“An Endless Looping Cycle”
For many musicians, life works in cycles. Record, release, tour, record, release, tour, record, release tour, on repeat until you break-up, or breakdown. Outside of those constrained by the timeframes of record label budgets though, exist those bands free to live by the beat of their own drum. Free to produce music when they like, free to take their time and free almost to go wherever the music takes them. Remove the need for music to be your living, and creativity can blossom in all its unhurried glory.
Existing firmly in this category are The Leaf Library, the North London based experimental drone-pop act, who fit somewhere between a five piece band, and a sprawling, ever changing musical collective. We recently caught up with them, as they prepared to release their new studio album, The World Is A Bell, a record that numbers somewhere between their second and seventh album. It is a record that both re-invents and evolves The Leaf Library’s sound, taking the elements of the various projects they’ve worked on since releasing their debut album in 2015 and spiraling them off wherever the music wants to go. As Matt from the band explains, “from early on I thought people are either going to really like it, or really dislike it…what I really wanted from the album is to say this is what we’re into and see where that takes us”.
It’s a brave and typically The Leaf Library response, there’s a sense that yes it matters what other people think, but ultimately it is a record that is created for the love of making it, a piece of vinyl crafted by the hands of its writers for the love of creating it: “we’ve come up through the indie-pop world, which is a lovely crowd, a nurturing family, but the stuff we listen to is more often than not outside of our-indie family. We wanted to find a space of our own within other groups, and other cultures. The ideal thing would be to not fit in any of those boxes, find a genre of our own”.
Part of the reason why The World Is A Bell, both sounds like it does, and took quite so long to be finished, comes from it’s almost certainly unique beginnings. Much of the album started life as part of a typically ambitious project set for the band by their label, Where It’s At Is Where You Are. As the label celebrated its 21st anniversary, label boss John Jervis set various bands the herculean task of producing a single 77 minutes long piece of music. Buoyed by the freedom of working with almost no set rules, the band realised they’d stumbled upon something, “it was lots of layers of synths and drones, bits of percussion, funny noises, anything like that…we could just chuck ideas down and think this is fine, it’s going to be part of a bigger whole”. From those droning sketches that made the 77 minute track, the band began to add layers, “we added some bass and drums in demo form, they sounded like songs, so we decided to try and write songs around them, which it turns out is quite hard to do, so what was meant to be a 6 month project has turned into almost two years”. We wonder how this way of working compares with a more traditional way of working, “it would seem like it would be really easy, because you’ve got half the song there but actually trying to fit words and songs around arrangements that already exist is hard”.
One of the inevitable consequences of building an album around a 77 minute long track, is that the album itself becomes a long project, The World Is A Bell’s ten tracks clocking in at seventy nine minutes. We wonder if there was any trepidation at releasing a record that lengthy in the current musical climate, “one of the things that we had to remind ourselves was, does it need to be this long, is this just an indulgence. We had a few weeks where it was going to be a single LP, a vastly edited version, that could exist as a single. We took it to John (WIAIWYA), and to his credit, he just said do it as it was recorded, do it as you meant to do it, none of the tracks have been edited they’re all in their glory”. A big part of the decision not to edit themselves, comes from an appreciation of other similarly ambitious artists, “three of my favourite albums, I guess my top three, are I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One by Yo La Tengo, Dots and Loops by Stereolab and Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, all of which fill a CD… we had the opportunity, so we thought it would be nice to honour those cd age albums by making something that works across that length”.
One of the most surprising elements of The World Is A Bell is that it doesn’t feel like an indulgent, or even a particularly lengthy listen. A large part of that is down to the variety and variation on show, there’s The Cross Record like wonder of Bodies Carried Off By Bees with its fizzing electronic beats and chirping found sounds, the atmospheric flourish of An Endless, a track that seems to walk the middle ground of Explosions In The Sky and Joy Division’s more experimental, expansive moments, and in Hissing Waves, a track the band themselves have suggested is the most pop they’ve ever sounded. We wonder how that variety came about, “there was no real design about how the track would go, they arrived almost organically, I know every band likes to think, “our songs, they just appear like magic”, these kind of did…what’s been really nice is having the pop stuff on the record and then having Paper Boats and being able to have a real rock out. It’s not been an exercise in, “now we’re going to try something heavy”, it fits within the flow and the sphere of the album”.
As well as musically, lyrically too The World Is A Bell is a record that comes from a different way of working, “to go with the seventy seven minute thing, I wrote seventy seven lines of kind of free verse, each of seven syllables”. Some of the initial phrases emerge as song titles, or lyrics across the album, often sending Matt, as the band’s resident lyric writer, spiraling into certain mindsets. It wasn’t just his own words that Matt took influence from, the album’s title comes from an entirely different source, the 18th Century Philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as Matt explains, “Penguin did this mini-series of short books, and one of them had this line of his, “the world is a bell it is cracked and does not ring out clearly”, as soon as I read it, I liked it”. It is a title that seems to resonate, in our head it instantly brought to mind the famous Leonard Cohen line, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, paraphrased by Jeffrey Lewis for his album title, “It’s the one’s who’ve cracked the light shines through”, yet as Matt explains, the meaning is open-ended and malleable, allowing the listener to place their own feelings onto it and shape it in their own image. We wonder particularly in our current climate whether it could be interpreted as the idea of finding hope in broken systems, realising that the world is flawed, yet still has a certain beauty to it, “I was attaching various different meaning to it, depending on mood, that’s definitely one interpretation. I always like album titles, or titles in general that have an enigma about them… I could argue it has a specific meaning, but it doesn’t need to. I love the sound of it, everyone who writes says this, but I do love words. Particular words in particular orders just look and sound fantastic”.
With the title in mind, we wonder if within the collection of drones and loops, this piece of expansive, repetitive sound collage, if there is any element of The World Is A Bell as a political statement, “not in the slightest”, is the rapid response from all corners, “our only response to the world around us is to create things, and to think about what we’re creating and why we’re creating, that in itself is a political thing”. So what are the themes on the record? “If I was to be honest about them, they are rooted in escapism of some kind. Lots of them have their genesis in me nodding off so there’s lots of reference to sleep and night and waves, and there’s a reason for the escapism. There’s a reason for wanting to disappear into a dark bedroom at the end of the day, perhaps because of what’s going on in the world, so that in itself is kind of political but not political with a capital P”. Will we ever get The Leaf Library’s soap box baring, political call to arms? “I imagine as time goes on and the world continues on this kind of course people will all get more political. We’re not ruling it out for the future because I get angrier by the day”.
While the lyrics on the record might have a personal slant, and the genesis began with Matt and drummer, Lewis, alone making drones on laptops, the final album is triumphantly collective. The Leaf Library may have at its core five principle members, in the studio though the definition is a lot more loose, with guests like Ed Dowie, Laura and Mike from Firestations, members of Whoa Melodic, The Great Electric and countless others adding their talents to the final project, “I’ve always seen it as an opportunity to hang out with friends and to give your friends some air time and get a bit of a borrowed glow of the things they do”. Without ever overshadowing what the band are trying to achieve the guests all bring something, “it’s like a gang, it’s like a team, it bolsters things, but also you want to showcase their talents. It extends to the artwork and everything we do, we always try and find artists that we like, you’ve got an amazing canvas to show off the artwork”. Here the artwork is produced by Luke Drozd, and his collage of found objects and jewellery was actually finished long before the album, “I really like being able to reference a sleeve whilst making a record. Like with the album title, does this fit? This is what it’s going to be called and this is what it’s going to look like”.
While The World Is A Bell has only just emerged into the world, the nature of releases is that by the time a record is out bands are often wondering about what comes next. While for most bands that would be touring, The Leaf Library aren’t necessarily most bands, with other priorities not making that necessarily a possibility, “I find touring really fun, that thing of just rolling up to the venue and meeting new people is just great and I’m always very envious of people that get to do it, but there’s administration and heartache involved in getting ourselves off around the country”. The band recently announced a February show at Paperdress Vintage and there will be further dates we’re reliably informed, as there’s a desire to road test these songs, yet more concrete plans are already in place for the next album, “everyone always says this but it’s a lot more song based, back to basics…we want to record it very quickly as an antidote to how long this thing took us”. And just like that, even for a band outside of the obvious industry rules, the cycle begins again.
The World Is A Bell is out now via WIAIWYA. Click HERE for more information on The Leaf Library.