To say that Luke Rowell is a musician that operates under the names Eyeliner and Disasteradio is a statement.
Since a point in time in the past both monikers have seen a few releases. Most recently (as of this writing) is Eyeliner’s brb, an album containing a series of sounds – a few playing simultaneously – organised in a way to create music of a certain form.
Earlier this year Luke and I engaged in verbal dialogue so as to discuss brb at length.
Ez: We’re gonna start with the most important question and then we’ll lighten up, so this is the most important question.
Ez: Shihad released Killjoy in ’95, right? Salmonella Dub released One Drop East in 2003.
Ez: You released Charisma in 2011 and then The Verlaines released Dunedin Spleen in 2019.
Ez: Why do you all keep letting Neil Finn get away with it?
Luke: *laughs* Getting away with what?
Ez: It! You know.
Luke: There was an award they gave the most played NZ song and it was always “Don’t Dream it’s Over” by Crowded House *Laughs* so they scrapped the award. Even he himself was like “You’ve got to stop giving me this award”.
He’s great. I once heard “Don’t Dream it’s Over” in a supermarket in Czechia and it changed how I felt about the song. *laughs*
Ez: *laughs* I don’t want to know how. I’ll leave it to my imagination.
Luke: That is the thing though. In New Zealand there are always two musics happening at any time, and it’s one and the other. The other is very good and sticks to itself very well and is very nicely in dialogue with itself. Then there is the one and it does its thing as well, to put it nicely.
Ez: It’s kind of interesting with New Zealand – although this is not necessarily a thing purely associated with New Zealand – in terms with music, Shihad or anything Neil Finn has done, that’s what most people in at least in Australia know. Ladyhawke has kind of escaped that a bit, but there [are] things considered niche from the overseas perspective such as Maori music, Salmonella Dub and yourself ’cause you had this blip but you’re mostly contained to niche because there’s so much gravitation to such a small amount of music.
Do you think because of that you’ve got a lot of freedom to do whatever you want?
Luke: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve never really dealt with a music industry. I always say on Twitter to be incendiary “You are talking about the New Zealand music industry like it’s a thing. Stop treating it like it’s a thing. It’s not a thing”. It’s a couple of award ceremonies a few times a year and stuff happening in Auckland. That’s kind of it.
I think also part of it for me is I’m not interested in something unless there’s a bit of a fight in there. I’ll sort of be intentionally a little bit unique or go in for things that have a bit of challenge in there to get a point across. But the joy of it is that the people that do connect with it connect with it strongly. I like that. I like music that does that.
I grew up going to punk and hardcore shows and I would always be waiting out for the person with the Casio or random people doing Chumbuwamba-style drum circles, or [the] more avant-garde end of things. It was so much more interesting, you know?
Ez: Going to more punk and hardcore shows and working with the sound fonts that you work with… do you think that punk and hardcore had a significant influence on your approach to using sounds?
Luke: Yeah. You had to bring the energy that the bands are bringing but I’m up there on my own with half-broken electronic stuff, so it’s finding a way to project that energy and project that sound through usually a shitty PA.
The worst gigs I’ve ever played was when I’ve plugged into a DJ setup or a dance PA through the DJ mixer and just, I don’t know whether it’s a volume mismatch with RTA inputs or whatever it is but the diffusion of a dance club doesn’t work for what I do. It needs to be centered against the stage. It has to have that projection through a speaker that’s kind of not on the verge of clipping but it has to have that push to it like a shitty little vocal PA like Mackie 450s or JBL Eons can do, from a very specific point of the stage.
In those early days when I was working it out, funneling what I was trying to do through the infrastructure of a hardcore DIY setup I’d end up playing on the floor because there’d be drum kits, bass cabs, all kinds of stuff on the stage so it was just much easier to play. I like playing first so I’d play first on the floor. Get in and get out, get sweaty, and then I could pack up and watch the rest of the bands play.
So yeah; there was a kind of conduit through which I was trying to channel this proto-chiptune, whatever I was trying to do initially that became what it became.
Ez: I guess the other thing as well, in terms of coming to Australia, or at least outside of New Zealand, to me you’re it seems like you’re someone who just wants to have fun, and part of this is how you have fun; pushing against these things and fighting the limitations, and being really energetic.
I imagine [that with] touring outside of New Zealand you may have had a need to work so much harder because you’re working against an audience who, for the most part, wouldn’t know who you are, and also partly because I imagine part of you wants to make the bands after work harder.
Luke: Oh yeah. You want to get that vibe cooked up before the band starts. I love being in the opening spot because there’s no pressure but also you can do so much in terms of getting the crowd ready for stuff. No pressure but all of the fun.
We did that Australian tour off the back of an American and European tour. That tour was seventy-one shows. Getting used to bringing it, physically, was so good, ’cause we were eating pretty badly. To get up on stage and get sweaty and stretch out before [getting] back in the van was absolutely necessary. We were sleeping in a Jucy camper on the streets on that tour.
We were camping in Europe before then so we were used to it. We were saving money and we broke even on a seventy-one date tour across I don’t know how many countries, so it was pretty good.
My manager [and] best buddy, Ian – he does A Low Hum and Synthstrom Audible – he was hardcore about the bottom line. We stuck to it to the point where he was like “Let’s do pay-as-you-like merch when we get back to New Zealand”, so we did pay-as-you-like vinyl and t-shirts for the promo. It didn’t result in much promo but all my friends turned up and got stuff for cheap so it was cool.
But physically bringing it was always part of it. I was playing in Czechia and China, and Greece and in places that don’t speak English. The universal language is sweat and enthusiasm for those who respond to it well.
Ez: To me you seem like someone who has a real fascination with sound – I feel like you would’ve thought about this or probably heard people say this before – but you work a lot with what are often perceived as the shittiest of sounds. I don’t want to ask why because that’s kind of obvious, right? But what is it about the kitsch and the cheese and possibly really basic that you feel makes your music work?
Luke: I think specifically on the new record, part of it for Eyeliner was…
Eyeliner started by using presets because I was sick of synth programming. Talking about synth programming, googling synth programming, learning about synth programming, I was like “I don’t care anymore I’m just going to use presets and I’m going to find a way to combine presets with EQ, whatever works, crappy mp3 artifacts”.
But then that sort of morphed into…
What I’ve always tried to create is something that straddles an edge between being orthodox and kitsch and kind of deadpan, but at the same time it’s kind of postmodern and winking. It should sort of land exactly on the edge of being unserious and sincere, or kitsch and also be commenting on aesthetics, or being sort of unnoticeable wallpaper music but also very noticeable. I like the idea that it does two jobs at once.
Kitsch in some way… what’s the quote by the guy? What’s his name? We can google him afterwards (The quote is from Milan Kundera).
Luke: “Kitsch has two things. How beautiful it is that I’m moved by seeing the children running through the grass. One tear. And then the other tear is for everyone else crying along with me watching the children running through the grass.” The idea that kitsch is sort of, somehow lowbrow, somehow low art, but then also taking this more postmodern angle that kitsch speaks in a very sort of sincere way about how we feel about the world. Growing up with stuff around you [in] your parents house, these things are quite comforting.
But also sounds where they don’t belong. in “Wine Cooler” on the new record, I snuck in the X-Files theme preset there. There’s a little pitch envelope generated but I was like “Oh, here’s the X-Files patch; I need to put [that] into a song called “Wine Cooler”. I’m trying to write the knockoff version of “Pinot Noir”. It’s called “Wine Cooler” and I’m sort of massaging in something old, something new, something borrowed…”
I’ve always loved kitsch; I’ve always loved camp. Kitsch – there’s something comforting about it for me, but also the power of kitsch… camp… is to sort of destablise the past and rearrange hierarchies.
You look at Autobahn by Kraftwerk. I was listening to it last week, I was like “It’s very kitsch, what they’re saying” but then you think about who made The Autobahn. They’re using this advertising, comforting language about something that’s actually quite deeply traumatic, and I like the idea that music can do that just through its own intrinsic existence. There’s something to be said about the way – and a lot of my favourite artists do this – they take things from the past and they sort of reconstitute them. You look at The Buggles, or eighties ELO, or even Devo using the fifties. This kind of metabolising of culture but it’s purely through sound.
The thing that fascinates me about sound is all the hidden language of the way you can re-transmute culture just by making noises.
So yeah – there’s a whole process going along with Eyeliner. Disasteradio is very programmed. I would never use presets – Up until “Charisma” [which] uses the first preset from Native Instruments Pro 52 on purpose. [I’m trying] to free myself from my own preconceptions about this macho world of “You need to program your own synth sounds” instead of grabbing a sound [where] you’re like “This is not going to work” and working with it anyway.
The thing that I learned through Eyeliner was starting with a very low set of tracks. Then to Drop Shadow things became quite symphonic. The new one I’m trying to fold them back down again to be a bit more economical.
But yeah; it’s a whole raft of things. You’ve got the cultural considerations of sound. You’ve got the accessibility of digital plugin music, and you’ve got these cultural attachments we have to these things. I’m not nostalgic but I am sentimental. I hear all these patches in a way I heard them in my childhood and I’m sort of trying to re-transmute them in a funny way.
That’s a very very long-winded answer to the question but I find the question thoroughly fascinating.
Ez: To be absolutely fair, it was a shitty question to ask.
Ez: Do you feel that with the whole machoness of having to program your synths and being around that, that might be an appeal to the idea of modernity to avoid a sense of datedness?
Luke: Yeah. You look at analog minimal techno as an exemplar of that modernity.
Absolutely. It’s a very honorific way of composing rather than… for me, seeing it for what it is, is like “any sound is as good as any other one” which is a very anti-modern view of looking at it.
What do you think in terms of modernity?
Ez: *laughs* I think it’s a bit of an arms race. I don’t necessarily think it’s so much of a macho thing; I think it’s more a fear of sounding dated because I think more so…
Obviously partly through recording technique and the arms race of better microphones and cables and mixing boards and even instruments and pedals and whatnot; even all of that, guitar, bass and percussion sound – even vocals – they’re more dated by the recording techniques of the time than they are themselves. There is a whole world of exploration in sound but exploration of those I feel comes more from technique and changing how we approach notes, whereas when you get something like synth, the world of exploration is through creating specifically new sounds and pushing things forward and pulling things back.
Because of that, synth sound is dated more to an era based on its sound rather than recording techniques.
Luke: Yeah. I see what you’re saying. So you need to have a framework by which you are coming up with new sounds.
Ez: So people are afraid of sounding dated, hence they keep pushing to create new synth sound.
Luke: And I’m saying it’s not macho to say… Yeah I guess I am saying macho as modern. To say that all the sounds have been created at this point.
Ez: You say that, but then a new sound will be created and a new genre will be born from that sound alone.
Luke: That’s true.
I’m guilty of this in the respect that I use the same software that I started with in 2009, so I can open up any session back that far and mend my old mistakes. In that respect I haven’t changed the constituents of what I’ve been doing for fourteen years. It has become a kind of 32 bit, certain software era of instrument to the point where I can’t use new plugins anymore and I’m running Windows XP era software in Windows 10.
Ez: Well there’s a thing about that though right? Limitation breeds creativity.
Luke: I read somewhere about Norman Cook using an MPC60 still, just getting really good at one thing, and I got attached to this idea that I’d become really good at this one version of Cubase and never move on, but I will have to. But I’m trying to create this limitation in general that I work in.
Ez: Obviously there’s a lot of things that breed creativity; there’s no denying that. But I think the idea of having limitations, whether self-imposed or otherwise can be a good thing because you’ll be fighting against those.
I think Lee Dorrian of Cathedral once said “Put me in a box and I’ll jump out” although that was more in relation to pigeonholing his music, but I think that can be applicable to the idea of limitations.
Luke: And discovering the best way to jump is part of the game. Whether it’s like a nineties synth with more digital fusion, with time signatures; How to express things I take from contemporary music into a kind of time machine type framework for musical aesthetic.
Ez: Let’s talk about the new album. Now is it brb? Is it be right back? Is it
Both: birb? *laughs*
Luke: It was be right back and then I realised it has to be brb because you don’t say “be right back”. If you were on Internet relay chat it was always lowercase “brb”. It’s a newly-dated phrase; no one says “brb” ’cause no one leaves The Internet anymore. No one ever says “away from keyboard” because [that] implies you still have a phone in your pocket.
It was be right back and then I changed the album text to say brb and it’s way more snappy. If I can get it on streaming services in lower case I’ll be very happy. This is my next fight *laughs*
Ez: It’s interesting that it’s called brb because music has a sense of presence to it. You listen to it and there are gonna be people who turn the album off and then put it on again later, possibly making the title more sly and clever, or am I just reading more into this than I should be?
Luke: Well for me it’s the album I wrote in Hong Kong and I got to Hong Kong as soon as Covid hit. I was going [to] my family “My wife has moved to Hong Kong for work. I’ll come over and see what happens but we’ll be back soon. We’ll come back in a couple of months, fly over for a visit” and it didn’t happen. I said to my grandmother “I’ll be back” and she passed away while I was in Hong Kong.
This idea where I was like “brb” and it took two-and-a-half years to see people I knew again… I wrote the whole thing in Hong Kong and that’s where the “brb” comes from. Also, the title track has a kind of familiar rhythmic, continuous return type thing to the melodies, and that was kind of the idea behind it.
I’d always had “brb” sticking in the back of my head and I thought “be right back” was a little bit too deadpan. “brb” is a little more funky.
Ez: I guess just as a quick aside: Was Drop Shadow also written in Hong Kong?
Luke: No. I wrote that in Wellington.
Ez: Because [it also has] a passing of time.
Luke: The passing of time. Yeah.
“Timelapse”; I was playing it to my wife and she was like “This song’s real intense” and I was like “This song is about murdering God. This is about the revenge for the time”. I was in Hong Kong and she had gone to work; I [was] freelancing for back home but I basically spent two years in the same little apartment in Kowloon.
The entertainment was… Thankfully we did find a lot of friends in the evenings but in the daytime I’d go out and eat which was incredible, but then I’d just pick a direction and walk as far as I could and get the subway back, so there were these really long amounts of time to myself, and almost a little bit too much time to myself. We didn’t have a lockdown but most things were closed. They didn’t want people to return; They didn’t want people to stay home from work. Hong Kong’s work ethic would get in the way. You’ve got to keep the wheels turning over there, but there was kind of an eternal recurrence, the way I was living; much probably like everyone else, but the fact is I’d gotten to this new place and I couldn’t really metabolise it. Kind of became this pedestrian and lunch eater in the daytime and that was it.
It was a cool experience to have had but I did definitely metabolise the album through this process of walking.
Ez: It’s interesting [as] we have large scale events that are demarcations of time, so everything pre-Covid has become a specific kind of period piece. In a way Drop Shadow is that, and now you’ve got brb [where] the title is ironic or poetic because of what happened. It too is a period piece of life during the pandemic.
I’ve listened over it a few times to get my head around it, as you work with these kitsch sounds and what a lot of people do listen to is not that, so you have to spend more time with it to have a proper click…
Luke: It’s funny; I don’t think about that at all. I’m listening to midi-oboe all day. I’m listening to cheesy Korg M1 piano all day. It doesn’t seem foreign to me at all. I didn’t really consider that people might find the sonic constituents a bit unfamiliar *laughs*. I’m too far down my own rabbit hole in that respect.
Ez: It’s specifically the sounds themselves; The composition makes sense. You could tear it apart and be really overly-analytical and be “Yes, this would sound like this”, but I guess there’s a kind of disconnect – and this might be part of the reason why people see these sounds as cheap – because there is a familiarity to them, but they themselves are not necessarily familiar.
In some ways brb is a bit more aggressive than Drop Shadow, not in the sense that it’s angry…
Especially early on. I think you have two or three more mood pieces that are slower, more relaxed, but usually when there’s a beat, specifically on the first song it’s a very driving, very kind of – it’s not rapid but it’s happening really quickly.
Luke: There’s a lot of staccato on the record.
Ez: Yeah, just much of a strike, and even in some of the slower stuff it kind of does that as well.
Is there a frustration in the record because of things?
Luke: Yeah I think so.
I was living the same day most days in the apartment, and it’s not a big apartment, but there was… You look at “Uptown Virtual” and “All Nighter” and they hammer one note.
There’s the percussiveness of the architecture in Hong Kong. There’s these really thin little apartment buildings that all come up in rows in Kowloon and the lower edges of Hong Kong Island, and they have this kind of vertical delineation in the skyline which is really beautiful.
I was listening to sketches and walking around and seeing this vertical punctuation and that was this kind of this architectural idea that I had that I think I was transmuting through. But coming up against this feeling of one is living the same day over and over again, that was this kind of… not violent, but the staccato was something I was really interested in.
Not to say that this is my Coronavirus concept album. That’s so cheesy.
Ez: I guess it is!
Luke: I know. The amount of Bandcamp drops on those Bandcamp Fridays that were like “Here’s my Covid EP”. I did not want to do that. Did not want to try and be encapsulating a time as it’s happening, but yeah; maybe against my own judgement I did sort of have that thing going on.
Ez: Before you mentioned “Wine Cooler” being a knockoff version of “Pinot Noir”.
Luke: I’m just attempting to winkily get at making a knockoff of my own hit. That’s the idea. “Pinot Noir” from Buy Now is about 60% of my listenership on streaming sites, so a great swathe of my income from streaming is from this one song. I’ve made “Sauvignon Blanc”, I’ve made “Cool Water”; I’ve made a lot of drink-based songs. I’ve made “Espresso”.
A wine cooler is a mix of wine and juice; something like that. I don’t know what exactly it is, but I wanted to make something that sort of sounded like “Pinot Noir”; had the same sort of bits, had a little arpeggio part; had a lead line [with] a lot of repeated instances of the same note, and “Wine Cooler” ends abruptly. I think the wine cooler ended abruptly in the cultural milieu for some reason. Disappeared overnight, based on what I knew as a kid.
But yeah; the idea of making a knockoff of my own songs, like the Devo E-Z Listening Disc, if you’ve ever heard those, they’re incredible. They’re muzak versions of Devo hits. I’ve always wanted to – and I will continue to – make knockoff versions of my own songs.
I want to do a version of “Toyota Prius” from LARP of Luxury called “Honda Insight” ’cause if you look at the Honda Insight it’s totally the same shape as a Prius.
Ez: Do you ever worry that you’ll become beholden to the reputation of “Pinot Noir”?
Luke: I do worry that will happen with Buy Now. A lot of people say Drop Shadow wasn’t as good as Buy Now. I kind of agree *laughs*. Drop Shadow is longer; it’s about different things than Buy Now. It’s about a different period of my life.
In my own view, if an album does as well as Buy Now, then maybe that’s what you get. Buy Now has done incredibly well with the myriad of releases and re-releases we’ve put it through, and the amount of attention it’s gotten for an album that I made in my bedroom… yeah.
I worry about that with Charisma and Sweatshop because I spent six years on Sweatshop and it was too long. I still don’t know where to go after Sweatshop, but yeah; I do worry about that. I’ve always worried about synth-pop bands post sort of 1986, whatever went on there in terms of technological / chemical shift.
When a lot of synth-pop bands sort of became brittle and sort of cynical in the late eighties, and I’ve always worried that I’d do that to my own work, whether it was through trying to innovate technologically, or whatever happens to you in life that crushes your more childlike spirit. That’s stuff that keeps me awake at night. What if you’ve released your “best” record, or what if you release an album that’s way better but doesn’t do as well?
I always try to keep my head in the next record, but I do worry about that with Buy Now specifically, and Charisma, but still you’ve got to temper that with a gratitude that it’s done what it’s done. I’m by no means a full-time musician but I’m still incredibly grateful that Buy Now has done so well and people respond to it in a clear, genuine fashion. It’s something to be afraid of *laughs*.
Ez: I guess the thing is an artist is always at their best even if they’re not at what is perceived as their best. You’d at least hope that you can try and do the best you can do, so your best work is always your current work. Usually what is good and what is not is in retrospect. It’s not “then”, so in a way there are two different forms of one’s best work, and obviously as you’re learning new things you maybe change your approach, or adjust and refine. So in that sense brb right now is your best work.
So with your concerns about being beholden to what is your best work in retrospect, are you as worried about that for brb?
Luke: No, and here’s the thing: I think it’s a little bit of a routine of mine by now intentionally.
I did this big project with National Libraries New Zealand to archive all the tracks, MIDI, stems and working for those records for those archives so they could be reused for non-commercial purposes, or educational. I did spend sort of six months with Buy Now, rendering out the individual tracks and making videos explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it. I think there’s three-and-a-half hours of me talking about Buy Now on YouTube. Telling over all of that stuff made me think about Buy Now specifically when I was making brb, so that is inescapable. It is quite literally pointing back to Buy Now.
What was the question? Did I answer it?
Ez: You answered it at the start I think. You’re not so concerned about the pressure of inescapability of your previous work.
Luke: No. Not at all. I’m happy to troll the audience by leading them down a different path if I think it’s good enough.
Ez: You have a song on brb called “Baby” which is talking about your child I imagine.
Luke: Yeah, and it’s what me and my wife call each other as well, and there’s vocal samples from Zero-G Datafile 1. It’s a very famous sample CD. It’s treating a sample as a preset.
I fretted about that for months and months and months. “Am I an artist who uses a sampler? What am I saying? Whose voice is this? A lot of questions.” But anyway, your question about “Baby”?
Ez: Well it’s not so much about “Baby”, but kind of overall about the whole album. Obviously it fits in with what you’ve done before. All of brb fits into the aesthetic that you have with your music, and some of it touches on vaporwave.
Luke: “Kitchen Island”. Let’s discuss “Kitchen Island”.
Ez: I’m curious because it sits away from the rest of brb, at least title-wise.
Luke: The idea of “Kitchen Island” is the little countertop space in the middle. That’s Kitchen Island, but the idea that there is a place called Kitchen Island. But also “Kitchen Island”, the track, I was going for more psychedelic parts of “Pictionary” at the end of Buy Now [which] has a kind of new age, psychedelic sort of ring to it. I was also trying to pay a little bit of homage to the more digital fusion of FLOOR BABA, Varra and That Andy Guy, people I’ve been following on Twitter for a bit. Nobuo Uematsu [and] the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack but it’s quite psychedelic and there’s a twist in there.
I remember playing it to someone and I’m like “I’m trying to make it sound like Enya on fast forward” and it’s got these kind of pizzicato strings but things are too fast. There’s a slowed down sequence where the solo is getting faster and faster but the whole tune is slowing down, so there’s this static drawing out of time at the end of it.
I think of “Kitchen Island” and “Catnip” as a kind of psychedelic interlude. If you consider the whole album as starting almost in the evening, [moving] to the daytime and then it going to a night which is quite tripped out. So “Kitchen Island” [and] “Catnip” to “Bon Voyage” to “All Nighter” has this kind of – for me – sort of Hong Kong evening, being out in the humid air and stuff.
“All Nighter”; I was trying to come through with the feeling of being on mushrooms in the back of a taxi going through Kowloon and they were blaring eighties cantopop. It was incredible. I got a taxi home and the guy is just blaring Roman Tam or Danny Chan, or one of these eighties singers, and I was still tripping, looking out the window at all the apartment blocks, at this endless swathe of humanity, and these super humid… a city literally never sleeping.
At some point in the evenings over there you begin to view it quite fractally. There are all these buildings; there are all these people. When you are sleeping at night you are surrounded up and down and side to side and across the road. Everyone is sleeping in these apartments. There’s something quite beautiful and metropolitan about it. Kind of infinitely divisible, so that’s what “All Nighter” is going for but in the quieter, sort of psychedelic sense.
So “Kitchen Island” of kicks off this “Ooh where are we? What is Kitchen Island? Welcome to Kitchen Island”. I’m sort of trying to tell over and highlight the more psychedelic new age parts of what Eyeliner does in the middle of the record instead of the end. Try to come up to this thing and then crest back over to something else.
Ez: What is it about expressing the passage of time in musical form that you enjoy working with, at least on brb?
Luke: Since Buy Now, Charisma [and] Drop Shadow, I think “At what point of the day does it start?”. For some reason I put this sort of circadian rhythm in the records to make things match. Employing time in that respect is nice little… it’s heuristic for me to say “Okay, these songs belong together. This mood I’m trying to create is coming up this way. The energy level ebbs and flows; the familiarity ebbs and flows. It’s more nighttime; less familiar. More hidden. Daytime; More explicit. More indicative. More predictable”.
I don’t know why I do that, but I did sort of tweet saying I don’t consider my music nostalgic, but treating time with contempt. Trying to sort of say “Why not a late eighties digital synth patch that’s sort of doing four bars of 4/4 house in the middle of “Kitchen Island” that is over this fast forwarded Enya big idea that you can kind of compress time?”.
The other thing is that I’ve got a quite a photographic memory which is a blessing and a curse. When I can’t sleep I remember the layouts of malls, or people’s houses I visited once. I’ll remember the old mall that got demolished in my home town and which shops were where, and which was where in the shops.
The idea the passage of time itself is, I think, linked inextricably with music; that music is a kind of icing on the cake of time; that music makes the passage of time different, and should sort of pay service to time in a way. The skeletal structure of music itself is impossible without time so it should sort of comment on time.
I think that growing up in the late eighties / early nineties, it was full of predictions about what the future was going to be like and it was these utopian ideas. Utopias are impossible without time.
Using time to define sounds, to define a time of day has always made sense to me as soon as that process started merging out.
Ez: Interesting that you mentioned utopia because for a lot of people the nineties to the mid-aughties, they think “We have it best”, but I don’t think a lot of people realise how shit [that period was]. It’s always been kind of horrible and your view often depends on what you yourself experience in that point of time.
But talking about brb specifically, is that part of why “Bon Voyage” which in part this might’ve been a little kind of tee hee hee for you, would normally be the closing track, but then you’ve got “All Nighter” continuing the party in a sense?
Luke: “Bon Voyage” is this kind of hallucination that you’ve been dropped in the sea and left by the boat when you haven’t been. That’s why at the end there’s a wave sound that just immediately gets cut, and then there’s seagulls and they get cut. I was trying to be very explicitly showing up the sound design as sound design to make it non-ubiquitous. But yeah; for some reason I wanted the last track to be exactly as you’ve seen it; snapping you out of that reverie of “Kitchen island” [through to] “Bon Voyage”. It’s like you’ve woken up at the party and you’ve gone “Oh wait, actually I’m not – This isn’t happening; This thing that I thought”. You’re being played a trick upon by time.
I did have “Bon Voyage” at the end I was like “It doesn’t work right”. “All Nighter” is sort of a companion piece to “Uptown Virtual” which, midway through the album sort of restates what the album is. I look upon “Uptown Virtual” and “All Nighter” as a pair of very Hong Kong songs for me.
I thought that if the album was gonna end on “Bon Voyage” it was just a little bit too obvious. To have the last track called “Bon Voyage” it’s going to be one of two things. It’s gonna be like a weird goodbye track or a sort of tropical “Kokomo”, that sort of thing *laughs*. Not to disparage “Kokomo”.
Ez: So how does “The Googler” work as a refractionary device to what you’re putting forward in terms of Hegelian dialectical techniques in “Kids of 99”?
So “The Googler” is a fake theme tune to a TV show that came into my head about a person who pretends to be a doctor and all they do is google stuff. It’s like Doogie Howser, M.D.. For season 1 of The Googler they are an amazing doctor. It’s like the show House.
Have you seen the show Early Edition? It’s from the nineties. A guy gets tomorrow’s newspaper every morning.
Ez: I’ve heard about this.
Luke: So The Googler, I don’t know whether Google exists or not, but somehow he’s like “I have to consult a special friend” and then he’s Googling stuff and Google’s presented in this way that’s like a quasi-magical thing.
In season 1 The Googler gets done for medical malpractice. Season 2, The Googler is in a lengthy court case representing themselves, not as a lawyer, but by Googling. They manage to get off by the magic of Google. So I’m trying to send up the idea of “You do your own research”. The hero of The Googler is someone who “does their own research” and they’re a complete moron.
“Kids of 99” is a dig at a band in New Zealand called Kids of 88 that was like middling EDM, EDM adjacent. I was trying to say that the year of ’99 was more eighties than the year of ’88. You know what I’m sort of getting at?
Luke: And Stranger Things wasn’t brown enough.
Luke: If you want a real eighties thing it’s gotta be set in 1999.
Ez: At least in terms of music the eighties didn’t really stop until ’95, and then we had six, seven years of progression, and then “Let’s get back there”.
There’s a song here that sounds like a start of the earlier Super Mario games. I think there’s a sample of a coin being collected in it.
(At this point Luke’s facial expression was one of confusion)
I’m guessing from your reaction this is not something that’s intentional.
Luke: This is not something that’s intentional at all.
Ez: I guess then, my question will be: Do you have a lot of situations where things that you’ve experienced subconsciously seep into your music despite how you work on it?
Luke: I have written the same piece of music exactly twice which was really, really strange. I’m always trying to avoid things like that Mario coin sound, to be completely explicit. I’m wondering where this happens.
Ez: This could just be a trick of my brain.
It’s “Good Evening”! Sorry; it’s the kind of synth horn sounds you’ve got there that made me think of Super Mario.
Luke: “Good Evening” was a bit of a tough one. I wanted to write something that was a combination of a Latin progression [and] a disco funk thing. It goes through a Haruomi Hosono half-time beat thing that “Chit Chat” does on Buy Now. But “Good Evening”, I kept steering it into this sort of… it sounded too much like generic EDM background music for travel shows, and it was getting too like…
The melody line, step-wise it was very nondescript but for me it was becoming too nondescript. So the way I solved all that was going through adding this layer of David Wise Donkey Kong Country kind of stage complete screen sound. For me “Good Evening” has a sort of interstitial sort of sense.
There are two songs that are like loading screens. “Upsides” is like the loading screen for the more weighty parts coming up. “Good Evening” is trying to do that in a way as well, just trying to bring things down. It starts on the 4/4 and then goes to a halftime and then sort of fades out into “Kitchen Island”, “Catnip” and “Bon Voyage”.
The idea was that it needed a novelty layer and it was defined by Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Nintendo… yeah. That was very intentional. That was a way of bringing it back to a less modern deadpan production music aesthetic, and then to a kitsch, fun, celebratory-type sense.
There are some iterations of it that are just skippable. I struggled with getting it all balanced.
But yeah; it was combining this Latin harmony, and the lead line does have a kind of Chinese pentatonic thing, and I wrote it around Chinese new year and all the supermarkets in Hong Kong play this traditional Chinese new year play this amazing traditional new year music and it’s so great.
There’s one supermarket chain in Hong Kong called PARKnSHOP that has the incredible background music and someone’s uploaded proper rips of it to YouTube.
So there’s a combination of supermarket music, Latin and Chinese new year music in there to bring it more toward that more psychedelic part of the record. It was very calculated and not unintentional at all.
Ez: You’ve gone through this process where you’ve strongly implied you like challenge and a fight of sorts. Your music certainly does have a serious sense to it. It’s buried under a lot of things but it is serious; not just approach to creativity, but [also] meaning and intent in expression.
Do you think, especially with the current times we are in, whether consciously or not, you’re approaching the creation and relasing music as joy as an act of resistance, especially on brb?
I think Eyeliner is a little bit more of a quiet, contemplative, self-revolutionary thing in terms of I am intentionally trying to make – there’s an element of wallpaper music which I think is a releasing of an idea about creativity, about creative people. There is that aspect to it. I think – and I’m beginning to see a bit more of it – this era of kitsch and camp that we haven’t had in the nineties with Jean Paul Gaultier and Pierre et Gilles, all is kind of camp and queer camp.
You look at something like the moral panic over Drag Queen Story Hour. The right wing is threatened by camp. They are threatened by crossed meanings. They are threatened by indeterminate meanings and maybe they don’t understand explicitly what camp and kitsch is in the ways we are discussing. They can definitely feel it.
I think there is a time for the arts to destabilise and shock people in a way that is super entertaining. I think there may be a return to that kind of approach, but as I said, what Kraftwerk were doing with Autobahn, and a lot of eighties synthpop bands trying to metabolise WWII as an act of resistance and a form of trauma settling; I think all these things… they have been hard to imply over The Internet lately, but I think there is a space for them.
I do feel like vaporwave itself has a lot of problems in terms of we do fight between the nostalgia for its own sake and a kind of subjunctive or psychedelic or camp, or more deeper level of metabolism of culture.
You look at the Reddit vaporwave threads on stuff and people are like “This isn’t political; I’m just here for the aesthetics” and it’s like “You’re missing out on half to three quarters of a century of critical theory talking about reproduction, aesthetic, text”. I think all of these things are fair game and it seems like we are fighting the same battles over and over again. We’ve gone from demonising queer, to demonising trans, back to demonising race.
While I don’t think my work is explicitly resistive, there is an element of every time I sit down, I think of what I am appropriating, who am I reifying, who am I destabilsing. I’m trying to make vaporwave without sampling because I don’t think I can exactly lay claim to other people’s recordings, especially what vaporwave does with eighties R&B. A lot of these artists probably haven’t been paid out from their recordings to begin with.
My mission I’ve given myself is to learn how to write eighties R&B in a respectful, research based, in a way that elevates the craft and pays homage to it.
I think there is that sense – for me – that music can do that, and I try to make sure that I do as much as I can in that. Also, you make music and you want people to feel like they’re having a good time and feel like you’re not wasting their time. In a way you want to make them feel loved or heard or valid; all those considerations have always been part of what I’ve done. As to whether I can do that with what I do in an explicit way, I don’t know, but it’s something I consider; that the techniques that I choose to employ are the techniques I do think about.
In some sense I am trying to destabilise something. That comes into play for every creative person; the means to existence, if you think about it, are too hard or unachievable, so that means creativity is a political act.