Interview: LA Priest talks Creativity and Inventing

Monday, June 1, 2020
Photo by Isaac Eastgate

If you think making a particular sound is impossible, there's a good chance LA Priest can figure out how to make it a reality. Sam Dust aka Sam Eastgate will be sharing his much-anticipated second solo album GENE this Friday. Created in solitude, he also invented an analogue drum machine (also called GENE), which appears as the centrepiece of the album. In the lead-up to the album's release, we spoke with LA Priest about working in isolation, the instruments that he's invented over the years and the process of making GENE a reality.

Your new album GENE is being released very soon, how are you feeling about it all?

It's not something where I have an internal calendar with it. I haven't really kept track of it because I guess when you've written the stuff and then you've recorded it say, over a year ago, then you just start moving on to other projects and things like that. It is going to be one of those things, as always, where I'm returning when other people are coming to this completely fresh. But I haven't really, as you can probably tell, played these songs to death, or some of them at all, so it's still really new for me.

For the album, you made the drum machine as well as the music in isolation — what do you enjoy about working on music in solitude?

I wouldn't say that I necessarily enjoy it more than my experiences playing, collaborating with other musicians and things like that. I think it's more probably a combination of perfectionism. I don't know what the word for it is, but I have the idea and I know how to do it. Sometimes I feel like I can be a bit rude to other people when I'm just trying to finish that idea off — I could just be maybe a bit rude and ignore people or switch off from people around me. It just makes sense for me to shut myself away and get the job done. This was one of those where I had a pretty clear idea, but I didn't know exactly the technical process of how it would come together.

Does working mostly on your own and avoiding outside noise help deal with any pressure that might arise?

Yeah, I think it definitely does. Whether I was working with other people or on my own, I would still be inclined to separate what I was doing from the rest of the world by going off and not referencing the outside world too much. I've never really found it that useful to be aware of, let's say, current trends or anything that's going on at the time. Doing that, it can do two things, neither of them is good.

It can discourage you because your music doesn't sound contemporary with this or that, because it's really hard to actually achieve that. The only way to achieve it is to mimic things that are out there. I just throw away that idea. I've always thrown that out of the window and just said, "No, I'm never going to achieve that, so I'm going to do something totally different to what's out there." I suppose the other discouraging thing is that if you do listen to other people's stuff too much, you might have a really good song idea and then, I don't know, it just needs a bit, a chorus or it just needs a verse, then you wouldn't be able to maybe steer away from the thought of, "That's the best way of doing it," or "Yeah. I need something like that."

What I tend to do is just listen to new music once and then let my dodgy memory re-invent whatever it was I heard. By the time I listen to it again, I'm like, "Oh, right. Yeah. I had a totally different idea of that."

Along with doing the majority of it by yourself, you also co-produced it with Erol Alkan. Why did you decide to ask him to work with you on the album and how did that partnership work?

That was a pretty late decision in the album process. I'd say it was pretty last minute in a way. Although I did the last couple of songs and I recorded certain parts of them thinking, "I don't think this is going to sound perfect now, but this is something that I think Erol will know how to transform into something really good." I only had him in mind for the last week or so of recording. Then with those last bits that I recorded, I hoped he would like it and agree to work on it.

It was funny because I recorded the whole thing through this one set of speakers and they sounded right to me, but I knew he could help with that. Now, I've listened back recently to the album as I sent him, and it just sounds really strange because he loves to really accentuate a lot of high frequencies and I think he likes to give your ears a workout, especially with the full frequency range. Whereas my version of the record was a lot more subconscious and under the surface — It was basically muffled. That's just the start of what he did, it was the first thing he did. Then there was just this process of reinventing, I think, of a lot of the sounds that are in there, or even repositioning them.

Before the analogue drum machine that is the centrepiece of this album, you've built other instruments before, including on the last album you made modular synths. From memory, what is the first instrument that you built from scratch?

I probably have forgotten, because I started messing around building stuff when I was a kid. I don't have any of that stuff anymore. It might not even have ever made any sort of musical sound. I'd just always be trying things out, but I'd say the first one that I really built completely with just bits, like junk that I've found around, part of it is an old CD shelf and part of it is some scrap that I found down at the local dump. It's the synth that's on the first record, and it sounds like loads of guitars.

It sounds like about four layers of ridiculous screaming guitar solos all layered on top of each other on the first song, 'Occasion'. It wasn't supposed to sound like that at all. It was supposed to sound like these lush pads or something, and it went totally wrong and ended up being better than I could have ever planned. It's also in the 'Lady's In Trouble With The Law' video, there's a bit where I'm sitting on the back of the speed boat and I've got micro-Gene, is what I call it, sitting on my lap. That's really the beginning of it. Ever since then, all the things that I've made have been silver. It just seems to be their uniform. There's a lot of silver going on in my life for some reason, I'm not sure why (laughs).

Over the years, have you had any failed experiments or any other happy accidents like that one?

I bought my first house, I can't even remember where I got the money from it now, I think my grandma was just like, "Right, I'm going to help you out," so she gave me the deposit and then I managed to get a mortgage on this house. Then I immediately, instead of moving in, I went to New Zealand to work with Connan [Mockasin] on the Soft Hair record. This house was just laying empty. When I got back, I didn't really see anybody for ages, it was over the winter and was in this really weird place where I think all my friends had moved to different countries and I had just bought this house and it was kind of awkward timing and then I just never built anything.

I decided I was going to turn this tape machine, this tape echo that I still have, that I use on everything, I wanted to turn it into a drum machine. I had this wacky idea that I could attach more tape heads to it and wire this huge thing up. I built a huge, what I thought was going to be a sequencer, and it's just this rat's nest of wires, as many wires as you can possibly fit in a shoebox-sized thing. That was going to attach to this tape echo. I spent all through the winter, all through  Christmas, into the new year, building this thing. Then I remember saying, "I'm going to plug this in and if it doesn't work, I'm going to throw it away."

If it didn't work, I wouldn't have a clue, because I'd never built anything like that, so I couldn't look for a problem or anything. Lo and behold, I plugged it in and it didn't make any sound. Years later I looked at the box and started trying to work out what was going on. I knew a bit more about it, and it turns out I just hadn't put any of the power to any of the chips. There were about 20 chips on there and none of them had any power going to them at all. I thought that they would work by themselves or something. I have no idea what I was thinking, but the funny thing was that I wasn't even that annoyed.

What was the catalyst that led to you wanting to make the drum machine for this album?

It was really the same sort of thing. I think I always had this idea, even way back nearly 10 years ago. For this one, I was returning to the same thing, which is I need to build these songs on top of something, and I didn't want to keep replacing what I did for the first album. I didn't have this ideal drum machine and I just kept replacing the drums. What that does when you've recorded everything on top of the drum track and then you replace it, it makes it a bit disjointed and you end up having to do loads of work to, I guess, glue everything back together. By the time you've finished the song and you've replaced the drums three times, because you're not satisfied with the sound of them. You just end up bored with the whole thing and I think it has a massive impact on the energy of the recording.

I wanted something that was going to be my kind of sound. It was going to be more personal to me. It wasn't going to be a borrowed off the shelf thing, which I think is always the case when you take drum machines. I have recorded real drums for things before, but I always find the recording process with them tedious as well, you have to spend half a day trying to get microphones in the right place, and have enough space for a drum kit. The thing that popped into my head was that I want a machine that you can change the timing of each beat, not just change the rhythm of the whole bar, but each beat should be able to have its own character — like I hit push, and the way that the beat pushes and pulls.

I looked around and I realised it had never been done. Nobody had ever made a drum machine where each beat could be moved around and positioned independently. I was just thinking, "I guess I've got to do it then". It really took a whole year just to it — it took about two or three months to work out how to do that. That was the basis. I had to completely reinvent the heart of the machine. It runs in a way unlike anything else — nobody would have ever run a drum machine on that technology, because it is inherently unreliable. It has a life of its own. It does this thing as well, where it speeds up gradually throughout the whole song — it'll start about two BPM lower or get two BPM higher, which is incidentally, pretty close to how a real drummer plays, if you let them.

What do you hope listeners get out of their listening experience of the new album?

I hope they don't get bogged in. I suppose the funny thing is talking about all the technology and the technique behind it — I hope that isn't something that is even apparent at the end of the day. I wanted to do all of that work so that could just sit in the background. The thing that I want people to hopefully feel in the record is, I suppose, the spark of creativity and something dreamlike. For me, all of the songs and the melodies go around in my head like a half-daydream.

LA Priest's album GENE will be available this Friday, June 5th, click here for more information. You can also access an online version of his drum machine for the album here.  

Written by Amy Smolcic (@amysmolcic)

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