Brian Williams began his Lustmord project in 1980; though an unfamiliar name to many, there’s no doubting his status as one of the most distinctive and innovative electronic musicians of the past thirty years.
Having grown up in rural Wales, in his late teens Williams began to spend more and more time in London, befriending industrial firebrands Throbbing Gristle and SPK (a band of which he became a floating member), who encouraged him to release his own solo music. His early recordings were noisy affairs, impressively exploratory and visceral but lacking a tangible identity of their own. By the time of 1986′s Paradise Disowned, released on the Side Effects label that he operated with members of SPK, Lustmord was beginning to find his own voice. Heresy, released in 1989, was a revelation, rejecting noise and industrial tropes in favour of a deep, disturbing ambient sound that conjured vast interior landscapes and resonant spaces both real and imagined; it is now rightly regarded as a classic, the crowning achievement of the “dark ambient” genre that Lustmord has become synonymous with, despite his distaste for the term (“I tend to just describe my music as ‘weird shit’”).
Much of Lustmord’s initial notoriety had to do with his use of field recordings made in crypts, caves, slaughterhouses and – in his own formulation – “the dark places of the earth”. His early work combined these sounds with rhythmic patterns and harmonic constructions borrowed from an array of religious musics, but as computer technology took off in the 1990s his albums became increasingly electronic. For many his signal work in this vein is Stalker, a 1995 collaboration with Robert Rich loosely conceived as a re-scoring of Tarkovsky’s post-apocalyptic film of the same name. Rich is one of a large number of illustrious avant-garde and underground artists with whom Lustmord has recorded, among them Chris & Cosey, Clock DVA, Monte Cazazza and The Melvins.
Towards the end of the 90s, Williams became involved in sound design for video games and movies. He has resided in California for 17 years now, working on numerous Hollywood projects, including such multiplex-filling films as The Crow and Underworld. Though he’s quick to point out that this work is simply a way of paying the bills, and not to be treated as an artistic enterprise, it’s undoubtedly an interesting facet of his richly varied career, and further testament to his mastery of modern studio techniques.
The following interview took place last month in Krakow, the day before Williams took to the stage at the Unsound festival to perform only the second Lustmord live show in 28 years. The last time was at a high mass observance of the Church Of Satan on 06/06/06; an opportunity which the wry, incredulous Williams says he simply couldn’t resist. His most recent album release is 2008′s [ O T H E R ], while the aforementioned Heretic has just been reissued digitally with bonus tracks and alternate versions.
You said recently that there was a danger of a Lustmord live set being construed as boring. What made you think so, and what have you done to avoid that outcome?
“I thought it might be boring because what I do is, if not insular per se, then certainly quite a personal thing – I can’t imagine anyone listens to my music at a party, most people listen to it in solitude. And of course a live performance is not a solitary thing. I didn’t think about it that much– after all, I just do what I do, and if people get it, great, and if people don’t, I don’t particularly care. It’s a huge plus if they do get it, I’m going to do it one way or at the other. Of course, because people are paying to see you perform live you owe it to them to at least try to make it interesting. I don’t want people to feel like they’ve wasted their money.
“One of the reasons that I haven’t performed live all that much is because my way of working has become more and more computer-based over the years. The studio is very much my instrument, I play the studio. So how do you do that live? In the studio I can spend hours on individual sounds, things take days if not weeks to develop, and there was always a sense that this could never work live. But then over time it’s become possible with the power of computing to actually do a lot of this stuff on the fly. I guess these developments actually happened a long time ago, but I still resisted, I thought it would be pretty boring to just watch a guy with a laptop.”
Heretic 2 v1 by Lustmord
So when did you begin to reconsider?
“The turning point came four or five years ago. I’m a big fan of Kraftwerk and I saw them many times early on, and they were always great. Then I saw them a couple of years ago – now just four guys with laptops – and I thought it was amazing. Mainly because the sound was so good – some of the best live sound I’ve ever heard. And that prompted me to think, ‘Yeah, I could do something live’. As long as the sound is good, as long is the soundsystem is good. That’s another thing with the stuff I do: I have a really good system at home, and as you might be aware, there’s a lot of bass in my stuff. But most people really don’t hear it – because there’s a lot of bass in there, it’s really low-end-heavy. Regardless of low-bitrate downloads or anything like that, I know that most people don’t have the kind of soundsystem that can reproduce that level of bass. So I’ve always wanted to do something live simply so that people can have a better idea of what my stuff is supposed to sound like.
“So the live set now I’m actually doing on a laptop, I’m using Ableton Live – that program allows me to do what I want to do. I did a show on 6/6/6 for a Church of Satan thing and it was the first time I used Ableton; some of the set was pre-prepared but about a quarter of it was improvised. I realised then that I could improvise really well using that program, which was exciting. So what I’ve done is prepared the outline of a set, an idea of what I’m going to aim for, but I actually have about two sets’ worth of material to hand. It’s deliberately kind of vague, because I’m going to improvise a lot. I have a broad plan, but the length of the tracks, what actually comprises the tracks, is going to be arranged on the fly. From my side there’s a strong chance that it’s going go very wrong, which I think is important. I’ve had a couple of run-throughs but I didn’t want to do much, because I didn’t want to be too familiar with the material, I didn’t want to be thinking ‘This happens and then this happens…’ I need to keep it loose.
“As with the music, the visuals shouldn’t take you somewhere, but they should put you in the headspace where you can take yourself somewhere.”
You’ve been working with visuals for your upcoming performances, right?
“Yes, I’m incorporating video into my set – which sounds kind of corny, I know. I think it could work without visuals, but the kind of thing I do – it should be hypnotic and draw you in, but there’s a fine line between being hypnotic and boring. So I thought I would incorporate imagery; as with the music, the visuals shouldn’t take you somewhere, but they should put you in the headspace where you can take yourself somewhere. I decided to do it in high definition – because this is Lustmord, and if you’re going to try and do something, you should aim high. So it was a no-brainer – to use the inane American expression, sorry, it shows you how long I’ve lived there – to use high definition. I had a really great time with it on the creative side, but it turned out to be a major pain in the arse on the technical side, because you’re dealing with a huge amount of data that the computers just can’t keep up with it. I have friends who are professionals in this field – compression and so on – but it and they think I’m fucking crazy to be attempting this. I was asking these friends about certain problems and how to surmount them, and they were like, ‘Well, actually, you’re on your own there…’ [laughs].
“Last week I thought I was done – I burned a Blu-Ray with the visuals on it. And then I found out that the venue could only project at 25 frames per second, which is standard in Europe, and I’d been working at 30 frames per second, which is standard in the States. So OK, I made a Blu-Ray at 25 frames but I can’t play it on my home TV, so not until the soundcheck will I know for sure that it actually works. So there may be visuals or there may not be. If there aren’t any visuals I should tell you know that they were really fucking amazing [laughs].”