In this interview taken from the forthcoming Winter 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, the experimental musician Laurel Halo talks reality TV, Voyager Golden Records and her latest album of experimental Chance Of Rain with Louise Brailey. Photo by Ismini Adami.
When an artist makes something as startling, divisive and downright strange as Laurel Halo’s 2012 record Quarantine, people want to know what’s going on inside their head. Numerous album descriptions were couched in terms of “catharsis” and focused on the sense of claustrophobia sealed within the music’s beatless sonic architecture and untreated vocals. Halo, however, takes offense at such attempts to simplify sounds with words. Over the past few years, critical attention has become a kind of background noise that distracts from her lone route through experimental electronic music. In conversation, terms like ambient, rhythmic, hardware, and software are examined and reexamined with care and contention. Call Chance Of Rain—Halo’s most dancefloor-attuned work yet—a techno record at your peril. As Louise Brailey found out when she caught up with her over Skype, Halo’s music, much like her father’s art which graces the album cover and the artist herself, is anything but straightforward.
I want to talk about the artwork for Chance Of Rain, I believe it’s a piece made by your father in the seventies. The cover is quite an unsettling drawing, featuring men digging graves while others sit, dejectedly, on open coffins. What’s the significance of this picture?
If you look at the image you’ll see that the men aren’t digging graves, they’re digging the other men out of graves, and those sitting are waking up into this afterlife landscape. It has been on the wall between my monitors for years. I like when album art serves as a visual contrast to the music—I think the music is active and colorful on Chance Of Rain but there’s something stark about the album cover. Yet there are some parallels between the music and the cover too – there’s intricate texture present in both, and there’s something intense about the album cover that spiritually anchors the music. There’s also humor in this album cover and the last one. I think if you took both at face value you might think, wow, this chick is depressed, but that would be pretty stupid. I just have a dark sense of humor at the end of the day!
What does your father think of your music?
I think he likes it. We haven’t gone in depth about it really. It was cool growing up with an artistic presence in my family. My stepmom is also a visual artist—she makes these amazing drawings where power lines lead to nowhere, weird dream houses and barren fields.
But you’re the only musician?
My grandmother was an opera singer and she would sing for the troops during World War II. I also have some cousins who are tremendously talented singers and guitar players, they can remember dozens of songs out of mid-air, and they star in their town’s theatre productions.
There are moments on Chance Of Rain that seem spiritually aligned with Detroit techno, albeit in a way that’s refracted and strange. I wonder how much the influence of Detroit touched you growing up in Ann Arbor?
I was never really involved in the techno community, but Detroit wasn’t that far away. My first exposure to techno was going to the Detroit Electronic Music Festival as a teenager, then at college I started digging deeper into the music of Detroit, the music of Michigan. Do you think the new record sounds like a Detroit techno record?
No, but I can hear elements. Like much of your music it’s filtered through a warped lens. It’s certainly not straightforward techno.
I don’t think it sounds like a techno record!
Duly noted. Where are you based now, Berlin?
I’m leaving New York next year but I’m not sure exactly where I’m going.
Why are you leaving New York?
I love New York and I love my friends there, but there’s practical reasons. I barely play in the States, for one.
Why do you think that is?
The first time I spoke to you it was via Twitter and it was, weirdly, about RuPaul’s Drag Race. How much does popular culture interest you?
I personally have a soft spot for certain aspects of pop culture and obviously I love RuPaul’s Drag Race, I think it’s the best reality TV show. But what serves more as inspiration in pop culture is the stuff that brings me down. Because it inspires me to rise above these shitty, socially reinforcing aspects.
What socially reenforcing aspects do you mean, exactly?
We could pick any number of problems. Pop culture like reality television reaffirms the police state, reaffirms shitty social relations that I don’t support and I don’t wish to participate in. I suppose I could call myself a cultural Marxist, but I don’t. But that’s a more personal view than actually takes form in my music, and I think that’s an important distinction to make.
But if you’re contributing art to society is there a sense that you want to provide an alternative, to drown all that shit out or at least counter it?
This music is just what I know how to do. It doesn’t have a political agenda. Of course, I’d rather we live in a world where governments force people to love and respect each other equally no matter what, but how would anyone possibly make money off of something like that? I’m just making music I love and that makes me feel good, and I hope it does the same for others.
You’ve spoken before about Quarantine coming from quite a dark place, personally. Were you in a better headspace this time around with Chance Of Rain?
Let’s flip this around. Why do you think it’s coming from a more positive headspace?
There’s something about the sounds that you’re using, and I think this comes down to your using hardware; the sounds are more alive. It feels like a window has been cracked, Quarantine was such a remarkable record but I found it hard to listen to at first.
I think it’s probably a projection of your own headspace on the music here, though it is joyful working with rhythm. Even if you are coming from a dark place I think writing rhythmic music can help you process it in a much different way.
It’s more an act of purging, perhaps?
Let’s drop the word “purging”, and “catharsis” for that matter. They are both cheap, easy words to apply to music, that ultimately reduce music to this kind of emotional vomit. Chance Of Rain has nothing to do with catharsis, even though it is a moody record. That I would hope it inspires heightened awareness, emotional clarity or a desire to move listeners is an entirely separate thing from my own personal headspace. Even with an on-the-sleeve emotional record like Quarantine, that was not catharsis because the content of the music only reinforced this dark energy for me. My emotional state really is none of your business at the end of the day. There is something inherently uplifting about music that makes you want to move, even if the origin of the music is dark. And there’s the simple fact that I just like making this kind of music and I’m happy to put it out.
When you make your music is it for you alone, then?
I think that there’s a lot of amazing pop music out there and pop clearly has expectations—catchiness, production standards. I don’t think that it’s necessarily wrong to make music for an audience, but for me personally if I think about an audience first and the music second then it doesn’t work for me. I have to approach music by taking on new processes and approaches, and creating something that I love enough to release, basically.
One of the things that was so remarkable about your first EP as Laurel Halo, the King Felix EP was its barely suppressed pop quality. Were you ever tempted to write straight pop music?
I would love to write pop songs for other people and I have done that in the past.
Of course, for Lauren Devine. Is that something you’d like to do more of in the future?
Recently there’s been a detectable shift back towards using outboard gear—John Heckle, Helena Hauff, any number of L.I.E.S.-affiliated artists come to mind. Do you think this is partly due to the way computers have seeped into every part of life and that it’s become a conscious attempt to break away from the ubiquity of the screen?
Well I think there is this noble intention, but personally I’m still looking at a computer screen quite a lot while producing. In general, I prefer to use hardware when I play live because it feels more performative. But of course there’s no real difference between playing with hardware and playing with software, I think it’s just what you like because artists can have incredibly intricate laptop sets, and artists can have really pre-packaged, bland hardware sets too.
With Chance Of Rain, I was especially drawn to “Serendip”, which, I’m guessing is a reference to Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence program. Is this something that interests you? It’s well documented that you’re into science fiction.
Don’t trust anything that’s well-documented! Case in point the Voyager Golden Records; the sort of divide between the desire to be futuristic and being limited by your current knowledge set, your limited perception that informs you of the difference between traditional, contemporary or futuristic. The fact that you basically send a record into space and assume that, in case anyone ever finds it, they will have the capacity to play it. Or what music will sound like in a thousand, ten thousand years if it hasn’t been fully transformed into a corporate tool, if humans still exist then even. I think they did include explanations for how to play it but what good are instructions if an alien civilization doesn’t use technology, or better yet, exists as a cloud of sentient gas. The record has a nice inscription though, it says: “To the makers of music – all worlds, all times”. That’s quite lovely. Even if it is a bit obsolete and presumptuous to think aliens would be able to play a fucking record sent up to outer space. ~
Laurel Halo’s Chance of Rain is out now via Hyperdub. Read about her performance at our EB Festival Vienna here. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.