TEN QUESTIONS WITH: LAWRENCE ENGLISH
Mention the name Lawrence English and 'ROOM40 label head' invariably springs to mind, but the Australian native has not only been a midwife for an ever-growing catalogue of provocative experimental sound works but also squeezes in a recording career of his own when time allows. English also oversees the annual production of multiple festivals in his homeland, and recently started up a sister label to ROOM40 called Someone Good that, in stylistic spirit, is considerably unlike its predecessor. English recently found time to update us on projects like the recent ROOM40 project Airport Symphony, Someone Good, and events like Open Frame and Syncretism.
1. You've managed to successfully establish ROOM40 since its birth in 2000 without any seeming compromise to the label's commitment to—an oversimplification I know—experimental electroacoustic music. How have you managed to not only survive but prosper, and to what degree has the label's Brisbane, Australia home base been a factor in its success?
Brisbane? Well, certainly, up until a few years back, it was a perfect place for something like ROOM40 to grow. It's sunny for one thing, so checking e-mail can be done of a morning with a coffee, a table, and a good sit in the backyard and, considering some days there's a good two hundred e-mails to get through (a good chunk of those for the label and related activities), that's certainly been an encouraging way to start the day.
In all seriousness though, the cost of living in Brisbane is cheaper compared to other parts of the world where I could have chosen to start things off, and that's one of the big reasons I've based myself here rather than uprooting and heading to EU or another location. That said, things are changing here; Brisbane is the fastest growing city in the southern hemisphere right now, so the price of everything has gone up a great deal but, given the growth, there are also many opportunities here to be seeded, grown, and reaped.
In reality, though, I don't think the location has had that much more impact on the label than anything else. In terms of the events and exhibitions we curate, then I think there's a more direct link as one of the main things ROOM40 is dedicated to here is growing the sound culture in this region—Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia too where we've been lucky enough to present work.
2. The recent Airport Symphony release seems like the quintessential ROOM40 project in so many ways. Given that the contributors are eighteen, geographically-dispersed artists, I'm curious as to whether it was a difficult project to coordinate. Or is it the case that the featured artists jumped at the chance to work on a project whose theme is so rich in potential? Also, do you exert much control over a given artist's contribution (style, duration, etc.), or do you pretty much allow him/her/them free reign?
It's fairly much a case-by-case basis, but for the most part the artists involved make the project a pleasure to manage. For something like Airport Symphony (or Melatonin which we made a few years back), the concept guides a lot of the curation. When I present the curatorial brief to the artists, generally I find they're excited or curious about finding a way to respond. Not everyone invited participates, but most of the time it's 90% of the people we ask—time doesn't always allow everyone to be involved. Generally in a project like that I specify a rough time scale to make sure I can get all the artists on board, and then beyond that aesthetics and response is completely up to them.
In all honesty, I don't find these projects too difficult to manage really and any issues or difficulties are out-weighed by the enjoyment I get from presenting and listening back to the works.
3. With ROOM40 having released over fifty recordings, how have things changed since its inception in terms of the label's musical philosophy and style? Or is it the case that you had a very clear concept in mind from the outset and have tried to stay consistent in implementing it?
For me ROOM40 has always been a listening label. And I know, I guess that sounds funny, but I like to think all of the records present themselves at a variety of levels when people come in contact with them. I can speak personally to this having returned to some albums a few years on and finding new elements and experiences in them—that's one thing I really enjoy about music is that discovery and rediscover of sound.
I guess the other factor that I see linking the record together is that, for the most part, they are projects or explorations that may not fit into that artist's catalogue or with another label. Take the DJ Olive ambient records: they're fairly removed from his work for the Agriculture, equally the Tujiko Noriko, or Tenniscoats record; each is quite different and unique from those artists' other releases.
4. Of course, ROOM40 is not only a label but a producer of various events, festivals, and exhibitions. What were some highlights from the late September event, Open Frame?
I have to say this year's Open Frame was simply a pleasure from start to finish. There were some really wonderful performances from some artists for whom I have the utmost respect. Equally, the audience that came along really enjoyed the shape and tone of the evenings. This year we undertook a couple of surround-sound aspects to the concerts; for example, Sebastien Roux delivered a stunning piece in quad which was based on his new album for us Revers Ouest* and also a piece he made for the On Isolation compilation we published late last year. That spatial aspect was also something Steinbruchel played with in an amazing way—very considered and tempered, almost meditative. Jason Kahn also delivered a great electroacoustic solo ,and Tim Hecker finished up the festival with one heck (no pun intended) of a set. It was like the skies had split open and sound just poured out—really top stuff.
5. You've also got a December event, Syncretism, in the works. Tell us a bit about what we can expect to hear and who will be performing.
Syncretism is one of the four series we run here in Australia; there's also Fabrique (focused on electronic work), NineHoursNorth (focused on music from Asia), and Mono (a sound art series at the IMA gallery). Each of the series is discrete and for the most part has a different focus, certainly in terms of the artists we invite for the series. This December, Chris Abrahams will be visiting us for Syncretism. I'm excited about this, as Chris's music really surprises me consistently; both solo and with The Necks, he's adept at linking harmonic/melodic overtones with really personal performance approaches, and is an incredible improviser as well.
6. You're also involved in curating various sound series in Australia, and showing art works (currently in Hong Kong). Can you tell us a bit more about those projects?
Curating has always been big part of what ROOM40 is about. When we started in 2000, the whole sound art thing hadn't really started to ‘blip' on the arts radar in this country, and really it's still to hit. We've yet to see a major gallery curate a proper focused and well-delivered sound art exhibition, which is disappointing considering that it's become such a strong part of the arts vernacular in other countries.
I've been fortunate to have had the chance to collaborate and curate a lot of projects over the past few years, many of them self-initiated. I'm a big believer in supporting artists to make work and have it recognized and ideally to make more opportunities for that artist to continue growing their practice. That's one of the reasons I tend not to release much of my own music with ROOM40; if that spot in the schedule is taken, then there's one less chance for me to release someone else's music as resources are ultimately limited in some way. The releases I have issued of my own with the label have been commissioned or sponsored in some way and that's relieved the burden on the label.
The project you mention in Hong Kong is actually a work of my own called WALL OF SOUND which has been programmed by Vanessa McRae, a curator here in Australia who is on residency at Videotage in HK. It's one of a number of media artworks I've been working on and showing over the past seven years. That's increasingly something I enjoy working on, a different space to working directing with sound in a composed or improvised format and it calls for a different kind of listening in some respects.
7. You recently started a sister label, Someone Good, whose avant-pop has an entirely different focus than ROOM40. Can you tell us about the specific kind of music Someone Good focuses on and, in addition to the new inaugurating releases, what releases you have scheduled for the future?
Someone Good is actually a project I'm working on with my wife Rebecca. She's always had a bit of a thing for left-of-centre pop and I have to say she really got me excited about some of the new avant-pop groups and from that the label pretty much grew organically. It's a slower-moving label than ROOM40, which is just as well, but we're very much focused on celebrating melody, as long as it's housed in a somewhat unconventional or unique approach.
There are a slew of releases on the boil. We've actually started a series of releases that are ten songs in twenty minutes or under. I guess that series is a way of finding the essentials of melody and song and really stripping right back to that, finding the heart and soul of a piece of sound, and celebrating it without belabouring the point. I'm always curious to see how people will respond to ideas like this, as everyone reads it so personally and applies their own aesthetics to it. Qua is making a new edition for us next, followed by Lullatone in 2008 and also Saya from Tenniscoats. We hope to work with a good few of the artists we featured on the first Add to Friends compilation we recently released.
8. Your ROOM40 and Someone Good pairing is reminiscent of Taylor Deupree's 12K and Happy. How much were you inspired by his venture as a model for your own, if at all?
I can't say I'm influenced by the 12K/Happy connection (beyond being an admirer and supporter of Taylor's work at every level), but I think that label and a couple of others point to the fact that there are some very clear linkages between sound art, electronic music, pop, and processing for want of a better word. I think once you start to consider the act of transformation, whether that be song arrangement, or the most out of the way field recording, the processes and ideas are linked. It's still about finding that quality that exists in a given set of sounds that makes the final work that bit more unique and engaging.
9. Japan in particular seems to be such a remarkably fertile breeding ground for Someone Good's distinctive brand of ‘avant-pop.' Any thoughts as to why that is?
Actually, this is something I've been spending a lot of time thinking about. I'm not really sure, but I do have a number of theories; I guess partly there's a move there at the moment to rediscover song in a variety of ways that are less explored in occidental countries. I think as well the nature of language in Japan creates a very special way of interacting with music and song.
I think another reason for the growth of this work in Japan comes down to the domestic market there and its ability to support a range of artists working with these sounds. I guess in saying that I also mean the DIY efforts of many smaller labels too, but there's a sense of purpose and energy there right now and it's in very early stages in other countries too…I think China, Taiwan and others are in some ways catching the same fire that Japan has been enjoying this past five years.
10. We shouldn't forget that, though you're involved with a wide range of label-related projects, you're also producing your own material. Earlier this year, you released For Varying Degrees of Winter on Baskaru, and have a new one coming out on Sirr in November. Can you tell us a little about those recordings and about your own style?
I must confess that often sadly it's the case that my own work is pushed aside by the demands of the label, art projects and whatnot, which is a shame as I really enjoy creating new work. Occasionally, like at present, I'm taking some time out to work on my own material; I'm about to spend five weeks in Europe touring, so I'll be trialing a lot of new ideas there for the next two records I want to create.
I think, like my work with ROOM40, the sound I create is fairly diverse, but interrelated. I'm still an avid field recordist. In fact I have some new field recording editions slated for release later this year with Winds Measure and another with Greg Davis's Leaves series. Lately I've been spending a lot of time making VLF recordings and one of those editions is focused on that work. The other is based on a series of hydrophonic recordings I made at Stradbroke Island just east of where I live.
On the musical side, I guess the work can be divided into three areas: the first would be the production and collaboration works, like with Tenniscoats or Tujiko Noriko. I have to say I deeply enjoy those projects; they're challenging and enjoyable as there's a certain pleasure from sharing musical ideas I find doesn't necessary appear in creating work in a solo situation.
Then there's the electronic and field recordings works—I guess like For Varying Degrees of Winter or Transit—these works are often reflective of geographic areas, travel, and the experiences that come from new environments. The new record for Sirr is actually the second in a series of works I'm making focused on guitar as the source and hopefully devolving those sounds into something fresh to the ears. It's called It's Up To Us To Live. The first in this series of records was on Cronica titled Happiness Will Befall.
So as you can see there's a diversity there, but in the same breath something linking those ideas together. I feel that really my interest is in sound, in all its varied forms and it's exciting to hear what's possible when generating, combining, transforming, or simply just listening to what's going on outside the window.
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