The End Is Nigh: An Interview With Locrian
, January 5th, 2011 08:38
Louis Pattison talks to Locrian about J.G. Ballard, old VHS tapes and their new album The Crystal World
What does the end of the world sound like? Think. Then think again.
Visions of apocalypse, like the urge to extremity, can come off campy or cornball. But when the devil comes, it probably won't be with a fanfare of trumpets, and the earth rent asunder. More likely, it'll be a gradual, creeping doom: a fissure in a concrete reactor shell, oceans choked with plastics, a pox that creeps the earth. It might sound like Locrian.
Locrian was founded in 2005 by André Foisy (guitar, bass, tapes) and Terrence Hannum (keyboards, organs, pianos, vocals) who hail from two opposite ends of the United States - Foisy is from northern New York state, right up near the Canadian border; Hannum grew up in Florida - but find their common ground elsewhere. Both were brought to the Windy City by academia (Foisy studied at the University Of Chicago, Hannum earnt his masters at the city's School of the Art Institute) and both share a love of music, particularly, but not exclusively, of extreme hues. They played together for a while in Unlucky Atlas, a dark acoustic band that also featured their wives. But Locrian grew out of a more organic, open-ended experimentation, and one which now spans many genres - drone and doom, the high-end skree and low-end rumble of power electronics, the buzzing guitars and dungeon chamber shrieks of black metal – without fully inhabiting any. Their release schedule has been relatively prolific – around two-dozen releases on CD, vinyl, cassette tape and VHS have surfaced since 2005 – but these days, Locrian seem more in the habit of making statements: see 2009's crushing, abject Drenched Lands, or last year's varied, guest-heavy Territories. Their new double CD release on Utech Records, The Crystal World marks another evolution, in the shape of a third member – drummer Steven Hess, who has previously played in bands including On, Haptic and Pan American. It is about the end of the world, and it is slow, gradual, but ultimately, unrelenting.
What would you say are your main areas of musical interest? Are you basically dyed-in-the-wool metalheads, or hardcore fans, or did you come from somewhere else?
André Foisy: Terence and I both spent some formative years in the hardcore scene, but really my musical tastes were always too broad for most people in the hardcore scene that I was part of. Terence and I initially bonded over a shared interest in a lot of different stuff from hardcore, to metal, to prog rock, to folk music.
Terence Hannum: I would say it is very broad. I am interested in a lot of music and its culture. Certainly metal was my first music purchase, Black Sabbath's Paranoid, so that was like my bedrock, along with my father's Yes collection. But hardcore is where I got involved. Where I actually made music, zines, etc - the whole deal. Though I always had a more broad level of interest in other things like progressive rock, industrial, electronic music, Choral Music, modern composition, etc. To me genres and scenes seemed very restrictive, very exclusionary, and I get bored easily so I always was looking for stimulation - whether it be Throbbing Gristle or King Crimson.
Steven Hess: I come from more of a jazz and experimental background. But for me, metal – grind, death, thrash - has been, and still is, a big influence. I was a huge fan of it back in the '80s and early '90s – Voivod, Godflesh, Obituary, Naked City, Carcass, etc - and then curiosity led me into other genres like jazz and free jazz, electronic, dub, ambient and electro-acoustic improvisation. I still stay very busy with these other 'genres' I mentioned, but I'm very happy to be part of Locrian, where I can dabble in a lot of my influences and not be frowned upon. As far as the hardcore scene... nope, never really got into it. I am a huge fan of early ECM Records though, how's that?
How did the idea for Locrian come together? Did it spring into being fully formed, or did it grow out of another band?
AF: I don't think that we thought about the band coming together initially. Initially, I felt like I had spent so long having very little time to play music since I had previously been so busy in academics that I just wanted to play music. Initially, the two of us would just show up at shows, maybe discuss a bit of what we planned to do, and then play. So I feel like our relaxed feeling towards our music initially really enabled our sound to grow intuitively and organically.
TH: Yeah, it was kind of a lark I guess. We started to enjoy doing it and fleshing out ideas and bringing in different things. It was very organic. And it took a few years to even record anything. Even adding Steven to the outfit was like a few years of discussion; do we want a drummer, need a drummer, is that obvious? Obviously they'd have to be a unique individual - and definitely Steven is.
I gather Mark Solotroff of Bloodyminded was one of your early supporters - for the benefit of readers who might not know him, can you explain who he is, and how you got in touch with him in the first place, and what he did for you in the early days of the group?
AF: Mark has been a really prolific and amazing musician for a long time. He initially played in Intrinsic Action from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s. Intrinsic Action was, in my opinion, the most important early American power electronics group. He later founded the Bloodlust! record label, whom we've worked with in the past. Currently, he plays in Bloodyminded, a power electronics group that somewhat continues the trajectory of Intrinsic Action. He also plays in a great ambient group called The Fortieth Day and another group called Anatomy Of Habit, who are more difficult to categorise.
TH: Mark was one of the first guys we played with who just got what we were doing, and was like behind us, still is. I mean, he pressed our first vinyl and was always like turning us onto other groups. His knowledge of music and art is amazing, and I think he is just a figure in the scene that is exceptionally generous, helping touring bands, putting out challenging releases. It was like an honor to be included on his label, for its ties to Atrax Morgue or Aaron Dilloway, Mammal - just all these groups we liked. And its a testament in a way, Mark is just really active, always making something, and encouraging others too to push.
You've been releasing Locrian material since 2005, but I get the impression that 2009's Drenched Lands marked something of a step up for the band in terms of scope and ambition - what changed with that record?
AF: I think that our scope really changed when we recorded our 'Plague Journal' 7" for Bloodlust! That was our first studio recording as Locrian and, I think, the natural pre-cursor to our first full-length studio album Drenched Lands. The 7" was the first time that we scrounged up enough money to work in the studio and it gave us the impetus to do something more thought out. We recorded Drenched Lands a few months after that 7" and we recorded both of those releases really quickly. For the most part, I'm really happy with how both of them turned out. I think that part of the reason they worked out is because we had been playing together for quite a while, which gave us the ability to work together really intuitively.
TH: I think for me there were a few things, using organs, a longer time frame and lyrics. That was the big shift for me - lyrics. I actually wrote out this abstract narrative, around wastelands. We had like two days or something and it just came together in this great way. And once we got the theme down it all really flowed perfectly. I think I was able to maybe write more and act as a guide through what the sounds were carving out. The title came from a line in a Burroughs novel, The Soft Machine - I was teaching it at the time and the line kind of seemed very evocative of what we were going for.
You're fans of noise and power electronics also - how does that manifest in Locrian? I got quite a strong noise/power electronics vibe off of Drenched Lands and segments of Territories... although I feel maybe it's a little more latent in the new record?
AF: I'm definitely a fan of good (to me) power-electronics and noise, but we're also fans of lots of other styles. I think that noise and power electronics are two approaches that we might take in order to reach a certain emotion or feeling.
TH: I like a lot of noise, though I often wonder what even makes noise noise. I really enjoy a lot of power electronics. Whitehouse was always a big presence for me, it seemed so correct and like a natural progression from early industrial music. And Sutcliffe Jugend, Ramleh - those were and are some great records. In the US, Bloodyminded and Slogun, even some of that mid-period Prurient - is just so direct and cruel. It's great and powerful. Very evocative. I always pay attention to vocal delivery and just enjoy that approach, like giving a speech.
Territories featured quite a cast list - vocals and synth from Mark Solotroff, vocals and guitar from Blake Judd of Nachtmystium, saxophonist Bruce Lamont of Yakuza. And of course, the new record features Steven Hess, which may or may not be a permanent addition. Do you think of Locrian as having open ranks, so to speak?
AF: I don't really. We had been playing in the noise/experimental scene for a while before we recorded Territories and we had never collaborated with anyone else before working with the people on Territories. We thought of Territories as being a collaborative album and I'm really proud of that album and the things that each individual brought to the recording. After we recorded that album, and the four tracks that we recorded with Jeremy Lemos, we decided that we wanted to focus on pushing the boundaries of what the two of us had been doing for a few years.
TH: Yeah, I think we were always like, 'everyone is collaborating, we shouldn't'. Or more like, we shouldn't just rain CD-Rs of mediocre live collaboration sets, but make it intentional. Hence Territories. Very deliberate - we knew who was coming and what they were doing, we had a ton of content to work out in the studio. Certainly people came in with their own ideas and certain things developed in the studio but we knew, and they knew, why they were there.
AF: I had always wanted to work with Steven Hess since I had seen him play with a number of projects before that just amazed me, like Haptic. He asked us to play with him and he really meshed well with what we were and are doing. So no, I don't think of Locrian as having open ranks although there's a possibility that we'll work on future collaborative efforts.
Landscapes and enviornment, and the destructive qualities of natural (or unnatural?) process seem to figure quite heavily in your titles and lyrics - Drenched Lands, Rain Of Ashes, 'Land Of Erosion', 'Land Of Contamination'. There are no characters, only landmarks. And you also released a VHS tape, Land Of Decay that features footage of a deserted "dead mall" in Harvey, Illinois. Do you think of your music as particularly suited to such imagery? Is it 'soundtrack' music, in any sense?
TH: Yeah, in some ways I feel like we're scoring this negative vision of our civilisation. Do you know that film Time Of The Wolf? I think of that a lot, or of Tarkovsky's Stalker. I normally just envision some sort of landscape I've seen in films or in real life, like a dead mall or a brown field, and just try and interpret it. Think about what it means. Or at disasters like the Kingston Coal Plant in Tennessee or the Gulf Oil Spill. Horrifying and beautiful. To me the character is like the voice telling you of these premonitions. The only one left after something happened, wandering through the wreckage.
AF: I suppose our music could be used in a soundtrack, but I think that the images from our releases and our music are supposed to work in concert. We don't have a direct message to go along with any of the dystopian images - rather we leave it to the listener to come to their own understanding.
TH: That mall in Harvey, Illinois is called the Dixie Square Mall and it is finally being torn down this year, apparently, after decades of rotting and civic neglect, murders and rapes, fires and decay. So, that VHS was also intentionally put onto VHS, to try and refocus that lens onto this planned obsolescence in media. It's a disturbing thought to think about how quickly we discard old media.
AF: The other reason that we used VHS is that we use these very drawn out, slow scenes and it's difficult to skip through them on a VHS tape. We included some live sets in the video, but the viewer will have a difficult time just fast-forwarding to specific live sets. I think each form of media, new and old, have specific benefits and give the artist a different form of control over their work.
Notions of apocalypse and extinction seem to figure quite heavily in Locrian's art and track titles. I guess humans love to fantasise about the demise of the human race - there's something almost romantic about the idea of a post-human era - but actually I'm more interested in the ways Locrian depict this stuff without resorting to cliché. The new record, for instance, is titled The Crystal World, which I guess is a reference to the Ballard novel. I've always thought Ballard is really good at depicting really original apocalypse/extinction scenarios - in The Crystal World, a jungle crystallizes and time and life slows down. What's the attraction to a) these themes specifically and b) the Ballard book specifically?
TH: I don't think it is much of a fantasy actually. I think eventually the earth will exist without us, that is reality. It's not Romantic, or religious, to me, but just what will happen. I have always been interested in apocalyptic stories, whether as a boy reading the book of Revelation in church or like watching Night Of The Living Dead or listening to Cannibal Corpse. I think only now when I step back and see that our existence and its dependency exceeds the amount of resources available. Now, I am not about to go campaign - I don't think there's anything that can be done really. And too many bands set themselves up to be these mouthpieces when their entire creative existence is as a pollutant. No amount of activism will shift the balance and our natures exceed our will to change. I just wanted to address it, bring it up, come to terms with it and push it a bit forward.
The Crystal World was titled in homage to Ballard, it was something I had written down and I loved how beautiful and tragic the book is, how inevitable the situation is as it progresses over a verdant landscape. Jungles, and humanity, are a tangled mess yet here is this event ordering it all into stasis. It's hopeless and cruel, yet awesome. Total sublimity. It kind of helped bracket the content of the record for me.