John Carpenter on the set for The Thing in 1982. Photo: © Sunset Boulevard Corbis
Like many smalltown kids, Jessy Lanza learned to sing by emulating Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. However, unlike most, Lanza transcended the distinctly unfunky origins of Ontario, Canada to become one of R&B’s most interesting prospects. Her debut LP Pull My Hair Back—co-produced by Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan—features her high vocal register expertly (and at times eerily) offset against cold electronic soundscapes. So it made sense that when asked about her style icon Lanza chose director and composer John Carpenter.
Lanza: I first watched Halloween when I was about eight years old. I remember my dad asking if I wanted to watch a scary movie, and of course I said yes. In hindsight, I don’t think it was an appropriate movie for an eight-year-old, but I guess that’s part of the reason it left such a big impression on me. John Carpenter is really good at creating scenes that are simple but never fail to be terrifying, like the one of Michael Myers standing outside a window in the middle of the afternoon or a dog running though the snow in The Thing.
I also really love the way he transforms cities and uses them for the backdrop of his movies, like with his depiction of Downtown Los Angeles in They Live or Manhattan in Escape From New York. He’s really good at taking something familiar or safe, like a quiet suburban street or a huge city and completely transforming the environment into the exact opposite; a metropolis on the one hand appears empty and ominous, while the suburbs unsafe and quietly terrifying, to say the least.
The soundtracks to these films have really stayed with me as well. As a composer, Carpenter has the ability to heighten the fear factor of a scene through the use of a single note or riff technique. In the same way that John Williams composed his famous Jaws theme, the Halloween theme is just a single octave pattern repeated over and over again on the piano. While Halloween’s theme is really well known, he’s also written amazing soundtracks for his other films like Christine and Assault on Precinct 13, which is probably my favorite Carpenter movie, if I had to choose one. Actually, when I think back, Assault on Precinct 13 would have been one of the first movies I watched which used synth-generated music as the theme. Come to think of it, maybe the exposure to this music subconsciously attracted me to really warm synth sounds as I got older?
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My parents were both musicians and when I was growing up in Ontario, my dad had a lot of synths around the house that I had no idea how to use. One day, around six years ago, I came to a standstill while writing some music on the piano. Composing on the piano is hard, and to be able to come up with lots of different ideas and carry a song through all the way was always a challenge. Then I remembered all these awesome instruments that were sitting around my mom’s house, all this gear that nobody was using anymore that had been stuffed into a crawl space. I decided to try them out.
I pulled this Polymoog synthesizer out of our attic and dusted it down and, thankfully, it still worked. Looking back now, I see that my dad was really an important person in my musical development—perhaps my biggest influence because he was the one who introduced me to sci-fi and horror movies as well as encouraged me to learn piano from a young age. Watching John Carpenter’s films seriously triggers a sense of nostalgia for me. It might sound strange but when I think about being a kid, watching his movies is one of the first things that comes to mind. ~
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.
On her new album, the electronic musician finds her pulse quickened to the dancefloor, says Angus Finlayson. Laurel Halo plays Electronic Beats Festival Vienna on November 23rd.
“Playing rhythmic music, playing dance music, live, is way more cathartic than singing,” Laurel Halo declared in an interview with SPIN’s Philip Sherburne earlier this year. Perhaps last year’s Quarantine LP, then, was a failed attempt at catharsis. Central to the record was Halo’s voice: dry, pungent, placed abrasively high in the mix, a vehicle for intense discomfort and anguish. This was an album about heartbreak, and while it was (justly) much-praised, its creator seems a little sheepish about it these days, unwilling to dwell on the extremes of emotion that spawned it.
Appropriately, then, its followup abandons the voice to seek catharsis in the collectivized confines of the dancefloor. Like much dance music, Chance of Rain gestures not at subjective emotion so much as collective states of intensity: propulsion and stasis, order and Brownian chaos. You could argue that this makes it a less brave album than its predecessor. But rather than a retreat, it feels like the moment that Halo, after numerous stylistic reconfigurations, has found a place where she feels comfortable. “I think maybe that this is the kind of music that I’m meant to make, because it just makes me feel better,” she said in that same SPIN interview. “It’s more of a joyous process.”
As with much of Halo’s music, Chance of Rain takes joy in subverting and refiguring its source material as much as tackling it head on. “Oneirai”’s multiple layers of not-quite-chords seem to tug in several directions at once, while its backbone pulse is implied but rarely explicitly stated, the successive grids of percussion forming and dancing lithely into the foreground before retreating just as swiftly. “Serendip”, meanwhile, is four-four but oddly static for it, its gushing, gaseous chords offering a rather clouded sort of euphoria. Halo has long cited Detroit—a site of pilgrimage during her Ann Arbor upbringing—as an influence, and in places here its presence is more explicit than ever. But while the title track, in particular, trades in a well-worn combination of mechanized propulsion and aqueous repose, before long it’s undercut by claggy Rhodes chords—a different kind of hypnotism more akin to Miles Davis’ smoky fusion masterpiece In A Silent Way than Derrick May.
The basic components of these tracks—the restless, polyvalent arrangements, the uncanny juxtapositions of digital and acoustic—are to some degree familiar from last year’s Spring EP under the King Felix alias and, before it, 2011’s expansive Hour Logic. But what sets this album apart, along with its precursor EP Behind The Green Door, is that it was built for, and on, the dancefloor: these tracks were first road-tested through Halo’s club-friendly live set before being tweaked and recorded in the studio. And while this is hardly DJ-friendly music, Halo really grasps the fundaments of techno in a way that many auteurish types don’t. “Ainomme”, for example, occupies a similar freewheeling psychedelic space to the work of Ital, but it’s executed with far more deftness and attention to groove than the 100% Silk affiliate has yet mustered.
As an album Chance of Rain feels light—light-footed in its rhythms, offhand in its gestures—where Quarantine was often oppressively heavy. Even occasional moments of melancholy, like pensive piano closer “-Out”, have a certain wryness to them. Fortunately, it’s no less rewarding for it. If Laurel Halo decides to make a long-term home for herself on the dancefloor, she will doubtless be more than welcome. ~
Laurel Halo’s Chance of Rain is out today via Hyperdub.
Mark Fisher—the noted blogger known as K-Punk and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?—triangulates the leading footwork producer’s new album via Burroughs, animated gifs, and G-funk.
Timestretched Amen breakbeats, rave-euphoric vocals: on Double Cup, Rashad pays his dues to the hardcore continuum, but the traces of jungle and rave here only accentuate how different footwork is to nineties British dance music.
Footwork has been greeted with the fanfares that usually accompany the arrival of an avant-garde dance music. These contradictory responses— footwork’s being written of as something that you can’t dance to at the same time as it is dismissed as a functional music, something that would only be properly appreciated by those dancing to it—is a sure sign that we are in the presence of something which scrambles the defaults of rearview hearing.
But footwork is new in a strange way. It’s not historically new: it dates back to the nineties. And what’s uncanny, unheimlich, about footwork is that practically everything in the sonic palette is familiar. Most of the sounds on Double Cup feel like they could have come from the 20th century, even if they have actually been produced in the 21st.
So, wherein resides footwork’s newness then? In a fascinating blog post, Tristam Adams identifies exactly what makes footwork new: its compositional innovations. To bring this out, Adams contrasts footwork to jungle. Jungle’s newness was in large part a consequence of the widespread availability of digital sampling technology, which facilitated both new sounds and new ways of treating sound (time-stretched breakbeats and vocals). Beyond this, though, I’m not sure that the way Adams constructs the comparison between jungle and footwork is quite right. Adams hears jungle as more ‘machinic’ than footwork—but what was exciting about jungle to many of us at the time was that that it gave a whole new sense of what machinism was. Jungle’s machinism was delirious; it was, in Kodwo Eshun‘s immortal phrase, a rhythmic psychedelia, composed from whorls, twists, and vortexes of sound; there were none of the rigid mechanoid lines of techno. Jungle was dark, but also wet, viscous, and enveloping.
It’s here that the contrast with footwork can most be heard—and felt. To those whose ears and nervous systems were mutated by jungle in the nineties, footwork can initially sound strangely desiccated—like the dry bones left after jungle’s digital ocean has receded. ‘UK bass music’ is an almost wilfully bland term, but it does point to the element which gave every genre from jungle to UK garage and dubstep their consistency: a viscous, glistening bass sound. This is conspicuously absent from Rashad’s sound. Instead of functioning as a dark liquid element on (or in) which other sounds could be suspended, Rashad’s bass is a surging and reclining series of stabs and jabs that heightens and lowers tension without ever releasing it.
This leads on to another difference from jungle and the broader tendencies in nineties digital culture. Where jungle, like nineties CGI, used digital technology to smooth out some of the hard lines that had been characteristic of early computer sound and imagery, footwork has deliberated opted for angularity. Charlie Frame’s comparison of listening to Rashad with “gazing at an animated GIF that grows ever more absurd with each iteration,” captures very precisely footwork’s jerky repetitions. Perhaps the appeal of the animated GIF and of footwork are both tied up with way that they reject the dominant aesthetics of digital culture now. Think of the way that the elastic architectures of nineties animatronics gave way to the dreary photorealism of contemporary animation. Now, novelty is to be found in the refusal of communicative capitalism’s false promises of smoothness. If the nineties were defined by the loop (the ‘good’ infinity of the seamlessly looped breakbeat, Goldie’s “Timeless”), then the 21st century is perhaps best captured in the ‘bad’ infinity of the animated GIF, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a time-trap.
That frustrated, angular time—and the enjoyment of it—is at the heart of footwork. The genre can sound like an impenetrable thicket of rhythms if the thing you lock onto first is the most distinctive thing about footwork: the coiling spasms of super-dry snares. Lock into the floaty synth pads and the vocals, however, and footwork comes on as strangely mellow. In this respect, footwork can then be heard as an extrapolation of elements of nineties G-funk. An earlier Hyperdub sound—the dayglo wonky of Joker—had mined G-funk for its absurdist pitch-bent synths. What footwork takes is some vocal styling (the rap that is so often subject to its stuttering repetitions), but also a certain mood. G-funk differentiated itself from standard gangsta posturing by the way it dissolved the hard ego of the rapper into clouds of Chronic. Beneath the busyness of capitalist realism—and its demands that we never stop selling ourselves—was another mode of being, where time diffused slowly as exhaled smoke. Beyond the phallic machismo, there was a different libidinal economy, defined by a superficially paradoxical combination of deep yearning and a desire to remain absolutely in the sunlight-saturated moment, liberated from the urgencies of business. This is all the more poignant because a gangster’s work is never done, his enemies don’t sleep, and chilled-out bliss could be terminated at any moment by gunfire. To the G-funk celebration of smoking, Rashad adds other affective toners: the lost-in-the-moment exhilaration of the raver, and R&B’s wistful regrets/lascivious moaning. The overall result is, in terms of mood and affect, oddly reminiscent of cool-era jazz—there is the same ambivalence, the same evocation of an harsh yet alluring urban environment, the same combination of sadness and confidence, the same articulation of longing and bliss.
Then there is the tic-talk of the voices themselves—the way they are made to stammer and circle around themselves. It’s as if there is a cross-contamination, a human-machine (psycho)pathology, the machines infecting the human voices with glitches, the humans passing on Freudian slips, parapraxes, to the machines. Rashad’s plaintive machinism reminds me of nothing so much as the hallucinatory intensity of the “I Love You” section of William Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded: “On my knees I hoped you’d love me too. I would run till I feel the thrill of long ago. Now my inspiration but it won’t last and we’ll be just a photograph. I’ve forgotten you then? I can’t sleep, Blue Eyes, if I don’t have you. Do I love her? I love you I love you many splendored thing. Can’t even eat. Jelly on my mind back home. ‘Twas good bye deep in the true love. We’ll never meet again, darling, in my fashion.”
Burroughs’ early cut-up and fold-in texts, with their analysis and decoding of emotional manipulation via media and their understanding of pornography as a control apparatus, now read like extraordinarily prophetic anticipations of the present moment. As with Burroughs, there is a double pathos in Rashad’s work. First of all, there is a pathos at the level of the affects in the voices themselves; and the way that the voices are orphaned from their supposed origins means that there is a overwhelming sadness even if the feeling expressed is ostensibly joyful. It’s the same kind of depersonalized sadness we might feel if we happened upon lost photographs of an unknown person’s holiday, long ago. Then there is another pathos that arises from the way that the voices are made to repeat and stutter; the sadness of recognizing a speaking animal (ourselves) in the grip of automatisms, repetitions, drives. Rashad articulates the impasses of our 21st century condition with a precision and a compassion that few others can match. More importantly, he suggests that—against all the odds—we might still be able to dance our way out of the time-traps and identity prisons we are locked in. ~
We’ve been feeling the gloriously awry “Mad Hatter” track by Hyperdub producer DVA (he drops the “Scratcha” when he’s producing) for the last month or so. Its splintered percussion, creepy vocal sample and eighties electrofunk breakdown caught us off-guard and, inevitably, drew us in every time we heard it. Monday sees the release of the Mad Hatter EP on Hyperdub, a four-tracker that goes deeper down the rabbit hole, mining a rich seam of dancefloor mongrelism where deep level detailing is pressed into the service of swung riddims, E-d up monologues and mutant bass. In his own words, it’s a little “WTF”. The EP also includes a remix by footwork don DJ Rashad. You can stream the EP in its entirety and read a track-by-track from Scratcha DVA himself, below.
Mad Hatter was an experiment gone wrong. But in the end I liked the way it turned out. It’s the kind of tune what might make someone say “WTF”? in the rave.
“Gang Gang Riddim”
I didn’t intend for this track to be so clubby but as soon as the 808 bass got involved in the mixdown it was over. I watched it damage FWD>> at Dance Tunnel, Dalston when I tested it recently. Maybe I’ll get some vocal cuts on it next time round to go with the whole dancehall vybe of the instrumental.
This tune is lifting up the rave whenever I play it. Depending on which event, I sometimes use it as an intro. Works like a rocket! Straight party vybes, a big sub and lots of midrange which is unusual for my productions normally.
“Walk It Out” (DJ Rashad’s Slip Away Remix)
Amazing remix. I was so happy Rashad actually offered to do this mix for me cos he liked the original track a lot. Then when I got the mix back I was blown away. I love dance tracks which have unexpected twists and this is one of them. ~