Scattered orange glows of candles burning amid the woody feel of this jazz/minimalist/avant-garde/noise cafe, an ambiance is already set for an evening of innovation and contemplation. James Brooks, formerly of Appliance and more recently a practising artist, comes to Cafe Oto – the place oozes that Dalston/Shoreditch vibe with hipsters intermingling with avant-garde aficionados – with his new project ‘Land Observations’. It is a project in which he uses guitar loops to create an almost nostalgic sound, digging beneath the surface of the buzzing roads and constant activity that surrounds us to contemplate the calmer histories of our surroundings...
Following his Roman Roads EP and now LP, Brooks is genuinely excited about playing live, though he admits that he has to be selective in his choice of venue in order to avoid playing to people who won’t be able to zone in to the same reflection and pondering that he feels when he plays his minimalist brand.
“Choosing to play places like this, you know it’s the right place for you, whereas you can play a more dingy punk venue and it could go wrong, could be the wrong place” he tells me”. “But so far, so good touch wood. Hecklers are a lot of fun, and I’m sure that it’ll happen”.
I began with my editor’s request of an opening question “In Australia it is R U Okay Day today, so are you okay?” I was a tad embarrassed asking this question but Brooks responds as thoughtfully and concisely as he plays his music.
“Today’s a good day”, I’m relieved to hear. “You know sometimes you walk around and there’s a calmness, it’s been one of those days, the sun’s been shining, and it’s been quite calm so, yeah. I’ve enjoyed the day, so far”.
But wanting to get into the depths of his music, the conversation moves quickly into the blending of art and physical space into his music, before we go onto contemplate what would end up becoming a theme of the evening’s entertainment – the dispersing aesthetic strands of modern guitar.
“I was kind of realising that guitar is…was an exciting instrument and it still is”, he enthuses. “It doesn’t have to be played in a clichéd way. Blues rock guitar is not interesting at all to me. It was sort of realising that a lot of the electronica that I liked, I realised that the guitar could take me part of the way towards that. Trying to use the guitar like a rhythmic instrument. Rhythmic, I mean as in drum rhythmic rather than rhythm guitar, that kind of flick and click thing…”
That kind of flick and click will be familiar to anyone already entreated to the creative guitar playing of the likes of Austrian electronic composer Christian Fennesz, and it is clear that Brooks, as well as being a fine player of the instrument, is also a great lover and student, particularly of the electronic guitar. Throughout our pre-gig discussion, we go through swathes of guitarists, groups and composers who have used the guitar in different ways to the predominant 12 bar blues form that formed and dominated much of rock for so long, before what he describes as the ‘lazy’ playing of many modern rock guitarists became the norm. We talk shoegaze, minimalism, krautrock and folk as the evening ensues.
“Speaking of shoegaze I always thought Slowdive were really fantastic, always thought they were really interesting, and certain parts of Ride, perhaps early on when they had a really strong identity. My Bloody Valentine also for that idea of reinventing the guitar and showing what you can do with it – this stuff’s amazing”.
The famed glider technique of Kevin Shields for My Bloody Valentine has gone down in rock folklore as being one of the great innovations in guitar playing of the last 20 years, but Brooks’ sound itself certainly seemed more influenced by less known, less popular but equally important artists.
“German kosmiche (krautrock) bands were very important. Minimalist composers very important to this project also. The idea of repetition, what happens if you keep playing the same phase over and over again, and I was interested in what the limitations were of me just playing on my own. It wasn’t the case using any kind of software or this keyboard, drum machines or whatever. I kind of had this very fixed identity of the electric guitar, and seeing that was really exciting – to approach the guitar in a really creative way, always knowing that that was the end and the start point”.
As a guitarist myself, it was really interesting and pleasing to hear someone speak of a kind of optimism for the guitar being able to survive and develop amid the increasing dominance of electronic music certainly in the popular charts. There are a plethora of blog, magazine and even newspaper articles pondering whether the guitar will continue to survive as the great popular instrument, but what you sense with Brooks is that he’s not too concerned with the popularity. He’s instead more concerned with the ongoing creativity of guitarists, trying to take the sound of guitar music to newer and bolder places.
“I’m totally absorbed by guitars, I think they’re wonderful things, but they’ve also had a bad run of it with people playing them in sort of lazy ways, playing things that we’ve heard before. We need to keep trying to find new territory. Maybe we’ll all fail but it’s fun to keep trying”.
The other act on stage before Land Observations are Way Through, a not massively charismatic but certainly an endearing couple whose brand of experiment punk rock was certainly in line with Brooks’ assessment of guitar play. To interesting rhythms and polyrhythms, the guitarist wielded the guitar as though it were a frantic toy with infinite dimensions, such was his nonstop playing and experimentation with the instrument. There was lots of pedal work, reverb manipulation, staccato-ed delay, ebbs and flows of volume, looping, and prepared guitar techniques – the strings are caressed with a triangle at one point – amid the structure of some catchy punky riffs that sounded a bit like Vampire Weekend. This brand of Vampire Weekend meets avant-garde experimentation was really entertaining and often catchy such that, if the singer had a better voice, Way Through would be a really interesting band.
Land Observations is more restrained than this outpouring of frantic innovation though, despite playing at what is essentially his home location.
“The Kingsland Road in all its glory has this wonderful history, that you travel up on the bus up into Shoreditch and suddenly you’re aware of this incredibly straight road. It’s the old route out of London or back into London called Ermine street, one of the Roman roads. This project is about roads like that. It’s not kind of about history per se. It’s about daydreaming about something that’s come before, and looking at contemporary architecture that’s lasted from Rome and thinking this has got history. You kind of scratch the surface and there’s something more about it”.
In this respect Land Observations’ set and his LP are more in tune with previous strands of guitar aesthetic. Using loops in a similar way to Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ to create interweaving layers of relaxing textures, he intelligently creates his ambient world for pause and reflection. Drawing out these loops out when playing them live, this perhaps works better on recording within the constraints of the 4-5 minute lengths of the recorded tracks. While on the album each song operates its own little tale of reflection, the extensions he makes playing them live perhaps allows for you to get lost in this thought and relaxation. The gig is at its best on the penultimate track ‘Appian Way’ where a driving krautrock infused riff drives the track rhythmically, structuring the pretty and delicate guitar interplay atop it.
Whereas, Way Through’s strand of guitar aesthetic was more frantic and immediately engaging, Land Observations is working along a strand of dreamy chill-out guitar that is almost perfectly suited to soundtracking walking down the roads that inspired many of the tracks he plays. Like Brooks himself, the music is thoughtful and considered. He is part of a wide group of guitarists and artists who are helping this instrument to continue to live and evolve aside the more mainstream conservativeness of the majority of popular guitar music.