Lachlan Dale: “I’ve never really felt like I had to choose a particular style.”

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Lachlan Dale is a Melbourne based musician, artist, and label & events manager working in experimental and Eastern classical music. He first appeared on our radar via the two labels he runs, Art As Catharsis and Worlds Within Worlds, which filled our inbox with some of the finest Australian experimental music and traditional sounds and fusions of Eastern classical music. Originally a guitarist, in recent years his interest in Eastern traditions has led him to become a student of the Afghan rabab. Working with drone, ritual and ecstatic sounds, he continues to have a myriad of projects on the go at any one time, such as his longstanding trio Hashshashin, Black Aleph, Arya Ensemble, or even solo as Lachlan R. Dale, under which he released Shrines earlier this year. We caught up with Lachlan over the interwebs just prior to his performance at Dark Mofo with Arya Ensemble.

Cyclic Defrost: Let’s talk about your solo album Shrines. I found it really unexpected. From what I’ve known of you I was expecting some element of world music. Definitely you playing a lot of the Afghan rabab, but instead I was getting a lot of guitar and Fennesz like ambient sounds. Was this a conscious decision?

Lachlan Dale: I just found I was listening to a lot of ambient music, particularly during lockdown and the COVID years. When I was feeling anxious it was a way to calm down – I’d go in my home studio and try and make weird sounds and loops, and push my pedal board into strange new territory. When I had a collection of loops together it took a little while to work out what to do with them. I thought why don’t I ask other musicians respond to them? Then I don’t have to write the songs. It was really refreshing. It’s a very different way for me to do an album and in some ways much less painful, much more exploratory.

Cyclic Defrost: I guess if you, if you prepare a certain amount and then you give it to someone else to respond to, you could sort of say, oh, you know, ‘I prepared this for you.’ And then and then they may take it somewhere where you just wouldn’t expect.

Lachlan Dale: Yeah. And I think, I think I’m learning that putting parameters on stuff can be helpful. Like, ‘okay, I’ve gotta do something with these loops. People have sent me stuff, how do I actually shape this raw material?’ and just try and move forward from there. I haven’t really worked that way before. It’s a new way of creating music for me, and it seems productive.

Cyclic Defrost: It didn’t seem like to me you were really restricted by parameters, because I felt there was a real diversity in the way that you approached it. Like maybe you had some parameters in say, I’m not going to do doom metal or something, but then each of the tracks seem quite different and explored very different things, at least from my perspective.

Lachlan Dale: They all started with some kind of droney loop or texture, and then having to work out what to do with the contributions I got. In a bunch of cases going ‘OK, I’m not quite sure what to do, why don’t I get some other great musician to play over the top of this?’, like Joseph Rabjohns – his creative brain is incredible. I was like ‘I’m not quite sure what this is, but you go and mess with this for me and I’ll come back and we’ll keep working on it.’ Yeah, it was fun.

Cyclic Defrost: How did you choose the collaborators?

Lachlan Dale: The concept just evolved over time. Early on, I was like it would be great to just reach out to a whole bunch of friends and do something fun. I thought maybe it’d be nice to do like an EP of Western collaborations and EP of more Eastern ones. It became much more chaotic than that, but the tracks on Shrines seemed to organically fit together. Many are friends or people who have been in the broader orbit of the scenes I’m involved in.

Cyclic Defrost: You sort of gave yourself a rule, whatever comes back, I have to somehow make it work in some manner.

Lachlan Dale: Yeah, because I’ve been still playing other music as well. I’m not like just sitting around thinking about this. I’m playing in bands and I’ve been learning Afghan music, so this project received short bursts of attention over a long period of time.

Cyclic Defrost: I think that works, doesn’t it? You do your little burst, you’ll leave it behind. You come back and listen to it and go ‘Oh, actually, that’s not terrible.’

Lachlan Dale: Equally I’ve got a concert coming up in 10 days at Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast. We’ve been trying to write I guess probably 30 minutes of new music for that. So again, just having this deadline: we’ve got to make some decisions and put something together for that. It’s not going to be perfect, but I’ve just got to get it done, get up and present something. I think that seems to be a good way of working.

Cyclic Defrost: You spoke about an artificial deadline for the album. What was that? How did that come about?

Lachlan Dale: The project had distinct phases. I did try and hustle musicians to send me back their tracks – it was over a two year period that I received these contributions. Some I asked late, and some actually took two and a half years (laughs), some were very quick. But it was getting to the point where I was like, am I actually going do anything with this? I realised I needed to put some money aside so that I could mix it, finalise a few last commissions, and then master and get it out. It had to get out of my life.

Cyclic Defrost: Because I guess it could stay around too long, right? And there’s that thing about perfectionism. It’s never going to be perfect. And you can agonise for a long time, or you can move forward.

Lachlan Dale: Yeah, I think perfectionism, I don’t know, you can want that as a goal, I guess. It’s never been something I’ve been really interested in. Recordings capture a moment in time. And for me if you can express something or channel something in those moments that’s kind of interesting.

Cyclic Defrost: I wanted to ask about some of the other stuff you do. I saw that you’re playing with Timothy Johannessen and Peter Hollo in Black Aleph. Can you tell me a little bit about that? I guess there’s an element too you scratching various itches or not wanting to be constrained?

Lachlan Dale: I think I’ve played a lot of different styles over the years and what interests me changes over time. I think, you know, I’ve played in grindcore, doom bands, hardcore bands and yeah, Hashshashin are like progressive metal, Eastern metal, you know, lot, a lot of different things. So I’ve never really felt like I had to choose a particular style, especially not now, especially at this age.

So Black Aleph started because Timothy Johannessen and I were invited to perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney back in 2018. And we were like, again, like, OK, we better work out something to do. And we’d never played together before, but we sat down in a room together – Tim on his Daf drum (a type of Iranian hand percussion) and me on guitar with this big droney stack behind me – and we were like ‘oh, this kind of works.’

We just automatically found a language to connect and play with. It’s quite a hypnotic sound with these small repetitive units, and it’s quite droney, and sometimes spacious. We’ve tried to record this album – I think this is probably the third or the fourth time we’ve tried to record this thing. What it is and how we perform has changed a lot over the years, and with the addition of Peter Hollo on cello, we now have the ability to do interesting harmonic and spacious stuff rather than just really straight ahead heavy music.

It’s a project that we haven’t had the chance to dedicate time to consistently, but since Peter joined we’ve really started to hit a stride. After you record an album you gain an understand what you’re trying to do, because you have to make some decisions. It becomes a clear representation of what you’re doing, so it becomes a reference point.

So I think once we had that, it was like, ‘yeah, we’ve produced this now, we understand how we’re supposed to sound.’ So we’ve got our debut album coming out the end of the year and hoping to go to Europe next year and play in Australia also. So hopefully we’ll be playing quite a bit.

Cyclic Defrost: I’d like to ask about your, your interest in Afghan music and becoming a student of the rabab. When do you remember first hearing it? And what attracted you to it? Because I only first became aware of it through its association with you.

Lachlan Dale: I’d been playing in Hashshashin for a while and you know, I liked Secret Chiefs and started learning about other traditions through that. In Hashshashin I had an Irish bouzouki and I was playing that through like distortion and amps and effects and it’s pretty dirty sounding. It has an interesting sound. I thought how can I continue in this direction? And part of it was I always wanted to engage with more music from the East, but not really sure how. I did own a Dilruba, an Indian classical instrument, kind of like a sitar but bowed.

Cyclic Defrost: They look amazing.

Lachlan Dale: I tried to play it and I was like, OK, so I need to learn how to redo my whole left hand, and learn to bow with my right hand – so I’m effectively starting from scratch. That didn’t seem realistic to me, so I just kept looking at the other music across the region. I bought a setar from Iran, which is beautiful instrument, really gorgeous, but Persian music is microtonal so I thought I should probably learn how to play music in a Western temperament first before I worry about that. And when I heard the rabab – I think it was Gulab Afridi, one of his videos – I just thought it was really magical. And you know, the Persian staff was very rhythmic and kind of fast and the kind of obviously ‘metal’ I guess, but the rabab was more spacious. It sounds beautiful. It’s incredible. I wanted to move into that space and slow down a little bit with it.

Cyclic Defrost: I wanted to ask about your record label Worlds Within Worlds and how it’s curated. When I first found it I thought, well, I don’t know any of these people. This is great.

Lachlan Dale: You know with Art as Catharsis I really wanted to represent the cool local bands I was seeing. I was going to shows and I just couldn’t understand why these bands had 40 people and these other equivalent American versions were getting thousands along to concerts – particularly when the Australian versions were more interesting and less commercial.

I guess Worlds Within Worlds was trying to achieve a similar thing. Its become an attempt to support the younger generations of Eastern classical music. I stumbled onto this really, working with Qais Essar, who’s my age, an Afghan American rabab player, born in US, and an awesome musician. But I just realising that there are more people of our generation still trying to make music, still trying to keep traditions living, still trying to take steps forward within those traditions. And I just felt like there is a bit of a gap in terms of support for those musicians. There are other continents whose music gets more attention in the world music scene because it’s more easily accessible for people I think.

Cyclic Defrost: Yeah the Tuarag, music is very, very easy to digest right?

Lachlan Dale: Yeah, it’s cool too. Like some of it’s very hypnotic. You know, Indian classical had a moment with Ravi Shankar and that’s created some high level awareness, but Iran? Not really. Afghanistan? No. I guess quite a lot of people who might know Arabic singers, I don’t really know. But then I’m obsessed with instrumental music. So again, most of this is instrumental and that’s what I find interesting. There’s some stuff coming up that I’m very excited about.

Cyclic Defrost: How do you even begin a label like this?

Lachlan Dale: With Art As Catharsis I worked with Hamad Sadeghi on Eishan Ensemble. I released their debut album and their second album which was really cool. Hamed was mixing Persian classical and folk music with jazz – he’s doing awesome things these days, and part of so many interesting projects. I realised that this is what I want to try and do: to provide space for the artists of different cultural backgrounds. Zela Margossian, a classically trained pianist, started incorporating folk elements and Armenian folk and jazz into her music. I worked with her I was like, ‘yeah, I enjoy this. This is interesting to me.’

I connected with Qais Essar quite early on, as well as Michel Gasco – who plays in Badieh and recorded our album in Mashhad in Iran, and also had a collection of music from pre war Syria that we put out. I reached out to Michel when he put out a documentary trailer about Afghan music. So the Internet does still connect people, which is nice. We linked up and we started putting music out together.

Cyclic Defrost: I guess you don’t have to have your community local anymore, do you?

Lachlan Dale: I don’t think you ever really had to with the Internet. I’m always talking to people elsewhere.

Cyclic Defrost: I was just listening to the Gnawa trance record that you’re putting out from Abdel Benaddi and that was my first thought was how did this happen?

Lachlan Dale: People who have these projects and these connections, you know, they’ve, they’ve done the legwork, they’ve spent time in communities learning the language, learning the music. That’s generally what enables this stuff to happen. In this case it was Julian Belbachir, whos hase been hanging out quite a lot in Essaouira. He’s part Moroccan, part Australian. He started hooking up with Dave Godriguez, as well as Abdel in Essaouira. And they just decided to make a record. So, you know, they flew over with mics and gear and spent time setting up a home studio and trying to like capture the atmosphere of a Gnawa ceremony. So it’s people’s passion that creates opportunities for these projects, and I’ve found it really rewarding to starting commissions on my own and help share great music.

Cyclic Defrost: Is it a struggle to run a label, no sorry two labels in 2024 in Australia?

Lachlan Dale: Yeah, I guess the label can be a lot of things and, and probably the difference with our model is we, we generally don’t record the artists, which, you know, a lot of the cost. We do publicity and marketing and distribution and sometimes the commission stuff, and we try and connect people for opportunities. We host events and tours around Australia as well.

But I always struggle with doing too much. When I started Art As Catharsis in maybe 2011, I’d be very happy to stay up to 2AM working on this stuff, writing some music reviews and pushing some stuff out and reaching out to blogs… It’s years on now and I can’t work like I used to in my twenties. So I have to be more selective. Running these labels has constantly been a continual process of questioning why I’m doing it, what I want to be doing with it, how can I refine or change how they’re being run. I’m constantly discovering what I want to do with them.

Cyclic Defrost: I guess it’s, it’s also an element of you’ve, you’ve got a certain amount of time right between making money to put food on your table or pay rent or whatever, and, and also your own art practise as well.

Lachlan Dale: I think for a long time I would say that the thing that was neglected was my own music. I’d still rehearse once a week but its only these days that I appreciate what real practise looks like. Maybe it’s just getting to a level where I can be more productive. But, for me, the labels always came before my own practise and I don’t feel like that’s the case anymore. It’s nice.

Cyclic Defrost: It feels more balanced, because there’s a lot of music you’re doing that’s coming out.

Lachlan Dale: Yeah, there’s more coming up, which is good. I just always have to be making music. I think I’ve been in a lot of bands that have had their day and wound up, but I’m generally off doing the next thing. For me it’s not really a question: I just need to do it.

Cyclic Defrost: Do you have any like particular sort of vision for the labels that you’re trying to achieve? You said your perception of them has moved over time. Is there anywhere you’re trying to get to with either of them?

Lachlan Dale: I think I see them both as trying to cultivate certain creative communities. I remember going to early shows in my teens by the Birds Robe Collective, putting on all these super interesting experimental metal and rock shows. And I was blown away. And through Mike Solo’s hard work – putting on more and more gigs, starting a record label, and hustling – he enabled this community to grow and thrive, which is really cool.

Sydney/Annandale’s Black Wire Records really cultivated a lot of different punk hardcore grind core like extreme bands. And you would start to see after three or four years, the bands that started playing there are now touring nationally and kind of getting a name. And then the next generation gets inspired and starts playing their first shows, and you see how these spaces and communities are cultivated. As I get older I realise that’s what I want to do. I want to create spaces for this creativity to have some support.

With Worlds Within Worlds it’s a little broader, but we do have projects in Australia. There’s an excellent Afghan singer in Sydney I’ve started working with, and hope I can get some grants for and develop here. We’re connecting different communities with events, Qais Essar is coming out at the end of October, early November. I’ve never booked anything like that before. I’m pretty stoked. He’s playing Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Recital Centre, and Brisbane and Canberra. It’s nice. It’s another step in the direction that I’d like to go in. Just to be able to provide opportunities and share music that I think it’s cool.

Lachlan R Dale’s Shrines is out now via Arts As Catharsis. You can find it here. You can find Hashshashin’s 20023 album Śara​ṇ​aṃ here. You can find Arts As Catharsis here. You can find Worlds Within Worlds here.

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