Sure, I tend to dwell on guitars and synths within the pages of Yellow Green Red, but there’s room for all instrumentation in my life, even that of the majestic harp. It’s Mary Lattimore’s muse, and you’ve probably experienced her music without even knowing it, as she has backed up indie luminaries such as Thurston Moore and Kurt Vile throughout the years. Of course, it’s on her own where she truly captivates, working live effects and looping into her glistening tapestry of sound, either paired with other like-minded player or on her own. I am also lucky enough to consider her a friend (just have to put that out there), and was delighted that she was willing to share some detailed insight into her work and style.
I feel like it’s usually the case that people tend to put specific instruments into specific scenes or genres of music – electric guitars are rock, 303s are techno, harps are classical. Did you always see the harp as a vehicle for whatever you wanted to be, or did you initially share that form of thinking, and if so, what happened to break you out of that?
As a kid, I was around a lot of harps and a lot of harpists. My mom is a classical harpist and has played with the Asheville Symphony for thirty-plus years. She has directed a harp ensemble, has taught a lot of lessons, and played a lot of gigs, traveled all the time around North and South Carolina, always practiced a lot at our house. I heard how she was able to play not only classical music, but jazz standards, Celtic music, and instrumental versions of pop hits, so I knew that it was a versatile instrument, in a way. (I didn’t know about harpists like Zeena Parkins or Alice Coltrane or Georgia Kelley until I was a lot older.)
But I think that the freedom, limitlessness, and empty unwritten page of part-writing and improvisation was daunting for a long time and finding a personal style took a little while to cultivate, as maybe is common with conservatory-trained musicians. I have always been into absorbing tons of music for fun and slowly realized that my instrument could play the same notes as those guitars. I listened for those beautiful Nicky Hopkins piano parts. It took awhile to stop being so envious of and mystified by instruments I couldn’t play and to start speaking with my own giant, weird thing and take it to a place that I picked out for it. Part of that revelation came from working with the Valerie Project, writing parts for a re-imagined score for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and being a part of that mini-orchestra, being given the trust and sonic space to do whatever I wanted within a lush mishmash of cello, guitar, drums, synth, electronics. Part of it came from playing with Kurt Vile and getting psyched on sounds with him. If I only listened to classical music by myself and with my friends, I think I would probably only play those lovely, tricky, legendary pieces, but this is what happened. Haha.
For those of us who know nothing about the harp, can you give us a little background on it, from your perspective? Is it easy to play? Is it a versatile instrument? Do you need a dolly to move it? I noticed you tend to use your left hand for the strings further from your body and your right hand closer, am I correct in picking that up or was it just how you were feeling like playing when I saw you perform?
Yes, you’re right! That’s just the standard, classic way of playing a harp, left hand down on the lower strings, right hand plays middle to high. My harp is the big one, the Concert Grand, and it was made in Chicago. It’s organized by octaves and color-coded, so all of the C strings are red, all of the F strings are blueish black, and you can figure out the ones in the middle based on those colors. There are 7 pedals, one for each tone of the scale (C pedal, D pedal, E pedal, etc). Each pedal has three notches you can slip it into. If the C pedal is in the top notch, it’s a C flat, middle notch is C natural, all the way pressed down in the lowest notch is C sharp, so the string is essentially being tightened with each level you’re pressing it into. It’s very fun to play, and kinda hard, but it’s like driving a car, where you’re watching the signs, you’re using your feet, you’re using your hands to steer, you’re listening to the radio, and you’re drinking coffee. You get used to doing a bunch of things all at once and it feels normal eventually.
I have a dolly for it and sound like a creep when I’m looking for it at some kind of event: “Have you seen my dolly?”. Haha. It has a giant cover, it’s a giant thing but it only weighs 85 pounds because it’s hollow. It’s a really old instrument – there are harps painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs. It’s been through a lot of changes in design. Mine right now has a really good pickup which has 4 contact mics all connected and it’s glued in for life.
For anyone considering playing a harp, are there any particular things you DON’T recommend they do or try?
Don’t play with your pinkies – they’re thin like twigs and will snap off. Don’t leave your harp in the car in extreme weather, even if you’re lazy and really sleepy. Don’t leave it without a hand on it, even for just a second, on a windy day. (Dad did that and Dad cried as the wind picked it up and hurled it onto the ground.) Give yourself a lot of breaks if you’re practicing something tricky. You don’t want all of that stress and tension in your hands for so long. Give yourself a break, get up, take a walk, and come back to it. That’s all I can think of. Other than that, no rules, try anything you want.
Are you more comfortable performing with another person, or by yourself? Is it the same for in the studio?
Oh, either way. I like playing with other people, solo, with my great bandmate Jeff Zeigler on synth, with other unusual instruments (I have a harp and koto record coming out in October with this guy Maxwell, who plays koto through effects), improvising, playing parts that have been written out by me or someone else, all of it. It’s all pretty fun!
Would you ever consider starting on a new instrument and giving it the same thought and practice you’ve given the harp? Like, what are the odds that one day you’ll decide you want to move on to saxophone or guitar?
Sure! I’m trying to teach myself a little guitar. I’d like to learn the cello and our friend Jesse Trbovich just sold me this beautiful synth. As far as being a student and practicing intensely like I did when I was learning the basics of the harp, I hope so – focus comes in such waves. Going into a practice space, really digging in and being strict with yourself is cool and kind of a luxury when you’re older with a lot more mental chatter. Right now, I feel the pull of the screens and the social stuff and of work and playing live, etc, but know that, ultimately, there will be some space carved out for getting better at another instrument to some degree. It’s so satisfying to get better at something. It’s addictive to get better.
Your solo album is on Ghostly, a label that I think is great, but also an interesting choice. They aren’t exactly known for their carefully considered semi-improvised harp music. How did that come about? Is it a one-off, or do you feel like you are a part of their roster?
Haha, true. They just asked me to do a second record, so I guess I am part of their roster? Sam, the owner of the label, has been in touch since the first solo record, The Withdrawing Room, came out. It was released by a smaller label called Desire Path. Someone at his office was playing it and Sam was into it, so wrote me to say so. We’ve stayed in touch. Honestly, At The Dam wasn’t supposed to be the Ghostly record, in my mind, because I recorded it myself just using Garage Band and my laptop. I thought it’d come out on some smaller label and be very limited, more like a souvenir of a trip across the country. But Sam liked the songs and understood the thought behind the record, collecting vibes from different remote places, and wanted to put it out, so I’m happy about it! Ghostly has been so great to work with. Hopefully they’re happy with me, too, and it’s cool that they’re open to exploring new territory with the sounds they represent.
I bet you’ve got a bucket list, but is there anyone in particular you hope to perform with someday that you haven’t already? Anyone that particularly stands out?
A bucket list, always! I was just in Marfa playing the Marfa Myths festival and got to hear some heroes play and would love to see what we’d come up with. William Basinski played a gorgeous set that everyone swam around in. He performed in this huge former equestrian arena with the wind shaking the windows and his measured loops collaborating with the sunshine and the wind-sound. I’d love to do something with him and I think he’s a great person, too. I went to his house one time and he picked me some oranges from a tree with a special orange-picking instrument. He lives in the part of Los Angeles where the Munchkins, while filming the the Wizard of Oz, all lived in a hotel. Billy is the real wizard, has some magic powers.
Another of my favorite sets was the Raum set with Paul Clipson doing live projections. So artful, so thoughtful and quiet with tons of negative space. Raum is Liz Harris and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and they had a mini-residency, worked on this set and presented it on the last day of the festival. I loved it so much I wanted to cry and just live there in that spot, blubbering, for a long time. Haha. So, to collaborate with Liz and Jefre or each separately would also be a dream.
I just jammed with the elegant Julianna Barwick a few times and that was really fun, we’re gonna make a record.
Michael Rother in Forst. Also, MGMT in a kaleidoscopic glittery warped young bright world of hooks and total fun.
If there’s one thing the current global politial climate tells us, it’s that the dystopian sci-fi future we’ve been fearfully anticipating is basically upon us, so why not suit our musical diets accordingly? L.O.T.I.O.N. are perfect for the job, the punk band most likely to integrate computer viruses and drone strikes into their musical aesthetic. They’re from New York City, which is probably where the apocalypse will start, and their sound conjures visions of G.I.S.M., Ministry, Chaotic Dischord and Rudimentary Peni in equal measure, fusing all that confusion, frustration and paranoia (founded or otherwise) into thick chunks of hardcore-punk. I spoke with vocalist and bandleader Alexander Heir about the group and now I’m on my way out the door to get one of my ears pierced.
Is there one specific phrase that L.O.T.I.O.N. stands for, or is it ever-shifting and open to interpretation, like MDC or something? Are you willing to divulge its meaning?
L.O.T.I.O.N. is an even changing acronym. On our first cassette release it was “Leaders Of Tomorrow Ingest Only Noise,” on our second it was “Legacy Of Terror In Occupied Nations,” and on our newest LP we used a handful of different meanings, including “Logical Organized Technology: Intelligent Observable Network.”
Did the acronym L.O.T.I.O.N. come about from that first name, Leaders Of Tomorrow Ingest Only Noise, or did you start off wanting to be L.O.T.I.O.N.? It’s an interesting contrast, as “lotion” conjures images of soft skin and aloe leaves, or perhaps lubricant…
We started with LOTION. I can’t exactly remember how we came up with it, I think Tye and I both thought it was a gross sounding word that seemed appropriate for what we were going for; a little bit nasty and a little bit absurd. The acronyms came later, as the concept of the band was fleshed out.
What inspires the band more, fiction or non-fiction? What I’m wondering is, are you truly afraid the world is in shambles due to our insane reliance on technology none of us truly understand, or are you just really into the concept of Robocops and Terminators?
I think the unfortunate truth is that reality has caught up with a lot of the nightmarish scenarios of science fiction. Invasive surveillance cameras, lethal unmanned drones, military grade police equipment, phone and email data collection, cyber terrorism and more are all part of our reality. People have and will continue to have their jobs replaced by robots, and well-respected scientists are making public statements about the possible threats of artificial intelligence, all while people become more reliant on advanced technology.
While the imagery of machine-soldier is an exciting way to represent these fears, the rapid advancement of technology also makes it not such an implausible idea and something we might see in the near future.
Were the electronic instruments and percussion always integral to L.O.T.I.O.N. or did they arrive after the band’s inception? Was there a specific industrial influence at play as the band was forming?
The band was initially formed by Tye, who plays guitar, and me, after discovering our mutual interest in industrial and techno. We were particularly inspired at the time by Scumputer, a “digital d-beat” project started by Gabba of Chaos UK. The first two tape releases were just bedroom recordings of Tye playing guitar & bass over drum-machine beats I constructed and sang over. We were both interested in exploring what we could do with electronics while still
maintaining the elements of a punk band, and never expected to be able to play live. The band was fully realized when Emil joined, who, beyond being an amazing drummer, has an extensive knowledge of sound production and electronics, and was able to help us figure out how to perform as a full band with the addition of Cory on bass.
You released a split USB earring. How do you see something like this in the scope of the band? Is it an amusing trinket, serious commentary on technology, collector bait, something else entirely?
As a designer, I have always been intrigued by the functionality of fashion and the application of technology. Punk culture and fashion is very rooted in its own tradition… this seemed like an interesting way to modernize a classic accessory and make it useful beyond just fashion. I think the concept is similar to how we approach our music, as well. Clearly inspired by punk, but not afraid to add some new elements or embrace new ideas. We’re already living in a cyberpunk hell, might as well dress the part.
Are your newer songs being written by the band, or does it remain Tye and yourself putting things together? I am curious if working as a full “band” has changed your songwriting, or changed it in the past.
We’re definitely writing more as a band. Originally the songs were fully composed and demoed before the band learned them. We still do a lot of bedroom composing and recording, but there is a lot of work being done as a band in the practice studio. The songs change a lot more from the rough idea to the final product. Emil and Corey contribute riffs and ideas, as well, as opposed to just Tye and myself. We’re also learning more about how to create the sound we want; experimenting with different gear and exploring the possibilities of what we have.
In a way, I’d say L.O.T.I.O.N. is a highly political band, regarding your discussion and stance on technology. Do any of your fans or supporters ever discuss these topics with you? Do you ever feel nervous that many punk crowds are complacent on their iPhones, using the same apps and programs as the rest of society?
I have a fair amount of people talk to me about our subject matter; I think a lot of people are excited to see a band take on these topics, and have the same concerns about technology and the ever-increasing police state. Of course punks can be complacent, we are still people after all, but I also think the internet has been a huge boon for DIY/the punk scene. It allows bands/artists/people to directly communicate, advertise, and share information with no middleman, and makes it easy to stay in touch with friends/comrades from around the globe. For as much as I might fear technology and care about all the issues we’ve discussed, I still have an iPhone. Instagram is an integral advertising tool for my art/clothing, and we use a Mac to compose and record demos for L.O.T.I.O.N. I think the point is to be cautious and aware of these tools, but not avoid them completely. Besides, is it not this kind of hypocrisy that makes us human?
For a band that seems securely aware of the present, why did you release an album on vinyl? Do you care about musical formats, or intend to adhere to the punk tradition of vinyl records? Is anything besides “the cloud” a fetish object at this point?
In the age of the cloud I think vinyl is even more important. The experience of putting on a record and listening to it while you look at the album art and read the lyric sheet is hard to reproduce digitally. It allows the band to create an atmosphere beyond just the music. This is why a label like Toxic State is just as concerned with producing quality art and packaging as it is the music. It retains the sacredness of an album; there is a physical presence to the sounds, etched on a delicate object. To care for a song is to care for the vinyl.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, vinyl might actually outlive the digital formats we have now. The vice-president of Google (also considered one of the “fathers of the internet”) has made public statements warning of a possible “digital dark age,” in which all the music, photos, documents, and information stored on hard drives and even “the cloud” will be lost due to quickly evolving technology. Similarly to how it’s very difficult to pull data from obsolete formats like floppy discs and zip disks. Record playing technology, however, remains the same.