It is always stimulating when a band makes a long term impact by never sacrificing their drive to expand consciousness. Not every band has the guts or resolve to be a Dead Meadow, Kylesa, a Pharmakon or a Skinny Puppy. It is not an easy task to never fail to resist kowtowing to the framework of popular entertainment norms. To make each statement count.
Luminous Rot by metalgaze sound painters Nadja (Leah Buckareff & Aidan Baker) shows the duo remain capable of resisting the autopilot tendencies of many a long running group, whilst still retaining hallmarks that made them appeal to noise hungry weirdos, artsy types and sewer dwelling mutants. It is amongst a short list of my very favorite musical ‘moments’ of the year.
It was truly a Wayne’s World “We’re Not Worthy” checklist moment for me to get to interview the group about one of the year’s most thrilling records, an album that deserves to be revisited often by listeners in 2021. Frankly, it makes a lot of other albums feel semi-amateurish and will go over some people’s heads. What else is new?
We discussed Southern Lord, sci-fi “norms”, David Pajo’s role, pandemic peculiarities and much more. Luminous Rot is particularly compelling in how it effortlessly melds both obtuse and more welcoming musical forms into a cohesive soak.
Read onward BELOW.
I love the album title Luminous Rot. How did you come up with it? For me, it made me think of how entropy is connected to the life cycle. Even when we decay our ‘soul’ energy is said to stick around. And rotting literally helps feed new life. The “riffiest” song here “Fruiting Bodies” also sort of made me think of that. Host to organisms or helping the grass grow. Or also sometimes what seems Luminous, for a darker interpretation, can be just the neon advert haze over a dystopian Blade Runner descent!
AB – Actually, I first read the phrase ‘luminous rot’ in a German advertisement (for clothing, if I recall correctly, so not exactly ‘neon advert haze,’ although Blade Runner has been mentioned in a couple reviews already), but in German this simply means ‘bright red.’ So there’s something of a bilingual pun to the title, in our minds, from the literal of the German to the ambiguity of the English (which happens a lot when you try translating German words or phrases into English). We’re also fond of juxtaposition—darkness/light, decay/rebirth, beauty/ugliness, etc.
How did David Pajo of Slint fame become involved in this record? Did you know one another a long time or cold call David? Certainly a pioneer and the combination of Pajo and James Plotkin’s ears paired with your acute sense of memorable yet experimental songcraft it like a strange anti-pop fix for people who “get” this sort of thing, hahah.
AB – Greg from Southern Lord introduced us to David. Acting as something of a producer for the album, Greg suggested we get someone other than ourselves to mix the album. From a list of a few possible engineers, David was the one we were most interested in working with (and not just because we’re fans of Slint). Plotkin, we’ve known for years—I’ve been a fan of his work since OLD, we’ve played together live a number of times over the years, and he’s mastered I don’t know how many albums of mine.
I was into White Hills recent Stop Mute Repeat record they did with Martin Bisi which similarly pulled from more industrial or in their case no wave terrain to sort of flip the script a bit on their sound. In your case, this is one of the best records I have heard all year. Did you feel like Southern Lord with their respectful understanding for drone would be an ideal home for it? Did the record’s sound develop in tandem with the concepts or after the thematic elements?
AB: I have been listening to Splintered Metal Sky a lot lately, actually. White Hills said they were in part influenced by Minimal Man on that album, whom I also discovered relatively recently and I quite like his sort of ‘primitive cold wave’ sound.
I think the thematic elements of Luminous Rot and the music sort of mutually informed each other as we were working on the album. At least, the ideas were in the back of our minds and as we were demoing material, they felt like they would be complementary to each other.
In normal, non-pandemic times we probably would have released Luminous Rot on our own label, Broken Spine. But with the sudden loss of touring and how that would affect our ability to move the record, we started looking for a label that might be able to help us make up for that loss or support us in ways that we couldn’t really ourselves. We’ve always liked Southern Lord and are fans of a lot of their bands (Earth, Khanate, Sunn O))), Caspar Brötzmann, Big Brave, etc), so when Greg expressed interest in releasing the album, we were quite pleased to work together.
The press release stated that thematically, ‘…the album explores ideas of ‘first contact’ and the difficulties of recognising alien intelligence. This was in part inspired by reading such writers as Stanislaw Lem and Cixin Lui — in particular, theories on astro-physics, multi-dimensionality, and spacial geometry in “The Three Body Problem” — as well as Margaret Wertheim’s “A Field Guide To Hyperbolic Space,” about mathematician Daina Taimina’s work with crochet to illustrate hyperbolic space and geometry.’
I thought this was very interesting. I always would watch sci-fi movies with my dad and talk about how we thought it was a drag that aliens always seem semi-human. I like the idea of sort of amorphous inter-dimensional beings or something harder to conceive of that we might perceive as poltergeists, for example. Something genuinely ‘alien’ to us. No disrespect to classic little green men or more imaginative xenomorphs. But it was very cool when Grant Morrison would sort of hint at beings made of time intersecting with our dimension. Or, for example, you on your Instagram showed the Day Of The Triffids book as an inspirational source. They were sort of bugged out giant asparagus things, haha. Creepy or emotional vegetation is fascinating!
There’s also something to be said about aliens not being able to recognize intelligence in us!! Imagine having a star craft or a way to observe us and you see us destroying our oceans through psychotic trawling or inexplicably all being obsessed with a few vapid celebrities, haha. Or unable to perceive the light of wisdom in the eyes of animals we exploit. I sort of feel like we deserve to be eaten by aliens after how we treat factory farm livestock. I know that is radical, lol. But we certainly can’t seem all that smart to other entities, no? Or maybe that is too cynical and they would also be able to respect some of our philosophical pioneers or enjoy the Nadja discography!
AB: I think that is a very realistic cynicism. My science fiction interests lean more towards philosophical/metaphorical writers like Lem or the Strugatsky brothers and less towards the more stereotypical space opera (and while Liu has elements of space opera in his work, he has a very different and more technical/astro-philosophical approach to it). My interest in ‘first contact’ is less a fascination with (or even a belief in) extraterrestrials and more about our failure to communicate amongst ourselves and other lifeforms with whom we share this planet. Also tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other,’ which is certainly a recurring theme in John Wyndham’s writing—if not Day of The Triffids, so much, certainly in The Chrysalids or The Midwich Cuckoos.
LB: I don’t think that’s too radical a claim. I’m not actually a big science fiction consumer, but I will occasionally dip into a bit of Lem or Strugatsky – maybe I just like the tiny bit of cynicism of old Soviet SF. I do really appreciate it when films and literature dispel the idea that humans have anything to offer another alien being. One of the most depressing scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die was when Tilda Swinton’s character just abandons the ‘fight.’ The aliens will not save us and we’re completely sabotaging ourselves.
In sort of continuing the last not-quite-a-question, the music on this record is kind of brilliant in that…did you consider that these songs themselves might feel in a non linear way to most people like a sort of alien interfacing/contact? A sort of static bath with a different consciousness.
AB: Yes. Normally, we are hesitant to assign any specific, concrete meanings to our songs in order to allow for individual interpretation. But with Luminous Rot we wanted to encourage people to think more about the nature of intelligence and communication and humanity’s place in the world/universe (and/or within ourselves). Still, we don’t want to dictate to people—we’d rather suggest themes or subject matter that they might consider while listening. But I like that phrase ‘static bath with a different consciousness’—that seems fitting.
LB: I guess when we assign a ‘theme; to a record, we’re not dictating a direction for the music as much as maybe planting some ideas to consider while listening. Even the abstractions within our really nice artwork by Anoop Bhat plays into this. Juxtapositions and tangents and all that.
Were you in Berlin for most of the pandemic and how did you fare or what were your feelings like during this crisis? At least on the bright side, I enjoyed the opportunity to binge read more and see my cat and partner more. Obviously all the death and unease has been a challenge for many. It really feels like a transformative time for people willing to learn from it.
AB – We were in Berlin for the pandemic, yes, and fortunately stayed healthy. But it was difficult and stressful, suddenly not being able to tour and perform and losing our main source of income. I was lucky to get some soundtracking and mixing/mastering jobs which allowed me to keep working on music, at least. To be quite honest, we were looking to take a break from travelling, after touring so much over the last decade, but given the circumstances of the pandemic—the uncertainty of when we might be able to go back on the road, of how we might make a living—didn’t exactly make for a relaxing sabbatical. And while I did start a few different recording projects, a number of them long-distance collaborations via online file-sharing, I’ve found it difficult following through and completing them, not knowing exactly how or when (or if) I might be able to share them with the world.
LB: In some ways I think we were very fortunate to ride things out in Berlin in the last year. Things suddenly felt incredibly precarious and when the local government stepped in to help relatively quickly and easily, I couldn’t help but feel like society was going to emerge from this terrifying place into something more socially positive. I really naively thought as the cracks in society were exposed so explicitly, things like universal basic income and universal healthcare would be accepted everywhere.
Otherwise, I think I actually had more live performances than Aidan last year. I started collaborating with a project called The Psychedelic Choir a few years ago and we had a few performances in between lockdowns throughout the year. We also had chance for a short residency where we made some films for an exhibition (not able to attend in person as borders closed) that turned into a solidarity project with women in Warsaw, PL for their protests against their government and women’s abortion rights.
Wow, very cool. How do you continue to challenge yourselves with such a vast discography in your wake already? I mean, it helps that music, sound manipulation and emotion are sort of an infinite well or clay you can always re-mold, but I’d love to hear it in your words.
AB – ‘Infinite well’ is a good phrase. And certainly, I seem to constantly have some kind of melody or rhythm—even just a sound or a tone, a texture—running through my head. I’m not always compelled to try and capture or reproduce it, but often enough I am. And when I do, sometimes the very process of trying to reproduce it, the act of doing, can be an inspiration itself. I think of this as a sort of ‘feedback loop’—output becoming input, input becoming output—which, on a more literal level, might account for my affinity with feedback and noise.
LB: For me, at least with regards to music, collaboration is key. If Aidan can keep producing some kind of melody, I’m happy to try to bounce off of it.