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Laurel Halo Talks Turbulence, Techno, and Her Moving New Hyperdub EP

Laurel Halo / Photo by Bobby Jones

Laurel Halo is fucking stoked about playing live. Over the course of an hour-long conversation, the New York electronic musician exclaims, “I love playing live,” or some variation upon that phrase, at least half a dozen times. And she is equally stoked because the way she makes music on stage is finally determining the way she makes her records, and not the other way around. And the way she makes music on stage is to throw the laptop out the window and let the jam reign supreme.

Unsurprisingly, Halo’s upcoming EP, Behind the Green Door, reflects a newfound focus on rhythm. Without forsaking the swirling, psychedelic qualities that have distinguished all of her records so far, its four tracks dive headfirst into churning, tumbling rhythms informed by Detroit and U.K. techno. “Throw” pairs detuned piano stabs with sullen squarewave bass bleats. “UHFFO” lets gloopy chords run roughshod over hissing hi-hat grooves. And “NOYFB” and “Sex Mission” are body music at its headiest, where gut-rumbling sub bass ploughs through a mercurial wash of synthesizer.

SPIN spoke to Halo about the new record, her recent stint in Berlin, and why, after Quarantine, she’d rather sculpt kick drums than sing. Check out “Throw” below, and read on for the full interview. Behind the Green Door comes out May 20 on Hyperdub.

You were in Berlin for a while; where are you now?
I’m back in New York now. I’m not sure where I’m going to live. I have a place here. Berlin’s on the table, even London and Detroit are on the table.

What took you to Berlin?
Living overseas and having shows overseas, it’s much easier to have that gigging-on-weekends approach versus doing long tours, so it’s more conducive to having a regular rhythm. Also, I really like Berlin and the music there is interesting. It’s a bit of a narrow spectrum, but I kind of appreciate that, because that’s basically the only type of music that I like to go out to see. But I don’t know, I got back to New York and I have been really enjoying it again. I was away for five months. I got really sick of New York last summer. I hated the summer so much. I was dying in my studio, sweating — my air conditioner was basically on its last legs, lightly whispering some mildewy, damp air that wasn’t even that cold. It was really disturbing. [Laughs] So I left and then I came back. I’m wondering if I should stay here longer because I haven’t invested in the city that much. I haven’t gotten that involved and done that much. I’ve just been one of these people that hides out in my studio and doesn’t really do anything.

Do you think your time in Berlin had any noticeable impact on your music?
I was kind of hiding out in Berlin, recording, like I do here. I would say it’s less the music there or the scene or the styles that are prevalent there; I would say what had an impact on my music was playing more live shows. Getting a sense of what I like to play live and what sounds good live has dictated the direction that my music is going these days. I’ve been playing out live for three years, and my music has always been rhythmic, leaning towards dance, with a heavy dose of synths and samples, obviously. My live set has always been centered around rhythm, so I think it’s been a natural progression towards this sound. I think that my music is dance music, in a live context. And I just don’t have a lot of releases out yet that necessarily reflect what I do live.

Are you getting to a point in your work where what you’re doing live drives how you work in the studio?
Yeah, it’s changed a lot. It’s kind of the classic, clichéd story where you change your gear and it completely changes the way you think about making music. It’s not really an interesting conceit, but that’s just what happened. I played live for two and a half years with a laptop and a synth and a bunch of pedals, but last summer I switched over to using just MPC and Machinedrum and a synth and some pedals. Starting with a sampler and drum machine, versus making something on the computer and then retro-engineering it and figuring out how to play it live, is a completely different approach. Working on material just to be played live also shapes the way you think about how it will sound recorded, how will it be recorded. It’s really exciting. I’m super happy to have made this transition. Sonically it’s obviously way better. Of course, producers can do everything inside a computer and make it sound incredible. I don’t want to be one of those gear dickheads that’s like, “Gear is the only way.” You can make music however you want to. But just for me, personally, getting away from staring at a screen was really helpful. If I’m staring at a screen, it lends itself to feeling more like work, because I do email on the computer and I do writing on the computer and I pay my bills on the computer. You know? I don’t pay my bills on an MPC. So just moving away from the screen was really helpful for me. Also playing lots of shows and seeing how people react to certain types of sounds, the way the EQ profile is on a kick drum, how it fills the room. Getting a better sense of sound design in a live context has been really interesting and really fruitful.

I’m always curious when people do hardware live sets — how much preparation and rehearsal is involved, and how much is improvisation?
I have drum patterns and sample patterns saved, but I don’t have any prescribed way of playing them. I just sort of improvise them differently each night and weave beats and samples together in different ways. It’s more a live improvised thing, working with a specific palette of sounds ready to go.

But it’s not like you have to rehearse specific changes.
I basically create a set list, and I’ll practice the live set at home. I’ll have it all recording, so if I hit on a good moment I can save it for future reference, try it out later when I’m actually recording in the studio. It really is super-improvised. I try to have basic transition guidelines, like in this transition I just want this sample going and I want to be playing this synth patch and I want to have this kind of rise, or I want to have this specific drum pattern but I want to double the tempo and run it through delay. But I don’t practice, like, “Now for 16 bars the kick comes out, and now I bring up the hat, and I want to bring up the sizzle, like, 4K, very slightly, about three seconds.” It’s very improvised and very jam-oriented. It’s very different from how I used to sit down and make music in the studio, which was very edit-oriented, jamming and then editing. But I think playing live this way and approaching creating music this way has really freed my brain and made it much less directed and linear, and more just feeling the music in the moment, as fucking corny as that sounds.

Is the new record a product of your newfound way of working?
I would say it’s about halfway between. They’re not live jams, obviously; they are edited and composed tracks, but they’re heading in that direction, for sure. They’re all tracks that I’ve played live, so I got really familiar with the moods of each of the tracks. I wanted to build on the sinister and dark energies of the earlier releases, but make it more active, in a way, and less passive, if that makes sense. Because I thought Quarantine was a fairly dark record, and I would say that Behind the Green Door is as well, but it’s a bit more multifaceted. There’s an element of levity and it’s more about movement, and I think there’s a sexual energy there that wasn’t present before in earlier releases.

It sounds a bit like techno that’s been taken apart and put back together again.
I think it’s clear that there’s a U.K. influence and it’s clear that there’s a Detroit influence. I’m not one of these guys who got turntables from Mummy and Daddy when he was 12. I was never part of a crew of friends of producers who would try to outshine each other with their bangers, you know? I’m more of like a loner, so I’m just coming at it from my own viewpoint, which is always specific to what I like to listen to and where I come from, the type of music I like to dance to.

How explicit a “piano house” reference are the pianos in “Throw” meant to be?
Those pianos were recorded in London. I was recording in this studio for a few days, and they brought in a piano in the middle of the second day of recording. It was this janky old upright piano and it had just been moved, so it was super out of tune. Obviously I saw this out-of-tune, watery, evil-sounding piano, and I was like, “Fuck, I have to jam on that for a bit!” So I sat down to play at the piano, and it was really difficult, actually. Because it was so out of tune, all of the known harmonic spatial relationships were completely gone. A G was somewhere between a B-flat and a B, like a quarter-tone up from B, but it also had a harmonic that sounded like an F. One key sounded like it was a tritone. It was really strange! So I was just trying to find these chords, and it was a really interesting exercise, because it took me a while. I grew up playing piano, and it’s easy for you to get into these old habits, like I always do this one chord progression, I always do this thing, or I always do that thing. So it was cool playing on this out-of-tune piano, because it helped me find these chords that I probably wouldn’t be able to make on a perfectly in-tune piano.

Piano tracks are fucking amazing, obviously. So I was happy to be able to make a piano track with a very mean, evil piano. It’s pretty incongruous with the traditional notion of these elated, anthemic, uplifting piano sounds. I mean, sinister piano has been done before, this is not a revelation of any kind.

There’s kind of a sense of instability there, of things falling apart. Maybe even a little discomfort — those pianos are kind of queasy.
I think the EP definitely has a turbulent sound. I’m not sure if I can comment on my entire catalog with respect to the instability you sense. [Laughs]

You said in an interview that the lyrics on Quarantine came from being in a tough personal space. Is there a difference in the kind of catharsis that comes from singing versus playing live or recording music?
Absolutely, absolutely. I would say that playing rhythmic music, playing dance music, live, is way more cathartic than singing. I think maybe that this is the kind of music that I’m meant to make, because it just makes me feel better. It’s more of a joyous process. When you’re writing lyrics, you kind of remind yourself of all these things you hate about yourself and what you hate about the world. And it feels like it’s very, very heavy. Of course, it feels amazing sometimes to just belt it out and sing and get it out of your head and mind, but at the same time you can’t actually get it out of your mind, because if you’re singing these words, you’re reinforcing these things that you thought about.

Are you moving away from singing in your live set?
I haven’t sung in my live set in a long time. Quarantine came out in June, and I was reincorporating singing in the live set around that. But I would only sing maybe three songs in a live set that lasted an hour, and the rest was instrumental. For Hour Logic, the set was purely instrumental. So it went from an Hour Logic instrumental live set to a Quarantine partial-vocal set, and this fall I moved back to a fully instrumental set. Certain promoters in Europe were begging me, like, “Laurel! You need to sing one song off of Quarantine, please! Please!” Maybe if I was feeling really generous I would sing, but I don’t really like singing live, and it just doesn’t fit in with the sound any more. I feel like if there’s going to be singing in my live set, I need to have a guest singer who’s a serious diva who’s going to blow the roof off. I’m already too busy improvising and playing beats and playing synths and doing effects. It’s really hard doing live dance music by yourself, because you only have two hands. So that and singing doesn’t make sense. I’m envious of live techno acts that have four hands, because one person can be doing beats and samples, another can be doing bass and synth parts, you know, all the bases can be covered. It’s definitely an interesting challenge.

It’s been a bit of a funny transition, I remember I went to play a show in Malmo in January, and I had these people come up to me in this accusatory way, like, “Why didn’t you sing? The beats were cool, but where are the vocals?” It’s hard to feel like I’ve betrayed people. I didn’t mean to betray anyone!

Do you think people think the voice is somehow a more authentic representation of the artist?
I don’t think it’s anything grand or conceptual, I think it’s pretty simple that if you put out a vocal record, people want to hear that record live. If some noise techno producer went and did an acoustic guitar set instead of banging out some raw, primitive shit, everybody would be confused. It’s just the nature of going to see live shows is you kind of expect it to sound like what you’ve heard on record. So I’m excited to put out rhythmic music on record so that people know this is what I do live, and I won’t get these questions any more.

It’s not like I’ve cleared floors because I’m not singing sad songs. I love playing live, and it’s so rewarding when people say, “This completely isn’t what I was expecting, and I loved it.” I opened up for Squarepusher in October, and that was an amazing experience because he’s such a crazy live act. I was a bit nervous, but the crowd seemed super into it, and there was a strong pocket of people dancing, and I was listening to his set out in the crowd after I finished, and this girl came up to me and was like, “That was wicked! That’s not what I was expecting but you were playing these dirty beats. Me and my mates were going fucking apeshit!” I love playing live. My favorite part about making music is falling fully into that flow of improvising and shifting topographies. The dynamic energy of playing live is amazing.

Have you done any live collaborations, or would you like to?
I did a live collaboration with Julia Holter and Daniel Wohl in February, but that was quite different, more on the ambient side of things. I definitely would consider it in the future, because it could be useful. Maybe I could just be good at foot pedals.

I think it’s interesting how some dance music artists are terrified of playing live, because they’re so good at DJing. I think I’m a much stronger live performer at this point than I am a DJ. I think that split is something interesting to think about. But at the same time, DJ performances can often be more “live” than live sets.

I was going to ask if you DJed.
I do DJ, but I haven’t really DJed out as Laurel Halo in a club context in a while. I’ve done it in NY in the past, and I plan to do more very soon. But to date it’s been more of a radio thing. I think DJing has a much different set of requirements, psychologically, than playing live. I enjoy playing live because if I want to do an eight-minute passage of twisted synths and weird samples, it’s not going to fall flat, whereas if a DJ were rocking a prime-time floor and you did some weird ambient section, people would start booing and throwing beer. I really enjoy playing live because I can do what I want to do. But it’s interesting playing rhythmic music live, because like DJing, if you want to keep a floor moving you can’t necessarily ignore the vibration of the crowd. But at the same time I do ignore the crowd pretty easily. People tell me that I consistently never look up when I play. Maybe I should look up at the crowd more.

You were buried in your hoodie when I saw you at Unsound.
That was a very oversized hoodie. That was a nervous strategy. I was very nervous before that show. The hoodie was like I had blinders over my eyes, so I couldn’t see what was going on outside what I was playing.

It’s an interesting dichotomy: The DJ is there to serve the crowd, but as a live performer you can indulge your ego a bit more.
I don’t know if it’s about indulging ego so much as letting the flow of the music do its own thing. It’s less about crowd management than it is about sound design, finding what really hits people’s bodies in the right way. Where do you feel the kick drum — in your feet, in your knees, in your ass? Do you not feel the kick drum at all?

Is that a hard thing to perfect? DJs have the benefit that records have been mixed and mastered to exact specifications, whereas you’re figuring out the sound of the room on the fly.
Often I find myself tuning the drums in sound check or while playing live. I’ll have this one kick, but it doesn’t sound right in the room, so I have to tune it to sound right. It is an interesting learning curve and it feels really great when I have a kick drum that sounds great no matter what, in any context. Low end is obviously harder to manage — the kicks and bass and any sort of low percussive sounds, those are more problematic. Just figuring out how to clear out space in the EQ profile so all that stuff can kick and shine and really thump. Because that’s what makes people move the most.

It is this interesting divide: When I play live I’m not really paying attention to the crowd and I don’t really look up and I’m fully immersed in this rhythmic world. It’s more like I’m dancing along to it and I hope that the beats are good enough and the EQ and sound are good enough that it inspires people to move and to fall fully into it as well. I think it’s easy for a sound to be immersive when you have really cascading synths and interesting chords or you have a weird sound and something is fucked up and psychedelic — that naturally lends itself to people pricking up their ears. But I think it’s much more challenging with beats. In a way, the challenge is to be more primal about it and not to think so much about what the music means or what it is. I love dancing, and if music makes me dance, it’s the best feeling in the world. When a DJ puts on a classic tune and everybody goes apeshit, it’s just such a wonderful experience. While I’m not approaching a live set from a DJ standpoint, I’m not trying to work the floor, I do hope people are inspired to move.

I like dance music that’s extremely clinical and perfect, and I also like dance music that’s lush and live and fucked up. I guess it goes back to there being a sense of turbulence with the music. I like when there are these crisis moments that get resolved, and the terrain goes from being smooth to craggy. I like making music that’s dynamic. Now, talking about it, I’m getting excited about shows I have coming up.

Where will you be playing next?
A week from tomorrow I’m playing in Moscow, and then I have shows in London, the Donau Festival, Budapest and Berlin, and then back home. I’m super nervous because it’s all new material from the album. It’ll be a good testing ground, like, fuck, do I have to start from scratch, or will these beats make the grade?

I think it’s fun with electronic music, it’s more of a meritocracy than a lot of other types of music. It’s about coming correct. It’s interesting to see if you can make fucked-up twisted music that still comes correct. That’s an interesting intersection to try and hit. If you have too much of a live set mindset, and you don’t give a fuck, everybody’s just going to stand around. For me it just matters that people are feeling the music, because when you see music live, you want to feel it, not just stand there and be like, “This kick drum is too flabby,” or, “These hi-hats are trepannating into my skull.” You need to keep in mind some elements of functionality in order to draw people in. that’s the crucial factor. If you make music that’s super correct, or if you make music that’s bizarre and out, whatever style or approach you have, you want to be able to draw people in, and if you don’t draw people in, it’s like, you should make a painting or something. If people are just going to stand there and look at you, you might as well make visual art.

And I feel super humble about it because I’ve only been producing electronic music for a few years, so it’s like, OK, big deal, you put out one EP, whatever. But I’m excited to continue making more rhythmically focused music. It’s also an interesting time to be an electronic music artist given that there are these living legends around, and they’ve been producing for decades and their sound design is fucking impeccable and they have the craziest studios at home so their signal chains are fucking supreme, and I have a modest prosumer kind of setup, you know? So I just try to stay humble and focus on the craft side of things.

But there’s also a new generation coming up and injecting a sense of turbulence into music that can sometimes be too functional.
Listening to mixes online, or listening to promos, you might think, I’m sure this would sound amazing in a club, but if it only sounds amazing in a club and it doesn’t sound amazing anywhere else, what’s the point? There’s so much amazing electronic music, dance music, whatever, music that’s good in a bunch of different contexts. Like, I would like to listen to this track as I’m waking up in the morning, as I’m going to work, as I’m driving in my car, as I’m, like, hooking up with my boyfriend, as I’m going out dancing in a club. I think music that is functional more than just in a club context, that’s the best kind of music.