Interview: Torn Hawk on parodying “toughness” and being vulnerable to a fault

Gabriel Szatan catches up with the Brooklyn producer and visual artist.

What began as a VHS run for rare boogie excavators People’s Potential Unlimited took on a new dimension for Luke Wyatt when he paired it with his own music, some of which has been sitting around for upwards of a decade. The glitched, warped romantic imagery – heavily processed, then churned out as what Wyatt describes as “Video Mulch” – dovetails neatly with the yearning basslines, rickety drum patterns and drifting melodic haze that has come to texture much of his output, confounding but strangely impacting.

Last year was Wyatt’s breakout, with Torn Hawk releases dotted across labels as disparate as Beer On The Rug, Rush Hour’s No Label imprint and his own Valcrond Video, supplemented by a clutch of auxiliary monikers. We called up Wyatt – a gruff, deeply engaging character – to speak about honing his scattershot approach under one centralised roof, matching the unswerving precision of his vision.

A lot of your press photos, as well as the song titles, show a disarming intimacy: shots of you topless, close-ups with tussled hair; a strong masculinity but also exposed and fragile, all very real.

You’ve definitely put your finger on it – some people will just focus on one side of that. I’m trying to be vulnerable to a fault, as well as a sort of parody of “toughness” or something. I’m dissatisfied with the defeatist way men my age have been pigeonholed: lacking their own moral compass and in strong character. I try to put a twist on the stuff I take seriously, so that I don’t appear to be like Tony Robbins, a prophesier for my own habits; I don’t want to sound like I’m a know-it-all. It goes against the grain of the way a lot of people are running their lives, especially in the culture I reside in for the most part – once physical health stops being a priority, so their work and focus suffers. I do kind of quibble with some of my friend’s lifestyles, smoking too much weed.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to express myself in different directions using different mediums. I might as well run with that.

As for song titles, they are a way of letting people into my life, both to humanise and create a character. I’m not satisfied with just doing that from the audio direction, y’know? Whether visual, audio or language arts, these all come from the same place for me, and I’m not going to restrict my impulses and make stuff in an anonymous fashion with some sort of minimal cover and numbered track titles. That’s who I am, and ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to express myself in different directions using different mediums. I might as well run with that.

Do you view the video mulch and music as parallel platforms for expression, coming from different directions without directly influencing one another? Does one strain of emotion get channeled into one, and one into the other?

Um, they don’t necessarily influence each other, but they support my worldview from two different mediums. I’m kind of exhausting my vocabulary with video mulch – my bag of tricks, or whatever – so I kind of want to move into a different direction. I spend so many freaking hours straining myself over it and no longer feel as inspired by working through the same trips with the video. I’m not going to stop working with moving images, it helps me keep my eye on the target of what I’m about. I’ll come across certain images – not in sci-fi or fantasy films, but usually saccharine romantic ones – and want to steal and use it in a tougher way for impact. I make pieces of music to soundtrack that collected imagery, so while not a direct influence, it does support me not just making something arbitrary. You do see that with people who lose their way.

“Uncut Lawns” sounds like a slowed-down Dire Straits line, right? Do you adopt a similar method with nicking and repositioning audio snippets as you do visual?

Well, I sampled the backing from that Dire Straits tape and soloed over it – I’m quoting the line, playing around with it. In a series on my Soundcloud there’s one where I took a loop wholesale from Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” and riffed over it, and another where I’m playing guitar literally right over a full Christopher Cross song. They just lie around, I can’t really release them as they’re mainly for fun. It’s a pretty ham-fisted contrast of my aesthetics slammed over somebody else’s.

Your own material includes a lot of elevation and sprawl, sometimes stretching out for 15 minutes at a time; it appears to search without resolution. I don’t know if that’s intentional.

If you’re looking at “Ghostbusters,” that makes sense with what you’re saying. There’s a lot of emotion there, but maybe not a resolution. It’s an all-over sprawl, it gestures without a structure. People tend to perceive the timeline of the narrative is that I’m getting more structured, whereas I was messier; in actual fact, I started with structure. Growing up, lo-fi was a huge movement – early Guided By Voices, stuff I’d mail away for like Shrimper cassettes – so I didn’t want to appear to be influenced by that. Before the whole Torn Hawk project came about, I was making really very produced-sounding stuff, some of which is on that Teen Hawk record.

As a musician you’re not meant to oversaturate, but I look at others and wonder why they aren’t putting out more things: if this is what you do, then this is what you do.

After that, I felt a different impulse: taking these tracks out of time and making them sound like they could be either from the future or the past, because of the fidelity, y’know? A lot of that came from me messing away with the video mulch, making these songs sound like they could be on a VHS tape I found in a cardboard box somewhere. I wanted to explore an anti-sheen of sound, and put hiss and smudgery in quotes and elevate them to where the scummy surface was as much as a subject as the melody of the song.

It also was a way for me to not have to make a lot of choices. Prior to the pretty degraded-sounding stuff that Ron [Morelli] put out on the white label, I was spending way too much time on each track with all sorts of detail manoeuvres, and it was sort of killing me. Forcing myself to mix shit down to tape helped me to not making crazy decisions and layer over things, as I couldn’t touch it once completed. Whatever sounds good, I stick with.

Although not all new, I believe across 2013 you released a total of eight EPs, 12-inches, albums and mixtapes, as well as a spate of podcasts and mixes, which is by any metric rampantly prolific. Are you consciously capitalising on a spike of interest?

[chuckles] Well I’d say it was other people capitalising on that spike. And I’m glad they did. All I do is make stuff: 60-70% of what came out in 2013 was made to order for those releases, the rest kind of repurposed where I would go back to some standards that I had and mess around with them. It’s an easier way to actualise yourself on one level to stay in your room or work in a studio and make these statements, but after the Beats In Space thing I’ve realised I need to force myself to play live and have that be part of the job; that certainly will affect how much I release. But yes, I’ve doing that shit for ten or 15 years with people not necessarily giving a shit. I get mad at myself for not finishing more things because I’ll get too drunk on the weekend or whatever, that kind of natural humane screw-up. As a musician you’re not meant to oversaturate, but I look at others and wonder why they aren’t putting out more things: if this is what you do, then this is what you do.

Have you meticulously mapped out steps for 2014?

There’s another due on Rush Hour first up. I have one on No Pain In Pop that might freak people out who were expecting more four-on-the-floor Torn Hawk stuff – it’s very high-resolution, with sharp lines and little Easter Egg sonic pieces that open into each other – and then a release on Not Not Fun which will be the last hazy, guitar-driven movie anthems of its kind. So that couple should set people up for the thing that unites them: a full-length that works as a conversation between opposing points of view, a contrast I want to push further.

Sometimes you have to create an exposition about this process based on other people’s decisions to explain why things happened randomly.

Beach-blond guitar riffs on top of pristine pop structures, drum machine rhythm tracks and also Michael Nyman piano heartbreak soundtracks. I no longer want to use multiple aliases to express myself, y’know? Even though it’s a lot of diversity, it seems like there’s a real throughline, because I stay obsessed with the same things. I think those things can all exist on the same record – it’ll be like the guy and the girl who show up at a party together, who don’t necessarily make a lot of sense in the same room together, but they work somehow.

I mean, I wish I could plan it more. I’m kind of at the mercy of who wants to put out what when. Sometimes you have to create an exposition about this process based on other people’s decisions to explain why things happened randomly. It’s like using a deck of Oblique Strategy cards when you can’t figure shit out. When I run into a corner of not knowing what to do, I don’t mind to have it taken out of my hands to a degree, and I’ll just kind of sculpt around that so it makes sense later. [laughs*]

By Gabriel Szatan on January 24, 2014

On a different note