“I’ve always been drawn to outsiders,” said Brian Williams. We were talking about how underground filmmaker and actor Kenneth Anger has influenced Williams’ music. What made Anger interesting, he explained, wasn’t necessarily the work itself, but the simple fact that he did it. That attitude informs Williams’ sonic creations as a member of the seminal industrial group SPK, as a composer of film and video game soundtracks, and as Lustmord, the moniker he uses for his intense ambient solo productions. The festival Berlin Atonal is the perfect platform for an artist like Williams, whose work can be given new depth in a massive, cathedral-like warehouse space like the Kraftwerk. Before losing myself and my words to the primal power of his live show, which you can catch on August 23, we spoke about the intricacies of language, belief and anger.
It’s interesting that you mention Anger’s work, because I’ve been struck by the similarities between the themes you use. For instance, you both play with the idea of the sacred and the profane, but you’re not overt about it and you don’t try to project a religious or anti-religious message. It’s more subtle.
I’m not really sure what Anger’s views on religion are, to be honest. Obviously, there are references to Crowley, but I wouldn’t really call that stuff “religion.” It’s more like a structured belief system. I’ve always assumed [Anger] was more interested in spiritualism and the esoteric. I’ve not thought about a comparison from that perspective, actually.
You both have unique ideas about personal perspective. For example, you deal with how music can be perceived and translated through the filter of the mind.
I’m quite into the music Anger uses in his films. I find it interesting to think about how powerful music can be, particularly in how it’s used in film. People find beauty in poetry, architecture, or paintings, and certain paintings or landscapes are universally considered beautiful or moving. But with music, it stays with you in a different way. People will hum a melody or a tune that will stay in their heads for days. That doesn’t really happen much with poetry or books. Music is different in that sense. It’s interesting from a psychological and even biological perspective.
Music is like language or an infection in that, once it gets into your mind, it spreads through your entire being. An “earworm” is a parasite.
That’s a good point. Music becomes lodged in your head even if you don’t like the tune. A great piece of literature can affect people, can make great changes in a person’s life or even the world. But music, on an emotional scale, goes much deeper. When you’re working with sound, that’s a very useful thing. With my music, it’s just a fucking drone for an hour with a bit of reverb. It’s a collection of sounds I put together, and it’s interesting to see how that affects people. For me, language is a collection of representative symbols. We all agree that each symbol represents a certain sound; place the symbols in a certain order to communicate certain things. Symbolically, you can do that with sounds as well. It’s much more abstract, obviously, because there’s not a set alphabet of sounds—individual tones can represent different things. Of course, there are certain tones, harmonies, tempos or sounds that people universally associate with certain things. People certainly love to call my stuff “dark.” It doesn’t matter what the fuck I do, these tones are regarded as being “dark,” which is interesting.
Your album The Word As Power was a study of language and communication. It felt like a singular organism split into seven. How difficult was it to establish that coherence with so many collaborators, and given that it took 20 years to complete?
Roughly 20 years. Actually, because this has always been my way of expressing myself, I find it quite easy. I was a bit clumsy early on as I developed this language, but now I’m quite comfortable with it. As a writer, I’m sure there’s things you take ages to get to, stuff that you want to do but can’t because of other obligations or inspirations. The idea of doing that specific album was basically done in my head. I just needed to find the right voices.
So the idea didn’t mutate over the years?
I generally stick to my concepts once I establish them. That’s the fun part, to come up with these ideas and see them into being. It’s not rigid, so there’s always room to move around a bit. But the by the time I’m ready to go, it’s pretty concrete. We were speaking earlier about how conversations can meander and become better for it, and concepts are like that as well. But once they’ve taken hold they become quite solid. The reason I started making music was that I just wasn’t hearing the music I wanted to hear. There was something inside me that I had to get out, and it had to be through sound. Everyone looks at what they create and thinks that there’s something they could change or improve, but at some point you just have to leave it alone. My album Heresy could be better sound-wise, but that’s not the point. When it’s done, it’s done.The Word As Power was the first album I’ve done where I thought, “Wow, that’s quite good.” I don’t listen to it, but I’m happy with it. It’s funny as well, because when I make these things, people like you come along and review them. It’s great when you get a nice review, of course, but I know that I’m happy with the album and that’s what counts.
You moved to LA from London in the early ’90s. How did being surrounded by new people and environments affect the music you make?
Most of the people I surround myself with have a similar world view, actually. There are a few people who know about my work as Lustmord, but of course that stuff is rather obscure. It’s quite difficult to make a living from music, especially these days. But you keep struggling on, because you’re crazy. You have to be. A sensible person wouldn’t be doing this. But then you create a soundtrack for a movie, or, last week I worked on a video game, and I know that millions of people will hear that. And almost none of them will give a shit about who worked on it.
Actually, I wonder if video game soundtracks are going to be the next frontier for breaking bands. There’s another LA band called HEALTH who worked on a video game soundtrack a few years ago. I’m sure that’s not the only example, but I know people who bought the game just for that soundtrack. They’re not video game enthusiasts at all—they just wanted to hear a band they liked do something new.
That’s interesting. Video games are different from films in that movie soundtracks often don’t get released; the people who own the films just aren’t interested. But in the last decade or so, the video game industry has become bigger than the film industry and music combined. They have more money to spend on soundtracks, and they spend millions. Early on, this kind of stuff was more interesting, I think. People were doing crazier projects, taking chances and coming up with more outrageous ideas. A lot of shit, of course, but a lot of nice ideas. Now that they’re spending millions, people play it safe. Things become less interesting.
It’s harder to be transgressive now. There’s a wider array of sound and influence to draw from.
People are much more used to hearing extreme music, like all the harsh sounds in popular dance music that people are exposed to. It’s their version of extreme noises, even if they don’t really know they’re being exposed to it. Everything becomes mainstream these days so quickly.
Nothing is given a chance to flourish or develop underground before it’s given a hashtag and dragged into the light.
It started happening even before social media, though that helped accelerate the process. When punk started, it was interesting for a year or so but then became a style, which didn’t mean anything. The labels and the media all collaborate now, and if anything new comes along it’s leapt on straight away. As a result, nothing matures. I find it hard to believe that people aren’t angry anymore, but you just don’t see believable anger in music anymore. There’s so many angry people out there right now, but they’re not channeling into music. I wonder why that is.
Berlin Atonal starts today, August 19. Lustmord plays on August 23. Buy tickets here.