An Ocean of Noise

Jean-Xavier Boucherat goes to see Grouper, and talks with Room 40’s Curator, Lawrence English.

It could be that I’m growing up but lately, I find the image of a room packed full of people listening to a performer in attentive silence more arresting than that of the youth dislocating each other’s arms and egos. I remember the final show at the now defunct ‘Posi-Crypt of a Thousand Drunks’. As well as Edinburgh hardcore party Shields Up, it featured a performance from Timothy C. Holehouse. Crouched in a corner surrounded by pedals, his minimal noise-drone and haunting, looped vocals froze the otherwise high-energy crowd to the floor, which was pretty refreshing in an age of musical ADHD. When twenty lives simultaneously come to something like a halt, the screeching is pretty intense.

This is what’s happening tonight downstairs in a full-to-capacity Sleazy’s,  the silence so complete at times that the more delicate moments of the performance are threatened by a beeping drinks till. Not that any of the noise junkies sprawled about on the floor care at all, some gazing up at the stage in reverence, some clearly utilizing the waves to engage in some ferocious introspection. Tonight, artists from the Australian-based ambient and experimental label Room 40 come to Glasgow; Rafael Anton Issirai, Label Curator Lawrence English, and Liz Harris, AKA Grouper.

Grouper is headlining tonight’s bill. After helping English to finish his fantastic, physically-draining set, she sits at a table centre stage, cradling an electric guitar, and facing a pair of mics, plugged into various pedals at her feet. On the table is a selection of audio tapes, and four walkmans plugged into a mixer. Throughout the set, Harris mix and matches the tapes, a selection of field recordings and ethereal noise which occasionally falter and betray their analogue format. Over these, she strums and picks at her densely layered guitar, murmuring, crooning and whispering in an impossibly gentle, indistinct wail.

The result is intoxicating, and before long I’m fairly much lost in a centre-less soundscape with no points of reference, except maybe for Harris herself – as a friend remarked, there is something about watching her at work that is like watching a musician in their bedroom. This is the kind of awkward intensity which you get scared of looking away from, for fear of missing one subtle act which could define the performance. And before I know it, the tape runs out, the guitar cuts off, and Harris just has time in the ensuing silence to utter a curt ‘thanks’. No pretension here whatsoever. Just an honest exploration of truths we already know.

This tour celebrates Room 40’s 10th anniversary. ‘Hopefully we’re just as good-looking as we were back then’ announces Lawrence English. Trust me, he is. Here’s had he what to say to us;

Do you think people respond to your labels music, or ambience and noise in general, in the same way they did ten years ago?

Whilst there’s been a lot of changes in the way people listen, how they interact with music and what they value about music – I feel fairly strongly that the relationship of most people who interact with the label is the same now as it was then.

Do you think younger listeners, say my age, have the same sort of patience?

A good question, and I think so for the most part – I mean age has little to do with how people might listen and engage with the music. Like all things, the longer you explore the more you get from it.

To someone who might of never heard any of Room 40’s releases, or anything vaguely experimental, they might associate terms like ‘ambience’, ‘noise’ or field recordings with inactive processes, something that belongs in the background. How d’you think your music in particular escapes this? Do you think it does at all?

I guess this is a very personal thing. For some people, when they hear a pop song all that really focus on is the voice, the lyrics – they sing a long and perhaps never listen with any focus on the bass or drums sections in the piece, when in fact it’s these parts that give the piece it’s rhythm and pulse.

For my music it’s the same thing, if you let it seep into you, the detail and the depth of elements like field recordings or textural elements come into focus (as do the other musical elements) and suddenly you hear a whole other universe of sound you perhaps might not get from music that’s concerned with more ‘pop’ related formats. For me, what excites me most about music is when I hear people explore the details of the sounds – take Grouper for example or Tujiko Noriko or Tenniscoats – even though these musicians work with recognisable structures, voice, electronics and other ‘familiar’ sounds, it’s the way they work with them – the depth and subtlety of sounds they use that makes their work so deeply engaging.

Music and sound is absolutely a two way process, the more you listen the more you hear.

Is there anything in particular you like to see at your shows on the part of the audience / the live experience in general?

I like for people to get lost in the sound and to have a sense of the two ways of listening – with the ears (higher frequencies, cerebral sound) and with the body (low frequencies, physical sound) sound isn’t just about little membranes in your ears vibrating, it’s about the whole body.

Aye. Physical Experience. I thought my ribs were gonna cave in. Ever had any truly unique reactions at shows because of that?

There’s been a few shows that have been really special – due to sound system or space. In Brisbane I made parts of the ceiling fall away once this year – everyone become covered in a fine white powder as I vibrated the ceiling. Also in Russia last year the sound system was so powerful I was able to make the entire room vibrate with the most unnatural intensity, really felt like the makings of an earthquake. I have to say vibrating a bottle of booze off the bar was a first in Glasgow!

Cathartic stuff indeed. I was stupid to ask Lawrence if he saw the label going another ten years from now; “

‘Most certainly’ he said, ‘it’s a true pleasure to spend time working with such wonderful artists’.

Go to to check out the latest news and releases surrounding the label. For more interesting, exotic gigs in Glasgow like this one which you should really be going to instead of Viper, take a peek at Cry Parrot on Facebook


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