‘It cries for revolution, but in a confused and exhausted way.’
Following critical acclaim for both their debut album Kipple Arcadia and the ambitious electronic score Music for Megastructures, L-space return with their new album Feed The Engines! and a tour. We caught up with Lily Higham and Gordon Johnstone to find out more.
Feed The Engines! scrutinises the world of late-stage capitalism, exploring the alienation of modern life and the desire to escape a failing society. How did you focus on creating the voice through that lens, lyrically and technically?
G – From a music perspective, I didn’t want the album to have an overall bleak or oppressive sound. There are moments on the album that are both of those, but overall, it’s the most upbeat and energetic thing we’ve ever produced. I’ve always enjoyed the juxtaposition of poignant lyrics with incongruous music, like Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’. There are lots of overlapping melodies throughout the album which I think helps give it a slightly chaotic, but coherent, sound.
L – Most of the lyrics in Kipple Arcadia are looking into the far future, but I wanted to write some songs about the now and the near future. When you are questioning why the world is as it is now and how we can improve it in the future, the conversation always comes back to capitalism and how people operate in it – both being a cog in its machine and simultaneously trying to find a way to break the machine, even when you sometimes benefit from it. One of the overwhelming feelings of our time is powerlessness and the tiredness of thinking or doing things wading against the tide when it looks like you aren’t getting anywhere. Like a lot of messages in songs, it is partly saying “we feel this too, we are in it together” and then trying to make something out of that feeling once we’ve realised we’re connected by it. It cries for revolution but in a confused and exhausted way.
Title track Karoshi is the first single, inspired by the Japanese word which literally means death from overworking. It’s got a great synth-pop riff and Lily’s ethereal vocals, with the happy melody disguising the dark undertone of trying to achieve social change in an oppressive system. How does this track set the tone for the record?
G – I think it encapsulates everything we’re trying to say; we want to create a better world, but the shittiness of this one prevents us.
L – Yes, it has put the idea of wanting social-change but being too worn down by day to day life into simple lyrics. Clear statements of a theme that will continue throughout the record.
Your sound has evolved for this album, retaining your Utopian soundscapes but amping up the electro-pop energy as you explore a disenfranchised world. Did the sound come naturally and what effect do you want it to have on the listener?
G – I had been listening to a lot of K and J-pop and PC music around the time of writing these songs, which I think definitely influenced my approach. We learned a tremendous amount from the Kipple Arcadia process so when we started this album we had much better technical abilities to call upon. I’d like people to listen to the album and enjoy it on a few levels; the surface-level electro-pop fun and then also, maybe after a few listens, Lily’s incredible lyrics.
L – It did come naturally, and like Gordon says it is influenced by what we are listening to at the time, and also what new sounds we find to use! We wanted to write some songs that have a bit more of a fun energy… but also I didn’t have many fun things to write about at the time in the lyrics, so it is a mix. Our sound will keep evolving; in part naturally as we explore but also with intention as we want to keep trying new things and keep it interesting. At the moment our writing since Feed the Engines is going in an even more hyper-pop direction but also some slower songs with more choral vocals. You can see this direction in Feed the Engines!
Is there more than one voice speaking to us through the tracks or is the viewpoint coming from one character?
L – This is an interesting question that actually has made me analyse my lyrics more to answer it. The narrator of the songs is switching and fluid through the album. Sometimes I accidentally write a song with switching pronouns and perspectives throughout, without meaning to. I think it reflects the idea that although the perspectives are personal, they are shared by many. Also, sometimes the voice is of the victims, and sometimes of the predatory ‘machine’. Know your enemy, write from their perspective. You can use it to plan where to go next, but also realise you are partly the enemy too. There are some songs that are clearly from the voice of a character though, like in ‘Extinctathon Champions 2020’ the voices are of a future genetically engineered species of human.
If the album could inspire the listener to do something, what would you like that to be?
G – Revolt. Or at least call a corporation a bad word on Twitter.
Album track ‘Bloom Rapids’ almost made it onto your first album, Kipple Arcadia. Can you explain why you saved it for this album and how it bridges the records?
G – It shares a lot of the same characteristics of what we did on Kipple Arcadia; layered arpeggios, distorted bass, dreamy synths, and so on. We’ve played this song for a long time live and it was the first song we started to record in the Feed The Engines! sessions. Funnily enough it was actually one of the last ones to be finished.
L – Sometimes it takes songs time to brew, and this was one where we played it live a few times in the Kipple Arcadia era, but it wasn’t quite ready for recording yet. I’m glad to have it on this album as one of the tracks to connect the sounds of the two albums.
You recorded at Homegrown Productions in Larbert and Infinity Bus Studios in Glasgow. Did your surroundings there (or in the writing process along the way) influence the message or sound of this release?
G – Most of our writing happens outside the studio and I do all the synth parts at home, so our surroundings don’t influence the sound too much, but we experimented with different recording techniques in each studio which gave some of the vocals a slightly different feel.
L – I also usually write outside the studio, in many places just when an idea comes to me. But by the nature of how I write songs, which is usually in a semi-improvisational way, that improvisation continues on into the studio where I will sometimes just go with where the melody is taking me and alter it on the spot. With the vocal layers as well, these evolve during the recording process as I hear how the song is put together onto the recording. Also, the sound engineer is often forgotten as someone that does actually have creative input into a record. Working with the engineer means that even though we have the first and final creative decisions, their ideas and skills are also integral to the final product. Sometimes they will have an idea for an effect or sound that fits with the song that without their experience and tools we just can’t know was even an option.
‘ok.’ went through a few versions, the first being a simple guitar acoustic. Do you struggle to adapt to styles or rework creations in order to create a cohesive sound for the finished product?
G – To be honest it’s not something I’ve ever really given too much thought. We’re lucky that Lily’s vocals tend to bring any collections of songs together and make them sound like “us” – it’s not usually until after we’ve finished an album that I realise it’s got a fairly coherent sound. I think it happens subconsciously.
L – Most of our songs get reworked in some ways. They might start acoustic and then go through versions of being dense synth pop, to stripped back strings, and end up somewhere in between or somewhere completely different. You can’t know what will work best for a song until you have tried it! I don’t think we struggle to adapt to styles because we don’t usually have a set style in mind, just see where it settles, but the process of deciding what version to use can be difficult. Cohesion is usually unintentional but comes from how we are writing at that time.
The album’s themes explore unethical consumerism, activism, powerlessness and a broken system. Is society too “woke” to help itself?
G – I’ve always found “woke” culture to be quite a strange thing, especially now that some people on the right have appropriated it as a derogatory term. Being “woke” – i.e. realising you’re being exploited under capitalism, rejecting racism and sexism and transphobia – shouldn’t be some kind of special status you achieve, it should be the bare minimum for being a decent human being. People who aren’t “woke” are people for whom the status quo is beneficial and, generally speaking, they’re part of the problem. I don’t think society is too woke to help itself – I think society is too selfish to help itself. You just have to look at the Westminster election results to see that. If everyone was woke, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.
L – There is not much use in being ‘woke’ if it doesn’t feed into our actions. Sometimes it stops at a convenient and comfortable wokeness that achieves social credit and self-satisfaction but isn’t taken beyond that. We might be getting somewhere though; sometimes I see teenagers using ‘woke’ concepts among each other that gives some hope for the future generations. When I think about progress towards a better society through collective realisations, I think of the idea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy books by Douglas Adams where the earth is a supercomputer calculating the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. I think of us as a society all as parts of the calculation towards some kind of utopian or revelatory goal. In the book, the Earth is destroyed five minutes before the calculation is completed by someone who thinks their career would finish if the calculation completes. In our real Earth, it may also be the case that being fully woke is just not profitable enough to be allowed.
L-space is becoming Post Coal Prom Queen from April 2020 – why the change and what’s the significance of the new moniker?
G – Dickson (who played bass in L-space) has decided to focus on his other bands, so Lily and I decided it was a good opportunity to rebrand and rethink. We’ll still be performing and promoting the L-space back catalogue, as well as our new material, but also experimenting with new ways of distributing music. PCPQ is the natural evolution of L-space.
L – We got the idea of the name from an article by Mee-Lai Stone about the work of the photographer Ioana Cîrlig. Her photos show life in post-industrial Romania and has a striking image of a prom queen standing in one of these mining towns with a handmade sash with scribbled on text. We liked the image of the character of the Post Coal Prom Queen: a woman in a role of nostalgic, fragile and imaginary glamour in a new world of survival in the remains of a climate change ravaged world, running on new energy sources.
Are you excited about touring? What will the experience be like live and are you visiting anywhere you haven’t been yet?
G – we can’t wait! We’ll be playing our first gig in London and also taking our first trip to Japan to play some shows in Tokyo and collaborate with some amazing artists we know over there. We’ll have a double A-side single coming out with our friends Macaroom which will be our first Japanese release.
L – I love travelling to new places, and the fact that we get to collaborate with others and bring our music to more people to enjoy makes it even better. It will be interesting to see how our music is received in different music cultures.
You have been going strong with accolades on the scene since 2017, What’s the biggest problem you’ve had to overcome so far?
G – For me it has been self-doubt. I wake up every morning with a brain telling me I’m garbage and it takes effort to get over that, which is exhausting, but stopping isn’t an option for me.
L – Fear that I’m not doing anything well enough and the tiredness of trying to push forward with music while doing all the other life things. Sometimes I just want to hide under a duvet instead.
What do you enjoy most and hate most about being a musician?
G – the thing I enjoy most is hearing that our music has helped someone or made them feel good. The thing I hate most is the industry itself.
L – I enjoy the most when people get something positive from our music, and when we feel like we have created a beautiful new thing. The worst is the problems in the industry, seeing other musicians struggling in it while the wrong people make money and gatekeep.
If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?
G – I’d change the current trend of predominantly white, straight, male guitar-based music being the go-to choice for industry sycophancy.
L – Where to begin… I’ll at least add to Gordon’s point and say that if the music shown to audiences and supported by the industry was really based on the quality of the music as is often claimed, the pool of musicians would more accurately reflect the population. There is also a financial barrier to developing a music career, which means that talented creative people often just don’t get heard, and burn out, if they aren’t economically fortunate. Changing that somehow would be great for musicians and music lovers.
Feed The Engines! will be available to download from the Last Night from Glasgow website on 7th February, with a CD and streaming release on 3rd April.