I first met Lawrence English quite unexpectedly at a dark, noisy show somewhere in Tokyo, back in 2009.
We’d talked extensively via email, but never met in person, and as soon as we started a conversation, it was hard to stop. Speaking to him now, just following the release of his career-topping new full-length Wilderness of Mirrors, very little has changed. It’s tough even to get English on track to answer my questions – he seems far more interested in what the summer’s been like in Massachusetts, or how my wife’s new job is going. As we trade anecdotes back-and-forth over Skype, I realize that this is second nature for an artist whose interest in the wider world – and the people that happen to live in it – is at the very heart of his process.
Even though he lives out in Brisbane, English has been hovering around the heart of the experimental music scene for many years both as an artist and as the boss of world-class avant garde outpost Room40. He’s recorded with Grouper (as Slow Walkers), Ben Frost, Tujiko Noriko, Tenniscoats and Francisco López, and has captured a series of mind-bending field recordings that have given him a well deserved notoriety. From using a hydrophone to pick up the sound of motor boats and rare sea creatures to braving death in Antarctica’s perilous blizzards, English has a resolve that’s rarely found in an era of laziness and instant gratification. Wilderness of Mirrors feels like the culmination of over a decade of ideas, research and development – it’s arguably his finest record to date, and it makes sense that he’s releasing it on his own label. Over the last decade, he’s released music on a plethora of some of the world’s most respected experimental imprints – Touch, Digitalis, 12k, Crónica, Important and others – but this record feels just a little more personal.
It turns out that there have been a number of massive developments in his life over the few years since we last spoke that might explain this fresh focus. Developments that have not only modified his personality, but have changed the way he thinks about his art. He quickly recounts a moment when he bumped into Japanese improv veteran Toshimaru Nakamura at a festival in Tasmania. Nakamura asked him, “Lawrence, you are now a father, what is the biggest change in your life?” To which English humorously replied, “Toshi, I’m less efficient and I don’t care.” And he seems pleased to tell me that it was this specific realization that has helped him work through some particularly difficult moments. “There was basically someone who was incredibly disrespectful,” he says, “and it really made me think ‘why am I actually contributing to this thing, what’s that about?’”
“I’m not making any money – I’m doing this because I believe in the work, and the way the work should be presented, but the people that are presenting the work aren’t respecting it.” In 2011, his first child, Frankie, was born, and he was finally given the chance to reconcile. “I came out of it with a much better understanding, I understand exactly why I do what I do now. And Wilderness of Mirrors is a bit of that, I think.” He pauses for a second. “I want to do things that have meaning.”
This shift in English’s lifestyle has also meant that his touring activity has been reduced dramatically, and for an artist who I’ve always considered as much a live performer as a studio producer, I assumed that the lack of shows would be quite a blow to his process. Not so, however, as it’s given him a chance to consider his reasons for playing in the first place. “It’s mostly to do with the fact that I didn’t wanna do stuff for the sake of doing it, you know?” he assures me. “I think there are lots of other people that are doing great things that can do that and fill that space, but I didn’t want to just be there as a ‘thing’ occupying oxygen when I didn’t need to be.”
He recalls a short tour of Italy in late 2013 with fellow experimental sort Alberto Boccardi, which he describes as “the gastronomic tour win of the century”. He says that while the “eating their way across Northern Italy” part of the tour was an unmitigated success, they ended up doing a slew of “total punk rock shows” which were starting to feel more and more at odds with English’s goals. “I realized that if I do that, it’s not actually doing what I am, or what I would do in a proper situation. I realized that what I need now is a certain point of sound pressure to make the performance that thing that it should be, and if I don’t have that then I’m not actually doing what I do. If I came to see me I’d be like ‘oh, I really enjoyed it but it didn’t transform me.’ And you know if I’m gonna travel away from here I want to transform someone’s ears, someone’s body.”
The transformative experience of listening is something English has pondered a great deal over the last few years. Wilderness of Mirrors, and its predecessor The Peregrine were both written with the “live experience of listening” in mind, something which English actually hadn’t considered anywhere near as much in the past. “On a record, part of the enjoyment is the experience of interacting with it,” English states. “It’s a way of listening that is hopefully highly focused. I guess a lot of people are listening on headphones now. I feel sorry for people listening on computer speakers because it really is not designed for the Macbook speaker.” English gets a maniacal look in his eyes as he admits that his new album would lay waste to a more modest setup, regardless of volume.
“I think at home you’re only working with one set of ears,” he ponders. “In concert you start using the body as an ear, and that’s where it gets interesting. There’s a kind of instant synesthesia that happens – the sense of physical sound on the body and how that effects how you interpret sound with your ears, and that’s for me what I want to do with the concerts. I want to have that relationship where you’re actually starting to consider the body as part of the equation for listening.” It’s a lofty goal, and one that English shares with his old friend and fellow Aussie, Ben Frost. “I think the thing that Ben and I both have is dynamics, very large and very small amounts of information – very loud and very quiet and somehow, between that, you build a really nice sense of tension.” It’s post-rock, I say, mockingly. “I was thinking it’s from Australia – we’ve got very loud thunder and very quiet insects. Down here it’s all very scary. Now he’s at the other end (in Iceland) it’s sort of the same, they’ve got loud volcanoes and just nothing – so it’s probably more radical.”
Australia has indeed had a massive influence on English this time around, and he cites a recent frustration with his country and its administration as the source of a lot of the energy we end up hearing on Wilderness of Mirrors. In many ways, it’s his protest record, and within the crushing drones and white noise is a deep-seated anger at the current administration. “It’s bad, it’s really bad,” English says in reference to Australia’s sickening refugee crisis, “during the Bush era you’d always have American musicians coming here and saying ‘I’m so sorry about our country’, and you know, recently I found myself apologizing for Australia in Japan, it’s amazing. People would be like ‘wow you guys are doing some bad shit down there’ and I had to say ‘yeah I’m sorry, our Government doesn’t necessarily represent us, it represents its own interests and it’s using certain kind of discourses to justify itself and its position’.”
English inserts these themes by exploring “the idea of blurriness,” which represents governmental policies of misinformation, not only in Australia, but in much of the rest of the world. He’s interested in “things that aren’t there and are perceived, and things that are perceived that aren’t there,” and in an era where supposed transparency has been smeared with constant surveillance, leaks and stage-managed lying on a grand scale, it seems perfectly timed. Even the title itself is a reference to this – it’s taken from T.S. Eliot’s 1920 poem ‘Gerontion’, but the term actually became widely used in the ’50s and ’60s during the Cold War. “There was this whole period where, you know, let’s say the CIA would embed something that was a piece of misinformation, and then the KGB would respond to that misinformation,” English tells me. “Then the CIA would be like ‘hang on a minute, they’ve just done this, we’d better respond with this’. It was like this kind of feedback loop of nothing. Nothing was actually happening but there was this feedback of things going on, and I see that happening now, in different ways.”
The way English chose to interpret this idea was by taking a chunk of sound and using it as something to work against, rather than towards. “I started with that, and then there’d be a layer, and another layer and I’d just erase that first layer. So what might have been a melodic progression or something, becomes a kind of harmonic echo. So it exists, in a very kind of process-oriented way.”
His direction was solidified in January after a sit-down with Ben Frost, who just happened to be in Australia on a rare family visit. He stayed with English for a few days while he was working on his recently-released full-length AURORA, and English decided that it was time to expose a fresh set of ears to his collection of sounds. “On the last morning I was like, ‘well I’m gonna play you this stuff I’ve been doing’, it was still pretty early and I wasn’t really sure about it,” he explains. “He just reinforced the path that it was going in, and that was very affirming, because I think he’s got a very good ear – he’s a fantastic composer. He’s also just a straight shooter, there’s not a lot of bullshit, so that’s good. I think from there it started kind of coming to the next phase, out of the process of working on it, and I’m glad it took the time.”
From here, English allowed himself to start thinking about his music’s impact, and how he could connect on a more personal level with his listeners. This is something he feels has been seriously diminished in recent years with the proliferation of ‘disposable’ digital music. “I love when a record makes me listen to it again and again,” he says. “Every time you listen to something you’re dying a little bit. That’s time you don’t get back, and ideally it contributes to the better version of you for the future. It’s like reading a book – anything that requires a set amount of time to do, it has to pay off in some way.” This reminds him of a recent hard drive failure that caused English to lose the majority of his digital music collection. “I was left with 50 records or something, and one of them was a pre-released version of Grouper’s last record that she’d given me while I was visiting. I must have listened to that 50 times, and that’s what music is supposed to be, this kind of spending time, discovering the details. It’s like when you hang a portrait in your house, every day you look at that portrait, or photo or whatever it is you’ve got up there. I’ve got two or three things in here that I stare at all the time, and that actually begins to shape something about the way that you understand every day. That’s good, that’s what you want; you want things to resonate beyond the moment of their creation.”
It is this, somewhat old-fashioned sense of time that remains central to English’s enjoyment of music – not only the time it takes to listen or produce, but the time it takes to properly anticipate the release. “Music doesn’t get the time,” he tells me regretfully. “I like looking forward to records. Like, the new Swans record, I really looked forward to listening to that, and I enjoyed waiting for it. I thought, ‘I can’t wait to hear that album’, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.” This is why Wilderness of Mirrors had a longer lead time than usual, because “the wait is a great experience.” English admits that it’s possibly something he is fond of because of his age and his formative experiences. “In the pre-internet days, it would take you 18 months or whatever to get the demo tape of a band or what it was that you wanted to get,” he says enthusiastically. “You’d be scouring fanzines, send a letter and get a reply three months later – ‘I lost the tape’ or ‘I traded it with this guy, you could try him’. That was awesome. There was a fanaticism about it – I think it’s still out there a little bit but it’s just that it’s hard to have that same experience.”
The time that’s wound up in music – its enjoyment and its production – leads English to compare his methods to making slow-cooked pulled pork (which I’m told will be waiting for me should I ever make it out to Australia) rather than a burger at a fast food restaurant. “You sometimes just click on a Soundcloud link, or someone’s sent you a demo. You listen in quick succession of a few things and you’re like ‘oh that sounds really great’, and then that’s it, but you realize that the person may have spent years making this thing, and it’s occupied four minutes of your time, and you may or may not ever return to it.”
To English, it’s a question of music’s cultural value, and that’s something that’s been slipping since the introduction of the 7” single in 1949, when “the artistry of music was eroded, and in its place was an entertainment value.” He believes that right now, what we need is an “evaluation of what the artistry of music and sound is about,” and it can’t come soon enough. “It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re talking about, whether it be hip-hop or minimal composition or death metal, every one of those things has a particular kind of engagement with you as an individual that can completely transform your life, and the transformative thing seems to be played down.”
He chalks this again down to his formative listening experiences, “when you used to hear different kinds of music, and you’d think ‘that’s it my life’s changed, I’m thinking differently about how this particular thing can affect me and can affect other people’ and you wanna actually make that something that can be ongoing into the future for other people.” This is the reason English started promoting shows, and it’s certainly the reason he’s still producing music and running his label. It all boils down to one thing, what English wants is for people “to have the opportunity (if they want to) to listen deeply and be absorbed in something and have that experience that maybe people like you and me were able to have under different circumstances.”
All this makes perfect sense when you consider English’s involvement with field recording, a technique that he’s perfected over many years of practice. The very act of field recording is capturing a moment in time to share with people who weren’t present, so it all seems to tie together nicely. I ask if English feels like field recording is the backbone of his recording process, and he seems conflicted. “Historically the two have made a lot of sense together,” he assures me, referencing his 2008 Touch full-length Kiri No Oto. That was the last proper album where English concentrated on field recordings, he feels, and it all stemmed from an experience on a Polish train, on the way to Unsound Festival.
“I don’t know how it’s possible but Polish rail feels as if it’s perpetually slowing down. So on the way I was rolling out of my bed the entire night, even though we were going the other direction – I couldn’t figure out how it was possible. So it was like an anti-gravity bed that they had going on, so I didn’t really sleep. I woke up really early and was looking out of the window, and it was one of the most beautiful mornings.” It was English’s first time in Poland, and he was greeted with snow, hills and an elk. “Anyway we came into some town that was just before Krakow, and it was completely foggy, or smoggy, and there was this church, and the sun was rising, and you could look directly at the spire of the church and you could see the crucifix, and you could see the outline of the steeple, but the moment you tried to make the church go into the landscape and position it, it was gone.”
This idea of focus formed the basis of Kiri No Oto: “You can be following an organ line or whatever but the moment you try and bring it into focus it just turns into this wall of sound.” And here’s where field recordings become very important, as English weaves his environmental sounds in amongst the other elements to confuse and intrigue the listener. “Quite a lot of people will say ‘I love that field recording stuff’, when it’s actually an organ, or the reverse when they’ll say ‘I love that organ’ and it’s actually the sound of the ocean. I think that’s a really interesting space to work with in terms of a compositional practice with field recordings.”
Interestingly, his last two albums contained no field recordings at all, something which was a very conscious decision. Since 2011’s The Peregrine was a concept piece based on J.A. Baker’s book of the same name, English felt that it would have been disingenuous to layer it with recordings of sound that bore no relationship to the subject matter. “I thought I could go to this area and record there and maybe use some of that material, but actually no, it’s about this imaginary place that I will never go to – East Anglia in the ’60s. And I wanted to try and find a way to make the music be pretty much directly out of the book, sometimes compositional elements were drawn out of the way he was describing a sea wall or lights in the ocean or whatever the case might be – how something’s moving in the shape of a hill – all those pieces were used as compositional guides.”
With Wilderness of Mirrors, there was no such conceptual dispute forcing his hand, but English didn’t feel like making a step backwards. He did actually end up using a number of field recordings in his process, but not in the way that you might think. “The only place that field recordings exist are in a spectral capacity, where I’m using them to control other auditory information, whether that be side-chaining, or sometimes spectral filtering. They’re kind of like ghosts that occupy that space, which I guess in some respects does tie back to this idea of what Wilderness of Mirrors represents as a theoretical construct.”
English has strong feelings about the contemporary (over) use of field recordings, which no doubt influenced his decision. “There’s a lot of it,” he says, “and some of it is mind-expanding and beautiful, and some of it just makes me want to shoot myself in the face.” This led English to trawl through his “vast hard drives full of these recordings” and seek out the very best. Two of his all time favorites will be making their way to shelves later this year, on an album for the Taiga label entitled Viento. The title means “wind” in Spanish, and fittingly the two recordings are of, “full-on storms” in Patagonia and Antarctica. He has vivid memories of recording both sides, and when he was in Patagonia he found himself in a storm so bad that everyone else he was with had taken shelter. English, determined that this was the exactly the time he should be making recordings, informed his colleagues, “I’m going outside to record the wind,” and was gone for three days.
“It was the kind of wind where you had trouble walking into it, and to record in it was so difficult – I had to build shelters for some of the microphones, I had to face down wind and basically hold the microphones right in front of my body so I had a little cave. Patagonia’s basically flat, there’s not really any trees or anything, but I found these old abandoned structures, and there was one tree that was parallel with the ground, from the strength of the wind, so I recorded that. It was just an amazing time.”
In Antarctica, there were two blizzards during the time he was there, and the wind was so strong it hit a massive communications tower, making it into a giant Aeolian harp (a harp that’s played by wind). “You had this humming, phasing, whistling kind of sound that was totally alien. And that I think is totally compelling.” It leads him to share exactly what it is that fascinates him about field recordings, and I’m sensing a theme – it’s memory. But it’s not necessarily his memory – English says that the thing that’s so special about these recordings is that when each person listens, then they’re pulling on their own set of memories and this helps them to construct their own narrative. While on tour in Italy, a woman approached him with a very bizarre understanding of his performance. “She gave me a blow-by-blow account of how my set was like being born, and she had a great methodology for it. I was like ‘OK, never thought about it like that but I’m glad you get that out of it, that’s awesome’.”
“That’s what you want,” English says, “for someone to listen to the music and if they have no context, to build a context for it. That’s actually for me the mark of success, when someone has given it not just the time but themselves.”