Miles of Liles - An interview with Andrew Liles
Andrew Liles has been recording since the mid 80's. His music, which is both eclectic and diverse, is often minimalist, surrealistic, experimental and hypnotic, and attempts to transcend any obvious style. Liles' music has been described as "thoroughly chilling" with "incredible sonic depths of dark ambience." and by industrial.org as "foreboding and at times [a] truly unsettling aural examination, a Rorschact rain cloud streaming out blurred images and tangled memories…"
TJ Norris: How are things in “Jolly Old”?
Andrew Liles: Jolly old? Jolly Old England? Most people here are pretty miserable, I’m afraid…
TJN: When I read that, for you, “creating music is my way to unravel my own neuroses and general discontents... “ I was intrigued. Perspective is everything and sometimes helps the viewer/listener – the general audience – to get into the artist’s brain, even if briefly. Do you care to expound on that statement, maybe with regard to a recent project?
AL: I think anyone who creates ‘serious’ music is constructing a message, an image of themselves for themselves. It’s up to the listener to identify with it or reject it – it doesn’t really matter to me what people take away from it. I want people to like what I do, in fact I would like to see it stocked in every Walmart, the number one best seller in 39 countries, but the music I create is not for any given market per se. It is a platform for expression and emotions that can’t be realized in my ‘normal’ world, the real world.
I think with the general uneasy sounds I create there is an underlying malaise and obvious discontent with the world that comes across in my music – I think it reads quite easily – here is someone who doesn’t really glean a lot from the modern world. So the creation of these tracks is a way of airing my discontents and recordings such as Aviatophobia are methods of dealing with my fears and phobias – though I can’t say they have helped .
I think ‘experimental’ music does talk largely to outsiders, people who have alternative visions and philosophies, lonely people isolated emotionally or philosophically detached from the vast majority of ‘normal’ people. I think experimental music is a space in which people can unravel their minds, indulge their melancholia or develop a fantasy world in which to escape. Essentially, I think my music is my own little utopia, my little realm to exorcise my fear and loathing, a place formed of little worlds and spheres and orbs that reject the ‘real’ world - who wants to be of the real world anyway? People can take from the music what they like and I hope they do but I don’t regard myself as a messenger or a prophet in any way. It’s introspective and idiosyncratic, as I assume most of my listeners are.
TJN: Aural Anagram seems like a very serious project in that sense – to me, it was one of the more unusual projects of 2003. It had an incredible psychological context and shone a dramatic life into one of the most bizarre artists of the twentieth century, Hans Bellmer. How did you come up with the idea? Were you exposed much to his work in the past? What link(s) do you see between the visual and sound arts?
AL: I have loved Bellmer’s work for many years. It was extremely radical in its day and is executed with a precision that is amazing – perverse technical drawing, taboo and strange, an amazing imagination. I think Bellmer was such a proficient draftsman he could articulate his ideas and execute what was in his mind's eye directly on to the page – a rare ability indeed.
I liked the idea that Bellmer saw the body as an anagram and tried to apply this notion to Aural – I started off cutting up the sentences read by various friends and acquaintances of mine in a style not too dissimilar to Burroughs’ 'cut up’ theory – this didn’t work so I just left the random sentences. I think the album might have worked better if it was put to an exhibition of Bellmer's work, I think people were listening to it as purely a piece of sound art and had limited knowledge of Bellmer's work – it’s very hard to articulate what I wanted to achieve through sound alone – The pieces are about a series of over printed etchings by Bellmer and in general not the whole of his work. I think I naively expected that people would have a certain amount of knowledge about Bellmer already, so I don’t think you can link the visual arts to sound arts too easily.
There is talk of me playing Aural live to an exhibition of Bellmer’s work in France later this year - whether it comes to fruition remains to be seen. I think people don’t really want to mix both art forms as one distracts from the other – for me it works - but I think it’s very rare that the two worlds can work in a way that is successful, i.e., having a profound effect on the listener/viewer. I think people can only really concentrate on one thing at a time – they either go for the art or for the music – one form has a greater presence over the other.
TJN: Will the box set you have coming out soon be a collection of all your output to date? How did it come together?
AL: The box is a collection of CDRs that I have released since 1997 – it’s not the complete works – it’s the complete collection of CDRs that I released for various live shows and whims and follies. I thought I would release it all again because my ‘fan’ base has grown and a lot of people missed out the first time round. I think it has come out quite well with a lot of forgotten material that didn’t appear on the original CDRs. I think it’s a collection that should be heard and not forgotten, as it is unlikely that I will be making music in this way again or in the form of CDR. It’s a relatively cheap way of getting loads of music out to those who wanted the complete back catalogue. It would have been a shame to let some of this music just slide into oblivion and be forgotten, I think there are some really nice pieces hidden amongst the hours and hours of music here. It looks good and is a document of pretty much everything I have recorded since 1984.
TJN: That’s really almost a service to your audience and at the same time – a chance to hear material that may have been scrapped on the editing room floor – almost like a special behind-the-scenes director’s uncut version. Talk some about your feelings around self-produced work such as this, its freedoms, drawbacks, costs….
AL: I think a lot of people have the opportunity to create and release their own music now with the advance of consumer electronics getting cheaper and easier to use. It’s a good thing and a bad thing as it gives those a voice who wouldn’t have had one 10 years ago but it has flooded the market with a lot of mediocre output and cluttered the shelves with poor music, it’s hard to make a discerning choice on what to buy these days because there is far too much choice. I think there are too many people fighting for a really small market – in all honesty how many people are into ‘experimental’ music worldwide? – I guess about 10,000 people at the very most and at times it seems 9,000 of those are also ‘musicans’. I think a lot of music has become judged on how good the packaging is these days as well. Releasing your own music is tough, no two ways about it. It’s expensive and hard work. Distributors seldom want to know you and those that do seldom pay you. But if you are confident in what you do and genuinely passionate about what you are trying to say, it can be immensely rewarding. You meet some of the nicest people in the world who always stay in touch and look forward to what you are going to release next. I have only self released one ‘proper’ CD – Aural Anagram. The other two albums have been through Infraction. I have released all of the CDRs myself and they, rather surprisingly as most people seem to distrust or discredit the format, have always sold really well.
TJN: What are your primary sources of inspiration in music? And/or are there other incidentals that reaffirm your creativity, maybe even subconsciously, on a daily basis?
AL: Reading is probably the primary source of inspiration or finding found objects or images. Seldom, if ever, am I influenced by other people’s music and rarely do I watch any films. I will find a sentence in a book, or a strange phrase or witty line and adapt a song around that using the line or phrase as the title and inspiration for the song. I also find old Edwardian and Victorian postcards and photographs that inspire artwork or other song titles and create fictitious auditory tales that I find talk to me, manifest and emanate from these forgotten, out of time and place timeless images – every picture has a story.
I think I approach making music as a form of chance and improvisation. I seldom if ever can recreate the piece again and I suppose I create it at a subconscious level – but the message is blurred at times even for me who has created it. A lot of chance, random elements and luck go to making an Andrew Liles song. Each song is a one off in a way and could never be created again partly because I am not a proficient enough musician, partly because I would have forgotten how I made it and partly because what’s the point? I have deleted all the masters of the albums so there is no real chance of remixing or readapting the original – what’s done is done. I think it’s healthy to let things go.
TJN: Have you traveled much? Where have you been and when you have played live – are there certain international audiences or cities that stick out in your mind for some reason?
AL: Yes, I have been to quite a few places around the world. The next album for Infraction is about travel and anagrams (again), there are recordings that I made in assorted locations last year, a kind of auditory travelogue. For instance, I have mixed the sound of a pedestrian crossing from Prague against the sound of a pedestrian crossing in Gothenburg, likewise London underground with Prague metro, New York USA mixed with field recordings made in York, Yorkshire UK. I enjoy playing live abroad more so than the UK and find small, intimate audiences at universities or suchlike far more receptive than, say, rock venues.
TJN: Can you talk about the role that experimental music has in the larger sense of sound/music/noise as we know it in 2004? Do you feel part of this long legacy of sound art that has developed since Kurt Schwitters, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and others? Do you feel in any way connected to your contemporary soundmaking peers in this light?
AL: I think it would undermine the great leaps and innovation set by the likes of Xenakis and Cage to say I was any part of that. The likes of Cage, etc., are true innovators that made a path I can safely say I have had no part in carving. In fact, pretty much everything that has evolved from Stockhausen, Cage, and Ligeti is generic and I think it will take something unimaginable to supercede what they have done. I wouldn’t consider myself a pioneer of any kind – then again there is nothing new under the sun.
TJN: I cracked up reading your top ten records – most were either hard rock or noisy, edgy works. I hear the attitude in your own work but the finished outcome is truly deeper, more cerebral, perhaps a filtration of some of these fused ideas? Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith would certainly make it to the top of my list of favorites for its depth, character, and haunting air of solitude. How do mysterious cults, paganism or secret societies play into your practice of making music if at all?
AL: I don’t think I like any noise music. I think it depends on how you define ‘noisy.' But I do love metal; I think it’s great. It has an energy and honesty that avant-garde or experimental music can often lack with its often sedentary approach. I also think it’s healthy to have wide [-ranging] interests in music. I think to listen to experimental music all day can be dull, like reading philosophy all your life. I think everyone needs a little pulp fiction. I even approached Rob Halford of Judas Priest fame to sing on a track; obviously, I haven’t had a reply!
With regard to Soliloquy for Lilith, I also think it one of my all time favorite albums. When it was originally released, it came with a flyer saying something along the lines of ‘Music for meditation, relaxation, blah blah blah and breakfast’. I think it truly is a recording that has many, many functions, it can be listened to intently with headphones, listening out for every nuance and change, but it can be great for reading, relaxing in the bath, ironing, cooking and indeed breakfast. It really is a great recording; I don’t think I can think of an adequate analogy, maybe it is the aural equivalent of a Swiss army knife, a tool for every job. I love all those minimal recordings, it would be nice to have Coil’s Time Machines, Salt Marie Celeste, a few things by Eliane Radigue, Colin Potter and H3O just playing continually everywhere. I could never tire of them.
With regard to mysterious cults, I think in part early ‘industrial’ culture has steered a lot of artists down this well trodden path. In the twenty-first century the world of science and technology, hustle and bustle... people can easily become enthused with notions of the old gods and mystical beings because they are seeking a more earthy or simple existence, trying to escape mundane everyday life or the troubles and responsibilities they have. I guess all music stems from the primordial drum beater calling upon the gods, but I certainly don’t sit about in the studio with a copy of Magick in Theory and Practice trying to think of a way I could invoke Choronzon into people’s sitting rooms, in part because I don’t believe in the stuff and because I don’t think it’s possible. If my music can entertain someone and involve his or her attention for a given amount of time, that in itself, for me, is a magical act. I have dabbled with occult ideas and periphery ideas such as EVP because I find them fascinating, but as to engaging either myself or my music into esoterical equations or incorporating secret sigils – no. That aside, in a recent review I was described as ‘The last alchemist of experimental music…’ which was very nice – hahahahaha. Also, the latest B side of the 6” lathe cut record (titled after Marilyn Monroe’s vital statistics) was initially going to be called ‘The Kabalistic Properties of Marilyn Monroe’s Vital Statistics’… so maybe I do have more than a soft spot for these things.
TJN: How do you work? Do you sample sounds, use sequencers, laptop, tape machines…..what are your favorite tools in the studio?
AL: For the core of my music, I use two pretty beaten up cheap old synths, slowed down tapes, old records and my voice processed, pretty rudimentary stuff - nothing elaborate. I write the ‘songs’, record them live, tweaking as I go using an FX unit. Then [I] edit the mess through the computer adding anything and everything on the way really, live instrumentation, guitars, recorder, piano, field recordings, old pots and pans, anything that makes a nice click, fizz or hum then just alter those core sounds sometimes beyond recognition. I often wind up a million miles away from where I originally started and my initial concept.
I don’t know much about computers and haven’t really got the inclination to learn, and I don’t have a sampler, but [I] loop stuff either on tape or using the PC. I never use sequencers or a laptop. I think it’s important to have a range of ways of creating music and not to forget how versatile tape is and the complex, fractured warm sounds that can be created using old technology. I think computers lack the random possibilities of tape but do things better in different ways, it’s good to have both options and utilize both to their full advantage.
I wouldn’t ever limit myself [in] the way I work or what style of music I create – if I wanted to do a rock song or an acoustic number I would/ I wouldn’t consider myself a strict ‘electronic’ artist and I wouldn’t tie myself to any genre.
TJN: Are there any collaborators you have been interested in – or even in discussions with – to record with in the future?
AL: One of the next albums coming up has Aaron Moore and Nick Mott from Volcano the Bear, another album for Infraction has Freek Kinkelaar and Frans de Waard of Beequeen who appear on a collaborative track that was improvised at a show on the US tour last year. Yet another album that should be out this year has narration by a maverick, nonconformist and genuine aristocrat, Lord Bath. I recorded him in his penthouse at his estate – it’s a very English and distinctive album. Lord Bath’s name probably means very little in the US but he is practically a household name here in the UK, renowned not for only having one wife but many of what he calls wifelets. Also, Colin Potter and I should have something sorted before the year is through, what format this will take is as yet undecided. And Nigel Ayers from Nocturnal Emissions and myself should be working on a track or a piece about legendary performance artist John Fare.
TJN: What are your upcoming plans for touring live or presenting your work in other contexts? Do you create sound for installations? What do you think of this type of practice that seems to be evolving, opening up to new audiences….
AL: This year so far I have nothing planned as to live shows – I played quite a bit last year – and I am still unsure as to whether my music works live at all. I would love to do music for film or an installation. Going back to the Bellmer thing I’m not entirely sure if installations can break new audiences or if it has evolved – as I said before I think people can only really concentrate on one thing at a time. They either go for the art or for the music – one form has a greater presence over the other. On top of that I really don’t know enough about installation art/music to give an educated answer. As for tours I am always open to the right kind of offer.
TJN: I am going to play the wayward Barbara Walters for a moment, if you don’t mind….What are you reading these days? Do you cook? Have a favorite radio station or program or internet broadcast?
AL: Rather bizarrely, I can combine two questions at once. I am reading a biography about the cook Antonin Careme – Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme - The First Celebrity Chef by Ian Kelly. It’s fascinating stuff, full of the most exotic and decadent recipes imaginable. And I’m a terrible cook.
Also, I have been reading several short books published by Shire Books, about the history of sweets and sweet shops and follies, I solemnly recommend you go to their website and discover some of the fascinating titles available –
What bookshelf could be complete without a copy of Betel Chewing Equipment of East New Guinea or Land Snails of the British Isles and Cassava and Chicha: Bread and Beer of the Amazonian Indians?! I never ever listen to the radio – ever.
For more information about Andrew Liles, visit his website: www.andrewliles.com
By TJ Norris