With roots in Industrial, Noise, and 20th century electroacoustic music, HELM has become one of the most bustling but still arcane positions in contemporary electronic music, exploring and continually transcending the coordinates of his own genres.
With late 2021 Axis, the sixth album in a series of prolific years, Luke Younger under his moniker Helm once again expands his musical spectrum while revisiting some archaic noise techniques. At first glance a center in a quite dull and dark space, lush overtones, blistering scales and humorous moods will soon appear, only to vanish again – stretching the abyss to unknown shores and challenging the certainties of any listener. Despite the album’s sharp title, the tracks change colours, textures and coordinates quite unprompted. The London based musician spoke with Simon Popp about these textures and spaces as they survey the roots and influences of Helm.
One of my favourite releases from you is the 42-minute album Saturnalia. What I like here and also find in some of your other productions, is that occasional symphonic, orchestral aura. You also sampled or processed at least one woodwind instrument, a saxophone, doing even its own solo lines. Also on »Axis«, I had the impression to notice some acoustic instruments in the harshness from time to time. When do these instruments appear in your music?
»Saturnalia« was a recording of a gig I played in Milan a few years ago at the festival of the same name (the album is named after the festival). The festival ran continuously for over 24 hours and I played at the end on the Sunday morning in a loft space to a crowd of people lying on mattresses, in various states of consciousness. It was a great show. Most of the source material I was playing with at that gig was stems from my Chemical Flowers album which I was working on then. I had a lot of recordings from a string session that JG Thirlwell recorded for me in NYC, so I can see why you say that performance had an orchestral tone as that’s what I was sampling. The circumstances of the gig – in the morning with most of the audience being half asleep – forced me to play something a bit more textural and drone-like also.
I’ve always used acoustic elements in my music, this is something that goes back to my earliest recordings. I like the different qualities of sound you can get from recording an instrument. The spaces they’re recorded in normally add interesting characteristics which enhance the texture of the music. It’s a big part in how I put my music together and makes working with electronics a lot more interesting to me.
The violin as we know it today, for example, is a quite ancient instrument that was developed after a certain acoustic demand or desire in renaissance Italy. And this sound has – in principle – not developed much for 500 years now! It’s interesting when it’s placed next to your self-developed and »absolute modern« sounds. Are these classic instruments just acoustic material or do they have some, pardon: other meaning?
On »Axis« you also worked together with a few musicians. Can I imagine this as a jam session, or did you request and take quite concrete material?
I’m not really one for jam sessions, but it would have been out of the question anyway due to the pandemic and the various musicians living in different countries. I chose these musicians as they’re all friends and played the instruments I was interested in using to complete the tracks – guitar, cello and violin. Luckily for me they were all keen to be involved. My idea was to have them mimic certain parts of my recordings from the track and their recordings would then be mixed in alongside. I sent them short loops – weird feedback, synthesizer tones, field recordings – and asked them to interpret these loops on their instrument.
Listening to the release one will find oneself in quite different spaces or fields from track to track. Sometimes like being few centimeters above a harsh texture, sometimes in a dull dark space with suspended ceilings, then somewhere buzzing around a transistor radio. And then again, the glimpse of some orchestra? Where are these rooms? And what actually is the Axis?
Axis doesn’t really refer to much conceptually other than the track itself. It was the first piece of music written for the album and quite long in length – certainly longer than anything I’d recorded in the last few years. I referred to it as Axis initially because I liked the word and it seemed to be appropriate in some way. The rest of the music would be written with this piece in mind, either following or preceding so acting as some sort of central focus. In the end I just got used to the name so decided to call the album that out of some sense of familiarity.
Let’s speak about a spatial reference of yet another kind: the club. In your music I from time to time find moments of not just repetition but almost concrete kick drums. This made me think again about a lot of today’s electronic music occasionally having some dance floor, some rave to it, at least always the chance to go there. Not Techno-Techno, but something from there. What is there when you decide to use a rather forward bass drum?
The »kick drums« or rhythmic patterns in my music are used to give the impression of something propulsive. It’s also another way to play with dynamics. A lot of the percussive sounds I use aren’t really taken from percussion but modified and processed from other sources, much like all the other material I work with. I used a few drum machine sounds on »Axis« however, particularly on the tracks »Moskito« and »Repellent« and I think you can tell the difference. The use of a kick drum also doesn’t have to be a result of being influenced by Techno. A heavy kick in my music has just as much of a chance of being influenced by Glam Rock as it would be Techno. I’m not trying to put my music in the context of a club experience by using these elements, but it does help to create a more physical listening experience in a live setting. Clubs can be good for what I do because they’re dark and have loud sound systems, but my music doesn’t have much to do with the act of »clubbing« and personally I can take or leave it. I think I’m bored of playing in clubs now anyway it becomes the same experience after a while.
So, does your music even have any roots in in a rave or dance moment of some kind, in Techno music?
About as much as my music has roots in Punk rock or any other musical genre that I grew up listening to. The roots of Helm musically are in Industrial, Noise and 20th century electroacoustic music, but other types of music have had a direct influence my work. With regards to dance music in particular, the early Shackleton records on Skull Disco were very inspiring to me for their minimalism, atmosphere and visual aesthetic. Also the Plastikman album »Consumed« was a pretty big deal for me for similar reasons, and still is. Adrian Sherwood too.
You also hold a degree in Sonic Arts. Would you say you have an academic background with that, and did these studies altered your artistic practice?
Not at all. I’m not a particularly academic person but at the time I felt that doing a degree in Sonic Arts could be a good way to refine my production and composition plus give me access to certain resources which I didn’t have at the time. It was also a good way for someone like me, who had poor academic qualifications, to be able to go to university because they would accept literally anyone on the degree who showed a vague interest in it. Aside from some good lectures from John Dack in my first year, I found it all a bit fragmented and directionless. My practice and work felt at odds with what my lecturers wanted of me and I hated having to contextualize my work academically which felt unnecessary and disingenuous – seems dumb to say that of an art degree when looking back on it, but I didn’t have a clue and spent a lot of the time questioning why I was there. I can credit any artistic progress I made back then to the music I was listening to, gigs I was seeing and certain people I became friends with. That stuff was invaluable and came about as a result of just being young and thirsty for it. The degree itself was completely underfunded and most of the lecturers were jaded by the end of it so it wasn’t a very inspiring environment to be in. I’m still paying the debt off and have mixed feelings about art degrees as a result. I’m not sure how many more artists the world needs, at least ones which are nurtured by institutions anyway.
What I also really like about your work is your use of text, namely titles of single tracks. Sometimes oddly describing what’s also audible like »Stained Glass Electric«, sometimes telling big other narrations one might think like »Don’t lick the jacket« or »Olympic Mess«. What role do these text elements, does language play for your music?
Most of my track titles don’t really mean anything literally. They’re usually made up of words from random bits of overheard conversation or reference certain bits of culture that I find interesting. Isolated on paper they’re meaningless, but when paired with the music they take on a cryptic quality which leads to people trying to look for some sort of meaning in them. I like to think they evoke a feeling of abstract familiarity in that you’re unable to identify what that feeling may be exactly but makes sense when you listen to the music. My music is like trying to articulate an unusual feeling most of the time and the titles are just an extension of that.
But not just your texts, I also think your music can get kind of humorous from time to time! While a lot of colleagues would prefer to hide it… Can harsh noise or Industrial have humour?
I think Industrial music needs to come from a dour and brutal place in order to be successful and convincing. Harsh noise lends itself to humour more successfully as it has a tendency to embrace absurdity, which I don’t mind at all if I’m in the mood for it. You’ll find a lot of dry, absurd humour in the titles and imagery of much British noise from the last few decades – we were the country that gave the world both Peter Sutcliffe and the Carry On. Films and our noise scene reflects that well.
Don’t miss Helm’s concert at donaufestival on April 29.