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].”
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Lustmord & Robert Rich – Elemental Trigger
What comes first with your recorded work, the concept or the sounds? Are you project-based in the way that you work, or do albums and releases only take shape retrospectively?
“For me I always have the concept first. I know what the next album is going to sound like long before I begin work on it. In fact I know what the next two are going to be like. For me the exciting thing is coming up with the ideas and planning it all out, and then by the time it comes to actually recording the album it’s bit boring, because I’m kind of over it, you know? [laughs] Well, I’m not over it completely, because I really enjoy the process, but the most interesting part of the process is early on, when it’s at the ideas stage. Then it’s the execution, then you have to check it, master it, and by the time the fucking thing’s out, I’m done, I can barely stand the sound of it.
So you don’t revisit your own material much?
“No, not at all. Which is ironic, because the reason I started doing what I do is because I wasn’t hearing the sounds that I wanted to hear. I hope it’s common – I hate to think that it’s not common – but very early on I realised that the last thing I wanted to do was to listen to my own music. Sometimes you meet people who listen to their own music a lot, which I think is pretty weird. I think anyone creative ought to be dissatisfied with what they’ve done, otherwise why keep going? it should be a forward-moving process, you should always be trying to do what you do better.”
“I wanted to find my own voice, and it didn’t come immediately.”
When you first began making music as Lustmord, how fully-formed was your idea of what you wanted Lustmord to be? To what extent was the identity of the project pre-determined, and to what extent did it arise out of the work?
“I did have a firm idea of what I wanted it to be when I started out, but of course it changed with time. When you start off you have an idea of what you want to be, but when you start off you also tend to wear your influences very heavily, and it takes a while to find your own voice. I wanted to find my own voice, and it didn’t come immediately. For me the influences were Throbbing Gristle and SPK – not just musically, but as people; they were instrumental in encouraging to do my own stuff. That’s where I came from, that scene. But I did want to something different – I think even on the first album there’s a longish track that hints at the kind of direction I would end up taking. The second half of the second album was the Lustmord sound, and by the third album it was well defined. My first album was very – quote unquote – experimental, very noisy, and my second album was half like that and half more – for want of a better word – ambient, or ritualistic ambient. Not ritualistic in a voodoo sense, but in a more religious sense. I’m an atheist but I’ve always liked the intensity and the power of religious music, from choral to Tibetan to Middle Eastern to Islamic –music that sounds strong and focussed.”
There were a number of artists in your scene beyond who were taking influence from religious and ritualistic music at this time in the late 70s and early 80s. Do you think there’s a specific reason why these influences entered the bloodstream of the British underground at that moment?
“I haven’t a clue to be honest. I can’t think of a direct link, but I suppose we all influenced each other, and then I suppose some directions and developments are just kind of…obvious. Invariably it’s more of an aesthetic decision than a technical or conceptual thing. There’s a lot of experimental music that’s just shit – in my opinion, anyway, and of course my opinion is right. [laughs]. There’s a lot of shit out there, and there a lot of people who really don’t know what they’re doing. Any idiot can do experimental music – you know, lean your elbow on the keyboard for half an hour or whatever…”
“There’s a lot of experimental music that’s just shit – in my opinion, anyway, and of course my opinion is right.”
It’s always incredible how quickly innovative techniques become the stylistic traits of a safe and well-established genre. How did you feel about the evolution (or lack thereof) of industrial music over the course of the 80s and 90s?
“Yeah, it became a common language I suppose…That’s why I have an issue with so-called post industrial music. Just as punk wasn’t about sounding like The Clash, industrial wasn’t about sounding like Throbbing Gristle or Nine Inch Nails, it was about ideas. So I never get people who just wanted to repeat this stuff. You get a whole bunch of people copying these sounds, and then it becomes a style – it becomes pointless, it has no effect. In the 80s people began playing me stuff that was influenced by what I’d done, which is all well and good, but the really interesting stuff happening then was in early hip-hop, and then early techno. That’s what me and my contemporaries were picking up on – because it was fucking cool. Not just the sounds but the subject matter. The techno that came out of Detroit and then Berlin was really interesting to me. But then of course hip-hop – and a lot of the techno stuff – had the same fate as so-called industrial: it became a style.
The whole point is not to be original for the sake of being original, but just the idea of doing your own thing. For me it’s never interesting to listen to people who are influenced by other people – I always find that originators are just interesting in themselves. Even if they fail, at least they’re trying.”
Do you think it’s harder for an artist to be original in 2010 than it was in, say, 1980? Do you subscribe to the idea that everything’s already been done?
“Everything has influences, but it’s what you do with them, isn’t it? Everyone has influences even if they deny it, even if they’re indirect or subconscious. It’s about what you want to do and what you want to say; not about what you want to sound like. People get stuck because they want to make music that conforms to a scene; and that’s what produces really crap music. It’s hard to talk about this sort of stuff without sounding pompous. I’m constantly asked why I do what I do, and the answer is honestly just, well, it’s what I do. Sensible people have real jobs and pay for their mortgage. Crazy people create. Sometimes you create just because that’s what you do. If nobody listens to your music or reads your book, you still make it, because you’re fucking crazy, it’s in you, it’s who you are. I mean, what exactly is the point of creativity? You can argue that there are social benefits, but from a species point of view, as far as evolution goes, what does art contribute? Perhaps nothing at all. I suppose it’s a mutation of sorts.
“There are always people who interested in the technical side of what I do – people often ask what tools I use. Well, I use a Mac and a bunch of software. But there are people who want to know exactly what I use, and that’s not the point at all. The tools aren’t the point, it’s the ideas. You can have nothing and you’ll still figure out a way of doing something, because you have an idea. If you have all the money in the world you can buy every piece of equipment imaginable, but if you don’t have the idea, it’s pointless. As I’ve said, I think anybody who wants to create, will create. There’s so much music around these days that it’s harder to be heard than ever, but you still do it. Recognition is nice, but it’s not everything.”
“What exactly is the point of creativity? You can argue that there are social benefits, but from a species point of view, as far as evolution goes, what does art contribute? Perhaps nothing at all.”
You mentioned before that the average soundsystem isn’t capable of revealing the full extent of your music to a listener. Does this frustrate you? At what point do you let go, and consider your role in the creative process over?
“Well yeah, I’m very anal about this kind of stuff. The quality of my soundsystem at home is absolutely nuts. I’m always trying to make my music sound better and better, but knowing that the means through which other people listen to it are getting crappier and crappier. What’s important to me is that it sounds good, sounds good to me. And if people listen to it through a shitty soundsystem then that’s not my fucking problem [laughs]. I hear bass on my system that people on an average – or even a good – soundsystem won’t register. I can’t afford to care too much about this, because at the end of the day, if you want a better soundsystem you can get one, you know? [laughs] I just strive to make things really good at my end.
“I don’t take myself seriously, but I do take my work seriously, I can be very precious about it. But at some point you do have to let go, you can’t just keep on tinkering and tinkering. But when you do let go, that’s usually the point at which something gets ruined [laughs]. Take James Cameron – I have a number of friends who’ve worked with him, and he’s renowned for being this egotistical, control freak character, and I’ve heard some horror stories, he sounds like an asshole to work for. But I can sympathise with that. My wife designs my artwork, and I find myself apologising to her for my being so anal, you know, can we adjust the point size by so and so, can we shift this just a millimetre to the left? [laughs] Things will always go wrong – you get the sleeves back from the plant and a colour’s not quite right, something like that. But you have to let go, because it’s done. You learn, and you hope to get it right the next time.”
You grew up in Wales. Would you say your years spent there have made any kind of conscious impact on you and your work?
“I grew up in North Wales in a town with a population of about 4,500, very working class. My grandfathers were firm union members, and I suppose I’m a socialist by birth – well, socialist, in terms of a desire for equality. I don’t vote, but my personal politics are socialist, I have problems with the class system and all that shit. I’m Welsh, that’s my first language, I’m pure-bred in that sense. And yes, where I come from is very important – it has a very direct influence on who I am. I left Wales 26 or 27 years ago, and I left Britain 17 years ago. Growing up I had a huge problem with the attitude there: that negative thing, ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you can’t do that’, ‘know your place’. When I was at school and expressed an interest in doing something creative, the reaction was always, ‘No, you need to get a proper job’. They wanted me to qualify to be a bricklayer or something similarly sensible, something traditional. And I just didn’t want to do that. I can see the argument for it now, but I didn’t like that “get a real job” attitude one bit.
“I left Wales and then Britain quite pissed off with that whole attitude, and I suppose that’s why I really like America – it’s precisely the opposite. The attitude in the States is ‘Yeah, sure, we can make that happen’, or ‘Yeah, I know someone who can help out with that, here’s their number’. People are very supportive of going for stuff there. It’s nice to be around people who are positive. As much as I am pissed off at having grown up in a negative environment, I still recognise myself as very much a product of it, and I’m proud of who I am.
What about the rural landscape? Did that leave a lasting impression on your imagination?
“It must have done…but it’s only one small factor. The mood of my music now, living in LA, is similar to what it was when I was living in a squat in London. My voice, if you will, hasn’t changed. I hated growing up in Wales for many reasons, but I look back on it now and I used to live next to a National Park [laughs]. So aesthetically it was really cool, but culturally it was still the pits.
I first left when I was 17 and went to art school briefly because I didn’t want to get a real job. It was mutually agreed soon after that I should leave art school,and so I went back to Wales and worked in a paint factory there; I was 25 before I left for good. I’d already been going to London quite regularly, but it was only then that I actually moved there.”
How did you first become involved with SPK?
“Throbbing Gristle were one of the few groups of people who I thought were really doing something interesting. My improvisatory approach to live performance is strongly influenced by them, particularly their early shows. Sometimes it didn’t work and they were absolutely awful, but most of the time they were fucking amazing [laughs]. I was listening to all sorts of music then, as I still do, but I particularly liked what they were doing and so I wrote to them, they wrote back, and we became friends. It was Cosey who mentioned this other band that they were going to be releasing a record by, SPK, and she suggested I meet them, so we did. We corresponded for a long time and yeah, we became friends. You just write to people you know? It’s happened to me a few times over the years, and to a lot of creative people I know – people think that “art” types are lofty, superior and unapproachable. Most of them really aren’t, they’re very down to earth and happy to have a cup of tea, you know? [laughs]People assume they’re unapproachable and so no one approaches them. Because of my music I have that kind of reputation, of being unapproachable, but I’m not at all unapproachable, people just choose not to approach me. I’m in the fucking phonebook! [laughs]
How did you come to take the reins of the Side Effects label?
The label Side Effects was specifically set up by SPK in ’78 or ’79 for their own releases. Around ’81 or ’82 I became involved in the background of SPK, contributing more and more ideas and technical assistance and that evolved into me being on stage with them and touring. We were hanging out, and just thought, we’ve got this label, why don’t we start releasing some other people’s stuff? You know, duh [laughs]. I signed a few records to it and so by default it became ‘Well, this was your fucking stupid idea, you take care of it’ [laughs]. So we released a Laibach album, we released one of my albums, a couple of things that Graeme [Revell, of SPK] was involved in, and I just kind of took over when he went back to Australia. The Laibach release was a good idea, that was just before they signed to Mute. Laibach sold a shitload – about 25,000 albums in a quarter – and that’s when Rough Trade went bust, so we didn’t make any money from it. The idea was that each release would pay for the next one, so that really fucked up the label seriously.”
“There were a couple of skinheads in the audience doing sieg-heils because they thought we were a bunch of Nazis. I was doing metal percussion that night, so I had a pair of metal bars, and I proceeded to beat the shit out of them with those. Which felt good.”
A lot of your contemporaries were playing with certain fascist imagery, visual codes and reference points at this time. How did you navigate this yourself ? Did you have any run-ins with people who were taking that kind of imagery at face-value and not seeing it for the playful or aesthetic provocation that it was invariably intended as?
“Well, first of all I think you’re being overly kind say that it was a playful or aesthetic thing when there were a lot of people who were playing with really dodgy stuff. They’d try it explain it off but it’s like, fuck off, it’s just neo-Nazi crap, that’s what it is. That’s why I have a huge problem with neo-folk, you know they’re all like ‘It’s the runes’ blah blah – no it’s not, it’s fucking neo-Nazi crap. At least have the balls to admit it. Don’t give me this shit about it’s the European tradition, fuck off. I always call people up on that stuff, and I don’t get on with those kind of people precisely because of all that bullshit.
“I remember in the early days of SPK, we were on tour in Hamburg, and there were a couple of skinheads in the audience doing sieg-heils because they thought we were a bunch of Nazis. I was doing metal percussion that night, so I had a pair of metal bars, and I proceeded to beat the shit out of them with those. Which felt good. Needless to say our tyres were slashed that night [laughs].
“But to go back to your question, the truth is that the people who I consider my peers and friends don’t have anything to do with that shit. I know people who are caught up in it, but I don’t consider them my peers, for that very reason. I do have one very close friend Monte Cazazza, and he used to play with that stuff, but he’s Monte, he fucks with people, that’s why I like him. Some people think he’s a Nazi and he’s anything but, but he has fun fucking with people. It’s the same with Laibach, actually.”
“I had to say, ‘Fuck off – it’s a toilet cleaner commercial. Just let me do my thing.'”
How did you come to work in Hollywood as a sound designer?
“I was in Hollywood visiting Graeme from SPK, he was living there, he’d started doing sound stuff for films. He was working a movie at the time, I think it was Hard Target – you know, the really crap Van Damme movie. He was having terrible trouble with his studio and his new Mac set-up, and in the interim I’d become a bit of hardcore Mac nerd so I said I’ll help him fix it. In my own time I guess I’d been becoming a sound designer by default, and afterwards I said I sent him some sounds which he then incorporated into his work, and he was like, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at this!’. I wanted to live in California, and so that’s it, I moved.
“I haven’t been doing it [sound design work] so much recently, and by the way I’ve had a huge falling out with Graeme since then, as I think anyone who’s worked with him has. I’ve worked on a lot of crap movies, but it’s not art, it’s a job. It pays the bills. I have a good friend, Paul Haslinger, who was in Tangerine Dream – when they were crap, which I never tire of reminding him [laughs] – and I do a lot of stuff with him. It can be quite humorous. I remember one specific phonecall, you know that shit TV show Hercules? I get a phonecall and they’re telling me the hero’s in hell, his children are in hell, and can I give them some sound for that? And it’s like yeah, OK, piece of piss, that’s what I do [laughs]. There’s a lot of mundane stuff like that, you know, I did a toilet cleaner commercial once. And they called up and said you have to do this, you have to do that, and I had to say, ‘Fuck off – it’s a toilet cleaner commercial. Just let me do my thing.’ [laughs].”