Stephen Lawrie has always been doing his own thing. Musically it has changed. From romantic euryopia of band’s debut “Taste” to their more poppy follow-up – self-titled album.
Their upcoming “Songs Of Love And Revolution” is a different record. To a point, Lawrie continues his endless sound-experiments getting to a new direction. When I call them dark, Stephen disagrees. It seems that after all these years and stylistic metamorphosis it’s quite difficult to describe their music in simple terms. Gloomy or abstract ? Or again, romantic ? It doesn’t matter. There’s definitely a soul in everything The Telescopes do.
I got a chance to speak with Stephen Lawrie about songwriting practices and categorization of his music, about creating an environment for the songs and live-shows, about “Songs of Love And Revolution” and influences.
You once described the process of work as a certain collage. How can you describe the process of your work and what helps you to structuralize all these parts together ?
I usually get a small seed of an idea, which I try and view from as many different perspectives with as many definitions as possible. After a while my head will be overflowing with possibilities and that’s when things begin to pour onto the page, except I don’t write anything down until it is finished. At this point, each perspective gets filtered down to what actually resonates. So it starts to become a kind of collage.
Once I begin to hammer out phrases with an instrument, they are fashioned into condensed sentences that are as loaded as possible with everything I want to get across. The structure is determined by the seed at the core of the song, both lyrically and musically. With the song The Speaking Stones I used a rattling shell stick to give the impression of stones talking and drones to suggest a force of nature, the backwards guitars are there to evoke a kind of stone tape playback in an alien language.
As things progress towards musical arrangements it can be surprising how many happy accidents occur that compliment the theme of a song. However, despite all the above, sometimes I just sit down with an instrument in a certain mood and everything just comes out of the ether. And I have no idea how that happens except to say that maybe the more you do something the more intuitive it becomes. But you can’t rely on that every time.
In comparison with your recent “Stone Tape”, “Songs Of Love And Revolution” sounds a bit more atmospheric. Especially, such tracks as “You’re Never Alone With Despair”. While working what usually defines this proportion of experimentation, that’s always presented in your music, to a degree ?
That’s a very simple finger picking song that was written on an acoustic guitar. The arrangement is just that part broken down onto multiple instruments. The bass is playing whatever the lower strings were doing. The rhythm guitar plays the other strings while the drums reinforce the rhythm and fill in the gaps a little along with the lead/ noise guitar.
I rarely experiment for the sake of experimentation when working on a more written piece. Experimentation is used as a tool to find the correct arrangement, it’s a process of trial and error that is a natural part of any creative process. Sometimes the process itself can inspire something new.
At the beginning of The Telescopes, your music reflected the reaction of yours – on the things around. Isn’t it changed now, towards a certain artistic interest ? To try this, to try that…
No, nothing has changed. The experimentation was there from my very first single Kick The Wall, and my music has always been reactionary. Songs Of Love And Revolution is my reaction to now. Taste has lots of experimentation on it from bass-drones recorded through a desktop fan to throwing amps up the air with spring reverb up full.
When the idea pops in your head, what helps you to develop it properly creating an actual song ?
Like a lot of writers say, once you have a seed, nurture it, keep going, don’t stop, no matter what is going on. Even if it’s detrimental to your own wellbeing, see the journey through. Until it hurts.
There were a certain periods if your creativity, like your second-album when you had this melodic pop-element presented in your music. In contrast, “Sounds of Love And Revolution” sounds melancholic and even depressive. Was this your personal mood during the working process or something you wanted to explore on a compositional level ?
No not at all, I was very optimistic and even euphoric creating this album, with the second album I was depressed and felt alone. I had little self-confidence and it was fairly painful to make.
When I received the test pressings back and heard the song Spaceships I actually broke down. I do consider Spaceships to be a beautiful piece of music but it’s basically my inner self-recognizing the state I was in at the time. It was hard to hear back. I consider the second album to be much more melancholic than anything on the new album.
On your live-shows, there’s always a certain uncertainty presented – within the space you live for the improvisation. How much the energetics of your live-shows change the way these songs are presented and the process of their presentation ?
Sometimes very little, sometimes a great deal. For example. The song “We See Magic And We Are Neutral, Unnecessary” has been in the live set for quite a few years now and performed with many different line-ups. Each set of musicians have their own way of playing it. Sometimes their take on it works, sometimes I have to tweak bits in between shows. Eventually I built up a picture of exactly how I wanted the definitive version of it to be. Quite often I arrive at that conclusion by knowing exactly how I don’t want it to be. With a song like Strange Waves, it’s always played very closely to how it was written. Some tracks just work immediately. Others grow into themselves.
To a degree, mood and the state of mind always played an important role for you. There are some of Telescopes’ songs that sound like a certain meditation. Is it important for you to create a certain mental environment for a listener ?
It’s more important to create a certain environment for the song. I can’t predict how people’s ears perceive what’s going on, it’s too subjective.
By the time you formed The Telescopes you were the musicians who used to observe the becoming of punk-rock and post-punk. How these two collapsed and evolved. What did you feel becoming a musician in that environment with indie-labels, fanzines and alternative culture and how difficult was for you to find your artistic identity ?
All those things are still there, they just use different mediums as their outlets.
I found my artistic identity the moment I came up with the name The Telescopes.
I knew it wasn’t something that was going to remain stationary, there was never going to be a formula for creating The Telescopes music. The difficulty arose after the second album when people were too disorientated by the extreme contrast between albums. All of a sudden everyone had a strong opinion about what I should be doing to be more successful. I think I lost the thread at that point – things became too far removed from the original conception. It took me a long while to get back on track. Eventually it became apparent that the risks I took in creating an album so vastly different to its predecessor actually gave me much more freedom than I had in the first place. I think “Third Wave” is a testament to that freedom.
After you got back with “Third Wave” – how it was actually to face with changes musically ? After you recorded your first two Telescopes-albums in late 80’s-early 90’s.
If it wasn’t for the internet and the new technologies available such as home computers, that album probably wouldn’t have happened. I spent the time between the second album and Third Wave learning how to use those technologies, not just to create music but also to create artwork. It made me more self-sufficient as an artist.
As soon as The Telescopes established an online presence it became apparent that not only were people still digging the music but there was a wealth of artists out there that cited the music as a major influence on their own music and labels started reaching out.
I’ve tried to keep a fairly organic approach to The Telescopes online presence, I’ve never ‘bought’ fans or solicited a wider audience at the expense of the art. Everyone who comes to The Telescopes music comes of their own accord, there are no tricks involved, all of the listeners are genuine.
At the same time, during the years of your creativity, there’ve always been an impulse to boarders of forms and structures of guitar-music. What according to your opinion defined these changes ?
For me it was bands that went before us such as The Velvet Underground, Can, PiL, The Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth and some early Pink Floyd. I think all of those artists stand the test of time on many levels. They don’t just want to be pop stars, they are artists painting with sound but they are just as relevant on a social level as anything pop music or even a lot of protest music has thrown up.
What was the writing process of “Taste” like ?
Extremely fluid. I had no money for food or drink. I lived in the back room of a very run down flat with plastic sheets over the broken window panes. I couldn’t afford any heating – I could barely make the rent and have money left over for cigarettes or guitar strings. My only neighbor was a funeral parlor. I had a small black and white portable TV with an ariel that mostly picked up white noise. The only thing to do there was either read a book, write, listen to music or make my own.
To a degree you’ve always been associated with later post-punk scene, early shoegaze scene and later – even with Britpop scene. Did you feel any sort of connection with any of these, while playing back in the days ?
It’s like overlapping circles, The Telescopes are embraced by many scenes: Psych music, Experimental, Improvisational, Electronic, Noise and all those you mention, but none have ever fully defined The Telescopes. I feel a certain connection with all of them. The Telescopes are an all-embracing concern, in every sense, The Telescopes house has many rooms.
How much digital technologies changed your approach to writing music ?
In terms of throwing a dice, experimenting and seeing if it turns into something valid, the technologies are liberating. I no longer have to spend a lot of money in a professional studio with the added pressure of things not working out.
At the beginning of the band, you were just playing drums and singing. While, after you became the guitarist, you brough this very characteristic feel to your music. What was the moment in your career, when you started exploring song structure on a deeper level rather than some primary musical forms ?
I only drummed at the first couple of rehearsals initially, I’ve started playing the drums on recordings in more recent years and most of the guitar I’ve played has been exclusive to a studio environment rather than in a live setting.
If you listen to the early records, it all sounds like The Telescopes. But even then, there is a wide spectrum of song structures. And Let Me Drift Away is very different to a song such as Threadbare and The Perfect Needle is completely different to 7th# Disaster for example. It’s not necessarily a case of exploration, more a case of each song having it’s own pull towards how it should be and recognizing that.
There are some songs of your from the upcoming record – like Haul Away The Anchor, when you create a certain harsh noisy structures. What gives you an understanding of what you should add to the song ?
On Haul Away The Anchor – there are no guitar-parts, it’s an instrumental version of a traditional Cornish sea shanty, the only instrument on there is an Antonelli Wind Organ, the rest is an ambient field recording of Sea Gulls. I chose to do the song as a tribute to my future Father In Law, who grew up in Cornwall and passed away with Covid during the first lock down. He had been battling with dementia for a couple of years but the whole lock down process accelerated his condition. There were no provisions made for people in his situation. They were left in the cold.
Eventually his condition grew so bad he was becoming a danger to himself. After a serious fall he ended up in a hospital where due to their lack of ability to deal with dementia he caught the virus. He was an ox of a man but it took him very-very quickly. He was also a lovely man, I had many a great conversation with him despite what he was going through. His death hit the whole family extremely hard. Haul Away The Anchor was the exit music played at his funeral. I suggested the song to my partner and a Robin appeared, Robin is are very important to her so she saw that as a sign.
After that lock down I pulled out the Antonelli with the idea of creating a version of the song to follow on as a secret track after We See Magic.. One of the keys was stuck down in the exact tuning of the song. So I played the melody over the top of the drone it created. It felt like a fitting and very real way to end the album so with my partners permission that’s how it came about.
Isn’t it difficult to find something that would balance with darkness ? Not contrary different, but having a theme or idea you still should add some dynamic changes, make it work…
I honestly don’t see “Songs Of Love And Revolution” as a dark album, songs like Mesmerised, Strange Waves, Come Bring Your Love, We See Magic and This Train were written with great optimism. I find them very uplifting personally, but also very genuine pieces of music. It’s not an innocent album about beautiful rainbows and pretty flowers. It’s lived in but not wallowing, it’s looking for answers. But to uplift, not bring you down in a hole.
Photo credits: Tapete Records
Songs of Love And Revolution – the newest album by The Telescopes comes out on February the 5th via Tapete Records.