrine, for example.
Lawrence English: This one for me has a similar sensation, it’s different, Peregrine for me was like proper obsession. I was and I still am completely obsessed with that book.
I bought hundreds of copies and handed them out. I’ve got 3 versions just sitting in the bookshelf at the moment. It’s absolutely phenomenal as a kind of observational texts, just unbelievable. At the end I was reading just a page because I didn’t want it to end. I was like, ‘for God sake, just go to Europe, follow the birds in the summer’.
They at least share a structural reference point for sure. I wasn’t so much following the story, but I was following basically this sort of textural information of the story. Tagami does these landscapes that are really kind of quite simple but very deep and detailed somehow. And I was interested in the depth and proportion.
He also had these very angular styles of drawing spaces, where there’s usually a feature, but then there’s this stuff around it that has to do with motion and stuff. I really was trying to work with that sensibility in some of the work and I think that’s where an almost white noise quality of it, the shortwave recordings and the other parts that are in the record that’s kind of what it’s resting on – the way that the dot line screen works in the pictures that were done, and the way he approached landscape for example. Obviously in a 2 dimensional way that suggested a real 3 dimensionality and this kind of depth or density to the way that he did that and I was definitely Interested in trying to strike not necessarily a balance, but a recognition of what that felt like for me to explore. Some of the pages are just so amazing to look at. They’re really simple in a way, but also just very heavy, like the way that he just set proportion and depth of space. It’s a really specific thing that he does.
You can find part 2 here, where we go into a bit of depth about Lawrence’s recent collaboration with Mezbow, his Hexa project, his field recording practice and working with British filmmaker Adam Curtis on Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone.
Approach is out now via Politics Is Noise/ Room40. You can find it here.