Tricks Of Perception: An Interview & Mix From Helm

As Helm, Luke Younger twists acoustic sounds out of all recognition, his music's gritty ambience playing tricks with the mind. With a London show this coming Monday, he speaks with Josh Hall about construction sites and sonic collage - plus listen to an exclusive mix below

Luke Younger’s work as Helm operates on the peripheries: of noise, of the city, and sometimes of your hearing. Impossible Symmetry, his most recent LP, deserves its position as a touchstone record within the PAN label’s very fine discography. It’s a startling, unsettling set in which the uncanny and the all too real coalesce; in which, as on centrepiece ‘Arcane Matters’, acousmatique can suddenly give way to sounds so obnoxiously, threateningly familiar that they seem to revel in their own impertinence.

Over half a decade’s worth of releases, both solo and in Birds Of Delay, his duo with Steven Warwick (aka Heatsick), Younger has established himself as an artist with unique poise. There is a sense that every sound, whether recognisable or not, could only have occurred in the exact position in which Younger chose to place it. In addition, he runs a label, Alter, putting out artists as varied as Hieroglyphic Being, Denmark’s Damien Dubrovnik and Èlg (the idea, he explains, is "seeing traits in different artists that I like, and making links between people that you would never normally think to compare").

Younger has recorded us an exclusive mix, which you can stream or download via the embed above, featuring a couple of unreleased pieces from himself, as well as music from the likes of Kevin Drumm, Godflesh, Kryptic Minds, Mika Vainio, Andy Stott and Coil. (Scroll down the page for the full tracklist). It comes in advance of his show this Bank Holiday Monday on fishing trawler-turned-floating venue MS Stubnitz, as part of the Hydroacoustics event that also features the likes of :zoviet*france:, Roly Porter, TVO and more. Ahead of the show, Younger spoke with the Quietus about his process, recent crossovers between techno and noise, and a new Birds Of Delay record.

You played music on NTS Radio last night. Do you approach those shows in a similar way to a DJ set?

Luke Younger: I guess it’s the same thing, but you’re less aware of there being an audience. You know that there is an audience there, but because they aren’t physically present you can’t gauge the reaction of whoever is listening, which I actually prefer. I have DJed before in the past, and as soon as you play a couple of songs that might get people dancing then you feel more inclined to play more of that, and actually I completely hate falling into that trap. But these people are there and they’re looking to you for a good time, so I can sympathise with the obligation to provide them with that in some way.

What do you think about this new wave of techno producers who are investigating noise music?

LY: There’s two sides of the coin here. You have seen an obvious shift in people who have been making noise or experimental music, and are now starting to explore dance music but on their own terms, resulting in something like an interpretation of it. And then you’ve got the other side, which is people who’ve been making dance music for years and want to free themselves up a bit, and make something a bit more experimental. There’s good things going on in both camps, but generally I would say that people coming from a dance music background are not very good at doing experimental music. The whole thing about noise music as I’ve always been familiar with it is that people have always been a bit less straight. Just weirder people, and it comes from a completely different headspace. People from dance music seem to approach experimental music in a manner similar to professional sound design, which is fine, but to me it lacks something important – it lacks personality, or a sense of humanity even. The rough edges become too smooth.

Do you think that a grounding in the theoretical side of music production is a limitation, then?

LY: I wouldn’t say it’s a limitation. I used to study a degree called sonic arts, and there was a pretty decent amount of music production tutorials involved in that. But I learnt how to use that to my own ends. I still don’t know how to use Pro Tools. I was recording everything in Audacity up until about a year and a half ago, when I switched to using Ableton. And I still don’t know how to use Ableton to its full extent, really. I can use it to do what I need it to do, and that’s fine.

Helm ‘Liskojen yö’ (PAN 27) from PAN on Vimeo.

Have you found that your working practices have changed as a result of that change in software? And what do your practices consist of?

LY: Everything that I work with is about 70% acoustic material, 30% electronic sound sources – things like synthesisers, keyboards, and other bits of analogue hardware. The acoustic sound sources are all treated, processed, and stripped of many of their original qualities, to the point where they become unrecognisable. Also some of the sounds are quite abstract. If I use a creaking sound for example, which could have come from many different mundane things, I like it when people pick up on these sounds and go, ‘Oh, that sound is this,’ and they think they’ve got it nailed.

Is it ever what they think it is?

LY: Sometimes it is, but I’d say it’s only about 20% of the time. I like that ambiguity towards sound. I think it’s really boring if you listen to a record and you know exactly where everything’s come from. I like there to be a bit of mystery there with regards to the instrumentation.

Do you have an aesthetic sense of what Helm is?

LY: Definitely. I don’t know if I could articulate what it is, but I definitely feel like it’s there. If you listen to the three LPs I’ve done, they may sound quite different, but I’d like to think that there’s definitely an aesthetic arc that runs between each of them. That’s quite important. There are things that I’ve recorded that I may like, but I’ve come to the decision at the end that it isn’t quite right for the project.

Would you say there was anything conceptual behind the records?

LY: They’re not conceptual in the sense that a prog rock record may have been in the ’70s. But I’m definitely conscious of the fact that there has to be some sort of narrative that runs through the record. There needs to be a start, a middle, and an end and you need to be able to follow it through cohesively. It’s conceptual in that sense. It’s not conceptual in the sense that the record’s trying to tell you a story. I can’t be fucked with that.

And yet one of the themes that ran through the reviews of Impossible Symmetry was that it was a record about London – that it was, if you’ll excuse the word, a sort of psychogeography.

LY: Which I thought was quite interesting. That wasn’t how it was intended at all, but I’m perfectly happy for people to read that into it. Subconsciously London probably does have an influence on my music. It must obviously be reflected in there somehow, if people are picking up on it.

When you are collecting recordings, do you find yourself drawn to particular themes?

LY: Definitely. I generally like working with sounds that are quite dry, and naturally harsh. I think you can do a lot more with them. They lend themselves to being treated and processed by my methods a lot better. Something I’ve been interested in is the idea of building a piece of music or sound that someone could perceive as a field recording. Like composing and layering different sounds to make something that sounds like I’ve gone to a building site and hit record on my digital recorder. I was quite obsessed with getting a sound that sounded like a car engine starting, but without actually going to record a car engine. These are the kind of challenges which I enjoy. I don’t want to just go and record a car engine unless I want to make it sound like something else, because it would be pointless. It would defeat the purpose of making the recording in the first place for me.

Do those constructed field recordings tend to be of things that don’t actually exist?

LY: It’s down to how the listener perceives it. It comes back to this thing of ambiguity. I may think it sounds like one thing, but someone else thinks it’s another. I just like things being open to interpretation, and allowing people to take things the way they like – which is why I was happy with people making geographic references with Impossible Symmetry.

Do you think that noise is less bounded by place than other music?

LY: Yeah. But I would also say that you do get different stylistic variations which are dictated by, or a result of, the scenes you have in different cities, countries, and continents. Japanese noise music has always felt different to American noise music for me. American noise music is a bit more aggressive, more masculine. More about the person who’s making it. Whereas when the Japanese make noise music it’s a lot more ecstatic, and almost psychedelic at times. It doesn’t have this posturing that you often get with Western noise.

Do you feel like there has been a noticeable exodus towards dance music?

LY: I wouldn’t agree with the word ‘exodus’, because it insinuates a purposeful thing. I genuinely don’t believe it is. I think it’s just people evolving naturally and trying out new things. Dominic [Fernow] is doing Vatican Shadow, Steve [Warwick] is doing Heatsick, Robert Beatty seems to be incorporating some of these elements into his Three Legged Race project. Ever since I’ve known these people, they’ve always listened to some form of rhythmic electronic music. I can see the progression, and to me it does make sense.

When did your relationship with PAN begin?

LY: I met Bill in Glasgow in 2006, at a music festival. We’ve been friends ever since. It’s good to work with a close friend, and I’m glad that he’s releasing my records. I like his label, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

That seems to be a recurring theme with PAN – people whose relationships are longer than the label is old.

LY: Most of the people on the label, people who’ve released more than one record, and then even people like Rashad [Becker, engineer responsible for mastering every PAN release, and who has a forthcoming album of his own due on the label this year] – we’ve all known Bill for years in some form. When he started the label, we were some of the first people he asked to do records. As it happened, I didn’t get round to doing it until the last year and a half.

It’s pretty mental how much the label has picked up in the last year. The success of Lee’s record is unbelievable. If someone had told me two years ago that Lee Gamble would be playing at Mutek, and being embraced by this world of ‘upper level’ electronic music, it would have seemed bizarre, but it’s happened. And that’s down to the fact that he made two killer records.

Do you have many releases lined up on Alter?

LY: There’s a lot coming out this year. I’m about to do another 12" by Hieroglyphic Being.

How did that relationship begin?

LY: It was a few years ago, and I was living with a friend who was a big fan of his music. I’d never heard of him, and he put on a bunch of his records. That was around the time I started using Alter as a vehicle to start releasing other people’s music aside from my own. So I just found him on Myspace, of all places, and sent him a message. I never expected him to write back, but he did. He’s been quite an easy guy to deal with. Easy going.

His DJ sets are interesting. Playing different records over the top of each other, more like collage. It ties in with what I was saying about taking certain recordings and trying to build something that represents something completely different. If you have two records and you play one at the right speed and one at half speed, together they might sound completely different. You can create something new out of that, and that’s the gist I think of what he’s doing with his live DJ sets.

Let’s talk a little bit about the new Birds Of Delay record. Has that been started?

LY: No, we’re just talking about it at the moment. It will happen. But Steve plays a lot more than me; he’s away a lot more. Just finding a time when we can both get together and not have something on is the biggest task.

Do you have similar working processes when you work together?

LY: Not really. Our whole process with Birds Of Delay was that a lot was done through improvisation. But we don’t play together that often anymore, so the way I look at it now is that we get together and whatever happens will happen. I’d say the project has a lot to do with our friendship, how we are as friends, and what we’re able and willing to do creatively within that, rather than anything about process or technique. Birds Of Delay could probably go ten years without releasing a record, but as long as one of us is alive the project will still be active in some way.

Helm plays live at the MS Stubnitz in London this coming Monday, 6th May, alongside :zoviet*france:, Roly Porter, TVO & Forward Strategy Group and more. For more information, full line-up and tickets, click here.

Helm – Mix For The Quietus tracklist:

Helm – Recordings of cymbals found on my harddrive (No Label)

Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet – ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’ (Erstwhile)

John Bender – ’36A2′ (Record Sluts)

Anal Magic & Rev. Dwight Frizzell – ‘Copulation Of Basilea And Hyperion’ (Paradigm)

Atrax Morgue – ‘Talkin’ To A Decapitated Head’ (Urashima)

Kryptic Minds – ‘Convoluted’ (Tectonic)

Kevin Drumm – ‘Organ’ (Pica Disc)

Helm – Recordings from my bathroom (No Label)

Godflesh – ‘Perfect Skin’ (Earache)

Mika Vainio – ‘Magnetosense’ (Touch)

Richard Dawson – ‘Juniper Berries Float Down The Stream’ (Pink Triangle)

Andy Stott – ‘Leaving’ (Modern Love)

Coil – ‘MU-UR’ (Threshold House)

Organum – ‘Sorrow’ (Siren)

Circle Of Ouroborus – Breathing Slowly (Kuunpalvelus)

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