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Escape Velocity

Chaos Bells And Sounds: Lia Mice Interviewed
Alex Rigotti , May 23rd, 2022 09:10

Oram Award winner and instrument designer Lia Mice tells Alex Rigotti how her approach to music was reinvigorated by a humble tape player

Lia Mice, portrait by Ric Leeson

When she’s not grading assignments – she teaches music production at ICMP, London – you’d be hard pressed to find Lia Mice in one spot. One moment, she’s jetting off to New Orleans, presenting a paper on her award-winning invention, the Chaos Bells; the next, she’s on Zoom with tQ to talk about her brand-new album.

Lia Mice is an auteur. She films her own music videos, she makes her own costumes, even her own instruments are "sculptural". She designed and built a one-handed violin to challenge accessibility to music education for disabled people, and a ChandeLIA (an actual chandelier bought from Deptford Market hacked to produce a variety of microtonal music depending on how it is touched or struck).

Her last album, The Sampler As Time Machine (2018), featured the REELTIME, a cross between a reel-to-reel tape machine and a digital tape looper. It interrogated the ways in which the sampler preserves the past and manipulates the future, all in the present.

She was born in Cairns, Australia, grew up in Brisbane and lived in New York and Lyon before settling in South London in 2015. She now lives in Peckham while most of her musical instrument building takes places in Mile End at the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary University (where she is also doing a PhD in Media and Arts Technology).

Her music is ghostly, spectral, and deliciously dark. Although it draws from similar background in techno, her new album Sweat Like Caramel is an entirely different beast. Its sonic palette is sparse – it was recorded using Mice’s Chaos Bells (a massive digital physical modelling system built around 20 pendulums), along with a four track tape machine, some synths, and a drum machine. But this restricted instrumentation gives way to some refreshingly liberated, almost maximalist music; songs that curl, squelch, and pop. Mice speaks to tQ about the process of making Sweat Like Caramel, winning the 2021 Oram Award, and she relates some wise words from Harald Grosskopf.

Video directed by Ric Leeson

When did you first start your journey with music?

Lia Mice: I had a Yamaha C35 organ, which had a little drum machine. It had buttons that triggered different drum beats, called things like bossa nova. You could change the tone or the timbre of the notes. So when I was little - I’m talking probably, six, seven, eight or nine - I would get a drum beat going and just make up songs like that. 

And how did you decide to become a musician?

LM: There’s this synth guru called Harald Grosskopf, and I saw him talk around the time I was making [Mice's 2012 debut album] Happy New Year. He said, ‘Use what you have, or your dream will always remain a dream.’ So I was like, I’ve got GarageBand, I’ve got a microphone, I’m gonna make an album, and then I just stopped caring if anyone would take it seriously. I was just like, 'I want to do this for myself.'

  How did this new album come about?

LM: During the 2020 lockdown, I started getting double vision. That’s why I’m wearing these glasses which are foggy on one side. I didn’t know at the time what was happening as I couldn’t get to see any doctors because it wasn't seen as an emergency. The medical term for it is "intractable diplopia", meaning double vision which goes away when one eye is closed.

Basically, I was born blind in my left eye. My parents were brainwashed by an incompetent doctor who convinced them to try out procedures on my blind eye that didn't follow proper medical protocol. I had a decade of torture such as being forced to wear an eyepatch over, and having burning eyedrops put in, my sighted eye all so I would use my blind eye. I also had an unnecessary operation on my blind eye when I was four. It resulted in me forming neural pathways in relation to my blind eye that are problematic for my vision. Before lockdown, my brain could ignore those neural pathways – it would essentially just ignore any vision sent to my brain from my blind eye. But at the start of lockdown this ability started wearing off, making it difficult for my brain to ignore the problematic vision. All of this resulted in intractable diplopia.

The medical term for the quality of vision in my left eye is "blind". What many people don't know is that blindness is a spectrum. For some people it's total darkness and for others it includes light perception. When I was a baby my left eye saw total darkness, and I remember having a 3D imagination of what everything looked like. For example, I had a 3D image in my head that was the architectural layout of my house. However if somebody closed a door I would bump into it because in my mental layout the door would be open. Due to the incorrect treatment of my eye, I can now see something from my left eye but I would much prefer to see nothing and I feel totally violated that these things were done to me as a child without my consent!

Because of the Hippocratic Oath no doctor will reverse the vision in my left eye back to how it was naturally when I was born. I'd have to shove something in my eye myself – which I might do sometime! Currently, the vision in my left eye looks like an image which I found online.

But during lockdown I couldn’t read, I couldn’t see properly, I couldn’t get anything done. At first I tried to make some kind of music around this idea of double vision, but it didn’t work. I guess it was too close to home. But around the end of 2020, somebody was selling a four track tape machine second hand and I bought it. It became this source of inspiration and fun; I told myself, instead of trying to be productive all the time, why not approach this album as fun? 

I started cutting up tapes. I recorded some music on tape, sliced it up and then re-spliced the sections. I’d do things where I’d randomly roll dice to figure out the lengths of the tape to cut and put back together. [Then after listening to the results] I would transpose that to a melody and, in turn, convert that to MIDI to play my synths with. The tape machine had become an ideas generator. 

I was trying as many ideas as I could with this tape machine, because I had been saying to myself: 'You must make a track!' but feeling like I wasn't able to. When I sat down with the idea, 'Just go and play with this tape machine, it doesn’t matter what the outcome is', it finally made it possible to get things done. 

What was the kind of music you listened to growing up? Did that inspire your sound on Sweat Like Caramel?

LM: I’ve always listened to everything. I love techno and electro. I guess everything I listened to as a kid was in that kind of area, like eighties pop and alternative music. I’ve always been open to a lot of different music, noise and rock, for example. But the inspiration doesn’t always have to be music. I mean, ‘Give Me All Your Money’ sounds almost video game-ish. It has the sense of hyperactivity you might get from a slot machine or a pachinko. Even though it doesn’t sound like that, it has the same energy.

Directed by Lia Mice and Natalie Sharp  

You also use your own instrument, the Chaos Bells. How do they work?

LM: The Chaos Bells is a very large digital musical instrument, two metres wide and two metres tall. It has 20 performable pendulums, and inside each pendulum is a sensor, which recognises the angle of tilt. If you strike it with the drumsticks or mallet, if you think about that in slow motion, it's vibrating. So that's hooked up to the synth engine and that is used to burst a physical modelling synth that is made to sound like an electric guitar string.

Where I hooked it up to be different is that additionally, when you tilt higher and higher, it creates a different sounding tone of the string, kind of sustaining, almost like an EBow. The reason why it sounds like a bell in the upper registers is because I put more harmonics into those tones. 

Why did you make the Chaos Bells?

LM: Something that fascinated me when I started making my own instruments is that when people think about instruments, they conceive of them as physical objects that already exist. And generally the player is just supposed to shape their body around those instruments. I came to the realisation, 'No - we should be shaping the instruments around our bodies.'

You also won the Oram Award in 2021 for the Chaos Bells – how did you feel about that?

LM: I had never won an award before, so it was very cool! I don’t know... you work really hard and then someone goes, 'Here’s an award.' It’s like, somebody gets what I’m doing. I’m not really trying to be popular, otherwise I could have picked a popular genre and worked in it but that’s not me. I’m trying to find things that haven’t been done before and explore them. It’s nice that you can be recognised for not taking the known road as well.

Sweat Like Caramel is out now on Objects Limited