The License to Begin to Imagine: An Interview with Lawrence English
For the past 15 years, Lawrence English has created some of the most emotionally stirring works in the global experimental music scene. Largely through his own solo recordings, occasional collaborations, and curated output of his own room40 imprint, English seems to carry a ceaseless enthusiasm for experimental sound. Released earlier this year on room40, Cruel Optimism is English’s most direct and thematically “relevant” record to date. Written, recorded, and ultimately culminating in the relative downfall of first-world ideals, the album explores a distant but palpable sense of hysteria – a reflection on the inevitable, self-inflicted doom. At a glance, the songs play with harsh serenity, brackish elegance, and furious poise. But listen just a bit more closely to find an ocean of optimism. These are spirited protest songs, wallowing in anguish but never losing hope for better things.
Responding via email while on a brief but expansive tour of the US, English explains the seeds of Cruel Optimism, his meeting Lauren Berlant (the source material’s author), working with collaborators, and the future of both his own material and his room40 label.
You’ve explored a number of concepts and themes on your previous albums, but Cruel Optimism feels the most “current.” When did you first conceive of the album?
The root of Cruel Optimism emerged in the final moments of creating Wilderness Of Mirrors. As that record came to a conclusion a lot of the material that had spurred on its creation, by that I mean the issues that had sparked off the music, had began to become exacerbated. What seemed unthinkable was quickly becoming a day to day reality, and this phenomena has only become more pronounced in the past year of course.
For me Cruel Optimism, which owes its title and I’d argue much of its character to the book of the same name by the American critical theorist Lauren Berlant, is very much about recognising the criticality of the attachments we maintain and how we might consider these with a view to realising the possible future we aspire to. The record was very much a way of processing and exploring a range of issues and conditions I feel are utterly critical to the quality of being on this planet. These are fundamental conditions around the social contract we execute now and hope to into the future, and the impacts of precarity more broadly. These concerns are also concerned with the necessities for care, respect and consideration of each other and the places we find ourselves in. The record was a setting of the stage for the potential futures we want to imagine for the generations that come after us and a recognition that the seeds we plant now are harvested in the future. It’s offered as a beacon, a siren, a sonic marker that I hope is useful as a point of potential assembly and solidarity.
For others, I suppose the record exists both as a musical experience, one that can be encountered in many ways. I hope those who do come in contact with it have the chance to reach beyond the sonic materials that comprise the work and orient themselves in the places where the music emanates from. I believe strongly that art is political, that music is political and that culture more broadly plays an important role in provoking and contextualising the questions we want to address as a society, today, and tomorrow. It is the artist’s role, and maybe all of our roles as engaged beings, to think the unthinkable as Bernstein once wrote. It’s through that searching, and the effort that takes, we can frame better questions and thus create better replies to those questions. Cruel Optimism was one such search for me.
Do you sit with the themes over time, or are they more impulsive and immediate?
I think this varies between projects and whatnot. Both Wilderness Of Mirrors and Cruel Optimism were projects that took several years to complete. That doesn’t mean I was working on them all the time, but more that I was thinking about them greatly across that period of time. For me to create work, I need a frame or a context to explore. I am not really one of these musicians who can just pull sound out of nothing, and even if I could, I think I prefer the constraints that something like a framework offers. I like to drill down into things, the tension that is created through being bound I find equally thrilling and frustrating, in a positive sense.
I think certain aspects of the creation of work can be impulsive. Increasingly many of the pieces are ‘played’ for want of a better term. By that I mean I am working with multiple live takes that are forged together to create the pieces. Their relations are not so much about being synced or aligned through rhythm, but more form connections through harmony and pulse. They orbit around one another almost, and through those orbits patterns or connections emerge. So often that results in a more immediate kind of connection within the work and the creation of it.
Who are other musicians or artists who’ve inspired you politically?
There’s probably a great many artists and writers who I could point to as offering a substantial impact on the way I think about the work I do. At different times, the impact people have had on me and the work varies greatly. Clearly Lauren Berlant’s writing has helped to frame up the most recent recordings. It is very much down to her treatments of affect and trauma that the material content of the record sounds the way it does. Her words helped shape that approach.
In the same way, I can look back to my teen years and see how someone like Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill helped open me to issues of gender normativity, patriarchy and DIY. To the 19 or 20 year old me, that music was like a bullet through the skull. The energy was infectious and the message so pronounced. I found that inspiring. At the same time, I was reading William S. Burroughs who again really completely made me reconsider how reality exists and is formed. The cut-up, he and Briom Gysin created, remains one of the most important cultural discoveries of the 20th century, in my opinion.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to come across a great deal of work that has fed me. Philosophers and theorists such as Attali (his texts on the political economy of noise particularly), Neil Postman’s writings around media and societal constructions such as childhood I found very provocative and Foucault’s writing on discourse and power have all been touchstones for me at different times.
In the last few months I’ve been deeply affected by Richard Mosse’s new installation Incoming. It’s so powerful and directed, just inspiring. Judith Butler’s new text of the performativity of public assembly has really connected with me and how I am approaching the ideas of concert performance and the relations that exist there. And following Hypernormalisation i found myself revisiting some of Adam Curtis’s earlier films and they still resonate with a vengeance. What I love about music is it invites these very disparate ideas to form the basis of an engagement in or with sound. Sound can accommodate these divergent themes and topics, in ways that are both direct and indirect. It’s a very porous medium to work in.
When did you first come across Lauren Berlant’s work, and Cruel Optimism in particular?
I first came across the book towards the end of Wilderness Of Mirrors being recorded. I found the title incredibly evocative and I sought it out based on that. I had only read a few shorter texts from Ms. Berlant before reading that book. Within a few months of Wilderness Of Mirrors being released, there were some really significant and formative shifts here in Australia that were distinctly related to what the book was examining. During that time we had a government and leader that was practicing a lot of the same tactics you folks in the USA are now experiencing. Issues around immigration, security, worker’s rights, support and value of the arts, the academy and the like were all under attack. What surprised me was the messaging around these attacks and how people positioned themselves in relation to that. Cruel Optimism supplied a very useful set of tools and texts around affect, trauma and other critical ideas that I was interested in exploring and concerned with when researching what became this most recent record. I can’t state how important the book was to the process of this album being realised.
Have you met Berlant, or had any chance of interaction?
I had the true pleasure to meet Lauren Berlant in Chicago the other evening. We enjoyed dinner together and it was a truly engaged and humorous evening. Human dynamics is an amazing and unpredictable thing, I am ceaselessly curious about how we form relations with each other. Lauren and I had a surprising amount of common interests and passions. I dearly look forward to our next meeting.
Also, was that the first time you’d met Genesis? Would love to hear any truths or exchanges you had.
I must say I see Genesis P. Orridge as such a wonderfully rich artist. No only have they been responsible for such important music and art, but also their work around gender exploration, normativity, ritual practices and the like has really opened up some critical questions. On top of them Genesis remains a kind of critical intergenerational connecting point between artists of my generation and those who have passed, such as Brion Gysin or William S. Burroughs. The connection Genesis developed and maintained with those artists is still resonating in new ways today.
I visited them to work on a series of performance and exhibition projects that I want to curate with them in 2018 or 19. Genesis was such a generous host and fascinating to spend time with. I am excited to develop these projects with them.
How much of the album is processing the past versus suggesting or hinting at the future?
That’s a good question actually. In terms of the recording itself, I think there’s an interesting position music generally maintains across the past, present and also how it interacts or encourages a certain reaching towards the future. I know for me, when I return to a piece of music, text or art, that at the time of my first encounter seemed to open up or even just suggest a possible future for me, the connection I maintain with that material on those subsequent visits months, years and decades later is very powerful. It’s not static however, it changes across time and ideally evolves as I do.
So in terms of this record I suppose you can think of it in two parts. For myself, the creation of the record, was a way of decoding some of the complexities and questions I was left with over the past few years. How is it we arrived at where we were in the moments during the album’s creation. Through that process I started to imagine what I hoped could be envisaged for a possible future. I started to imagine what I desired for those that come after me. I mentioned Neil Postman before, his quote ‘children are the living messages we send to a time that we will no see’ was something that cropped up towards the end of the album. So the record is a process of recognising the historical present, but it is the place where the seeding of the ideas takes place. It’s the license to begin to imagine.
I think once a record is released though and the conversations around it made public then the record blooms (or not) and there’s a greater dynamic and richness fueled by the discourses the record opens up. A record in an of itself is only one part of a much richer cultural engagement that is encouraged and facilitated through art forms such as music. Though, in music we have tended not to cultivate that sense of discourse as strongly as in an area like visual arts. For me the concept of the work has just as much value as the work itself. I know this from my experiences as a listener, with other people’s works, whose works open gateways and provide provocations that can be massively influential in the longer term. Like the music, their meaning and values change and evolve in time. It’s a kind of open ended feedback loop.
You’re currently touring in the US. How do you decide the cities and venues to perform at? And opening acts to perform with?
A tour is an unusual exchange when you really think about it. Part opportunism, part cultivation and partly giving yourself over to the nature of travel. This tour is the first I have not arranged entirely myself. Previously I’ve been very hands on with this end of things, but lately time has not really allowed that to be the case. Between the label, art and music commissions and my actual life, I just can’t manage the proper attention needed to create these opportunities. Thankfully Regina Greene has kindly stepped in to help me, She is a wonderful and talented organiser, I am deeply indebted to her. So the tour reflects those three things I mentioned, it’s been a pleasure to visit I must say.
What does your live setup and setlist look like?
I generally am performing material from the past 5 or so years. I’m interested to find ways to navigate the material that lends it a certain fluidity. That one piece carries over into the next and so on. I think that unity across the set is something that transcends the pieces themselves and creates an experience which is in excess of the music that exists as recordings. I’m using a very simple set up really, that relies on layers being brought into relief with one another to create a kind of saturation of sound. So I have a computer, some pedals, a bass synth, cassette player and various other objects. They are all routed and rerouted through a mixer that essentially becomes the central instrument I play.
How has the response been to the live material?
Honestly wonderful. It’s a pleasure to bring this work here and create the opportunities for a kind of sonically effective public assembly. It’s a chance for all of us to participate in a solidarity of sound.
Do you actively make field recordings while traveling? How much ends up being (un)used?
This is a good question. In the 00s, I recorded so much when I travelled. I spent time just collecting materials. Now though I find I prefer to just record when I am not touring. The focus is different and I think field recording benefits from an open schedule. There’s always opportunistic moments, but I think I enjoy being embedded in the practice of field recording, more than just grabbing quick bites here and there.
You’ve certainly collaborated quite a bit, but your solo albums are largely just you. How did the other artists come into play? (Thor, Abrahams, Buck, Westberg)
It’s true the solo recordings have been somewhat hermetic in the past decade. I think with Cruel Optimism I wanted to surprise myself and be surprised by others. Collaboration is something I enjoy greatly as it opens up new possibilities in ways that aren’t ever expected. At its best collaboration almost allows you to reconsider your own position through the way others respond to the material you offer them. It can be like you are listening through them, and that can radically reposition you in the work.
Players like Chris Abrahams or Thor Harris have these incredibly personal senses of harmony that are unlike mine. When they played on the pieces, I found myself having to reconsider how things fit together and what the possibilities of the future of the compositions could be. That’s a wonderful experience.
Likewise Norman Westberg’s playing, again is so very much his own, and he managed to unlock a very specific approach to guitar that became central to the timbre of the record. Particularly his playing of my baritone guitar on Negative Drone, it really set that piece in motion. Take it away and the work would have sounded entirely different. The same goes for Tony Buck and Vanessa Tomlinson who both really opened up my ears to the possibilities of textural percussion and how pulse works more generally. I owe each of these people hugely for the way Cruel Optimism developed. Without them it would be a different record.
And were the musicians helping come up with sounds, augmenting sounds, or playing parts you had in mind?
I must say all of the musicians were incredible accommodating of my esoteric notes and ideas. They were so very generous in terms of approaching the record in a multiplicity of ways. Sometimes the pieces were largely composed and it was more about adding dimension. In other pieces the contributions were open ended and sparked off new directions.
Some of the collaborators I had the chance to work with over several days, so it was very intensely productive as I could listen back and explore other ideas on the same material with them. The process of this was so very inspiring, I hope I have the chance to do it again in the future.
How did you come into contact with Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu), and decide to start collaborating on the HEXA project?
Jamie and I met properly at the end of the 00s, when I invited him down for a solo gig as part of a festival I was curating. We pretty much hit it off straight away as we had a bunch of interests in common. A couple of years later we’d crossed paths here and there and got to talking about a musical collaboration. It took a while for that to take shape and we spent time discussing exactly what it was we wanted to explore. I always think that’s a great help for projects and lends them a considered focus from the outset. When the David Lynch commission arrived it really just gave us the spark to really launch into the project. We had an EP recorded before that (which is still waiting to come out, it’s a collaboration/split 10” with Basic House), but the Factory Photographs project really resolved the aesthetic approach for us. It’s a real delight to work with him on this project i must confess.
Do you plan on continuing HEXA?
Indeed. We are working on a new project presently. It’ll likely be finished mid year so hoping it’ll arrive later this year.
What’s next for you, and for Room40?
Every year it just seems to get busier and busier. We just released the re-issue of Norman Westberg’s Jasper Sits Out. That’s the final in the series of re-issues from him. The next few months we have editions coming from Janek Schaefer, Tony Buck and Ogive. The year is really full already though, so I am taking a deep breath and diving in head first.