Living In A Box
Across the table of a pub beer garden in Shoreditch, Luke Abbott emits an exasperated chuckle: “I don’t know!” he laughs, likeably self-aware, almost apologetic. “I just don’t know, I don’t know!” The electronic musician, composer and producer has said the phrase so many times in the last 45 minutes that it’s almost become a comedic mantra. What was he planning when he started work on his sprawling, dense and brazenly unorthodox new album? Why does he enjoy making such odd, challenging music? What emotional qualities does he think are expressed through it? Each time, Abbott admits to being unsure before furrowing his brow and starting to answer via an anecdote or a diversion into musical critical theory, or just throwing the question straight back over the table.
But Abbott’s diffident conversational approach isn’t some exercise in strategic evasion, practiced inarticulacy or laziness. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: so insistent and conscientious is he to express himself with sincerity and honesty that he’s almost paralysingly averse to soundbites. “I’m not sure I have a straight-up answer for you on that one,” he says, thoughtfully, at the end of an engaging ramble around why he might be drawn to abstract music – and it’s not just his verbal communication to which that confession applies. Straight answers in the musical sphere aren’t his forte either: Abbott’s latest response to the straight question of making an album is ‘Wysing Forest’, a 50-minute, largely improvised electronic sound collage that variously presents pristine calm washes, deeply unsettling throbs and blasts of strident noise, all often simultaneously. It’s equally unnerving, bucolic, blissful and foreboding.
Even to those familiar with Abbott’s previous work – stand-outs like the beatifically lovely ‘Modern Driveway’, or the relatively straightforward but endlessly engaging unsung classic of ‘Holkham Drones’ – ‘Wysing Forest’ represents less a step of progression and more a giant leap into ambitious abstraction. It makes for a bewildering first listen – towering, entirely unpredictable and stylistically opaque – but never unpleasant and actually unexpectedly enchanting. Perhaps its most curious quality though is its addictiveness – with each passing play, a little more of Abbott’s vision for the record (and, it transpires, for music in general) comes into focus, and each minor revelation encourages another spin.
Thankfully, that sort of repeated sharpening and whittling process is expected by its creator. “It’s supposed to be hard work,” Abbott says, aware of but unfazed by how this might sound. “It’s a record that’s designed to reward people who pay attention to it. It’s more in line with my own tastes than anything I’ve done before, and the things I like about music aren’t necessarily the things that are easy to get a hold of.
“It’s me indulging in things other than really forgiving, melodic music – I wanted it to feel like it came from nothing, and for it to have a sense of real growth, and end up like a document of real events that happened. Everything on the record was played live; it all just came out that way without being planned. I wanted to present the music in its rawest form.”
‘Wysing Forest’’s genesis came during Abbott’s six-week spell as the musician in residence at the Wysing Arts Centre in rural Cambridgeshire, although he didn’t know he was writing it at the time – he originally used his residency, in the freezing winter of 2012, just to play about: “I spent the time just trying to quite indulgently make noises I liked, letting the music emerge,” he explains. “There was no plan to make an album. I was just making things that pleased me.” He would give live performances to the other residents and to visitors, and after generating several hours of interesting sound, Abbott cherrypicked the best sections and bound them together into a thirty-minute piece that was given to Wysing’s visitors on an mp3 player to listen to as they wondered around the Arts Centre’s grounds. After that proved successful, Abbott discussed the idea of expanding the piece to album length with his label boss James Holden, and finally, 18 months after improvising to himself in the icy isolation of Cambridgeshire, ‘Wysing Forest’ as a full-length LP was born.
The idea of ‘Wysing Forest’ existing as an album in the traditional sense, however, doesn’t sit easily with Abbott. For a start, throughout our conversation, he frequently points out the intrinsic nonsense of a series of live improvisations and explorations (as opposed to chiselled, finished arrangements) existing in a form that can be repeat-played: “The whole point of working like that is that you capture a moment,” he insists. “You can’t recreate that moment, you have to keep doing something new.”
More fundamentally, though, he also rejects the idea of an album being a studio-prepared creation where the disc or the download itself is merely a representation of a set of musicians, preferring instead to see music as something far more immediate and present: “Try and forget about everything else and experience it as something that your speakers do,” he suggests of his own record. “When you put speakers on, and sound comes out, that noise is there, in the room. It’s a real vibration that’s happening. When you’re making music, you can either create an impression of something by slotting the sounds together to create a recognisable scene, which I’m not interested in, or you can make music that comes out of speakers and happens, and that for me is the exciting thing.
“Put a speaker on, turn it up and let it do its thing,” he continues, warming to his theme. “The performance is the speaker making its noise, and once you start thinking about the speaker as a sound object instead of a conduit to a kind of mysterious, imaginary world beyond – once you start looking at the speaker as an object which performs noises at you, then it’s a really different experience. That’s the thing I love most about dance music, because most of the time it happens on fucking big sound systems, and that’s a physical experience: people in front of a sound system are responding to that noise because those noises are hitting them, physically. Maybe my music is designed for more a domestic environment, but it’s still about the noise the speakers make in the room, not the illusion of another world beyond them. What I like most about electroacoustic music is that fundamentally it’s not about illusion. It’s about sounds coming out of boxes with cones that move air. That’s exciting to me.”
If this feels like quite a radically academic, oppressively reductive stance to take on something as affective as music – this is not an outpouring of emotion, but simply a variably vibrating man-made box! – Abbott offers redress: “A man playing a guitar is holding a box that’s making a noise into a room. I mean, even a voice comes from a box. And a speaker is the same thing, it’s just the point of this project from the outset was to try and realise this notion that you can humanise something that’s overtly mechanical, like a speaker.”
He uses an example from ‘Wysing Forest’ to try and explain himself. ‘Amphis’ is the 12-minuter at the front of the album which opens disconcertingly, becomes progressively more screwy and then veers into the sort of tripped out abstraction that prompts lucid dreaming before calming at the end into gorgeously deep sub throbs. Recorded live in front of an audience, there are occasionally audible coughs, and towards the track’s conclusion there’s the sound of the grille on the room’s PA rattling from the bass. “It’s the nicest sound on the record,” enthuses Abbott. “It’s just a really good noise. On some level, you understand that’s the noise of something loud, so by recording that you capture a sense of the weight of the sound, and also the fact that it happened in a room, which means you’re listening to a space. It blurs the line between which sounds are electricity and which sounds are just the world making a noise. And I like that grey area.”
More broadly though, it seems this humanising of the usually sterile, perfectly preserved world of electronic music is something of Abbott’s life-work. “There are lots of ways to make very simple music with electronics,” he begins, laying out his ambition. “But trying to isolate and define the things that turn machines or software into performative and enigmatic instruments – that’s the game, I think. That’s the challenge. Trying to capture what it is that makes something a human performance or a human experience is a very intangible thing.”
Viewpoints like these go a long way to explaining Abbott’s approach to sound in general. The longer our conversation progresses, the less he feels like a conventional musician, composing music for people to listen to and connect with, and more like a fine artist whose principle media happens to be sound, interested in creation and exploration of the medium for its own epicurean sake: “If you’re interested in making music with hooks in it, it’s because you’re interested in creating something that’s going to be accessible to people,” he explains. “And, like in DJing, there’s a social contract there that demands you provide a service, which feels quite utilitarian to me. If I’m doing what I do for the pure love of it, what I purely love is the weird stuff, and by that rationale, I have to do this.” He smiles, comforted by his own conclusion. “I’m left with no choice!”
With that in mind, it seems somewhat obvious that Abbott is reconciled to the idea that his latest creation won’t be for everyone. “I’m not unbothered about whether people like my stuff,” he admits when asked if, hand-on-heart, he really doesn’t care about the reception of his work. “But I don’t want anyone to like it who doesn’t really like it. For me, the fact that it’s difficult to listen to in some ways is fine, because it’s work that’s supposed to be explored. For me it was exploratory, writing it was exploratory, it was about the real-world testing of fanciful ideas that I had about how you can make electronic music better by making it more fallible and human. It feels like progress – a step in the right direction. It’s a weird direction, sure, but it’s a real one.”
And there’s no question that Abbott’s album is weird, in the context of 99% of modern popular music: ‘Wysing Forest’ is released on the same day as Ed Sheeran’s latest effort and a reissue of Bon Jovi’s ‘New Jersey’, and among those two dubious totems it feels almost aggressively alien. But in the context of sound in general, there’s an undeniably naturalistic feeling to Abbott’s contribution. Its organic presentation and sonic transparency lend it an air of approachability – almost. “Well exactly,” nods Abbott. “All sounds that can be appreciated are music, if you follow the John Cage/Michael Nyman school. Music is a process of apprehension, so music starts happening when someone takes on sound in a musical way.”
Statements like these add further support to the idea that Abbott’s approach is more high-concept than most, and indeed his degree and educational background in fine art, and desire eventually to return to it, is no surprise. “Art’s something I’d like to get back to at some point,” he adds when asked about future plans, “but I’m working it out as I go along. I don’t have a grand plan, I just want to be real about what I’m doing as I’m doing it. So this album – presenting real recordings of real things that really happened – that’s a much more sincere statement for me to make than having constructed something in the studio. Having said that, the next thing I might do is to construct something in the studio, and go in completely the other direction!” But how? There’s a pause as Abbott ponders an answer. Finally, and not for the last time in our conversation, he chuckles: “I don’t know.”
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