Interview: Land Observations

Dorian Lynskey

By Dorian Lynskey

on 11.08.12 in Interviews

Roman Roads IV-XI

Land Observations

[2012 has been a brilliant year for independent label Mute. As well as acclaimed releases from Liars, Can, Cold Specks, and Beth Jeans Houghton, label boss Daniel Miller was recently awarded the Association of Independent Music's statuette for Pioneer, recognition for the toweringly influential catalog he has built up over almost 35 years. As home to artists as diverse as Depeche Mode, Erasure and Laibach, Mute has always felt like a true label of love, celebrating the most exciting, forward-thinking music around. We invited Daniel Miller to sit in the editor's chair at eMusic for a site takeover all this week. We interviewed two of his favorite new artists of 2012: Diamond Version and Land Observations (below). See Miller's favorite albums on eMusic here; and read our exclusive interview with Miller here. – Ed.]

There aren’t many labels that would be happy for a successful signing to take a nine-year sabbatical. But Mute is one of them. In 2003, the Devon-born guitarist James Brooks dissolved his acclaimed post-rock trio Appliance in order to go to art school. Since earning an MA in Fine Art, he’s exhibited his work in galleries around the world. But now he’s making music again, under the name Land Observations – and his album is one of Mute founder Daniel Miller’s favorites of 2012.

Roman Roads IV-XI (parts I-III appeared on an EP last year) is a series of pieces inspired by ancient London highways, performed using a guitar and loop pedals in a style Brooks calls “pastoral motorik.” It’s a beautiful, meditative record which, appropriately, suggests forward motion but no hurry.

Dorian Lynskey spoke with Brooks about art, music and finding inspiration in unlikely places.

When Appliance ended, had the appeal of being in an indie-rock band worn off?

I hit saturation point when we were doing a lot of tours and away for weeks on end. You ask yourself some big questions like, “Do I actually want this?” And I think we all decided we’d done what we wanted to do, so we needed to just stop for a bit. But I missed music and I enjoy being back, and getting the chance to play bespoke festivals where people are doing interesting stuff. As you get older the prospect of being mid-bill at Reading Festival seems… awful!

Why did you take so long to start releasing records again?

I think I’ve been searching for a framework for a while. I’ve recorded lots of musical things at home and it was very elegant, but it needed a backbone to it to make sense. Perhaps having the rigor of art school brought something out in me. I didn’t want to be putting an arbitrary bunch of tracks together. I wanted something more. But I have been doing sound pieces.

What sort of sound pieces?

I recently did a piece with the Hancock’s Half Hour radio show where I edited out all the narrative content leaving just the laughter so you had this slightly demonic, haunting sound. I find that quite interesting, taking information away – the idea of loss. I find audio an interesting art medium as well as a musical medium.

What sparked your interest in Roman roads?

I live near the Kingsland Road [in East London], and I suddenly realized there was this autobahn at my doorstep. I was reading lots of Iain Sinclair and books about psycho-geography and it all came together. Kingsland Road is full of kebab shops and has a Tesco and all these modern trappings, but if you allow yourself two minutes to think about it, you realize there’s this amazing history locked in the space. So then I started making road drawings. I was making the drawings in my art studio and then coming home and recording music on the computer. I wanted to ask the question: Can music conjure up a lost highway?

Was it important to restrict yourself to electric guitar and pedals?

I loved the limitation. The guitar is a beautiful instrument but it’s also a dangerous instrument. We all know the clichés and traps. I think of the guitar as a sonic tool rather than playing it in a virtuoso rock way. I play guitar like it’s a drum kit, really: all flicks and clicks.

I like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine and I’m a big fan of Neu!. Those post-war German bands always feel so fresh and exciting to me. When they were around, Germany was having to reform and this new generation was rewriting the rulebook. But this album is not a Neu! wannabe record. It’s harnessing all these bands that I love but it starts from London.

People who move between music and visual art are often seen as dilettantes. Does that bother you?

I was making a lot of artwork when I was in Appliance but I’d be mentioning it under my breath. Look at someone like Brian Eno: People give his visual art a hard time. I don’t know if the world’s changed or if I’ve got my project pointing in the right direction, but it now seems possible.

What music do you listen to when you’re making art?

It’s usually instrumental. I find the human voice far too distracting. I tend to listen to things like Chopin’s Nocturnes or Brian Eno or To Rococo Rot. There’s always a concept or a limitation. I don’t like it when things are too broad. I like the notion of music that can be ignored as much as listened to.

Who’s more annoying: music critics or art critics?

Oh, art critics. Art critics only want to absorb the work; they don’t want to listen to what the artist has to say. They want to call the shots. It’s one-way traffic.