‘Do you like music?’ she asked me.
‘I do if it’s nice music in a nice world,’ I said.
‘In a nice workd there is no nice music,’ she said. ‘In a nice world the air doesn’t vibrate.’
– Haruki Murakami, ‘New York Mining Disaster’ (1980-81). From ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ (2006)
This is not a nice world. Everywhere you go you hear the vibrations of anger, disenchantment, disappointment, disillusionment and hatred. The world was in a parlous state going into this year thanks to populism, the rising spectre of authoritarianism, a disbelief in the ability of politicians to do the right thing, gross inequality and environmental disaster. The first reports of Covid-19 that arrived from China late last year suggested things would become further destabilised.
Scottish electronic musician Thomas Leer was fully aware of the terrible state of the world when he issued ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ in 2019. A twenty-one minute brooding techno track, ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ used a framework of rigid beats and menacing electronics as a bedrock for processed samples of Trump; like in a Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert political satire segment, out of context these samples sound almost laughable, but in their grim rhetoric you can hear the divisive catalyst for so much ill feeling around the world.
Thomas admits that he was “lashing out” with that track. It would prove to be the opening salvo in what would become his latest album, Emotional Hardware. Recorded in late 2018 and early 2019, it was created during a period of intense turbulence that has only become more turbulent since. It is unpleasant music for an increasingly unpleasant world.
Emotional Hardware couldn’t be more different from Thomas Leer’s previous album, Reaching Never Quite. “That was a kind of a tone poem to the Clyde,” he explains. “The music on that is quite restful and fairly easy to listen to.” The album found Thomas, who spent the bulk of his career in London, reflecting on his surroundings after moving back to Scotland. Now based in Greenock, not far from where he grew up in Port Glasgow, it seemed like he was set to use the local environment as the primary basis for his future material.
Thomas Leer doesn’t do what you expect, however. Throughout his career he’s made conscious, deliberate left turns, which means that the harder edges of Emotional Hardware almost feel expected after the relative serenity of Reaching Never Quite. “I do these departures all the time,” he says “I just don’t always bother releasing them. I’ve got a jazz album that I recorded about ten years ago, and I keep meaning to put it up online, but I just never get around to it.” He suggests that his next project will probably being a fully acoustic folk and blues album with no electronics on it at all, but reaffirms that his main love will always be electronic music, delivered in “whatever form feels right at the time.”
Irrespective of how they ultimately might sound, all of Thomas’s tracks start in the same way – as improvisations. “I usually start off with an idea,” he explains. “I have an idea for a sound, or a mood that I want, then I just mess about until I find something that I think fits. It could be a rhythm, a drum part, or it could be a drone, or just some kind of noise. It can be anything, really. I find the more abstract it is the better because it triggers other things more. It throws you off in different directions. I like to just chuck things into the mix to see what will happen, and to see if it fries up or not.”
The idea that emerged ahead of what became Emotional Hardware was a sense of negativity. “Over the past couple of years, I’ve just felt dark,” he says. “I’ve had really dark feelings about things, politically and socially, and I think that’s just what came out in the music. I wasn’t really intending to do anything like that, but that’s what happened.
“It really just is an expression of how I was feeling at the time,” he continues. “You could see the political situation getting worse and worse, but even so I didn’t expect it to get as bad as it has. I wanted this to be music that inspires thought, to some degree, that inspires you to think about things a bit. Without writing actual songs about it.”
When I last spoke to Thomas a couple of years ago, he expected that his next project would be much more song-based, and he’d rediscovered his love of playing the guitar. Thomas’s distinctive vocal hasn’t been heard since 2015’s lounge pop album From Sci-Fi To Barfly for Klanggalerie, a collection of tracks that sounded nothing like anything he’d released before, all light jazz and swung beats – but remember, Thomas doesn’t like to stay in any one musical lane. Around the time that Reaching Never Quite was released, he’d started singing again, mostly at gigs to support a gallery exhibition celebrating his pioneering work with fellow Port Glasgow DIY musician Robert Rental.
In the end, while he’s continued to write songs for voice and guitar, Emotional Hardware only contains one vocal song – the album’s title track. It is a voice that it almost completely unrecognisable from any of Thomas’s pop songs, processed into an angry, spoken word blues that sounds like late-period Iggy Pop.
“I’ve always loved the blues,” he says, noting that it’s the traditional music of resentment and oppression. “‘Emotional Hardware’ was meant to be a kind of electronic blues track. When I was writing it, I was thinking a lot about David Lynch, and I wanted to make into an aural David Lynch film, which is why the voice is the way it is. The music that Lynch produces himself is blues-based. So there was a kind of a connection there in terms of an inspiration, and influence.”
At first listen, the album’s title track could be read as some sort of comment on device dependency and how we’re so eager to express our feelings, demons and secrets to anyone who’ll listen through technology. “When I write lyrics, I usually like to make them have double-meanings, and there is a sort of double intent in that song,” he explains. “To me, ‘emotional hardware’ alludes to having to create a hard shell for yourself, and arming yourself up for what’s coming at you. Life is hard, for a lot of people, not just financially, but emotionally. We all go through hard times. You need to develop some kind of defence. I was thinking about that scene in Apocalypse Now, where Marlon Brando is talking about horror, and making fear your friend, because if it’s not your friend it’s your mortal enemy.”
‘Emotional Hardware’ sets the scene for the rest of the record, full of bludgeoning beats and angry synth sounds that continues into ‘Factory Ghosts’. From then on, there are few moments of respite, and any flashes of gentle melody sound vaguely uncertain when heard in the context of the feisty sounds that surround them. “There was a sort of shape to the way I sequenced the album,” says Thomas. “Those first two tracks put you right into the darkness – they’re pretty much hitting you on the head and telling you what this album’s all about.” The album then proceeds into an edit of the ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ track that presaged the album, its central premise suddenly sounding more disappointed, jaded and sad at the turn of world events than angry. Thomas says that it was intended to lift your spirits after the onslaught of the first few tracks, but it’s hard to see precisely how – once you put on this album, you’re plunged into Thomas’s grim state of mind and it’s hard to escape.
On ‘Civilised Language And Thought’, Thomas uses samples of readings by the philosopher Alan Watts, among other things known for bringing the teachings of Buddhism to Western audiences. “That’s me trying to make some sort of sense of things,” muses Thomas. “On that track, Watts is talking about how we’re sort of programmed, pretty much from birth, by governments and the education system to be what we’re going to be, and how we’re sort of powerless to fight it. That’s a big thing for me. I feel that people don’t do enough to break their pre-conditioning. I’ve spent most of my life doing just that, or attempting to do that – making my own mind up, and making my own decisions.” Let us not forget, after all, that his musical instinct was formed during the punk scene that attracted him down to London; a scene that enabled people to become something other than what society expected of them.
By the time we get to the album’s concluding track, ‘Sculpted Modulations No. 1’, we’re squarely back in what Thomas acknowledges as “pretty depressing” territory. The track is a good example of something that has run throughout Thomas’s way of writing and releasing music – namely, not doing the expected. On ‘Sculpted Modulations No. 1’, after being subjected to more layers of uninterrupted electronic noise, a trip-hop beat suddenly presents itself, giving a completely unanticipated moment of levity before subsiding once more into a dangerous sonic swampland.
“I’ve always tried to be that way, all the way through my career, musically,” he affirms. “I was just thinking about that the other day. One of the very first things that inspired me to write my own material was when I was in music class in school. We were studying Haydn, and his Symphony No. 94, which is known as the ‘Surprise Symphony’. The whole idea was that he would lull you into a sense of security, and then hit you with these really big chords.
“That fascinated me. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I ever make music, that’s what I want to do: make music like that that surprises you all the time.’ So there’s always that intent when I start to write anything. I always try to put something in there that will take you off in different avenues.”
In a way, the themes on Emotional Hardware are far from a surprise. They reflect back an undercurrent of what all but the most ardent optimistic – or maybe deluded – person is feeling right now, and if you look around there are more and more albums being released that tap into this undercurrent of anger and dejection. I suggest that Emotional Hardware is the perfect soundtrack to the state of the world as it balances on a knife-edge.
“I suppose you’re right,” concludes Thomas with a slightly nervous laugh. “If you enjoy atonal music, that is.”
Emotional Hardware by Thomas Leer is released August 29 2020 by Smitten Kitten. With thanks to John.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence