TEARS|OV INTERVIEWED: TALKING TO THE BONES
When did you start writing/producing music – and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
L: When I was a kid, my mom was pretty stretched for time, so we had stand-in cassette tapes of her reading stories which we played on one of those brown little fisher price tape players. The tapes were so worn you could hear bits of both sides at once, and this made the sense of disembodiment – disembodied mother – particularly fun. Eventually we got another tape recorder and my brother and I live-mixed the storybook themes against each other. Later in my late teens/early 20s, at NYU I met a seductive, slightly dangerous type guy who got me into musique concrete, EDM, and audio piracy. By accident/via romance, it was the collaboration with him by which I started to realise how much I enjoyed manipulating sound, speech, and stories. He had a public access television show which I know he liked much more than me but that didn’t really matter so much because I learned a lot about collaboration and subversion as a creative energy.
D: Its cheesy I know but it totally started for me with seeing a picture of Jim Morrison at my friend’s house in her Dad’s record collection. I was so drawn to him by this mix of attraction and envy. Thankfully this coincided with watching Angel At My Table about Janet Frame’s life and I started writing poetry and collecting records. I still love the Doors and just recently read Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry. I never contemplated making music because the only formal training I had was getting a grade one in drums at middle school. I gave up the lessons because my teacher did a weird thing with his tongue whilst playing.
I developed a vast passion for collecting all types of music during high school. I went to Newport Gwent to study interactive arts because Brian Eno was a part of the faculty and started to build my record collection. Post graduation, I got a job at music and video exchange in Notting Hill where my obsession could really get a grip. Working there not only did I fill my life with vinyl I also met an array of creative people and one of them, Karl, helped me realise I could make music. We began improvising fooling around and I began to fall in love. The different dimensions of sound you experience as you begin recording and making music got a grip on me. Music and sound feels so seductive to me because I experience it as a form of telepathy.
K: I started writing music as part of my classical training at school and then at Guildhall. I was taught to write using Bach chorale 4 part harmony rules. I got involved in a wider variety of music when I started session recording with bands when I was 18. I recorded with Electrelane who certainly inspired me to want to play in my own band. I started playing in bands in my 20s and my first experience of collaborative writing outside of classical was experimental soundscape music. It was such a great platform for me to learn to be more creative with sound. My early passions were definitely classical. I am a real fan of the romantics like Elgar and this influence is definitely visible in a lot of the cello lines I write. What draws me to music is the expression it’s given me when i haven’t always been able to find my own voice. I experienced grief as a child and creating music has provided such wonderful escapism.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
L: Yeah. I mostly probably emulated Negativland more than anyone else, both in method and motivation, I guess, because re-contextualising or re-digesting kept me a safe distance from believing in anything; meaning, the pirate manipulation that is growing less and less present in my work came at first from a judgmental standpoint – one in which I could practice creative subversion by exposing something sinister in mainstream media rather than exposing my own complicated emotions to the same subjects. I still try to copy copy, like pick a track I really love and use the development as a template – but it never comes out right as I’ll get carried away with a texture and then sonic elements become more about morphing and bleeding than scaffolding a song structure. I am working more and more with my voice, which is a long time coming – in more ways than just singing.
D: I heard the first Red Crayola record album – The parable of arable land as a teenager and was captivated by the improvisation or should I say free form freak out of it. The vibe of that record stayed with me into a love of improvisation in Jazz and experimental music. At the same time my art teacher at High school gave me a copy of Astral weeks on vinyl and I fell in love with the flow and poetry of that record. When I discovered it was predominantly improvised, I found this very inspiring. The spirituality of improvisation is what really inspires and I feel this connects also to my practice as a therapist. In my early 30s I trained to be a Person-centred therapist and learnt the theories of Carl Rogers – a non-directive form of therapy which encourages a client to discover their own flow within this world; an assisted interconnected mirror into a voyage of self-discovery. The relationship is crucial in this process just as it is in music. Copying for me is connecting and respecting – tempered by my own individual experience, while learning is a non-stop hunger, and creativity a curse and a dream of the ego.
K: Yeah, I think emulating music is a great way of learning and developing yourself. Listening to tracks or genres to find the patterns and styles can really provide a lot of inspiration for your own music. I constantly hear tracks or sounds that give me ideas. I always want to try and recreate things I have heard but by using the cello only, when originally it could have been any instrument or even a machine. I like the challenge of that type of emulation and using the amazing versatility of the cello. When growing up, I know that imitating and copying others was a key part of learning to play the cello. My teachers and peers really inspired me and I would consider playing together like a conversation. We imitate each other in language, through sound, pitch and tone and this is the same with music. My development from classical to where I am now has been frustrating at times and has taken me on a long journey of breaking free and expressing myself. I felt held back by my self confidence and the filtering of my expression … It’s really only recently I’ve been able to find my own voice.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
L: I think I still have the same compositional challenges. Most of the stuff I produce is very heady. There was a club in New York called RV and it was basically a hole in the wall where the soundscape was druggy and head-filled and provocative and rude. That’s my main problem, stuck in the head/heart and I’d like to make music that talks more to the bones.
D: Composition and production still feels like a mystery to me. I think part of the reason for this is probably because I am the least technical member of Tears|Ov. I still kinda see myself as the Bez of the band in that regard. Over time I have developed more confidence and a desire to create the sounds of my fantasies and visions. The more I experience the processes of recording sounds and producing music, the more multi-dimensional the process becomes and I grow hungry for the time and ability to learn more.
K: My personal composition challenges when I was younger felt like they stemmed from being classically trained. The classical training provided me with such an amazing base on which to creatively write, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I was able to break outside of what felt like classical rigidity and rules. I’ve spent the last few years working on being more open and communicating more widely in my personal life and I think this has helped and is reflected in my musical expression.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
L: In New York City, my first studio was really just my partner’s flat, a very small studio apartment in Gramercy. There were decks, a couple of VCRs, a satellite receiver box, CRT monitor, a gemini mixer and sampler, a drum machine, an 8 track, Teac tape decks, a Nintendo and Atari, a fisher price camcorder PXL-2000, small mixing console, a video mixer, and a portable DAT machine. The gear took up most of the space set up in an L-Shape with an imposing visual composition on the wall behind made of unopened action-figure boxes arranged to spell the word H A T E; kinda lame, and kinda cute. Nowadays my studio has a lot of acoustic instruments: guitars, bass, acoustic piano, drum kit, trumpet and a clarinet; as well as electronics: synths, control surfaces, pedals, sequencers, noisy toys, Fx boards, and of course a computer. The change is because of money. I don’t really have a favourite tool or instrument but the physicality of the guitar and the piano make them always the first place I start with anything. Then of course, I mostly dump them for electronic boxes. Silly really.
D: My first studio was a tape recorder that I recorded radio shows on as a kid, which graduated to the process of tape to tape mixes leading further into DJ-ing. Lori and I have gradually built up our set up over the last 10 years collecting guitars, pedals, percussion and synths. I joked with a friend recently that the synths is my midlife crisis. I certainly want to run away with the Korg MS 2000 and have a long sordid affair.
K: I’ve never really had a studio it’s just me and my cello. I’ve had this cello for almost 20 years.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
L: Start with loops and cut or extend until it becomes meditative and the meaning vanishes or changes or both. I think the most underestimated technology we have is language, and sometimes, it’s our daily language, particularly the beliefs embedded in turns of phrase, is what is truly mechanistic.
D: I use technology for Tears|Ov predominantly for research processes. So much easy access to music is exciting but also overwhelming at times. I still love to go to a charity shops and see what the trash gods have thrown my way. When I’m writing lyrics the instant accessibility to history around themes and concepts that I am interested is really useful. Coming from Generation X and a small island I know the limitations of the local library.
This concept of a feedback mechanism between technology and creativity involving humans and machines makes me think of a hall of mirrors. For me machines are an echo of ourselves in the futile pursuit of controlling nature. Excelling is a farcical notion when you look at the creativity of nature. Despite this harsh critique, or should I say feedback, I am amused at the games that we play with machines.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
L: I studied ancient Latin in school. Mr Spraley, my teacher, was constantly marvelling at the fact that a Latin sentence could be cut into its component parts, thrown into the air, and still mean the same thing however it landed. That’s a crisis for poetry! Having a DAW by which it is easy to play with order – whether it’s pitch, word, texture, definition, is a really rough and ready way to play with contextual determinacy, to couplet, divorce, silence, transform. Production tools help to re-sequence your own thought structures.
K: Despite playing in an electronic band, I’m not massively into using technology when I play. I prefer to create loops and effects myself, rather than rely on pedals and machines. The human interaction means it’s never the same twice and it’s never quite as rhythmically perfect. I think the human ear can sense that and is pulled in by it.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
L: I love collaborative work and prefer it. I still feel quite shy/ lack confidence about my creative process that feels in need of an interpreter much of the time. Collaboration validates that, as well as just the simple fact that I love shooting the shit with anyone about anything. And I’m pretty good at asking questions and interpreting intent.
D: I feel that I am constantly looking for things or people get me out of my head. That is how I see collaboration: as an opportunity and a challenge to myself, my self-obsession. I see the bands technique as predominantly a collage of mediums, concepts and interpretations so in that regard I feel like I am collaborating with randomness and chaos predominantly.
K: Music is all about collaboration to me. it’s a language that can so beautifully express how we feel. I prefer to write collaboratively and have an idea or a concept to build on. The way we write music together is hugely iterative and improvised and it’s definitely my preferred style of making music.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other – do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
L: I work as a Freelance A/V Technician for various art institutions around London, and don’t really have a fixed schedule. In the morning when I’m not working, I lay in bed for twenty minutes or so thinking about things I take for granted – then I exercise, bathe, get side-tracked, research something of interest, and eventually get around to working on various projects in whatever shape they are forming. The feedback loop of my life in the creative sense is a thin membrane between routine and novelty. I have a hard time separating most things.
D: In the week I have become very regimented. The intensity of my job really demanded that I make considerable changes to my lifestyle. These changes have been painfully transformative:
6am – wake up, eat porridge, shit shower shave, cycle to prison.
8am – Arrive at prison spend the next 9 hrs being an addiction therapist
5pm – Cycle home
5.45pm – yoga with Adrienne
7pm – Numb out to trash T.V
9.15pm – Die
Friday has become my creative day, drawing, writing, music whatever needs my attention.
The weekend generally has to have 3 breakfasts and a couple of hours reading, a bit of a party, or some gardening and D.I.Y.
K: I work in International Development in Brighton and so from Mon-Thur my routine is very centred around that. I am a big sleeper, so I don’t get up a minute before I *need* to. I shower, dress from clothes already prepared, grab my bag and walk to work. I always get myself coffee on route and arrive at the office about 45 minutes after I woke up – often a little dazed. The evenings are all about cooking for me. I developed a huge love of creative cooking from my mum and spend a good portion of my evening in the kitchen. Fri – Sun when I am not at work can be a mixed bag. It usually involves tea and crumpets in bed as a bare minimum. I am also a big fan of a Sunday roast and a pint. When we create and practice as a band we do so over long weekends and have a wonderful routine that involves long mornings full of brunches, listening to music and chatting, followed by bloody marys and music writing. The evenings we fill with friends, art, gigs or movies, or occasionally we will write late into the night.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that’s particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
L: The video I made for I Stand on the Cable was the result of many years working behind the scenes as a film projectionist. I got into the habit of filming the curtains as well as learning how to maintain the tracks, set the outer limits, and of course, coordinate film presentation with them. They are the beginning and the end, and in that sense so bound. In the video I wanted to free them from their service of back and forth opened and closed in the same way I seek to free myself from back and forth, open and closed. I imagined them as a projection of self, with nothing to reveal apart from the space between viewer and viewed.
D: The sound writing process often begins with soundscape sketches that Lori has composed on which I will then add sounds, scratching, notions, lyrics, samples to. At this point Katie will often add perspectives, compositions on cello guitar or whatever seems appropriate. We then may have some set compositions which could do with some fucking up. I will use D.J software to do a remix of the already composed songs which will serve to add another layer to the compositions. Excerpts from the remix will get added to the melting pot directed by the three of us. These steps may be repeated a few times until we feel that we have something that makes sense or even better makes absolutely nonsense.
For me these ideas come from the cut-up method. I love the anti-elitist stance that Tristan Tzara took when he created the poem from nowhere and that the response from Andre Breton was to oust him which in turn created the anti-establishment dada movement. He said that poetry is for everyone. I say samples and culture jamming are for everyone! This fits into my own anti- establishment politics and appreciation of outsider art.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
L: I don’t think there is an ideal state of mind, but I do notice that the creative current is stronger when it’s not being pushed. The best strategy for me to focus is to be physically engaged, and not in a creative environment. Commuting by bicycle and swimming are probably the times when I most switch on. Saying that, I also like psychedelics – a lot.
D: I feel like I am constantly looking for the opportunity to be creative. I get the chance most often with photography. Then drawing because most of my drawings grow from doodles and when I’m bored I doodle. Boredom can be fertile ground for many creatures. Boredom is everywhere because I’m an intrigue addict. Writing and making music are more precious entities. I have to have good energy levels or my band to encourage and structure me musically. Writing really comes on me like a cold. Kinda hot, kinda painful, kinda cold.
Distractions include plants, work, gay porn, low self-esteem, drama, being an adult, my beautiful cats.
K: One word. Poncha. Turns out I can create great music whilst drinking Poncha. Life is the biggest distraction from creativity. That and ironically D&L in a magical way. Sadly my creative state can’t exist when it’s distracted by work, by grief, by resistance. I have to create space and time to be able to write and it can’t be forced. I need to give space for the expression to make its way out. When I feel like I have too much on, and too much to do, this is the opposite feeling needed for the ideal state. We are all pulled in so many directions and the biggest challenge for me is learning to say no to doing things and creating real space for myself. Subsequently, I’ve had to really consciously make time for creativity. I work less days now and spend long unpressurised weekends practicing and creating whilst having a lot of fun and relaxing around it. Other bands I have played in, we’ve often just given a few hours a week or month to the process, but this way of giving a few days at a time helps me get into the flow and the zone to be able to relax and create.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
L: I much prefer playing live to studio work. It seems like it should be the opposite, but I feel freer in a live setting. I think this comes from the energy of potentially getting it ‘wrong’ and also from the energy of the audience, the expectation to deliver dissipating against the invitation to be heard. It’s generous and something to be grateful for.
D: The studio is the sketch book. A cozy room to eat, imbibe, have fires and delve into the multi-dimensional space of sound. Being in this environment appears to create compositions or songs which we are encouraged by ourselves and others to let loose into the universe. Playing live is the necessary bondage and discipline of showing off. Despite being a somewhat uncomfortable experience it gives me many wonderful opportunities to meet fascinating people. It also gives me the gift of practice and structure. In which Lori, Katie and I can tussle, aggravate and sculpt our expressions together.
Our work is constantly an improvisation for me because im so terrible at doing the same thing twice. Despite how frustrating this can be at times I feel its totally natural and organic for the composition to be eternally evolving. Never played the same way, never heard the same way.
How do you see the relationship between the ‘sound’ aspects of music and the ‘composition’ aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
L: I don’t really find these to be that separate, apart from sound elements lend easier to structure while timbre to mood color texture.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses – and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
L: I was not allowed to watch television growing up and think this is probably where my interest in sound germinated because I had a remote engagement all the same. Whether this was the warm distant mono monologue of my parent’s television set rising and falling against the ambient 3 dimensional mix (adult figures commenting on the programme or talking to each other, house settling noises, commercials, diegetic and non-diegetic sound of the telly programme) or the awkwardness I felt amongst peers when I couldn’t really participate in the cultural exchange – it had a contrapuntal quality that was audibly visual in the absence of any images. I love it when you don’t necessarily see what you hear or hear what you see.
D : I absolutely take my hearing for granted, the balance, depth and fantasy of it. I don’t really pay attention to how it connects to my other senses because I am to busy being engulfed and in awe of it. I do delight in uncomfortable sound and noise because I like to endure it whilst others are whineing. Distortion, pushing or following sound to its limits excites me. I have recently gotten into healing tones and have felt excited about how they assist my meditation practice. I was always drawn to drones and now I understand why. Sound has no borders.
K: When playing the cello, there are certain chords and sounds that make my emotions run totally wild. You can really feel emotions like love or pain or anger though the vibrations and tone. There is a track on the album that is a voice and cello duet between Lori and I. It’s like two voices and there’s this wonderful part where our voices join in to the same note but it’s such a painful emotional journey to get there. This track always pulls my whole body at this point in to the chord resolution and provides almost a physical release. I’m quite a sensitive person in the way I experience sound, and often when it is intense, I have to close my eyes and my hands can ache if it’s emotional. Senses are clearly closely interlinked. My senses often become overwhelmed by the sounds/music.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
L: I dunno. I spent so many years trying to avoid being an artist because I didn’t believe that I was relevant, or that the portrait of my experience couldn’t possibly be relevant because a lot of my work is motivated by the politics of love, curiosity, tolerance and repulsion – of life itself – but as experienced by me. Recently I heard a scholar say that this is not unintellectual. Perhaps embracing one’s own experience as relevant is the social/political aspect that requires the most courage in making work.
D: I think I can be a bit suspicious of art and being an artist. It can be held in such high esteem that it makes me feel nervous for humanity. Despite these concerns I am still obsessed with putting more time into my creative practice. My approach to art is I just can’t help it. I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. My approach to being an artist is an awkward persistent joy.
K: I often wonder about the depth within my own art and music. I make collages and doodles as well as music. I don’t think I approach it from a political standpoint and I certainly wouldn’t be able to point out how my art represents something deep and meaningful. That said, I am a political person. I follow politics, debate controversial things and live a life that is probably a bit of a political statement within itself. My approach to art is to just do what feels good and feels right. It doesn’t have to be about anything other than what it is. You certainly don’t need to over analyse it if you don’t want to.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
L: My idea of music is really wide open. Saying that, it would be welcome if there was less co-dependent type sentiment in pop songs.
D: I don’t think it’s remarkable at all. Music is transcendental is takes infinite forms and will continue to do so.
K: I find it hard to imagine what music couldn’t be, it feels endlessly open.
TearsOv Interview Image (c) the artists
“Lori E Allen: Perhaps embracing one’s own experience as relevant is the social/political aspect that requires the most courage in making work.”
Interview by “Fifteen Questions”
Fifteen Questions is the world’s first music magazine about music itself. By talking to some of the leading artists of our time about their perspectives, processes and approaches, we aim at building an extensive archive documenting one of music’s most turbulent and exciting eras.
All of the interviews on Fifteen Questions are in the familiar questionnaire-format. And yet, over the course of ten years, they have significantly evolved and still continue to change. We’re not interested in the private lives of artists or their latest releases. Instead, we involve production experts, performers, journalists, scientists and composers to discuss what music means, how it’s made, where its limits lie, and why it affects us all so differently and yet remains universal.
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