Back in September 2017 when we had Leifur James in for a live set on Worldwide FM, it was instantly clear he was someone to keep an eye on. It wasn’t just his dexterity on multiple instruments (vocal chords included) and technologies, but his whole approach: there was a drive, clear artistic direction and sensitivity for how he was pitching himself in a crowded market that was doubly impressive given he had no direction from a label or manager. Sure enough, a few months later, we heard he’d been signed to Night Time Stories, the sister label for LateNightTales original artist releases who have helped catapult Khruangbin into the stratosphere after just two albums. His debut LP for them, A Louder Silence, is brimming with nuanced electronic instrumentals, dubby synths, and jazz breaks, creating an array of rich textures, complemented occasionally by James’ own soulful vocals. Following its release, Leifur welcomed us into his London studio to discuss his creative processes and the tech that help make his sound.
What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music?
I couldn’t afford everything I wanted at the beginning, so the first set up was pretty basic, a laptop, logic, plugins, an interface and some time to explore. I was thinking a lot when I started about how I was using my time. I think time has been one of the most valuable things,
What was the first serious piece of kit you bought
I got the studio acoustically treated and bought a pair of Focal solo speakers. I wanted a good representation of the sound early on and shipped in 15 big red bass traps which was completely excessive and made the room feel like a panic room.
Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?
It’s my own studio in London.
Could you give us a little walk through the main components?
The Ob6 synth is a synth I use a lot. It’s a cross between a Dave Smith Prophet with Oberheim filters. It’s really musical and satisfying. The Roland 501 space echo I go to for analog ambience, I used this on the starting synth for the album intro ‘Alpine’. The Korg Minilogue and Arp Odyssey also feature on the record, and the Nord A1 has one sound on it I go to often. It seems a bit crazy to have this synth for one sound, but it’s been consistently present in the album.
Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?
I haven’t thought about it too much, but I have sleeve covers and instruments around me that make me want to go in there every day. When you stare music in the face for too long it’s nice to look at something that isn’t a piece of hardware or software home screen. My old Cello hangs in the middle of the studio which feels kind of earthy. I sometimes sit with no lights on, just the lights from the equipment illuminate the room which focuses me on the listening and creates an absorbing atmosphere.
What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?
It’s been gradual, unless you have a lot of money its hard to get this all straight away. When you see these guys walking around their studios being filmed by FACT, talking about their 100th drum machine and compressor, it feels a bit like MTV cribs, ‘and this is my separate bedroom for my sneakers’. That doesn’t really get me going. What someone does with not much and makes something interesting, I like that. There’s life in that.
Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change?
Not always. I’d only allow myself to get something new once I’ve gone into every corner of the last. But naturally when you get a new instrument it can give fresh inspiration and renewed energy. The 501 space echo I sat with for days and ran everything through it to see what would come out. I like when a new piece of gear relates to the old in unusual ways – things that wouldn’t necessarily go together, finding those strange harmonies between and re-appreciating the old in this new context. When you remove yourself from your box and go into another, then look at that old box from a new perspective; you see, it looks different from up here, how can I use it now.
If money were no object what would you add?
In a roundabout way, I think financial constraints are good. They force you to focus on one thing, learn it, earn it and make the most of it. So in that sense, I wouldn’t want money to be no object because you could get complacent. But if I could have anything, I’d have a big airy studio somewhere in nature, I’ve always wanted somewhere visually inspiring that also works technically as a studio.
You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?
To be honest, I don’t. I like all the pieces I have for their different qualities. But if I had to keep one for life, maybe the cello as that was my first instrument and you don’t have to plug it in. Something I value now, I’m always plugging stuff in.
How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets?
I like to play most things live so I have to take a lot of gear. The live show is pretty uncondensed, I probably need to condense it! I could do a more condensed set, but I find it more exciting always being on the edge, not quite knowing where it will go and having various tools to achieve that. That’s where the music is, and in the happy mistakes that come with it. I think I also feel more at home on stage surrounding myself with the instruments I have in my studio.
Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?
As soon as I switch on a record in the morning I’m often in the right space. It’s always been a positive place rather than a chore so it doesn’t take much to get me sucked in.
What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?
I think too much of a creative approach can become formulaic and rigid and you can miss the real music. But naturally you start with ideas, they grow, you reflect and refine. Writing this album has been creative freedom for me, so I keep with the freedom and don’t get too formulaic. I think you can hear that in the record, it’s been quite an open book. I let it go where it goes then rein it in a bit.
You play much of what we hear on a Leifur James track. What’s your musical education?
My mum is a classical pianist and she didn’t have a lot of money when we were growing up. She went all the way to a custom cello designer miles away when I was about 7 and spent everything she had on this Cello for me. That made me feel it was a special thing.. I had to cherish that cello and make it my prized possession. I had an intense teacher – I remember once dropping the bow on her antique cello, she kicked me out in the rain and I sat there for 45 minutes before I was picked up. She was full on, but I learnt a lot from her about dynamics, rhythm and melody. I don’t play it much anymore but it’s on the record a couple of times. I think it informed what I do now more than I realise.
Are you someone to Labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?
I used to work on something for a while, I still do, but I think you become more instinctive as time goes on. Sometimes a track will take weeks, sometimes a day, neither is good or bad. Still to this day, I’ll put something down and come back in six months and think, yeah I like that now! It’s only ready when you are.
I remember reading an article from Steve Reich years ago; he said he wouldn’t release something that he might look back in 10 years and not connect with. Once it’s out, it’s out and has your name on it. I resonated with that, and I’ve waited until I had something I was happy to release both now and in 20 years.
Where do you go or what do you do when you have writers block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?
Brian Eno used these oblique strategy cards that had a single emotion or feeling written on them. He’d pick a card and he had to express that word on the card in music. I sometimes sit down and think about that, it breaks the patterns and you can end up somewhere you wouldn’t expect.
In general though, I have the opposite. When you are immersed in music it’s hard to switch off. If I’m not in it I’ll take that opportunity to go out and do other things. Often I’ll be in it again when I come back.
What inspires you outside the world of music?
I think life informs you all the time, consciously or unconciously. I often saw a beam of light, like the light at the end of a tunnel in my mind when I wrote the album. Which is quite weird really – but I used to paint and I liked J.M.W Turner’s work. His use of light, contrasts and brooding atmospheres totally consumed you, I always admired that feeling he created. I realise now unknowingly it’s been an influence on the sound and atmosphere of the album. He had these strong alluring beams of light in his work. I think you can feel that in some of the tracks, leading you somewhere but not quite sure where. Maybe this is just my madness.
What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new album, A Louder Silence?
I’d say there isn’t really one piece of kit. The time and space to create was the main thing, I thank close friends and family for that.
How important is silence and negative space in your music and music-making process?
I guess artists I’ve liked have always done this in creative ways, playing with the listener. In this instantaneous world we live in, where people are fed and crave immediate satisfaction, it felt good to share music that forces you to wait sometimes. You’re giving people something you value in that sense. Miles Davis famously said when he used to play in clubs, everybody was loud; there was too much noise. So he would play something so soft that you could hardly hear it… and everyone would talk about listening.
The album title came to mind in a film ‘Annihilation’ directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina). I was watching it with a friend and a character said, “The silence around you is loud”. I thought that was great, this idea of a loud silence. And it reflected my thoughts around the dynamics of the album, finding a personal silence through music and in society as a whole in a time where we lack it.
While you’ve put other music online before this album is your first official release so you must be happy Late Night Tales has shown such an early interest. How did link-up come about and why do you feel the label is a good home for your debut?
Paul who runs the label emailed me about a year ago, it went from there. With all the comps they’ve done over the years with iconic electronic artists and the Khruangbin releases, it felt a good place to be musically.
Beyond the album release, what else is on the horizon that we should look out for?
I’m touring the album and a solo electronic show with Pantha du Prince this December, ending at the Barbican in January. Then a European tour in February/March and releasing some music early next year.