Crossing Borders: An Interview With Luke Abbott

Inspired by Japanese cities and English woodlands, the pastoral eccentricities of Abbott's techno have made him a unique prospect.

Norfolk’s Luke Abbott was one of the many artists set adrift after the demise of Output Recordings, and was gladly welcomed into the Border Community family for the release of his ambitious Tuesday EP. 2010 saw the unveiling of the lush organic textures and pagan hypnotics of Holkham Drones, Luke’s debut LP, which takes its name from a beach on Norfolk’s uniquely northern stretch of coastline.

Abbott adds a certain pastoral eccentricity to English electronic music. In conjuring up HG Wells as much as JG Ballard, and after many years on the live circuit, Abbott has adapted his analogue-heavy home set-up into a mobile hub, capable of club-friendly tracks as well as experimental detours. It’s all been building towards his latest album Wysing Forest; an excursion into hypnotic synth signatures and motorik electronics that play with arrangements, sonics and rhythmic interplay in equal measure.

In this recent RBMA Radio interview, Abbott speaks about the myriad places that his music has grown from, and taken him to.

Let’s talk about your beginnings. You studied electroacoustic music. In one interview I read, you said something about how electroacoustic music is not about illusion.

One of the things I like about electroacoustic music is the idea that the speakers become an acoustic instrument. It’s not about reproducing another idea of music - it’s about bringing the idea of electronic sounds into the real world, and thinking of speakers like the instrument.

You play with the electronic sounds. I like that notion because one of the things I’m really interested in is how electronic sounds exist in the real world. To play with these synthetic, other-world sounds, but also to make them part of our world and then connect them back to nature is really interesting.

When you were studying electroacoustic music, did you go out to dance parties?

My approach was quite DIY. I was into circuit bending at the time. I just wanted to make noise. Other than playing drums in rock and punk bands when I was younger, my first foray into electronic music was to play free improv nights with other people doing similar things. There was quite a healthy scene of experimental music people around Norwich at that point, and I organized a few shows at a gallery called Outpost.

That was a way for me to explore the idea of making music in a place that I was familiar with, so I did it in a gallery space. I was kind of comfortable with the idea of presenting things in an artistic forum. At that point, I was less comfortable with getting up on stage without a drum-kit in front of me.

I just had a real thirst for learning, as well. Part of the reason I wanted to study electroacoustic music was to formally put myself in a position where it was okay for me to spend a lot of my time, energy and money into researching; educating myself in how electronic music is performed and created, the history of it and the situation of it now, and giving myself the space to form an opinion on it outside of what was happening in the music industry at that point. I was listening to noisy, experimental stuff - which was all really exciting - but you rarely hear that kind of stuff in mainstream culture. I wanted a way into that, I suppose.

Part of the reason I was interested in exploring making dance music initially was that because I thought it was just so ridiculously simple that it must be really open to subversion.

One of the things I find quite frustrating in electroacoustic music is that it’s not playful enough a lot of the time. People have these very definite ideas about how things should or shouldn’t be. A lot of electroacoustic composers, in my experience, have strong opinions that are contrary to the real world in which music exists. Although I really enjoyed studying it, it’s quite healthy to get away from it as well. I like being free to do whatever. I like being playful and having a good time. That’s something that I like about dance music. It is a fun, communal activity. It can be, anyway. It should be.

What interested you about the techno universe?

I wasn’t excited about techno for quite a long time. It took me a while to get into it. Part of the reason I was interested in exploring making dance music initially was that because I thought it was just so ridiculously simple that it must be really open to subversion.

I know that sounds like quite an arrogant perspective but... it’s true. You don’t have to spend very long learning what to do in order to knock out a minimal techno track, do you? It’s just a piece of piss. To take that blueprint and twist it, disintegrate it into another set of ideas and explore those sonic relationships to the point where you’ve transformed it is the background to what I do. It’s exciting, but I also like to do it in a way where it maintains a certain level of functionality.

You can play in the same places as techno happens, but play music which undermines the existence of that at the same time. It’s a nice tension there – almost like a contradiction in terms – and those are the interesting situations. The situations where you have to constantly question what it is you’re trying to do.

How did you first meet James and Gemma from Border Community?

I first got in touch with Border Community because I was in love with their label. When James Holden put out the Idiots album it was like, “Alright, I have to send them something now.” I sent them a demo CD and they liked it, and we put a record out. The first record I did with Border Community was the Tuesday EP. The first track, “Melody 120,” was something I’d done as part of my Masters degree research. I built a generative sequencer that made the melody part for me, put the simplest drum beat underneath it and called it a finished piece of music! It’s my first dance track, but it wasn’t very dancey.

The “Gates” track, for example, came out of a residency that I’d done in Tokyo. I’d been there for two weeks making an audio/visual collaboration with my friend Dan Tunes, and going around doing field recording. I found these amazing metal gates outside someone’s house and recorded myself whacking them with my hands on a little tape recorder.It sounded really beautiful. Those were the samples that I started the track “Gates” with.

Did you get sucked into some sort of music-business techno world after the release of Tuesday?

Not much. I started doing gigs with James. He took me around supporting him doing DJ gigs at clubs, mostly around Europe. It was great fun, a really good way to learn. James was quite happy for me to do whatever I wanted because he thought it was exciting to introduce me to that world. Sometimes I felt like I’d done something that had completely fallen flat, and sometimes things went unexpectedly well. There’s always a lot of experimentation in my live set. There’s always good gigs and bad gigs.

Wysing Forest is the extremity of that idea. It’s a record that came out of purely making stuff up and recording it as you go; trying to be as in the moment as possible, to totally ignore this idea that you’re making “tracks.” None of that was recorded intentionally to be a track on an album. It was just to document the activity of what I was doing. These were the bits that fit together into a kind of strange record.

How did you go about making Wysing Forest?

The shape of the record revealed itself to me to a certain extent. I didn’t want to include anything that wasn’t recorded outside of that very short period of time - about five or six weeks. It took me a long time to go through what I’d done, listen to it, try and work out what the relationships were between all the things that I’d done, and then see if there was any way that they could fit together. I had the idea that I wanted to make something that flowed continuously. I like sounds that transform from one thing into another, and I like parts to have dynamic narratives. I don’t like things to be static very often. Essentially, an album is like a symmetrical crescendo.

Tell me about your Holkham Drones record.

Holkham Drones was me jamming out psychedelic driving music for pure pleasure. A lot of that album was about pleasure, I suppose. There are things on here that I can’t remember how I made, and a lot of tricks in it that I find intriguing.

I do believe that there’s no way of listening to music in exactly the same way twice in your life.

If you’re an active listener, a lot of what happens in the music is actually stuff you’ve brought to it and music is just a way of opening that door. At the beginning of “Amphis,” if you listen carefully, you can hear someone doing washing up in the room next door.

I’m interested in the mistakes, and collaborative improvisation where people are reacting to what one another is doing. Are you ever inspired to put someone on stage again with you to improvise?

One of the things I find interesting about electronic music is the challenge of treating something which isn’t a performative instrument as a performative instrument. That’s where things like modular systems come into play, because you can make something tailor-made that performs a specific task.

I play a bunch of instruments really quite badly. I’m not a fantastic musician because I don’t have the necessary time to develop the muscle memory, or the nuance that makes you perform those instruments well. But I also believe there’s a certain magic about being a novice and being able to approach an instrument without the training and experience. A lot of the time I’ll start it on piano or on guitar or something else, just because it’s new to me. It’s something I can sit at and explore musical ideas without having any real preconception of what you’re supposed to do.

I like not having had piano lessons. I like not knowing music theory. I like tuning the guitar to a open chord and working out something that sounds like music, and then the convoluted process of trying to change that back into useful information to use in the electronic music world. That’s fun.

By Hanna Bächer on January 8, 2015