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.

I want to know a little more about how your setup has evolved, what sort of strategies you’ve come up with to record sounds.

It varies situation to situation. In Antarctica I had these DPA 4060s, which are very small, high-sensitivity microphones. But they’re very flexible, they’re an independent pair, so you can position them in certain ways. Certainly with those wind recordings, for example, a lot of what I was trying to do was get the asymmetric feeling that the wind had, because it was chaotic. Even when flying in one direction, [wind] sort of shifts and alters and phases, and I wanted to get that sensibility out of those recordings. So I was trying to set up quite strange stereo fields, even beyond a notion of omni, but not quite bi-directional, binaural. [It was] a little bit nauseating because it felt like the proportions were not quite right. I have this thing called a Telinga, which is a Swedish parabolic microphone. It’s mostly used for people to record bird song. Because it’s a parabolic, it focuses the sound really strongly. I used that a lot in Antarctica particularly for some of the recordings that are on Songs of the Living and the Lived In — those two editions are on the room40 website people can download for free. There’s the sound of a sleeping seal. I made that recording using the Telinga. It was focused — it was quite a distance away like 10, 15 meters, but it was focused on the nostrils of this seal, just opening and closing while it slept, and you can really feel the flesh of it. Whereas this other one on that particular edition, which is a skewer eating a penguin — that recording was made with a DPA 4060.

I set them up right next to the carcass of this penguin that I’d seen for a couple of days getting worse and worse. It was clear that [probably] its parents had been killed at sea and it was starving. It was young, it hadn’t fledged yet, so it couldn’t go in the ocean. It was clearly a target for a lot of the other penguins, so I knew it was going to die, there was nothing I could do about it. So when it died, I set up this case with the microphones next to it, because I knew that the skewers would come, because that’s what they do, skewers are basically like the vultures of Antarctica. So I set them up and got that very intense recording where you can literally hear the beak in the innards of this penguin. I wanted that intensity of the focus, the real tactility of the sound. Sometimes when you are cooking or something and you’re cutting up meat or vegetables before you do the cooking, when you do it, you do it on a chopping board and you don’t actually listen to it. But if you get close to it, like teeth in something like a watermelon — I mean, that’s what they use a lot of the time in sound design for films, you know, melons for stabbing — if you get close to those things, the kind of richness of the sound is really quite extreme. It’s very physical, very tactile, somehow feels at times very fleshy. I wanted to capture that sense of it being very much about the flesh.

So it really varies situation to situation. I really like atmospheric recordings a lot of the time, a more omni [approach]. And there are these very particular approaches you can do that give you a sense of space and dimension. But I also like it when it that goes just a little bit too far and you get this disorientation that happens in the recordings. Because often when I’m listening, the thing that captures my attention is the stuff that is slightly disorienting that you recognize that there’s something that changes in the horizon of listening that’s really strange that you want to try and capture with the microphones.

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.

Something physical happening?

Yeah, that there’s a movement or… you know, I think [that’s] one of the challenges with field recording, and I talk about this a fair bit, particularly in terms of the relational listening thing. Relational listening to me is about that procedure of translating what it is that you have in your mind’s ear when you’re listening to a space, the kind of interior, psychological listening, [and] when you’re doing that, how you can externalize that. I mean, the device is the microphone and the recorder, so, how do you bring those two things into alignment? Often, they’re not aligned at all. The way the microphone behaves is not the way that your ears behave, and also not the way your mind is prioritizing certain kinds of things.

You were talking in that piece for FACT Magazine about how the microphone is a listener like our ear is a listener, and I think that kind of stopped me in my tracks a little bit when I was thinking about how technology listens in maybe the same way that a camera sees.

Definitely. Francisco Lopez has a great saying about that, you know, he describes the recorder as a non-cognitive listening device, and I like that idea. These things, particularly when they’re in the field, there’s an almost romantic vision of these machines. There’s that poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Love and Grace,” which is a great poem from an American poet in the 70s. It has some great lines about some computers in the forest with the deer, and these amazing kinds of juxtapositions. I like that idea of these little recorders out there in the forest, gently listening to something they can’t understand in the same way, ironically, that we can’t understand it. Our ability is no better in terms of a cognitive, perceptual understanding of what’s going on — you can listen to a bird song, and have not a clue about what [it is about]. I mean, we understand vaguely, maybe, that it’s a territory call, or that’s a call to attract a mate. But when you think about something like the whole thing around orcas and orca captivity, like [how] an orca can follow with exacting detail most commands given by human beings — it can understand what it is that we are asking it to do, and to perform. But the moment that it opens its mouth, we cannot understand a single thing that comes out of it. To me that really spells out just how ignorant we are a lot of the time. We think we’re very intellectual and capable of so much perceptual understanding, cognition, but at the same time, there’s this blanket inability or disregard for all of this other communication information that’s happening outside of our current range of understanding.

When I listen to those recordings on the Viento record, the fact that it’s material that’s been edited down and then packaged on a reproducible musical object that we can put on our record player — that removes us from the original event one time even further. So the music is representational, but when I hear it and I hear these violent winds, to me it can be very calming and very ambient and lulling.

I think this goes to the classic questions around the idea of acousmatic listening. The reduced listening, where you’re trying to extract the sound from its source. Pierre Schaeffer, when he was talking about that, I think what he was trying to say was [that] we should listen very carefully to the sound and be able to assess the sound within its own universe, rather than placing it in a social context to understand it. I don’t think it’s absolute. Particularly later in life I don’t think he was so much about this ‘it’s either that or nothing’ kind of approach. Lately there’s been a lot of conversation between someone like Francisco Lopez and Seth Kim Cohen, who really criticize that approach to sound unto itself. I think actually it’s about this middle ground, where we’re able to really heavily put time into listening to sound, but also recognize that sound fits into a socio-cultural framework, and we need to be able to apply both ends of that together to kind of come up with a reading of sound that is as detailed as a reading of visual materials we might work with [might be]. 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. So when [I’d] use those sounds Patagonian recordings in concert, I’d play these recordings each night, layers, sort of folding over the top of each other, and it was just amazing how many different readings I had of that. There were times when people’d be like, “Oh, that reminds me of the time I was at my grandmother’s house when I was a child, and there was a huge storm, and I remember the shutters of my grandmother’s house closing all the time.” Another person was like, “Being trapped on the boat — that was such an amazing moment in your concert.” And I asked them, “Which part was that?” and they said, “There was all this clanging, and…” and then they’d explain that they’d been on a boat in a storm, and the boat was rocking back and forth, and they imagined themselves being there. When I listen to it, I remember being in Patagonia and disturbing these poor plovers as I was walking through the grass. Because it was so windy, they’d jump up in the sky and basically be blown half a kilometer away from their territory and have to walk back up the road to get [where they were]. So they’re very distinct personal memories of that place that won’t be shared by anyone else. But the thing is [that] it activates inside us some of the memories that we have that can only be accessed by, or are best accessed, through sound. In the same way that sometimes when you smell something, the acuteness that you get from that experience, you can look at a picture of it, or you can smell the smell of that thing, and in your mind, the smell might activate something much more rich in terms of memory. And I think sound does the same thing, because we are not always attuned to it, not always thinking about how it is that we cultivate a relationship with sound as much as we do with our eyes, for example. When we do have one of those moments where we pay attention to it, suddenly we realize, wow, we have this incredible capacity that we’re not paying attention to. That is basically the crux of what I’m interested in with working with sound a lot of the time. With my gallery practice particularly, that’s what I want — I want people to recognize themselves as a sensory being, that in fact, there’s not just one dimension to your sense. There’s multiple dimensions and the more that you drill into them, the more that you become aware of them, the greater and the more interesting the relationship we can have with them is.

I was thinking about it in relation to some books I had when I was in college about theories of vision, and how centuries ago, we were making these zoetrope toys to create optical illusions, question our sense of what we visually see as reality, and the fact that we’re doing that with sound these days I think is kind of an interesting sensory leap for us. When you mentioned smell, I was thinking about the ways we’ve developed to record smells as well.

I mean we’ve always historically cultivated certain kind of smells, I think. Whether it’s even just something as simple as putting flowers in your home. Visually, yes, they’re pretty, but also there’s that smell of the flowers that in some strange way connects us to the outside world. That’s kind of why we do these things. But just speaking to the whole visual perception thing, I just wanted to say, this James Turrell exhibition, I don’t know if you know this American light artist?


He’s incredible, I totally recommend you look him up. It’s just color. He had this retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in Australia. It’s about a two hours flight from where I live and I just happened to be there installing work at another gallery. There was this thing he made called The Perceptual Cell, and it’s a kind of dome you go inside [that’s] white. Then he just pulses light into this dome in different ways, and honest to God, it’s the first time I would ever describe myself as experiencing, visually anyway, a profoundly psychedelic experience. Like, I recognized the failings of my organs. It was absolutely mind-blowing, completely one of the greatest visual experiences of my life I would say. Turrell for me is a huge influence anyway, I’m a big fan of how it is he thinks about space and dimension, and I think what he does with light is exactly what I’m interested in doing with sound — that it’s in time, we can’t understand it in a second. The interesting thing for me about working with sound is that it’s about its persistence over time. Even in terms of a sentence; I can say a word, and in the moment you can see what that word is, but for you to make sense of the sentence, the rest of the sentence needs to be occurring in a time after that. And it’s the same with field recording. You can’t just hear a second and know it. Or, you can’t just hear a second of a song and know the song. You might know the note, or you might know something else that might be part of the textuality of that material. But you don’t recognize the whole song, and in some respects you never do, because the moment you’re perceiving — even right now, the moment you perceive my voice, it’s gone forever and it can’t be returned to you. There’s this kind of constant extinction with listening that I really like. It’s beautifully poetic for me, this idea that the moment that we perceive it, and the moment that it’s in our ears, it’s already gone, and it can’t be bought back. It can only be exhumed from the grave of our memory, you know?

You mentioned that you have incorporated some field recordings into your live performance material. I read in an interview that with The Peregrine, for example, you were specifically trying to keep field recordings and actual concrete sounds out of that music. Are there moments where you feel like it’s appropriate to combine the two, or do you make a conscious effort to keep those compositional approaches separate?

I think it ebbs and flows. Specifically talking about The Peregrine, I did not want to have any field recording in there, partly because my first instinct was to go to East Anglia after I read the book and wander around and maybe make some recordings, and that [would become] part of the record. But I thought actually that’s not part of what this experience for me is about. What I love about The Peregrine as a book is that I’m experiencing it through the perception of John Alec Baker through his experiences in this place. And I think that’s the same [thing] I love about field recordings, when I listen to a recording by Chris Watson or a recording of Francisco Lopez, anyone that is really attuned, is that you’re perceiving the world or an impression of the world through their ears. I find that really powerful. What I love about field recordings is that it’s this way for you to listen differently somehow — or hopefully, anyway. With The Peregrine, I realized that what I was experiencing was this other time and place that I’ll never be able to go to, in a way that I’ll never be able to understand and perceive, because [Baker] spent essentially a decade in this area following these birds, making diaries about them, and I thought that somehow it opened out in a way that I could never possibly [grasp] from going there and spending a year or two years. It was just a very particular vision, and also the way that he was interacting with the environment around him gave it a very particular kind of perspective. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t try to falsely introduce my impressions of that time and place. So I used the book essentially as a compositional score.

There are descriptions in the book that I used to create things like envelopes, and the number of elements that might exist in a song. “Grey Lunar Sea” is built around his description of this vision at the sea wall; the number of events that happened in the piece are almost transcribing the way that he talks about the land and the water. In that kind of circumstance, it didn’t make sense to have field recording material there. Whereas with some of the really early records like It’s Up to Us to Live, that record for me brought together quite strongly field recording — not that you necessarily hear them as field recordings, but there’s a lot of material content from field recordings and instruments together in this very tense relationship. And Curing the Auto as well is very much about this blurring of the line between environmental sound and instrumental sound, and how under certain circumstances you don’t perceive one as different from the other. For me, I don’t perceive there is a difference between sound and music. They’re just different dialects of the same language, and we choose to understand or pay more attention to one dialect than another, or it’s easier to understand one dialect than [it is] another. For me, certain versions of English I find harder to understand, like a really strong Glaswegian accent I sometimes struggle with a little bit in the same way that I know that when I speak to some friends overseas, they often say, [that they find] Australian accents very difficult to understand. That’s absolutely fine, it’s just about attuning yourself to that process of listening to it. When you’re in Glasgow for a few days, suddenly you just break through it and everything is completely clear. And it’s the same with sound and music for me. I think if you are attentive to it, then it rewards you. If you’re not attentive to it, then you get lost and confused and you get bored, because you can’t necessarily make sense of it in the ways that you should. Does that make sense?

How you sustain something that is inherently not on the radar of any kind of understanding of popular music?

It definitely does. When you were talking there, I was thinking about how in the same way that you made a musical work out of the words in The Peregrine, someone might be able to interpret your field recordings in a similar musical way.

Definitely, we’ve done that actually. Some of the recordings from Antarctica, my friend Werner Dafeldecker made a kind of opera piece where some of the ways that the musicians were playing was essentially guided by the dynamics of the field recordings. And certainly, on Wilderness of Mirrors, for example, the only place that the field recordings really exist is in control information. So I wanted to imprint the dynamics of a wind recording. I wanted that to affect the sound of a piano tone, or an organ. So you get these spectral ghosts of the field recordings imprinted into the music itself.

That brings another almost visual aspect to it as well, something that you can see while you’re recording the wavelengths, in the same way a painter paints based on a photograph or something like that.

Potentially. In some respects it’s one step further in that I’m… I guess the painter can then interpret it, but I guess I’m setting a number of variables, and within those variables, the material is affected. If I’m playing along with the recording, then that does shape [it], because there’s a kind of feedback loop between one and the other, the dynamics and the way that I play. Yeah, it was an interesting way to work and I enjoyed it particularly for Wilderness, because it really had for me a strong connection to some of the (for wont of a better word) political complexities that I was interested in and that was fueling the fire for the record.

So you’re coming to the United States soon — is that for sure happening?

Definitely, September I’ll be around.

Are you thinking about bringing your microphones? Is there a place in the United States that you’re especially interested in recording?

When I came in 2012 to do Substrata, I did a thing at LACE in Los Angeles. What was really great was because of the nature of the tour, every day or every place that I went, there was time for field recording. So literally I went recording with Liz Harris in the Ape Caves, because we were just hanging around for a few days. We went out there and recorded some pretty amazing recordings in the caves there. And in Seattle, we went north up into the Pacific Northwest forest kind of vibe, which was really good. And then in L.A., we did this incredible walk from Las Villas all the way along the L.A. river, myself and Steve Roden, and we did this listening-walking recording. I really, really enjoyed that.

This time, though, to be honest, it looks like it’s going to be a pretty heavy schedule of shows. I’m going to be playing as much as I can, so realistically, I don’t know if I’m going to get that much time for field recording. Hopefully I’ll be coming back to do some proper field recordings in North America, because it’s actually one of the places I haven’t spent a lot of time recording, mostly because when I’ve come, historically [it has been] to play shows, and the nature of the schedule meant that there just wasn’t a lot of time. It’s also because when I come, I see friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, so I try and prioritize that because more and more I recognize that what I love about this, and certainly like the idea of room40, is that it is kind of an extended family. So I like to see the family [laughs].

One last thing — I wanted to talk about The Peregrine a little bit more because you’re reissuing that album. What was the decision making process there, why did you feel like now’s the time to do this? What’s it like going back and revisiting that piece now.

It was interesting, it had always been in my mind to make it available digitally, because initially I did a number of records that were only available on vinyl in a row, like that one, Lonely Women’s Club… and I was interested in (and I still am very interested in) the way that certain formats make you listen to a work. I think at that point, I’d come back to a certain way of approaching records. I had this hard drive of music that I’d collected over a long period, ripping my old CDs and all sorts of things, and one day it just died, and I lost everything. I lost a terabyte’s worth of music, and I was left with not many albums. I had about 20 records, and I just listened to those intensively for the better part of half the year. I realized, actually this is what is really great about music — when you are able to put it on and just focus on it and revisit again and again. And each time you listen to it there’s this other layer that’s excavated. It’s like you’re digging deeper into the music somehow, and I loved that experience. I thought one way that can happen is when you make the commitment to listen to a record. There’s a kind of physical thing that goes on, and it’s a very particular kind of listening, it can’t be done on the move, you’ve got to be fixed in an environment that you probably know quite well.

So there’s a different kind of relationship with the visual materials around you. I wanted to make a few records like that, but then with The Peregrine, I knew it would always recur again, because for me, honestly, I’ve had a… the only word is ‘obsession’ with that book, it’s one of the most profound pieces of text I’ve ever read in my entire life. And I want to share it as much as I can. The opportunity to talk about it again and again, I have no problem doing. I’ve sent hundreds of copies of that book out to people that I think would enjoy it, because I believe so strongly in it. You know, I have four or five copies of it sitting in my cupboard right now that when I meet someone and we’re talking about it and it’s like, “Ah! I really want to read the book,” I can say, “I’ll bring it to you.” I’ve sent it to friends, [like] Ben Frost [who] read it, loved it. Verner Herzog, I happened to send it to him through a mutual friend of ours, Douglas Quinn, and it’s now listed in his essential reading as a kind of observational text in his film school. I’m a believer in great work needs to be shared. When you experience great work it’s about getting other people to experience it because it’s what pushes us forward. They set a benchmark for what’s possible for us as creative individuals to make things happen.

So, in terms of why I wanted to do it now, in some respects it’s been quite a while since I read the book now, and certainly quite a while since the record was completed. It’s nearly five years since the first versions of the record were being done. So I felt like it was a nice time to return to it, particularly because there’s quite a gap in terms of the discography when something like The Peregrine drops out. The records before that like Curing the Auto and It’s Up to Us to Live — they’re five, six years ago, more than that even in some cases. There’s a gap there where you can really trace the lineage between the records, and for me there is a thread that ties through a lot of the material. There’s a place for the records to be heard in succession in a way. And it also gave me a chance to revisit the material. I’d been playing a couple of the pieces live, certainly this last tour in Europe, and I’d just done a couple of festivals here in Australia, and I played two pieces from The Peregrine which I’ve really enjoyed coming back to, because I now hear them in a completely different way, and I’m willing to let them be different than what they were on the records. And I like the license that time gives you sometimes.

It’s also I think because it’s the 15th anniversary [of room40]. We’re going to be reissuing Tim Hecker’s Norberg, and Apondalifa as a 12-inch. So there’s a little bit of that stuff going on, where we’re trying to either just revisit some of the things that aren’t available anymore, or haven’t been able to be heard in a particular way, and I think The Peregrine was one of those for me as well.

[Photo: Marc Behrens]

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