A Conversation With Lustmord

Brian Williams (AKA Lustmord) is one of the world’s most influential ambient electronic musicians. A former member of industrial pioneers SPK, Lustmord’s vast soundscapes and expansive drones, combined with eerie field recordings from caves and slaughterhouses, have lead many to credit him with creating the ‘dark ambient’ genre, and he has steadily accumulated an impressive back catalogue that spans numerous albums, film & video game soundtracks and collaborations with everyone from Tool and the Melvins to Jarboe and Coil’s John Balance. M3 contacted Brian for an in-depth discussion that touched on the effect illegal downloading has had on the music industry, creating soundtracks for a living and Lustmord’s debut live performance as part of a high mass by the Church of Satan…

“I don’t have a musical background, I don’t know anything about music. I just do my thing, I have no education in music and I can’t actually play an instrument or anything…” Brian pauses, before adding with a chuckle, “That was a pretty deep first question!”

For Brian Williams, it seems pinning down one single source of inspiration for the rich atmosphere of his deep, evocative soundscapes is a moot point – these sounds are just something he has to create. “I’ve always liked music, well I liked sound, more than just music” says Brian. “The main reason I started making my own sounds is pretty simple. The sounds that I wanted to hear didn’t exist, so I had to go and create them myself.” Ever since his stint with Australian industrial pioneers SPK in the early 80s, Brian has had no shortage of interesting sounds to create. From the myriad of critically acclaimed Lustmord albums and numerous collaborations, to his extensive video game and movie soundtrack work, Mr. Williams has certainly been busy. “The approach is the same actually” says Brian, regarding his approach to each of these different projects. “The whole technique is the same, how I view sounds is the same, so it’s all the same thing as far as I’m concerned.” Brian pauses to consider for split second. “Well, apart from conceptually of course, and with the soundtracks the narrative is somebody else’s narrative, but from a technical point of view, it’s the same approach. I take them both as seriously. Actually sometimes I think I take them both a bit too seriously I guess!” Brian laughs. “But I always want my work to be good you know, because I have pride in what I do.”

This pride is evident in the intricate attention to delight present across the Lustmord discography, which spans well over 15 albums by now. “There’s often an underlying narrative, not always, but there’s usually at least a foundation of one” says Brian of his writing process. “I always know beforehand where they’re going to go and where they’re going to end and stuff. It’s not like a big secret or anything, but I choose not to share the specifics because I think its much more important that people find their own narrative. I put things there to try and help people along, there’s not like a strict railway track you have to keep on. I try and give some pointers and some guidelines to take people, but the rest is up to them.” For an artist that places so much importance on the flow and structure of his records, you may think Mr. Williams would be somewhat perturbed by the theory that the digital age has rendered the album a dying art, but Brian isn’t convinced. “I think the album will still exist. There’s two ways of looking at it, you know? Obviously the album has changed from the vinyl days to the CD days, in that it’s become longer, but an album is two things, it can either be a concept, something that’s constructed to fit the length of an album; 40 minutes for vinyl, and 70 minutes plus on CD or it can be thought of as being a collection of songs obviously, or it can also be something that’s specifically worked on as being one piece, that’s meant to play in a certain order. I think that will still go on, whether or not people are free to jump tracks and do their own kinda running order on these things because some people will still like projects such as the album. By albums I don’t mean the actual physical objects but conceptually. People will still write music that has parts, as opposed to just a collection of songs.”

It’s interesting to note that much of the criteria that denotes an album’s length is based upon its physical limitations. Perhaps, with its ability to store vast ammounts of date in a single file, the digital age will actually work in the album’s favour as opposed to leaving it behind in the virtual dust. “Well, we already have some albums that are 70 hours long” muses Brian. “So yeah, I think it will go in that direction, but it’s the same thing with anything. You know, the possibilities are pretty much endless really!” It seems Lustmord himself is not enormously tempted to branch out into the 70 hour album territory just yet, however. “I think for me personally and the way I approach my work, the length of my tracks is dictated by feel really. I don’t set out to do a certain length of time, I work on material and I kind of know what needs to change here, or it needs to come to an end here, or go somewhere else here. So, that’s what I do and it ends up being a certain length. Most of my music is kind of structured to be, well, attempting to be” Brian adds modestly before continuing “somewhat hypnotic and draw you in and create a landscape for you. There’s a very fine line for me between being hypnotic and mesmerizing, and being boring, and it’s very easy to cross that line. I mean you know, it could be argued that I’ve gone over that line a few times!” Brian chuckles. “I think it could be an interesting experiment to try and do something long, but I wouldn’t want to do something just for the sake of it being long, without a good reason. I just think it would be pretty boring actually. Maybe it’d be boring after an hour or maybe it’d be boring after ten hours, I don’t know, but somewhere along the line it would be boring!”

Those holding out for a 70 hour Lustmord USB stick release shouldn’t hold their breath just yet it seems, as Brian certainly prefers the good old compact disc. “I listen to CD, I have a really good system. I mean the CD isn’t perfect, obviously, but compared to…” Brian quickly reconsiders “well, there is no comparison with MP3! And well yeah, analog definitely sounds better than digital, but by the time you put analog on a piece of plastic and drag a pin through it, it doesn’t actually sound any better to me than digital. Analog tapes sound good, but yeah, I listen to CDs, I have hundreds of the damn things!” Brian is no luddite however, and retains an open mind about the possible benefits of the digital realm. “Of course one good thing about digitisation and home recording, first on samplers and now on home computers, is that it means it’s much easier to make music, which is a good thing, and it’s also possible to do a lot more work and create longer albums. Of course, the downside is that a lot of people doing this stuff means there’s a lot more shit out there!” Brian lets out a hearty laugh, before wondering aloud “which is not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Well, then again quantity isn’t necessarily a good thing either, but people have the right to do a bunch of music. A lot of it is absolute crap, of course. A lot of music always was crap, but these days its so much harder to find the good stuff amongst all the noise…” There’s a brief pause before Brian adds slyly, “pun intended by the way!”

Brian’s work under the Lustmord moniker has clearly been a labor of love, but does Williams enjoy the same level of artistic freedom with his soundtrack work? “Well it varies considerably, but generally speaking, when you’ve been around for a while, when people approach you to do a project of that type, they approach you for a reason and it’s mostly because they want you to do your sort of thing. So there’s some leeway there, but of course you are working for somebody else and they do have an opinion, and quite rightly so. A lot of the time their opinion is not only valid, it’s actually a really good opinion too” enthuses Brian. “There are constraints, you know, but its not like a big deal or anything. I mean, the only time it’s been a problem is when I’ve been approached to do something really radical, and heavy, and dark and fucked up and stuff, and you do that and then they come back and go ‘it’s way too much of all of those things!’ So a lot of the time, there’s usually a conversation in the beginning where I say ‘well what exactly do you mean by this? When you say you want this, what do you mean? I know what I think that means, but what do you mean by that?’ Often their idea of ‘heavy’ isn’t quite the same as mine” Brian laughs.

In many ways soundtrack work seems like a great way to earn an income as a musician, allowing you to work on your skills whilst not having to compromise your main artistic endeavours. “Well, yes and no, it is, I mean, you’re actually working, which is the big thing, and youre creating, and you’re doing something that you would be doing anyway and getting paid for it” considers Brian, “but of course the downside is that you don’t get so much time to do your own things. But you know, I live in LA and most of my friends are professional musicians in one way or another, or they’re involved with labels, but also a lot of my friends are involved in the effects industry, or the film industry in general. The effects industry is just the same as the music industry. Creative people create, and if you’re a musician, or a sound designer and you work with sound, or you’re a sculptor, or a great painter, quite often you can’t really make much of a living doing those things these days, but working on film? You may not like the work necessarily, but at least you have work, at least you’re doing something that’s allied or close to what you have a passion for, so that’s a good thing. The idea of actually getting paid to do this stuff is quite bemusing sometimes” Brian smiles.

Paying the bills is something Brian is conscious of, ever since his celebrated Sides Effect label folded in 1999. “That was quite a while ago now, but even then, that was the beginning of things like illegal downloading and stuff, and it was really noticeable. I mean, doing a record label is absolutely easy, it’s the distribution that’s really hard, but in my case because I’d been doing it for a while I had choices of distribution, so distribution wasn’t really a big deal. But what became more and more obvious was that things were going to be coming to an end, and people were just going to be downloading albums for free. And you could see it, new releases were dropping in sales significantly and it was directly proportionate to how many people were accessing music for free online. You can’t really compete with that stuff, you know?” Brian sighs. “So there was that, and also it was actually taking up quite a bit of time. I took over the label from SPK around ’84, and the idea was to release records that should be released and try and do something really interesting, and enjoy the process, but it also became work, it became quite time consuming and it wasn’t fun either. You wonder why you’re bothering, you put a lot of passion into releasing something and people don’t buy it, they just download it for free… which is ok, they have every right to do that but it does mean that you can’t afford to release more records!”

This is an uncomfortable truth for many of the pro-filesharing brigade, and Brian can see things getting worse before they get better. “I think Spotify is actually more damaging than the illegal downloading to be honest with you. I think things like Spotify are giving people the impression that they’re actually paying for music, well, they are paying for it, but the money doesn’t really go to the artists! I think the royalty rate on Spotify is so abysmal, it’s beyond laughable. When you’re paying a monthly fee, that money isn’t being passed on in a meaningful way so I think that’s gonna be really harmful.” From someone who has seen so many changes in the industry since his formative days as a young musician, it’s not hard to take Brian’s prediction seriously. “There was a time when I started in 80, 81, and the people I started with, you would save some money up together and you’d release an album, or someone else would do it for you. You know, someone else had a label and they would put some money aside and release an album, and obviously you’d only release things you think are worth releasing, and you sell enough copies to make a profit, and that profit gets used to record the next one, and press the next one, and you go on from there. Ten, twenty years ago, that was the way to do it, and that was the way to do it for quite a while. Now, you release a record and hardly anybody buys it because they’re downloading it for free, so what I’ve been seeing for the past 5 or 10 years now is that up and coming bands or people starting off, they just can’t do it. You release an album, you lose a lot of money and so you can’t do another one!” sympathises Brian. “I don’t think we’ve really seen that yet, I mean there’s so much music, we have decades of music, we have recorded music from the 20s, well I guess as far as pop music goes it’s the 50s, maybe 40s. There’s millions and millions of songs out there, and you can go on iTunes or you can go elsewhere and just grab a shitload of tracks, and you always will be able to do that because those songs are always gonna be there. But I think what you’re gonna notice is there’s gonna be less and less, there’ll be a big gap, and in the beginning of the 21st century you’ll see a drop in the amount of music actually being produced. That’s what I think anyway, I might be wrong, but that’s the way I see it.”

Many have posited that lost record sales can be regained through touring however, but Brian is not entirely sold on this idea. “It depends. If you’re a large established band, you can make some serious money performing, but the real money is in merchandise. Sometimes the tours just about break even, but the merchandise side is where you’ll make a profit. I’m generalising by the way, but you know, that’s kind of the pattern, whereas small bands, like a band that hardly sells any records or whatever, they have a really hard time touring. It’s quite expensive, I mean it’s expensive for large bands too but they can actually make some of that money back. A smaller band, they have a lot of costs for doing a tour, and quite often for so many small bands some clubs will ask them to pay to play. You don’t actually get paid, you pay them, which I think is ridiculous” says Brian scornfully. “But anyway the gist of it is, when people would play live and tour it used to be to promote an album, whereas these days if you’re a large band it can work, but if you’re a small band youre touring to promote an album, you’re losing money in the process and you’re not actually selling more of the album, you’re selling less, so the math doesn’t quite add up. The difference here is us creative types who do this stuff, this is what we do, you know? It’s kind of sad I guess, but you do it if you’re making loads of money, even if you’re not making any money you still do it” sighs Brian, before summing up “so touring is a way to make money, but it’s also a way to lose a lot of money! If you’re savvy and being really careful you can do it. I’m lucky, because I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I have something of a following, so if I do perform live, people will turn up and I don’t pay to play, I get paid to play, which is nice!”

Indeed, Lustmord live appearances are much anticipated events, given their relative scarcity over the years. “Between 1981 and 2011, I did one” states Brian with a laugh. This one-off performance was certainly a show to remember, as Lustmord provided the live soundtrack to a high mass observance by the Church of Satan in Los Angeles, on June 6th, 2006. When asked how he initially came into contact with the church, Brian says nonchalantly “Well, they just called me up and asked me if I’d perform at their thing… as they do!” Despite not following any form of organised religion, the bizarre novelty of the situation was one Brian couldn’t ignore. “I’d been doing this whole Lustmord thing for 25 years that year, and thought I should mark the occasion by actually playing live for the first time. So I was thinking seriously about it, and then the Church of Satan called up and said it was their 40th anniversary, and they were doing this big public ritual. Satanists from all around the world were flying in, the high end Satanists, you know, and it was gonna be a big deal. They said they would like me to do the music, and I just thought ‘well, that sounds like fun'” Brian cackles. “They told me it was on 6/6/06, and there was no way I could turn that down, it was just too funny!” One can’t help but wonder what the backstage area for this show was like… It must have been an interesting dress rehearsal, although apparently not so interesting to stick in Brian’s memory. “I think they did one in the afternoon, and…” Brian pauses for a second. “Fuck, I can’t remember, it was a few years ago, I cant remember how much attention I was paying! It was almost like a stage play, with improvised sections so I knew beforehand what was going to be happening in each section, well apart from the improvised areas, so I had mapped everything out, I think a good 2 or 3 weeks beforehand. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen live, so I could just follow what was going on onstage much easier apart from the improvised bits, but those were actually the most interesting parts to do. With my shows I don’t actually like to rehearse, I like to just play it live and see what happens. There’s more chance of things going wrong, and improvising and stuff. I actually get bored if I rehearse these things.”

It seems after this performance, Brian was bitten by the live music bug, as he admits “In the last year and a half I’ve done 9 or 10 shows, I think!” The most recent of which saw Lustmord taking to the stage in Moscow. “It was fun, yeah it was good” smiles Brian. “I’d never been to Russia, so I was in Moscow with my wife for a few days. I was lucky too, because I haven’t played in so long, every show is sold out and there’s a lot of tension when people travel really far to see you. But I enjoy playing live, because it means I can have a really big PA and people can actually hear my music in the way I want them to hear it, you know, instead of hearing it on MP3 through little headphones or poor speakers, they hear it through a huge PA and the whole room shakes, so I get a big kick out of playing live!” Given his new found fondness for live performances, does Brian adhere to the idea that the live experience is somehow a more authentic way of hearing music than listening to a record or digital file? “Well I honestly don’t know, you’d have to ask people who go to gigs!” he chuckles. “It’s a fair question, but again, there’s two factors. There are live bands who record studio albums in order for people to be able to get their music, and then some people who are very much album based and they occasionally play live, just for a change, so it depends on which one it is, you know. I suppose some people are very much studio musicians and some people are very much live musicians and they kind of cross over into each others territory sometimes. It depends on the music, some things sound really great live and some things sound not so great live. Some things just sound much better in the studio, you know?”

Just listen to any one of the numerous Lustmord records and it will become clear that Brian certainly has a good idea of what sounds good in the studio. In recent years, his work has become gradually more digitally based, as opposed to his earlier sample heavy creations, which utilised field recordings from places like caves and slaughterhouses, twisted out of all recognition and transformed into eerie sonic tapestries. “I’m all for sampling, I think it’s great if you’re using it creatively and do something new with it. I’ve had a lot of fun sampling things from friends of mine, from their records, and I’ve played them the tracks and they haven’t been able to recognise that I’ve sampled them because I’ve manipulated the hell out of it!” Brian says mischeviously. “But use of samples is one thing, there’s fair use and being creative, but the problem is that a lot of people will just steal a beat, or steal a melody, which is not really entering into the spirit of things. They’re not actually using it creatively, they’re just stealing somebody else’s creativity!”

Over the past decade or two, perhaps the only thing more contested than the ethics of sampling is the effectiveness of copyright in upholding those values. “Well, I guess it helps stop people stealing other’s work, but does it get in the way of people being creative? Well I think it does to some degree but of course, clever people will always figure out how to do clever stuff.” Brian weighs up the options before adding “the whole copyright thing, it is really good, it really protects the individual artist, but I’m not sure if it’s necessarily the best way of doing it.” If copyright is indeed beginning to show it’s flaws, then what other options do we have to protect an artist’s work? “I think it’s gonna evolve, but I think it’s gonna happen naturally and change with time. It’s like the record labels, you know, it takes a bit of time for the dinosaurs to realise that they’re dead! It’s a huge problem, this illegal downloading, especially for people like me who are actually trying to make a living doing this. If people aren’t paying for your work, it doesn’t help, I still have my bills to pay and stuff!  But of course at the same time, it’s only relatively recently that we did have things like copyright. Traditionally, for hundereds and thousands of years music has been passed on aurally or copied, it hasn’t been owned by anybody, you know. So it’s a very recent phenomena that you can actually own a piece of work, or piece of art or whatever, exclusively!”

Even if copyright is in need of an overhaul, Brian does not think that the recently proposed internet crackdowns are a step in the right direction. “The whole problem with a lot of these big proposals is that they tend to be put forward by big entities, like a group of politicians or record labels, and the labels are just an arm of a multinational these days, or a larger entity. They have these really strong lobbies, politically, but they’re not by any means representing the music or the musicians. All they’re doing is representing their shareholders and their own financial interests, so I don’t see how anything they propose is necessarily good for the musicians or the consumer. It’s only good for them, so the sooner we get rid of those guys the better! I think their days are numbered, but in the mean time they’re still trying to claw onto the biggest piece of the pie that they can” states Brian. “That’s one of the things about digital distribution and downloading, we don’t actually need them now. People can contact the artist directly or download from their page or whatever, you don’t necessarily need the record labels anymore. Of course the record labels know this, but they still own copyright and millions of files and songs, and that’s how they make their money so they’re trying hard to protect their assets. They’re not trying to protect the music at all.”

At the moment it seems very difficult to judge how this messy debate is going to end. “Well, I’m not very good at seeing into the future!” laughs Brian. “Today’s buzzword was ‘cloud’ but all this music is already out there, on the interweb, or the internet or the cloud or wherever and there are multiple copies now. I think so much music is going to be as good as instantly accessible.” Having the world’s history of music at your fingertips has its obvious benefits, but can also be somewhat overwhelming. “The tricky bit is, how do you find the really good music that you’d be interested in? There are some really interesting algorithms that will come up with things that are similar to the things you like, but that might not necessarily be what you’re looking for. How do you find a great new piece of music that you weren’t aware of? I think the old fashioned way is still the one that works best, you just talk to friends, hear their reccomendations, or read about something, that wont change. I think, from a conceptual viewpoint, the distribution aspect is almost there, I just think the technology needs to catch up a little bit. It’s all a bit slow, or not available everywhere and it’s still really poor quality. But I think the actual model is already there”. Brian remains optimistic for the future, and proposes that maybe we shouldn’t get too out of shape debating these things. “This stuff kind of figures itself out, you know. It kind of settles and there are things that people like, and the things that work for people are what get used, and adapted, and that becomes the norm, rather than somebody really trying hard to invent something from scratch.”

So if the future of music distribution is still just out of reach, what’s on the horizon for Lustmord? “Fame and fortune, I hope!” grins Brian. “Well, I’m working on a vocal based album that’s been much delayed, because I keep getting distracted by other things. I’m playing Montreal in a couple of weeks, and probably a couple of gigs in Europe. I’ve just been playing live more basically, which is fun but it’s actually taking up quite a bit of time! There’s a couple of collaborations that I can’t even mention right now because we haven’t told anybody…” hints Brian. Even if distribution and the industry at large is plunging further into anarchy, rest assured we can still rely on Brian’s fascination for interesting sounds. “I’ll just keep on doing this stuff, you know, this is what I do. I’ve always got a bunch of ideas brewing in the background, some of them will come to fruition soon, and some will take a little bit longer.” It seems Lustmord’s inspiration is as deep and vast as the music he creates. Or, in Brian’s words – “Yeah, more of the same, I’m afraid!”

Interview by Kez Whelan

For more information about Lustmord, you can visit his official website, and find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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