Sound & Vision
This is the first in an ongoing series of freewheeling conversations where we chew the fat with our artists and share the results, first up are Lakker, our critically acclaimed Berlin based duo of Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell, whose recent critically acclaimed ‘Tundra’ LP has been a career highlight.
R&S: Your work has such a granular level of detailing – have you guys always been obsessed by sound / timbre?
I got my start when a friend and I used to record ourselves on a tape machine shouting and bashing stuff and then messing with the recordings.
From then on I was very conscious of sound and using equipment to capture and distort it. I really enjoyed buying old hardware and learning how to use it. Eventually I got a PC and started to get acquainted with software.
I also played the clarinet when I was in school so music was a part of my life from early on. My grandfather used to call it the misery stick… So I guess I’ve always had a relationship with noise music!
I got particularly interested in sound for its own sake while studying a masters in Music Technology in 2004 – 2006, in Dublin. I was introduced to a whole new world of sound design and sound art, via composers such as Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Edgar Varese, Luciano Berio, John Cage and Morton Feldman.
It really opened my ears and my mind to hear what these people were doing, long before artists that I was into (like Autechre, Aphex, Squarepusher etc.) were. When I first heard ‘Kontakte’ by Stockhausen I immediately thought of Squarepusher! But ‘Kontakte’ was composed in the early 60’s… This new interest in sound led me to search for sounds in everyday life that I could then manipulate and use in my own /Lakker music. I became a bit obsessed then with sound itself, and wanting to make sure our music was interesting in all its aspects – colour and texture as well as melodically, harmonically and rhythmically interesting.
R&S: Your music has a very expansive and evocative quality to it, often reminiscent of a soundtrack – has the cinema / film been a real influence?
During my college years I got into studying about film sound and the relationship between sound and screen. I worked as an intern in a large film studio just outside Dublin, I got a chance to help out an amazing foley artist called Caoimhe Doyle, which really showed me the potential of even the most mundane everyday objects as whole sound worlds. I also got to see all the stages of the sound mix of a small but awesome Irish Film called Disco Pigs. One of my final year projects was a study into altering the perception of image through different music accompaniment. I studied the ideas of Michel Chion and Walter Murch as their approaches to film sound theory and practice. I enjoyed researching films with great soundtracks, recording the whole film soundtrack vocals / foley / etc. onto Mini Disc to just listen to. Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, and also ‘The Shining’ were particular favourites.
R&S: It feels like Myth making, iconography, limited editions, and generally the culture of the art world has really become an inseparable part of modern underground electronic music – with your emphasis on design and visual is this something you feel part of?
It’s a really exciting aspect of music at the moment, that’s happening across all genres, there is a breadth and space for people to express themselves sonically and visually.
It’s harder to make money in this business than ever so people are using every skill at their disposal to reinvent music, its consumption and its distribution. The visual and sonic world are naturally linked for me, so once we really started to hone and refine our sound, I started to do the same with our visuals. The symbols that I use to represent Lakker were a conscious effort to create a visual language that was based on a set of simple minimal designs. It might seem limiting but it makes you push your creativity.
In this I’m influenced by my friend Sean Carpio whose ability to get a massive range of new sounds out of each individual drum or instrument is something that’s always inspired me and is something that we try to do also.
We’re not trying to do something limited or exclusive in our work rather create an identity for ourselves. It’s important and necessary in the modern cultural landscape for artists to claim a little space for themselves.
The world feels so saturated now, so much of everything, all the time and I think the movement towards identity-making is a backlash against that in some way. It’s great that music making is more democratic than ever, it’s a beautiful thing for human beings to be able to express themselves through sound. It’s a basic need I think… But you have to try and find some space within all that, find your voice among all the others or it can become lost.
I also think the physical aspect of this – the limited edition idea is also a backlash against the countless, faceless digital files floating in the ether, most of them undownloaded (!), but taking up space in our cultural consciousness. Limited runs etc reclaim a sense of the finite, which can make things a bit more special, unique and most importantly, helps us connect with it more.
Our souls are eternal and that is where the music touches us, that is where the music lives, and that is infinite. In the physical word we deal better with things when they are finite. Maybe soon we’ll transcend that, but right now I think we are still very much in love with physical, unique, rare artefacts.
R&S: How do you see the state of live electronic music in 2015?
Artists are definitely using a lot more hardware equipment than they used to – moving away from a screen means that they can focus more on their sound.
With Tundra we have broken the album up into many elements that we can play around with in a live setting. It is important for us as musicians to do this, in order to keep pushing ourselves creatively and to feel that energy and vibrance of a live performance. It also means that the audience will always get a slightly different experience. This is what I hope to experience when I go to see/hear any band or musician I admire. Someone that comes to mind is Clark. I really enjoyed his gig at Berghain this year.
Most of the time I have ten million back up plans in case my computer crashes and I think when working with laptops etc I could have become fixated on this pragmatic aspect of the machinery instead pushing the boundaries of my improvisational skills through the technology both sonically and visually. So for example I have started to also add a CDj to our live set-up, to use as a kind of sampler in order to add loose, rhythmic and textural/vocal elements that are not tied to anything else and can really bring an unplanned and exciting yet subtle aspect to our live performance. Ian and myself really want to drive these ideas further to make playing live even more challenging and exciting both for us and the audience.
BIG question! In general it is in a really healthy state. I’ve seen some great sets in the last year, like FIS at Atonal in Berlin last August, and Clark in Dublin at Christmas, where he performed with live dancers.
We have had some amazing experiences recently with our own sets, as Dara mentions, where we’ve taken a looser and more ‘live’ approach and amazing things have happened. Atonal was a good example, and our recent set at Incubate festival. That had the feeling when we were playing that things were going a bit wrong, a bit too loose, and trying to keep them on track was fun and led to some interesting places. Perhaps people didn’t notice but for us it kept us on our toes and maybe made us perform better. A Resident Advisor review said the set was both ‘simultaneously fluid and disjointed’ which I thought was an apt and interesting comment!
But live electronic music is an area I personally find tricky. It’s a difficult thing to do. It’s just that basic fact that electronic music is often not an immediate, physical form of music in its initial creation. There is always a distance between the person making the sound and the sound itself – whether it is having to program something into a piece of software, or load a sample onto an MPC before you play it, or having to sample your voice in order to loop or process it – it is never as immediate as hitting a piece of skin with a stick or opening your mouth to make a sound. To summarise, the challenge is to work out how to not fuck up your music by trying to do too much, and not be bored by doing too little!
Experiencing live music of any kind is about coming together in union with other human beings to have a shared experience of music you love. The energy of that is completely different from listening to music alone, further heightened by the musician / band / dj themselves being there to perform their own music. That’s exciting! What they actually do is largely irrelevant to me, once they seem to engage with their own music in some way. Once there is some kind of performance – and performance can mean anything from a fully improvised set, to an engaging visual show, to onstage dancers, to standing completely still and letting the music do the talking.
I think there are subtler things at play than we acknowledge in live art of any kind. Whether it is a successful performance or not depends, I think, of the presence (and I don’t mean physical presence) of the performer. The honesty of intention and feeling behind the performance. The level of engagement with the music, the time and the place. Whether someone is there to give and receive energy, or to just take.
R&S: Where do you see Lakker progressing and what are your plans for the future
Basically what really interests me is diversifying the type of shows we do and audiences we attract. This seems like a natural progression given our musical taste and knowledge. We have never really wanted to be pidgeon-holed into a particular genre and I hope that we have the opportunity to show the breadth of our interests both musically and visually.
We recently took part in a fantastic and fascinating residency for Beeldengeluid, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. The project was creatively exciting, the people running it were incredibly smart and nice and we got to do what we like best. That is to spend a few days learning fascinating aspects of The Netherlands and it’s astonishing relationship with water, record samples in incredible locations and spend time in a studio sketching ideas with access to the enormous library of Dutch radio and TV.
I personally have a bucket list of achievements so when I apply myself to a project I’m looking ahead hoping to cross another achievement off my list. So my 15 year old self still wants to play certain festivals like Sonar, and preferably in Brazil! I think South America is a really exciting place for electronic music and I would really like to start some kind of relationship there. We would love to do more residencies and cross cultural projects that we can really sink our teeth into.
At the moment we’re really happy with the development of the Tundra av show and as were going more show with it were always improving it and adding more improvised ideas visually and sonically.
The next thing for us apart from the live show is to get back into the studio. We’re taking a little break from writing at the moment after the album sessions and all the press stuff etc you have to do around an album.
We have plenty of bits left over from the album sessions that we’d like to develop further, we have a beat we’re talking to some grime MCs about, that we feel could be an interesting sound. We are really into the energy of grime, the rawness, the feeling of it. Both in the beats and the vocals.
Growing up in Ireland, UK influences have always been strong there – whatever is big in London and the UK comes across the pond to Dublin pretty quickly. Grime was no exception and there is a core of fans and djs and producers making grime in Dublin. Check out Major Grave if you haven’t already.
Grime seems to be in a really interesting place at the moment – people like Mumdance, Logos, Visionist, SD Laika and a whole host of other people taking the sound to new and often weird and wonderful places.
We also have other ideas, more song based vocals, but at the same time it won’t be traditional songs that we write….somewhere between what we’ve done on Tundra, and a more traditional vocal.
R&S: We’re in a period of time where there’s less emphasis on individuality than there ever has been before – the culture is so quick to reward and reinforce what works / is successful and familiar – do you have any thoughts on this area?
What I see is a lot of camaraderie and collaboration and an expression of people who unabashedly like a wide variety of music, art and culture and they’re not ashamed to mix it, mash it and put it out there. That’s part of being an individual to me – I am inspired by the working attitude of people like Mark Garry an Irish artist who delves into various disciplines and works with eclectic groups of people to create beautiful work.
We live in a time where media is readily accessible to most people and you might think that the loudest noise is the most celebrated but the internet also bolsters and nurtures the smaller voices and offers them a home and an audience.
With all of this influx of ideas and influences it might seem like the individual gets lost. But maybe it’s just that he/she can move from the populist to the obscure in a breath and is just giving expression to the abundance of information that is readily available these days.
Maybe people are simply scared to be more individual? We live in a very strange time where people are feeling more disconnected than ever, even though we have more tools than ever before to connect us!
Everybody wants to be part of something, which is very natural part of being human, but it has taken a darker turn somewhere along the way in this digital age. I see so many nasty comments, arguments and nonsense online regarding music cultures and scenes.
We’re all on the same side. We’re all music fans wanting the best for the scene and the music we love. But I think people are feeling such a disconnect with so many aspects of society and culture at large that they feel they must cling to whatever section of the culture they feel connected to and then defend that against everything else.
It has actually always happened. It’s very human. Throughout music in the 20th Century you had different schools of music, the serialists
Loud discourse surrounded each movement. Steve Reich being laughed at for his early tape pieces, Pierre Boulez disrupting concerts because the music wasn’t serialism, riots at the opening of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, Gyorgy Ligeti causing a commotion with his ‘Poeme Symphonique’ .
It’s not easy to stand apart and be individual, because we live in a society that is based on fear and the exploitation of those fears. We are taught to focus more on our differences than our similarities. We are told that there is not enough room for all of us, that we must compete. We must hold onto what we have for fear of lack. We are graded and judged and categorised since the moment we start school. We are programmed to be suspicious of anything different, which can lead to outright hostility if not checked. No wonder people want what is familiar. It’s comforting. There is safety in numbers. But it is a false safety and doesn’t lead to true fulfilment.
All of this is only compounded by the internet – you can’t escape it these days. You post a new track, you express an opinion, you upload a photo and immediately there are reactions, positive or negative. You have to be really disciplined not to get involved! I am sorry to say I have not developed that discipline yet! It’s kind of inescapable. So it makes it very difficult to follow your own path. It feels great to get the collective support of people online, and it feels shitty to get negative comments. So if you do what it is that is truly unique and representative of you as an artist it can be daunting to put it out there. It is so much easier to do what is expected of you and get the support of your peers. It’s seductive.
The ironic thing is that everyone truly longs for something authentic and unique, for that artist that stands out and does her thing, because when we feel that it reflects our own uniqueness and pulls us out of the quagmire. It makes us glad to be alive, and reminds us of how amazing people and life are.
Time will always filter what’s authentic from what’s not. Truth is timeless. People may have laughed at ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ when it was first heard in the 60’s but now it is rightly regarded as a classic…