One of this year’s most absorbing underground offerings so far, an album entitled Impossibly Symmetry, originated from the studio of Helm.
Released on the estimable PAN label, it’s Luke Younger’s third “proper” album under the Helm name, following To An End (2010) and Cryptography (2011), but the project has been in existence since 2006, with a number of limited cassette and CD-R works to show for it. Younger’s involvement in the experimental music realm stems even further back, to Birds Of Delay, the drone-oriented group he formed with Steven Warwick (who now makes music as Heatsick); he is also responsible for the ever-intriguing Alter label, home to music by artists as diverse as Richard Youngs and Hieroglyphic Being.
Impossible Symmetry certainly feels like the culmination of Younger’s career to date, an exploratory, intuitive yet thoroughly composed work that engages with aspects of industrial, noise, drone and ritualistic rhythm on its own terms. Ahead of his performance at the Unsound festival in Poland, October 14-21, FACT caught up with the London-based artist over email to talk about its conception.
“I started off by playing guitar during my late teenage years. I became drawn towards music that was discordant, chaotic and raw which led me to playing in a punk band with some friends of mine. I’d been into electronic music earlier in my teenage years. Nothing too exciting – mainly the usual suspects associated with mainstream 90s dance music that probably don’t need mentioning – but it was enough for me to beg my parents for a Roland MC303 Groovebox for my 14th birthday.
“My first experience of trying to use electronic gear was frustrating because I could never fully understand how anything worked properly and the whole process felt alienating. Around this time, I forged a bizarre friendship at school with an aspiring rapper who was trying to work on his own stuff but all he owned was a sampler. He found out I was potentially capable of making beats for him, so he would invite himself over to my parents’ house where I would wow him by pressing play on the Groovebox presets and watch him awkwardly half-rap over them. I convinced him to let me borrow his sampler and then he ended up getting expelled from school. I never saw him again after that, so I had this machine that was effectively useless to me because I didn’t understand a thing about it – all quite sad really.
“It wasn’t until I discovered noise music, particularly Whitehouse, that using electronics started to make sense to me.”
“It wasn’t until I discovered noise music, Whitehouse in particular, that using electronics started to make more sense to me. I went to see them play in London at the old Red Rose club not really knowing what to expect and soon as they started playing, I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This raw and chaotic energy being channelled through electronic instruments was a revelation, and it was great to see this gear being used in a way that was new and exciting for me. I’d seen Suicide supporting Jesus & Mary Chain a couple of years prior, but that was more like cabaret in comparison. I realised that making electronic-based music could be more of an intuitive thing with regards to using the instruments in your own way and not necessarily how the instruction manual will tell you.
“When me and Steve [Warwick, currently making music as Heatsick] started Birds of Delay I became interested in finding a balance between the use of my guitar and electronics, which I guess is still present in how I operate now – exploring a relationship between acoustic and electronic sound in Helm.
“I don’t feel like I play an awful lot, especially in comparison to some people, but you could hardly call me hermit I suppose! I only started playing live properly a couple of years back, mainly because I thought that I needed to. When I was recording Cryptography the compositional aspect of my work became more prominent and I felt that if I were to play live then this should somehow be reflected in the performance. I was getting sick of idiots who knew nothing about my music being like, ‘oh you play that music where you just get up, do loads of noise and make it up as you go along’, which would have been a fair cop say eight years ago, but it certainly wasn’t something I was doing then.
“The more I played, the more I found that improvisation gave way to structure.”
“I struggled with the idea of live performance for a while, because I didn’t find any satisfaction in full-blown improvisation and I hated the idea of reducing it to a playback, as in that case you may as well not be there! Most of the source material then was acoustic-based also and very difficult to perform with without sampling, even more so when you’re on your own. I started getting more offers to play so in the end I got a very basic set-up together and just went for it.
“The early gigs were more like experiments and the more I played, the more I found that improvisation gave way to structure. I was approaching the gigs in a completely different way to how I approached my recordings, but over time both have evolved to a point where they feel consistent with one another and part of the same unit. I still improvise to an extent, but the set is structured overall and the sounds are carefully placed. I use a lot of pre-recorded source material which I mix and process, but there are live elements thrown in to stop it from becoming too much of a studious and rigid exercise. I like the idea of people being able to recognize elements from the records, but to present them differently to how they appear in the original tracks. I would say it’s a process similar to the idea of remixing your own material in real time.”
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So would you say Helm’s recorded music is something that – generally speaking – arises out of ideas and concepts, or out of process and improvisation?
“It’s generally a bit of both, but I find that I achieve far more by just getting on with it than musing for hours about what it should be like. I generally know pretty quickly if something is worth continuing or if it needs scrapping. That’s not to say that I don’t contemplate things carefully beforehand, because the process is obviously dictated by my initial ideas. Instrumentation and the types of sounds I want to be working with on each project is the thing I probably give most consideration to prior to recording. It’s an intuitive process for the most part and improvisation does have its role. It’s never conceptual in the sense that Quadrophenia by The Who is – I couldn’t think of anything worse than that – but I definitely think it’s important that a record has a clear narrative and doesn’t end up as being just a collection of ‘cool sounds’ or whatever.”
You run Alter Records… what prompted you to start the label, and how and in what ways – if it all – has it influenced your own music?
“I started Alter for the purpose of releasing my first record, with the possible idea of releasing other people’s music afterwards. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of running a label though, and it’s an enjoyable use of my time for the most part. You get an insight into how other artists approach and view their own music, which I wouldn’t say has influenced me explicitly but has definitely been interesting. I also see it as another way of being able to collaborate with artists where the outcome isn’t a piece of music or sound – it definitely gives you something else. Beyond the first Helm LP, it feels like Alter and Helm are now two separate entities co-existing and operating independently of each other, which I’m happy with. The only effect it has on my own music is slowing it down when I’m preparing a new release – usually there aren’t many Helm gigs during those periods!”
“It’s never conceptual in the sense that Quadrophenia by The Who is.”
How would you describe the progression between To An End, Cryptography and Impossible Symmetry?
“To An End seems like a more basic record to me now, and very much in the style of your typical ‘experimental’/’noise’ release – in the sense that it has two tracks taking up a side each. I don’t mean that detrimentally, because that kind of music needs the space to evolve and those two pieces could have only worked in that context. With Cryptography I tried to incorporate a little more variety and give it more narrative by structuring it in a way that an album should feel to me. The instrumentation for each track on that record was different, and it feels more diverse than its predecessor, despite exploring similar ideas.
“I wanted Impossible Symmetry to build and expand on that and I think the outcome was stronger overall. When I listen back to all three of them – which isn’t often, I might add! – I think they’re fairly well-matched in terms of tone and atmosphere, which I’ll admit is a happy accident for the most part. However, I was conscious of trying to build an element of consistency between each record and give the listener a feeling that the new one was starting where its predecessor left off. I think the ghosts of Cryptography can certainly be felt in the first track from Impossible Symmetry, for instance.
“Bill from PAN has been a good friend of mine for a while and he offered to release my music when he started the label, so it was a fairly natural and easy decision to give him Impossible Symmetry. It’s been great to work with him as he’s been very supportive and his eye for detail in the visual department is generally immaculate!
“I spent about a year on the record, which is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish something, and it probably has the widest sound palette of anything I’ve recorded. There were two ‘finished’ versions prior to the final master where several tracks were scrapped and reworked. It wasn’t until I toured Europe last year with Élg and Tomutonttu that the final version started to take shape, as the ideas that built ‘Liskojen yo’ and ‘Miniatures’ were born from my sets on that tour.
“I wanted to see if I could use rhythm as an atmospheric tool, rather than as something synchronized and hooky.”
“Even though there was only a year-long gap between the release of Cryptography and Impossible Symmetry, I actually finished Cryptography in 2009 and I’d only recorded about two minutes worth of music in the time between then and when I started Impossible Symmetry. I didn’t chose to take a break for any deliberate reason but I was tired of the prolific way in which the noise/experimental scene operates, and it was a way of working I had no interest in anymore. Not because I was purposefully trying to legitimize myself as an artist or for any contrived melodramatic reason, but I wanted to take the time to hone my ideas and strengthen my output, which felt far more rewarding and enabled me to push things a little further.
“Initially I felt pretty out of shape in terms of recording, and there were definitely some problems with focusing at first. It felt like starting again in a way! I wanted to work with electronics again in a way I felt I hadn’t before and I also wanted to see if I could use rhythm as an atmospheric tool, rather than as something synchronized and hooky – if that makes any sense. I wanted it to be a bit ‘grander’ than anything I’d recorded before, I suppose.”
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“Without any shade of bias, I really admire Kye [Helm’s Cryptography was released on Kye]. Graham [Lambkin] puts out really strong records that look beautiful and the run of quality over the past two years is unmatched by any contemporary label I can think of (other than PAN maybe). It was a privilege to do a record with Graham and Kye is the classic example of a guy with great taste releasing the music he likes and doing it well. I think Savoury Days is shaping up to be a curious anomaly and I’m interested to see what they put out next. Harbinger Sound is still the best noise label currently operating in the world. I think Posh Isolation from Denmark are an interesting label as well – I played in Copenhagen earlier this year with a bunch of their projects and I really enjoyed experiencing first-hand the youthful energy that drives their world.
“It’s nice to see some good records coming out of my city by people I know this year…”
“Artist-wise, it’s nice to see some good records coming out of my city by people I know this year – I’ve really enjoyed albums by Tom James Scott, The Pheromoans and Dale Cornish, and I’m looking forward to hearing what Lee Gamble has done for Pan. I’ll generally always pay attention to anything that Andrew Chalk, David Jackman, William Bennett, Philip Best and Robert Ashley are up to.”
“I’m playing a few gigs in Europe in October: Paris and Portugal with Kevin Drumm, Brussels, a PAN night at Berghain in Berlin, and the Unsound festival. I just finished recording a new EP – kind of like a footnote to Impossible Symmetry – which will be out on PAN at some point soon. I’m also making a record with Tom James Scott which we’ll hopefully finish before the end of the year, and I have plans for another couple of new and different collaborative projects in the pipeline. I’m potentially doing some gigs with Tropa Macaca in Europe early next year so that should hopefully give me enough ideas to plant the seed for the next album.”
“At the moment the underground seems to be bigger, more open and cross-pollinated.”
“I think its fine, and it always will be to an extent, because the underground has always managed to operate outside of the traditional industry structure that seems to be in a state of collapse. I still see an audience there and at the moment it seems to be bigger, more open and cross-pollinated – which is a great thing in my opinion. Because of this I now find myself meeting new people who I may not have met before and I’m also playing to different crowds – whether they like what I do is another matter, but it definitely makes things a bit more interesting. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be sharing bills with groups like SND and HTRK I’d have found it hard to believe, but now it seems to make sense.”
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