Way, way back in August (remember August?), we got the distinct pleasure to premiere a new track from electronic experimentalists, Luo. To be frank, that track was when I first started paying attention to their upcoming release, Convoluted Mess Machine. It wasn’t for lack of liking them; Unspoken is a fantastic album which I still listen to regularly. Chalk it up instead to the sheer volume of releases we are experiencing, plus my own predilection to leave things that I know others on the blog are covering to until they are released (a fact which is naturally created by the aforementioned volume of releases, as I am forced to choose my battles carefully). But then, through the haze of my workload, the single we premiered, “Tightrope Tap Dancer”, cut like a resonant knife, causing me to perk up and pay attention. Boy, was that track good! What’s up with this new release? When is it coming? Can I listen to it?
It was then that I discovered that the band had become a duo and that the upcoming release could be seen as somewhat of a rebirth for the group. My interest slowly grew and as soon as I actually got my hands on the album itself, my initial interest was proven right. Convoluted Mess Machine is yet another energetic, engrossing release from the project but there’s also a dark current running through it, groove and redolent synths melding in new ways to further flesh out and expand the Luo jazz-fusion/EDM/mathy sound. All of that drew me in further and I knew I had to reach out to Luo to chat with them. And so I did! You can find the resultant interview below, which covers genres, compositional approaches, the band’s lineup, influences from jazz, the state of electronic music, and much more! Enjoy!
Oh, and once you’re done reading, don’t forge that Convoluted Mess Machine releases on October 15th via the indomitable Art as Catharsis. Click on through to the Bandcamp page below to pre-order this little nugget of progressive, electronic excellence. You’ll thank me if you do.
Hello Luo and thanks for chatting with us! Right off the bat, let me ask you if you even consider yourself as making “electronic music”? Do you associate yourself with one specific sub-genre or community or is it a big mish-mash of things for you?
Hi! Josh here, thanks for having me, Heavy Blog!
Kind of, for me the first music I got into was IDM and electronic music particularly from the UK but things from labels like Warp, Planet Mu, Metalheadz, Ninja Tune and stuff like this. It was a pretty golden era in the 90s & early 2000s and that’s all got a big place in my heart & feels like a home to me. It’s these sorts of places that make up a pretty big portion of what I’m drawing from or trying to ground things as when coming up with something.
Barney grew up playing drums in heavy bands from a young age and comes from more of a rock or instrumental background so has maybe more experience in that realm than I do, although we’re both into the same things on the whole we kind of have different strengths in different areas we combine and bounce off of one another with.
People interested in extremes of music and attempting to push what’s possible with it are most likely gonna end liking a form of metal, jazz, or various electronic styles and more frequently today the same people tend to be quite invested in the production & technical side of making tracks and mixing these things together.
In a sense what we do is an updated form of fusion, as we’re basically just combining our loves and interests of producing and making electronic music in software, with music and parts we’ve written on instruments and bringing those two together. These parts or things we’re inspired by could come from any of those genres I mentioned and more; we’re not exclusively obsessed with any one thing really. We like something in most genres but it just depends on the track or album.
Something we think is pretty important though is focusing a lot of the noodling and potentially masturbatory things that can occur in genres like what I’ve mentioned, as quite often this sort of music tends to appeal to an audience of other musicians and muso-nerds who are impressed by da chops, which is fine and I think ours probably does as well; although we’re also aware there’s plenty of people who aren’t impressed or who care about that and are mainly concerned with hearing good tunes; we’re sort of somewhere in between there. For example there’s some musicians who might be technically amazing at their instrument and could play anything but make something that, unless you’re interested in that instrument, probably isn’t very listenable to most people.
We think if we can contextualise or present things in a certain way musically then people regardless of if they’re a musician or not, might find they enjoy aspects of things they wouldn’t usually listen to elsewhere. We feel as if there’s intersection or a sort of liminal space where a lot of these interests and different niches overlap so we’re interested in exploiting that and seeing what happens essentially.
And where do the more jazz-y influences on your music come from? Is jazz something you’ve always listened to or something that you consciously interject into your music?
There’s a massive scene for it here in the UK and a lot of really cool stuff happening currently so absolutely it’s an influence, and in a sense yeah, it’s something we’ve always listened to. A lot of that earliest stuff I mentioned I got into was heavily informed by earlier jazz, a lot of bands we love and have had the pleasure of playing with are playing more modern jazz-oriented stuff too so its influence is everywhere around us.
A lot of that music I mentioned from the 90s and 2000s was heavily influenced by jazz, there’s plenty of info online about the history of things like UK jungle / drum ‘n bass and so on that I won’t rehash here but essentially there’s a long history now of jazz being recycled into new forms and then new music getting made that’s inspired by that; lots of artists we’re into sort of muddy the lines a bit in terms of what they actually sound like, but they get classified as jazz.
Growing up my dad exposed me to a lot of forms of jazz and instrumental music, fusion etc; so artists like Marcus Miller, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and people like this. Barney listens to a lot of jazz artists such as Derrick Hodge, Christian Scott, Blaque Dynamite (Mike Mitchell). We both like lots of Brainfeeder artists and this kind of world.
Staying on genres (last question!) how do you think about your relationship with post-rock? The whole sub-genre of electronic post-rock is very diverse but your music seems more energetic and scattered than what one usually thinks of in this sphere.
To some extent it’s an influence, for example if I’m writing melodic, atmospheric ‘pretty’ or fluttery guitar-based stuff I could possibly be thinking of artists like Efterklang, Múm, Sigur Rós and so on. 65daysofstatic were pretty influential to me as a teenager as they were the first people I came across doing this crossover of live / instrumentally-based rock music combined with electronic drum programming and synths a bit familiar of someone like Aphex Twin, which as a concept on paper was pretty influential to me.
Although yeah, we definitely want there to be more energy and I suppose more of a concise journey in our music, compared to a lot of post-rock that sometimes has quite long track run-times and can maybe be a bit sort of sleepier or more relaxing to listen to; even if we’re doing something chilled, we want there to be a lot textural density and details to look out for.
We’d say outside of what we’ve mentioned already some more important genres or things in our sound we’re drawing from is stuff like film & video game scores, acoustic folk / singer-songwriter music both old & new, classical / neo-classical; I think lots of post-rock gets pretty cinematic at times and that’s something we’re into as well.
There’s all sorts really, we listen to stuff like Alessandro Alessandroni, King Crimson, the Mick Gordon Doom OSTs are amazing, in a similar vein to that we quite enjoy the Tenet score. These are pretty inspiring to us, as is stuff by people like Amon Tobin & Tipper in the electronic department. For the acoustic guitar portions of what we do we draw from artists like The Beatles, Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley and Gravenhurst. I love stuff from the PS1 Final Fantasy soundtracks (7, 8 & 9), Ocarina of Time, lots of Japanese artists & composers generally as well.
When it comes to heavy music as I mentioned the Doom scores, artists like Periphery & Architects are pretty instrumentally inspiring, The Dillinger Escape Plan, we also love a bit of Meshuggah and stuff like that. Tigran Hamasyan muddies the lines a bit with the piano djent thing but his sort of fiddly herky-jerky riffage is something we’re into as well and artists that do that sort of rhythmic trickery or illusion thing.
The problem with listing things is that we always feel like we’re missing other stuff out, and we could go on for ages.
You recently moved from being a quartet to being a duo. How has this impacted your music? Do you find the compositional process is now easier with less voices onboard or do you miss that diversity of input?
The way we work now is just different in the sense we both write, arrange and use software to come up with ideas and sections, and we both have our own studio setups now and essentially more gear to record and author everything ourselves, whereas in the past we would’ve for example recorded drums in a studio with an engineer. Now we’re doing things ourselves and know how to, we’re able to spend more time on things like mic placements and setups to get the exact sound we’re after.
We also collaborate on our ideas more in a different way, so whereas the Luo 1.0 way of working was I was the solo composer or arranger and the others embellished what was written there, this time in tracks the A section might’ve been mainly written by me and the B section would’ve been done by Barney, and then we’ve both added things of our own to each other’s stuff that we’ve come up with.
We put everything together in Logic and you can just send projects & audio files over Wetransfer – so even though we live about 200 miles apart, this is how we’re able to do this project and make this sort of music that might sound a bit like we’re a band writing it together in a room; it’s not the case. Previously it was a bit more like that when we worked as a 4-piece, but nowadays it’s more of a studio & production-based process.
I’m sure for anyone who’s ever for example recorded a little idea on their own, and had the pleasure of getting other musicians to do their thing over that, before it happens you have some idea of what they’re gonna do, but that experience of when they first send what they’ve done back over and you listen to it and go ‘hell yes, that is awesome’. It’s that basically, which was how it was before we were a 2-piece too but it’s just different?
Jumping off from that, how does Convoluted Mess Machine measure up to your previous releases? Did you make this as a sort of opening chapter for the new lineup or is this simply the music that ended up flowing as you wrote it?
I think every time we do a release, we just try and get closer to getting what we imagine in our heads out into a listenable form and that happens incrementally a bit every time we do something, as we’re always learning more about how to do things and get certain sounds we’re looking for. So in a sense on this EP we’re getting a bit closer to a photograph than an artist’s sketch of what we imagined. I think we both feel that way about it.
I’d say this is more like an extension or epilogue to our last album Unspoken as well, some of this EP was being written around the same time as that material so it comes from a similar creative space as that album, although I’d say we came into this one a bit more relaxed – so it’s basically us flexing and having a bit more fun in this space now we’re more comfortable in it.
On that last point of yours we do sometimes try and say to ourselves before we start a project ‘this is what we’re aiming to do with it, let’s go in this direction’, so on this EP we knew we wanted to incorporate some more jazz influences and have things be a bit less dynamically full-on all the time like they were on our last album and a bit ‘lighter’ in its overall tone, whilst at the same time exploring some of the heavier guitar-based ideas we touched on before; that sounds quite contradictory and that’s usually the case with our ideas, so we enjoy the challenge of somehow getting that to make sense as a listening experience.
Our tracks come together in a pretty flowy way in the sense we don’t have that much discussion about things and kinda just do stuff we enjoy doing; although releases are always put together in a pretty considered way, it’s not just a random assortment of tracks we’ve written and bundled together on a release. If we come up with a track that’s predominantly pretty heavy or there’s a few of those, we look at the existing track-list and then set about writing stuff to compliment or balance that energy out across the experience of the album or EP.
Outside of that, since we were a 4-piece (which was actually a few years ago) in my personal life I’ve spent a lot of time training & working as a mix engineer mixing other peoples’ music and as an assistant to a great engineer called Chris Allen, who’s taught me a lot about it – so I’ve got a lot more confidence about that side of the process compared to when we were a 4-piece, when I didn’t know my ass from my elbow with that stuff and was winging it quite a lot.
I found your words on the classical composition method you used to write “Tightrope Tap Dancer” to be fascinating. Can you expand on what this method is, how you used it, and what you feel it has brought to the track?
So this is Barney’s quote but I think he’s sort of talking about the melodic theme we’re repeating, expanding on and re-contextualising throughout the track.
I think he’s talking about something like how operas or orchestras communicate a narrative or emotions with music using different instruments, keys, scales and theory and so on, and there is generally an arc to things.
I think he said something about bringing that into the modern day, and what I think he means is, for some on-the-nose examples you could use timpani’s to communicate thunder, the arrival of a villain or the tension before a plot reveal, or weepy violins for a sad moment or something like that. Basically now we’re not limited to the orchestra and we can use any sound we want or even genre traits to serve the purpose timpani’s would, I think. But obviously we’re not making classical music or could write an opera, I think it’s just a mind-set for writing sort of thing.
On a more literal level I think he’s referring to how we use the same melody but re-contextualise that into different moods and vibes as the track goes along; if you pay attention to the opening keys riff, the melody of the heavy section riff and the following keys part after that they all sort of originate out of this one little keys loop Barney came up with, and if you have a song-writing or compositional concept in mind like this it can be helpful for breaking away from that loop and actually getting a whole track that evolves out of it.
I like being able to come up with a sort of narrative around a track or feel like that would be possible to imagine whilst listening to it.
For example if you imagine with our latest single the opening sections are like a storm cloud brewing in Ancient Greece because Zeus is agitated about something (anxious wonky math/jazz/UK Bass riffs), then the storm cloud bursts and all the little Ancient Greek people get washed away in a big flood going ‘ahhhhh noooo Zeus, why have you forsaken us’, as Poseidon laughs maniacally and tosses people towards Hades with his big fork (heavy industrial synth section). Then you could say the sections like that are the sort of calm afterwards and Zeus saying to himself ‘yes, everybody is dead now, now I can start again, hooray’ (quieter electronic chilled section) before the sun reignites (crescendo of electronic section), and then a woman in a white gown appears, lets a dove fly out and takes a bow. Then the audience gasp and cheer and say ‘that’s the most stirring opera we’ve ever witnessed, please let us witness it again’ (ambient orchestral synth outro).
Obviously that’s a load of waffle and not something we actually had in mind before making the track, but hopefully that just illustrated a potentially amusing surrealist music video idea into people’s minds and something that I sort of like to be able to do with a track of ours. It’s almost as if once you can do that to some extent you know you’ve got a tune written & finished, at least in terms of a structure.
Lastly, where does the name “Luo” come from? Is there a special significance to it?
When I was in school there were some classmates who were into spray-art and tagging urban lettering, and I think they picked their tags or what they’d spray just based on letters they liked the most or a sequence of letters they liked; so they wouldn’t be real words. I just sort of borrowed the idea from that.
I came up with it as it’s really short, I liked how it looked and the way it sounded, as well as for graphic design purposes. I also felt it didn’t really sound like anything in particular so you wouldn’t have a musical genre connotation to it.
On a google search, I see it’s a Romanised version of a Mandarin surname in China, the name of an ethnic & cultural group of people called the Luo in Kenya & Tanzania and their language is also called Luo, I think it’s also a name or is a word in South American countries and probably means something somewhere else as well, but at the time I didn’t actually check any of this when I started using it all those years ago – so apologies to anybody who was looking for information about these things and instead found our weird music, or vice versa.