Metal Confection & Computer Love: An Interview With Laurel Halo
, June 27th, 2011 06:04
Rory Gibb talks to Laurel Halo about her new EP Hour Logic, modern science and the influence of Detroit's musical heritage
Current critical discourse around a great deal of modern synthesizer-based electronic music seems intrinsically linked to the debate around our reliance on the past as a resource – especially now, with the publication of Simon Reynolds' Retromania. There seems to be some concern that it will prove a finite seam, as if people are becoming over-reliant on the production of completely accurate facsimiles rather than using it as inspiration to push forward original ideas. You only need look at the sepia-tinted, Polaroid/Lomo fetishisms of a lot of the chillwave set to get the impression that, to a certain extent, that might well be true. But then there are also a growing number of artists working outside of those limiting boundaries and, despite using sound palettes perhaps associated with older forms of music, forging new narratives that stretch forward rather than backwards.
There's nothing nostalgic about Laurel Halo's music, for example, although last year's debut King Felix was buoyed by huge, booming 80s drums, and excellent new EP Hour Logic ripples with the electric blues and purples of first-wave Detroit techno. Alongside Oneohtrix Point Never and sometime Hippos In Tanks labelmates Hype Willliams, the themes and concerns she explores are unique to now, and couldn't possibly have been approached in the same way at any other juncture in time. At its heart lie the glaring contradictions of the information age, at a time when the future is presented as a bright and endlessly rewarding series of social interactions. Virtual connectivity vs. physical isolation. The humanity of analogue imperfection vs. coolly flawless digital reproduction. The false sensation of speed, of instant world-spanning movement, vs. the physical reality of increased stasis. And even, with the advent of stay-at-home club experiences like The Boiler Room, armchair vs. dancefloor. Her track titles give some indication as to their concerns: 'Supersymmetry'; 'Strength In Free Space'; 'Hour Logic'; 'Speed Of Rain'.
Sonically, Halo approaches these ideas with cautious optimism. Though currently based in Brooklyn, she grew up within a stone's throw of Detroit, and her music is fuelled by similar tensions between human and machine as those that informed that city's early techno innovators. All crackling sheets of synth, half-submerged vocals and muted beats, it's subtly expressive and woozily romantic; sonically and thematically descended from the melancholy machine-lullabies of Drexciya's The Other People Place project. On new cassette Antenna, released as a companion piece to Hour Logic, those elements are stripped away to the core. It consists of seven effervescent synth drones, loosely stratified so that audible ripples deep down might just emerge as pinpricks on the surface. Hour Logic is more direct. Opener 'Aquifer' opens with cascading arpeggios and gradually gains momentum, and the title track is a gorgeous, immersive nine minutes of four-to-the-floor techno, shrouded in hot, dense chords. Despite an acute awareness of electronic music's past, it's tough to imagine any of her tracks being written at any other time than now.
The Quietus caught up with her at a London café, to chat about Hour Logic and Antenna, the inspiration of Detroit and the magic of modern science.
You're classically trained, right? Do you think that's had any bearing on the music you're currently making?
Laurel Halo: I grew up playing piano, violin and guitar. And I studied music in school, though I never got much inspiration from that. I think I actually learned more about music doing freeform radio.
What's freeform radio?
LH: It's a type of radio programming where you're meant to play music from a diverse range of genres. I was a DJ at the student radio station in Ann Arbor called WCBN for a few years, and it's sort of famous for being one of the few remaining freeform stations in the country. You're meant to play all different styles, and it's a fun challenge to figure out how you can integrate them all together.
So how did those experiences translate across into making electronic music – when did you start? And what prompted you to start making the stuff you're making now?
LH: I started writing music when I was 19, and I started committing it to recorded format when I was 21 or 22. I used to play with a band but I was never satisfied having to be a diplomat with my own music. I love all the guys that I've played with, but I think at the end of the day it's nice to have total control of what you're doing. And it's sort of a practical thing as well, because I moved to New York in 2009 and it can be very difficult having a band and a rehearsal space, everyone's busy, you need to manage schedules and things like that. It's just more conducive when you're by yourself.
Did the move to New York inspire the music you were making, or were you already doing a lot of that stuff before you moved?
LH: I think having proximity to Detroit – I'm originally from Ann Arbor – sort of opened my ears to electronic music. The first music festival I ever went to was the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and it was definitely an ear-opening experience. So all the sounds that I work with now have always been floating around somewhere in the head ether. And I think moving to New York in 2009 and just doing everything solo facilitated actually making that kind of music.
I was going to ask whether you were into Detroit techno. You can definitely hear its influence within your music, in a good way.
LH: I'm a huge fan, it's a big inspiration. When you listen to it, you can hear the landscape, you know? The melancholy of the commute. I mean, I worked in Detroit for some time, and made the drive every day from Ann Arbor to Detroit. Both my parents worked in the auto industry for decades, and then they both had to move on because obviously it's failing. So I feel some sort of connection to it. And I hear a lot of hope in it too. There's something incredibly escapist about repetition.
That ear for repetition gives your music this really enjoyable contradiction – it has a really strong sense of forward momentum but feels like it's in stasis at the same time. Is that something you're conscious of trying to work into your music then?
LH: I'm not exactly 'conscious'… I mean, I'm aware of the power of the loop, but I'm not necessarily thinking about it directly when I'm working on it. When I make music I try to end up with something I can listen to and just get lost in, and be carried along by.
I think there are a lot of people that make music that have a very prescribed plan, and it seems like there are a lot of politicians who work that way too. I feel compelled to [make music] from a place of anxiety satiation, as it were.
But there are always going to be enough people doing it for the right reasons.
LH: It's really inspiring. There are so many amazing artists making music right now, and I'll just waste whole days reading about music, listening to new music. I feel like everybody comes from a very specific background of what they like to listen to, what their friends have listened to, the music they grew up with. But now we're at a place where everybody can hear everything, peoples' ears are a lot more open, and the boundaries are broken down a bit. That's definitely an idea I was playing with on Hour Logic, this notion of all these different ideas being presented to you constantly. I think in a way the record is a sort of personal expression of all these different electronic music tropes that have inspired me.
It's got a lot more of a dancefloor-ish feel to it.
LH: Ultimately I think it's more head music than it is for the clubs, but I have heard some friends who've told me they have incorporated a few tracks into their sets, so that's exciting.
The percussion's not really obvious, it's hidden beneath the surface, which I find very appealing.
LH: One thing I really enjoy is going on YouTube and listening to playlists, just listening to track after track. And a problem with dance music is that everything sounds the same – if you're listening in a genre-specific way, everybody uses the same chords, the same drum sounds, everybody has a minute of intro so you can mix it in, everybody has a few chillout sections in the middle, everybody has a little outro. It gets kind of boring to listen to after a while. But then you have that moment of joy when you find that one track out of 200 that throws you completely. It's awesome when people use cuts and jumps, when there are really awkward slices. Anything that just breaks from your expectation is what excites me.
Otherwise you get just lulled into a semi-conscious headspace. But then there's something really nice about that – listening to techno on really long bus journeys, with earphones in, and you go into that weird semi-catatonic state.
LH: It's amazing, you listen to Basic Channel records, and you're like 'where did an hour of my life just go? I was just sitting there staring out into space!' It's completely hypnotic. That's definitely something I'm consciously thinking about when I make music: would this music sound good in transit, when getting from point A to point B? You go on the subway in New York and everybody is isolated in their own little iPod world, and you end up looking at all these people and thinking 'what is it about the music they're all listening to that keeps them going?' What is it about music that keeps people going forward?
Maybe it's the escapism of it, especially if you're on a commute.
LH: I've had these moments in the subway where I won't even have headphones in, I'll just be listening to the ambient sounds - the train screech, the air conditioning, the stop announcements, all of that - and I end up feeling like I'm listening to a Burial record. Because I'll hear little floating moments of R'n'B coming out of peoples' headphones. Combine that with the atmospherics of the subway and I'm like 'am I in the middle of Untrue right now?'
King Felix was reissued on Hippos In Tanks last year. Was that your first completed record?
LH: That was my first solo record, and I just put it up on my website for download. I think it was probably the first good record I made - I made music in the past, but I think King Felix was something that really felt… [pauses]. It was cool, I released it and then three months later there were about 3000 downloads, so I thought 'I guess I must have done something right.'
Is that what made you decide to put it out as a proper physical release?
LH: A few labels had gotten in touch with me and I was just excited about working with Hippos In Tanks, they're great guys. The original intention was just to do an original new EP, but they said they loved King Felix so much that they wanted to reissue it as well. It's cool, the release on vinyl was extremely limited, it's kind of fun to have these rarities.
It's really nice when you've got a record you know there were only 200 or 300 copies pressed of.
LH: I've just released a cassette, Antenna, and I've been toying with the idea of reissuing it on vinyl. I see the benefit of releasing it on vinyl, it would reach to more people, and I really love the art, it's actually a painting by my dad. The painting itself is beautiful so it would be amazing to see it on a full vinyl package. So I am toying with it, but there's also a charm to having it be cassette-only, no digital. I think it's a nice pairing to Hour Logic.
Was it recorded at around the same time?
LH: I finished Hour Logic in January and I finished the tape in April, and two of the tracks from the tape ended up being on the vinyl. I came to the conclusion that it would make sense to have those two tracks be added, so now Hour Logic is this weird maxi-EP. It's about 34 minutes long – people put out full-lengths that are less than that now – and number of tracks-wise it couldn't be an LP. But length-wise it is.
Well the title track's nearly ten minutes long. Your music works really well stretched out like that into longform.
LH: I feel like that track in particular has, structure-wise, almost a pop format, but it's a pop format pulled outward.
A lot of aspects of your music scream 'physics' – your track titles, artwork and the loopy, tessellated feel of your music seem to strongly reference modern science.
LH: Definitely. I think there's just something very beautiful about hard science. There's something very mysterious about it [for me], because I'm not a scientist! It's almost like it's something sacred in this way, it's today's religion. I'm always really fascinated when I'm sitting there on the internet imagining the letters that I type going out into the ether, coming back, going to a server somewhere in another state. I love thinking about the flow of information.
Computer science is quite incredible.
LH: I know the utmost basics of this visual programming language called Max MSP, and I know my way around HTML and CSS, but apart from that it's all this grand beautiful mystery that I find somehow romantic. It's very inspiring. It's funny, because I feel I get tagged with the category 'retrofuturistic' a lot, but I don't see anything that I do as being that way. If anything I'm really obsessed with the asymptote of now.
It might have something to do with sound palette. Electronic music's so self-referential, and you sometimes find that a sound or instrument that perhaps wasn't fully exploited at a certain point in time can come full circle. Especially with YouTube now making it so easy to access that sort of stuff. Those sorts of sounds can make themselves known in the present, and they can hark back to the past but also look forward to the future.
LH: People make these associations also because it makes them think about futures that never existed, that sort of thing. It's true, if you use a synthesizer that wasn't made in the 2000's, the music you make is going to sound like the time from which the synthesizer came from.
I wonder whether the 'retrofuturism' tag also has something to do with the romanticism of it as well. We're often led to feel, in the modern world, like visions of the future would be cold and harsh and dystopian, whereas the sorts of sounds you use are often warmer and more inviting.
LH: It's funny, because I feel like a lot of modern representations of the future are actually quite friendly, in terms of staying connected, everybody can share, everyone's empowered, because you have your iPod, your iPad. Everything's about the connectivity of all these individuals. There's something almost sickly sweet about it, you see all these advertisements for smart-phones, and they're like 'now, you can stay in touch better than ever' – when in truth people are more disconnected than they've ever been.
Some of my older family members just hate it. They hate the way the world is right now, because nobody connects anymore and nobody creates relationships. But I guess I just don't know any other way, so it doesn't bother me. I actually think it would be boring if it were any other way. I think that's also something that's floating around in the head ether - playing around with that dichotomy of virtual happiness and virtual isolation. Desktop girlfriends, desktop pets, that sort of thing.
I'm still not sure how I feel about it. As a generation, we're right on the edge, that point at which we're exposed to an entirely new way of socially existing – we're like a massive experiment, we don't know how we're going to react to this pressure over a sustained period of time.
LH: It doesn't help that there are all these apocalyptic predictions for next year. It creates this lovely sense of dread about everything. It's very Minority Report when you go on Facebook and it assumes you'll want to buy these products or attend these courses. But it's like the more things change the more they stay the same though, because people from the turn of last century were feeling the exact same things with telecommunications and global war. Now we're experiencing that all over again, but just in this shiny, glossy, social network-y kind of way in 2011.
I actually ended up using a piece of internet art for the cover of Hour Logic, by this really amazing artist Laura Brothers. I thought it would be an interesting complement to the music, given the sort of things I was exploring, to use an internet image in a printed format, because it's removing it from this place of connection, and putting into this static form. There are a lot of people, a lot of net artists, who play around with that notion of connectivity, and often it's really playful and really fun.
I felt the King Felix artwork had that to it – it made me think of circuit boards and cables.
LH: That was actually a picture of the Z-Machine. The Z-Machine is the world's largest X-ray; it's run by a government laboratory in New Mexico, it's very X-Files. But the cool thing is that when it's activated – the cover of King Felix is a picture of it getting activated – it turns on for a matter of nanoseconds, but inside the machine it reaches temperatures hotter than the sun. The reason it's used is to gather data for computer modeling of fusion and weapons testing, when you have that rapid increase in energy or heat. It's a terrifyingly beautiful image, I found it on the internet one day and thought I had to use it.
I think if I were a little more focused I would probably have studied chemistry in school.
The level of focus you need for music must still be quite intense though.
LH: I don't know really, I guess so. There's something about error in music that makes it very special too. There's a lot of music you can listen to which has perfect production, great definition, but just sounds so clinical.
So how do you go about keeping spontaneity in your music?
LH: For me it usually starts off with either coming up with a chord progression I haven't quite heard before, a beat I haven't heard before, a new type of sample. I'm always just trying out new things - Hour Logic is quite different from King Felix, which is quite different from the things I've done earlier. I think it's always going to be like that, because I feel that if you can keep your [own] sound at the core, it doesn't really matter, ultimately, what form it takes. With everybody being so connected and having access to everything, everybody is in this sort of shuffle mode – and if you can make music that sounds like you, people will be able to hear that, no matter what the context.
Especially now, music can be quite anonymous, while you have quite a strong sonic identity already.
LH: My sound is probably a matter of simultaneously having that no-mind mentality, that floating in the ether quality, while still having an amount of soul and a certain amount of emotion - without venturing too far into either territory. That region between virtual and actual.
With King Felix you made that region quite obvious by having real vocals within synthesised music. With the new one it feels as though they've simply sunk beneath the surface.
LH: People place a lot of expectation on you, if you make one record that is successful, to do the exact same thing and hammer that one sound into the ground. And ultimately as a fan of the music or as a listener you'll probably just get bored over time, if you just create this hyper polished version of the first good idea you really had.
Have you had many strong responses to your vocals becoming less of a central thing?
LH: Usually the people who've asked about it have been pleasantly surprised by it, which is reassuring. It's really fun playing the live set actually, because I only sing on maybe one song, and everybody always comes up afterwards and says 'that's not at all what I was expecting, and I really loved it'.
So now you've got Hour Logic coming out, what are you working on now and in the near future?
LH: I'm working on a full-length, and I'm working with Physical Therapy on a 12”. I have some other goodies up my sleeve too. I'm looking forward to getting back into it, the nice thing about New York being so oppressive in the summertime is that you can very easily spend a lot of time indoors with the air conditioning, and just get into a good headspace.