147 Tower Gardens Road, London. In the words of Quietus scribe and co-founder Luke Turner, “A secret temple of respite, hiding behind red bricks and a privet hedge with a mind of its own,” and a place of retreat and reflection for its assorted denizens that came to an end with the sad departure of landlord, Coil affiliate and artist Ian Johnstone, in June 2015. Though the home lost its purpose as an artistic oasis amongst the stress and mental crush of London, it spurred Daniel O’Sullivan (Grumbling Fur, Ulver), resident, multi-instrumentalist and member of too many superlative bands to name in one sitting, to join forces with long-time friend Massimo Pupuillo (Zu) to form Laniakea and create a work which could serve as a receptacle for his loss, an otherworldly tableau of sound that he was kind enough to break down for us.
I’ve had a few listens to the album now and congratulations, it’s absolutely beautiful. I’m loving it.
Thanks a lot, man.
You had your first show for it over in Quebec recently. How did that come about? It’s a pretty weird one for a debut.
Yeah, it’s Massimo, really. He’s such a mover shaker. He hooked it up. I guess he knows (Michel) Levasseur, the curator. I think he’s played there a couple of times before. Anyway, he sent him some files before the album was finished and he was intrigued enough to book us for that. We have a warm-up show in Brussels before then in a venue called Magasin 4 and we’ve got some other things in the pipeline as well.
Had you worked with Massimo in the past? I know you had toured with him, so how did the project come about?
I’ve known him for a number of years but we’d never collaborated, although we did speak about it a while back. He just came to visit. He wanted to see the house and he’s a big Coil fan so there’s lots of ephemera around; he came to stay I think the year before last and he came again after Ian passed away, when the house was winding down. We did the first batch of recordings beforehand and we finished it the second time he came. This is the only context in which I’d worked with him, actually.
You’ve done a huge amount of work in Tower Gardens over the years. I caught Luke’s words on it and was tearing up just reading it. It’s a shame to see places like that go. What are your most distinct memories of being there and of Ian?
Yeah, so many… it’s been well documented by now but there was just such an overwhelming otherness when you were there. The house was designed to feel that way, surrounded by power objects imbued with secret histories but also Ian’s placement of them. I just remember standing by the back door and the rain coming down on the twisted willow and the acer and dripping into the pans – he had lots of little unused pans and bowls in the back garden and there was an old Victorian bathtub there for a while too – and just the sound of the rain on all these metallic objects was almost like a suburban gamelan going on. I could just be there and not really do anything. I could dance around every room in that house and feel totally at ease and after a few years of personal upset and turmoil it was all the more welcome.
Then, memories of Ian visiting… he’d come back from Spain, back from Cantu, which was his sort-of permacultural farmland in the Asturian mountains which he maintained with his partner Mikel Quiros. He’d come back and take long baths, listening to Cocteau Twins on his laptop, he’d plonk himself in his chair – he had this old, red armchair – and sit there watching bad movies and reading about flowers, or he’d put on a silly wig or a hat. He couldn’t bear London towards the end. It represented a former self, something toxic I think, but the house was always an island and a sanctuary for us all. Those years really set us straight, everyone that lived there is now in a much better place as a result of having had that time and that space to rearrange our lives. I’m forever grateful to Ian for his generosity of spirit.
You’re well known for having some fantastic collaborations but you also seem very discerning about who you work with. People like Massimo and Alexander (Tucker) seem an appropriate match. What do you look for in a collaborative partner? Is it friendship or can you feel that musical compatibility in advance?
I tend to see more of the friends that I work with and create things with than those that I don’t so it’s kind of an excuse to see people. So it’s fellowship, basically. Even in the case of Massimo, he just came round and wanted to record. All the stuff was there and the studio was there so we just got to it and actually, it was the most effortless process of recording I’d probably ever experienced. Sounds surfacing in a trance. I guess the usual concerns regarding construct or whatever were overshadowed by this immense feeling of loss so it was more of a channelling, and Massimo is very good at drawing that energy out as well. He spends a lot of time in the jungle with these magic plants that bring about transpersonal experiences and encounters with interdimensional entities. It’s nothing specific, really. Maybe it is specific but it’s ineffable. It’s just whether the colour invites you. In the case of Alex, he’s a very dear old friend. My closest friend. We just know each other very well and we’ve always bounced off each other over the years, and again it’s very much a part of our union to make things together. Birthing songs, collages, improvisations, whatever.
You’d said in the past that your work with Mothlite was the most open that you had been with any of your projects. Do all of your projects, then, have some distinct goal beyond the actual act of creation?
Yeah, I think that’s the whole point of having different projects. You can create a different vehicle for that form of expression. Like Miracle, for example – one can occupy this role of a singer based on recollections and memories. It’s great, it’s just a real trip and very liberating to play with multiple identities – gets you out of the humdrum and allows you to shed layers before getting too comfortable. With Mothlite, again it’s kind of fantasy in a way. I guess with those things, I either do them remotely or on my own. When I’m writing with other people or improvising there’s obviously an interaction that’s taking place so it’s a conversational process. But yeah, I like the idea of personality dissolution, or speaking in multiple tongues, but all stemming from the same source. They’re all linked. There’s this meta-narrative that’s being played out. Of course I’m not the one to say what that is [laughs].
Did you always take that view? What were your earliest musical excursions like?
Earliest musical excursions were playing The Entertainer on piano, backwards, and making shitty radio plays on cassette with Foley sounds, literally with spoons and coconut shells, and doing silly voices, creating different characters and figuring out these long, episodic narratives with my uncle Damien. It was my uncle who fuelled my passion for music, actually. He loved Delta Blues, Jazz, Bowie & Eno, Velvet Underground, Beatles, 60’s psychedelia, minimalist and contemporary classical music, etc. My mum and dad were also part of that world. My dad went to school with some of the guys from The Fall and my mum was in a band called Automation, they played a few gigs with an early incarnation of Joy Division – I can’t remember if it was Stiff Kittens or Warsaw – but they were kids in that Manchester scene when the Hacienda and the Russell Club were happening. I just remember that being in the air when I was a kid and then going through, a bit later on, a classical music education as well. It’s like some sort of mutant hybrid of records that were around the house when I was a kid and a more traditional study of composition.
I think that probably explains a lot about your broad range, then.
Does it? Yeah, surrealism too. That was another thing that was around, a lot of art, books and documentaries that my uncle used to watch – old movies too, lots of French new wave, and the discovery of people like Švankmajer, Dali, Ernst. I suppose collage being the common theme – that sensibility of taking things from incongruous sources and allowing them to find a new unprecedented destination or meaning. Then later, getting into Austin Spare, people who pre-empted this tradition of the automatic – automatic composition, or the automatic sensibility; the idea that everything has its own desired shape that exists in an unconscious realm and then if your intellect doesn’t interrupt you can unlock it. Ian introduced me to D.H Lawrence’s concept of blood consciousness, which is something you find in a lot of Victorian and Edwardian literature. Thomas Hardy and suchlike. A deeper nature at the base of all action and the will that makes this hidden world manifest.
Do you have that view of automatic composition too?
Yeah, a lot of the time I do, or at least I like to have the space to do that. Sometimes an idea comes pretty much fully-formed and comes from a more obvious place, symbolically – like a pop song or something. Even a pop song, the most banal pop song, can be spawned from that place. It might be something deeply rooted in the unconscious – a song that you heard on the radio when you were 6 years old or whatever but it’s amazing how these things emerge when your mind has the space to do it. Improvising is a healthy practice for any artist, whatever the discipline.
“I began to see it as a vessel, as an environment. To store fears, rather than letting them consume you, it felt like a response to the liberation of the body. The sound is living language but once it is born it no longer needs the body to exist.”
You have taken inspiration in the past from, not quite mundane, events but observations, like the whale that was stuck in the Thames a few years back. Were there any similar events that had any bearing on Laniakea’s writing?
It’s that feeling of a slip in the suburbs, some kind of split in the seams of ordinary life behind the privet hedge, or whatever the cliché is. A sort of portal into other realms. You’d never know for example, walking down a street like Tower Gardens Road that a rich psychic tapestry would exist behind these pyracanthas and big pampas grasses growing in front of 147 but I suppose that’s the where words come from – it’s that duality. I suppose the core of it stems from the idea that the perceiver can affect the perceived. That’s what it is, what those words are. They are a direct result of that, they are that, the words themselves are that. I don’t think I have anything more to say on the actual words. The words speak their truth. It would be a disservice to decode them.
How quickly did the material come together? It sounds very intuitive.
Yeah, it was fast. We had two days in the previous year and then after Ian died, I think we did two or three days, and that was that. That’s the record. We worked from morning ‘til night because we were… it’s called A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. I began to see it as a vessel, as an environment. To store fears, rather than letting them consume you, it felt like a response to the liberation of the body. The sound is living language but once it is born it no longer needs the body to exist. Sound is kind of a vehicle, an oxymoron because yeah, it’s physical but it’s physical in the same that a wave is physical – it’s born to imply its imminent death, so it’s this invisible vessel in the sense you can only put something invisible like grief, that manifests physically but comes from this non-physical, emotional or psychological place, so there’s nothing practical you can do other than to release it. Obviously, when a person dies you’re surrounded by remnants of their life. Which we put into containers, whether it’s ashes in an urn or books in boxes, all the stuff that was them – even dust, you sweep up dust, you sweep up skin and put it in the trash. Everything is contained but that’s because we compensate for the great un-containment, the great liberation that is death. I’ve never really had to deal with it so intensely before. I lost my great-grandma when I was seven years old but I don’t know how I dealt with it. I think at the time I processed it in dreams. This time, I think I handled it – or am still handling it, it never goes away – through Ian’s teachings and method, seeing how he dealt with losing so many friends over the years. It gave me strength and a practical route to understanding. Ian was a classic Virgo. My moon is in Virgo.
Do you have any aims to work further with Laniakea?
Yeah. I don’t know what we’ll do next. I don’t think there’s any shortage of inspiration. Very open in terms of the trajectory of the project and I don’t think either of us has any fixed ideas of what it should be. We’ve been together for these gigs and we talk quite a lot because the record’s coming out and doing things like this, a little bit of press, so there’s certainly more on the horizon, I just don’t know what it’ll be. It seems to attract density – so I think opening the palette up to further orchestration is a strong possibility. If you write a simple song and stretch it, the fibre of it becomes more apparent, more present somehow, and then you find that there’re these finer details, like a society of sound in bead-like particle form. We pull, stretch them out, scratching away at the surface to reveal the hidden world underneath – the micro and the macro being indistinguishable at a certain level. Oh, it’s raining…
What else are you working on at the moment as you usually have quite a list?
The new Grumbling Fur album is coming out in September on Thrill Jockey and then after that we’ve got another Time Machine Orchestra release with Charlemagne Palestine which looks to be coming out on Important Records again. That’s going to a be a double LP, it probably won’t be until next year, and then there’s a new Mothlite record, V E L D that we’ve been working on forever. That’s probably going to be next year as well as I just don’t want to swamp the world with my shit – well I do really. I’m working on new Miracle music with Steve Moore at the moment, which is sounding very different to the last one. I’m just writing a lot of new music without any specific project in mind. Something bent out of shape. I’m doing a lot of visual stuff – more painting, making collages. Yeah, lots of shit. Learning some new instruments as well, learning to play clarinet and flute. I’ve always wanted to but I’ve finally spent some money and bought some new instruments, really just so I can orchestrate my own stuff without having to ask favours. I just want to be able to do it all alone, at least to begin with.
I did always wonder just how many instruments you can play.
Well anyone can play anything really. The thing is about me that I like good music but I like bad music too, and I like things to be smart and stupid too. I like both sides of the coin. In that way, I’m not concerned with being a virtuoso. I think that’s how you get over that… you know that thing when you’re a kid, there’s always that concern to identify yourself with your taste in culture – which later turns out to be something of a prison. There’s always something you feel you have to align your tastes with in order to shape your personality but I find as I get older I’m more interested in dissolving identity as it emerges so that the pattern doesn’t become fixed, because the pattern isn’t fixed. If anything, it’s constantly in flux so I’d rather mirror that because that feels more like an absolute to me than playing the same shit your whole life. Or even just writing songs and not ever wanting to play free. Playing in time is lovely but it’s when you learn about why they contradict each other, and there’s that precious space in between, the contradiction, you can swim in there and you don’t feel like you’re carrying a legacy. You can put down the mask in that headspace.
The other thing I should probably mention is that I’ve been playing in This Heat, though it’s been renamed This Is Not This Heat, mainly out of respect for Gareth Williams, who died in the early 2000s. That’s been amazing, deconstructing their music and just being part of that process, working with those two incredible musicians and all of the brilliant guest musicians, many of whom were already friends and collaborators. It’s a real veritable cast but Charles Hayward broke his ankle the other day, just before we were supposed to go to Stuart Lee’s ATP in Prestatyn. There was a lot of preparation, a very intensive rehearsal schedule, and now – well it hasn’t gone to waste because we’ll pick it up but probably not until next year.
Yeah, Fielding (Hope, Cafe OTO booker) was very excited about that one.
He was, we all were.
I saw Charles as well with Uneven Eleven, his project with Kawabata Makoto.
Oh yeah, how was that?
Fantastic. Really small turnout, but the London show looked fantastic too.
I can imagine that being quite a strange fusing of textures because they all have their own, very unique style. All fantastic musicians, and Guy Segers, the bass player – used to be in Univers Zero. I loved Univers Zero, I was obsessed with them for a while! When I was playing in Guapo and Miasma, I was listening to Heresie in particular. I was intrigued that he’d come out of the woodwork, and playing with Kawabata? What!?
Are there any of those heroes you’d still love to meet, or even work with?
No, not really. I don’t go through life thinking like that. Whatever happens will come to pass. Most of my heroes are dead anyway. I guess having some questions answered might be gratifying. People you become obsessed with, or obsessed with their music – how did they arrive at this? What sort of psychic conditioning took place? Of course, there’re a few people in that category but even then it’s not really that important, is it? Making your kid’s dinner and taking them to ballet lessons, that’s the real deal.