Locked In The Vacuum: Greg Edwards Of Autolux Interviewed

The Quietus met Greg Edwards to talk about over-enthusiastic experimentalism, being cast asunder in the middle of Sony BMG, and the influential osmosis of Los Angeles

Autolux exist in a vacuum. It’s been six years, two Presidents, two Popes and the entire unendurable time/space continuum of Lost since their immaculate debut, Future Perfect, was released, but you won’t hear that on its follow up, Transit Transit. Many likened their first record to a lost relic from Creation Records, but shoegaze is a sloppy comparison. There’s much more precision in Autolux’s cold grind, feeding the empty chime of shoegaze guitars through a monochrome kaleidoscope, leaving it fractured, a bed to emotionally alien voices, and beaten into precision by the Liebezeit ferocity of Carla Azur’s motorik drumming (truly so, following a stage tumble that saw her elbow reset with eight titanium screws).

During those six years, the group has remained enigmatic – live performances aside, their sole public forays have been for an exhibit called ‘Sonic Scenery’ at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the release of a single, ‘Audience No.2′, in May 2008, and guest turns on other artists’ albums, such as Carla’s on PJ Harvey and John Parish’s latest – preferring to hole themselves in up their futuristic studio, Space 23, in Los Angeles. Finally though, thanks to a deal with ATP Records, Transit Transit will see the cold light of day on August 2. It exists in a strange LA looking glass – perhaps the self-loathing comedown to the rampage of Liars’ enviable Sisterworld – a self-perpetuating cycle of disconnection inducing sadness inducing disconnection, where Greg, Carla and Eugene sing of the warmest, pollution-haziest dawns with searing frigidity, looking into the real world through solipsistic vignetting.

The Quietus met Greg Edwards to talk about over-enthusiastic experimentalism, being cast asunder in the middle of Sony BMG, and the influential osmosis of Los Angeles.

This is a question that you’re probably getting asked a lot at the moment – particularly after saying, following the release of Future Perfect, that you wanted to make the record in the least amount of time possible. Why did it take so long to come out?

Greg Edwards: Oh no, did we say that?

In an interview with Drowned in Sound from 2005, you said, ‘I’m really looking forward to doing the next album in a quicker period of time.’

GE: Yeah… well! I’m sure that was the wish. There was no doubt that it took a long time. There were a lot of things involved in that that didn’t really have to do with music at all. I think that musically, the thing that happened that got in our way was that we had an initial instinct to work in as differently as possible a way from the first record, and I think we jumped too far. We had this impulse to be so different that there was a whole batch of ideas that were really bizarre and interesting, but we had to pull back from that and start from scratch, really. There were a few ideas among them that actually made it to the final record. As far as the creative process, that was the thing that got in the way.

In what way were they particularly different from the record we have now, Transit Transit?

GE: They were just… It’s hard to describe. They were really… out there, that’s the best way I can describe them. Just for the sake of argument, if you say that this record’s a pop record, that record would have been a complete experimental art record. It would have ended up being something that was absolutely not song based. I think it would have been very trying on anyone’s patience. That’s what we realised, I think. They were overly complex. The one thing that we’ve realised in this band is that we get a lot from a little, and vice versa, and it seems like what we learned there was that the ideas that are exciting from the beginning because of their complexity, they rarely turn out well. That was how we started. There were a lot of ideas that were bizarre and complex in some way, and that was somehow appealing, and somehow spoke to us, but it never panned out into finding songs we would want on the record from that.

How did you go from that really experimental period to what’s on the record? It’s a lot calmer, and perhaps more simple in parts than its predecessor.

GE: The experience of the first batch of ideas – we almost needed to go through that so that we could have our reaction to the first record, of trying to get away from it. That cleansed our palette. Then we were able to not be working in terms of a reaction to the first record, we could just work from a clean slate.

What else was going on during that time? When did you first get into the studio with the intention of making what became Transit Transit?

GE: We were always in the studio because our studio is basically our rehearsal space. We actually did go into a real studio at the end of 2006, so that was the beginning of the recording process. At that point, there were some ideas that did end up on the record, but there were also a lot of these ideas that I’ve just been talking about, that we were still trying to turn into songs, or ‘re-perspectivise’ or whatever, then figure out how they could be on the record. Because of that, we actually ended up recording a few things – drum tracks – that actually ended up on the final record. But after about two weeks we just had to pull out of that and go back to the drawing board on a lot of the ideas.

When you’re making a record out of material that’s been recorded in bits and bobs over such a vast period of time, is it hard to make all the pieces cohere? From what stage did you have an idea about the kind of sound you wanted for this record?

GE: I would say that that was very difficult, because of the spread of time in which the process took place, and then, in the midst of all that, I actually had a baby. So that was another thing. There were definitely points where I think we were completely hopeless that it would ever come together into the record that it has. When it finally came together, it happened so quickly that it seemed that we had all the songs we needed and things just fell in place, and it was hard to imagine how difficult it had been, given how easily and quickly it came together.

Was there extra pressure because you were engineering and producing it yourselves?

GE: That’s a two-sided thing. The reason we want to work like that is because there’s no time constraints, which [laughing] for us, in certain parts of this process, may have been a bad thing. Just the way we work, financially there’s no way we could spend the amount of time that we spent working sounds out in a real studio. It would be astronomically expensive. So it was really out of necessity more than anything. It does add an extra pressure because you’re trying to be creative, and you’re trying to listen to the music and the emotion, but you’re also dealing with the whole technical side, so it is a little bit of a balancing act. There was no other way to do it this time around.

What happened to DMZ, the label that you were on before?

GE: Well, we were essentially signed by T Bone Burnett, who started that label with the Coen Brothers. That label was really just a label in name that existed – almost secretly – on Columbia, on Sony. They had access to the resources of Sony, but they really didn’t exist. I think a lot of the people that worked at Sony weren’t even aware of what this record company was. We were this band that was on this Trojan Horse record company that nobody knew about. Then it sort of dissolved – I don’t know the exact details – and no longer existed. We were just floating, lost in the middle of Sony with nobody really knowing who we were. We were stuck onto Epic, and at the same time, all this crazy stuff was happening in the industry – lots of firing – and it was a weird time. Luckily, we were able to leave that situation and take our record with us, so we own Future Perfect. DMZ was great because T Bone Burnett, we always felt that he really understood what we were trying to do, and he was always behind us at every step of the way, and he was a great person to have on our side. For whatever reason, they just couldn’t continue on that label.

How did you get involved with him in the first place? He’s quite the character.

GE: He was actually at an early show, it must have been about our tenth show, in LA. I’d heard his name before, but I didn’t know who he was or what he looked like, and all of a sudden after the show was over, there was this six foot five guy wearing a suit and red sunglasses on stage, helping us break down our equipment and load it off, and also talking really enthusiastically about how great it was. And I had no idea who it was. Afterward, I came to find out, and then from that point, he talked about his idea to start a label, and he wanted us to be the first band, so it went from there.

When did ATP Recordings come on board? I read Carla saying in a recent interview that nobody wanted to sign you and release an album in the fourth quarter of a year.

GE: The right situation hadn’t come up, at that point. There are all those concerns when you release a record, about timing, I guess. We had done ATP festival, so we had always known the ATP people, and that was always there in the back of our minds. Once the TBD situation in the US came up, with Phil Costello, that was great – it came out of nowhere and it seemed so perfect that there was someone like him who had a label. That was basically what we were waiting for. Once that happened, then it seemed obvious that we would go with ATP.

You mentioned that you own the rights to Future Perfect. What kind of benefits does that give you as a band?

GE: It gives us a lot of benefits – we own the copyright, so we get everything. That’s definitely the main reason we did it. We had to buy it from them, but it was a surprisingly fair deal that we got.

Getting back to the record, in that same interview with Carla, she said, ‘I’ve done things with Transit Transit that I’ve never done before.’ Aside from the experimental period, in what ways were you pushing yourselves that you hadn’t before, particularly in terms of instrumentation and technique?

GE: That’s a hard question to answer, because I feel like we are always pushing ourselves, every step of the process. It’s hard for me to answer specifically, or even thematically. I think we spent a lot more time on lyrics and vocals, and also since we were recording everything ourselves, and recording each other, we were much more immersed in the process, every single aspect of it. It’s hard for me to answer that because every single molecule of the process is a push and a struggle, and trying to get at something that’s elusive, but you also know exactly what you want, you just don’t know how to get there. Maybe we were more intense on this record than the first one. Even though the first record felt difficult to me at the time, now the first record seems like it must have been so easy, that there was no conflict, it was so easy to find the songs and write things. Whereas this record, I feel like we were really… it was just like being underwater for a long period of time. Then at the end, when it all came together, coming up and being amazed that we had exactly what we wanted the whole time.

There’s a lot more ambience, negative space and calmness on Transit Transit than there was on Future Perfect. Was that a conscious decision, to make a calmer record?

GE: Calm like c-a-l-m? No, not at all. When the record started coming together, I remember saying that it seemed a lot sadder. I think that was more from the lyrics, that I was struck with that. I guess it is calmer. That’s not something that we set out to do. That’s just a side effect of all the other things we were trying to do. But we definitely didn’t set out to make a calmer record.

How much did Los Angeles as a place come into the record? I’ve never been there, but the album has this vast, desolate sound, which is always how I’ve imagined the place to be.

GE: I feel like – and I’ve had this question asked before – and the way I always answer is that whatever influence Los Angeles has on us is probably in the way that we’re trying to forget that we’re in Los Angeles when we’re working on anything musically. So, that’s interesting that to you, it feels like it evokes some Los Angeles-ness?

Well I’ve never been there, but I always get the impression of it being a very strange, faceless, vapid city. The images that come to mind when I’m listening to Transit Transit are of huge blank shiny cities and big white rooms.

GE: Yeah, that’s interesting. Maybe despite myself, the subconscious of Los Angeles is seeping in and coming out metaphorically. It’s not like we indulge in our love for the city, and that that consciously comes out in our creativity. There’s nice things about Los Angeles for sure, but whenever you go to a great city, or what I call a real city, whether it’s London, Paris, New York or even San Francisco, I’m always struck by what a city should be. That’s what everybody always says about LA – you’re right, it is faceless and spread out in such a strange way, and it’s broken up by mountains.

I think my perspective has been unfairly coloured by Liars’ Sisterworld. What did you make of their presentation of the city?

GE: Y’know, I feel awful about this because I love Liars, but I haven’t gotten into that record yet. I listened to the record before so much, and I listened to Drums Not Dead so much, but I just haven’t got into Sisterworld. In fact, I had no idea – did they record it in LA?

I think they did, and it’s about the strange subcultures and brutalizing lack of identity that result from being in this strange city.

GE: Actually, when I really think about it and I’m honest, I think it’s more of a concept in our heads that we would like what we do, creatively, to have nothing to do with LA or not be influenced by it at all, but all these things that you’re bringing up, I’ve just realised that they’re just like a given part of the landscape in our heads. Obviously that’s gonna affect the way we write, lyrically.

Is there a narrative that runs through the record?

GE: There’s not like an exact narrative that you could actually sketch out for someone like a Grimm’s fairytale.

There seems to be a dark theme running through it, and like you said, the lyrics are very sad.

GE: It’s hard to describe, but there’s definitely a very specific thing that I know I want to get at, and it’s almost like if you picture a dog in a big field, sniffing around. He has no system of how he’s sniffing, he’s just all over the place, but eventually, he’ll find what he’s looking for. It’s almost like that, and every time you get to something you want – a moment in a song, or the feeling of a song over all, or a moment in a lyric – every time you get that, that influences the next thing that you get it, and the next song. Eventually, in the end you do have something that feels like – at least to me – a complete narrative with all the holes filled in. But it’s definitely nothing I could describe to anybody as a narrative. It doesn’t have a beginning and an end.

There seems to be a certain undercurrent of a theme that I couldn’t work out, and it feels as though it’s being told through one person’s perspective, where you get an insight into someone’s reactions to something, but you don’t know what they are.

GE: I definitely have a great respect for people who can write things on the surface, where it’s very simple but it also reaches down and has incredible depth. In a lot of ways, that’s the greatest kind of writing. I just always gravitate towards more of a subtextual thing, where I’m writing from underneath and those things are maybe reaching up, insinuating things that might happen on the surface, that are more obvious or narrative-like. In general, it’s more of a coded process where you’d have to decode it, and even if you spent a lot of time doing that, there’d still be no resolution. You’d maybe have ideas as to what it was. In terms of lyrics and songs and in music, I always enjoy something where every time you listen to it, you do so from a completely different perspective, and it might have a completely different meaning, or all of a sudden, you realise that a song’s about something completely different to what you thought it was. Or you hear a song four tracks in and you realise that that changes your perception of the first song. In that way, we like to leave space and interpretation. We spend as much time trying to leave that space, that psychological space around each lyric so you can approach it from different angles, as we do getting to the direct thing we’re saying.

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