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Beauty From Detritus: An Interview With Graham Lambkin
Eden Tizard , September 10th, 2018 06:51

Field recorder Graham Lambkin of The Shadow Ring talks to Eden Tizard about beauty, oddity and the lovely cadence of rain on metal

Portraits by Noura Ikhlef

It seems strange to find Graham Lambkin amid the clutter of London. His work in both The Shadow Ring and as a peerless field recorder is beautiful (if fringe) yet seemingly the product of hermit-like isolation. He's lived in cities before - Miami, upstate New York - but it's easiest to imagine him removed from any hubbub, ploughing away on the outskirts. This might all be due to a misapprehension on my part. After all, it's somewhat of a fallback to reduce someone's work through the prism of where they're from. In his case it was Folkestone, a small town on the coast of southern England.

His motives at the start of The Shadow Ring confirm my preconceived ideas that Folkestone's lack of options were motor fuel for the imagination. "We were really fighting a war against boredom," he tells me, "something to do, because there was fuck all else to do." But for Lambkin it seems that intrigue can be found anywhere - once you thoroughly investigate your surroundings that is.

He looks slightly out of place when we meet, wearing a black raincoat in sweltering heat. Currently he lives in a disused hospital near West Ham, with his partner and fellow artist Áine O’Dwyer. The building was used as a refuge for those in dire circumstances, their flat a staff meeting room. On the roof is a plush herb garden maintained by the tenants, the London skyline visible in the distance due to the low-rising buildings that surround the area.

Contrary to his early work, many of his recent activities are fuelled by this hyper activity, this overload of information. "The one we did before last was called Trace Elements," he explains, "where we went to St Pancras with a wad of tracing paper and charcoal. Áine was making rubbings of the various textures found in the station, like the escalators and marble flooring."

All aspects of London life are utilised in these pieces, most importantly the people who populate these environments. "We were notating random snippets of conversation that we heard from people who were passing through. We would document these things on paper and then release them so they would become trash and float around the place, get swept up, and disposed of." O'Dwyer refers to these documents as 'floating scores', the project aiming to capture transitory human presence as well as the history which the space is embedded in.

Perhaps Lambkin feels an affinity for the transitory. He arrived back in England earlier this year with nothing but socks, undies and a few pencils, yet a strong work ethic is at play and he’s already dived into a number of new artistic projects.

One of these projects was Trolly Talk - based in the market of Middlesex Street. "In the inactivity of the market, there's the trolleys," he tells me, "just the bare shells of the trolleys, and they make beautiful sounds like squeaks. Sort of like violins when you move them, but also because the streets are cobbled they make quite a nice racket. So we played with them, and the different metal gates that were left there."

Chance is vital. The pair choose to embrace the unexpected and naturally occurring. They recognise how the unplanned can add elements to a piece which they would not be able to conceive. For Trolly Talk it was rain - "We got lucky that day because it was pouring hard, there was a lovely cadence of the rain on the metal."

They're wary of being overly precious, or expecting the environment to give back a specific desire. O'Dwyer believes what's necessary is "just allowing objects to speak for themselves and the place they're actually from".

"That's one of the mandates of working in a found space," says Lambkin, "you have to let the vocabulary of the space have its say rather that try and control it. You can do that anywhere."

The pair may come at their work from different backgrounds but share the same impulses. O'Dwyer is a multi-instrumentalist from Ireland who approaches traditional instrumentation with a fiercely exploratory spirit. The album Music For Church Cleaners featured her pipe organ work performed live, while church staff went about their work, her investigation into the psychic reality of space not all too dissimilar to Lambkin's.

In his own work, he excavates both beauty and oddity from what can be the most domestic of sources. His approach to recording has remained remarkably consistent since his primitive sketches with school day co-conspirator Darren Harris - who, with Tim Goss, he would record with as The Shadow Ring.

As part of a work initiative program, students had to come up with a scheme that would generate income. "Most people were into washing cars or taking dogs out, stuff like that," he remembers, "but we rather stupidly thought, well, we'll make a cassette and sell it." The resulting tape was unfettered by over-analyzation or learned notions of technical standards. "I don't really know what possessed us to do that," he ponders, "because these are two people that have absolutely no training."

Intuition has remained a constant. Primary concerns are with the elasticity of language and sound. When words are used they are often stretched, garbled, approached for the musicality of each syllable. A cough, sigh or sputter can be as integral as speech. Many field recordists aim to remove themselves from their found sounds, whereas Lambkin believes it only right for his presence to be accounted for. He says: "You have to take it as given that I made the field recording, therefore the act of making it shouldn't exclude me from it."

But the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of Lambkin himself enrich rather than detract from the recorded sounds. "It’s nice to allow a thumbprint to exist on the work", he adds, "I try not to be precious about things like that because I think they add a kind of character." After all, "anyone can stand outside and record the traffic."

If much of his current work reflects the psychic reality of space via the means of field recordings, then with The Shadow Ring he achieved the same with song. Early records like City Lights, Put The Music In Its Coffin, and Wax-Work Echoes were dubbed as being somewhere between The Incredible String Band and Throbbing Gristle, loosely attached to the more surreal end of the English folk tradition while equally imbued with the D.I.Y. messthetics of the international underground.

Both in sound and lyric, these records encapsulate the bizarre essence of Folkestone. This is not done through social realism but fantastical myth-making, notably by the inclusion of the coast as well as the creatures which inhabit it.

In a somewhat deserted local pub, Lambkin informs me of how the three initial records were made while both he and Harris still lived with their families. "Darren's parents didn't even know he was in a band until he announced in 95 that he was going on a tour in the States. They were even more confused when he pulled out all these records and said I've actually been doing music,” adding: “It caused further embarrassment when they heard it."

Lambkin's parents were more accommodating: "My mother heard all sorts of horrendous things coming from my room. So she just chalked it up to Graham and his peculiar tastes. She wasn't really alarmed when she found out I was behind some of those sounds."

Shortly after, they moved into Coombe House, a place of great personal mythology in The Shadow Ring story. A schism occurred there which lead to the group's trajectory being irreversibly altered. The first album recorded was 1997's Hold Onto I.D., which carried an echo of earlier albums but was somewhat more dank and destitute. What was once playful had become paranoid. A certain nautical obsession was always present in the lyrics, but now manifested itself in a more blackly comic fashion.

There even seemed to be a fear that the aquatic creatures they sang about would invade the domestic and claim it as their own. "You've got to watch the water that drips on you," warn the group, "you've got to learn the difference between sweat and dew. You've got black lakes forming on your floor, and a dusty brown rug from decades or so ago becomes hotspot for shrimp and nautical foe." It's a seasick record littered with this kind of home-brewed surrealism.

But it was their following album, 1999's Lighthouse, that botched and frazzled all elements of the group's sound. It's one of the late 90s’ true anomalies, a spliced up concept album with themes that range from Britain's last lighthouse keepers, through to the eating habits of the R.A.F. It trades guitar for toy-box musicality, dissonant electronics, and amateur tape abstractions; taking influence from the likes of Robert Ashley and Alternative TV's Vibing Up The Senile Man.

Above all, it's notable for the way the band don't take themselves overly seriously: "We were high as kites and realising how ridiculous this thing was, how much fun we were having and how pure it was. It was like a eureka moment when we thought this is actually the essence of the group, it's ridiculous and it's humorous."

He went to great lengths to further confound with the lyrics, giving them to Harris but making them purposefully hard to decipher. "I liked the fact that Darren was really self-conscious and didn’t want to read them out," he tells me, "so I played on that and it got more and more perverse as we went on. While handwriting them I would purposefully misspell things or make things illegible to confuse him. That’s why I used Darren. I think he had a great voice, but I also wanted to dismantle what a band should be, and how they should behave."

What was Harris' perspective on this?

"Well I think he enjoyed it, otherwise he would have said no."

The path which Lighthouse paved would be further explored on 2001's Lindus, but stratified to an even greater extent. Back at O'Dwyer’s flat, in his small, stripped bare recording space, Lambkin reveals: "That was the only record we made where some of it they sent me tapes [back from England]."

This fractured album was made after he relocated to Miami. While there, a peculiar set of circumstances landed him with some of the highest quality equipment on the market. "I'd befriended this guy named Don Raleigh,” he recalls, “who was in this band called The Squirrel Nut Zippers. In the late 90s, they were huge for like an album, they got really big during this swing revival." At the time Graham was working in an arthouse cinema where Don's wife was volunteering.

"Don had aspirations in experimental film, even though they weren't really ever played out, but his wife put me in touch and we became friends for a little while. He had this huge house on Miami beach; they were a very wealthy couple. I'd go down there, play him things and he would be really enthusiastic about it. Then I moved to Poughkeepsie and there was this call from Fedex saying that you're expecting a delivery. This van showed up and offloaded this huge Kurzweil synthesizer, a Mac computer editing suite, all these top of the range mics, and they were all his. Their relationship had imploded, he'd split the States and just went off travelling, and he just gave it all to me."

The equipment was utilised on The Shadow Ring's final record, I'm Some Songs, but he quickly became disinterested in what it offered. "With Macs there's this kind of built in obsolescence, so it didn't take very long for this stuff to fall apart and malfunction, and I went back to my regular things, but for a moment there I was up with the best of them." These days, he uses the same mic and tape setup, purposefully limiting himself so he’s forced to find novel solutions with each new recording.

The Shadow Ring lasted for ten years, his label Kye for fifty releases. There's a talent in knowing when to say enough is enough, to spot finality or conclusion in a body of work. His trilogy of records with Jason Lescalleet is exemplary of this. First release The Breadwinner focused on Lambkin’s home in Poughkeepsie, the second, Air Supply, in Berwick where Lescalleet lived. Finally they released Photographs, a double album with one disc each designated to their childhood homes.

"I revisited all these childhood haunts and my old family home and then we did the same with him for his disc," says Lambkin, "so it kind of closed out this concept we were working on about domestic environments and memory, memory of music and things you remember as a child." Due to the unreliable and 'infallible' nature of memory, things become distorted through time. Photographs approached these formative experiences via the psychedelia of warped memory, this warp allowing human imagination to run havoc.

"We went to a church where I used to get taken to Sunday school and places I used to play as a kid,” noting that the key element to this project was that "we came back to it with the hindsight of our adult years." He was keen to see the obvious finality of the project: "We talked about doing something else afterwards but we didn't want to tarnish that because it seemed like a good body of work, it had a kind of conscious conclusion. If you've got nothing else to do it's kind of noble I think to admit that to yourself."

Lambkin and O'Dwyer are working on an album with a similar backstory. "Originally it was going to be a sound map of Ireland, where we were going over to Ireland and record in these places that meant something to her." But the breadth has steadily widened due to a number of other residencies or coinciding projects.

"We had a residency in Cork at the guesthouse," he says, "so we had an opportunity to be there for a week and record there, which was a gorgeous place, but then thanks to the other local musicians and characters that we’ve recorded, its since kind of grown more and more in London, and we had all these other kind of recordings in Cyros and other places. It’s kind of broadened out, so now really our biggest challenge is editing all this down and finding a cohesive tissue that brings everything together in a convincing way. We're still recording a lot and there's things we want to try so at some point we've got to say enough. It's early stages but we've got a vague idea of how it's going to move around and change shape."

On two of his best known records, 2006's The Salmon Run and 2012's Amateur Doubles, there's a convergence between this kind of investigation into space and musical plunderphonics. The Salmon Run was an epiphany of sorts. In an interview in The Wire back in 2009, he explained that while listening to a piece of Russian classical music, he became aware that “the sounds surrounding the sound were as important as the sound itself,” the natural elements which people tirelessly aim to remove can be of equal pertinence.

Painter Arnulf Rainer was a vital influence, an artist who would paint over pre-existing works. On Amateur Doubles, one of his most breathtaking works, he repeats this formula of recording over pre-existing music, but does so while travelling with his family by car, the album a love letter of sorts to automated travel.

“The two sides of it both use avant garde French prog recordings, but the unifying motif was travel. The idea came to me when I was in the car. I’m a non-driver, so my wife was in the car and my kids were in the back. I remember being struck with how beautiful this synthesis was of the ambient sounds coming in through the window. Very cinematic, constantly changing as we went through the landscape.”

He felt a need to document it: “I thought, how could I prepare for a moment like this, you only have so much control. I wanted to have things playing back in the car that spoke off the diaristic moment of travel, the motif of man and machine moving.”

Initially he thought of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, but felt it somewhat of an exhausted influence. “I'd been listening to a lot of French prog and so I really liked Pôle (by Philippe Besombes and Jean-Louis Rizet), and on the back of the particular record there's a shot of them in a car. So I thought that's a nice visual representation. Then on the cover 3000 Miles Away by Phillipe Grancher, there is a car passing through the French landscape but the road looks like a piano keyboard. They're more, kind of visual cues, even though they're both very synthetic. I like the way they ignore the concept of change and time. I also had a recording of me and my kids, they were very young playing with toy cars, so it stacks this notion of music, motion, and cars.”

It’s a pertinent thing when a piece of music affects the way you listen. Amateur Doubles is on my mind while coming back from the interview, the most incremental of sound rising in significance. What makes Lambkin such a peerless figure is his ability to capture a moment or space, even the feeling when you listen to a specific piece of music. It’s about amplifying every aspect outside of the music itself, the act of listening, your psyche at the time, the natural sounds which intrude upon the recorded music. But the senses are not lost in conceptual conceit, and true beauty is unearthed from this detritus.

Two volumes of unreleased material titled No Better No Worse are available on Bandcamp now