Dark Days: Thomas Leer – Emotional Hardware

Thomas Leer

‘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. 

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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.” 

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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

2018 Rewind

Last year’s experience of assembling a simple list of what I considered to be my favourite albums of the year didn’t appeal this time around, so I’ve broken down my 2018 into four categories – concerts, interviews, events and albums. As ever, these are all chosen from personal (and often highly personal) vantage points; it doesn’t mean that other things aren’t better – it’s just that these things appeal to me more.

Concerts

Reed & Caroline, Pianos, NYC, May 2018

Last year I wrote gushingly – and, to some, perhaps offensively – about Reputation by Taylor Swift, and this year we saw Ms Swift twice, once at Wembley and once at the Raymond James stadium in Tampa, FL. Mrs S. cried throughout both concerts (I got emotional too, okay?) and, after Wembley, our impressionable eldest / almost-teenage daughter immediately asserted, via the medium of her WhatsApp status, that Taylor represented someone whose values meant a huge amount to her. I don’t even know how to use emojis, let alone add a WhatsApp status, but I will say this (again) – Taylor Swift writes fucking great songs, is an incredibly important role model for young females, and is a sensational live performer. Feeling the concrete vibrate under your seat high up in an American football stadium as thousands of people register their enthusiasm is pretty hard to beat. Weirdly, I was asked some questions about my unashamed love of Taylor Swift (among other things) for The Electricity Club, which you can enjoy here.

I go to fewer and fewer concerts these days, but GoGo Penguin’s strobe-heavy show at the Royal Albert Hall was incredible, as was Barry Adamson’s confessional / big band performance at the Union Chapel, as was Daniel Blumberg at our local gallery in Milton Keynes, as was Nadine Khouri at Rough Trade East. Having a rare dad-and-daughter night out with our eldest daughter to watch Erasure in Aylesbury was a treat, as was her watching me interview Andy Bell for Clash by the bins at the back of the venue during a fire alarm immediately beforehand; it gives new meaning to the fabled ‘bring your daughters to work’ day. Watching Reed & Caroline’s cosy show at Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side in May was another memorable event in so, so, so many ways. More on Reed & Caroline further down the page.

Interviews

Daniel Blumberg by Angela Beltran

As a writer, you always strive to get an opportunity to tell those stories which deserve to be told but which somehow get overlooked. This year I was fortunate to be able to write some really important stories for Electronic Sound, from the weird circumstances of Ciccone Youth’s ‘Into The Groove(y)’, to the still-unreleased synth-heavy ‘Rubberband’ sessions convened by Miles Davis in the 1980s, to Space’s ‘Magic Fly’, to the DIY recordings of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental.

The piece that I’m most proud of, though, was an interview with Daniel Blumberg for Clash. Blumberg’s Minus was one of the albums that caught my attention the most this year, situated as it is on the crossroads between improvisation and Townes Van Zandt-style balladry. Interviewing Blumberg about his creative impulses in his kitchen / non-kitchen for two hours, watching him drawing in front of me, and having the opportunity to piece together his disparate interests while tearing up every question I’d prepared was a profound experience, and one I will never, ever forget. A few moths later I rewatched an interview with David Bowie on the Dick Cavett show around the time of Young Americans, and some of Daniel’s mannerisms reminded me of that, convincing me yet further that I’ve been privileged to have spent time with an absolute artistic genius. The Blumberg piece for Clash is here.

Events

Andy McCluskey – Sugar Tax Interview CDr

April, 2018, an Irish bar in deepest Greenwich Village: not unlike the three witches at the start of Macbeth, Reed Hays, Vince Clarke and I are scheming intently, over, variously, pints of New York tapwater, Diet Coke and Stella. We are talking about how we might promote the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, which would eventually be released in July of this year.

Other than profound enthusiasm, I can’t say I really brought anything new to the table (other than maybe a round of drinks) but it was a massive privilege to have worked with Vince’s VeryRecords on that record nonetheless. After lots of conversation among us and with Caroline Schutz about the song’s hymn-like qualities, at some point I managed to get permission to share ‘Before’ from the album with the music teacher of my my eldest daughter’s school, culminating in a mesmerising performance by the choir at a very special evening event in June which you can see below.

Another professional privilege was being asked by Mute to host a live Q&A with Barry Adamson at London’s Rough Trade East in early November to support his Memento Mori career-spanning compilation. This is the second such event I’ve hosted for Mute, and I can’t express how much of an honour it is to be offered the chance to support the label I’ve been a fan of for so long in this way, other than to say, humbly, and rather feebly, that I feel incredibly lucky. The Q&A, which I cheekily described as “Memento Mori Jackanory” (to the amusement of myself and one other person), was also a form of redress for an earlier Adamson interview I’d conducted just as he left Mute, representing one of the first Q&As I’d ever done, which I still cringe at today.

This year I interviewed OMD’s Andy McCluskey for the second time. The conversation, focussed exclusively on the album Sugar Tax, will never get written up, and the recording will never be heard beyond three people – myself, my mother and my father. The catalyst was my father’s January diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the significance of Sugar Tax was that it was an album he and I would often listen to in the car on Saturdays while he drove around our home town working his own second job. I cherish those memories so much, and am so grateful to Andy for consenting so readily to sharing his own, highly personal recollections of that LP so directly with my family and I.

Alzheimer’s has made 2018 a tough year for our family, but music has often been the salve to the suffering we have all felt since his diagnosis.

Albums

The album I spent most time with in 2018 was O.Y. In Hi-Fi by Optiganally Yours, a duo of Optigan aficionado Pea Hicks and vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Rob Crow. By way of quick summary, the Optigan was a Mattel home organ / pre-sampler keyboard that utilised discs of pre-recorded loops that you could use to make your own songs. I’d have known nothing of this this duo were it not for the enthusiastic recommendations of Reed Hays, who used an Orchestron – a kind of grown-up, professional version of Mattel’s 70s keyboard project – on the aforementioned Hello Science LP.

For O.Y. In Hi-Fi, Hicks dusted down the original master tapes of the sessions that produced the various LP-sized discs of Optigan loops (hence the ‘hi-fi’ reference in the title), meaning – deep breath – that this album samples original material that would end up being used as lo-fi recordings on an early keyboard that sort of used sampling technology as its basis. Honestly, this album contains some of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Well worth investigating, as is a tinker with Hicks’ GarageBand-bashing iOptigan iOS app, just like I made Vince Clarke and Reed Hays do as we regrouped over drinks at that same Irish pub later in the year.

As I’ve said before, so much of album reviewing is, for me, inextricably linked to where I am at that precise point in time, whether mentally or geographically. Reviewing Erasure’s neo-classical collaboration with Echo Collective while sat in a hotel window overlooking Central Park in a reflective and lonely state of mind takes some beating, while listening to First Aid Kit’s Ruins while ‘enjoying’ a freezing cold work trip to Canada also can’t help but leave a mark on you (possibly frostbite).

Daniel Blumberg’s Minus is synonymous, for me, with taking apart and rebuilding our youngest daughter’s wardrobe as we relocated her bedroom in our house, while the fantastic debut Ex-Display Model LP just reminds me of an evening wandering the West End after work, watching while everyone seemed to be having a good time in bars and pubs while I seemed resolutely outside of pretty much everything.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence