The Leaf Library bring their hypnotic drone-pop to vibrant heights & depths with their wondrous new album The World Is A Bell.
An interview with Matt Ashton
2019 has been a prolific year for The Leaf Library, with your side-project Monuments, the About Minerals album on the Inner Space Travels label, and now the wondrous new album The World is a Bell. Is this productivity reflective of a state of evolution for you, both personally and as a band?
Yes, I guess it is. There are several reasons for the amount we do; partly to do with constantly feeling like time is running out, and partly to do with making the most of the people around us while we still can. There will be a point when we can’t all make music together for one reason or another and when that comes I want to feel like we’ve made the most of our time.
There was a period a few years back where we weren’t really getting anywhere with new songs and I definitely considered stopping. That we got another chance to put more music out is great, thanks to Where It’s At Is Where You Are and it makes me feel that we should make the most of the opportunity.
Finally, I’ve always admired bands like Stereolab who were super prolific – anything less just seems like slacking. Lewis (Young, drummer) and I write a lot, and I’m pretty impatient about getting new stuff out there.
Can you give us an insight into band-member dynamics within the compositional and recording process?
Most commonly the music starts with Lewis and I. We rarely write together, instead working on things separately at home and then sending basic sketches back and forth online. We live a few roads apart but still find this the easiest and most productive way to do things. I don’t tend to start something with the intention of it becoming a particular type of music – I usually just record to get something out of my system.
One of the great things about working the way we do in those initial stages is that I know Lewis can (and will) totally transform something I’ve sent him. A good example is An Edge, An Ending from the last album (About Minerals) – I don’t recognise anything of what I sent him but I know it’s in there. And had I planned what the track would end up sounding like we wouldn’t have found our way to the weird and surprising place we eventually did. Lewis is a studio wizard and should be producing pop hits for Ariana Grande (all the rest of the band are also wizards in their own special way – will DM the curious with details). Without the working relationship we’ve built up (and Dropbox) I don’t think we’d have quite the same sound going on as we do.
Once we have something that is definitely a Leaf Library track then we’ll decide what else it needs (or doesn’t), and the others will add parts accordingly. The great thing with the other members is there’s very little ego involved anywhere – if something only needs a very simple, one note line then people (including me!) are pretty happy to play it and to just serve the song. The vocals tend to come right near the end, however for something to be a Leaf Library track it needs to feel like it’s going to work with Kate’s singing. Pretty much everything I consider for us is written with her voice in mind – without that there is no band, really.
With recording it’s different every time. The majority of the last two studio albums were done in the same places (Studio Klank in Wood Green, London and The Drone Lodge in Walthamstow in London), with people coming and going as interest and energy allowed, whereas About Minerals was made whilst we were mixing The World Is A Bell, on laptops in the control room. The four of us that made that one were rarely in the same room together, aside from doing Kate’s vocals. Melinda recorded hers at home and sent them in (before she and I mixed them in a café).
I understand that that you typically allow a year or more of gestation in the studio for the creation of an album. How important and impactful is this maturation from kernel to finished product?
It’s really by necessity rather than design. We have a certain amount of time each week we can give to recording, so naturally things take a little longer than they might if we were to go away and concentrate on something day after day. The World Is A Bell took a particularly long time because the pieces were written and arranged (as part of On An Ocean Of Greatness, for the WIAIWYA 21st Anniversary release) before they were even considered as songs, so we had to fit everything around pre-existing structures. It was a really torturous process. Because it took so long we have some of the next album written, having slowly built up new songs whilst playing live over the last few years. We’re hoping to record these as simply as possible, ideally live. But we’ll see what happens.
About Minerals actually took very little time at all – about six months all together. There was a very definite deadline for that one, and I wanted to see if we had it in us to do something quickly. I was very grateful to Tiago who runs Inner Space Travels for asking us to make it.
You write the majority of the lyrics for The Leaf Library. How do approach the craft?
Before any music happens I write many single lines and titles in my notebooks. Often when starting a piece of music (or deciding it’s going to be a Leaf Library song) I’ll find a suitable title to give it and when it comes to writing the lyrics the title will often help give me the start of the lyrics, or a jumping off point (or sometimes just an idea about atmosphere).
All of that seems very considered so I think it’s worth saying that lyric writing is still an absolute mystery to me. Many people have said this before but it’s definitely a case of putting oneself in the right situation or frame of mind in which to channel something that might lead to some useful or interesting sounding phrases, rather than an easy flow of words from the conscious brain. I have no idea where a lot of the lyrics come from – so much gets discarded, and things are written and re-written many times so I love having the notebooks because it’s the only proof that wrote them.
I’ve never found it easy but I like the challenge nowadays – the feeling when the last line clicks into place is great. I do sometimes decide that I want to write vaguely about *something* but it’s always much more fun finding the meaning in things once it’s done.
Do you have any rituals or quirks in regards to your process of composition, recording and producing?
This will sound ridiculous but I honestly feel that the act of making something, of setting oneself up to create something and see it through is one long ritual in itself, though that might not be the thrust of the question.
And there are definitely quirks to how we work – most seem pretty inconsequential as I come to write them down, but I guess they all add up to something in the end. Some examples (most of which could be shot down by other band members): I try to not use the grid too much when making music on the laptop, and we try and stick to the ‘first thought, best thought’ principle as much as possible – in writing and recording. I try and use whatever equipment is nearby, and to do as few things as possible with it, or at least try and squeeze out as many variables of the same sound before moving on, particularly when it comes to synthesisers (both hardware and computer).
I also only ever use a plain black Bic biro when writing – anything else just feels like excessive ornamentation.
What non-musical pursuits inform your music?
Same as most people I know – titles and lines come from books and the titles of paintings, the artwork and design comes from all the cool looking stuff that people have made over the years. We’re lucky living in London to be able to get to galleries and museums on a regular basis. That said, I’ve mis-read the back of a food carton in the past that has then turned into a lyric or atmosphere for a song so anything can happen.
I guess walking and travelling are the most personal things that affect the music. Train travel in particular is something that I come back to again and again – it’s one of my favourite places to listen to music, and I very rarely read on a train journey.
You’re based in London but seem thematically more interested in things rural than urban. Is there a philosophy behind this perspective?
That’s hard to answer because I don’t want to undo any meanings or feelings people have attached to particular songs or pieces of music. I think the rural in our music is very much from the perspective of city dwellers – stuck within the M25 looking out.
To me there is much more of the urban in our music than other people might make out, though I admit we’ve definitely talked up the coastal themes in our work before (possibly at the expense of other narratives). There are several songs on the new album that, for me at least, exist in the city, definitely on the outer edges and suburbs if not the centre. But when the rural or non-urban does appear it’s usually as a means of escapism, even if it’s just intended for me as the writer, rather than attempting to transport people somewhere. I think the philosophy behind that is clear – I’m obviously bored of the city!
To what extent does a sense of place affect your creativity?
I like to think it has a deep profound effect on me, though I do just end up about writing about the same things over and over again. The sound we find ourselves working with is usually far more to do with what equipment or space is available to us at the time. I’ve been living in a new flat for six months and have had very little hardware here, so what I’ve made in that time is different to what I would have done back at home in the same time. It would be interesting to know what we’d sound like if I moved to the countryside. I’ve always loved the idea of doing an artist’s retreat somewhere, and trying to make an album really quickly whilst in a barn on a hill.
Having said that, I wonder if one day I’ll look back on these London albums and a pattern, or an obvious city atmosphere will be clear. Time will tell.
You often bring in guest musicians for your releases, and The World is a Bell is no exception. Tell us about these collaborations and the impact they had on realising the album.
This relates to the point in the first question about having people around us now that won’t all live within easy distance of the studio in the future – I made a decision when making Daylight Versions to get as many friends on there as possible before they all moved away. It was so much fun that it seemed like an obvious thing to do again. There’s something about strength in numbers too.
In terms of picking the guests for this one, most were obvious choices. When I first saw Ed Dowie perform I hoped I’d have the courage to ask him to sing on the record – I was very pleased when he said yes and, like when Alasdair from The Clientele came to sing on the last one, it was so surreal to hear a voice I admired so much singing my weird words.
Far Rainbow were another obvious choice as I’ve wanted to do something with them for a while. I’ve always thought we were probably a bit straight for them but the song Bodies Carried Off By Bees seemed to be a good meeting point for us both. They turned it from a bit of an aimless amble into something much more intense.
We came to Iskra Strings through Ben at Daylight Music, and when Dan (Fordham – arranger, saxophonist) were discussing who we were going to get to play the arrangements it made much more sense to get an established group to do it. Knowing that they were going to be able to do it gave us much more confidence in doing the arrangements we really wanted – we didn’t have to worry whether they’d be able to play them or not.
Everyone else has been in and out of our orbit in one way or another over the years. Michael ‘Whoa Melodic’ Wood (piano) was our third guitarist for a while, and Laura from Firestations has been a sort of unofficial member for a long time now. I wanted her and Mike to sing on the record because they both have such lovely voices, and they’re pretty fun to have around in the studio. Pete Gofton is a whizz on the vibraphone, and we got Nathan Thomas in right at the last minute as we decided we absolutely MUST have some French horn on the album.
Making music is a fun thing to do so it just makes sense to try and share that with as many people as possible. Knowing that all those hands have been involved with it makes me a lot more confident about what we’re doing, and it makes things interesting. Adding new sounds and voices into songs that already exist can bring a spark that otherwise might be missing.
What is The World is a Bell about?
The title comes from a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote: “The world is a bell; it is cracked and does not ring out properly” – when I first read that I knew that I wanted to use it as a title. I loved the sound of it and the shape of the words; it carries a lot of implied meaning, but at the same time is blank enough to allow you to attach your own meaning to the phrase.
What are your plans for 2020?
As usual we have many plans, and even if just a few of them come to fruition it will be very pleasing. I have a couple of collaborations planned, one with Firestations and another with a really good poet that I’ve been chatting to on and off online for a while. With that we have got as far as writing some titles, and he has written some fantastic lines but we need to be able to give it the time it deserves.
I would like to have the time to collaborate more with others, particularly as we have the Monuments series as a good outlet for that sort of thing. I’ve recently been talking to an excellent Canadian artist called Pallas Athene who I would love to make some joint tracks with but again, there’s no point rushing these things. Likewise, our recent t-shirt artist Teruyuki Kurihara and I have talked about doing some kind of music exchange.
There is talk of reissuing the About Minerals album from earlier this year on LP, and we already have a handful of songs written for the next album. I’d love to record that one very quickly, but I know that once we get into it the ideas will come and it’ll roll on and on. I would also like to do another Basic Design (solo) album – there are many sketches for that one already. Melinda (Bronstein, TLL co-vocalist and percussionist) and I have made an album as well, so that might see daylight soon. Melinda and Lewis also have another band together called Zonate Tooth who are working on things, Gareth our bass player’s other band Wintergreen are working on the follow up to The Rule Of Small Things and Simon (Nelson, guitar) is just about to release something as The Nameless Book.
Finally it would be great to get back to playing live again as we haven’t done it for ages – I want to hear how the new album sounds when we all try and play it at the same time.
The Leaf Library