Laurence Pike On His Unique Brand of Improvised Solo Techno-Spiritual Jazz Odysseys for Drums and Sampler

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Earlier this year drummer Laurence Pike (PVT, D.D Dumbo, Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders and Szun Waves) released his first solo record, Distant Early Warning, which has been widely acclaimed by music critics, including a four-star review in The Guardian. When Hugh Bohane spoke with Laurence about the new release, he described his record as “a unique brand of improvised solo techno-spiritual jazz odysseys for drums and sampler.” Upon listening to the album he was indeed accurate in his cosmic description. Here is how their Skype interview went.

Congrats on the new solo release, Distant Early Warning. Can you tell us a bit about what the writing process was like making this record?

Laurence Pike: Thanks. It felt like the desire to do something much more personal and expressive in nature had been building for a while. I didn’t want to force it, so thought I’d wait until the right window appeared, and I felt ready mentally. 
I’d been messing around with these loose thematic ideas which essentially are built around the concrete sounds I’ve created and amassed on my sampler, and was then applying them in performances as a launch pad, using the acoustic drums to improvise around the electronics in different ways as I triggered them live, framing them and gluing them together. I felt like a process that had endless potential, and still does.

I enjoy the ritual and discipline of creating the work. It’s so amorphous in nature — it really relies on me examining the different possibilities of reinterpreting the same grouping of pieces of a puzzle, and feeling confident in my ability to perform in a free and expressive way, to create something in the moment; a combination of decisions that could never be arrived at if I were to approach it from an electronic production perspective for example. In the end I realized I had kind of been putting off making a solo album for a long time because I was too conscious of production decisions, or the time being right, or having control over the process, etc. Once I acknowledged that the music was inherently performance based, and that the very human aspect of it is what makes it interesting, I booked the studio and made it in a single day. The music was already there, I just had to take it to the dance.

I gather from the title of the album you were making a reference to the band Rush?

Ha, no, not at all. I had no idea there was a Rush track of the same name. For some reason the title just came into my head. There was something about the phrase that seemed to make sense.

I guess the loose theme of the album has to do with ruminating on human evolution, and feeling that the next 20 years will be a very strange time to be alive. Even our mundane daily interactions with technology are transforming the way that humans communicate with each other and perceive their surroundings.

Personally, I don’t see it as being a great thing. I worry we give up a little bit of humanity with each of these interactions. We’re slowly but surely giving ourselves over to the technology in dangerous, complacent ways. My own use of technology has got me thinking about these sorts of themes. So, that’s where the title came from … it’s like an alarm going off in the distance, perhaps in the back of my head. There’s an uneasy tension in the world at the moment, and I wanted to capture that essence, but then maybe present a different approach to interacting with technology through this music … which I guess hopes to curb the overwhelming promise that the unlimited possibilities of computer music production offers by countering it with human decision-making and expression.
 My cat’s about to jump across my computer … no come here! (Laurence takes his meowing cat onto his lap.)

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I enjoyed how sonically layered the album feels, much like a great Necks album and how it enables the listener to breathe inside its space. Was this a satisfying outlet for you to do something you otherwise couldn’t in other musical endeavors?

Absolutely. The Necks is a great reference point because they have been a huge influence on me since I was very young. I’ve had people who have listened to the album describe it as kind of like a one-man Necks record. Also, their drummer Tony Buck is one of my heroes, and he was an important inspiration for making this album in fact. As I was toying with the idea of making it, I rediscovered Tony’s Solo Live record from 1994 in my CD collection, and I thought ‘fuck it,’ I have to get on with it and try make something as great as this. I owe it to myself. Not necessarily to better it, but to add my voice to the conversation. The fact that Tony was on the cutting edge of technology and performance and had made an album as wild and unprecedented as that in the very city I lived was deeply inspiring and motivating. I actually sent him the record by the way and he really liked it, which was a real thrill for me. If anything, I figure if Tony Buck likes this record then it’s been a success.

“I do all of this stuff to remain grounded and sane. When I’m idle I’m a bit of a mess to be honest. Playing is such an important part of who I am. It’s a bit of juggle sometimes, and requires shifting musical gears, often quite suddenly, but I’m getting better at not compartmentalizing what I do as much as I used to.”

Can you tell us about the mysterious ’80s Dune-esque artwork on the album cover?

The image is from an Australian designer called Elvis Barlow-Smith. I don’t know him personally, but he had done a tour poster for PVT, and I saw the image while checking out his Instagram account and thought … that’s the cover!

Related: How PVT Found Their New Spirit

I already had the album title in mind, and I liked the idea of the cover capturing a mysterious place of the imagination, potentially where the music might lead you as a listener. In this case, a place in the future where a giant hand holds up the sun in the sky.

laurence pike Distant Early Warning

What role did the tech you used on this album achieve its main objectives and goals?

I like using a conventional drum kit and challenging people’s perception of what the instrument can do. Additionally, I used the Roland SPD-SX sample pads as an extension of the drum kit itself. Being able to trigger the electronic component in a very live and spontaneous way means I can prioritize the performance and never feel beholden to machines, or have technology dictate the pace or nature of the decisions.

The sounds I am triggering I try to make quickly to give them a spontaneous feeling. I don’t like getting bogged down in labored production decisions. Some of them are found sounds, taken from pre-existing recordings of myself, or I will record them quickly if I hear a particular type of component that might work with what I’m playing on the kit. Often they can be quite abstract or random in nature, and the challenge becomes giving them an interesting context, or connecting the thoughts in unexpected ways. In the end, what you hear on the record are live performances, just single takes, no overdubbing or post-production.

How were the recent tours in Europe and what were the audiences like?

I went into it not really having any expectations, but the audiences were great.
I think people respond to the visceral and physical nature of what I’m doing on a basic level, I’ve also been told it’s also visually intriguing to watch. The music is abstract in nature, but it’s not about ‘understanding’ it so much, that’s not important, it’s really about feeling and sharing the experience. In this way, I feel like I could take it just about anywhere and make it work. I recently did some shows opening for Alex Cameron for example, who works more in the indie-pop vein, and his audiences were quite young but yet they were really receptive, as were audiences opening for [electronic musician] James Holden in Europe.

You have been busy, releasing new material with Szun Waves (with UK electronic producer Luke Abbott and saxophonist Jack Wyllie). Can you tell us about that?

In many ways, it’s an extension of the solo stuff as far as process goes because we are an improvising band, a jazz group in essence I think. We initially got together through my love of Luke’s music, he’d done a great remix for PVT a few years ago, and when I heard his Wysing Forest album I just knew we had to work together. The first album, At Sacred Walls, literally documents the very first time we played music together in London, which I think is pretty unique in itself. We’ve since done some touring and developed how we perform together. I feel a real kinship with them both as people and musicians, and much like my solo output, I think the band really explores a part of my musical brain that needed the right outlet to come along.
 Our second album, New Hymn To Freedom, is coming out at the end of August on The Leaf Label. I’m looking forward to hitting the road again with those guys and seeing where the music takes us.

Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders have just released a new album which you play drums on. Can you tell us about that release?

Yeah, Blue Poles is the fourth album I have made with him. We’ve worked together for 12 years or so now. This one felt it easier to make from the band’s point of view, as we made the record pretty quickly compared to the others. He sat on it for a while until he found the right place and time to release it. It’s up-front sonically: a people-in-a-room-playing type of record, which I think makes it stand out in today’s climate. The Dreamlanders are a special group of people, and I think we all inherently understand Tim’s (Jack Ladder) approach when it comes to the songs.

How do you remain grounded and sane whilst multi-tasking a variety of different musical projects?

The answer to that is that I do all of this stuff to remain grounded and sane. When I’m idle I’m a bit of a mess to be honest. Playing is such an important part of who I am. It’s a bit of juggle sometimes, and requires shifting musical gears, often quite suddenly, but I’m getting better at not compartmentalizing what I do as much as I used to. In the last few years I’ve started to think about all of my music as being part of a bigger continuum, and my job is just to keep my playing relaxed and prepared, and open to possibilities. I think that shift in thinking has resulted in me making some of my best work.

What’s next for LP?

I’m going to Europe to work with Szun Waves when the new album comes out at the end of August, and we’ll also be doing a UK/EU tour in November/December. 
I’m already working on another solo record too in fact. Beyond that, there might be another PVT album on the way next year, I’m not sure yet, it kind of depends on the other guys in the band and what they’re up to. I guess in the meantime I am just staying prepared, practicing, shadow boxing….

Black & white images by McLean Stephenson

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