Not many artists have performed at private gigs for the Church of Satan, but then again, few artists have a career that looks anything like what Lustmord, AKA Brian Williams, has been doing over the past few decades. Born and raised in Wales, Williams relocated to London as a teenager and got involved in the city’s early post-punk and industrial scene, befriending the likes of Throbbing Gristle’s Chris & Cosey and eventually making his own music as Lustmord.
He also linked up with seminal Australian industrial band SPK for a time, but it was his own recordings, particularly 1990’s Heresy LP, that best showcased his unique genius. Although he’s often labeled as a “dark ambient” artist, Williams’ sonic creations can’t accurately be described in such a limited fashion, as they’ve involved everything from digitally expanded bass rumbles to distinctly non-musical sounds like human screams, car crashes and field recordings from radioactive missile test sites.
There’s also a distinctly cinematic element to his work, which helps explain why Williams has worked as a composer and musical sound designer on a number of Hollywood films. Speaking of California, he moved there in the early ’90s, and while the 2006 show in Los Angeles for the Church of Satan – for the record, Williams is a staunch atheist – was his first live performance as Lustmord in 25 years, he’s since periodically taken the stage for special shows at progressive festivals such as Unsound, Atonal and Incubate.
In the studio, Lustmord has collaborated with the likes of Tool, Robert Rich, Clock DVA, The Melvins and Vampillia, amongst others, but his solo output has also remained remarkably steady; while much of the more recent material has surfaced via his own Vaultworks imprint, Williams’ most recent album, 2013’s The Word As Power, was released via Blackest Ever Black. In a recent interview with RBMA Radio’s Hanna Bächer, he discussed his unique approach to sound.
Painting With Sound
When I was 17 I went to art school and I was only there for a year. We had a mutual agreement that I should leave because it just wasn’t for me. I was really good at fine arts, and going into art school was the logical thing to do because I didn’t really want to go out and get a job. If you go to art school, you could delay the sentence.
I haven’t drawn since, but I was actually quite good. Well, I was good enough to go to art school. It took somebody else to point out to me that, “You did sound instead. You’re basically doing the same thing, but you’re doing it with sound.” Which is exactly what I am doing. I’m kind of painting with sound. Which is a nice description, but saying it out loud is kind of pretentious because you’re referring to yourself as an artist, and for me, when you refer to yourself as an artist it’s kind of bullshitting. But it’s okay for somebody else to refer to somebody else as an artist.
Sometimes the music is you explaining yourself.
I’m not a musician in a musical sense. I work with sound and I blur the line between music and sound design. I create, I have this need to. I express myself in that way, and the problem with that is sometimes people want you to explain the music. Well, sometimes the music is you explaining yourself. This is an old argument: it’s not really about me explaining what the music is or what it means. The idea is that this is me expressing myself and, if you listen to the music, you either get it or you don’t get it.
People really have a tendency to want to pigeonhole something or have it explained. “Explain this to me. Where does this belong?” It doesn’t necessarily belong anywhere. I don’t feel the need to explain it. People tend to like giving things labels, which is okay. I understand why. For me, I don’t feel that I need to label the things that I do, other people do it for me.
It’s very important when I was doing recordings that they would be very specific places. Sometimes the actual recordings weren’t that good. Sometimes they were very mundane. But it’s the whole concept, the actual act of going out, the fact that it was this place and the meta level of meaning and hidden meaning or resonance. Actually being crazy enough to put all this extra effort into something that actually didn’t sound that much different. But there’s an extra meaning when you do it.
I want it to be real too, kind of where it sounds almost cliché, almost like, “Keep it real, rock and roll.” It’s like peeling an onion, all these things that you may not know were there. I know they’re there and sometimes people find them, sometimes they don’t, but the fact that they’re there is what’s important. For me, it makes it much more interesting. I think, for a lot of people, it doesn’t sound any different either way, but I’m doing this for myself anyway.
You start by building up a library. That’s really time consuming. When I’m working for other people on a game or a movie or whatever, I like to let people know, because they want results at a given time. I say, “The initial stage, the first couple of months, you’re not going to hear anything. I’m going to be really busy. It’s the busiest period of all, gathering all these things together, but there’s not going to be anything to hear until I go to the second phase, going through all this material and creating.”
Over decades I’ve built a really large library of sounds. So these days I also have pre-existing sounds, including finished sounds I have that I can refer to and sometimes reuse in a different way. I still do that initial sound design stage because I really enjoy doing it, but it’s really tedious and really slow. I’m also very anal about doing it, way more than a lot of people.
I was creating this sound because I wasn’t hearing the music I wanted to hear.
I’ve tried to deliberately create something really organic, but I also try and create something that isn’t of the time. I think a lot of my stuff is really primal. So, it’s kind of timeless in that sense. (Primordial time was a period, but you know what I mean.) Ideally you should be able to hear something I did quite a few years ago and you shouldn’t be able to tell which era it came from. Sometimes the technology is a clue, the quality of the sound. But, other than that, somebody who hears my work for the very first time shouldn’t necessarily be able to say what year it came from.
As far as sound design [and the Lustmord project], it isn’t so much a deliberate sound design process, it was more like trying to find my own sound. Looking back at it now I wasn’t really thinking in terms of going to do a project and do sound design. I was just expressing myself and it became this sound design kind of project. The way I do it, I design sounds and then I tend to design atmospheres and landscapes with sounds. It wasn’t like a cohesive thing that I was able to do. On the second album I was finally finding the sound, and then by the third album I got that sound.
The reason I was creating this sound is because I wasn’t hearing the music I wanted to hear. There was a certain kind of music and a certain kind of place that I wanted to go that didn’t exist, so I needed to make it myself. Most people who create don’t listen or read or refer to their own work. Which is really ironic, because I wanted to create this sound so I could hear it... But once I heard it, the last thing I wanted to do is actually listen to it.
I often get asked about what equipment I use. The tools I use are really simple. But it’s not about the equipment. It’s about the ideas. I’m happy to tell people what equipment I have, but people are missing the point. If you have no equipment, which I didn’t originally, you will still manage to figure out how to do something. But you can have all the equipment in the world, the exact equipment that I have, and have no fucking ideas. It doesn’t really matter what you have, just that you have ideas first.
It’s easy to get a noise. I’m so bored of all these noise acts because so few people do good noise. There’s a difference between noise and a good sound, a good noise. So even with no equipment and shitty equipment – that’s a technical term, “shitty equipment” – you can come up with something interesting .
I’d like to be able to play the keyboard, but I don’t have the temperament to spend years learning that stuff.
I’ve actually had to take out a loan to buy a synth. I did a lot of quality work with an EMS synth, but by the time Heresy came around I bought an Atari computer, which had half a megabyte of memory and half a megabyte of storage. And I used that to create Heresy. I think the longest sample that you could get was half a second or a second. Very, very limiting, but a lot of people think that album is something of a classic, which is nice. You don’t need much equipment to make something like that.
Over time I ended up buying processors and more expensive equipment. But I just didn’t really have any need. I’m not a musician. I’d like to be able to play the keyboard or be a fantastic string player or something, but I don’t have the temperament to spend years learning that stuff. I just want to get on and be immediate.
Computers: that’s kind of the way my brain works. I can look at the screen and I can see this literal, linear thing. I’m using and actually creating samples via the screen and a mouse. I really embraced that thing. This made sense to me, whereas messing around with synths and all this stuff, I just wasn’t interested. I, pardon the pun, filtered that stuff out. I received Sound Designer 2 and a Mac and I remember buying my very first hard drive. It was one gigabyte and it was $8,000. Which was a ridiculous amount of money. But that’s what I did, and that led me to be really good with a Mac and also being really good with that software, which was another big part of me getting by in Hollywood.
When you move to L.A. originally you’re kind of wary of the reputation that the film industry has, but when I was there that first year I was working on movies, the first thing I realized was that the people were incredibly nice, incredibly professional, incredibly passionate about making good movies. Yes, most movies are actual shit, but the people working on them, they’re trying to do their best.
It was a culture shock realizing that people in America actually mean it when they say, “Have a nice day.”
I just really liked America. As a European, from a distance I never really liked American culture. I thought, like, McDonald’s and this kind of thing and I really hated this “Have a nice day,” this fake kind of being nice. But you go over there and, for me, it was actually a culture shock realizing that people actually mean “Have a nice day.” British people, somebody would tell you, “I wish you have a nice day.” Somebody had taught them to be nice. The boss had told them. But in America you realize people actually mean it. That was really surprising.
I guess I was happier once I moved there. But I also got very busy, too. I was working on all these movies all the time. I worked on about 45, 50 movies. I was just really busy and doing a lot of sound design, which, it’s not bizarre, but it was really interesting getting paid to do what you’d be doing anyway. It’s not a real job, you know? Well, it was, you’re getting paid, but you don’t want to tell people that you do this, because they’re paying you! I didn’t do much of my own music for a while simply because I was so busy.
The Church Of Satan
I had wanted to play live for a while. It was a long time from ’80-81 when I did three or four shows. Fast-forward 15, 20 years, and I still hadn’t played any shows. I was really busy with this Hollywood stuff and there wasn’t time for anything else. Also, it was sound design I was doing, and I was trying to figure out how you do that live, because it’s not very interesting.
Another year would go by and I wouldn’t think about it. But now it was 25 years. I thought, “I should do something live this year, because 25 years seems somewhat significant, I should mark the occasion with some kind of something, like a show.” Two things happened in the two years leading up to that. One was computers had become much more powerful, and you could do almost everything you wanted to do on a laptop. The negative aspect of that is, “Well, who the hell would want to see somebody perform on a laptop?” Which is, of course, what I do.
But the second thing is I went to see Kraftwerk. I’ve always enjoyed their music, but I’ve also been a big fan of them for technical reasons. I went to see them live and there’s four middle-aged guys with laptops and it’s one of the best shows I’d ever seen. So I think, “Okay, the laptop thing can work if it’s done in the right way, if it’s the right kind of music.” If it’s a good sound, with some visuals it can be done.
Coincidentally I got a phone call from the Church of Satan telling me they were doing this ritual. They were having their 40th anniversary with a private ritual in Los Angeles and people were flying in from all around the world. They were interested in me doing the live sound for it. It was going to be on 6/6/06, 2006. I thought, “I should do a show, and there’s a chance to do a show on 6/6/6.” I have this certain dark image, which is amusing, because I’m not the least bit dark, as you may have noticed. But the idea, as I’ve mentioned to people before, was a Spinal Tap moment. If I’m going to do a show and haven’t played 25 years then I’m going to have to do a show on 6/6/06, because it’s so silly. Of course I said yes.