Half of duo Jungle, J Lloyd explores the personal anxieties – about perfectionism, industry and politics – which contrast the still waters of his new release.
Written and produced across 72 consecutive hours during lockdown, J Lloyd looks inward and answers to no one but himself on Kosmos, his new 25-track project. As he strolls to his local art shop, the Jungle co-frontman makes a connection between his love of painting, and the power and pride that comes with raw, unedited expression.
“That process was massively freeing. When you're writing and producing music all at the same time, you're not holding anything up as though it has to be the best. You're not trying to make it perfect. With painting, you get stuck in and then you kind of leave it there –- those valuable, natural moments happen in literally a flash of a second. It's always about striking a balance because the development of ideas can kill them. If you start packing loads onto the picture, for example, it just gets muddy and the idea gets a bit lost in all the noise. That [problem] intensifies with the more time that you have to complete something – you overwork it.”
“And there's so many songs out there that I wish I'd heard the demo of, before becoming some huge pop song – when it’s been overly hammed-up or over-produced to fit into what other people think your music is supposed to be.”
For perfectionists, modern editing practices and technology can be both a burden and a blessing, with many often striving to produce something faultless. But this idea of seeking ‘perfection’ is something Lloyd is itching to diffuse. As he navigates through London’s flurry of sirens and humdrum mechanical noise, he explains the process behind Kosmos, stressing the importance of creating without any preconceived ideas, and trusting the process.
“A friend of mine works on production for Michael Kiwanuka and Little Sims. He also worked on our second record, and he was telling me about these records which he was making in a week or a day, and I thought maybe I could also do it in a much shorter period. There’s always this idea of perfection in art, and that something’s never good enough. I think everybody goes through the action of starting [to write] on a page and thinking, ‘Oh no I've fucked my first page up’ – so you rip it out and start again.”
“But if you constantly do that then you set really unrealistic expectations of yourself – because you're using judgement. The first challenge is just not allowing any of that judgment in until right at the end, and then you can consider, well, is it good? Should I put this record out? Obviously everybody went through lockdown so there was a lot of worry circulating, either around the idea of ‘God, I need to be productive; or the complete opposite. But Kosmos was never meant to be released, it was an exercise in creating something in a much quicker time than you would assume.”
The mixtape’s creation process bought a whole new series of challenges for Lloyd. He outlines the prep work that helped to maintain its structure: “It's definitely a case of setting boxes – the whole idea was essentially to create it within limitations. I thought well, what are the rules? There's got to be 40 minutes of music, I wanted to use 16 channels at most, we want it to really mix well together somehow, and I want it to flow in. It's 25 tracks ... because I’d reached the point where I would write something and then when I'd get bored of it, I'd just want to hear something new,” he laughs. “As I was writing, parts of the drums would develop into the next song, and those sounds and beats would last for four tracks before I thought ‘Maybe I should change the beat now’.”
Kosmos meanders through a jungle of polished sounds and nostalgic textures, and its drifting beauty feels like it is peacefully floating through space. While distant and pensive in places, the mixtape is also incredibly grounding. From its twinkly, ethereal opener to the laidback finale, the tracks run seamlessly into each other despite trying on many different ideas. “It was through working in this format that I could reuse the last few [sounds] and mould it, so that every time I reached a middle eight it would signify the start of a new track. This way we didn’t have to go around the same idea again and again – it let the tracks flow more easily and feel naturally developed.”
As we chat, Lloyd opens up about the implications of overworked ideas, and how so often, musicians feel obliged to create music with marketability in mind. “I think the whole project was about how, in some way, you have to create genuinely. With the mixtape I think it's less about thought, and more about acceptance. I could sit here on the phone to you and say I intentionally made everything to try to appear a certain way for the fans or journalists. But I read a lot about [music], and think okay, but is that actually how it went down? This mixtape was about bringing the whole universe together, and it's called Kosmos because I just found a vintage book on Pinterest with a cool title, and I thought it sounded great. For me it’s about being more realistic.”
He muses: “Kosmos was made in the moment, and so you're grabbing anything and making it work. It's funny because there's stuff on that mixtape that I'm not sure about even now, and that’s not to my taste. I still have to push myself to accept it. But you see some of the comments and feedback that that's someone’s favorite track! I love that!”
Reflecting on the past few years touring and working as a half of duo Jungle with Tom McFarland, he explores some of the avenues which can sometimes pose more limitations for musicians rather than enabling creativity. “For a long time, I thought [writing] was about having a story about what you give, or where you went, or like who you were. In reality though, the story is more about what was made and how it was made. Because Kosmos happened so fast, it didn't have that weight beforehand. Now it's released into the world and again I'm out of control of it. It's just there for people to listen to. If I’d have held onto it I’d still have been deliberating whether it was right or wrong to put out, you'd be going mad, you'd be ripping it apart, changing it. Maybe one day I want one idea, but then the next you might want it to have a completely different look.”
“This is a problem with technology – you have this ability to constantly edit digital art. Photoshop’s kind of weird, because things get repeatedly tweaked. I always feel in this day and age, I’m literally desperate to get hold of anything analog – so like paintings and canvases. I keep finding old brushes at markets that are so well made, and typewriters as well. We are all desperate for something that's not completely digitised or on ‘the cloud’.”
As the background noise across the call intensifies I hear Lloyd call out to a familiar face. “That's Jack Penate funnily enough! He's just cycling to acupuncture.” Having freshly emerged from lockdown, we discuss some of the hobbies that guided Lloyd through the pandemic. Already acclimated to living indoors and plugging away on projects, Lloyd admits that it’s been fairly easy for him to stay preoccupied inside. “I'm an Aquarius, so I quite like being alone... I'm a bit of a hermit sometimes,” he confesses. “It's not healthy for sure, definitely not healthy. But I suppose when I was producing music back in the day I was locked in my bedroom at my mum's house. Now you get to go on tour for a year and then you're back to being in the studio for months on end, self isolating almost. I’m pretty used to it.”
Pressure can derive from past successes, and for Lloyd, he affirms that Jungle’s accomplishments make him question his own achievements. “You have a pressure in your mind about your success, but you have to keep that level in your head,” he insists. “It's just whether you choose to accept it, and that’s a day to day action, you know. You can't just be like, “I'm enlightened!” – it's definitely a journey.” Understandably, artists often struggle when they pursue a new direction, as so many listeners have preconceived ideas of their sound, he explains: “People always have an expectation of what they want [your music] to look or sound like. There's the argument about Shrek and Shrek 2… you know what I mean? You watch Shrek 2 and you think well, it's always going to be second to the first original idea. But ideas are always rehashed: just take a look at Star Wars.”
Kosmos focuses on the real, and aims to bring about a sense of truth. This year has brought an abundance of issues to the fore, and Lloyd feels that amongst statistics, headlines and propaganda, compassion, consideration and accuracy has been diminished. “Ultimately, I think we've lost the truth,” he sighs. “I think we've lost the ability to understand. Everything is so confusing in terms of the amount of information that we're receiving, that's coming directly to us as human beings.”
“But we function so much better in communities that are small. If we want to fix the world, it has 100% got to start with community rather than globalisation and technology.”
“I just think we're going to look back at smartphones and think, how did we let that happen? It’s like smoking. I see nine and ten year old kids just literally on smartphones, but I can feel the screens corroding my brain. All I'm doing is constantly taking in thousands and thousands of opinions online. We’re so absorbed in a world that is actually not even real. It's a form of rejection from our own heads.”
“It’s just like you or me chatting to a close friend, boyfriend or parent, those people are real – yet we like to create these false groups of people on the internet. Who are they really? It’s essentially a fictitious group of people, and when you hear ‘they won't like it’ it's just [referring to] an anonymous group that judges.”
I question Lloyd about his experience of releasing music online, and the reception he’s received from these anonymous groups. He explains the difficulties that artists have when projecting their art into a hyper-connected world. “I looked at how many tracks were put out the [same] day that I [released] my mixtape, it was around 400 tracks, which is mad. A producer friend of mine was reminiscing about the old days when you were guaranteed a hit, because there'd be only two records [released] that week. Now because of technology that everyone worldwide has access to, it definitely means that the overall quality does go down.” He’s right that the stats are alarming – according to a recent report by the BPI, the equivalent of a whopping 154m albums were consumed across streaming and purchasing in the UK in 2019.
“But it also means that you can find weirder stuff too, because everybody is allowed to make!” he exclaims. “You don't have to pay to get into a studio, you can have the same freedom with a laptop. The problem is, there's only a finite number of listeners, but you can have billions and billions and billions of songs.”
“Spotify has led towards bigger artists capitalising and taking huge sums, but as you go down the pyramid, that split is not necessarily fair. It’s fine for the majors, Spotify, and huge artists – but it doesn't really do anything for actually financing and supporting any of the smaller artists. But … that’s capitalism isn't it?”
“We live in the attention age, and it's almost like if you want to be successful, you just have to stay current somehow. 6ix9ine is an example of that, and Kanye is probably the best in the world at doing that – essentially everything he does is a PR stunt, and he plays the villain. Most people don’t want to be judged, but by playing the villain, it's got him to where he is. He can say whatever he wants, but I don't know if he believes in what he says.”
With so much music available to us, it’s no revelation that revenue from artists outside of the majors is hard to come by. But Lloyd points out that ordinary people expect art without a price tag. “It’s a weird commodity that everybody thinks music’s free. Like photographers, when people get a quote for 6 grand, they think ‘I'll just get a university student to do it or I'll just shoot it on my ipad.’ People don't want to pay for art anymore. I don't know how that happened, because the film industry has remained, but I think even that'll disappear eventually.”
Our conversation turns to Jungle, and Lloyd’s plans for the upcoming year, which are evidently uncertain in the current situation. Putting the finishing touches to a third Jungle album, new music is in the pipeline for the electronic collective. As well as this, he tells me he’s already considering more projects in a similar style to Kosmos. “I plan to go to [away] for a week and make a record. It’ll probably just be just a ten track album, but I want to get that out soon too.”
Lloyd also ponders the possibility of a few day festivals but admits: “it's about waiting for the right point. If you put the record out now and then you're not allowed to get back on the road for two years, how do we really promote it or get it out there? Jungle’s a festival band and this is a festival record. Especially with festivals being pushed back to next year, it’s hard. So if you can't tour…” he sighs. “Getting back on the road would be good at some point but we've just got to wait and see what happens, without getting into a whole coronavirus chat. It's weird actually because when lockdown first started I thought musicians wouldn’t be that badly affected, but actually they’re the last to get hit.”
He wonders: “Would you go to a gig right now? But then we have to ask, have we just absorbed so much fear? There's so much uncertainty and questioning. That's the lasting damage of it all, it's the same idea with 9/11, and the terrorism that the government’s blasted into us over 10 years. They form a concept of the enemy, and with coronavirus I can't help but feel like it's going to be used in that way.”
“I'm pretty sure I had it at the beginning of January. And I swear one of my best friends had it in December, but everyone just battles through a cough don’t they? You just don't know. There are so many people that haven't been counted in the numbers, so what are the statistics really based on? What about all the people who just fell ill and didn't say anything? There's going to be another huge enquiry into it, the government's an absolute joke. The Tories have been slowly killing the country over the last 10 years. Then you work out that we are not really living in a democracy and that it's actually all been fiddled by Russians trying to destabilise Europe, it's mental,” he laughs. “Let's do the interview on this. I've just put a mixtape out and I'm straight in talking politics.”
Our discussion reaches its end as Lloyd arrives at the art store, only to be bluntly refused entry. He chuckles as he explains to me, “it’s government guidelines from today, and they're not letting me in. I'm trying to buy a mask from another shop but I can’t get in there to buy one without one! Well, that's what we call a catch 22.”
“This is what I'm saying. It's like everybody's now enforcing almost mini authoritative figures everywhere. Do they really trust the people in power? Has the government got our best interests at heart? No. Sorry, I’m back into politics.” He pauses, then adds with a laugh: “I want to do mask reviews, you know, it’s all crazy. I just wish I'd gone to mars.”