056: Hanne Lippard
An interview with Hanne Lippard + our writers panel on Mainliner's 'Dual Myths' & Lucy Liyou's 'Practice'
Hanne Lippard is a UK-born, Berlin-based poet, writer, and visual artist whose works primarily deals with the production and perception of language. Lippard has had exhibitions and performances across Europe throughout the past decade, but released her debut album Work last year on Collapsing Market. Last month she released her second audio document, PigeonPostParis via Boomkat Editions, which is a whimsical travelogue that showcases Lippard’s astute ability to draw parallels between ostensibly disparate ideas through text. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Hanne Lippard on March 20th, 2021 to discuss her two albums, handwritten letters, the differences between Berlin and Paris, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello!
Hanne Lippard: Hello, how are you?
I’m good, how are you?
I just came back from Brussels. I have a year-long show in a place called MuHKA, which is a contemporary art museum in Antwerp. It’s been a lot of work; that’s the only thing I’ve done so far this year (laughter). But that’s because it’s a three-part show and it’s changing every third month so there’s a lot of planning and it will go on until February of next year. There are a lot of things happening in between but yes, it’s a bit unconventional to be committing to a show for a whole year. It was great, but I’m a bit tired today (laughs).
I’m sure! What does the show entail?
It’s something that’s a pilot project—it’s the first time they’re doing something called a “Superhost,” which is a bit of a funny title. The Superhost is the artist and [MuHKA] will develop a relationship with the artist through a whole year instead of having this one single solo show. They want to develop something together with an artist every year, digging a bit deeper into the artist’s practice. That means I’ll also be involved in discursive programs and an online radio show.
We’re gonna include performances and we’ve decided that these shows will be a retrospective showing of my work. I’ve been active for ten years but it’s a bit early to look back (laughter) but it’s interesting because you realize that you do have a lot of work when seeing it all in one room instead of in a PDF, y’know?
It’s a challenge to show things parallel to each other because in this show we have two sound pieces—sound upon sound usually doesn’t work. One is a spoken piece and the other is more of a sound sculpture. There are two sound sources in the same space—it’s interesting to see how that can work. That’s basically the concept behind the show.
Since it’s the first they’re trying this [Superhost program] out, things were not really thought-out sometimes. I had to be a part of the decision making. It’s been intense. I’m being polite there (soft laughter) but it’s alright now. I’m back here and have a bit of a break. In April I’m gonna concentrate on a bunch of other things.
Well, hopefully you can have some rest between now and April.
I’m taking Monday off, which is a bit crazy (laughter). These days, Monday is the new Sunday, or… who knows.
Are you the sort of person who feels the need to constantly be working on something?
It’s interesting, this idea of what “constantly working” is, especially if you work as a poet, or whatever I call myself. In the last years I’ve come more to terms with the fact that working is also thinking, which seems so abstract. It’s not the capitalist model, let’s say, of working. Or the Calvinist idea of working. I do need a lot of time by myself—time really by myself as a single individual.
I think the last year has made me realize that much more because before I would work a lot in a sense that I’m always performing or doing a show. A lot of artists do use their body in one way or another, but when I perform I use my voice, and I find that I’m more exposed than someone who does painting, for instance—they can hide more easily during their opening. To do performance is often very exhausting; even if it’s only 30 minutes, you tend to be quite dead afterwards.
I try to be more realistic [now]. When you put things into a calendar, having several hours between something seems like loads of time but when you’re actually in the physical body of that, you do need more time. I think the last year really proved that because there was more time, but I didn’t travel. I used to travel and have like three or four flights a week, but this time I had one flight and I was really dead the whole day. It was like, “What did I do when I had three or four flights a week?” It was nuts. I guess everyone has that pressure. Do you freelance?
I’m a high school science teacher and I do all this music journalism on the side for fun.
So you have the full-time job, or at least a fixed job, and then the freelancing. That’s pretty intense. If you only sort of freelance you have this guilt, almost, if you don’t work, but I guess you don’t even have that (laughs).
Oh, I feel like I have that to some extent. I always feel the need to be working on something. It’s an interesting thing… I’ve thought about it a lot this past year. I’m 28, which is not very old, but I feel like I’m at this point where I’ve done things in my life where I’d be okay—at least theoretically—if I were to die. It’s like, okay, I did something with my life. I sort of view everything moving forward as a bonus, but I also have this mindset where I want to make the most of my time. There’s a pressure, but there’s not this pressure of, “I need to do this or my life would have been useless.” Like, last year I did around 60 interviews.
And that was when you were working as a teacher full-time? So you’re spending your spare time doing this.
Yeah. I love talking with people, so that makes it easy. I feel like I have two modes: I either do things constantly, or I don’t do anything at all, and the latter can only be so fun for so long.
I guess right now, since we’re not really meeting people much in real life apart from real close friends, interviewing people might be a nice way to feel like you’re not completely cut off from the social sphere, no? It’s like you’re at a bar and meeting people at a bar you don’t know, in that sense.
Yeah, exactly. I wanted to ask you, when was the last time you wrote a handwritten letter to someone?
Oh, wow. That’s an interesting topic because my mom writes me a handwritten letter every month. It’s been less in the past years, but I never really reply with anything handwritten, I would always reply with email. And that’s like a letter, not a note, right? Like in an envelope.
That’s a long while ago. It must be like years. I did that when I was studying ten years ago in Amsterdam—I would write handwritten letters to some people. So I’d [guess] it’s been five years, but for sure ten years. But I do receive a handwritten letter every month from my mom, who is very much a Luddite and doesn’t really get email—she doesn’t like it. But I know [writing handwritten letters] is her way of expressing herself.
If you were to write a letter to someone, who would it be to? Or maybe you don’t want to write one?
No, I think I would like to write one. Maybe I’d like to write one to a friend of mine in Switzerland who I used to study with. We used to have an exchange of letters, even slowly, and they would just be handed over. That’s the only person… or maybe to someone I’m a fan of. But that’s—
It’s a different sort of dynamic.
Yeah that’s a different dynamic, seriously. It’s interesting because I had this release on Boomkat called PigeonPostParis and I was thinking a lot about correspondence and the value of paper in France. Paper documents hold a lot of value—there’s a lot of bureaucracy. If you sell work to the French state, you will get a paper and post that you have to sign. I don’t know if it’s the same in the States where people are so obsessed with actual contract signings, but the postal service is very important in France in general. Post is still a big thing.
While I was listening to PigeonPostParis, I was thinking about how you were trying to capture the city. I know you live in Berlin and were born in Milton Keynes—are those the places you most identify with?
I’ve lived almost 20 years away from Norway, which is where I grew up, but I was born in England—my dad is English. I feel very removed from both places, and even more so now because I feel the UK is a huge mess… it’s detached itself, like an iceberg floating away from the earth (laughter). I’m just like, “When will I go there next?” My grandmother passed away so I don’t really have any family there anymore.
There’s this idea of the UK, and then Great Britain also has an idea of itself. It’s something particular to relate to these places. Berlin has a very strong history, Paris has a really strong history, and these cities have such rich histories and have so many ghosts. In Berlin, there’s this kind of ghost here, especially when it’s winter and it gets very grey. It’s a heavy city. It’s very hard to get away from this idea of the regime, the division of the city, the Holocaust monument—it’s all very present in the city. There’s this huge idea of guilt.
Whereas in Paris there’s this romantic idea. I wrote PigeonPostParis and then suddenly this Emily in Paris series popped up and I hadn’t really known about it, and then I watched it after writing this piece. There was something really strange about that city during lockdown because this bon vivant kind of life—biking around, sitting outside of the terraces—was completely suppressed.
Suddenly you just have this shell of a city, and in Europe at least, these cities that are so old just become these shells, or these stages, like these set designs for something. You walk past endless streets where nothing is happening and the bars and bookshops are all shut down. It’s really strange and eerie—apocalyptic, actually. It’s especially apocalyptic in Paris because in Berlin we’ve already—I mean, I wasn’t part of it—but I think they had that in the ’90s right after the wall fell. You could just walk through the city and there were places that were empty, as if someone had run away from there the day before. I’ve lived in a lot of Western and Northern European cities, so that feels like quite a narrow experience.
Do you feel like you have a particular home?
After coming back from Paris to Berlin, I do feel a sense of belonging here even though it’s part of an international scene. I do speak German, and I’ve worked a lot in Germany; I’ve integrated in a way, having worked with a lot of institutions here. And I speak the language—I think it’s an important thing to speak the language in a country you’ve lived in for more than ten years—so I guess I feel at home in Berlin, but “Germany” is a weird thing to say you belong to. I don’t feel German. I don’t know what I feel anymore. I have this British accent, but it’s very strange (laughs). I feel sort of pan-European.
I don’t know how it is in the States but in Europe, people aren’t very grounded—with ex-pats, let’s say. I feel a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I’m not sure if I want to stay for long,” and then they’re like “I’d like to move to Brussels or somewhere in Italy” but people never do. They never commit to a certain thing. There’s this non-committal vibe amongst ex-pats—not learning the language, for instance. It’s not very helpful. You don’t have to say you’ll grow old and die at a place, but I think you kind of have to say yes to something. Otherwise you feel ungrounded. Europe is strange. Have you ever lived in Europe?
No, I’ve only lived in the States.
Everything is so close in Europe. When I was in the States, I was in Minneapolis for a residency two years ago for a month. There’s this feeling, like even when I mentioned [in a previous email] that I had this show in Cincinnati, it’s still miles away. But here, I flew from Brussels in one hour this morning and you just change between different countries very quickly.
You speak German, are you bilingual or do you speak other languages as well?
Yeah, I grew up speaking Norwegian and English, so those are my main languages. And then I moved to Sweden and it’s close to Norwegian but I speak fluent Swedish, and then I can manage Dutch. And German and French, and I can understand some Italian. I think that’s it.
That’s a good amount (laughter).
It’s all autodidact, like the German I just learned by myself, and the French somehow just resurfaced from high school. I was very happy to be in Paris to upgrade my French a bit. I think once you learn one language, it strengthens… it awakens your language brain.
How do you feel these different languages inform your practice given your art concerns itself with language?
The English part is kind of funny. I’ve never lived in an English-speaking country, which is kind of weird, since I use it as my main [language] of expression. I don’t really feel comfortable writing in Norwegian. It’s also such an old language—like five million people speak it in the world, probably. For sure, the German and now the French have influenced the writing to some extent, especially the French.
When I use the non-English languages, I use them more as sounds. There are a lot of French words, when expressing them, that sound like English. For instance, in the show that I just did, there’s a curtain which has these small text pieces referring to the idea of disconnection and always being in digital communication instead of in the presence of someone in a space. There’s one where it says “T'aime and Space.” T'aime is “I love you” but if you read it or say it, it sounds like “time.” I’ve been able to use French in that kind of way lately.
German is different. It’s harder somehow. It has a different quality and it has really hard constants. I know there’s this kind of fetish with the French where they like to play these German punk songs without really understanding them. I notice that German has this tougher identity somehow, but I think most people associate it with something harsh, which fits with industrial and punk music.
I was wondering if you could walk me through the process behind constructing and making PigeonPostParis.
The first introduction of the piece is something I jotted down the first evening I arrived. When I moved to Paris, I left Berlin literally not having a flat there anymore—everything was fairly dissolved, in a way. It was mid-summer and the pandemic had been going on for a while and I had just gotten out of a long relationship, so it felt like a fresh page but it was during a pandemic, where possibilities felt amputated somehow. Arriving that evening, I was given the wrong code to enter the building, and this happened to me once before also. This idea of not being able to enter a space without knowing the code was, already, this feeling of me not being let in and not knowing where to go. And then trying to pretend as if I could understand French numbers, the concierge then shouted the numbers at me.
So it started with this idea of miscommunication, of being in a new place, being brave about feeling like I could speak the language but I couldn’t as well as I thought I could, and then it just sort of became a diary. I think that’s a general approach to my work where I have personal anecdotes and then try to depersonalize them so it’s not a completely autobiographical, highly vulnerable or cliched, sentimental piece.
There’s a lot of sentimental thoughts in it, but Paris is also a very sentimental city. I wanted to approach this from the idea of being in this cliched city that’s heavy with symbolism, that’s heavy with this sort of way you’re supposed to feel. That’s very unique to Paris: you’re not supposed to feel a certain way in London or in Kraków, but you’re supposed to feel romantic and in love with life in Paris. I don’t know if you know about Paris syndrome, where Japanese tourists get really devastated that Paris doesn’t live up to [their understanding of it], but it was a bit of having this idea of the Paris syndrome without mentioning it.
And then I was very fascinated by the pigeon post, which happened during a very short war in history, the Franco-Prussian war. It was barely a year long. This use of an animal to transport a message, but also the fact that there was this technological aspect of it where the pigeon would carry a small dia [German for “slide”], and the dia would be lit up and you could read the message. This human message through an animal with the added technology was fascinating. I always felt caught in this dynamic of communicating and miscommunicating. Technology is supposedly so easy to handle but then still I felt there was this idea of the pigeon flying things and it wasn’t always that straightforward.
Last year you had Work and then this year you had PigeonPostParis. Do you feel like you had to approach these pieces differently given that they were coming out as albums?
It’s an interesting question because it definitely changes my way of viewing my work because I know it’s being viewed in a different way than I’m used to. I’ve sometimes been part of poetry festivals or literary events within the realm of literature, but that has not really affected my records. This idea of spoken word or an album that is purely speech is very ’70s. That this wasn’t so much in the now and that what I was doing is in the now… it’s funny to see how it’s been received in the context of a music-oriented realm, that there’s still this fascination for this medium or this kind of way of working while, for me, it’s just something I’m so used to. I would have thought in the music world, where the aspect of singing or using the voice is so much more present than in contemporary art, but for me I was thinking, I noticed that it’s a rare thing to have these spoken pieces.
It’s been great. That’s what I like about my practice—I can delve into other realms, I can find myself suddenly in a more music-oriented world or in literature and so on. I don’t think painters and sculptors can do it the same way, or as easily at least.
Can you provide an example of a medium or context in which you’ve worked in and how you feel like the limitations of that medium have allowed you to stretch yourself creatively, whether it’s with albums or installations or straight-ahead performances or with sculpture, etc.
Wow, yeah. That’s a huge topic actually. The idea of limitations is perhaps what enables my practice. I studied graphic design in Amsterdam and I haven’t really studied art, so I only have a BA in graphic design on paper. The biggest mantra, at least in this graphic design department, which is focused on conceptual or artistic interpretations of graphic design, was this idea of limitations. It was like, express yourself with the most limitations possible, and you really have to twist your brain. I think that was a really good starting point for me to really express myself without having all the options in the world.
With the album [Work], for instance, I needed to give myself limitations since I’ve had so many works and pieces. In order to narrow it down I had to give myself a very simple structure, which was that everything was about a minute long or less, at least on the A side. It became quite helpful to help narrow it down and see what worked, and I didn’t intend for it to be these works. It also has this retrospective idea because I think the earliest work is from 2012 and there’s some new pieces as well.
[With these limitations] I could also focus on what the topic was, which is “work.” It has this dual meaning of the actual work that I’ve been doing since 2012 and this idea of an “artwork,” which is something that is very different from labor. An artwork has this heightened idea of being something divine or being something particular or special, while labor is an everyday practice. It’s questioning what labor is. I started working on this album in 2019 and didn’t really foresee the pandemic—well, no one foresaw the pandemic I hope. It became even more interesting to release an album called Work during the summer of 2020 because that was such a strange concept to reflect on, I think, for everyone.
How do you feel like your work has evolved in your time with making this album?
The idea of the word “work” or the concept of work?
(laughs). There was this piece from 2016 or so on the album called “Work” which is I guess where the starting point was. It’s two-fold what the idea of work is in that piece. It’s me trying to record the piece and perfect it in the sound studio. Actually, it’s in a university in Minneapolis because I needed to record that piece and I didn’t really have other options, and my friend had access to it. It’s me repeating it, and you can hear that it’s the actual work behind recording something. It’s one of the less-perfected pieces because the sound studio still had a bit of noise. At the same time, I’m also alluding to the idea of someone being frustrated with someone not responding to a text message and also reflecting on the person being too busy to respond.
I had this big discussion with a friend in Brussels who had an issue with her boyfriend about this idea of “leaving someone on read.” With this idea of sending out a letter, which we talked about earlier, you wouldn’t really know when that person opened the envelope and read it. But today we have this obsessive self-surveillance. Most of us don’t like the idea of all our data being sold but, at the same time, we perform this surveillance ourselves. “Did this person read? Did this person receive the email?” We’re always thinking about what other people are thinking. It’s crazy and exhausting (laughter).
So yeah, there’s a lot of reflections on the idea of work. As I said in the beginning… what is work? When are you working and when are you not working? It’s definitely an artist thing to always feel like you’re working, but it’s snuck into all other economies. It’s kind of strange. And even more so now when you’re working from your flat, there’s no excuse for being late—you can’t miss the bus on your way to work, you just walk from your bedroom to your office. If you have a job, or if you’re like me and are committed to doing an exhibition, there’s fewer excuses to say no because you can always pick up the phone. It’s like, “Why are you offline?” It’s really terrifying.
For some reason people are less forgiving in this time, when it should be the opposite.
And that’s not something I’m good at myself, but one has to learn how to set those limits and decide what is healthy.
You mentioned with your show that it’s a retrospective. Having had the opportunity to look back at your previous works and see it presented, how do you feel like you’ve grown if you compare yourself from ten years ago to today?
In one way, which is very practical, is that I’ve become more accustomed to working spatially. When I was in graphic design you either work in the digital realm or you work with typography on a page, on paper. I developed my pieces as performances at the beginning, as well as some audio works, but I wasn’t given access to a space that someone who specifically works as an artist would. At the beginning I was doing readings and developed that practice in a very ephemeral way. I was less documented too. Like from 2010-2013 or 2014, people didn’t film as much as they do now I think. They film everything now. I wasn’t ever feeling like I was performing for a camera. There’s some recordings of my readings on YouTube, but I prefer to not have that be the focus; I really prefer being the voice in the room. And somehow translating that into space is interesting.
I had my first show in a space in 2014 and it’s been a learning curve to learn how to find ways to exhibit pieces that aren’t necessarily visual. This idea of the non-visual is quite a challenge. There are visual elements in the works and exhibitions, but I’m actually trying to develop a publication. I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but the title will be Speaker, alluding to the idea of an actual human speaker and the technical device. I have a lot of documentation of there being purely speakers in a room, which say nothing. You have all this documentation and you have all this representation of your work which does it no justice—what does it mean when someone takes a photo of you reading something and the actual substance of that reading is not there?
I made this one piece called Flesh (2016), which is a spiral staircase that leads to this space. I had a really good budget—which doesn’t always occur—to be able to create a very specific room where you would have to take your time getting up there. You could of course go down but they wouldn’t let more people up to not disturb the concentration. To create these concentrated listening rooms is a challenge, and it’s something I’m working on a lot because if you have a sound piece in a room, it’s the least… people have very little patience. It’s very often overseen because there’s nothing to see.
And in general, just my voice, the way I perform things… it’s changed a lot. I used to, for instance, read very fast in order to not bore people. I realized that you could read slowly and use silence, and using silence is a very specific and great tool.
That’s funny because that parallels my experience with teaching. I always felt like I’d need to speak a lot to keep students’ attention, but it’s obvious now how much power there is in silence or speaking slowly, in having different rhythms and having contrasting moments where I speak loudly and softly. You can totally maintain people’s attention by using all these tools.
It’s very important today for there to always be content, content, content. Whether it’s visual content or something you’re listening to, I actually found that during the pandemic—because there were all these walks, and along with this idea of always working—there was this idea of always filling time. I was listening to podcasts all the time. I was always listening to stuff. And at some point I realized, it was a lot to always be listening to something when you’re on a walk, and this constant listening and constant reading is a bit of a disease of our time.
Have you noticed how people get a bit nervous if you’re not looking at your phone? Or, they always feel like they can intrude. If you’re looking at your phone, people feel like they can’t interrupt you. For instance, the other day I was really tired and was staying with my gallerist in Brussels, and the minute I was just sitting, she would come and ask me things, but when I was on my phone, she wouldn’t approach me. It would be nice to just sit. It’s like an open call to be approached, so when you don’t want to be approached you have to put up your phone or have a computer in front of you in order to look busy—you cannot appear to be unapproachable unless you have a screen in front of you.
Earlier on when we were talking about letters, you said you’d write a letter to someone you’re a fan of. Who would you write a letter to?
It’s very banal in the case of my work but I think I would write a letter to Laurie Anderson. I really respect her and I think it’d be fun. But maybe it wouldn’t be written by hand, maybe it’d be a spoken letter, like one of those birthday cards you open (laughter). I did this talk in the art department at Harvard and I heard that she did the talk prior to me, which is very flattering. I was just going to speak about my work but they told me, “Laurie Anderson used this PDF and she was in the PDF!” And I was like, of course she did that! (laughter). So hyper-advanced. But yeah, I think it’d be fun to write her a letter, a card (laughs).
Was there anything that you wanted to say or talk about in this interview, or something you’ve always wanted to be asked?
Do I desire any questions? I think you really managed to reach over and ask specific questions, which is quite nice. But no, nothing comes to mind. I have to say, I have to get to work on that birthday card! I don’t know when her birthday is (chuckling).
Well let’s see… (searches up Laurie Anderson’s birthday). It’s June 5th!
I have quite a bit of time.
I’m gonna hold you to this now! I’m gonna send you an email on June 5th.
(laughs). We’re good for time. I’ll try to figure it out.
There’s one last question I wanted to ask you. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
Wow. Wew. That’s a very cute question (chuckles). I do love the way I look upon the world, and I think you kind of got me through all sorts of things. I think it’s also the way of putting all these things together, like the way I put PigeonPostParis together—seeing these parallels. I think I’m always curious, which is a very broad idea of oneself, but I think it’s a very important way of moving forward. I hope I never really lose that. With my way of seeing the world, I can always entertain myself very easily. And my adaptability—I’m quite adaptable to new situations, to see new ways of working in new situations.
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Mainliner - Dual Myths (Riot Season, 2021)
Press Release info: “This new album is the second chapter of this present Mainliner. finally we could open to the next stage to break old customs since 1995”
The follow up to 2013’s Revelation Space has been rumoured for many years. I’ve even heard tales of several recordings being finished and scrapped over the last five years. That’s how hard it is to run a band when members are based on different continents and in other very busy bands themselves. The killer trio from the original reformation is all intact, we have Kawabata Makoto (motorpsycho guitar), Koji Shimura (drums) and Kawabe Taigen (bass/vocals) and we’re back to calling them just Mainliner once again.
Purchase Dual Myths at Bandcamp.
Sunik Kim: I appreciate Mainliner’s sheer sense of commitment: when they find a riff or rhythmic fragment that just works, nothing else matters—the loop repeats til the tape machine explodes, no mellow breakdowns or ambient interludes required. They’re also clearly aware of how silly this whole racket is; the incessant, insectoid shredding near the end of “Dunamist Zero” would border on Spinal Tap levels of parody were the music not doused in putrid clouds of exhaust and weed smoke. The whole thing ticks along nicely at high tempos (“Blasphemy Hunter”), but when the band pulls back (large portions of “Hibernator’s Dream” and “Silver Guck”), the spell is broken, and the 20-minute track lengths become trying and tiresome rather than immersive. The album’s 80-minute runtime is excessive and indulgent—just like the music—and will likely keep me from throwing this on again. But who’s to say that’s always a bad thing?
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Despite lineup changes, Mainliner have always been aiming for the same thing: rock music that entertains through sheer force of power—power in seismic grooves, power through speaker-busting noise. But while Mellow Out, a formidable contender for gnarliest rock album of the ’90s, can regularly keep me entertained, Dual Myths starts to bore within its first ten minutes. There’s no palaver here, thankfully, but the mix transforms every traceable melody and drum beat into disparate parts, the shrapnel-like sonics of previous Mainliner albums replaced with a muted slurry. “Silver Guck” and “Dunamist Zero” are the clear standouts, with Taigen Kawabe’s rupturing the proceedings with dramatic flair instead of hovering over them like a meandering fog. Still, I judge Mainliner albums on how transfixing their cacophony can be, and there are far too many passages across this 80-minute album where I feel like I’m hearing a band that’s too tame to be deserving of the Mainliner banner.
Samuel McLemore: If Asahito Nanjo can be believed, Mainliner was originally more or less his band, and just one of many he played in at the time. Conceived of as a “more condensed” version of the insanely heavy free-rock aesthetic that Nanjo and guitarist Munehiro Narita had harnessed so well in High Rise, the principal difference here was the replacement of Munehiro on guitar with the younger and more cosmically minded Makoto Kawabata. Their first album together as Mainliner, Mellow Out, was lightning in a bottle—it’s as good as anything in the rock canon, but dirtier and fiercer by an order of magnitude.
The duo ran through three different drummers and released a handful of albums before going on hiatus. In 2013, 12 years after their last effort, Mainliner reformed under the direction of Kawabata with a new bassist and vocalist: Taigen Kawabe of Bo Ningen. Though still clearly a product of the same influences and ideas that the original line-up of Mainliner grappled with, when you listen to the debut album next to their newest effort, Dual Myths, it becomes clear that the shift in sound and style from then to now is as significant as the shift that occurred from High Rise to Mainliner. Kawabata, who has always been more interested in free expression than rock 'n' roll worship, was a brilliant foil for Nanjo’s urgent exclamatory vocal delivery and bluesy bass figures but is perhaps less of a match for Kawabe’s keening wail. Still present are the seesawing shifts between simple hard grooves and dramatic freakouts, but gone is the balance and tension that gave those performances such vitality. Instead, the unfolding of every moment in every song is dragged on and on, sucking out the energy that made Mellow Out such a classic and bloating the runtime well past the limits of my patience or interest. Maybe what Mainliner needs is a return to the brickwalled production style that Nanjo graced the early releases with. I dunno, maybe if I just turn the volume up it’ll hit better.
Chloe Liebenthal: Dual Myths is a sonic behemoth. After the opening track, “Blasphemy Hunter,” sees its wispy first minute shredded to pieces by a wonderfully harebrained guitar riff, Mainliner’s pounding, gleeful garage psych just doesn’t let up. All four songs on this album basically sound the same (though I have a particular soft spot for the sludgy “Silver Guck”), and that’s a good thing, because they all positively rule. The blazing psych contained herein is primal in its joyfulness and massive in its scope, scrawling itself across twenty-minute tracks whose repetitive rhythms take on a glint of the hypnotic, careening around corners and skidding to a stop only when it’s time for the next lovably shaggy pile of riffs to take its place. The appeal here is pre-historic in its disposal of all but those most basic alchemical elements of rock n’ roll: it’s loud, it’s fast, it’s REALLY groovy, and sometimes there’s even a lyric or two! What more could you ask for?
Mark Cutler: I’ve always regarded Mainliner as the more blues & hard rock-oriented cousin to Makoto Kawabata’s other main band, Acid Mothers Temple and the Whatever of Et Cetera. Mainliner are psychedelic in a classic, Hendrixy way, foregoing spacey effects pedals and synthesized washes in favor of pure guitar shredding and simple, overdriven riffs.
Dual Myths is perhaps their most trancelike and trance-inducing album. All four of its tracks stretch out near or past the twenty-minute mark, and though each song has its own distinctive solos, breakdowns, and freakouts, the dominant mode here consists of inscrutable, chanted vocals over endlessly looping riffs. The effect is surprisingly soporific—it makes Mellow Out seem especially un-mellow.
In stark contrast to the famously-prolific Acid Mothers Temple—who have released some sixteen studio albums in the last three years—Mainliner’s output came to a near-complete stop at the turn of the millennium. If I’m not mistaken, this is their first studio album in eight years, and their second in twenty. While it’s not bad by any means, it’s hard to discern what compelled Kawabata and co. to return to the studio for these cuts in particular. This is a good Mainliner album, and fans will surely scarf down the whole thing, even with its eighty-minute duration. However, taken separately, these pieces don’t feel especially focused or distinct.
Gil Sansón: Mainliner doesn’t do subtle. The intro to the first track, “Blasphemy Hunter,” shows that there are new shades to the Mainliner we know, and yet right away we’re immersed in what they do best: a massive racket so loud and distorted that obscures the otherwise great guitar riffs. This time the distortion is very digital but just as nasty and unfriendly as in past efforts. Simply put, you need to be all-in for this type of sound; the trio never compromises in any regard and if you want to experience this cathartic release you need to be ready for massive amounts of noise and repetition with some undecipherable chanting on top from time to time.
What has happened before their last offering, apart from a long time? A lot, apparently, including shelved recordings and musicians no longer living in the same city, and surely some of it transpires into the music. Like I said, Mainliner has a sound that’s 100% electric guitar riff and feedback worshipping, but here they take the long range format to offer something that’s less frantic but no less intense, even meditative at times. Taking the double LP—the most vintage of formats from the ’70s—to paint a large canvas seems like something Mainliner deserve and have earned through the years, and it doesn’t feel like excessive; this band surely hasn’t flooded the shelves with their music, choosing to follow the opposite route of Acid Mothers Temple, to name one band with whom they share the affinity for riff-heavy rock paeans taken to the extreme.
Here each side explores a mood. The wide canvas allows for a somewhat relaxed take on the Mainliner sound, something that may endear them to Sunn O))). Mainliner is closer to Fushitsusha than to Boris or Sunn O))), in any case. So, is this record a much welcomed return by one of the leading bands of their style? I say yes. This is no reinvention a la Bowie (or Metallica, for that matter), but more of an actualization done in style and with chutzpah.
Lucy Liyou - Practice (Full Spectrum, 2021)
Press Release info: Drawing deeply on aesthetic touchstones from Liyou’s Korean heritage, incorporating elements of pansori (Korean folk opera), the Korean concept of “Han,” and the unique tenor of Korean drama soundtracks, this gurgling assemblage of haunting piano melodies, snippets of text-to-voice narration, and widescreen swatches of vivid electronic texture has become our de facto anthem as we forge ahead into the weirdness of 2021: a supremely grounded and personal work from a vital young voice to keep us focused on that which matters most.
Whereas practice is a word of many meanings, the album takes its title from the rhetorical friction that exists between two of them. While on the one hand, practice refers to the performance of an activity or regular exercise of a skill in order to improve one’s proficiency, the term can also refer to the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing something.
Composed, recorded, and produced at the artist’s family home in Washington state in September of last year, ‘Practice’ is, on a surface level, a reactionary work. These tracks were, after all, created during the two weeks Liyou’s mother was required to wait in Korean quarantine before they could be released to care for the family’s ailing grandmother, a highly charged experience that led to a period of deep reflection on the spectrum of family dynamics and the peculiar ways that personality traits echo across generations.
In the face of a crushing wave of loss and death brought on by the COVID pandemic made all the more personal by the potential loss of the family’s matriarch, ‘Practice’ came into focus as an examination of how families explicitly and implicitly pass on coping mechanisms – or lack thereof – for grief and loss down through generations.
Purchase Practice at Bandcamp.
Mark Cutler: Last year’s Welfare was one of my favorite albums of the year—a bracing, avant-garde mini-opera featuring deeply personal, computer-recited monologues amid waves of piano and digital cruft. Practice is a more serene affair, keeping the manipulated and synthesized vocals while leaning more heavily into Liyou’s training as a classical pianist. These are mostly shorter, shimmering ambient tracks, less overtly narrative and more impressionistic than Liyou’s previous work.
Many of these tracks sound poorly recorded, as though Liyou were playing the piano on some outdoor terrace. The notes echo strangely; they are murky beneath the sounds of footsteps, bird calls, breezes, and other rumbles and hisses. It’s this soft patter of the everyday, at the margins of the music, which I find most inviting. I am reminded of the unforced intimacy of many of the albums on Sean McCann’s Recital label. Perhaps Liyou’s home piano is in a noisy place; however, I suspect that many if not all of these incidental noises are added, that this is a careful, considered illusion.
Likewise, despite first appearances, Liyou does fold a complete story into this collection of brief, fragmentary songs. Liyou plays around with different voices to allow for actual dialogues to unfold, playing out small, familial dramas just a few lines at a time. In the second half, the story of an argument between Liyou and their mother gradually offers itself to our understanding; new lyrical revelations contextualize old ones, causing us to double back and reconsider previous tracks.
Although Practice is musically prettier and more accessible than Welfare, and its subject matter seems more domestic, there are blunt, unprocessed feelings lurking here, which make the album occasionally uncomfortable to listen to. “Uncle” in particular feels like an unmediated outburst, a sentiment which burns to the touch. This extreme emotional honesty has of course been central to Liyou’s practice so far, and yet even on repeated visits, its intensity sometimes catches me off guard. Although Practice is a collection of lovely compositions, I can’t help but hope that Liyou’s life and family situations don’t give them material for a sequel any time soon.
Marshall Gu: Lucy Liyou’s music is meant to be unsettling by design: confessional poetry set to alternatively post-industrial noise or rippling piano reminiscent of the recently departed Harold Budd. The unsettling element is that the lyrics are delivered through text-to-speech programs, so when we hear someone slam their dinner plate down on “At the dinner table” before a computerized voice goes “I don’t want to talk about grandma right now […] I want to shake [Dad] / and tell him to shut his mouth,” the words are already making it clear that this is not your average nuclear family dinner compounded by a digitized voice. That being said, using text-to-speech programs is a gimmick. Gimmicks aren’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but the question is whether or not the gimmick works to the artist’s advantage, and that’s not the case with Liyou, or Practice in general. Images depicting this autobiographical family—“you’re right, Mom. / I don’t know everything about you. / And I don’t want to.”—should have been allowed to breathe on their own without constantly making me wonder why a robot is delivering them.
Chloe Liebenthal: The numb feeling of quarantine, as a disaster unfolds outside your window and all you can do is sit inside and try to wait it out, atomized and separated from the people you hold dear, is a flavor of unease we’ve all gotten far too familiar with in the past year. Lucy Liyou’s Practice transforms that feeling into a sweeping epic of family, self-discovery, and the intrusion of technology into our most personal moments. Constructed with snatches of text-to-speech software with a calculated trustworthiness to its tipsy, unbalanced cadence, Practice places Liyou’s poetic words into the mouth of an algorithm as their music explores digital communication and connection. Snatches of whispers, beautiful piano melodies, and the occasional crushing synthesizer intrusion build a soundscape upon which their words can float as unmoored as a text message you swear you’ll get around to replying to in just a few minutes. Practice tells the fragmented story of quarantine with power and grace.
Gil Sansón: It’s not often that I connect immediately with the sound of an artist unknown to me, but right from the start I’m seduced by the music: a combination of artfully-manipulated field recordings, robotic voiceover, and other non-musical sounds composed with a fine ear for songwriting and, more importantly, for keeping the attention of the listener at all times. The economy of means yields excellent results; the piano, for example, despite being the central instrument, is kept in check for the most part thus avoiding being overtly sweet. The piano sounds more like a way for Liyou to deal with difficult times on a personal level and not so much a calculated statement to prove anything.
Even without reading the liner notes, I can hear the hospital waiting room and its numb-inducing ambience, and the break that happens mid-record with “Patron” brims with urgency since it has a more in-your-face sound and a text that’s much harder to ignore; the impersonal delivery of the text-to-speech narration has the paradoxical effect of highlighting this emotional and very-human outburst—it’s one that anyone could relate to. While the voiceover gets much of the spotlight, it leaves the scene in favor of smooth, emotional release on “Hail Mary”, and the last track, “September 5,” has a matter-of-fact introduction and a return to the hospital room. And then it delivers a final gesture, one that packs a big, poignant punch and will be hard to forget.
Mariana Timony: We live in a time when it’s possible to hear all sorts of music on the Internet with little or no effort on behalf of the listener, but happening upon an artist doing something truly novel with the form remains a rare occurrence—generally because anyone doing something actually new means whatever they’re doing might edge into the unrecognizable and therefore the unlistenable, depending on how traditional your tastes. Lucy Liyou plays around in that grey area on Practice, using both their own background in classical piano, ambient sound composition, and the creepy, robotic tone of text-to-speech to sketch out the contours of a family drama. Though their sound collaging is startling in its unconventionality, it isn’t unlistenable because it’s also quite human, if you can sit with it for a minute in these days of snap attention spans. Practice almost requires you to really listen in order to sink beneath the superficial weirdness of Liyou’s sonic choices, which are admirable in that they will scare away those who aren’t prepared to make the dive. Yet for those who do, Practice is a gratifying experience, its compositions unfolding like a fog of emotion struggling to become solid and its themes a mix of nostalgia, memory, and presence expressed in the digital voice of the future.
Maxie Younger: Experiencing Practice feels like reading a private diary. Lucy Liyou has a knack for bringing their listeners up close to skin-crawlingly uncomfortable circumstances in their music—arguments with their mother, their father’s rants on “death and preparation”—while still maintaining an essential distance from the charged emotionality such situations must possess. Part of the trick lies in Liyou’s much-discussed use of text-to-speech, meant to serve as a rough digital analogue to the intricate vocal inflections of Korean pansori performance art. The computerized voice rolls words around in its mouth like it’s tasting a fine dessert, halting on syllables and changing pitch on a dime mid-sentence; on “Easiest,” it even shifts down an octave to portray the voice of Liyou’s father, saying “I love you” in a timbre that highlights the stilted, affectless nature of his mood better than any flesh-and-blood actor could. These vocal stylings are sharper, more articulated, and soundtracked with more pathos than they were on Liyou’s previous release, Welfare. Where that album obscured feeling deep behind brick walls of collaged, glitching samples, Practice pulls back, relying on a sparser, more organic blend of warm drones and analog piano recordings.
Despite everything that Practice has going for it, I don’t actually enjoy it very much when I listen. It’s difficult for me to articulate why. I don’t think the use of text-to-speech here is as successful as it was on Welfare; Liyou seems less willing to experiment with the outer limits of the software this time around, using it more matter-of-factly as a source of event narration than as the bewitching, multifaceted vehicle for sound poetry it was on their earlier work. That step back, combined with Practice’s grounding in a stricter, more concrete timeline of events than Welfare, makes it difficult to reconcile with the text-to-speech, whose stilted virtual timbre holds me several arm’s lengths away from reality. Scenes unfold through panes of frosted glass, anger and sorrow and reminiscence devolved into shadowy blurs from across the threshold. The work feels at its best when, from behind that robotic veneer, Liyou themself speaks: on closing track “September 5,” they relate a memory of an intimate moment with their grandmother from when they were younger in a wavering voice that shines with sweet, tear-jerking honesty. That kind of unvarnished sincerity may not be what Liyou seeks to center here, but, time and time again, I found myself yearning for it.
Sunik Kim: I lost my grandmother last year. Because of the pandemic, I was unable to see her before she passed, and couldn’t attend her funeral. When the piano materializes—delicate—on “You are every memory,” she appears in front of me and in my dreams. The wavering strings and quantized vocals on “Uncle” bloom and billow gently onward, filling the room—simultaneously saccharine and pitch black. The jagged, stubborn squiggles and groans on “At the dinner table” and “Patron” sound like neurons firing, documenting the spiritual and physiological lifecycle of thought and emotion from birth to death. These are also the weakest moments on the album—they jar and disrupt, interrupt—but I do see their purpose in the whole: Liyou’s vaporous piano is even more inviting, genuinely soothing, after a noisy detour.
Liyou’s use of text-to-speech has absolutely nothing to do with the “uncanny valley,” technology, or of “robots trying to become human.” It is purely a means of expression like any other, with its own quirks, strengths and weaknesses, just like music itself is simply a means of expression (not just self-expression, not just expression of thought or feeling) in the broadest sense of the word. Liyou clearly understands that context is key: humans have been familiar with the ‘plunk’ of a piano for centuries, but a single note—a single key press—in the right setting, at the right time, still has the power to overwhelm, an almost mystical ability to contain everything at once. I will likely never meet Liyou’s grandmother; but in the second half of “September 5,” their memories become mine, and I am filled with a warmth and sadness that only these shards of digital audio can convey. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping outside, and I am thinking of my grandmother.
Shy Thompson: Family is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. I wonder about how meaningful a connection by blood should be, and I realize that—at least in my case—it means absolutely nothing. My mother is my favorite person in the world, but it’s because of the fact that we supported each other through the best and worst experiences of our lives, rather than some compulsory obligation to love her. My stepfather is my least favorite person in the world, but it’s not because he wasn’t my “real” father—it’s because he treated me like shit. Often, your family are the people in closest proximity to you in your formative years. Whether you develop a feeling of closeness to them or not, your time with them will stick with you. You might find that you become like them in ways you’ll continue to realize for years to come. I’m a lot like my mother. I am, frustratingly, a little like my stepfather too.
I have a lot of dreams where I am transported to the homes of my youth. Inhabiting the body of a younger version of myself but with a mind closer to the self of the present, I relive distant scenarios on an almost weekly basis. They should have long become unfamiliar to me, but my brain doesn’t seem to want to put them in the past. The text-to-speech narration throughout Practice hits eerily close to what it feels like for me to reckon with the events of my youth at every stage of my life—I sometimes hear myself talking in these dreams, but it doesn’t really feel like me. I spend a lot of time rehearsing what I’ll say and do in hypothetical situations that almost never come to fruition, and many of those involve my family. The back-and-forths between and inner monologues about family that carry forth the narrative of Practice feels, to me, like just that—rehearsal. Preparation for what may come, and a run-through of events already passed to assess the damage and hopefully do better next time.
Rarely, but occasionally, the dreams that I have are nice. When I’m not so wound up or stressed out or worrying if I’m doing the right thing, I feel a lot more like myself. The final track, “September 5,” introduces Lucy Liyou’s genuine voice for the first and final time, recounting a memory to their grandmother about an electric Yamaha piano gifted to them as a child. I presume the piano appearing on this track is the very same, considering the album was recorded in the artist’s family home. Hearing a human inflection and a laugh while listening to these sweet memories evokes a feeling of releasing the emotional stress you hear throughout the album. It reminds me of when I’m able to let go of the pent-up anxiety of what to say to my mom, and I can just pick up the phone and tell her I miss her. I used to be bothered by the fact that I carry a lot of her personality quirks. It used to bother me that I look like her, too. As I remember our time together more fondly and realize how deep my love for her runs, I want to be more like her. I like that when I look at my own eyes in the mirror, I’m looking in hers too.
Thank you for reading the fifty-sixth issue of Tone Glow. Let’s all write someone a handwritten letter sometime soon.
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