Tone Glow 080: Lustmord
An interview with Brian Williams, the Welsh industrial and ambient musician who works as Lustmord
Lustmord is the primary project of Welsh musician Brian Williams. Having begun creating music under the moniker since 1980, he’s been a crucial figure in the world of drone and dark ambient. He was a member of industrial act SPK during the ’80s, and has worked with Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle members Chris & Cosey, the Melvins, Jarboe, Tool, and more. He soundtracked Paul Schrader’s critically acclaimed 2018 film First Reformed, and has worked on varying films, television shows, and video games throughout the past three decades. His newest album, ALTER, is a collaboration with singer and producer Karin Park. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked on the phone with Lustmord on June 2nd, 2021 to discuss his childhood in Bethesda, squatting in London, his collaborations throughout the years, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: How’s your day been?
Lustmord: (laughs). How’s my day been? It’s been fine. Where are you by the way?
Lustmord: Oh, nice. I’m in LA as you may know. It’s about 93 degrees right now. It’s been a typical day for me: I get up early, my wife goes to work around 7 so I get up with her, I go hiking with my dog in the hills and I don’t see anybody, and then I start working—I’ve been working for the past hour or so. It’s been a pleasant, typical day for me. I’m hanging with my dog, who’s now really bothering me because I’m talking to you and he always thinks it’s weird when I’m talking to myself.
Do you go on hikes regularly?
I go every weekday, a few miles every day. Weekends, there are too many people. It’s interesting—I really like people, and I can have really close friends, but I don’t actually like people very much (laughter). I don’t like crowds—I like individuals. The way crowds behave is really interesting. There’s a book, and it’s not a great book, but the title is great. It’s called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I always liked that title because it just sums up how people behave when they’re in a crowd. It’s a really interesting phenomenon, the way people behave… people are obnoxious when they’re in crowds. That’s a sweeping generalization but you know (laughter).
You mentioned when we were talking earlier that there are teachers who have changed your life. Do you mind talking about those teachers?
Well I kind of asked for that one, which is kind of ironic because you’re the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions (laughter). My first language is Welsh, and I grew up in a Welsh-only school. One of the lessons we were taught was English and everything else was in Welsh. I was doing really badly in school and at the time: I was in what we kids would call “the stupid grade.” Obviously it’s politically incorrect to say, like, “the dumb kids” but I was in that category because my grades were really bad. I honestly can’t remember how old I was, but it was probably in my very early teens.
There was this new English teacher and she thought something was wrong and suggested that I wasn’t actually stupid but dyslexic; she said my work was fine but that my writing was terrible, and my writing was holding me back, not my intellect. She was really pushy, and at that time there was some pushback for me to get tested. I was a kid so I had never heard of dyslexia, but at the time it was one of those things that wasn’t taken seriously—it was one of those fringe science things. She insisted I get tested and the results indicated that I was dyslexic, and then she insisted that it be taken into account when my work was graded, and lo and behold, within months I was doing really well. I moved to a higher grade, and I was first in that class by the end of the year. I was really young so I wasn’t really savvy to all the repercussions of that, because my initial path was to go to school, not get any good grades, and leave with low qualifications. I would find limited work, like manual labor. But she came along and she entered me into writing competitions, I ended up leaving school with certificates and exam results, and I ended up in art school. She made a huge difference. I probably would’ve ended up doing what I’m doing now, but the journey would’ve been much harder and longer. A lot of doors would’ve been closed to me.
I’m about to tear up, that’s such a beautiful story. I see it so often: So many adults, teachers included, will assume that a student is “dumb” or a “bad kid” when there really just needs to be some accommodations, or this shift in perspective.
For a lot of kids, just being seen is something. There are a lot of “bad kids” who are judged on their behavior and there’s a reason they’re acting out. And sometimes, simply being seen makes a huge difference.
I wanted to ask about the first 25 years of your life. Were you born in Bethesda?
Yes, it has a population of about 4500.
Do you mind painting a picture of Bethesda for me, of the time you were growing up there?
(laughs). It’s really interesting because it’s right on the edge of a national park; it’s basically the entrance to it. People come from far and wide to visit the national park—it’s really beautiful. But the town itself is grey. That’s the best way to describe it. The town exists because of a slate quarry. It’s not so bad now but all around town is all these slag heaps—with quarries people dig, so all the waste gets piled up. So that’s the landscape, but it’s framed by this national park. It’s also a very socialist place. Wales has a population of about 2.5 million, and half a million people speak Welsh as a first language, so that’s 20%. But where I come from, 98% of people speak Welsh as a first language, which is significant.
So the place I’m from, Bethesda, was there because of a slate quarry and it was one of the largest ones. At the time, it was the largest man-made hole in the world. It was dug by hand, and machinery wasn’t used. That was a couple hundred years ago; basically the whole side of the mountain was dug out by hand. And of course we can talk about landowners and people being treated really badly. There was a strike there and I think it was for over two years that the town went on strike.
There were other towns scattered around—satellite towns. People who broke the strike had to leave, so satellite towns were built up. It’s really interesting because both my grandfathers worked in those quarries. You kind of grow up with this whole working-class ethic, with people standing up for themselves, unions. It wasn’t ingrained in me but it shaped who I am as a person. I saw how people were treated, I heard my grandparents talk about their experiences and the things they fought for. I feel strongly about a lot of that, about people standing up for themselves. There’s basic things like lunch breaks and restrooms and washing facilities and weekends off—people fought for those things. Here in America, as you know, people actually lost their lives on the picket line, which is nuts. People gave their lives so someone could go home at 5 o’clock, or so people could have a holiday.
Even the fact you knew about unions early on feels really important. Can you see how knowing about those things impacted your life?
I refer to myself as a socialist but there’s a forward slash, I’m a “socialist / realist.” Having grown up and hearing stories from my grandparents and neighbors and friends’ parents and their grandparents, I knew that people had fought for a lot of things. And in an ideal world, I don’t know where it came from—I’d like to think it came from myself—but for me, equality is not something you can argue about. It’s fucking obvious—we’re equal. I don’t care who you are or what you do, you’re no better than I am and I’m no better than you are.
It’s one of those self-evident truths: everyone is equal, so treat everyone equally. That’s one of the basic cores of who I am, but when you think about living here in America, when you think about the healthcare system… I just think healthcare should be available to everyone, I think a good education should be available to everybody. When you talk about these things in socialist terms, there are some really good bad examples, of how socialism doesn’t work. And in an ideal world, I would like things to be a certain way, but the world is complicated, and the main reason the world is complicated is because of fucking people. A lot of things would work really well and a lot of things would make a lot of sense, and things could work smoothly, if only people would not be so damn selfish.
Were you close with your parents and your grandparents?
My parents are both still alive. They turned 90 last month. They obviously had 2 grandfathers and grandmothers. My one grandfather who I was kind of close with, when I was really young he had Alzheimer’s and I knew him for a brief period but then… he was “around,” but of course he wasn’t around—his body was still there, but, you know. He was really interesting. He was at the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. He lied about his age and then he went to fight in the war, and the first time he arrived on the battlefield he was wounded in his arm and had a wounded arm for the rest of his life. He would tell me stories about what it was like in the trenches, all this horrible stuff, of people dying all around and how there was nothing you could do about it. It was really interesting, his wife—my grandmother—was really mean. She was one of those hard, old school people who said “kids should be seen, not heard.” I mean, we’re going back quite a while now, so you kind of forgive them because it was a different generation, but that doesn’t mean it was okay. She was a bit of a bitch, basically, especially with his kids.
Later when I was in my teens, when my grandfather had been dead for quite a while, her attitude to me… I thought it was really weird because she gave me all this attention, she was super nice to me. And I find that really, well, weird (laughter). Like, what’s going on here? She’s always being such a bitch. And now she’s not just being nice, but weirdly nice. And I had an epiphany one day when I was in my mid-teens and was approaching my late-teens, I realized while looking at photos of my grandfather when he was young—I looked just like him. I must have been about 15 when I realized that my grandmother was seeing in me my dead grandfather when she first knew him. That was an interesting experience. A lot of people go through it but that was the only time I’d gone through it.
My other grandfather, he was a really good guy but, you know, it was a different time. He was the local guy where if your puppy had too many pups, you’d bring them there and he’d take care of it. He’d kill the cats and the dogs. I’d be horrified by this stuff. He grew up on a farm and stuff. I remember one time he tried to teach me how to kill a chicken, which was a disaster (laughter).
How was that experience?
Well, you grab a chicken and then you twist its neck, and it dies. But he was trying to teach me and I couldn’t get the hang of it at all, and I didn’t even want to kill the damn thing. It was much harder than it looked. Of course I was happy to eat them. I must have been about 12. I twisted a chicken’s neck and its head came off. I wasn’t swearing my head off but I said the 12-year-old equivalent of “fucking hell!” (laughter).
My grandfather, John, every year would do this memorial thing where it’d be him and his friends dressed up with their medals. As a teen I would roll my eyes at all these old farts—all that war stuff was over years ago and they’d still get together. He died when I was in my early 20s. It was only in my late 20s that I really started to understand him. I became more aware of the world and his world. Both my grandfathers left me their medals in their wills and I still have them. It was only years later from hearing a piece here and there from family and people who knew him that he had spent a long time in the war across Europe and had been in key battles. When you’re a boy you play with soldiers but then you grow up and learn that war isn’t actually a good thing, and people do nasty things on both sides. He didn’t talk about it much or anything; the only people he could talk to were other veterans, people who could really understand him. I wish I were older when he was alive because he was definitely someone who was influential. I would’ve loved to have had those conversations with him but I was too young.
I feel the same way about my maternal grandfather. He was in the Korean War, though I never had the chance to talk with him about it; he died when I pretty young.
All that shapes you; you can’t come back from those experiences and not be changed.
Right. Thanks for sharing all those stories. I also like how much you seem to be enjoying yourself right now with reminiscing on all this.
Oh you know, I’m just happy you’re not asking me what my fucking favorite records are and all those boring questions (laughter). You know, we’re actually having a conversation. The really interesting interviews are the ones where you’re talking about anything but music. Cosmology and the meaning of life, philosophy, literature—the things that actually matter.
You mentioned the park in Bethesda. And I know you’re an outdoorsy person, you’ve posted photos on Instagram.
I’m not that outdoorsy, but I get your point.
What’s your relationship with the outdoors?
Because I grew up right on the edge of a national park, on school holidays me and my friends would go up to the mountains and walk—we call it hiking now—about six or seven miles. We’d be playing music out of a little cassette thing, and there’d be all these tourists out there climbing these mountains with really expensive equipment. They’d climb this really difficult path and then at the top it’s just all these kids with jeans and t-shirts listening to music—we came the local way around the back (laughter).
Where I’m from is really beautiful, but when I was there all I wanted to do was get out of there. I do walk miles now because, and I’ll use a medical term: my knees are really fucked up (laughter). I have osteo in both knees and it’s incredibly painful; I basically need to get some new knees. I started walking to try and build up muscle instead of wearing braces. I’ve been living in America for quite a while and I got used to the whole American lifestyle of sitting on my ass a lot and drinking a lot of soda. I wasn’t as healthy as I used to be, so I made a point of actually going out and walking more. My knees are still bad but it doesn’t hurt as much because I have all this strong muscle supporting my knees. I also have a border collie who needs a lot of exercise, and I got him is because he’s a really smart dog and because he gets me off my ass. It would be cruel not to take him hiking.
Have you ever had any dangerous hiking experiences or animal encounters?
I see rattlesnakes quite often. When I go out there, my dog is off-leash, and I like to go to places where there aren’t many people anyways. One of the reasons I like the West Coast of America is because it’s so empty. Los Angeles isn’t but there are huge landscapes where you won’t see anybody at all, which is the exact opposite of growing up in Britain. I like going to the hills and canyons over here in LA and just disappearing there with my dog. We often get close up to coyotes and occasionally a deer. I would see more deer but my dog is running around before I get to see them.
The one really cool one I saw was 12 or 13 years ago was when I got really close to a mountain lion. It was fucking cool. We were walking down this back path, it was with my previous dog. We were walking around and we came around the corner and there was a mountain lion that was walking towards us on the same path, which is only wide enough for one person. It was about 20 or 30 feet, coming towards us. I just stopped, and the mountain lion stopped, and my dog—who was really well trained—stopped right next to me. The mountain lion looked at us, looked to the side, then looked at us again, then did that another time, and then went into the undergrowth on the side. Afterwards I was like, fuck—I was mesmerized. It was an amazing experience to be that close to that big an animal—it was majestic, really. It was like, fuck, I should have taken a picture. But this encounter was so amazing that it didn’t occur to me until after. And then about 10 seconds after I’m thinking, well I was really fucking lucky to escape from that one (laughter). Maybe it was well-fed, maybe it was because of my dog. That was the coolest animal I’ve seen up close.
Well, I was also kicked by a kangaroo once, which is not something many people can say. I was at an animal sanctuary in Tasmania and they had these little joeys there. We were feeding them, and we were amongst 60 of them, and then one kicked me in the back because he wanted the food. It was funny because I had this huge kangaroo paw print on my back. I don’t know anyone else who’s been kicked by a kangaroo. It’s a really stupid anecdote but it’s a fun one (laughter). Of course if you were kicked by an adult kangaroo you could get killed.
You were mentioning what sort of people your grandparents were, so I’m wondering what your parents were like. Do you feel you have similar qualities to your parents?
I had a huge problem growing up with my parents because they were not supportive at all. They had different attitudes, and I resented it. I’m not saying I was right to do so but they were parents—they wanted me to have a good job and stability. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school, but I knew I didn’t want to work. I just wanted to fuck around. Of course, you can’t do that—you have to grow up, you have to get money and pay your bills. I knew that, but being honest about it, I didn’t want to do any of those things. Going to art school was something I was able to do because I was good at art and had the qualifications, but the idea of going to art school for me was really just to delay going out into the real world and getting a job. And then when you’re in art school you can figure out what you’re going to do. But also, you get to meet a bunch of creative people. My parents were very, very much against that and going to art school. They couldn’t possibly see me making a living off that. And doing music, I wouldn’t say they were not supportive—they were the opposite of being supportive.
When I was in my teens, I was one of the different ones. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t look like everyone else, I didn’t behave. And when you’re an outsider and come from certain places with certain backgrounds, there’s a certain mentality, and when you’re an outsider… when I was a young man and punk rock was happening and stuff, people would want to pick fights all the time. I’d be in a lot of fights, not by choice—sometimes it’s physically not possible to leave them. Fights aren’t a good thing because fights fucking hurt (laughter). I’d win, but sometimes you’d be outnumbered three to one, sometimes seven or eight, so sometimes you didn’t have much of a chance. You could do some damage but the odds were against you. It’s not quite like the movies—after three or four, it’s quite hard (laughter). I would get beaten up and then my parents would give me shit, like for fuck’s sake, can you take my side for once? (laughter). I didn’t go looking to get beaten up. I really resented the lack of support in general.
What was the nastiest fight you’ve ever been in?
I’ve never been in a real nasty one, but I’ve been knocked unconscious a couple of times. What happened with me, when I was 18 or 19 or 20, I would stand up for myself. It’s a bit like the Old West; you go to a bar and the music stops, someone stares at you and there’s a fight. There would be certain bars you wouldn’t go to because the people in them would fight you. You have to go about your life, though, and sometimes on the weekends you’d be in the same place as these people. I would stand up for myself and keep going back to these places. I’m not going to change my life or behave differently for you. I’m gonna keep doing what I do. I didn’t give a fuck. And then you get a bit of a reputation as a tough guy, and then you win some fights, too.
I’ll tell you a really funny one. I was catching a bus once and was walking down to the bus stop. There were these three guys. I didn’t know them but I recognized them. I said, “Hey, how’s it going!” They gave me this weird look and after walking for a few minutes I realized, fuck, these are the guys who beat me up two months ago (laughter). But I heard later on through the grapevine that these guys heard this and thought, this guy really doesn’t give a fuck. They thought I was really tough, they were kind of impressed. They beat me pretty badly.
So after a couple years you get a reputation as a tough guy, which is actually pretty good because people will leave you alone. But the downside is that the real fucking tough guys, the psychos… it’s like the real Old West where there’s a new gunslinger in town. They were kind of aware of the guys who were supposed to be tough and then that got really fucking stupid and you really have to avoid those people because they’ll put you in the hospital. But then I moved to London around that time and got away from all that stuff. It was pretty weird. I’m kind of smiling and laughing about it now but all that violence is not a good thing. I don’t want to glamorize it because one thing it isn’t is glamorous.
I just wanted to get a sense of the time here—what year were you born?
I was born in the first week of 1959. I’m 62 now.
You mentioned that you moved to London. What was your first impression of it?
I first went when I was really young. London literally was “the big city.” I was a simple country boy in this big city and I was wide-eyed. London’s actually quite cool but London is very similar to New York, Paris, Moscow—they’re all pretty similar in their vibes. The main reason you go as a young adult is to do stuff. Do you mind rephrasing the question?
What was it like living in London compared to the previous places you had been in?
We squatted the same building for 10 years and the only reason we left was to move to LA. It wasn’t that long ago but it sort of was—Margaret Thatcher was in power, the country was poor, we were living in an area of London called Lambeth which was really poor. It was really socialist. When we talk about squatting, it was government-owned property that was empty. There were tens of thousands of people who were homeless and there were tens of thousands of empty property, and you can’t break into a building because that’s illegal, but if you were able to enter the property without forcing your way in… it was a grey area. I mean, you would break in and immediately change the locks and remove any damages, but the building we squatted had been empty for quite a few years. The reason it was empty was because there weren’t any fire escapes, so it wasn’t up to code. Nobody was allowed to live there.
The reason I moved to London was because I was involved with a band called SPK which was one of the first industrial bands. There were Australian and New Zealand members and they would spend a long time in London. I remember there was this famous square called Bonnington Square, which at the time was quite a famous squat. I remember opening up that squat and called it the SPK squat. It must have been 1981. What you would do is case these places out, find out what kind of locks they had, and go to the store and buy a similar lock. You would force your way in, remove the lock, and put the new one in which would fit perfectly. When somebody called the cops there wouldn't be any damages. So SPK spent a lot of time there. Directly across the street, about 20 feet away, was Dead Can Dance and David Tibet. It was just a bunch of musicians and artists. And there was a thriving underground scene and all that.
When you talk about making music for a “living,” people will ask for advice and the real advice is don’t do it (laughter). Like I’m serious—if you want to make a living, do something else. If you want a mortgage, yes there’s a chance you will be successful but the odds are heavily against you. So the only reason you should do anything like music is because you have to, because you have no choice, because it’s in you. You don’t do it as a career move. You can, but the odds are so low that you make any money. If it’s a choice, it’s the wrong choice. We had no money or anything. For years we were living month to month, week to week. We were squatting so there was no rent to pay, so we could afford to do music.
Were you chummy with all the other musicians who lived in this area?
Yeah, I used to sit in Dead Can Dance’s kitchen in the mornings and have coffee, chatting about the world. David Tibet was later. We used to hang around in his place. And with Nurse With Wound, we’d go to the studio with a six pack of beer and just hang out on Fridays. It was quite a friendly place. There was a local bar we’d all be at. Roger Eno would be there, a bunch of the 4AD bands were there because the offices were nearby. What was really interesting about that time was that punk was going on, industrial was happening, but it was a different vibe. Going back to the socialist kind of thing, people would share information, their experiences, their equipment. People were on the same side—you’d share a phone number, you’d tell people who to talk to if they wanted to rent a PA, you’d tell people how to get a certain sound, and so on.
A lot of people mention Graeme Revell [of SPK]. He was really competitive and secretive. He was one of the people who wouldn’t tell you things. For a while there, though, it was real good. If one benefits, everyone benefits. But that went away really quickly—some people became really successful, and with success, a lot of that just goes away. Greed and selfishness work better for success, generally speaking. Years later I remembered I was approached by the guys from Tool, who were really successful, selling stadiums and a shitload of records. It was really nice when I got to know them because that was the first time in a long time that I experienced that again, with people helping out and sharing. That was really nice.
What’s the level of success at which you saw people change?
I get what you’re saying but, really, those people are gonna be like that anyway. I often use this kind of example but there are two kinds of successful people: There are people who are really good and really lucky, and then there are people who want to be rich and famous and will do anything to become that. They’ll fuck people sexually and they’ll fuck people in other ways too. They’ll stab friends in the back, they’ll be at the right place, they’ll do all the things necessary to be successful. There’s a good chance they will be successful. They don’t really have a soul, and they’re not nice people to know. You have to be a really unpleasant, slimy kind of a person.
I use Tool as a counterexample because they work really hard, have exceptional skills, and are lucky enough to be successful. They don’t want to be famous, they just want to make music. When you get to a certain level, support bands will play a lot of money to be on the lineup. There’s a lot of politics and money involved, and getting on that slot is a really big deal. But with Tool, they choose people they’re fans of, and they pay them well. It’s really rare, but that’s how it should be.
The thing is, the people who want to be rich and famous love being in the limelight, but the other people don’t want to be in the limelight, and it’s the second group you want to hang out with. I mention Graeme Revell—that was his personality type, and you knew he’d be the sort of guy to fuck people over. It becomes fragmented because you only need two or three of these people for others to move away, because they don’t want to deal with all this drama. I have a very strong bullshit detector, but it’s interesting how there are people in your life you’ll meet and you can quickly recognize, oh, they don’t really want to know me, they just want to access my Rolodex, my contact list. And that’s it, they move on. When people are deliberately trying to manipulate the situation, I have absolutely no time at all for that stuff.
I wanted to ask how you first got interested in dub music.
I can’t really tell you. I grew up in the early ’70s and reggae was always around. In post-war Britain, they were really lacking a lower-wage workforce. In the ’50s there was a big push by the politicians to bring immigrants in to fill in all these jobs people didn’t want to do, so they really encouraged people to migrate from Jamaica and Pakistan and India, so there was a big influx of migrants, and most of these were people of color. And of course there was backlash and Britain, like many other places, is racist. There was a big pushback on how this would ruin the country and so on. People would say Britain would change, and it did change. Britain, culturally, had some of the worst reputation for cuisine in the world and now had all this amazing food. They have some of the best curries in the world. And all the music! The music from Jamaica was infused with British music—you think about the influence of Jamaican musicians on white musicians around the world. I grew up with watered-down reggae on the charts.
In 1976 or 1977, when I was really getting into music—and that’s because I was working and could really buy records—punk and industrial was happening. All this great music was happening and I was in Liverpool and would buy all these imports from Jamaica, the original dub releases. Some of these were really low-pressing runs, which I wish I had known at the time because they’re worth a lot of money.
Aside from punk, industrial, and dub, Kraftwerk were really huge for me. They blew me away. Trans Europa Express, The Man Machine, Autobahn. Just like, how are they making these sounds? Hearing dub and Kraftwerk… it was not just the music but the space between the notes, they felt just as important. What they didn’t do felt as important as what they did. Kraftwerk and dub became a huge influence on me directly and indirectly because, after all that, it was the studio that was the actual instrument, and I’m speaking as someone who can’t play any instruments. I can’t read music or anything, so I just use the studio. I use tools and create things in other ways.
I wanted to ask you about your involvement in the video game Planescape: Torment. What happened with that?
Bear with me. It was a bad experience and when it was all over I was like, fuck that, and I erased a lot of it from my memory. I was called in originally and did around 80 or 90 minutes of music altogether. Politics was going on with their end, and people were getting replaced. The people I talked to were replaced by people from the company, and they wanted a totally different direction for the music. It all happened really quickly, like within a week or two. One moment I was close to finishing the whole thing, and then the next thing was that it wasn’t happening anymore. It was particularly unpleasant because I didn’t get paid. It was a nasty lesson, and I had to approach things a bit different from then on. I got fucked over, and I really could’ve done with the money at the time.
So what sort of things did you learn that you applied later on?
A better attorney is one thing (laughs). Some people get really annoyed by it and ask for money up front, and that’s the only way you can get it from some of these people. I don’t have managers and agents—I do a lot of it myself. But I have an attorney for games at the moment, and she’s really good, and with these things you need a good attorney. She used to be a senior at Disney, and her hourly rates are really high but she’s really quick and gets results, so it ends up being good. It’s fucking expensive dealing with attorneys but you need to do it or you’ll get fucked over otherwise. I’ve used a couple of attorneys now and just hearing their name alone changes the entire tone of the conversation. A lot of the time these companies have in-house attorneys and they’re used to winning, so when you come in with a heavy-duty attorney and they know their name, they don’t even bother with a lot of the negotiations.
I know you’ve done a lot of video game soundtracks, are you a big video game player?
Oh yeah, I’m a big PlayStation guy.
What sort of games have you been playing recently?
I’ve been playing Zombie Army, it’s one of those free ones this month. But I just finished the latest Assassin’s Creed—I love open-world games. I’m really fucking anal and nerdy too so I try to complete most everything.
Do you have any favorite video games that changed the way you think about art?
I have favorite video games but I don’t think of them in those terms. Mercenary on the Atari was really something. And I thought the last Metal Gear Solid game was really good as well. And The Last of Us, the first one. But the thing is, games as art… well yes, on principle they are, but the games industry for quite a while has done everything the same way as the film industry. It’s no longer an art anymore, it’s a business. Of course they can do really creative and artistic things, but it is a business. I’ve been working on a video game for the last year by the way, but I can’t tell you what it is because of an NDA. It’s an Xbox exclusive game and it’s a horror one, it’s pretty fucked up.
On this note, you did the soundtrack for First Reformed, what was it like interacting with Paul Shrader?
I was making fun of him, telling him that he stole his entire look from me, this middle-aged bald guy look (laughter). There’s a picture of the two of us. He’s about 15 years older than me, but he’s a character. The way he talks, the things he talks about. He posts things on Facebook and for fuck’s sake, it’s like, Paul you shouldn’t say those things publicly (laughter). He’s old school but he’s not quite in the 21st century when it comes to things you should and shouldn’t say.
Oh yeah, I’ve definitely seen some of the stuff he’s posted (laughter).
I became good friends with the producer of First Reformed, and when Paul posted something we’d both be like, “For fuck’s sake! Stop doing this!” (laughter). They flew me over to New York and I stayed there a few days and we watched the movie together. It’s interesting with Paul because he’d say “Marty said this, Bobby said that” and it’s like, oh, he’s talking about Scorsese and De Niro. I’m a big movie fan and being aware that people like Scorsese and Tarantino have checked out your movie and are saying some positive things about your work… there are some interesting people who have heard it, and while they’re never gonna call me, it feels good.
What was it like composing for the film? Were you given specific directions for what to do?
It was really easy for me because they’d already put some of my music in it [as a template], because that’s what they wanted, so when they asked me to work on it they asked me to just do what I do. And that’s the best thing because I can just get on with it. There were really minor directions on certain scenes but it was mostly, “We like what you do, keep doing it.” I didn’t have to redo anything [when I finished], it was remarkably easy and fun. And there was no bullshit. They sent me the script and asked me if I was interested and I was like, it’s Paul Schrader, I’m already interested (laughter). It’s definitely worth reading the script if nothing else because it’s Paul Schrader—at the very least it’d be interesting. I really like cinema, I’m a Tarkovsky fan, I like Sergio Leone. I have a large collection of movies, and I really like slow movies.
Yeah, same. It’s a really nice change of pace from the real world.
My wife—I was 25 when we met, and she’s 18. There were a few movies I’d seen that she wasn’t aware of, so I was introducing her to things like John Ford’s The Searchers, which has its problems, but it’s a really well-made movie. You watch that and the Kurosawa movies and see how John Ford influenced Kurosawa and going back and forth, it’s really interesting watching them in sequence.
I wanted to ask about your new album, ALTER. You’ve collaborated with a lot of people in the past, what was it like working with Karin Park?
Oh, it was great. It was the best collaboration, and I’m not just saying that because it’s the newest album. It was just really rewarding. We hit it off real well, and for both of us it was really beautiful and tense, and we both found in each other somebody that we really understood. It’s kind of hard to describe, and we’ve had conversations about this, but there was something missing and when we were working together, we both found it, like “oh, that’s what it was.”
Sometimes when people talk about collaborations, people enjoy when it’s so smooth and when everything flows naturally, whereas others may find it challenging and enjoy that process.
I love collaborating because I’ve worked by myself for so long. I’m sure people assume it’s my first choice to do that. More than actually making music, it’s throwing ideas back and forth I enjoy: having things rejected, having things improved, having things thrown at you that inspires you to do something else. I just love that whole process of creating. The problem for me is finding people on the same wavelength. There aren’t many people on the same wavelength, and a lot of them are already involved in other projects, or some of them live in other countries—there are a bunch of things that get in the way, so it rules out a bunch of stuff. So I love working with people and I love being in the same room working with people but it doesn’t often work out because so many people are so busy with their own projects and bands.
A problem I’ve had, and this might be my personality or reputation, but a lot of people I collaborate with are waiting for me to tell them what to do, or to decide what to do next, or to say “yay” or “nay.” What’s the point of collaborating if I’m the one making all the decisions? For me, the point is to have my ideas improved, or to have my bad ideas rejected. When you’re working by yourself, you don’t necessarily know the difference between a good idea and a bad idea. Karin is a bit like me in that she’s opinionated, and that’s a good thing. It was really nice to have somebody who would question me on stuff, and I think it’s really healthy. I love to create things and there’s nothing better than being inspired.
I’m happy you had that experience. And I would say that, yeah, people who are opinionated are the most fun to work with.
You can be opinionated, and I’m certainly opinionated, but it depends how you’re opinionated and how you behave.
Karin has her view of doing things but they’re really good opinions, and I really respect her. Even if I disagree, I’ll listen and she usually has a good point. Not always, but neither do I (laughter). You want somebody to push you a bit. We’re both very proud of the album—it’s the best thing I’ve done. A lot of people aren’t gonna like it, but that’s not the point—we did what we wanted to do, and we like it, and that’s what matters.
You said that a lot of people aren’t on your wavelength. What does it mean to be on your wavelength?
Well, fuck if I know (laughter). Some of the things are obvious, like the sort of sounds you use, the presentation. The kind of things I do, it’s kind of basic and simple and obvious—I manipulate some sounds and create a certain atmosphere. It’s not like a big science. It takes a while to get the hang of some of them, but the basics are very simple. For an atmospheric drone, it’s really obvious which ones are the good ones. A lot of people will just use the first thing that comes along but it’s obvious which ones really work. And a lot of people just don’t get it, or… I don’t know. I like to create worlds and take a listener somewhere and bring them back. Ironically, if I have to explain to somebody what it’s all about, it’s not going to work. And Karin was very much in tune. It was such a joy working with her because I’d have an idea for something and she’d want to do it a different way, and then do something, and it was exactly what something needed. I have this catalogue and I’m known for a certain kind of work, and people are gonna assume that certain parts of the album are gonna be me, but a lot of it is Karin.
That makes me think about your album with the Melvins, Pigs of the Roman Empire. People know what music they make, and people know the music you make. What was that collaboration like?
That was a lot of fun. We’re so different in terms of sound but we’re basically doing the same thing. And going back to what we were saying earlier with Tool, Adam [Jones] had got in touch with me and wanted to work with me, so we got together. He came around to my house and got on really well. So about a week later he asked if he could bring his friend with him, Buzz [Osbourne] from the Melvins. Apparently the Melvins have always wanted to work with me so he came around and said hi. Again, we just hung out. We talked about music a bit, like “have you heard the latest Autechre album?”, but a lot of it was about books and comics and toys and movies. That’s the thing: you connect on a human level, not just as musicians. So then Buzz suggested that we do an album together.
A lot of times people ask to collaborate with me and unfortunately a large percentage of the things I get asked to work on are… well, I can’t put it any other way than they’re just copying what I do. They want to do like a drone or dark ambient thing and it’s like… what’s the fucking point? Whereas when the Melvins come along it was like okay, that sounds like fun, that’s different. And it was a lot of fun! And why do this if it isn’t fun? With Melvins, they’ll be goofing around in the control room, like a big bunch of kids pulling a bunch of pranks, and then there will be a call to do a guitar part and they go in and do it and then goof around again. Everything’s done in one take. They can afford to goof around because they’re so good, and it’s fun to be around them.
Yeah, I’m sure. That’s better than a high-stress environment I’m sure.
Why even be there if you’re not enjoying yourself, you know?
Very early in the conversation you mentioned your parents and how you just wanted to fuck around. And that’s… hopefully what’s happening when you make music.
You held back a little bit. You were gonna say, “And that’s what you’re doing!” (laughter). And it is! On a basic level, it is what I’m doing. Over the years I’ve gotten quite good at it, and I can make a living out of it. I can’t make money on records, or at least I can’t, but you can with a game or movie thing. That helps pay for the rest of the stuff.
There’s a question I like asking artists, and I wanted to ask you it: can you share one thing you love about yourself?
Oh, my sense of humor. Amongst my friends I’m known for my sense of humor.
I love hearing that because based on your music, I think many people assume you’re a really serious person. But I guess that’s what you need to live in this world—the only way to survive is to recognize how absurd it all is.
I was going to say that you have to have a sense of humor, but you don’t have to. I mean, irony is a big part of my sense of humor. There’s a lot of ugliness in life and in this world, a lot of which we as a species are responsible for, and it’s depressing. It’s not like you can make a joke about anything, but it’s important to have a sense of humor about all kinds of things. There are certain subjects that are bad and negative, like I’m not saying racist jokes, but there’s humor in so much.
Two things in life are really important: 1) to be fucking angry, and 2) to have a sense of humor. There’s a lot to be angry about, and when you’re angry, at least you’re alive. There’s blood going through your veins. It’s important to have a sense of humor because otherwise your life is pretty fucking miserable.
Is there anything in particular you’re really angry about right now?
Oh Jesus, don’t get me started (laughter). It’s good to be angry, and it’s a hell of a lot better than being complacent. I was talking about equality early on, and something I always avoided is referring to somebody as stupid. I hate people making fun of anybody if they don’t know anything. There’s no such thing as a stupid question because that’s how we learn. Referring to somebody as stupid implies that you’re superior to them… but as you go through life it’s like, fucking hell, there are so many people who are fucking stupid. How else can you explain it? I have no problem referring to Trump as stupid. Brexit. I could go off on this for hours. You’re a teacher so you understand this, but someone can lack education and be uninformed, but you can inform them. That works. We need more of that, especially here in America. But there’s also stupidity, there are people who don’t want to learn. It makes me fucking angry. A lot of things make me fucking angry but I’ll stop there (laughter).
Is there anything that you wanted to say that we didn’t talk about?
Thanks, this was a really fun conversation.
I always appreciate when somebody’s interested. And the fact you’re a teacher, you had my respect from the get-go. People interview musicians and athletes and celebrities, they get all the attention. But teachers and nurses… there are a whole bunch of people who make an actual difference, and I’m not just saying this because you’re a teacher—this is a conversation I have quite often—but I find it really interesting to be living in a culture that looks up to celebrities. Whereas if you, as a teacher, go through your career and affect one kid… making a difference in one person’s life is a hell of a thing.
Lustmord & Karin Park’s ALTER can be purchased at Bandcamp.
Thank you for reading the eightieth issue of Tone Glow. Get fucking angry.
If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi or becoming a Patreon patron. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.