Interview: Leafcutter John

PHOTO BY ROSIE REED GOLD

Unconscious Archives Festival opened last night. It’s a series of sonic and audiovisual events taking place across London until the end of September, gathering together artists for performances that instigate collisions between old and new media, artist and audience, performer and venue, technology and curious, interruptive circuit-bender. The lineup brings together all manner of sonic explorers, including Sally Golding, Spatial, Graham Dunning, Ewa Justka, Philip Jeck, Mariska De Groot, Takahiko Iimura and Laurie Tompkins.

On Sunday night, Café Oto will be hosting an Unconscious Archives event titled “Compositional Constructs”, which showcases the “vibrant systems of artist made technology and performance interventions.” London-based artist Leafcutter John will be playing a set, and given his knack for conjuring sound and musical revelation out of the ordinary and the inaudible, he’s the perfect candidate for a showcase like this. Below, John and I discuss his experiences performing at Oto, the intricacies of contact mic creation and the percussive symphonies of the Norfolk coast.

You’re playing a set at Café Oto as part of this year’s Unconscious Archives festival. Do you know what your live setup is going to look like for this one, in terms of the equipment and ideas you’ll be taking in with you?

I’ll be using the light-controlled hardware/software I’ve been working on for the last few years. I’ve spent the last couple of months putting a new version together. It has some lights that can be programmed to play rhythmically and I also use a collection of handheld torches, bicycle lights, toys etc. The information from the light sensors is sent to the computer and my modular synth. It’s incredibly fun to play, really responsive and the audience can see how the sounds are being made.

You’ve played at Café Oto several times already. As a listener I always find the space makes a very pronounced imprint on my experience of performances; perhaps due to the café acoustics and warm, almost social intimacy between artist and audience. My memories of these shows tend to stand separate of seeing the same artist elsewhere. How have you found playing at the venue previously? Will those experiences be informing how you approach your performance this time?

You’re on the same level as the audience and they’re about a meter away on a busy night. It feels intimate and there really is no hiding away like you might be able to do on a larger raised stage. I like that you can connect directly with people, have a conversation or a joke yet somehow the atmosphere is always focused – there is really nowhere else quite like it in London. For me performing is reading the room and working with or against it. I like the unpredictability of this approach and the music I make is flexible enough to accommodate it.

Structurally I’ll set up some frameworks within which I can explore. For example, I know I’ll be using a little disco ball to reflect light for one part of the show.  Another will feature a specific melody played by a flashing bike light. There are maybe eight or nine frameworks which I can got to, or overlap as seems right at the time.

I see that you’re currently working on a new set of contact mics, made in part via 3D printing. What can you tell me about them? Does 3D printing present any new possibilities for creating contact mics?

Last Christmas I made a couple of nice looking brass contact mics for myself, having broken my old shop-bought ones. I put a picture of them on Instagram and they generated quite a lot of interest. It was just before Christmas last year and I think people were thinking they’d make good presents. At that point I wanted to take a break from writing music, so decided to spend a few months making them full-time. I opened a little shop on my website but had to close it after 24 hours as there were over 100 orders and I was beginning to panic! It was quite a bit of work but the making was therapeutic. I did more batches as the orders came in and before I knew it I’d sold over 500 mics.

JOHN’S 2016 CONTACT MICS

After a few months I found that my desire to write music came back and that coincided with a slowdown in the orders. The whole thing was surprising and perfectly timed!

I’m excited to make a 3D printed mic for next Christmas – They should be quicker to make so I’ll be able to offer them for a lower price than my previous models. I’ve made some prototypes and the repeatability offered by the printer allows me to fine-tune the thickness of some crucial elements. One interesting thing is that you can print in solid plastic or you can include air pockets which changes the resonance of the object. I’m still experimenting but so far they’re sounding amazing.

What are your primary considerations when it comes to making contact mics? From what I’ve read, it sounds like durability is a particular concern…

Anything breaking when you need it is a nightmare! Its also important that the things you’re making look and feel right for their purpose. This is a kind of black art but I seem to have developed something of an affinity for it. At least I’m very patient and methodical experimenting with material, texture, finish, and dimensions. The main thing though, is a contact microphone must sound good! Luckily I’ve found various ways to achieve this.

It looks like you’ve got a new record in the works. How is that coming along? I believe I read something about birds making an appearance?

Yes, I’m excited to be writing again! I’ve been messing about with my modular synth for a while and decided that it is really about time I made some recorded music with it. I started by making some sketches and then I went on a walking holiday. My partner and I did 60 miles of the Norfolk Coast Path from Hunstanton to Cromer. It was a brilliant holiday and I kept hearing sounds that I thought would work with the sketched I’d made back in London. I took my sound recorder and made lots of recordings of the sea, wind, rain, and birds along the coast. One of the most amazing sounds I recorded was a boatyard with all the sails slapping into metal masts, it was like a percussive symphony – I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

I’ve incorporated these recordings with my sketches and it is creating a very interesting sound-world. I think the record needs some kind of vocal element but I’m not sure what form that will take just yet.

What does your process look like for putting this record together? There’s such a wonderful wealth of detail in the pieces that comprise your last album, Resurrection, most of which I’m sure I’m yet to even hear. How quickly do these pieces tend to materialise? Is it easy to identify the point at which your pieces have reached a state of completion? 

The process changes depending on the project. Resurrection took years and most of the time it takes me ages to make an album. Recently I’ve been trying to find ways of speeding things up and get a little more live/spontaneous energy into the mix. I’m getting closer to my goal of being able to make an album with the Light Interface…

I don’t have a problem knowing when a thing is finished but sometimes knowing what to do to make it finished is really difficult to find.

What records are you listening to at the moment?

It’s hard to listen to much when I’m writing but I really like James Holden’s new record. Kate Tempest’s record is amazing. I’m surprised it didn’t win the Mercury Prize this year.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I’m a full time tinkerer so there is always something cooking. I’m making a lot of little music machines which I’m going to use at Algomech which takes place up in Sheffield in November.

Also I’ve done a couple of live recordings of duo’s recently one is with Richard Greenan of Kit Records. The other with Blanca Regina who is an incredible ball of energy with a remarkable skillset. We’re having a launch event for that one at Iklectik in London on the 30th September.