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Transience and its Resonance: an interview with Luke Younger of Helm [2016-01-03]

Last June, following on from 2014's much acclaimed The Hollow Organ EP, PAN records unleashed Helm's Olympic Mess. The record's heady blend of industrial derived loops and textures coupled with an uncommonly light touch has garnered much praise in the music press and earned Helm a place on the Wire's top 50 records list for the second year running. Here Helm's doom punk auteur Luke Younger catches up with Musique Machine to talk recording processes and his take on the state of the avant-garde.

(MM) Earlier in the spring you got a last minute call to support Godspeed You Black Emperor in London. How did it go and did you get any interesting reactions?

(LY) The lead up to the gig was quite surreal. I was out in town when I got the e-mail a few hours before the doors opened and I only had all of my equipment in my hands 5 minutes before I was due onstage…despite all of that the set went well and I enjoyed it - I like playing big concerts, it feels quite perverse to be up there playing this kind of music. I was struck by how polite the crowd were as well, even during the quieter parts of the set there wasn’t a huge amount of talking or noise audible from the crowd.

(MM) One of things that struck me about Olympic Mess that seemed to depart from your previous releases is the dynamics you've created between the different layers and rhythmic elements. It seems to me that you've made a conscious effort to allow everything to breathe a lot more rather than create what could be considered more traditional "dark" experimental atmospheres with everything emerging from deep reverbs and distortion. I'm particularly thinking of the use of brighter more upbeat synth textures on many of the tracks and the Balearic disco influence you've mentioned. Was this something that emerged naturally during the recording process? You also mentioned that the record came together doing a period of touring and personal change. Do you think this also contributed to the record's more open feel?

(LY) When I create an album the process is always an organic one. If I’m working on something and I get even the slightest hint of it not feeling natural then it normally gets abandoned fairly quickly. There’s definitely an “airier” feel to the record though I would agree, though I couldn’t really pinpoint exactly why that is…some of your observations could be correct if you were to rummage around the depths of my subconscious.

(MM) You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that you like working with looped sounds and building up rhythms from unconventional sources. You’ve also used a fair amount of environmental/field recordings in your work. Are you much of a sound “magpie” in the sense of collecting sounds you come across in everyday life or turning on a recorder if you’re in an interesting place?

(LY) Not really. I’ve never been into field recording as I have little interest in it. I like making my own recordings of things / events that I can orchestrate or control, then I might use that recording multiple times over different tracks or I might record something else. There’s no set method / process really and I’ve never tried to define it either.

(MM) I hesitate to use the word "scene" but there does appear at the moment to be a significant network of people working within avant-garde electronic music based around labels like PAN, Blackest Ever Black, Hospital Productions, your own label Alter not to mention numerous smaller imprints and acts that circulate around the bigger names. All of these labels tend to put out a diverse range of music and seem committed to challenging their listeners. Is this the sort of aesthetic you look for with your label, and how far do you see what you're doing as part of a wider network?

(LY) There isn’t really a set agenda with ALTER and as time goes on I feel less inclined to make efforts in really “defining” it in aesthetic terms - this year I have released an extremely abstract synth record (Deas), borderline unclassifiable collage work (Acolytes), an industrial metal record (Uniform) and an indie rock record (Chain Of Flowers). I prefer the idea of bringing a group of disparate things under one umbrella and having the audience read between the lines themselves, rather than paint everything the same colour, give it a name and shove it in their faces if you know what I mean? Labels like PAN and BEB seem to operate in a similar way and I’m into that. Call me cynical but these days it seems that everyone is obsessed with binding everything together with the same aesthetic glue for the sake of profit - shops sell records off the back of other artists’ associations, no matter how tenuous, festivals book the same artists that get grouped together and then tour the European festival circuit like some kind of experimental electronic lollapalooza…it’s like a formula has been developed for the underground music world to make things as easy as possible for the sake of consumption and I find it a bit boring. I like playing gigs with my friends and artists I find interesting, weather they make noise, techno, computer music, hardcore. If you can’t band it up altogether and give it a fancy name then all the better as far as I’m concerned - this isn’t quick and easy click and go entertainment as far as I’m concerned.

(MM) I've got to ask you what is the story behind the track Strawberry Chapstick? It's so different to everything else on the record?

(LY) It can be seen as a moment of respite and disruption - put there to remove you from the “zone” for a moment.

(MM) In my review I made reference to the London Olympics in 2012 as a kind of paradigm for staged transcendence and I personally can remember that summer in the city and the big sense of come down afterwards. You've mentioned that there's a theme of transcendence and euphoria running through the record but I wondered also if there's a kind of double-sided aspect to that which Olympic Mess captures; the come-down, the morning after, the need to move on and begin again?

(LY) If anything it’s more about an idea of achieving eternal transience and movement, being one step ahead of that come-down you describe…it’s like a running tap.

(MM) With that in mind I wonder if there’s something consonant in that with what you said about avoiding any heavily defined aesthetic for your label? I mean the idea of a refusal of identification, of always keeping options open? Do you find that playing live is helpful to achieve this to some extent, may be to open up the sound or test out new ideas?

(LY) I like Carcass and I like Underground Resistance, I like Chicken and I like Tempeh, plus the numbers 13, 77, 150 and 500. I have many interests and differing tastes which in my mind don’t have to be mutually exclusive from one another. I also like having a clear and open road ahead of me with many places to explore and come back from whenever I choose.

(MM) Sticking with the broader context. Europe and I suppose the world more generally has been lurching from crisis to crisis in the last few years. There doesn't however seem to be the same response from music as there was during other periods of crisis. When you think of the Vietnam war or the cultural revolution in the 60s, or the industrial struggles and wars of the 1970s and 80s you can imagine a soundtrack that goes with it. For us this doesn't seem to be the case. If anything the response has been generally introspective and nostalgic. This isn't to say there aren't great records being released but there's little of the anger of punk or the disgust and strangeness of Industrial Records. Certainly nothing that goes beyond its own borders the way those scenes did. You've said before that you prefer to avoid the academic analysis of music, but I wonder whether this situation is something to do with the technology, the mode of consumption, a paucity of ideas, or maybe there just being too much music available?

(LY) I would say this is a difficult thing to really say for certain. I do think that the growth of technology and the fact that we have so much information available to us at any given moment has mutated the way that art and music respond to and exist within the world. Escapism is now a bigger pastime than it ever has been: the internet, smart phones, iPads, TV on demand, Apple App Store, iTunes, Instagram, Facebook, etc…everyone now completely has the option to create their own reality for themselves and detach from the horrors of the real world completely. No matter what happens in Russia, China, or Palestine, everything will be ok because I can Instagram this fucking amazing dog I saw on the street and easily get over 100 likes for it…I may be over sensationalising here, but I think it’s a fair point and myself and most of the people I know have been completely guilty of it at points too. 30 years ago this wasn’t an issue, all you had was Zippy & Bungle, Betty’s Hotpot and Michael Barrymoore giving an old lady a cheeky wink whilst you sat cross legged on your front room floor, trying not to shit yourself about nuclear war.

Ultimately I think all of this depends on how you’re tuned into reality and your own perception of things. I’d say that changes happening in different environments on a larger scale do result in responses within more localised scenes and niche communities that are harder to identify when you’re not directly involved in them and just looking at the bigger picture…definitely the current punk scene in London has created its own outlet for activity with the DIY Space For London being funded and built by active members of that community down in Bermondsey, at a time where space for independent organisations in the city are at their most threatened. It may not appear to be as “revolutionary” as the things you mentioned but I’d say it’s certainly significant.

(MM) There's a lot of diversity in underground music at the moment in terms of how people want to present and market their recordings. On the one hand you've got well established acts like Nurse With Wound releasing art only editions of records in tiny runs at £100 a pop and not even putting out a digital version; and then you have many other labels that like to mix formats and maintain availability and affordability, while again others stick to little cassette runs. Personally I still love to buy CDs and appreciate labels that put them out alongside their vinyl. You've worked in the industry both as an artist, label head and at Cargo records, have you any idea where all this might be leading, or perhaps is this period of diversification is set to stay?

(LY) I have no idea. If I knew exactly what was in store for the industry I would develop a formula by typing up all the information and exporting it into a PDF document which I would then transfer onto a USB stick and auction for potentially millions of pounds. With my new fortune I would retreat to my own private area of the world where I’d be able to make music and host dinner parties for my friends for the rest of eternity. I do agree that CDs are great though.

(MM) You've played in Germany over the last year and at festival dates in the US during the summer; do you have any plans for a UK tour?

(LY) UK gigs are quite difficult to come by for some reason, but I am playing at the South London Gallery this month (December) in a special performance with two contemporary dancers and then a few dates next February with Drew McDowall.

Helm plays Cafe Oto with Drew McDowall on February 3rd.

Duncan Simpson
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