Lamb: It’s All About Space (Interview)

Electronic music duo Lamb have been busy lately. They’ve just released a new album, Backspace Unwind, are touring Europe and have announce a concert date at Auckland’s Tuning Fork in February. Lamb was formed 20 years ago by Andy Barlow and Lou Rhodes. They split up 10 years ago but reunited in 2009. Backspace Unwind is their second studio album since the reunion. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to vocalist/lyricist Lou Rhodes just as the band wrapped up their UK tour. They discussed Lou’s new approach to songwriting and why space is so important in their music.

Click here to listen to the interview with Lamb’s Lou Rhodes:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: You just finished your UK tour, is that right?

LR: That’s right, yeah.

MD: And you finished off in London at the Roundhouse?

LR: Yeah, that was a great show.

MD: You played at Manchester before that, on your birthday?

LR: Yeah, that’s right.

MD: So tell me a little bit about touring the UK and how that all went, especially the last couple of shows?

LR: It was, I mean It was quite a short tour. We did 5 shows, but it was amazing and it’s just been, I don’t know, there’s something about this time around that it’s just, everything’s on a whole new level somehow. It’s like the shows have been amazing, the response has been amazing, the way the album’s going down, you know, it’s just been, I don’t know, I find it really difficult to put into words, you know, why it feels different, you know.

MD: Right.

LR: But it just feels like we’ve kind of gone to a whole new level with it somehow and I, you know, I can’t describe it better than that really.

MD: Must feel good after all this time.

LR: Yeah. Definitely, I mean, it’s just, I don’t know, I just keep kind of reminding myself that we’ve been around for nearly 20 years now and in a way this record couldn’t sound and feel more current, if you know what I mean.

MD: Right.

LR: And that seems to be the way that people are hearing it as well, you know, that’s shows in the reviews that are coming in as well have been really. Like you know, this is a really modern record, you know, this is really now. It’s not like, you know, you can be forgiven for thinking that a band that’s been around for 20 years might be trollng out the same stuff and might be, you know, a little bit jaded and a bit dated, but that’s certainly not what’s going down.

MD: Right.

LR: With these shows or with the album.

MD: I read that you kind of described making as a journey of discovery. I was hoping you might elaborate on that and tell me what you’ve discovered while making the record.

LR: Yeah. Well particularly for me I think because I come straight from, we’d kind of, we’d started the record and we wrote 3 songs and then Andy got invited to produce David Gray’s next album and he felt like he couldn’t really turn that down and I had a whole load of solo songs that I was ready to record, so I took the time to go and do that. I got a solo record that’s kind of in the wings at the moment.

MD: Right.

LR: So then when we came back into writing the album, I was kind of, you know, fresh off of writing and recording a whole album of solo material and I guess I got it in my head that having written, you know, I mean, this would be Lamb’s sixth album, I’ve written 4 solo albums, I’ve done loads of collaborations so as a songwriter you start to think, ‘oh my God, what’s left to say’, you know. So that was the pressure that I felt, but, so I started to experiment and I decided to try a kind of more abstract way of writing, kind of like free association. That was the journey of discovery for me, it was writing in a different, you know, so you’d come to a song with no clear concept of what you want it to say, no kind of message that we’re dying to, you know, escape from you, you know, it was just like, okay let’s see what this throws up, you know, and in a way it was kind of a way of getting into almost like a meditative state where your mind was out of the way and you, I could just let the lyrics come through really and the opening track, In Binary, is the perfect example of that.

LIsten to In Binary from Backspace Unwind here:

MD: Oh okay.

LR: Yeah.

MD: And, well, I’ve just finished reading a book by another songwriter, her name is Kristin Hersh, she is in Throwing Muses.

LR: Oh yeah.

MD: And she kind of described her song writing style or experiences as a similar thing where she’s kind of a conduit and the songs kind of inhabit her and she just needs to get them out. Is that a similar thing to what you’re describing?

LambLR: Yeah, definitely. More and more I think, I think it’s a case of, you know, the human mind is a wonderful thing but also it’s quite a terrible thing where creativity is concerned, because it edits and it gets in the way and it questions and it confines, you know. So the more you can kind of, it sounds crazy when I’m talking about writing lyrics, I say the more you can sidestep the mind, the better, and to some people it would feel like it would be kind of counter-intuitive, but it really, it is a case of that because there’s something else, you know, rather than mind.

MD: Right.

LR: You know, and I think that’s what writes lyrics in a way and I think, as you said the way Kristin Hersh describes it as kind of being a conduit is exactly how it feels, that’s how best art of any forms, happens, you know because then it’s happening without ego. You know, it’s happening naturally and just, I really didn’t think that, you know, we are just conduits for, you know, I mean for me I thought, you know, my sort of spiritual tradition is…big mind, you know, it’s just this idea that this intelligence, this wisdom that’s outside of us all, but we tap into it.

MD: Right.

LR: Like a river running beside us and we can choose what we tap into it. Or we bypass it and stay confined in our own small minds, you know.

MD: And there’s kind of a planetary theme to the record as well, to many of the songs.

LR: Yeah.

MD: Where did that come from?

LR: Well that came from this process really. You know, and it kept popping up and I kept thinking, ‘oh maybe I shouldn’t write those lyrics’, because more planets coming up and then I thought, ‘well actually this is what’s happening, you know, and why shouldn’t there be a theme?’ You know and in a way I like it because for me the record is about space in all its meaning. So we’re talking about space obviously in terms of stars and universes and so on, but for me it’s more about the term space as in, you know, the space between things and the space between lyrics and the space in music and having space to breathe, you know.

MD: Right.

LR: So, you know, I like it in all its forms, you know, I’m enjoying that theme happen, you know, I enjoy that happening again and again and just decided that that was the way it needed to be, you know.

MD: Now with this new approach to writing your lyrics,  how did that effect how you kind of presented these to Andy as far as, you know, making these into songs and finished product?

LR: Well Andy and I work in a very kind of organic process, it’s the only way we can work. So there’s no way it would work if I kind of presented 4 songs to him and in the same way, there’s no way it would work if he presented 4 musical, you know, backings for a song. So we’ve learnt over the years that the way our kind of process works, is that we bring, we bring the simplest kind of elements together to begin with. So he might have literally like a drum loop and I have a few words for it, into the melody and then we bring those together and that’s when we start to work together on it. And so the songs, it’s a kind of metamorphosis that we both drive or I don’t know what term you would use, but it’s kind of, it’s something that comes from both us, it’s like a kind of creativity ping pong between us, you know.

MD: Right.

LR: But kind of finds its own path, you know, and that’s another thing about this whole conduit thing it’s like,  if we both just let it flow, then it’s almost like alchemy, you know, the process that takes over and we’re just there, you know, just to kind of help guide it a little bit.

MD: Right. Has that process kind of remained the same over the years or has it evolved at all?

LR: It’s definitely evolved. I think, you know, in the beginning, it was more of a battleground…well, after being in the initial honeymoon period, you know. When you first get to know someone, you think, ‘wow we’re so alike, we love all these same things’, and then you realise, ‘my God we’re really different.’ And with Andy and I, we’re very, very different as human beings, you know, we really are like that yin and yang symbol you know and yeah. That’s become over the years in particularly since we split and reformed and we grew up a lot in that time when we were apart. I think we connect in a very different way now and so even though we’re very different, there’s a lot that’s really, that we meet on I guess these days and we also celebrate the difference between us, you know. We know that that’s part of what makes Lamb and so we enjoy that and we enjoy kind of, we enjoy the journey that, that takes us on because when either of us make our own work, it’s very different to Lamb and so we’ve learnt to appreciate that what makes Lamb is this thing that happens when we get in a room together and we don’t question that anymore, we just let it flow and help it flow as much as possible.

MD: Right. What was the initial kind of common ground, musical ground that you found that you had with him that made you want to work with him originally?

LR: Well I guess it was, we liked things in each other that the others, you know, that’s kind of how partnerships work when somebody has something that you don’t have, you know, that’s why it worked. So I was looking for a producer who was experimental and who broke the rules.  You know, I’d been listening, back then, you know, it was 1994 remember so it’s like really early days of kind of, it wasn’t even called drum and bass then, it was break beat.

MD: Right.

LR: You know, we just been kind of, there’s been kind of trip hop scene happening and then we, but we were in Manchester so there was like pirate stations playing really dirty break beat music and I was listening to that and I was coming from like a folk background, then I, I just thought wow it would be really interesting to put these things together, to put real songs as opposed to kind of ad lib vocals over kind of very interesting break beats and I was asking around and a friend of mine, who is a DJ said oh there’s this guy I know, he’s kind of pretty weird to most people musically,  but I  think you’d get on with him and that was the start really. You know, and he wasn’t particularly looking for a vocalist, in those days, he didn’t really like listening to music with vocals in it at all. So one of our battles back then was him turning me down.

MD: Oh great.

LR: We tried to find a space in the music because he just felt like vocals were, you know, just not  required a lot of the time.

MD: Right.

LR: But I think he also, you know, he’d been talking to friends and they were like, ‘form a band with a cute female vocalist and you’ve got it made.’

MD: There you go.

LR: He’s like, okay, there’s something in there. So he kind of humoured me for a few years and he liked me, you know, and so I guess, you know, it was like we, and as soon as we got to the studio and writing, we knew we were on to something, we knew there was something different from what we were doing and that was because of these elements coming together and you know, the rest is history really. You know, we got a record, major record deal on the strength of 3 songs.

MD: Right, right.

LR: you know, that was back then when major record companies could do that.

MD: Right.

LR: Take that kind of risk, you know.

MD: And I’m curious. How has technology effected your music over the years? Things have changed dramatically in 20 years as far as, you know, just what you can do and, technically, and how you get music out there and all that. Do you think about that, those things when you’re actually making the music, when you’re writing your lyrics?

LR: Yeah. Well we don’t, I guess I don’t because I’m a real luddite, you know, I love what technology can do but I’d rather leave in other people’s hands really, I’m not very technological, I mean i use a computer everyday but, you know, my son fixes things with my computer if anything goes wrong I don’t know.

MD: Right, right.

LR: I love my iPad. But you know, apart from that, it’s like technology, I like living in a world where there’s wood and gas and, you know, log wood fires, you know, gas stoves and but, you know over the years I think technology has definitely had its effect on our music and I think, you know, back in the day when we first formed we had such limited technology and you can hear it in a way but that almost made us more experimental because we had to work within the constraints of what we had and what we could use and I think that’s a good kind of format in a way, in the middle there somewhere when we got a major record deal and boat loads of new technology, there was a temptation I think, in particularly on Andy’s part to use it all, you know, because it’s very easy when you’ve got a fully stocked kitchen to kind of use everything.

MD: Yeah.

LR: And with the meal, the food kind of loses its form in a way. So, you know, I think we’ve learnt over the years that store cupboard cooking’s always the way to go, you know, what have I got here, I’ve got this, this, this and this, okay let’s make something out of that and that brings its own purity and you know. So that particularly since we reformed with 5 and particularly with Backspace Unwind, we kind of had a real ethos of less is more. So if it’s not needed, you take it out.

MD: Right, gotcha.

LR: Because you know everything’s available as plugins, you know, you’ve got a cornucopia of sounds and sets and god knows what, you know, that you could use everything but for us it’s about, you know, limiting your options and, you know, just being careful not to overuse anything and being careful to keep things, well the space, coming back to that word space, is very important to keep the space in there.

Click here for more info about Lamb’s show at Auckland’s Tuning Fork.