A Matter of Perspective
“You don’t understand me / You don’t understand,” roars out Ebony Hoorn’s voice into the pitch black space of the Bermondsey Social Club on track "Bunny Blues" from Lost Under Heaven’s forthcoming album Love Hates What You Become.
Bolts of coloured strobes form a striking silhouette around Hoorn and Ellery James Roberts on the stage tucked under the railway arches as they deliver a raw and visceral display of their intellectually-rooted goth-tinged electro-rock to a captivated audience.
The day after, we’re sat in South London’s Mercato Metropolitano, supping alternately on coffee and mulled wine. I sense some foggy heads, recalling, Hoorn’s request for tequila and soda from the stage, “We ended up back at Waterbaby’s studio in Peckham,” she confesses, speaking of the band who also played that night. “It can be anticlimactic to go and sit in an empty apartment after being surrounded by people. Especially after shows where you give so much, when you step away from the crowd it can be quite an abrupt way to break that moment. You’re just there with that energy still in your body.”
The London gig, they explain, was quite an intense experience: “It felt incredibly emotive,” says Hoorn. “It’s like this wave of sadness came over. Not a bad feeling though but more like melancholia. There was something in the air! But I enjoyed it.” They’ve also been testing out the new material alongside older tracks such as "Future Blues": “We’re still really working out how people react to different pieces of music,” Roberts tells me. “It has a tendency to be a bit overwhelming, a bit bombastic. It’s about finding the most effective way to present the songs, actually drawing people in rather just hitting them in the face.” Plus they are only just returned from a mini tour of the US: “We’re still acclimatising,” adds the singer-songwriter, a slight glaze over his eyes.
I hear about the pair’s story, which began when Manchester-born Roberts eloped with Hoorn to her native Netherlands back in 2012 after emerging from a stint playing with rock four-piece Wu Lyf. While Hoorn had primarily been a visual artist up until that point, they began to collaborate musically, resulting in debut album Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing, released in May 2016.
Out early next year is their follow up, Love Hates What You Become and reflects what has been a period of change, experimentation and evolution for the band. Most crucially, they relocated to Roberts’ home city of Manchester. Much of the material was first written there: Roberts, who self-confessedly is “immune to hard labour,” would write in their flat on guitar and piano while Hoorn worked in the pizza place downstairs then the duo would come together to share ideas in a local performance studio space, all within a square mile of the city’s bustling Northern Quarter.
As my parents are from Manchester, and my older sister lived in the Northern Quarter for some time, I can’t help but pick up on Hoorn’s reflections of the spot they overlooked as “a crossroads of desolation,” quoted as saying: “upon moving here I was a taken back by the real desperate (drinking) culture; a wake-work-drink-sleep repeat existence that seems so void of any purpose. When we lived in that place, every weekend was like watching over some circus of Dickensian squalor. With the live band off the road, it became like being stuck in some relentless purgatory.”
Aside from allowing me to tease my sister about having loved living in what an outsider would see as “Dickensian squalor,” Hoorn’s Dutch perspective was one that was able to see the shift happening in our culture in that time: “It’s been interesting, in the time we spent there Brexit happened and Trump got elected. I used to live in Amsterdam for six years, and it’s a really pleasant environment: very safe and lots happening. Moving to Manchester was a shock. Even the way everything is portrayed in the media, it’s crazy. The homelessness is a such a big problem.”
It also led Roberts to suddenly see his own culture and upbringing from a new angle: “When we were living in Amsterdam with Ebony’s international community of this art school, it was very forward thinking. We were talking about universal basic income and the revolution of culture etc. And then we moved back to Manchester. Brexit, Trump happened, and I went from reading Buckminster Fuller’s visions for how pleasant the future could be to being smacked in the face with this, the reality of my home city. I would try and talk to my friends about things and they would be like, ‘boring, let’s get drunk!’ It’s just a very different state of mind. I looked back on the culture I grew up with from an outsider’s perspective and was like, ‘this is mental.’”
The experience of moving did allow the two to reset a little: “We stopped working with the band we’d formed briefly to tour the first record. We got these two people we knew in Manchester, really nice people, but it never really clicked as a band. It always felt a bit like staged,” says Roberts. “We had a lot of time to reflect on how to get it on the right energy and direction,” adds Hoorn.
In particular, moving away from their management forced them to start from a clean slate of sorts: “Management tends to be like this buffer that keeps you a bit naive and keeps you a bit in the dark,” reflects Roberts. “When you push to really define things for yourself, it’s sink or swim. Over the last 12 months we’ve been working to fight all those fights front on.”
It’s also allowed them a greater freedom: “We’ve been in control a lot,” continues Hoorn. “It’s been good for us to steer the ship, to not be too dependent on people. We like to be quite hands on because we know what we want to create. It’s easier to communicate that straight to the person you work with rather than a middle man.”
"John Congoleton's jedi mind trick was: ‘Express yourself, do the best you can, and just do it, if you can’t do it now when can you?’" - Ebony Hoorn
"Black Sun Rising" was the first song to take shape, drawing on an art installation created by Hoorn, consisting of a spoken word inner monologue playing out in an immersive environment. “The rest followed quite speedily from that,” says Roberts.
Inspired by producer John Congleton’s work with St.Vincent, Swans, Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Rós, they headed off with their demos to LA for him to work his magic. They recorded all the tracks in an intense, hot, three weeks. Both admit, it wasn’t an easy nor necessarily enjoyable process. “John’s jedi mind trick, which I found quite challenging, was: ‘Express yourself, do the best you can, and just do it, if you can’t do it now when can you?’ He was quite combative in that way.” However, they recognise that in being pushed to a brink of sorts, well outside their comfort zones, they were able to achieve something they may not have done otherwise.
This was especially true for Hoorn, whose experience and therefore confidence with recording, was limited. Coming from a background outside of music, the first album had led with Roberts’ ideas and vocals, with Ebony singing backing on euphoric, folky tracks such as "The Great Longing" and "I&I": “It was completely new to you,” he says, addressing his music and romantic partner. “You’d never made any music or sung. Creatively, music was not an outlet or expression for you. You were a visual artist that began making music.”
This time round was different: Hoorn learnt bass guitar, the writing and gestation of ideas became much more collaborative and her vocals feature as equal to Roberts, shifting the dynamic, tone and sound of the band’s output. The effect is undoubtedly a positive one, not only for the richness and textures of the sound but the visual artist has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with as a frontwoman, coming into her own on the stage: “Stepping into that world has opened a lot of new doors for me,” Hoorn tells me. “Which has been really fruitful and energising. I feel really comfortable performing. After our shows a lot of females have come up to me and said, ‘oh, you're really powerful.’ That's quite nice to hear. People in particular have really connected with the 'Bunny’s Blues' song.”
I note that at their Bermondsey gig, the crowd’s demographic leant male, something they too have noticed in the past - “it’s about 60-40” - but maybe set to change with Hoorn forming more of a prominent part of the duo: “I feel like with this record, when it finally gets out there, there is going to be a fresh look at what we're doing in terms of the perception. The first record in its way was a solo record from me where I got Ebony to sing backing vocals on certain tracks. Whereas this new record is much more a true collaboration,” says Roberts. “We’re making it more clear: It’s not just Ellery and his girlfriend, it’s Ellery and Ebony both doing things artistically together,” emphasises Hoorn.
“I don’t think we connect with being a product, a perfect sellable thing” - Ebony Hoorn
It’s also had a bearing on the lyrical content and substance of their music - “it’s our two perspectives” - the two of them bouncing off each other and building on one another’s ideas, such as Roberts writing Black Sun Rising based on Hoorn’s artwork created at Amsterdam’s revered Rietveld Art Academy. “And also with me learning the bass, we jam a lot more. It’s kind of like playing tennis, keep the ball ticking. You’ve got an idea and you bounce it to me and it sparks something with me and I bounce it back and then we follow what comes out of that.”
The rough-edged emotive quality of this album, brought out by working with Congleton, is one that reflects their approach to art as a process rather than pursuit of a perfected end product. Each track tells a story or conveys a snapshot moment in time. “It’s captures us in a really raw, intimate kind of way,” states Roberts. “It’s not got smoke and mirrors.” An experimental attitude is also what perhaps makes them resistant to sitting neatly within a genre: “There are ‘60s psych melodies and bluesy stuff but I wouldn’t say I was influenced by this artist and that artist,” he says. “There are certain sounds and the way music made me feel when I was younger that I’m always trying to get back to when we’re working on new songs.” They’re determined to carve their own path through an increasingly over-produced, over-packaged marketing machine that is the music industry. “I don’t think we connect with being a product, a perfect sellable thing,” reflects Hoorn.
Thematically, the album dwells on our modern day existence, moving from feelings of frustration and angst to the more contemplative. The brilliant "Bunny Blues" rages against the patriarchy. "For The Wild" rues the loss of the figure of the rock ‘n’ roll revolutionary of the ilke of Patti Smith and Jimi Hendrix. Come was inspired by Genesis P-Orridge’s work exploring the desire to unite completely with your lover. "Post-Millennial Tension" plays on the title of the 1996 Tricky LP Pre-Millennium Tension and was released alongside a Medium article published by the band with hyperlinked lyrics and is explained as “a song responding to the Hydra headed regression of culture that came to be personified by Trump, Brexiteers and the numerous other Fascist/Populists on the rise since we sang Spiritual Songs in 2016” and cries out: “My generation’s burning/Still we sing our love songs.” It’s a provocation out of apathy for its listeners.
Such sentiments are borne out of the reflections the two have individually and face together: “Everybody must or should be a bit demoralised and obsessively engaged with the way the world is, the way in which we exist at the moment,” suggests Roberts. “Given the proximity of armageddon, if you believe what the climate scientists say. And then also just living in a complete collapse of culture.”
He recounts how his existential pondering and academic approach to understanding is both a source of inspiration but also can present a burden: “Over the years I’ve got really interested in history and actually trying to understand how we got to this place and where do we go from here, I feel maybe in detriment to my artistic endeavours. It’s like fluctuating between nihilism or idealism and then in between the two there’s reality, which is kind indifferent to what you make of it at the end of the day. It feeds into the songwriting as much as it does to the choices I make.”
"We want what we do to be in its own world, we’re not connected to any scene or community" - Ellery Roberts
A rejection of the pervading culture can lead to a sense of isolation: “We choose to live our life in quite a considered way, living outside the city in countryside, quite simply and not really engaging in the sort of hype culture that dominates. We want what we do to be in its own world, we’re not connected to any scene or community. I feel like hedonism still dominates the majority of musical output we’re all engaging with. It’s about feeling good, don’t think about things too much. I understand why, it gets people through.”
Hoorn is keen to push the perspective to a more hopeful one: “It’s how you look at it, how you turn it into something more positive. You can look endlessly at things and say, ‘oh, this is really depressing.’ But if you sit and take it in then you can think, ‘ok, what can we do or how can we make people aware that we need to do things differently. Or that these structures don’t work anymore because they were created 200 years ago.”
It’s these competing viewpoints that give the content on Lost Under Heaven’s music dimension and depth, as Roberts acknowledges: “As me and Ebony have become more and more engaged with each other artistically you see the difference between a masculine and feminine perspective. It’s like the masculine drive for apocalypse is the patriarchal dominant culture. I don’t know why but I’m always like, ‘it’s the end of the world’ and Ebony is like, ‘it’s the beginning of a different world.’ And it’s those two perspectives going against each other that gives for me quite an inspiring source of concept.”
The new album is set for release in January, with a schedule of gigs set including London, at Hackney’s Oslo, with drummer Ben Kelly. Also in the works is an innovative creation involving VR, which the pair are loath to share too much about while the project is still under construction, but which by the sounds of it promises to be a “trippy” experience. “It’s this really beautiful thing Ebony has directed,” says Roberts. “When she explained the concept I was like, ‘there is no way they can do this.’ And then they’ve done it. I’m completely blown away when I look at it.”
“We’re planning to a bunch of one off shows where we can actually travel with the visual installation,” explains Hoorn. The nexus of art and technology is something she is particularly fascinated by and one she is keen to embrace in her work: “How are people going to deal with new technology, are they going to integrate it interestingly? Just like with phone technology, the question is how do you make it something that adds something to your life rather than takes your time.” “I’m so excited for the potential of it,” says Roberts, “VR could be more like back to the act of putting a vinyl on. You would put headset on and actually take the time just to listen. I make music in an immersive way. I imagine and hear it. Then when you make a music video it’s a completely compromised reduction. A VR record could put you in a whole environment.”
"I feel now I prefer to write songs about human compassion and love than protest songs," - Ellery Roberts
With this album having been complete for some time, they already have more material on the way: “We’ve made a lot of new music in the past year so we’re just getting that recorded,” says Roberts. While they are planning a third album, they also plan to test out some shorter records: “I’d like to do a couple of EPs, just short collections of five or six songs. I want to learn how you turn an idea into reality and it not take a lot of battling and a lot of time. Like, how do liberate yourself in that way. Guitar-based music always is very traditional and rolled out in this slow way, whereas rap and MCs are much more instinctive and immediate. I admire that and want to learn how to operate in that way.”
Roberts reflects that already he is starting to move away perhaps from some of the more politicised sentiment that pervaded his earlier songs, as epitomised in the refrain of 2016’s "Lament": “You fucked up this world but you won’t fuck with me.” “I feel now I prefer to write songs about human compassion and love than protest songs,” he tells me. “We’ve been making some new music which I feel is much more like Scott Walker, like Lee Hazlewood and Sinatra records, the more atmospherically mysterious ones, and I feel is more beautiful.
"Sometimes we play songs and come off stage and I’m like, ‘why am I shouting at people?’ It’s not even me, I’m not like that as a person. It feels like a bit of a charade whereas the more beautiful music we touch is definitely where my creative heart lies. It’s more mesmerising. It’s like that idea of soul music, like this term ‘duende,’ where it rises through your spine and enlivens you in this way that’s beyond language and beyond cultural reference. That’s the ultimate ambition of art, I think, at least in my mind.”
It’s a shift they see as one partially linked to maturity: “It comes with age,” says Hoorn. “We started working in our early 20s. It’s a more youthful thing that you engage with stuff and are like ‘this is all wrong.’ Being so direct, screaming, is good sometimes but I also really tiring. Now we are becoming more poetic, I think. The quieter songs carry a different energy.”
“Yeah when you’re young you have a political idealism,” continues Roberts. “Like, ‘I’m gonna change the world!’ then you’re like, ‘wow, the world’s really complicated and all I’m gonna do is make a mess, unless I learn to behave better, learn to live better.’”
But music for them both will always have an philosophical element, as the band’s name itself reflects. Funnily enough, it started from an acronym: “I’ve always been into acronyms for some reason,” he tells me. “When I first moved to Amsterdam Ebony said we should do something together called LUH. And then we were travelling around Thailand. We were both reading more new age spiritual stuff and surrounded by a culture of people trying to find themselves. We were equally feeling displaced in society, not having any root or connection to the world. We were only being able to deconstruct life not celebrate it. So the idea came from that place.”
Although on the face of it, it could belie a sense of feeling unmoored, they both see it as also conveying hope, as their music does: “There’s that sense of optimism or purpose saying something such as heaven. It’s the idea of a future utopia, a dream that you’re building toward. The music is rooted in that sense of enlivening yourself. You can be in heaven in a moment if your mind is there. It’s not necessarily a physical place to be, it’s an aligned, balanced way of being. Being lost in the seductions of the world is something I’m really interested in: working out ways in which you’re conditioned in life. Finding the stuff that actually serves you in life and getting rid of the stuff that keeps you in a box.”
“What I like about the name Lost Under Heaven is to me there is a sense of unity, of oneness,” adds Hoorn. “Because we’re all under that same sky and we’re all dealing with life basically, and that’s what the name conveys for me. And with our songs, we’re just giving our reflection of our lives and how we think about stuff that’s currently happening or that engages and interests us, whether it be political or complete fiction.”