Interview: Robbie Judkins

Photo by Zoe Plumb

Judkins’ music as Left Hand Cuts Off The Right is often a collage of simultaneous curiosities. The sounds of various animals. Instruments from around the world. Circuit bent electronics. Humid drones. It’s appropriate for an artist that seems to thrive on having numerous projects in parallel operation: playing guitar in Casual Sect, engaging in loose improvisations with Ghost Fang, hosting shows on NTS Radio and Resonance FM, writing articles about music across the globe for The Quietus. Yet for every piece that seems to pull directly from this restless, multidirectional passion for sound, there’s another executed with masterful restraint – which, as I found out in this discussion, may have something to do with his discovery of Eliane Radigue. Elsewhere, we talk about his interest in animal sounds and animal rights, his method for constructing live sets and his two upcoming records as Left Hand Cuts Off The Right – “Desired Place” and “Two Weeks” – which will soon be released on Hominid Sounds.

You seem to have so much going on all of the time. I was late for this Skype call because I was closing down all the browser tabs for the various projects you have going on.  How do you manage all of it?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. [laughs] Recently, I think I’ve said “no” to more things – especially to groups and working with other musicians. Not because I have a problem with that as obviously I love doing those things. I’m quite excited about doing a lot of projects, and the whole thing for me is that if an opportunity knocks, I take it. I’ll make time to do the work and fit it in somehow. I think that’s always been the case with me – I try and squeeze everything in and do as much as possible. When I was doing my masters, I was still being a teaching assistant and working in a pub and making my own music on top of that. I think that’s just how I work. I don’t find it particularly stressful. Without sounding extremely pretentious, it’s just what I do! [laughs]

You seem to retain a “nomadic” quality to your output as well – your equipment setup seems to change frequently between releases. Is that a crucial aspect of the way you work?

There are certain instruments, pedals and circuit-bent bits of equipment that I adore and will continue to use. I like the challenge of getting as much out of a piece of equipment or instrument as I can, and then tying it in with a new piece of equipment I’ve bought or been given. With Left Hand Cuts Off The Right, it’s me exploring sounds, performing and composing. With Casual Sect it’s me playing in a punk band. Punk’s been a big part of my life for a long time, and I missed playing with other people and writing songs together: that process of changing, rewriting and improving parts, with different people bringing their ideas to the table. I love free improv, but that’s been a nice change from what I would see as “experimenting”. As for Ghost Fang – it’s a loose collective of friends creating a “cosmic dread” sound each time, each with our individual contributions. I love all of those things for different reasons.

Casual Sect sounds awesome. Am I right in saying that you play guitar in that band?

Yeah.

Is it nice to take the sound source as a “given” to a certain extent, allowing you to engage in the physical act of playing the guitar?

Oh, totally. We played a gig last night. It was amazing to just play with other people and play loud, and know that you’ve had a part in writing the songs. There’s an visceral energetic quality to doing it. And yes – it’s a physical thing, which is different from the other stuff I do. When I’m playing solo it’s all on me. I can’t fuck up. When you’re in a band you can rely on other people and you play off each other. The listening space is totally different too. When I’m doing my solo stuff, I’m focused in a different way; I’m slower and responsive in that sense. With the band it’s very immediate and frantic.

Was there a premise going in? Or was it just about getting together and making a big noise? 

[laughs] Well that was part of it. My old school friend Thom [Bleasdale], who is sadly not in the band anymore, just kept talking about playing in bands again. We finally nailed a time to meet up and wrote some stuff. We had a “dos and don’ts” list of what we wanted with the band and had a lot of similar thoughts about how we wanted to write the music. We both love 80s hardcore. Especially Italian, UK and US stuff. We love grindcore and black metal, but didn’t want too many of those elements in the band. We wanted it to be a little bit strange, odd, repetitive. We love bands like Rudimentary Peni, Butthole Surfers, Black Flag and Fugazi too.

When Maggie [Muldoon] and Kev [Morpurgo] joined and four of us got together, we realised that we all had a very silly sense of humour and a shared oddness that tied into the lyrics and the image, and how we present ourselves – toeing the line between accepting and mocking conspiracy theories, singing about bad drug experiences or bizarre news stories and occasional political splurges. It’s developed and grown as it’s gone on. We fall between playing bills with punk bands and playing alongside psychedelic rock and noise bands. I know there’s not a great difference between those two sounds, but we fit quite nicely between those two camps of music. Even playing at the ICA with Chrononautz for the Zhang Ding exhibition – that was a complete oddball for us but we took it. We were very happy to be part of a live art performance.

From my experience with those styles of music, there can often be quite a contrast in terms of how audience can often engage with them. It must be nice to bring that material to different types of crowd and have it ingested in different atmospheres. 

Definitely. Like I said before, it’s not a complete schism between my solo stuff and the band. We often have unusual samples looping in the background while we’re playing, and these are usually conspiracy theory recordings or cult ramblings. One of them is a record about how to train your parrot to talk. Out of context it’s very strange, and that’s the kind of vibe we like to keep. Also, in the recording process I’m able to collect some of my samples and recordings and add them to segueways in between tracks, so there’s a nice overlap there.

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It sounds like you’re pretty comfortable in collaboration. I know that certain musicians who engage in a more insular, meticulous solo practice often find it difficult to engage in collaboration too. I’m probably just talking about myself there. It doesn’t sound like something you struggle with.

No, and I think it depends on what you’re working on. We all work differently, and I know people who can only work on one project at a time or just want to craft their solo work. With collaborations, it’s less about just my input and experiences – it’s about the two, three or four of us. It’s about that moment you’re in at that time, especially with improvisation. It was nice to be working with Graham [Dunning], because there’s a techno side to his sound that I don’t typically delve into. It challenges you in a way that you’re not really used to, and that’s the great thing about doing it.

With Ghost Fang – Kevin and I really adore this record by Evil Acidhead (‘In the Name of all that is Unholy’), which is a bad trip record. It’s quite difficult to listen to, but it’s addictive and unnerving and strange, and we wanted to expand that and have heavy metal riffs with drones and vocals. It’s different every time. There’s less ego involved when you’re working with other people. You learn from eachother as well. Especially working with people like Tasos Stamou – we talk about techniques or FX that we use, or sounds that we both create. We play off eachother and the process carries on.

You recently sent me a few tracks from two upcoming releases by Left Hand Cuts Off The Right. What can you tell me about those? 

In the past two years, I’ve started to become more comfortable with my mental health diagnosis of having depression and anxiety. I’ve channelled that and responded to it in my compositions, and I’ve been more aware of the mood I’m in when I’m improvising and composing my solo stuff. Sometimes I can be in an awful angry mood and create music, and sometimes I want to escape from the mood, and sometimes I improvise and perform as a therapeutic method to relieve my depression and anxiety. So that’s being going around in my brain for a while.

In July of last year I had a suicide attempt. I went back to my parents for a few weeks to rest and recover. It was a really difficult time but I recorded a lot of music during that period as well. The two albums set to come out were from that time, and they’re both very different to eachother. I guess you could call one of them [Desired Place] a solo piano album, although it’s more electronic piano with loops. That was something I really got into, as it was calming and addictive. The other one is a noisy, more aggressive record that was another way for me to channel how I was thinking and feeling at the time. Ideally they’ll come out together, but we’ll see about the logistics of that. With the “non-piano” one – which is called Two Weeks – there’s more instrumentation: electronic piano, bass guitar, a saz and some samples. It’s a lot denser I guess.

So you’ve had this material with you for a while now. What triggered the decision to want to release it?

It’s a good question. I’m still battling with that suicide attempt and the thought of suicide itself, but I started listening to these records again this week… and it’s time to get the material out. Tasos and I talked about putting our thoughts out into the world in a form that might not be so explicit. It’s not like, “this is an album about my suicide attempt”, which I wouldn’t do, but I know the significance of it. In a way, that’s part of the healing process and getting through it. He mentioned that, when his dad passed away, he release a few tracks that were related to it. Seeing this collection of cassettes going out in to the world was a pleasant, calming thing to do. That’s something I’m hoping to do with this as well. I’m very happy with how they turned out and I’d like other people to hear them as well.

The track I’ve heard from Desired Place seems to employ a lot of restraint compared to some of your other material, both in terms of the way you’re playing the piano and the minimal about of equipment you’re using.

I was definitely employing restraint with that. And leaving space and gaps – sometimes I don’t seem to do that in my music, but I do enjoy it as well. Since learning about Eliane Radigue, I still feel like I have her voice telling me to slow down and hold back, and let things be the way they are. It’s a really nice and humbling thing to do with music, especially when you’re using loops and sustained tones. You can let them be what they need to be, and that’s a wonderful thing. It was a therapeutic thing for me to let those sounds breathe. I did go through a process of adding more, taking stuff away, fiddling with it…it got to a point where the more I added, the worse it sounded. I had someone else playing on it at some point too, which didn’t work out in a good way. Not to say that what they were doing was bad, but the less I did the better it sounded.

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PHOTO BY ZOE PLUMB

Do you think any of that had to do with allowing all of the music to originate from one particular circumstance? 

Yeah. I think these are the recordings of mine that I’ve listened to the most as I’m quite precious over them and want to do them right. At some point I thought, “oh, it’d be nice to have a bit of noise or violin on there”, but the more I played it to other people and listened to it, the more I realised that wasn’t necessary. Also, it’s a very personal recording that I’d like to own and have out in the world.

You mentioned Eliane Radigue there. When did you discover her music?

When I was doing my masters, we did a project on the Her Noise archive. It’s an archive dedicated to female sound artists, and deals with issues of gender and sexuality. We were encouraged to delve into it and find artists, and Eliane Radigue really caught my interest. The more I learn about her, the more I admire and love what she does. I listen to her work three or four nights a week. I guess it’s part of a routine I have. It grounds me. I read about how she composes some of her work…especially her feedback works of these gentle, delicate responses and touches, which I guess was missing from my work for a while. I’ve really appreciated using more of that.

I always find myself having to readjust to the real world after listening to her music. Everything else suddenly feels so brash and excessive.

Yeah. It’s hard to be back in the world after you listen to her stuff. I kind of just want to stay in that bubble of hers. [laughs]

You mentioned your Sound Art masters degree. That was at London College of Communication, right?

That’s the one.

I came to your final show actually. I seem to remember you doing something with recordings of butchers or something. How did you find the degree? 

I loved it. They’re not paying me to say that – I genuinely did! The timing had something to do with it as well; I’d finished my undergraduate studies in 2009 and travelled a bit, but I just wanted to be back in education and challenging myself again. I was just really enthusiastic and willing, so I guess I got a lot out of it because I put a lot into it. I learnt a lot and met some great people. I guess the problem with all arts degrees is that they can’t guarantee you any work, but it can put you in the right direction of certain people and venues. You have to do a lot of it yourself – you ask, apply, get knocked back and keep going.

That piece you saw came out of a long interest in animal rights campaigning and activism, which I was involved in for many years. I guess I still am. I wanted to merge some of my interest in that with my interest in sound art, and luckily I was buddied up with the right people to encourage that and to help think about my work in a professional capacity, as well as meeting and getting lessons from people who do it for a living.

Speaking of animal rights – I listened to your Animal Sounds show on Resonance FM. It reminded me of reviewing a book called Animal Music earlier in the year, which had a similar effect in terms of making me reconsider my own anthropocentric viewpoint when it comes to the sounds that animals make and why they make them. How did the show come about?

When I started my research from my final work for my masters, I was trying to make a piece about animal rights without it being didactic or an exercise in propaganda. Because we’d been looking at the Her Noise archive and thinking about these ideas around gender and identity, I kept thinking about our relationship with non-human animals, and whether that’s being explored through sound art and experimental music. There are bits and pieces happening, but the visual world came a bit earlier in terms of post-humanism and looking at relationships with non-human animals. What’s nice about the programme is that I’m learning a lot. It’s like a little research project for me. I’m not a zoologist or an ornithologist, but I’m fascinated by sound and animals, and particularly by people who are making work around the issues that animal liberation and animal rights deals with: hunting, animals for meat or fur, the use and abuse of them etc.

Like you say, it’s also getting away from that anthropocentric view of the world. Listening is a fantastic way to engage with those issues, and so much fascinating stuff comes out of it. A lot of that is about not knowing – there’s so much we don’t know. Constantly there are news stories about animals using different languages and ways of communication and being creative, which constantly upsets this anthropocentrism. I find that utterly stimulating, it gives weight to the arguments around the fairer treatment of animals. If they are so capable and clever in their way – not in a human way, which I also think is a good distinction – does our justification for using them become less and less viable? I’ve got another show coming up on insects, which is another fascinating area. There are a lot of bees on there, which I’m learning more about.

It’s nice to see that our understanding of animal sentience is only going in one direction, in that new discoveries are being made all the time that further our appreciation for the awareness and complexity of non-human animals. It feels inevitable that it’s only going to continue progressing in that direction too.

Totally. With certain species of whales and birds…they communicate in ways that we can’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we should think that it’s any less important or intelligent. You mentioned the book Animal Music – I was lucky enough to interview the writers [Tobias Fischer and Lara C Cory] for the show actually. The general gist is, for me, “fuck – maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do, and maybe there’s more to learn about this planet we share with other species.” It’s humbling and kind of beautiful.

I listened to the recording of a recent show you did at Café Oto, and I noticed that you used some animal sounds there. At around the 10-minute mark, there was some high chirping noises and then a low gurgling sound. So what was going on there?

Well I like that mystery about them. People ask me what they are, and I quite like it if there’s an ambiguous nature about them. Unsurprisingly they were birds and frogs. I guess that this is more to do with improv and what David Rothenberg talks about, which is that playing with animal sounds and animals is another humbling experience. I know the animals weren’t responding to me as I was just playing along to recordings, but there’s something free and liberating about them.

I enjoy them simply for their aesthetic nature. I do hear a lot of crossover between a lot of experimental music and certain animal sounds – certain gloops, squeaks, howls and chirps – and I feel like there’s enough similarity and difference in there that I can use them in my music. They sit very well with flutes, whistles, circuit-bent electronics and drones. I’ve played with Catherine Clover as well, who does a lot of poetry and onomatopoeic work about birds and the urban environment. It’s about just playing with them and trying them out, and not feeling that you’re a master of them.

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PHOTO BY ZOE PLUMB

Speaking of your live shows more generally – I heard you say in an interview that you tend to set an overarching structure and then improvise within it. Is that still the way you work?

It is, with the exception of duos or Ghost Fang. I don’t really plan those much in advance. For my solo stuff…it depends how much time I’ve got, but I spend a few weeks working out which sounds and sound sources I want to use, making a selection of loops and often writing down and drawing diagrams of how I want the piece to go. Within those sections – for example, I might write that I’m going to use a thumb piano, a delay pedal, a tape loop and voice – I have a general idea of using sustained notes or an extended technique, or a certain noise that I’ve got out of a machine that I’m using, but within that time frame it tends to be fairly loose. I’ll rehearse that for a while. It’s always slightly different, but I always have a fairly good idea of where it’ll start and end.

A lot of that is to do with feeling more confident when I’m playing. I try and play most days, and I find a combination of sounds and techniques and think, “ah fuck, I really want to use that”.

I see you recently did a radio show of Colombian obscurities on NTS too. I’ve been listening to Meridian Brothers a lot recently.

They’re so great.

Am I right in saying that you went over to Colombia recently? 

I went mid-September on behalf of The Quietus, the British Council invited a lot of journalists and music industry people from the UK over. Just as with the animal sounds, I’m not a Colombian music expert but I’ve now become fascinated by it. John [Doran] from The Quietus asked me if I wanted to go and I couldn’t say no. I’d already written an article on Tanzanian music earlier in the year, which was my first bit of music journalism. It’s just gone on from there.

That must be a lot of fun for you. 

It is. It’s always nice to be reminded that there all these other bands and musicians doing exciting things across the world that are at odds with how we’re taught our music history happened.

It makes a change from that awful binary that simply makes a distinction between western music and “everywhere else”. 

Yeah. I understand why “World Music” came about, but it puts every other music that’s not in the west in a certain category. I found out recently that, potentially, the first punk band came from Peru in 1965. It always nice to hear things like that, when you consider the fucking boring story you usually hear of how punk came about. These bands get missed out because they’re not part of the comfortable story. Even bands like Death and the pub rock / proto-punk scene in the mid-70s, and the other strange things happening in the early 70s. You think, “well maybe people were making punk then but it just wasn’t the fucking Sex Pistols”. Labels like Soul Jazz are putting out stuff that got lost in those times. History keeps getting changed and moved about and it’s wonderful.

And at the end of the day, it’s just good music and it’s great for so many other reasons. We listen to a lot of songs where we can’t work out what they’re saying and that’s totally fine. We do it with pop songs, we do it with Rammstein…why can’t we do it with other music too?