Lost Under Heaven interview: "The record reflects on breaking mind-made manacles that chain you to things that don't serve you."
In January, Lost Under Heaven will release their highly anticipated second album Love Hates What You Become. It comes almost 3 years after their debut, Spiritual Songs For Lovers To Sing, but the duo of Ellery Roberts and Ebony Hoorn have by no means been idle in that time. The album was actually completed in 2017, and since then they’ve been working hard to reshape the form of their output and give themselves more control over their content. With these structural shifts completed, they’ve been slowly but steadily teasing us with a stream of immersive and exciting new songs and videos through 2018, including ‘Bunny’s Blues’, ‘The Breath Of Light’, ‘For The Wild’ and ‘Post Millennial Tension’. Each one has had us engrossed, and subsequently seen us re-circling the album’s release date (January 18th) on our calendars in feverish anticipation of its arrival.
Lost Under Heaven have already been on the road this year, playing new songs to fans, building more excitement from the ground up. In October they played a stretch of dates in North America, before returning for a sold out gig in London tomorrow night (followed by a UK tour in January). When we spoke to them they were in New York, having just finished the brief US warm-up tour, and they spoke to us about the tensions and tribulations that fuelled the passionate and zealous new album Love Hates What You Become.
You're in America as we speak, having just finished a run of pre-album shows, you recorded the new album in America with John Congleton, and I see a lot of America in the lyrics - would you say it's fair that America looms large on this record?
Ellery: I think America, for the last half century, has been the dominant cultural force, and I felt like a lot of other lyrics and atmosphere in this record has been responding to Americanised issues and the epitome of Western capitalism. We came over because we were interested in working with John Congleton for the record - not because he's an American, more the kind of records he's been making.
Were there particular John Congleton records that you liked, or what was it that made you want to work with him?
Ebony: His work with Swans and Explosions in the Sky.
Ellery: More post-rock-ish, for sure that, and also just because he has a reputation of trying to capture, in a quite minimalistic way, a raw performance, rather than producing it. I think the first record was quite elaborately produced, we spent a long time tweaking things and making things into something else, painting a more detailed picture. I was intrigued or desiring to make a record that was fast, capturing the atmosphere of that moment.
How has it been being in America during the mid-term elections, have you been following it?
Ellery: Everyone's in a sleepwalking disbelief at the nightmare of their culture.
Ebony: Everyone's been quite anxious about it; our friends who we met up with and people we spoke to, they are in a very stressful moment right now.
Ellery: This kind of charade of elections makes people angry, and the mainstream being like "this is better than it was before,” but it's still sugar coating the fact that none of the real issues are very high on the agenda, and there's a whole pantomime of nonsense that dominates all of the news. But, for us musically, I feel like people are finding something in the lyrics and the approach of our music, that kind of passion has been reciprocated between the audiences we've played for. I get the sense that people value what we're doing, and the way in which we're doing it.
I know you've been wanting to add more visual elements to your live show, have you been able to do that these last couple of weeks on the American tour?
Ellery: There's a question of finances, so bringing in a whole visual contingent wasn't feasible now. It's been really just us playing. Obviously visuals are exciting, but at the end of the day if you can't carry it with your voice and instrument then... I'm not into the smoke and mirrors aspect.
Ebony: We've been playing a lot of new songs from the new album, and I think it's already asking a lot of people to listen to the new stuff and engage with it. The reaction often is people really trying to take the new stuff in, and react to that. We hope to have more visual stuff in time though, finances being good.
You actually recorded the album in 2017, and it's coming out in January 2019, how come it's taken so long?
Ellery: The decision was out of our hands, and we had a lot of behind-the-scenes frustration and learning over the past 12 months. I wrote this record in a month and a bit in January 2017, developed it further with Ebony, had it ready to record by May, recorded it in June, and then it was done. For me I was like "OK, it's out by October, we'll be back on the road, we'll be doing this and that..." But then we decided to completely change our approach to the live show, we stopped working with our management, we started working with a live agent, one after another things needed to be made solid.
So we've taken self-management, we've found a fantastic new drummer, Ben Kelly, who's been playing with us in these live shows, and then fundamentally the label chooses when they put it out, and they kept getting pushed back and back. I think they wanted to build back up some kind of engagement with us, but for whatever reason, culturally it seems like, particularly in England, it doesn't really register. People are so far down the rabbit hole on a different style of music, different approach of music, different kind of ethics. What we did was a slow-burning campaign that's given us plenty of time to learn. I'm going to be very relieved when this record finally comes out because I've written a lot of new material, and it's this trick of trying to stay focused on the present moment when you're getting further and further ahead in terms of your creative energy.
Yeah, that must be frustrating. But, even though it was written almost 2 years ago, it's still prescient, and it's still a good time for it to come out.
Ellery: Unfortunately, yeah, the world hasn't changed - if anything it's changed for the worse.
Let's talk about the album then, what would you say are the major themes? I think the title Love Hates What You Become is a good summation, simply just having those words "love" and "hate" next to each other is interesting to me.
Ebony: There's the song 'Black Sun Rising', which is about ecological problems, and then 'Post Millennial Tension' also deals with this anxious feeling about all we have to do. Also there's just a craziness, everything feels like being in a surrealist dream.
Ellery: I think also on Love Hates What You Become, something that I feel very strongly about, there's a sense of having the options and potentials to live in many many different ways, and if you don't live in a considered way, culture sort of drags you down a certain path. Quite a lot of the record, for me, is reflecting on breaking those mind-made manacles, being chained to things that just don't serve you in life. And also the sense of transformation, to enliven yourself, to live as what I would regard as a more fully alive, higher potential lifestyle. I think Love Hates What You Become, follows the desire that we had with the first record, which was sort of a bit like a "how did you get here? why are you here? how do you get out of here?"; [this album] the questions are "are you satisfied? are you happy with the way in which you are existing on the micro and macro of the community and the planet?" - that's in amongst all of it.
But I feel like every time we've spoken about the record it's seemed a bit gloomy and dark, and we have a tendency for everything to sound a bit like that. I was also trying to capture with this record a sense of freedom and absurdity; it's a cosmic joke where you can do many many things, so do something that fills with you some kind of joy or ecstasy. Those moments on the record, sure they're dark, but there's also moments on the record that are celebratory of life, like 'For The Wild', 'Serenity Says'...
Ebony: The title track - but it's also about you look at it, or how you read it. Because you can read it in an uptight way like "love HATES," but there can also a subtle sensitivity to it. It can be like "love hates what you become," "ok what can we do about that?" and you go from there.
I think you're right, there's definitely two sides to a lot of the songs here. The album starts with 'Come', which I think you would say is one of the more ecstatic moments? Why did you start the album with it?
Ellery: Yeah. When I was in LA, I was reading T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, and I had this sense of a wasteland being dead land, but even on dead land there's a fertile chance of new beginnings. I wanted the record to start with that, in the sense of an explosion: 'Come'. Something comes to life. I feel like it just sets the tone on the record, rather than an atmospheric slow build easing you into it.
‘Bunny's Blues’ was the first song to be released from the record, back in May, was there a reason why you decided to make that the first taster of the new record?
Ellery: One of the main things on this record is how Ebony, over the period of us touring after the first record, grew as a performer and a musician.
Ebony: It was kind of introducing the balance between us on this record, especially vocally. With the first record I was doing much more backing stuff, with this new one it's equally balanced out, and we thought it was a good idea to introduce it like that.
And it's just a great song! Have there been good reactions to that one live so far?
Ellery: Yeah! I feel we showcase something completely different, a different shape when Ebony's frontwoman, commanding the stage.
Is that something that came to you naturally Ebony, or has it taken some practice?
Ebony: I never really had that much of a problem stepping on to the stage and performing; I would be on stage a lot when I was younger, but singing and performing music was kinda new to me when we started. But I got into it and really enjoyed it, and over a time doing all the live shows, picking up different instruments, playing bass, you just open many different doors and you grow more comfortable, and you see the possibilities that are there and where you can take it to, and I'm really excited about that constant growing.
Ellery: Yeah, we've been making a lot of new music, and we have another potential record of just Ebony-fronted things, again with this character of Bunny Blue that was introduced in the video as a kind of alter ego or a theatrical different identity. I feel like this is just the first experiment in how it feels and how it works, and obviously that inspires many more ideas out of it.
Ebony: Also, taking this year quite slowly gave us a lot of time to experiment with different opportunities and outcomes, and it's quite nice to have been slowed down in quite a fast-living world, to get really strong on the ground that you want to stand on and build on.
There are some other characters that pop up on the album too, like in 'The Breath Of Light', I believe you're taking on quite a pious person, Ellery?
Ellery: [Laughs] Well, 'The Breath Of Light', conversely to what you're saying, it's probably the most personal song on the record. Out of all the songs, where they're all reflecting on life experience, this one's a very particular life experience of almost drowning when I was young. That's what that song is about. But there is this recurring character who's referred to in that song, that's like this anonymous saviour, who, in my personal moment of nearly drowning, saved me - they were completely anonymous and afterwards swam back into the ocean. I don't feel like going into that one in massive detail, but that's what that song is about.
Would you say that 'Most High' is pretty much a straightforward love song?
Ellery: Yeah, it's a love song. But have you ever heard that Nick Cave lecture on the love song? You should check it out, it was definitely very inspirational to me. So 'Most High' is a love song: you've got the personal love between two people or a family or whatever, but then there's the sense of the feeling of love for something intangible, as he says. So 'Most High' is a little bit of a stoner comedy approach to that concept.
I see. And how about 'Serenity Says'? That's another approach to love.
Ellery: That's the love of being completely alone and in a very silent place, and feeling entirely yourself and comfortable. We went out to Joshua Tree while we were recording, Ebony and I spent a beautiful evening in a thunderstorm in a vast empty space, and that song has that kind of feeling to me.
Let's talk about the title track; do you envision it as a dialogue between the two of you?
Ellery: Yeah, it's like a conversation. "Love hates what you become"; it's sort of an argument, really. I guess it's that sense that you only argue with someone that you love, because you want them to understand your point of view. If you didn't [love them] you'd be like "fine, you go your way and I'll go mine."
Did you each write your lines on that one?
Ebony: I think it was written from experiences we have had.
Ellery: I take a Dictaphone and record Ebony's comebacks and put them in songs. I guess as a song writer I always take from whatever people say to me, and reappropriate it into some kind of lyric or poetry. Our writing process tends to be a general idea that I then go away and whittle down, and then bring back to Ebony. Then it gets more finessed, worked out in collaboration.
Ebony: And even when you perform the songs, you might feel something needs to be different, or ideas pop up. It's nice that we've had time to discover that on this big long journey. Even when it's "finished" sometimes you feel like it still doesn't feel like it should feel. But then again that's the nice thing about doing live shows and maybe changing certain parts or certain feelings.
Ellery: Yeah, I believe that songs are never really finished, they just have a version recorded. With this record there's a bunch of things that are not the definitive version of the song, it's just what we did in that moment with John Congleton. That's the nature of recording, it's like an abstraction from reality.
Let's talk about 'Black Sun Rising' some more; Ebony that came out of an installation of yours, is that right?
Ebony: Yeah, so when I graduated from the Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam, that actually was my end work, which was an immersive installation. But it's had many forms; it started as a poem, which existed within the installation, and from there we started writing the lyrics. When we were in Amsterdam we started working on it and singing it and it just grew into this song. I like the idea that it can have multiple forms, and that song for me is very strong in visualisation and storytelling elements.
Right, it's telling the story of a world where the pollution has got so bad that there's a black sun.
Ebony: Yep. We had another set of lyrics, that we took out in the recording process, that played more with the idea of pollution and water wars going on. I think it's a bit more abstracted [on the final recorded version].
Ellery: Yeah, particularly as you're a visual artist and we've got this version that's sort of like a radio play, it leaves a lot to the imagination, which is good, but there's obviously such a particular vision when we were creating it, in a theatrical way. We've been talking to a friend in LA about expanding it further, and that conversation got to talking about a whole expanded theatre piece around the entire thing. Which, you know, is on the to-do list.
'Post Millennial Tension' takes its title as a spin on the Tricky album title Pre-Millennium Tension, but lyrically what was it that you observed in society that inspired it?
Ellery: I wrote this song ages ago, but I could never find lyrics that I was really happy with. I think this was end of 2012, 2013, and I definitely had this feeling at that moment of urgency. This was pre-Brexit and pre-Trump, but it's like the world went in the opposite direction; where once we were saying "all these things are going to happen if something doesn't change," and now we're in a world where all these things are happening. Obviously climate change has been on the agenda for some people since the 70s, but with the internet there was enough discussion and awareness around in 2012, for me it was an obsessive issue for me to engage with, and so I felt like writing that song, and it took me 5 years to finish it and get lyrics that I eventually settled on. "We couldn't work it out/ we'd sooner live it out" is the sense that there has been for decades workable solutions for all the world's problems, but we live in a structure that serves the government elite, not the needs of humanity.
Now, with people like Trump and the idiocracy that is the powers that be nowadays, it's blatant; it's like "we don't mind that there's going to be climate change and half the world's population is going to die, because they're not in our peripheral vision, they're in the global south and so what? So what animals are going to be extinct, I've never seen them." They're not even ashamed to say this, that's their policy agenda. I feel like this song is just like what do you do in an insane world? Do you just scream at a wall and go "you're insane!"?
Are you surprised there aren't more songs about this topic?
Ellery: I'd like to say yes, but we just live in a culture of complete distraction and complete self-obsession. Pop music is about taking drugs and having Tinder dates. I don't want to sound too pessimistic because I know there are many people who are very very very passionately against the status quo, but still life is so complicated and busy with modernity that who's got the time to do anything outside of themselves? People do, and they always have done, but our generation in particular, all my friends, they care but they don't really care. I'm talking about friends I've grown up with who are like "oh yeah that's bad, but don't talk about it because it's depressing," and that's the end of the dialogue. And then there's more activist people who you can get into a deeper conversation with, but still it's like dogs chasing their tails; you're not doing anything, just getting upset and angry about a reality.
I don't know, I still I haven't come to any sort of wisdom, most of the time I just want to be as far away from it as I can be, but I know that no man is an island to himself, and everyone has a responsibility. I write songs and try and respond creatively, and I feel like that maybe inspires people somewhere along the line, and that is at least helping. It might not be as much help as a bulldozer, but it's helping.
I agree. On the album you go from 'Post Millennial Tension' into 'For The Wild' to end it, which is possibly the most fun Lost Under Heaven song to date, would you say?
Ellery: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. Ebony actually pointed out how well it works with 'Post Millennial Tension' ending and going into 'For The Wild'; the songs sort of have a relationship with each other. From that "We couldn't work it out/ we'd rather live in doubt" going into 'For The Wild', which is sort of diving into the joy of existence, surrendering and stopping intellectually deconstructing and concerning yourself.
Ebony: Yeah, it's just embracing life in a very carefree way.
Ellery: The lyrics have a sense that this human moment has been just a second on the clock of the planet; it's saying that the human spirit is enduring.
Ebony: It's embracing it and going for it, not getting down or heavy. Of course it is, but then you can still bring in that positive life energy and even make other people behave in a positive and hopeful way. I think that's what that song does.
Ellery: To me it's like sitting at your laptop reading endless stories of doom and gloom, and then shutting your laptop and going to fall in the river, as the video depicts. It's a lot about breaking away, killing the intellectual animal and living in a more essential nature. So yeah, most fun Lost Under Heaven song yet!
Nice. And how is it going down live?
Ellery: Yeah! People respond to it! I feel like our music, for whatever reason, it's kind of a tricky one to tell. People sort of look back to you in a slightly hypnotised, overwhelmed state, with the occasional people who are loose enough. People are very stiff these days, and rock music's characteristically very stiff.
Ebony: There are certain moments - it really depends on the crowd...
Ellery: If they can break out of their stiffness. But, we enjoy it! [Laughs]
Is that a challenge for you, do you aim to break them out of their stiffness?
Ellery: I've been performing in front of crowds for 10 years now, and I feel like I've learned the lessons of antagonism, which I'm not as much interested in as empathy; trying to summon something from someone rather than just being antagonistic. I feel like with this record and the new music I've been writing, and how I feel about life at the moment, I'm done making these dark critiques of culture, and I just want to explore much more ecstatic states. 'For The Wild' is a good bridge between the two.
Very cool. Excited for what comes next. Before you go, I'd like to ask about any books or other art forms that have inspired you on this album or recently? Or anything you'd just like to recommend generally?
Ellery: We're quite consistently consuming ideas, and we spend our entire time going to art galleries, seeing films, reading... I'm getting more and more interested in functional and performative physicality, in performance art and music, like breath work; using your body in different ways. There's plenty to explore on that angle.
Ebony: I've been reading Naomi Klein. The Shock Doctrine is amazing.
Ellery: And No Is Not Enough, a more recent one. Her books are very powerful.
Ebony: And they're reflective of the times that we're in.
Ellery: They're books everybody should read.
Ebony: What else?
Ellery: Also Anton Newcombe and what he's been doing over the past decade with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. His independence and defiance is an inspiration, especially as we found ourselves self-managing, self-determining, not relying on anyone else's input, just making things happen for ourselves. We've directed, edited, produced every single bit of visual work. I think my next step is taking full control of production of records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 14th November 2018.