It’s been almost four years since the release of Holkham Drones, Luke Abbott’s critically acclaimed debut record for James Holden’s Border Community label. So for a lot of people, new album Wysing Forest has been an awfully long time coming. Then again, Abbott has never been one to comply to the constraints or requirements of the contemporary music industry.
So in typically atypical fashion, Wysing Forest was recorded during a six week residency the Norfolk-based producer spent in late 2012 at The Wysing Arts Centre. Predominantly improvised, dreamily beat-free, and gloriously evolving, it’s a brave departure from the dance-floor foundations on which Abbott has arguably based his experimentations to date. Ahead of his sold out show at St Pancras Old Church later this month, we sat down with the pensive producer to talk about improvisation, free migration and the deceit of modern dance music.
This album has been a while coming, the tracks themselves were recorded back in 2012, why was that?
I spent about a year putting it together out of source material that I recorded at Wysing Arts Centre at the end of 2012. I suppose it’s quite a strange balance of work between recording and editing. Usually there’s a lot more work that goes into the writing and recording but this worked the opposite way. I did a lot of improvisation and recorded everything as stereo takes so there was no multi-tracking. Then I spent a long time trying to work out how to make sense of it and how to make it flow into a larger piece of music, to give it a structure so that ideas get mirrored. Small ideas are reflected in big ideas. There’s a microcosm, macrocosm symmetry. I wanted to have something like that built into how the record functions.
In comparison to Holkham Drones this is very much a synth led record where the beats seem secondary. Was that intentional or just a result of your improvisation?
I feel like [with this record] I gave up on trying to write music. I just played around and what came out was what came out. I’ve kind of absolved myself of responsibility for this record at least. It’s more like a record of events. The dreamy looseness to it is something I was interested in. I like the concept of one idea turning into another and that grey area between the two. That’s something I tried to explore and that’s partially why the editing process took a long time, working out how to relate some of these bits of music. I was trying to make it equally challenging and inviting at the same time but because of the way I wrote on it, it doesn’t have that inherent structure that usually music has that invites you into it and gives you a basic understanding of how it’s laid out, it’s much more drifty and meandering, less clear-cut than that. So it was much more about trying to get the tone of it right so that it felt like something that you didn’t mind being there and meandering. There are moments that it goes off into confusion and there are moments when it becomes clear again. I wanted to try and do all of that without it feeling too indulgent.
The risk you run in making a record which is so based in this language of electronic sounds is it being a sound effects demonstration which isn’t musically involving or it coming across as very pompous. I think through doing it from real life improvisation and real recording you kind of avoid the pomposity a little bit. Then hopefully, giving the structure to the album as a whole, means that once you’ve managed to penetrate its meandering structure, there is a musical sense so it stops it from being a sound effects demonstration. That was my aim anyway, I don’t know how successful I was.
There seems to be this discourse in electronic music at the moment concerned with trying to make it sound more natural, even if that means moving perfectly programmed drums slightly out of time or distorting a pristine recording to give it an imperfect sheen. Is that something you were aware of when making this record?
It’s the deceit of composition. The decision-making in a musical context at least. If you decide to make something unlike what it really is, there’s always a bit of conceit there - but to just present things raw and find a way of making that work is a different challenge. All of the humanised bits on Wysing Forest are there because that’s how I played them. The nicest thing about recording, not multi-tracking, not sequencing or laying out, is that the decision making is completely different. You do everything in the moment and then there’s just this process of listening back and deciding, does this work? Does this bear listening back to? Does it feel like I’ve captured something that actually happened? Is there an event there that I couldn’t have foreseen or planned and does it have that thing that helps elevate it from nonsense to intrigue? Does it keep your attention when you listen back to it?
How did you go about naming the tracks? Are they significant to how they were recorded or an emotion that you wanted to portray?
None of the titles got attached to the music until I’d ordered it as a record but I had the titles in mind, I just didn’t know which track was going to be called what. Most of the track titles on the record are references to events or objects at Wysing Arts Centre. So “Amphis”, for example, is a structure that’s built from found wood and donated materials. It’s a really beautiful building and a magical place. Then the track “Two Degrees” has got several references in it but mainly refers to the temperature of the studio I had there because it was the middle of winter, without the heaters running it got really cold. That was a background idea on the record, that deep winter feeling of being isolated and disconnected. All the titles have other ideas like that. “Free Migration” for example, which is my political, anti-UKIP commentary.
I read Free Migration as a bird reference given your connection with nature when writing this record?
It’s that as well. I think that’s what initially made me think of it but then, when thinking about things like track titles you tend to find yourself scouring Wikipedia, looking things up and working out whether those things make sense within your ideas. I’m not very politically aware, I try to be as much as possible, but the more I travel the more I think the restrictions on people’s movements are really unfair. I really like the idea that we should all be free to go wherever we want and the world would be much better that way. Maybe that’s a little idealistic.
You’ve talked a lot about how this record relies heavily upon improvisation, about how it’s very human. How do you think the space that you recorded it in impacted upon that?
I used to be sceptical of the idea that you made different music depending on where you were because i had this idea that you’d make your own music whatever the circumstance but I flipped that idea and completely disagree with it now. I want as much as possible to create something that connects to where I am because that has a resonance. The process of recording is not the process of trying to make the perfect thing but the process of trying to accurately capture a moment, and moments happen in places - so you have to take into account where you are and when you’re doing it to how things happen.
How is live performance working for you now? With a record based so much on improvisation did you have to go back and work out how you made certain sounds?
The basis of my improvisation strategy with making the record was that the music is essentially system or process music. So there’d be certain ways I’d be using a combination of equipment - the modular synth, the laptop, the drum-machine, the mixing desk - just through what was in charge and where the note information was coming from and where the sounds were coming from, and those things helped develop the composition. I’m trying to work out what the balance is between how I like things to happen when I’m sitting alone in a room, and what kind of things I need to be able to do in front of people in order to provide everything between that and the delivery. I’m still working it out to be honest. I think fundamentally I’m more interested in the concept of failure than the concept of success when it comes to music. I like the grey area a lot. I have to remind myself of that sometimes because otherwise it can be disheartening when I’ve delivered something that I’m really proud of but it isn’t well received. I have to remind myself there’s probably one person at the back of the room who’s thinking “fuck all these people, that was wicked!”
Do you think that you’ll continue to work in the same way as you have done on this record, be that through arts projects, residencies or just special places and spaces?
I’ve spent the last six months of so setting up a studio outside of my house, so maybe the next thing I’ll do will just be the polar opposite of this record. A studio record, and do it as well composed as I possibly can. But I’m certainly up for the idea of residencies. At the moment my rational for saying yes or no to things is based upon what I can learn from doing things. My whole reason for getting into electronic music was that it was all new to me. Musically I got intrigued by this idea of dance music because it offers a very straight forward blueprint which is totally open to being subverted. Now my interest in structural dance music is fading away and my interest in new things is growing a lot more. I did a film soundtrack recently and that was a great challenge. It was a whole new skill-set I had to employ thinking about trying to relate composition to narrative. That’s a really interesting new way of working for me.
Wysing Forest is released 23rd June through Border Community.