Hidden Life Force: An Interview With LHF

Over the course of several EPs and now a debut album through Keysound, LHF have plotted a course through dubstep's rhythmic framework that draws from London's dance music history, sci-fi and cosmic sounds from further afield. Rory Gibb opens up channels of communication

"Tonight you are going to hear the most cantankerous, ruffneck, poisonous dubplate you’ve ever heard!"

Double Helix feat. Low Density Matter – ‘Rush’

The history of pirate radio and its relation to the changing UK rave landscape – hardcore rave, through jungle, drum & bass, garage, dubstep, grime, funky, and all manner of micro-niche creations – attracts its fair share of mythologising. It’s not hard to understand why: the potent alchemical cocktail of good chemical stimulation, good music and a good party space turns a dancefloor into an enclosed world. Especially before the advent of the web, locking into the pulse of the illegal airwaves offered an access point for those too young or too distant to be present in person (or mid-week, when the buzz had faded enough to require a quick injection of positive energy).

But beyond the visceral thrill of the music itself and the accompanying rapid-fire MC spray, it was genuinely interesting in its dispersal of body music into intangible space, opening up a two way communication line between listeners and DJs that extended far beyond the physical confines of a single rave location. It pre-empted by years the current internet assisted state of affairs: where dancefloors are located in virtual space and anonymity reins supreme (literally, in the case of the Boiler Room, where commenters halfway across the world run a pervy eye up and down girls dancing near the front); where radio shows are streamed online and feature shout-outs to people "up on the Twitter"; where new music feeds from network cables like an information hungry parasite and is scattered back to the aether almost as soon as it’s been committed to tape (well, hard drive).

Even LHF – the shadowy, pirate radio-raised London collective whose music wires dubstep with the energy of London’s entire dance music continuum, punching patch cables into all its past forms – present their music in the form of a regular online show on Sub FM and free-to-download mixes. So, although on the surface discussing pirate radio airwaves and internet-age music distribution models in the same breath might seem to be citing opposing forces – sacreligious, even – it makes a strange kind of sense that I find myself interviewing them via that most detached and web-reliant of methods: MSN Messenger.

"I guess we’re old school guys using new school technology but staying true to our ethics," they explain. "Some digital pirates! We’re not caught up in the technical aspects, we’re just about the vibe, but we can use some of those tools without losing that sense. There’s a temptation to put everything out there about yourself on the net – [but] that’s how you get lost in the matrix. We try to stay in it, but not of it."

In keeping with the pirate ethos, they certainly do run a neat line in carefully fostered anonymity. Unpicking the maze of ideas and imagery that surround LHF (tellingly, during this interview they describe their entire public persona as a "puzzle") proves to be something of a headache. They’re apparently a nine-strong crew, but tracks from only four members appear on the group’s recently released debut album Keepers Of The Light: core members Amen Ra and Double Helix – whom they themselves describe as the "nucleus" of the operation – alongside Low Density Matter and No Fixed Abode. Elsewhere, the collective’s members scatter outward in a mesh of other pseudonyms: Solar Man, Escobar Seasons, Lumin Project, Octaviour, Exhale. The dividing lines between their tracks are thin, and blurred further still when heard in the mix, where the exact provenance of any individual sound becomes difficult to isolate from the fray.

Though they’d been friends for a long time and had been producing individually up until that point, the LHF project was first seeded in 2005, while a number of members were out in Amsterdam. "It just made sense," they remember. "It was staring us in the face for years really, we were sharing tapes, raving, DJing together." A common interest in the ideals and ethics behind pirate radio and illegal raves was a founding ideal for the nascent collective: their encouragement to take matters into your own hands, remain independent and establish a space for creative expression. "It’s just the ideal of pushing against something to gain your own power – whether that’s the authorities or your own fear. Every action has an opposite and equal reaction. If you’re just going with things you’re not really going to develop strength or empowerment. We were never taught how to make music or DJ so we just had to bounce ideas and techniques between us and just build it. It was all learning as you go, but with us we didnt have any direct instructions or agenda, so we were just drawing from feelings."

What’s striking about Keepers Of The Light is how intuitive it feels, and how strongly it draws from the musical and cultural references that directly orbit the collective. It’s one of the best and most adventurous dubstep full-lengths released for quite some time – though as a double album, it’s admittedly tough to digest all in one go – but despite that accolade it doesn’t really feel of any one sonic discipline in particular. It might roll along at a comfortable 140bpm, and the ghostly remnants of halfstepped rhythms might make themselves felt on a physical level. But the sonic narrative they lock into instead epitomises the mongrel nature of London dance music across the last 25 years, stretching outward to assimilate textures, samples and references from across time and space.

"When we were first started building beats we were listening to garage and jungle, and building garage and jungle influenced tunes," they say of their music’s close relation to dubstep in particular. "Then when dubstep came along we saw the infinite possibilities of ‘bass’ type music – [it] reminded us of when we were first into jungle. So what we really take from dubstep is that versatility it first showed, all sounds welcome. Early dubstep was an influence, but actually all the scenes in their early stages are an influence. That’s what we associate with more – that freshness, something that’s right on the impulse, alive and unclassifiable."

LHF tracks siphon energy, spongelike, from their surroundings, a trait all of the crew’s members share. Double Helix tracks especially feel steeped in jungle – his alias could be read as a reference to the simultaneous stiffness and very fluid gait of that genre’s diced Amen flurries. Their spiraling drum runs rub up against dialogue from Wu Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) and scraps of hammy sci-fi dialogue from The Matrix and Kill Bill. Disembodied MC hype occasionally drifts into the mix, but it does so at a remove, one step out of time and screaming out from across a void. Elsewhere, Amen Ra’s track’s draw from the same cosmically-minded Afrofuturist well as Flying Lotus and his LA beats contemporaries, or Chicago’s Hieroglyphic Being, sharing the latter’s use of ancient Egyptian imagery and versatility of approach.

No Fixed Abode’s tracks are the most fascinating of the collective’s output. Again directly connected to their chosen moniker, theirs is an aerial erected high into the London sky, connecting snatches of radio transmission from across the globe: Bollywood strings and snatches of mantric raga crackle into earshot for short periods, half-lost in storms of interference and accompanied by sparse, live-sounding percussion. On the marvelous ‘Indian Street Slang’, perhaps the album’s finest moment, an all-too brief trickle of overdriven modal melody corrodes away, before bursting into a soft and supple, string-led beat somewhere between LA beats and the dusty dubstep of early DMZ.

Names that so comfortably add thematic weight to their productions beg questions as to the real nature of LHF’s extended family. Are they all real individuals? Could they in fact be multiple facets of the same personality: a conceptual web spun by a far smaller group of svengali-like masterminds, hacking out dub after dub, switching between concepts and mindsets?

They’re not letting anything go easily. "It’s just fusions of sounds and ideas that have evolved out of each other," they say when asked of the history behind the group’s membership. "There’s always projects coming and going; when one subsides another one takes the baton."

Their stated reasons for presenting themselves as a unit are just as ambiguous. "It just feels like something bigger than yourself when it’s all under one banner. There’s always been something powerful about a unified ethos with multiple aspects. It unifies you, and grounds you, and allows you to stay focused. We did it for us. The contrasts between the sounds creates a bigger vision and context as well, which helps us develop as artists. That was an important part of the ethos of the mixes."

The mixes themselves provide a natural habitat for LHF’s music. Despite the uniform high quality of the material it contains, Keepers Of The Light lacks something of the stormy intensity they’re able to whip up while presenting their tracks within the ebb-and-flow context of a DJ set. Their Sub FM show United Vibes and a series of free-to-download mixes (lots of which are archived here) have initially introduced many listeners to what they claim is a vast back catalogue of dubs. Ever-modulating in rhythm, mood and force, they serve to intensify individual tracks’ rolling momentum and astrally-minded ideals. "[They] were truly just for us to get hype to, like pirate tapes," they say. "Our early mixes were on tape; they weren’t even mixes, they were compilations with crazy samples in between. The mixes are like a journey through our whole world, and it’s the best way to listen to our music."

Presumably it was the early experience of dubbing samples onto compilation tapes that led – in Double Helix’s case especially – to LHF’s current form, where long segments of film dialogue and soundtrack are woven into their tracks. "The film samples been used for years and years by us," they agree. "The samples used on the first tape were from some Gnostic priest giving a lecture on the different ages of man. We sample from anything if it catches us."

Their sources are often deliberately blatant, suggesting an aural doffing of caps to their respective influences: "We tryin’ to make a business out of this" from Wu Tang’s ‘Can It Be All So Simple’, Tarantino and The Matrix (LHF work within that trilogy’s narratives of human/computer interfacing and reality-baiting sleight-of-hand). Other times they’re less obvious: shouts of "Tonight you are going to hear music you’ve never heard before," layered over martial drums in ‘Rush’. Their rousing calls evoke Kode9’s discussion in Sonic Warfare of soundsystems as tools for tweaking the nervous system in preparation for war with the modern world; dancefloors as training grounds, readying bodies to withstand a late capitalist world’s barrage on the senses.

When writing a feature based around a conversation on instant messenger, it’s pretty tough to give any real sense of an interviewee’s depth and nuance. That issue is compounded while speaking to LHF, who present themselves here as one voice. Although there’s a definite ‘let the music do the talking’ element to their enigmatic approach, the motives that drive their members remain largely unclear. For creators of such intricate and carefully constructed music, that’s occasionally to their detriment. At once drawing listeners in deep and keeping them at arm’s length, their tracks speak of group communion during grubby raves in basements and warehouses, personal experiences of multi-cultural London and its invisible barriers (what Keysound label head Martin Clark calls the "glass walls" that keep social and cultural groups hemmed in and isolated), and nights spent in a weed haze watching cheesy science fiction flicks. But the listener is only invited to experience these at a remove, stripped of any individual producer’s context.

"The mystery is a result of us not being concerned with being accepted, we think," they shrug (digitally). "We don’t want to change who we are just to fit in. There’s just certain things you have to do to avoid all that, and keeping things in-house is one of them. Everything we do, we do to keep this thing pure and true to us. If that comes across as mysterious to people then that’s cool, but we’re not trying to create that. There’s too many distractions these days man! [It] can take you away from what’s real. LHF is our tool for staying connected."

This smoke-and-mirrors approach has a twofold effect. It can be frustrating – the group’s own visions of London, for example, a city whose inner workings so strongly permeate their music, are left to implication. When Keanu Reeve’s ironically one-dimensional Neo serves as the group’s voice on ‘Supreme Archictecture’, he does so in lieu of far more left unsaid. Equally, however, it’s tantalising. The richest tracks on Keepers Of The Light repeatedly plunge the listener into a dense and referential stew of thought fragments, half-remembered mantras and sub-bass chemistry. The history their music draws from largely proves vibrant enough to impress upon it a hallucinatory intensity, even though the hard reality of its genesis is likely to be far more prosaic: ravers sat around in a living room, chatting tunes and watching films.

"That’s the ultimate power of music: the way it can make you peel back layers and see reality in new ways. LHF feels like a dream. It’s a like a lucid escape. LHF is like a meditation to us, it’s kind of strange having it out there now."

Header photo by Nico Hogg

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