Who Is…Leila?

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 02.07.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Keyboard-generated cinematic weirdness with a sprinkling of pop on top

For fans of: Bjork, Aphex Twin, Anjali, and Willy Mason

From: Originally Iran, now North London

Personae: Leila Arab (keyboards, programming, etc), Mt Sims (vocals on six tracks)

Leila registered a blip on the electronic-music radar in the late ’90s, after associations with musical heroes Björk and Aphex Twin saw her debut record on Aphex’s Rephlex label, Like Weather, earn a warm reception for its lush, slo-mo textures. A second album, 2000′s Courtesy of Choice, spread her name a little wider. Some critics said she was trip-hop; Ms Arab vehemently disagreed. But even without a cosy niche, her future looked rosy.

All that was thrown into turmoil, however, when her mother passed away after a long illness, followed within 12 months by her father – a dynamic figure, who’d moved their family to England from Iran in 1978-9, in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. Fittingly, Leila retreated from the spotlight to take care of her family affairs.

Grieving process over, Leila resurfaced from her North London bedroom with 2008′s Blood Looms and Blooms, her debut for pioneering techno stable, Warp Records. There, she was joined by a handful of singers, some well-known (Terry Hall, Martina Topley-Bird), others not so much (Luca Santucci, her sister Roya).

For Leila, music-making has always been a small and private playground, but for her fourth outing, she sought to expand her sound and fully overcome the dark feelings that had festered since her parents’ passing. To that end, she entered into an intense collaboration with Matthew Simms, aka Mt. Sims, the Berlin-based polymath, whose track record in left-turning from funky synth-pop (2002′s Ultrasex) into macabre post-punk (2005′s Wild Light) obviously tickled her ever-lively contrariness gland. The resultant U&I album, featuring Simms’s voice on six tracks, is experimental, occasionally hard-hitting, sometimes exquisitely beautiful, but throughout fabulously uplifting.

Andrew Perry contacted Leila at her bunker, as she was figuring out the technical and human-resource requirements for taking ‘U&I’ on the road. Simms, who’s been somewhat elusive these past three or four years, will be joining her roadshow, she promises…

On joining the pantheon of illustrious electronicists:

I don’t make electronic music. I adore synthesis, and I adore noise, but the reason I use electronics is because, with them, I can make any kind of music I want. I do it all in my bedroom at home because I can’t be arsed. I’m lazy. I get up, walk across the room, do some work, then come back and watch a bit of [U.K. TV quiz show] Countdown, or ['80s darts/quiz show] Bullseye re-runs.

The truth is, if a track like “Welcome to Your Life” [from U&I] came on, and you didn’t know who it was by, you’d probably have to say it’s a rock record. I think “Colony Collapse Disorder” sounds like Joy Division. But because they’re from me, it’s like, “That’s that bird who releases records on labels like Warp and Rephlex.” I’m about making machines sound alive, not controlled. I want them to sound mental. The way I mix, it’s all about wall of sound, not working in some laboratory. Most electronic music sounds like it’s been made in some sterilized no-go zone. Mine is a mess!

U&I definitely has a certain nihilism to it. It was all about making something that was full-blooded and grounded, because I live in my head, and for me to have dealt with what I’d dealt with in recent history, I had to kind of come to earth to deal with it.

On her freaky, telepathic, career-kickstarting link-up with Björk:

I had a month left to graduate from my degree, and my options were to either stay in Stoke, sign on and do a little bit of DJing here and there, or come back to London and try to get a job. But then suddenly the third option was to go on a world tour. It was like, OK!

When Björk first called, she’d left her number. I didn’t even have a phone. She called my best friend’s house, and I bumped into the guy my friend lived with, and he was like, “There’s a message for you on our phone from some German- or Swedish-sounding woman.” So I called her, and she was like, “Hi, I’m looking for a band to do this tour.” I said, “Look, I’ve spent three years watching Czech cinema and falling asleep in classes, I really think whoever told you I can do this is taking the piss. I don’t know how to read music…”

I met them at their rehearsal rooms, talked a bit with her and had a quick go on the keyboards, then I remember leaving, and looking at her and going, “Have I got a job?” And she was like, “Yeah – they asked you for your passport, right?”

Had I met her before? I was living in this rancid terraced house in Stoke! But it was weird – I’d seen her on some telly show, and I’d thought, “What is going on with that voice? I know this person.” Proper fucked up. Then two days later, she calls.

On her career of happy accidents:

On that tour, I started doing the live mixing thing. Then I did my first record with fuck-all equipment, but just with a lot of love for music. I started working on the second record, and I was friends with Richard [James, aka Aphex Twin], because I’d met him on one of the Björk tours when he was doing the support DJ slot. I just got on with him, because we liked smoking weed and playing Mario on the back of the bus. I was just happy there was someone to play Mario with, that’s why we got on. So, later on, he’d come round and hear what I was up to, and he was like, “Look, I’ll put it out for you.” It was literally that casual. Then I did that record, and everybody was like, “Oh, it’s a lost Prince record!” Every time, it’s an accident. I’m incredibly thrilled and humbled that I get to make noise and people bother to put it out.

On how defeat loomed from the jaws of victory:

After those two albums, I lost my mum in 2003, and my dad in 2004. My mum was hardcore ill for a year, and we looked after her, but my dad, he went really quickly. So I’ve done both versions, and I can tell you – they both suck. At the end, I was a mess.

I started to question the errors of physiology, like the fact that breathing and eating should not be connected. What a bad bit of design! So I would only eat liquid food, like porridge and noodles, because I’d reduced myself to such a point that I didn’t even trust myself to remember how to eat. It was all a manifestation of the grief, the helplessness.

Imagine the lack of control you feel. Being a creative person, you have a realm where you’re in charge. There was a side of me where I was literally offended, almost like by a bad remix – what have they fucking done to my track! Obviously, I know I’m not God, or a doctor, or a healer. Intellectually, I understood that I couldn’t have altered this, but emotionally it took years.

Music has always been so profound for me, in terms of my reaction to it, but, when that shit happens, it was suddenly like, this is worthless. And every time I did some music, it was like, “That’s all good and well, but you couldn’t make that thing stop. If you were that clever…” After a few years of that, I was like, “No, enough! I’ll make myself go mental with all that pent-up creative energy,” because you can’t turn energy off, even in science.

So, doing U&I, after seeing life reduced to that binary shit – life-death, one-zero – I wanted to make a record that was bloody and alive and earthed. Some people have said it’s aggressive but I see it as aliveness. You know, life’s a bloody business.

On finding another dream wrecking partner in Mt. Sims:

I’d met him at this fancy dress party where he came as a Computer Processing Unit made out of a cardboard box. I’d always liked Matt’s music. He really is a kindred spirit, in the sense that he’s fucked his career, too. He did the Ultrasex album, and everybody was like, “Wow, great.” Then he goes and does a goth record, and everybody was like, “Why the fuck would you do that?”

So I emailed him, “Look, I’ve started this new work, would you be up for it?,” and he just came over from Berlin. The album is formed from two one-week sittings where he stayed at my house and we just messed about. Some tracks we wrote together, and it was all pretty much done by the end of 2010, but I knew it was still not completely done. For me, it’s always about, “is there enough emotional variety on the record?”

So then he sent me “Anyway,” a really arty-sounding ambient wibbly-wobbly track in 6/8 time – but the minute I heard the vocal, I was like, “Fuck, this is a pop record, this isn’t art.” So we edited the vocals to make it 4/4, and that happened really quickly. “U&I” [the track] was actually two separate a capellas, but the moment I heard them, I was like, “These could be one.” He was surprised, because we’d done two years’ worth of him coming over on and off, and me not finishing. He was like, “Now you finish two tracks in an hour!” I was like, “Welcome to me.” I’m not a very structured person.

Now there’s an air miles advert on TV using a track off my first album, “Underwaters.” Which all adheres to what I always say – it takes at least 10 years for my music to make sense.