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Escape Velocity

Toward A Horizon: Land Observations' James Brooks Interviewed
Luke Turner , September 4th, 2012 01:59

Former Appliance man James Brooks returns to Mute with a new project, Land Observations, and an album of meditations on Roman Roads. Luke Turner treads a path beside him

They say that the body renews itself every seven years; surface skin cells, blood and the vessels that carry it, even the cornea of the eye disappearing and rejuvenating, keeping us alive. Something similar happens to the ancient ways that cross our land, the drovers paths that become lanes, that become roads, that become motorways, the holloways that disappear back into the landscape, and perhaps most of all, the roads that the Romans laid down across Europe during their centuries of conquest.

I remember as a child in St Albans (the ancient Roman city of Verulanium), being fascinated that the former Roman Road called Watling Street (now more prosaically the A5183) that ran along the banks of the River Ver dead straight to the village of Redbourne, would eventually lead you across the great English midlands, across Offa's Dyke, through the wilds of Snowdonia to Anglesey. Trapped in a mundane commuter town, imagining that this road down which Mondeos roared was once surrounded by wild wood and danger before the shelter of the next fort, villa or town, was a source of escapism.

James Brooks' Land Observations is the belated soundtrack to those daydreams. The eight tracks that make up the former Appliance member's debut album, Roman Roads, are named after fragments of the tendrils of the Empire's communication network, snaking across Europe. Built from repeated guitar motifs and a light, minimal touch, the likes of 'The Chester Road' conjure heat haze above the roofs of jammed traffic where stonemasons once laboured. 'Before The Kingsland Road' links the bustle of that area today with the purpose of a legion marching North with an evocative, motorik pulse. Yet this is by no means a dainty, folkish, nostalgia project.

From Carter Tutti Void to Liars' new direction, we at the Quietus keep coming across the Mute Short Circuit Festival at the Roundhouse in the spring of 2011 as a real key point in many a musical journey, and so it is with Land Observations. After the demise of Appliance in 2003, Brooks had focused on his visual art, studying for a masters degree. Brooks released one EP with the Enraptured label, and performed Land Observations material live for the first time at Short Circuit. The experience, Brooks says, made him realise he wanted to make a full length LP. And it turned out that the right man to ask was in the building. "I approached Daniel [Miller, Mute boss] and said 'would you be interested?' He said 'I think you have a great shape with what you're doing with the solo guitar and motorik references - let's do it.'"

What made up that sound that Miller so liked?

James Brooks: Musically I was really getting into a lot of solo guitar stuff, the Takoma Records artists, and realising I didn't want to be in a band any more. I wanted to bring something else to the party, my interest in loops and electric guitar. I started thinking of a different approach to fragile, single line guitar playing. It built from that. During that time I was mainly doing visual art, but I was also trying to come up with a project. I did a lot of recording - my external hard drive is loaded down with all these things.

So how did Land Observations emerge from the digital haze?

JB: I knew that I wanted it to be an instrumental project. I knew it was going to be visual, but implied visual, soundscape being the case in point. The title slotted in quite quickly actually, I realised that this is it, I don't want to be called my own name, I want it to be an umbrella term that allows me to explore different environments or the natural world in musical form. There's a flexibility to it. I have some other projects that are perhaps not so road-orientated but are more to do with being still in one place.

Some of the guitar makes me think of the Durutti Column, and that's very much evocative of an English pastoral, while the motorik elements imply technology - yet it doesn't sound entirely mechanical. There is nature in that as well I think.

JB: I had to make this decision as to whether to have the sound very driving, almost muscular, and I thought 'Well, no, that's what I don't want it to become, because then you channel it just through moving'. I wanted it to be a lot more melancholic than that, to have this fragility. It's as much about walking as anything else. There's a slow meandering quality to motorik as much as pounding on a road listening to Neu!

What you do sounds very much of the British Isles rather than a Brit trying to pastiche Krautrock.

JB: I did record it in Berlin but that was more logistic because I have a good friend who engineered it for me who has a studio there. The tracks themselves were written in my flat in London. I do a lot of reading of books, and there seem to be a lot of them now, about roads that crisscross the country. And rivers too. The whole idea of the flaneur appealed to me too, watching people from afar and walking around the city at night. I got hold of Dickens' Night Walks. It's incredibly evocative and interesting writing.

One piece that struck me was 'Before Kingsland Road', because the thoroughfare is the same course as it was 2000 years ago, but everything around it has constantly been evolving. Is that something you picture as you walk?

JB: Yes, definitely. It's allowing your mind to try the best you can to consider things perhaps pre-War. I live in East London, near Kingsland Road and Roman Road down by Bethnal Green tube there, and I do find road names really evocative. You start implying things, your mind races and wonder about their past and the architecture that was on either side. The Kingsland Road - I wanted that title to be about being there now, and perhaps going up it, and 'before', meaning its history and the way it was an incredibly important route out. In Highgate there's that very strange pub that juts out and the road has to do a very strange zig-zag around it. All these kind of landmarks I find captivating, and if I can channel that in some way musically I feel that there's lots of records to make.

I was worried with the Roman Roads that people were thinking that I was interested in music that was about that time. It's more a case of being in the here and now and allowing yourself to be open to the ghosts of the past. I do want it to seem like a contemporary record that tries to ask questions. It's about being in contemporary London or Europe and thinking that there is a past, that there's something underneath or some history that you're in.

Did you do research?

JB: I tried to find out as much as possible about the routes that they took across Europe. They bridged a hell of a lot of miles, kilometres going from Italy through France then tracking down to the Southern part of Spain. That's a hell of a road, a magnificent thing. Parts of it are still in use today. It's the same in the UK, you realise how important these places were, places like Chester or Lincoln, when you look at the Roman maps across the UK.

I've really enjoyed writing these pieces of music that attempt to deal with the road, but of course they can only really be fragments and that's fine, that's how it has to be with music. I don't want it to be completist and say this is where it starts and this is where it ends. You can be evocative.

It's like with your music and then the track titles, it's daydreaming music, you can imagine these places that the music is about, how they changed.

JB: I work down in Kent for an art college, so I travel a lot on the train getting out of London. That's always very interesting, being on a train looking at this Kentish landscape, which is incredibly beautiful, very green and luscious. Listening to an iPod on a train with the landscape racing past is one of the best ways of enjoying music.

Definitely, it's so much better than being in a car when there are hedges and you have to concentrate and it's a very run of the mill. In a train you're much closer to the landscape.

JB: Yes, you're at a good height, and it keeps going, there's a constant rhythm to it. Certainly if you're driving you know you're going to have to keep stopping. I have fond memories of going to sleep on the train, and then perhaps waking up in a place where you've never been before in the heart of Germany. That notion of momentum but also the poetry of it, if you have a certain kind of mindset you can't help but be swept up in the romanticism of it. I want to try and grapple with that in some way. Not that it's a romantic record, but it's that implied romanticism that travel has.

When did you first get interested in these things that have brought us to Roman Roads?

JB: Once I set a project for my friends and I. I must have been 12 or 13, and I plotted on a map the electrical substations in and around the area that I lived. For some reason I was fascinated by them and I thought we could cycle ticking them off as we went. We went on a two or three mile ride round these very boxy, utilitarian structures. My friends thought this was insane.

Photo by Erika Wall