Lawrence English “Everyone else bunkered down in the shelters there, but I was like, ‘I’m going to go outside and record this storm.’”

When Lawrence English picks up my Skype call, it is already Easter morning on his side of the world. With people typically tucked away in churches or maybe sleeping in late for a lazy Sunday ahead, you’d think this would be the perfect time for a quiet chat. But as we speak — me with my front door open wide, noise easily bleeding through the flimsy screen; Lawrence, perhaps sitting by an open window with toast and a cup of coffee — we can’t help but take occasional notice of the ambient sounds of our surroundings. My recording of our call picks up the chirping of indigenous birds, the clicks and buzzes of insects, and the occasional motorcycle roar passing by. Normally I wouldn’t take note of these phenomena, but since I’m speaking with English, the Australian master composer and field recorder, my awareness of the relationship I have to listening is heightened. Our situation and the circumstances of our phone call are all told not only in the words that I’ve transcribed below, but also by what my dinky iPhone microphone captured at large, telling a more complete story that helped to direct the thesis of our interview. And as I sift through the thousands of words, my editing down of the copy helps to shape and mold deeper, more detailed meaning into the piece you’re about to read, just as English has done with his brilliant stereoscopic exercises in sound-sculpting.

The 39-year-old label owner, theorist, writer, composer, musician, recorder, and all-around gentleman always seems to be busy, but the last several months have been especially so. With the celebration of his Room40 label’s 15th anniversary last month, English is in the midst of a slew of reissues that includes his 2011 opus, The Peregrine, which we have the pleasure of streaming below. English is also riding a high from two very strong, very different releases, with 2014’s drone-heavy Wilderness of Mirrors and this year’s violent-yet-docile collection of field recordings, Viento, which captures his experiences on a recording expedition to Antarctica back in 2010.

Needless to say, I learned a lot from our chat, but perhaps more in the aftermath listening back over and over again to not just our conversation, but to the event of our conversation as well.

…I apologize, I’m still eating my breakfast.

That’s OK! Do you want me to call back in a little bit? I have time.

Not if you can put up with me occasionally eating fruit toast.

Oh that’s fine, I’m gonna be occasionally sipping a beer if that’s OK with you?

I’ll be sipping a coffee.

That sounds good. Are you guys having good weather today, or how’s it looking?

Um, actually it’s gray today, but it’s… It’s weird, I have this really foreign… I don’t know how to describe it. Usually when you come here, the sky’s always blue. But this year’s been totally, totally weird weather. We’re still getting these kind of monsoonal rains every day in the afternoons.

You’re in Brisbane, is that correct?

Yeah, we’re kind of like the sub-tropical part.

What I love about sound and music is that it’s invitational. It invites you to apply yourself, your socio-cultural baggage, your experiences, your understandings of the world to the work.

Were you born there?

Yeah, I’ve been here for ages. I mean mostly because it used to be in the 90s, and even a little bit in the early 2000s, it was so cheap to live here. Crazy, crazy cheap. Basically, that’s how I started being able to do room40 was there was almost no cost here. The first house we rented, a five-bedroom house, we paid probably $95 a week for it. The same house is now like $600 bucks a week. I think we’re [at the point where] Australia is more expensive in terms of rent than New York [laughs]. It’s just stupid. It’s absolutely stupid.

You know, I don’t know much about the history of room40. Was that something you started on your own?

I started on my own, yeah. I started a fanzine in high school in year 10. I used to trade heaps of demos and live concerts and that kind of stuff. I had people in Japan and England and some in America, mostly in California, and a couple in New York, and I’d just trade boxes of tapes. Part of me still feels sorry for my parents, you know, they literally had to go to the post office every second day to pick up this huge box of tapes. After a while, they went to the post office and bought me a PO box, because they were like, “Dude, we don’t want to pick up your mail any more, you can go and get it yourself.”

Probably a year into that, I wanted to make a compilation tape, and that was the first release I made. I had all these underground bands, none of them particularly good or interesting. This was probably 199…1 maybe, something like that? To print CDs, it was still crazy expensive, and it was also really difficult to do stuff like artwork. To do a CD was [about] 2-and-a-bit-grand or something, which back then was crazy high. There was only one printing factory in Australia and you had to go through them, because you couldn’t send offshore. So I made this tape, and people seemed to be really into it, and I enjoyed the process of putting it together, and I started this label a couple years later. And then I put out a whole bunch of stuff. In 1998 [or] 1999, I was really conscious that that [label] had kind of run its course. The stuff that I was interested in doing, the people I was working with, it’d become quite diffuse, and I think I was interested in really focusing things.

And then one day on a Friday I went to see my distributor, and I was like, “Hey, guys, how’s it going?” and they’re like, “Great.” And I said, “Look I’m just here to get my check.” And they said “That’s fantastic. The check’s being served from the Sydney office, it’ll be here Monday morning, so come on in Monday and we’ll sort it all out.” I was like, “Ok, see you then.” And then I wandered out, came back on Monday, and they’re like, “Oh hey, Lawrence, thanks for coming in. We’re bankrupt!” I’s like…Ohh… OK! So in some respects, it was a sort of omen, like I knew it in my mind that I wanted to change things. From that point on, I kind of resolved into this idea of room40. I’d already informally started room40, we’d had some CD-r with laces, totally local, editions of 50, 10 made at work and stuff. And I just decided, OK, I’m going to do it. I’m just going to go for it.

I imagine you were spreading your stuff around regionally for a long time. When did you start expanding to international distribution, to the U.S., for example?

The States came a couple of years later. Actually, room40 initially was entirely off, outside of Australia. So if you wanted to buy the records, you had to import them, and you still do — we don’t actually have a distributor here. There’s almost no point. The room40 store [hardly] distributes to [any] shops here. The first five releases were available in Japan, and the UK, mostly, and some in the States. The distribution went through Japan. After that, about 2002, it started to go through Forced Exposure in the States, and we work with Forced Exposure still.

What I was interested in doing was reaching outward with it. This was before the internet, so if we were reaching outward, it was by letter, which I still really like doing. I still really like letters and mail. But then when it got to 2000, and e-mail was easier, the contacts you could have with people were more instantaneous. There was still no PayPal, so the selling was still through shops, but somehow the connections were easier to make internationally. From the onset of room40, the whole idea was to connect Australia, and [bring] these communities that I saw as being intrinsically the same, together. In the 90s, and even a little bit of the early 2000s, Australia felt like a really long way away still. The exodus of Australians to Berlin has been extraordinary, it’s just amazing how many Australian musicians and artists have gone to live in Berlin. That’s evidence to the fact that it’s cheap to travel, it’s easier to get around than it used to be, and things like the Euro probably made it easier to travel within Europe.

What’s keeping you in Australia then?

That’s a very good question! [laughs] To be honest, I was away, and I still am pretty much away, like four or five times a year.

I don’t mean that it’s surprising that you didn’t move, but you were saying that there was a huge export of Australian musicians.

I think it’s really an important thing to think about. I love the environment here, I think the people are fantastic. But I think we have a lot of problems in this country at the moment that need people to be proactive about. Even yesterday we had these these “Reclaim Australia” rallies, which I would describe probably as our… you know, if you wanted to be crude, you’d say “Redneck” population. It’s people that aren’t particularly well educated that don’t necessarily understand the complexities of what it is that they’re trying to talk about. So we had these rallies yesterday, and you just think: of all the things we should be worried about, there are other things that we can really spend our time thinking about, but we find ourselves getting caught up in some of the worst parts of how we came to be a country — our colonial sorts of questions. I think it’s important that a lot of the people stay here to argue out against those points.

As to why I stayed, partly it’s because it was really affordable to continue doing room40, because that’s always been part of the challenge: How you sustain something that is inherently not on the radar of any kind of understanding of popular music? Historically we’ve done some records that are really… probably you’d describe them as, you know, difficult records. I think they’re really challenging to listen to, but that’s the inherent value in them as an experience. Not everyone’s going to like it, but I think it’s important that everyone has the opportunity to explore it, because [it’s] how you learn what you like and [what] you don’t like that gives you contrast in your life. We take some of the chances and do records that are going to be difficult to sell financially, because we [can] bear the cost some other way. And then in terms of the amount of space that I have here, it’s actually really good. I’m in what I would describe as our stock room, which is at the front of the house that I live in. But it’s enough for me to store any kind of residual stock and packaging and all that stuff. And then I have a studio next to me, and there is actually space to make stuff happen. So, I think it’s been a whole range of very simple things that have kept me here. That said, probably in the next few years I will go on and live overseas a little while.

[bird call sounds in the background]

— This is another thing that I like. You can hear it, this is a magpie you can hear in the background. They’re incredible, you know, they sing all morning, it’s very nice.

Are you constantly recording stuff outside your house?

[laughs] Not really. I mean, I live basically a few kilometers from the city center, so it’s actually pretty loud where I am. But it’s Easter Sunday, so everyone is totally not doing anything. Like a total ambient day.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the new record Viento. What originally brought you to Antarctica? Were you there specifically for recording purposes, or was there something else, and the recordings were kind of secondary?

— A bonus..? No, actually it was quite a strange scenario. That particular summer that I went, 2010, myself, Phil Samartzis who’s another fantastic field recordist from Australia, and Chris Watson, were all on Antarctica that summer. We got to do a festival about three years ago, Liquid Architecture. We did this Antarctic convergence festival where all of us presented our recordings. And it was just amazing to think that there’s this sonic portrait of one summer in Antarctica, where each of us were in different places — I was in the Argentinian section, which is the kind of dog’s leg that comes out of Antarctica toward South America, Chris Watson was at the American section in the middle, and then on the East was Philip Samartzis, the Australian bases. So, you had this kind of weird, almost mapping of Antarctica that happened. But basically, how I got there was this curator Andrea Juan had been in touch about a few different things, and we’d been talking for a while, and I really wanted to go to Antarctica. And then I’d been talking to the Australian-Antarctica Division and for some reason it couldn’t happen that year. I think that what I actually pitched was a project that was myself and my partner Rebecca, who did a lot of the field recordings with me during 2007 to 2010, and another artist from Austria, Werner Dafeldecker, and the problem was they couldn’t support two people from one country to come. But Andrea said look, why don’t you and Werner come and do the recordings and develop the project, whatever you want to do. It was basically a kind of artist-in-residence program that the Argentinian government runs. So I just had to get myself to Buenos Aires and they took over from there. It was quite an extraordinary experience, I have to say, because literally on the 24th of December in 2009, I got an e-mail from her saying “Hey, I know this is weird, but do you want to come to Antarctica in three weeks?” And I thought she was joking. Then we ended up having a bit of a chat about a few other things and it was clear that she was serious and that these were the dates she was going to leave, and all I had to do was get myself to Buenos Aires, so I basically booked a ticket and went.

I had one of the most full-on experiences in my life. I stayed with these people that I didn’t know who were super-incredible, nice people there. I got out of the taxi at their house, and I suddenly realized I was on the other side of the world. I’d never spoken to these people. I didn’t know where I was, and I was about to knock on someone’s door [to] see if I could stay with them. It was actually kind of a surreal experience. You know, touring is often like that, but I was there for this other thing, so psychologically it was somehow very different. I left about three or four days later to Antarctica on a military plane, like a Hercules, a military transport, and we flew to Patagonia. It was strange because I never showed my passport ever to get on these planes, it was like you were totally internal within the country. The only time I got my passport out was to get a novelty stamp at Esperanza Base so I could keep it in my passport [laughs]. We flew South to Patagonia, and stayed in a military base outside Rio Gallegos, which is one of the major centers there. And throughout four days there was in this incredible blizzard, like a really, really incredible wind storm, and the plane couldn’t leave, so we were kind of trapped there. Everyone else bunkered down in the shelters there, but I was like, “I’m going to go outside and record this storm.” So I went out every single day for four or five hours at least, and recorded all of the abandoned buildings around this base. When you talk to Patagonians, you say to them, “What do you like about living in Patagonia?” and they say, “Ah, it’s very flat, and very windy.” And I’m like, “Cool, because that’s pretty much all that I’ve noticed so far, that it’s very flat and very windy.” There [were] seriously three trees I could see in this area, and they were the trees you can hear in the recording. So basically, that whole side [of the album],the Patagonian side, was done across four days, and it took actually a lot of time to do it because it was a really full-on storm, so there was a lot of wind distortion stuff to deal with in the microphones, and I developed a couple of different techniques that I’ve used since then really well.

And then the wind settled down. We randomly just left one day, completely out of the blue. You often got an hour or two warning before you went to do something because the military [would] look at the weather and see that there was a gap of five hours, or whatever it needs to be to fly to Antarctica, so they just take the plane and go. So, we suddenly just were thrown in this plane and we were flying down there, and it was a pretty extraordinary journey. We somehow incredibly landed at the Marambio Base. The pilots were unbelievable, they were all military pilots from the Malvinas conflict with the UK.

I had essentially a month in Antarctica in two different places, Marambio Base, which is sort of on an island, and then this base called Esperanza, which is a kind of open cove looking out into the ocean. And I mean, to be honest, it was incredible. One of the most amazing, sublime, somewhat psychedelic experiences in my life. Particularly at certain moments, I had some of my most profound experiences with sound in Antarctica — and [they had] to do with silence. The promise of silence, you know, the sort of broken promise. You can never have silence, but I had an experience there that was so… profoundly humbling that had to do with silence. The quietest place I’ve ever been was there, and it was really very reductive. It made me feel very small in the world, and I like when that happens.

I had this very weird experience at night that felt like the land came alive. I know that sounds very strange, but it really did feel like the land was alive. And, when I got back I was trying to talk to people about it and spoke to this one academic indigenous woman, and she was like, “Oh yeah, that’s The Dreaming.”

Where were these places of silence? I mean, from what I hear in the recordings, I imagine you had hours of material to pull from for these records. It doesn’t sound like you could really escape sound, and yet…?

Yeah, there was one time, that I think will probably be the closest that I’ll ever come to silence. The Marambio Base is on a plateau, and it drops off very sharply around the edges of the base. So you can walk maybe half a kilometer — two kilometers? — probably even more along the top of the plateau. And we’d walked a long way out from the base to where there was a huge junk yard that — they dump stuff there, it’s pretty in some respects, kind of depressing, but also strangely beautiful to see these huge oil drums just welling in the snow. And we walked a long way out so you couldn’t actually hear the base any more. In the entire time that I was at Marambio, I saw one bird — one living thing. It was the most dead place you’ve ever been. There was some lichen, you know, small plant material that you’d see on the rocks, and there were people, and that was it. There was nothing else alive.

It was extraordinary, this completely, completely dead [place]. And we walked out coming towards dusk, not dark, but on the way to dusk, and we got to the very edge of this large ravine, and stood down in the dip of the first part of the ravine, and because it was dusk and the sun had set on the far side of the plateau, the temperature started to drop really rapidly, and then suddenly I realized that everything around, the horizon of listening (if you like) was being completely shrunk so quickly, as if someone was putting a massive blanket around you, but the blanket was coming from hundreds of meters of nothing — very, very quickly. And, I remember standing there and suddenly I recognized that all I was hearing was me. If I moved my arm ever so slightly I could hear the jacket hood I had on. I couldn’t hear anything around me. I couldn’t hear Werner, who was right next to me. And when he spoke at one point, it was as if as the words came out of his mouth, and it was so cold that they kind of formed into ice and split apart before the words could reach my ears. It was really, really weird. Suddenly [you] just had this incredible interior sense of yourself in a space where you should feel this vast exterior. And that to me was the closest thing I’ve come to silence. I mean it really made me think about it a lot when I got back, and I still think about it now as an experience.

There [were] a couple of situations where I tried to record things that I couldn’t, and the sense of those sounds now is weirdly almost mystic somehow, or magic. There was this sound that the mountain made. There is this great Kawabata book called The Sound of the Mountain, which is like an omen about a man that the mountain speaks to him, and he knows that he’s going to die. And that’s all I could think about when I could heard this sound, that the mountain was definitely talking. I’m sure [that] in a physical sense, what was happening was maybe up very high at the top of the mountain there was a really strong breeze that was cutting across the top, making it whistle. But I tried to record it, I didn’t get.

There are a couple of places that I’ve been that have a really heavy, physical presence, and in Australia, the indigenous people call that “The Dreaming” — the idea that the land is alive, and has always been alive. I had spoken with an indigenous academic once about this experience I had [in] a place about seven or eight hours North of here, Northwest in the beginning of what you’d consider to be The Outback I guess. I had this very weird experience at night that felt like the land came alive. I know that sounds very strange, but it really did feel like the land was alive. And, when I got back I was trying to talk to people about it and spoke to this one academic indigenous woman, and she was like, “Oh yeah, that’s The Dreaming.” I was like, “Awesome. I’m glad that I can understand some inkling of what it’s like.” And I think occasionally [with] particularly something like field recording when you’re trying to be present in a place, it gives you this depth of perception that I think we probably deny ourselves a lot living in cities, or living in places where we’re constantly busy or distracted.

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