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The numerology of the beast [2010-06-11]

In the four years that have passed since Musique Machine last interviewed Andrew Liles, he has arguably become one of the UK’s leading explorers in experimental electronic music and is certainly among the most prolific. Inspired by popular science as much as the arts, his wayward imagination and technical flair guide his listeners through a highly-personalised sideshow of obscure and exotic sonic delights that are unconstrained by any school or set of styles yet somehow remain uniquely identifiable despite the diversity of his many, many releases. This has lead to him becoming collaborator of choice for many other pioneering musicians choosing the left hand paths of perception including both Current 93 and Nurse With Wound, where Andrew has been a consistent component of their recent live and recorded work. We caught up with him just following Current 93’s 25th birthday, celebrated by the release of their new album, ‘Baalstorm, Sing Omega‘ (which Liles recorded, co-mixed and contributed guitar, bass and electronics) and just before the release of the first LP in his new solo, conceptual series ‘Monster’.

m[m]: Since your last interview with Musique Machine in 2006, you have released over 13 solo albums and possibly even more in the way of collaborative releases not to mention working on all of Nurse With Wound’s and most of Current 93’s albums and live shows since then. How do you find the time to accommodate all these activities?

AL: Is it that many? I didn’t realise. I have an obsessive compulsive nature and probably am a workaholic of sorts, but I don’t consider it work in any shape or form as I love what I do. Some records can take months if not years to complete, others sometimes are a lot quicker to do. Basically I work between 10 and 14 hours practically every day. I have breakfast and start creating.
I always have thousands of ideas, some that I work on for a given project that may come to fruition several years later so I am constantly working on six or seven ideas for different albums, singles or whatever comes into my mind. It’s a very schizophrenic way of working, sometimes I sit down and make a conceptual piece over a couple of months, other times I have a collection of folders that correlate with different projects I’m working on. I may do two or three tracks for a given project that may be completed in a couple of years’ time.  There is always something I am working on… usually a whim.

m[m]  ‘Monster’ is your new theme that spans your latest release (Monster Munch EP) and will continue onto two further albums and one mini LP, along with a book and an unusual amount of merchandise (obscene T-Shirts, wristbands, badges). What’s the background to this new multi-media project?

AL It’s in my nature to prefer collections rather than singular pieces. For instance I’ve always liked the idea of Volumes 1, 2, 3 etc which again appeals to my obsessive compulsive nature, but with the Monster idea I have been listening to a lot of The Cramps, I love horror movies and I wanted to make something extreme,  gaudy and schlock horror.  I thought this could be expanded to different types of media so eventually when I have completed the ideas, if I complete the ideas as it may run forever, it will be a huge body of work that interrelates and cross references both musically and visually to each release.
It also is great to have a project that incorporates everything I love creating… music, art and I have even written a long poem to be included in a book for the series.
Lately I have also been reading about world wide traditions relating to monsters, African cultures, Aboriginal cultures and cultures outside the west. I specifically wanted to make music around ideas of “exotic” myths and legends and creatures. What I didn’t want to do is create something clichéd like Little Red Riding Hood or anything twee.

m[m]When will the next instalments become available?

AL ‘The Miraculous Mechanical Monster’ will be released in early July followed by a 12” mini LP in August /September, then another LP in December or early 2011. Miraculous Mechanical Monster is the first LP in the Monster series. It is very very fucked up, it’s a story that I have written about a guy who falls in love with a 'sex android', and it all goes wrong. There is a lot of narrative in it and a lot of swearing. All of the text is written on the back of the LP so you can follow the story. I really don't know what people are going to make of it. It is kind of sci-fi meets hard core pornography with a dollop of mental illness and a tiny bit of Phillip Glass.

m[m] Your previous series, the Vortex Vault, comprised twelve albums released once a month between 2006 and 2007. How much of the music on these releases was conceived for the series and how much was unreleased tracks needing a home?

AL Probably 70% was made for it, the other 30% was reworked to fit in both musically and aesthetically to the series so in reality the whole of the Vortex Vault was in many respects entirely new material.

m[m] I was fascinated to hear that you start a new piece by ‘conceptualising’ and ‘storyboarding’ a new piece of work, literally writing down a plan of attack before creating and combining any sounds. Is this still always the case? Have you ever started a track without a blueprint? And would you ever consider publishing these storyboards (either to accompany the corresponding release or as a tome in itself)?

AL I’d say 80% of my music is pre-planned, some extensively, some with just a word that I’ve read or a phrase or a story that I’ve read, whether that be pop science or in the newspaper or a joke. More complex material is written down, sometimes with a chart or just a series of words. To say the song is entirely structured from a storyboard is not strictly true because the ideas expand and elaborate and different instrumentation is used, so 50% of a song is adapted around the initial ideas and bears no semblance to the original concept.
I’ve started many songs without a blueprint but then I’ll read a word or a phrase and add that to the song. Which is a way of doing it backwards, the song written for the word or a title that came later.
As for showing people my storyboards, they would make no sense and would have no artistic or aesthetic value to anyone. Sometimes they are a bunch of post it notes with words written on them, sometimes they are large pieces of paper with diagrams drawn on them and without exception they wind up in the bin after the track has been made so they don’t exist even if I wanted to publish them.

m[m] You’ve politely declined invitations to reveal where specific ideas behind some of your solo work come from and suggested that any attempts to unravel their meanings would prove futile mainly due to an abundance of personal references within - do you think this deliberately unsolvable conundrum is part of the appeal, or just a by-product of your working methods? Do you enjoy a degree of the arcane in other’s work?

AL I like the idea of people investigating what some of the words and phrases mean in my work, and with the internet it’s not that difficult to find out anymore. For instance my recent 7” ‘Monster Munch’ has a series of numbers for track titles on side B, all these numbers, if you look them up on the internet, may reveal that they are the dates of the deaths of several rock stars. It strikes me most people don’t really investigate my song titles although they have specific personal or wider meanings.  But I guess this is a problem with primarily instrumental music, that it does not give up a distinct and obvious narrative.
Many times the track titles relate to events and occurrences in my life, dreams that I have dreamt, in jokes with friends, so in a way the titles represent a kind of personal diary that remind me of things that have happened to me.
There are other things I incorporate as well, like length of songs, for instance all the Current 93 remixes are 39:39 in length, 93:93 backwards of course. The new ‘Haunted Waves’ LP is two sides 25 minutes in length, both representing 25 years of Current 93 and both tracks added together make 50 - David’s age. So there is a lot of thought that goes into most all releases that people do not notice. I did allude to this on the sleeve notes of ‘New York Doll’ - by writing ‘This recording is numerologically accurate’, but nobody has ever asked me why. But the devil is in the detail…I like that kind of anal retentiveness and ‘completeness’ to all the releases I work on.
I love the arcane in other peoples’ work, after all I work with Current 93 and Nurse with Wound, they don’t come much more arcane than them!

m[m] Is the ‘numerologically accurate’ aspect to ‘New York Doll’ something to do with the track lengths mirroring the local time when the field recordings from the various locations were originally captured?

AL Not in the least. I think it was more to do with¬¬¬¬ numbers that related to me. Dates of birth etc….but the exact reason is lost to me now. But I know it was important to me at the time and it was imperative that the album came out when it did. Nonsensical to me now though.¬¬¬

m[m] Research into the psychological processes involved when listening to music has, sadly but predictably, tended to focus on the effects of western classical music and more recently pop, but nothing as far as I’m aware that focuses on what happens when exposed to the more experimental side of sound. As much of your work disregards tonal music in favour of a more musique concrète approach (or contrasts the two) what do you think (or hope) happens in the mind of your listeners when experiencing this? And what, then, do you feel is the ideal listening environment for your work?

AL I’d like people to be entertained by my music, as regards its metaphysical and psychological effect on people, I’d be interested to hear what people would say.  It is, of course, entirely open to personal interpretation, there are no right or wrong answers. There is no deliberate attempt to tap into the psyche of people, only in as far as to entertain them and enhance their day to day lives. I would be a liar to both myself and my listeners if I were to claim that my music has a profound physiological and psychological dimension.  It is fundamentally entertainment, which of course in itself has a psychological effect.
I think a lot of musicians in the ‘underground’ music world pitch their releases as something they are not, for instance with occult references and pseudo science.  It is generally a thinly veiled marketing ploy. So to make a serious academic study of the effects of ‘experimental’ music on the body and mind would entail wading through a mountain of horseshit.
I create music with no market in mind, only myself, I sit down and create some music that is disorientating or has a curious dizzying effect on me, sometimes I create music to relax to, sometimes I create music as background music, sometimes I create what I would call rock music, sometimes I try and get the bass levels to the absolute maximum and sometimes I try to get the treble to feel like broken glass but essentially it’s music made for me.
The ideal listening environment is entirely up to the listener but I would say very late at night in a very dark room with headphones on. You can hear more in the music when all the other senses are dulled and you can have the volume as loud as you like with headphones.

m[m] As you’ve been recording music for over two decades, are there any particular developments in computer technology over this time that have significantly modified the way you work?

AL Computers have revolutionised making music, but I have used the same programme for editing for 12 years! I am pretty low-fi when it comes to recording technology. Half the things I can do now would have been impossible when I first started recording. It works for me to use both old methods of recording as well as digital technology. There are many things that I can do in the studio that I wouldn’t know how to do or wouldn’t be any way near as good if I didn’t have the knowledge that I learnt many years ago on analog equipment.

m[m] How do you approach remix work? Is it largely computer-based or are other tools involved? Particularly, you’ve remixed an extensive amount of early Current 93 that’s just been consolidated into the huge box set, Like Swallowing Eclipses – did you work from the original multi track tapes or are they remixes of the finished work?

AL Remixes, It depends what I am remixing. Sometimes it is a subtle enhancement, sometimes it is re-recording huge tracts to the way I think they should sound or be played, other times it is stripping back everything. It really depends on what I am remixing.
The Current 93 remixes are constructed from an amalgamation of both multi tracks and finished work. Some of the masters to the early albums do not exist anymore. So in part it was finding isolated parts from the final album mix and adapting them to sound like they were taken from the masters. The Current mixes were a very engaged process, adaptations of the final original mixes and adding a great deal of new material both digitally on the computer and recording fresh parts.  David supplied me with some of the original music he had used on the albums, some of the Gregorian chant etc and I added a lot of subliminal voices, new musical pieces recorded by myself and Tibetan chant. It was a massive undertaking that I enjoyed immensely. Remixes to me are like solving a huge mathematical equation or putting together a jigsaw. It appeals to a part of me that desires fervent and precise organisation 

m[m] You’ve hinted on your website that you’ve been doing loads of new remixes – can you tell us a little more about any of these?

AL Well the first one to come out, and the one I am most excited about should be by Voice of the Seven Thunders. I heard their album and begged to remix it. I think the album is so great. Really the kind of thing I listen to - kinda psych rock, fantastic. So I have had great fun messing with this one. It’s all very exciting because it is a bit out of my usual field, which is exactly what I wanted to do, something very different, something that people won‘t expect.  The remix is something that I am very proud to have done, I am very very pleased with the final result.  Rick Tomlinson (of VOTST) also recently joined NWW on stage playing trumpet at our London show, so it was great to have him join our world and me join his, a great cross fertilisation.  I would like to get involved with more diverse acts and make unpredictable remixes for unlikely artists who exist outside of the world that I am often pigeonholed into.

m[m] Like who?

AL Lady GaGa would be fun, but maybe a little improbable….

m[m] All of your work is characterised by extremely vivid sounds that can come into an exceptionally sharp focus, be it melodious, discordant or ambient. Is this partly a symptom of the mastering skills that you’ve acquired over the years that others (including Bill Fay and Pantaleimon) are now employing?

AL The production and the mastering that I’ve done are skills that I’ve learnt since I began making music and are basically a result of, in my opinion, listening skills rather than technical skills. I assume there is a certain amount of technical knowledge required but my methodology is very simple - listen, EQ and be careful with the compression. I’ve learnt a lot of skills from Colin Potter and Steven Stapleton when it comes to studio technique and technology.

m[m] You do all your own artwork for your releases – what media and methods do you use and would you like to develop this side of things independently of your music releases?

AL I don’t do all of my artwork, I have done about 90% of it. I use Photoshop and my vast collection of images that I find here there and everywhere. I wouldn’t call myself an artist, more of a “sampler” of images. I would like to develop this further and am doing in a book that I currently have in production which again will be part of the Monster series.  I would like to develop this in conjunction with my music and other ideas and productions that may or may not happen.

m[m] You’ve been playing as part of Nurse With Wound now for over five years and have co-written the last four or so albums. Why do you think Steven Stapleton chose your good self (as well as Matt Waldron and Colin Potter) to help sail his ship?

AL Myself and Steve are very good friends, we have similar world views and come from similar backgrounds.  We also have the same sense of humour. Steve, similar to David Tibet, invites people to work with him more on a personal and friendship level rather than musical capability. Myself, Steve, Colin and Matt have a very good sense of space and intuitively work together really well live. We have a similar musical aesthetic within Nurse With Wound and understand the music that we want to make. I have been a lifelong fan of NWW and understand the parameters and overall sound of Nurse, so in many respects it makes good sense for me to work with Steve.

m[m] You’ve also become increasingly involved with Current 93, appearing on every release over the past three years or so. How different is the experience compared to your role with Nurse With Wound?

AL Working with Current 93 is surprisingly similar to working with NWW as myself and David are very good friends. David has a very specific idea of how he wants a record to sound and when we set about making a record we usually reference something visual or something that relates to a film or just a feeling.  The parameters of working with Current 93 are a lot more controlled than working with NWW but as with NWW there are no hard and fast rules, anything is possible.
Both being non-musicians in the classical sense myself and David communicate on a level that is completely unmusical but we know entirely what the other person is trying to convey.  For instance with the new album Baalstorm, we wanted to create an air of eastern mysticism for certain parts and instantly knew how to achieve this.

m[m] Since you’ve been involved with Current 93 there’s been a distinct hint of heavy metal on some recent works (particularly on Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain). Was this in any way your influence, being a young metal fan yourself in the eighties?

AL David specifically wanted to create a heavy rock record with Aleph. It wasn’t my idea to create a heavy record but I was more than happy to be involved. Both David and I have a huge love and affection for heavy rock, especially Judas Priest.

As a footnote to the rock question I would like to add that I personally do not view heavy rock or metal in a post modern ironic way. I think it is so often marginalised as pathetic or discredited as juvenile. I view metal and rock as a powerful and emotive working class form of escapism, a lot more culturally significant than it is given credit. It irritates me that so many people immediately associate rock with hair metal and ac/dc t-shirts.  It is head and shoulders above the clichés and tongue in cheek derision given to it by writers at The Guardian.

m[m] Indeed, you named a track from the ‘Black Panther’ volume of the Vortex Vault ’Bon Jovi Systematically Destroyed The Values of Heavy Rock’, and it’s easy to see why. But do you hold anyone else responsible, maybe Spinal Tap (or at least the incredibly widespread popularity of the film that extended far further than those with an interest in heavy rock)? Or maybe the likes of papped celebrities such as David Beckham or Miley Cyrus wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts more recently?

AL I guess there has always been bands that have chipped away at the monolith of real rock. Def Leppard, Europe, Stryper, Van Halen, Guns and Roses…. they should all be held accountable…. and none more so than Aerosmith, a fucking despicable stomach churning sack of shit, I hate them almost as much as I do Bon Jovi. As soon as highlights and perms came in to rock it was the beginning of the end. Look what happened to Whitesnake who started out as a really great blues rock band, what the fuck went wrong…. AOR and MOR, a watered down radio friendly approach to worship at the altar of the Yankee dollar. Also the likes of Stevie Vai and Yngwie Malestrom had a hand in the decimation of rock, virtuosity over good song writing.
As regards to Spinal Tap, it is one of my favourite movies. I am not saying rock and metal are not ridiculous and clichéd, they are of course. I guess what I am trying to say is that rock is much more culturally significant than it is given credit for. It can also be very sophisticated. When you look at the lyrics of say Phil Mogg from UFO they can be very clever, and Bon Scott was an amazing lyricist and extremely funny: “It was one of those nights, when you turn out the lights and everything comes into view”, from a ‘Touch too Much‘ never ceases to make me laugh.
I have met many ‘experimental’ artists who have a huge knowledge and appreciation of rock. I guess it is in some ways an introduction to music for many teenage kids, it was for me. I wouldn’t be making music today if I had not seen Judas Priest when I was 12. I guess metal is viewed by the teenage mind as a bit outsider, a bit edgy, a bit antisocial or aggressive, something that you need when you are a kid, maybe it gives you an identity of sorts in the playground. All the sporty and trendy kids, well they can keep their pop music, I’m an outsider, a bit Columbine, a freak, you know - a bit occult, guns and bombs - don’t fuck with me. So in many ways it’s a great introduction and gateway to discover more ‘extreme‘, obscure and ‘out there’ art.
As regards to David Beckham…well he is an icon for the modern age. People just want to be him - rich, attractive, vacuous, shallow and FUCKING STUPID. People aspire to that, yeah he is undoubtedly very talented at kicking a ball, maybe a genius at ball control, what the fuck do I know I have no interest in sport at all. But when these people become talking heads about politics, culture or social issues we are all fucking doomed. I have no problem with David Beckham, Leona Lewis, or all the other Pop Idol, X-Factor made up superstars… just the masses of fucking morons who have an interest in their every fashion move… cunts. I remember when David Beckham wore that sarong, how many fucking idiots did you see copying him, utterly fucking remarkable yet impressive, one man can get many thousands of men to wear a dress and look utter fucking dicks…remarkable.

m[m] You seem to be picking up the guitar more often these days, particularly in Nurse With Wound’s recent live sets and rocking out on parts of your collaboration with Diana Rogerson (No Birds Do Sing) – is this something you’d like to develop further? Are your heavy metal influences coming further to the fore?

AL I try to play the guitar every other day and am beginning to learn it properly after decades of just messing around. I really enjoy playing the guitar but don’t feel the necessity to incorporate it into my recordings, but saying that, I am working on a heavy metal record in my Monster series.

m[m] You’ve also been working recently with Maniac of Skitliv (and formerly of black metallers, Mayhem) on a couple of projects (Sehnsucht and Maniac/Liles/Czral) are there further plans in this vein?

AL Nothing at the moment although Attila and Maniac appear on the forthcoming Monster album mentioned above.

m[m] You have recently released a track on wax cylinder and have previously released a business card CD and a ringtone, as well as never neglecting vinyl releases. Do you enjoy experimenting with formats? Are there any other formats you’d like to explore?

AL I think I’ve done pretty much every format. I would never ever ever do a cassette release but would consider a symphonium star wheel!

m[m] Cassettes seem to be rising in popularity of late (maybe because they’re not so easy to rip to a computer), what don’t you like about them?

AL Yeah I have seen a rise in popularity, I have even been asked to release one. My problem is they sound like utter shit, look terrible and there is no real space for art. Ugly stupid things…that you have to rewind. I have always hated them. They were the free MP3 download culture of yesteryear: “O’ the album isn’t that good but I will tape it for you…”
I really don’t think it would prevent the work being downloaded either. All my vinyl only releases have been transferred to digital files and put up for free download by a bunch of utter cunts out there.  

m[m] Jnana Records has set up a download site for some of your releases. How do you feel about digital formats?

AL I have just got my first I-pod and had great fun filling it up. I think digital formats are great in their portability but know that the vast majority of my listeners have never bought a record by me and have illegally downloaded all of my material. I’d rather two people bought a disc from me than 20,000 download it for free. Without sounding too Lars Ulrich I think to share files and give away free music is a real lack of appreciation of the music people create. To get something for free is often to take it for granted, it shows no devotion or investment in ideas or art. MP3s usually are a collection of meaningless, formless and uncontextualised data rather than any kind of appreciation or belief in music or art.
Digital, it’s not a format I care for much because I am a record collector, I like the physical product, gatefold sleeves, coloured vinyl etc. I need a tangible object rather than just the music alone. I think my cover designs and text are almost half the concept behind the release.  To have just the music is to have only half of my ‘message’, half of my art.  Some of my favourite records are for the cover alone, I really think people are missing out with just a download

m[m] You’ve expressed a fascination for scientific innovations and eccentricities of the 19th century, is there much in contemporary life that tickles you in a similar way?

AL Erotic shops fascinate me. I always go in them when I am on tour, they seem a lot more prevalent in Europe. They really make me laugh. Some of the contraptions are shockingly amusing and sometimes disturbed, sometimes elegant. Regardless of their purpose some of the vibrators are amazing in their design and construction. I am especially fascinated by some of the licensed and officially sanctioned synthetic porn star rubber vaginas you can buy, they are a cross between cheap and nasty and very sophisticated. The length that people go to just to have sex with themselves is hilarious. It is a never ending source of amusement that appeals to my inner teenager.

m[m] What’s made you laugh recently?

AL The ‘Travel Pussy‘ that Steven Stapleton bought for me from a vending machine in Germany. Really very funny indeed. 

Many thanks go to Andrew for all the time and effort he put into answering our many questions and supplying all the images.

Just out from Andrew Liles and available from

- Like Swallowing Eclipses - the complete Current 93 remixes - 6 LP box set
- I'm a Monster! - glow in the dark wristband

coming soon from Andrew Liles:

- Miraculous Mechanical Monster - LP
- The Muldjewangk - mini LP
- The Flesh Creeping Gonzoid and Other Imaginary Creatures - Volume 1 & 2 - double CD
- The Flesh Creeping Gonzoid and Other Imaginary Creatures - Volume 3 & 4 - double CD
- Aviatophobia - Sound of Break Up - Sound of Impact - LP
- Dreamy Gorgeous Monster - book & CD
- Assorted T-shirts in his Monster series

Russell Cuzner
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