PAN-signed experimental sort Luke Younger, aka Helm, is tougher than ever to pigeonhole.
He’s long been associated with the noise and drone genres thanks to his work as Birds of Delay (with Steve Warwick, aka Heatsick) and solo releases for Kye, Hospital and others, but his latest full length, Olympic Mess, is a soup of disparate influences, techniques and ideas. The album’s press release mentions industrial music, dub techno and balearic disco, and funnily enough that makes a lot of sense. It’s Younger’s most unique recording to date, and his most successful – the result of many years of listening, thinking and creating.
Despite moving in similar circles for many years, I formally met Younger for the first time at a show in the summer of 2013. He was funny and eager to talk endlessly about music, so we kept in touch. Since then we’ve bumped into each other surprisingly frequently, given that we live on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and each time we’ve had similarly detailed conversations about the process and thought that eventually became Olympic Mess.
It seemed prudent to document one of these conversations: I’ve had plenty of time to collect my thoughts about the record, and its construction interested me. There’s a gulf between Olympic Mess and its predecessor, 2012’s Impossible Symmetry, to the point where it could have been made by a different artist. I’d had the pleasure of watching as Younger’s confidence grew, and the result is a deeply personal take on what could have easily been tired electronic tropes.
While its title might suggest otherwise, Olympic Mess is remarkable for its coherence. It’s dense and tough to penetrate, best listened to from beginning to end – surprising given that Younger has spent so much time displaced from his home, and the album was pieced together during a period of transition too. Having held down a position at London-based music distribution company Cargo for some years, Younger decided to pursue music full-time in 2014, embarking on an ambitious tour supporting young Danish punks Ice Age.
I caught up with him during a period of relative calm – the incessant touring was over (at least for a while) and the album had been finished for a few months, which allowed us to talk over the litany of influences that make Olympic Mess one of the year’s most rewarding full-lengths.
With all the traveling and touring over the last couple of years, how did the album develop?
It was just a process of picking it up every few months and having about four months of reflection between concentrated sessions. As a result there was quite a lot of material that ended up not being used. I would go into a studio for about four days or spend a few days at home just working on stuff, and when something would become concrete or solidified as an idea I would then have four months away from it.
When you’re traveling so much and hearing so much different music and meeting so many different people, that can really change your perception on how you view what you were doing before and makes you a bit more self-critical. It felt like every time I would revisit what I was doing, it was a process of just breaking down what I had done previously and rebuilding on top of it.
When you work as a solo artist you can’t talk ideas through the way you can with a band – you get that, however, when you meet other likeminded artists on tour.
I think out of all the records I’ve done so far, this one has definitely been the one that’s been less explicitly influenced by musical ideas and more so by social and life experience. I’ve done so much traveling and touring in the last year – that whole thing you say about being in a band and having other people to bounce ideas off, in a sense it’s almost been the people I’ve been playing and touring with in the last year who have felt like my surrogate band members. They’ve had as much a part in influencing this record as anything I actually would have listened to or taken influence from musically. Of course there are definitely some musical influences that helped shape the sounds, but I would say it’s been less explicit than it on previous records. This has been quite refreshing, as it feels like it hasn’t been as referential sonically as previous things I’ve done.
I had the feeling that the album would end up being harsher, noisier, rockier, maybe? In many ways though, it’s more electronic than your previous work.
It’s the most electronic record I’ve done, I think.
Was that a reaction to playing with rock bands then? As a palate cleanser?
Not consciously. Probably, if anything, it kind of helped hearing people making noise music moving on to making more beat-derived stuff. I have done stuff with rhythms – I’ve never explicitly used beats but I have played around with rhythms. With this record I was actually really thinking about what I liked about rhythm, and what appealed to me about working with rhythm. I came to the conclusion that what I really like is loops. If you loop something, you start to perceive it as a rhythm, and loops do have rhythmic qualities, even though they’re not beats necessarily. So I suppose I really wanted to focus on that idea, and see where I could take it.
I think some people might have thought that I was going to start making techno or something like that. Friends would jokingly say to me, “oh, you’re making a new record, is it a techno record?” They were joking, but everyone’s kind of done it. If I had made a techno record, or a record that used beats more explicitly, people wouldn’t have been surprised.
It wouldn’t have surprised me mainly because of your old job with Cargo – you were working with a lot of labels that release beat-oriented music.
I’m just not particularly interested in making that kind of music, I suppose. Even though I do enjoy it and I do listen to it a lot, there are enough people out there doing that far better than I ever could.
Yeah, it’s actually quite hard.
It’s pretty fucking difficult! [laughs] It is. Writing a good, complex beat is as challenging and requires as much skill as writing a complex classical violin line. And that’s something that’s lost on a lot of people trying to dabble in that kind of music – I don’t think they realize how difficult it actually is. And there’s a lot to be said for when you do hear dance music that uses extremely complex rhythmic structures, it kind of blows my mind – it’s like magic, I don’t know how they do it. I get the same thing when I listen to technical death metal or something, it’s almost completely incomprehensible to me how they made and wrote this music.
“I guess it’s the same way you’d go to a club, get completely off your nut and let the music take you over. ”
You stated that Olympic Mess was a response to listening to industrial music, dub techno and balearic disco, can you elaborate?
That goes back to what I was saying about loop-based music, because I did have the intention to make something that has hypnotic qualities. Something where the progression isn’t obvious but you kind of lock in with it, and, as cheesy as it sounds, become one with it. I guess it’s the same way you’d go to a club, get completely off your nut and let the music take you over.
Those three forms of music are completely disparate, if you want to look at it on a sonic level, but they all share similar qualities. I can listen to a Basic Channel record and get lost in it in the same way as listening to an early Boyd Rice or Non or Esplendor Geometrico record, where it’s just one thing that becomes more intense with every second. It’s not really going anywhere, it’s not really changing, there’s no breakdown.
You perceive it in a very similar way and all of these forms of music take you over in a way that maybe punk, for example, wouldn’t. I could quite easily have stuck krautrock in there instead of dub techno, it just happened that most of what I was listening to over the last eight months, especially when I came to tie up the record and make sense of it as a whole, I felt like those were the three things that solidified that idea of repetitive music as a euphoric escape.
People have always had this response to my music in the past where they seem to analyze it to find out how I made it, or what a certain sound is. I would always prefer people to just listen to it and get lost in it. Thinking about it now, maybe this whole approach was a way to tell people to just turn your brain off, stop thinking so much about it. It’s not worth it – just fucking enjoy it, get lost in it and relish that, rather than treating it like a musical study or something.
Are you against gear fetishism then?
As a musician I do take an interest in those kind of things, but you have to have other ideas as well. The gear can’t just be the one reason why something sounds good. There’s a human being behind those machines, and most of the time the music is down to the human rather than the gear they’re using. It does piss me off a bit that people take more of an interest in the equipment than the person that’s making it, or the organic ideas rather than the synthetic details.
I think this relates to your touring experience as well. You’ve been playing with rock bands where you tend to get the usual “ooh, you’re using that synth, that’s why your music sounds like that” reaction.
It’s ridiculous, you play a gig and people come up to your table and want to take a photo of your equipment and these people are completely missing the point. What I use to play live is not what I actually use to make the music itself. They’re tools that are used to re-create what’s made in the studio, which is impossible to recreate in a live context. I use a couple of samplers and I use a modular synthesizer – mainly for processing, it’s not like an extensive modular. For me it’s no different from using a laptop. It’s funny the perception [of] having a laptop on stage rather than having a couple of samplers. If there’s a laptop on stage people couldn’t give a fuck, but if you have a couple of samplers on stage and a mixer, all of a sudden people are like “ooh, what’s going on?” It’s almost like it’s transformed into this magic show or something. When really it’s just as unremarkable – even more unremarkable, even – as a computer, because on a sampler you’re just pressing buttons and triggering things. My main piece of equipment when I play live is really the mixer, that’s responsible for the changes, and if I didn’t have the mixer then I wouldn’t be able to do what I want to do live.
It sounds as if you’re trying to distance yourself from academic music too, something which you’ve been on the periphery of for a while.
Even when I was doing Birds of Delay, I never felt part of that whole academic world. I never approached music in the same way that a lot of those people do. I studied Sonic Arts for four years at university and that was when it became apparent that I operate and create in a very, very different way to a lot of those people.
What made you want to do a degree in Sonic Arts?
I guess I was feeling pressure to do something with my life and study. I was living in Leeds in the year leading up to doing the degree and not really doing anything, feeling like I was maybe stagnating, like I escaped London for a few years and did whatever the fuck I wanted. And reaching my mid-20s, I need to figure out a path to go down. I was already working with sound to some degree, so this seemed interesting.
A friend of mine was doing the degree as well at the time, and he was really enjoying it. There were other people I knew too, the year I joined they graduated – Lee Gamble was on the same course, Tom James Scott was there too, that guy Bibio who’s on Warp did the same degree as well. Knowing these people were doing it, it seemed appealing – it seemed like an interesting thing to do. I did learn a lot from it, and it made me realize that I didn’t want to approach sound in such a clinical and academic way.
Did it make you suspicious of academic music?
Yeah. Because you think “why are you doing this?” I’ve always thought that if you make a piece of music or a piece of sound work, then the end result has to be as interesting, sonically, as the idea that’s put before it. And I felt that a lot of it really just sounded the same.
And it also sounds the same as pieces that were created many, many years ago.
Exactly. The world doesn’t need another Denis Smalley or whatever. At times it felt like I wasn’t on a course with artists, I was on a course with technicians, and that felt a bit alienating. In a way it reinforced my own resolve, and made me think about what I was doing a bit more. It made me more aware of who I was as a person creating sound in the world, I suppose.
A problem I found with the art school method was that pieces that were more personally resonant and possibly less conceptual were frowned upon.
Completely, you come up with an idea for a piece and you leave the studio, you go back home to your wife and your kid and stuff like that and you leave that in the studio. You go home and watch Eastenders, pretend to have sex with your wife, you wake up the next day and you go to work again. For me, that isn’t really what it’s all about. To make something that feels truly relevant you have to exist in it completely. It has to become a part of your life. That was part of what I was trying to figure out last year – I don’t think I could have made this record and been as happy with it if my life was the same as it was a year and a half ago. You have to make personal sacrifices.
You became a full-time musician.
Yeah. The constant thing of traveling and making sense of that, not being in a fixed place, spending time with different people all the time. It’s bizarre when I think about my friends now that it’s this weird mishmash of people who live all over the place. I feel like I saw some friends who live in New York or LA or Berlin and hung out and had as many great human experiences with them as much as my best friends who live in London. It’s partly trying to make sense of that – it’s a lifestyle that isn’t particularly natural. It’s completely unhealthy – I think you have to be quite mentally strong.
The thing in the press release about forming and dissolving relationships – someone can be your best friend for days and you’ll never see them ever again, or see them in six years and have these amazing two days together and the next time you see ‘em you might see them for five minutes. It’s a very strange thing to come to terms with.
It’s not something a lot of people have experience with, and it’s hardly the “rock ’n’ roll lifestyle”, it’s couch-surfing and occasionally meeting people with similar interests.
I think a lot of people don’t realize how fucking mundane and boring a lot of it is. How much time you spend waiting around and literally doing fuck-all. I was in a relationship with someone for a few years and whenever I’d go away and play a gig she would always assume I was going fucking mental and having this amazing time partying, and of course there’s an element of that, but it’s literally 30% of the whole experience. It’s a lot more boring than people expect it to be a lot of the time.
Also those long sections of boredom are the times you reflect about the shit that’s been going on.
You get these very short bursts, like a release, like a kid who gets let out in the playground for an hour at lunch. You make the most of that, and then you just get dragged away from it and you’re in an airport for two hours thinking, “how the fuck do I pass the next two hours?” And then you reflect on these short bursts of energy. You end up forgetting a lot of the concerts and the performances themselves, actually. It’s quite strange. You turn off from it, and I don’t mean that in a bad way – it’s actually quite nice. You go outside of yourself. It’s the best way of dealing with it, not being aware of the surroundings. My favorite gigs are the ones that I can’t remember specific details about, you just know they felt good at the time.
The best shows are always like that – you always remember every note if it’s going tits up.
Yeah, it sounds shit and you know it sounds shit. Then you’re not going to be enjoying it and just thinking about how bad it felt, but if the parameters are set from the get-go, everything’s in place and you’re happy before you’ve even started then you’re just going to sail through it in a comfortable way. But then sometimes, I have done some recent gigs over here with Ice Age and played in Manchester and that was easily the most negative reaction I’ve had playing any gig with any band in my entire life. It was just like people screaming “fuck off,” “fuck you”. A guy punched the stage whilst I was playing.
I’ve had that in Manchester, too.
It seems really specific to Manchester actually, I don’t know if it was because it was a Saturday night and it was an Ice Age crowd but I’ve played more than 50 gigs with them now and this is the only time when there’s been such a hostile reaction to what I’ve done.
When you’re playing music that’s quite confrontational in the way it sounds, I suppose you have to expect that at some point people might react in a negative way.
It’s funny because I’ve been ready for that for a long time, and when it actually happened, even though I’d been preparing myself for that, I was still totally shocked. I still didn’t really know how to deal with it or the best way to respond to it.
It’s a weird feeling, it’s not pleasant.
Yeah, but it’s kind of funny as well. You can still take something from it. If you play enough gigs, what the fuck does it matter. One time with Ice Age, this girl was completely bemused and perplexed by my set and her response was to just run outside and laugh about it to her friends. Like, “oh my god, there’s this guy playing some doom soundtrack on stage in there, it’s crazy.” I’d rather that to be honest than some twat shouting “fuck you!” At least that girl had something to talk about for 20 minutes with her mates. I remember going to see Sonic Youth and having Morphogenesis support, and thinking “what the fuck is this?” and being completely confused by the whole thing, but also kind of enjoying it at the same time.
Support bands taught me more about music than headliners, back then.
Another one is seeing Vibracathedral Orchestra support Low at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and I can remember the Vibracathedral Orchestra set even though I didn’t know them at the time. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not then, but I remember exactly how it made me feel, and I remember the audience around me. I don’t remember a single moment of the Low set, I just remember I was there. That’s what was great about going on tour with Ice Age. That’s the reason why I did it – people need to have that experience, the experience of seeing something that they might not be familiar with. It feels like that doesn’t happen so much any more, or as much as I remember it happening.
There is the idea that music is getting more conservative – there are arguments for and against – but certainly on festival bills and in terms of support acts, I feel like it’s more conservative than when we were younger.
I think you do get some, occasionally – a festival like Roskilde will have Vatican Shadow or Haxan Cloak or something but generally you don’t get that crossover anymore.
The difference being maybe that there are specific festivals for genres of music now?
The new generation of kids that are having these kind of epiphanies are having them in different ways. They’re probably having them via the internet. That’s cool as well. It’s not as visceral and I don’t know if the impact is necessarily the same but that’s just something you can’t argue with. That’s just the way the world’s gone.
I get the impression that promoters these days don’t want to piss off their crowds. I understand that, if you’re charging £20 to go to a night, you want these people to have a good time, but also I think you need to challenge your audience. And I don’t think that promoters are that interested in doing that. I mean if I was to put on a night, I like the idea of giving the audience something that they probably doesn’t want to see but I think they should fucking see. A good example of that is a few years ago when Russell Haswell curated a night in London and had Whitehouse play before or after Aphex Twin, something like that. LFO might have played as well, but putting Whitehouse on at completely the wrong time – they went down like a sack of shit but I think that’s something that people need to do. Promoters need to take more risks with festivals and club events.
If I’m playing a gig I don’t want to be playing with a whole bunch of artists that do a similar thing to me, I want to be playing with all sorts of fucking people. I wanna play with rock bands, I wanna play with techno artists, hip-hop artists. Otherwise you end up in this stale ghetto. I do wonder how many promoters these days, especially ones who do it for a living and especially the ones who organize these big festivals and big events, I wonder how many of them go to just regular nights as impartial listeners, just for a night out. Get fucked up and just enjoy the night. It’s understandable because it’s the field they work in, but it’s the same thing I was saying about people listening to experimental music – you start analyzing it a bit too much. Maybe some of these promoters just need to go to a club night they’ve never heard of before, take a shitload of MDMA and go fucking mental.
One last thing – I wanted to know what’s happening with Birds of Delay.
We are trying to hook something up at the moment, which is a way of presenting the album we recorded about five years ago that still never came out. It was supposed to be on Wagon, Emeralds’ old label, but we had so many problems with the manufacturing of it that everyone just became disillusioned and we just gave up on it. Now we’re trying to present it in a different context rather than press it on a record, if that makes any sense. Because we have a lot of things that we did, like artwork and there’s a lot of visual stuff tied into the record that’s just sitting around unused, so I think we’re going to try and do something that’s a bit more… I don’t want to say an exhibition, but something that’s a bit more of an event.