Interview with Leafcutter John, Musician
I spent hours and hours agonizing over an introduction to this interview. Everything I wrote sucked and realized that I have to let him speak for himself. I think Leafcutter John is brilliant. I love his music which I have been listening to over and over. It is extraordinary, and I’m enthralled with his Max patches, which are amazing artworks in themselves. We had a series of wonderful and fun conversations over a series of weeks.
Leafcutter John is an artist and musician/performer living in London.
Well, I do lots of things, from the album work, which is under the name Leafcutter John. I’ve just released my fourth album last year. Which is called “The Forest and The Sea” from Staubgold Records. As well as that, I make little software applications using Max and MSP, which I have on my web site. And I do some work with galleries, as well. I did an installation at an art space called Beaconsfield, which is in south London. It is basically very heavily reliant on Max. I also joined a band called Polar Bear, and it’s a kind of avant-jazz band. Max has been really kind of important in getting to play the computer like an instrument, so I can improvise with the band.
Are you based in London?
Yeah, I live in London.
And where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town, a small city in the north of England, which is near Leeds. It’s called Wakefield. It’s a very kind of closed-minded place, with a little bit of music for young people. Mainly punk.
Did you do music when you were young?
Yeah, I played in some bands. [Laughs.] Played the guitar and sang. Actually, no, I wasn’t singing then. Maybe I sang a little bit to myself, but I think I played guitar in public. But I didn’t take it very seriously. It was fun. I went to college and did fine art.
Where’d you go to college?
I went to Norwich Art School.
So there you got involved with installation and art?
Yeah. I was just finding out about these things. And then I started doing performances and building things. When did you start working with Max/MSP?
I probably started Max about five or six years ago. It’s a bit hazy. I hardly remember how I was introduced to it but I slowly learned it. Well I think your applications are really interesting that you have on your site. Can you talk a little bit about them?
Yeah. I did a whole load of OS9 stuff, which were kind of actually really tiny little applications, really just things that I was testing out I thought people might be interested in. I like it because you can make jokes with it as well. And I did kind of 25-piece tunable scissor orchestra, because you can’t get that anywhere else and it was cool. It was 25 squares that were the dial objects in Max, and you can click on it and it plays a sequence like photographs of me cutting something. It’s kind of really low-tech animation. The thing could record the sequence that you punched in the screen, and you could loop that and do things with it. It’s really kind of fun. It ended up being the first set of stuff where people kind of went, “oh, interesting.” I like that concept because it’s kind of a conceptual project but it actually does something, too. Is that one still on your web site?
I just changed my web site and I don’t think I put it up…
What was that one called?
“Chop!!!” I love that idea.
I think it’s called–yeah, “Chop!!!” with three exclamation points. You know. Personally, I find it fun to do. It was never really meant to be kind of high-minded.
Did you have a big learning curve, learning Max, or did you take to it pretty easily?
I lost a girlfriend.
You lost a girlfriend because of learning Max! Because you spent so much time on it?
I think so, yeah. I think that was partly the reason. I think it was more to do with lifestyles, and wanting to work at night. [Laughs]
I think we’ll use that as a good endorsement.
Yeah. You have to be careful.
I can see the headline now, “Use Max MSP and lose your girlfriend.
Yeah. “Gain Scissor Orchestra.” Yeah. I think I worked really hard for a year on it. And I think you’re always learning. The nature of Max is that it keeps changing, and new stuff is coming in. And you have to decide what you want–what might be useful to you. I think you can always carry on learning. Personally I’m not going to get into Java or anything like that, because I think that will probably lose my touring partner as well. [Laughs]
I like the community aspect of the whole software as well.
Are you active in looking for new objects and talking on discussion boards and things like that?
I try and help out, where I can. I’m fairly busy, but I can’t resist, you know. [Laughs] I try to be helpful. But I think there’s so many people out there, that if you are helpful, they in return are helpful to you and you’ll end up learning quite a lot of things, and it’s good. What I hate is when people don’t acknowledge when you try and help them. [Laughs]
I do a lot of teaching. That’s another thing that I do, actually, I’m teaching Max and doing workshops, a really good source of income.
Oh, so where are you teaching Max and doing workshops?
I don’t have a full-time position at the moment, but I did a year in Aarhus, which is in Denmark, which is on a course run by Wayne Segal. He kind of made this MIDI dance suit, which was one of the first kind of things of that nature. I think it was kind of back in the late ’80s, early ’90s–but don’t quote me on that, I’m not entirely sure. So I taught on that course for a year, which was really hard, kind of flying over there every kind of–I think it was every 12 days or something.
That’s a rough commute.
It wasn’t great. I had to get up at three in the morning to do that. And I’ve been doing lots of kind of talks in the UK recently, at universities. So that’s kind of good for me, because I can do it when I want and it pays quite well. And I just talk about my work, and how I use Max, and do some demonstrations about how you can use it live and control it. They’re quite ramshackle, but the idea is to try and inspire them, because they’re just starting out learning Max and finding it a bit hard work. So I come in and go “Ah, you can do this with it.”
It’s worth the learning curve, to get through it. And it’s worth losing girlfriends.
Well, you don’t have to lose girlfriends. It’s not compulsory.
[Laughs] Tell me about Forester, the patch on your website. I love the way this looks.
Yeah, looks cool, doesn’t it?
What inspired you? How did you get this idea?
I don’t know. I think I was talking with my current partner about the forest idea, something I got really obsessed with. To the point at which, I could only go on holiday somewhere that was in the forest and things like that. So that basically–my last album grew out of these visits to forests. For me, my natural thinking was to kind of to put everything in the context of a forest. I was thinking, “Hmm. I wonder if you can make a bit of software where parameters that you’re adjusting became your position in a forest. Maybe that’s how I came up with it. [Laughs] I have no idea. But yeah, it uses my favorite object in Max, which is LCD.
Why is that your favorite object?
It’s brilliant, it’s genius. You can do–you can make anything with that thing. I just think it’s amazing.
I love these pieces like Forester, and this other one you were describing there, they’re like art pieces in themselves.
Yeah– I never really thought of them like that — it’s ironic you should say that, because when I left art school in ’98, and moved to London, it was kind of a bit of a shock, from being in this quite sheltered, quiet place where I had no money worries because the government was still funding degree courses back then. Then to be in London with all these people and no money–it’s a bit of a shock. And add to that I wanted to be an artist. I spent a year trying to be an artist and felt quite like I was getting nowhere. [Laughs] Luckily music kind of came along, and I got lucky and got a record deal.. a little record deal. So I kind of stopped being an artist in my head, stopped trying to make visual art, or thinking in the same way that I was doing. And since that point of stopping, I’ve been invited to do lots of art shows, and people talk about things like you just did, in a kind of an art context, in a kind of conceptual-art context. So I think that’s quite ironic, and it’s not really intentional.
But it means you can’t lose it, it’s such a part of you or something.
I think it means that where it comes from is really simple. I just love making things and that’s all it is. I’m really into learning new techniques, and trying to transpose one idea from one place into another kind of media. For me, the act of walking through a forest brings up all these powerful emotions and memories and things like that. Somehow trying to get some of that into the interface on that software seemed kind of–some interfaces are kind of inspiring, some are not, and I wanted it to be kind of magic… more magical, and sort of ethereal. That software, it’s quite simple. I made the graphics, spent ages on that, and the audio is rubbish, really. I spent about maybe 20 minutes on it. And it’s been downloaded like 10,000 times.
Oh, that’s wonderful.
I’ve had emails from people doing major motion film, using this fucking thing, [Laughs] which I just blurted out almost, as a kind of, you know, just “this is one of my little experiments, have a look at it.”
Do you have any peculiar patching styles in Max?
I guess my style depends upon how much of a rush I’m in. Often I sketch out ideas roughly in Max and live with them for a while. If I come back to the patch I’ll usually re-build it from the ground up making optimizations and adding/removing features. Recently I’ve been working with other people on Max patches. In this situation I try and make things as clear as possible laying things out in a logical way and encapsulating most sub patches (and giving them meaningful names). I always use segmented patch cords but I prefer not to have them enabled in the options menu so I hold down shift while creating cords. I use bpatchers mostly for making GUI’s they can be a great time saver.
How do you interface with the outside world? Sensors? MIDI? Audio detection?
I use a USB Joypad a lot with Polar Bear. I trigger and manipulate samples with it. I really enjoy not being tied to the computer keyboard and the Joypad allows me to play max patches like an instrument as it is very responsive. I also have a card which I bought about 4 or 5 years ago which takes MIDI messages from Max and can operate up to 64 switches, lights, motors etc. But I’ve yet to do much with it.
Do you integrate Jitter/Visual tools to expand on audio?
I don’t have Jitter yet so I’ve become quite good with LCD which is a great great object! I made the interface for Forester with LCD. I am currently working on Forester 2, which keeps the LCD interface and adds momentum to the pointer movements – easier to show than to describe!
Do you tie into other software? Through what mechanism? (ReWire? MIDI routing? external cables?)
I only run Max when I play live. In the studio I use Digital Performer for sequencing but that’s about it for software.
Do you do any traditional text programming?
So do you always perform with a band, or do you do solo work also? Do you have kind of commercial work you do, and less the more experimental work you do?
Even my commercial work doesn’t sell, so it’s not that commercial, if you know what I mean. When I tour, I usually tour with Alice Grant. I did another tour with Alice and Leo. He’s very deep voiced, and he plays the bass recorder, as well. So he’s kind of like the bass end [Laughs] of things. They’re really amazing people, and good artists in their own right, as well.
So do you always perform with them? You don’t do solo?
Yeah, I do solo stuff. I play with other kinds of people. People tend to sometimes think that I am an improviser, which I’m not really.
The way it works live is… I’ve got some field recordings in the computer which is the kind of only thing that comes off of disk, so to speak. We’re not making it right there and then. Basically I’ve got lots of inputs, and so Leo will go into one input, and Alice, her voice will go in another, and my guitar will go in another, they’re all separate. I built these modules that kind of respond to noises going in –so yeah, we do make a racket, basically. The sound goes in there and sounds quite lovely and kind of underwater-like.
Now that sounds fun.
So like Max is the fourth member of the band, really. That’s a good headline.
I love the bit on your website where you are making the guitar.
Yeah. Well, what a great thing to do that is. Turned out to be. Amazing building something–it’s not like a Max patch, I can tell you. These things break. [Laughs] And if it gets too hot, it splits and explodes. So yeah, it’s really hard. [Laughs]
Is it done? Did it come out?
No. [Laughs] Cats really love the guitar. They’re attracted to it. One cat in particular came and killed all the mice in our house, and then fell in love with me, because of the guitar, I think.
[Laughs] Because of the guitar.
Yeah, definitely. So yeah, I think next stop is making guitars with kind of interfaces built in for Max. [Laughs] That’s really geeky. I’m trying not to be. I mean, I’m trying not to be too geeky. But there is that side of me, obviously, because, well, I did at one point in my life, choose Max over a woman. I guess that makes me quite geeky. Maybe it was the right thing. Maybe Max helped.
Max is being a filter.
Yeah, Max is like, well, if she loves you, she’ll let you Max.
Do you enjoy touring?
Certain aspects of it. I mean, playing to people who really want to see you play is obviously brilliant. Some of the European events can be weird because they’re in places where the government pays them a lot of money, and they kind of sometimes–rarely, but sometimes they just want to pick someone, give them–get them to come, and they don’t promote the events, and sometimes can be really weird. Like that happened quite recently. But yeah, usually I love touring, but it’s not very environmentally sound these days. I’ve stopped flying as much as I used to. I used to fly a lot.
Oh, here’s one last question. How do you keep yourself creative? Or do you need to work at that? Do you ever get stumped and you have to go drink coffee or take a walk, or do you purposely try to limit your exposure to popular culture?
I tend not to listen to too much new music. That’s a kind of personal thing, I guess. And there are definitely periods where I feel, I’d say almost depressed, in a creative sense. So if I’m not really feeling like working, if I sit down and can’t really do anything, and my mind’s not really open to what I’m doing, and seeing the good in what I’m doing. So I think staying creative is about having, fostering that state of mind, that open mind that allows anything in, and sees the possibilities in that. I don’t know. I’m generally quite a creative person. I think learning new stuff is really handy for that, and Max is great for that, because as I said before, you can always learn a different aspect of it. But you can also impose limitations on yourself, which is an excellent creative thing.
Yeah, I love limits, putting limits and rules on projects.
I think that’s really essential for focusing in this kind of growing complexity of things. You can arrange all these things around you now, and sometimes it’s better just to concentrate on one thing. I think focus and open-mindedness, maybe they’re a bit contradictory, but that’s what I think the key element, and finding the right people to work with and to be around. I’m lucky that the people I’ve met have been amazing. Especially poking my head into the world of jazz. I’ve met so many amazing instrumentalists, and just generally really sound people. So it’s been really inspiring. I think my next work is going to be really different from my last work. I think it’s going to have a lot of Max in it, as well.
Can describe the Installation you just did called Soundtrap II?
I was invited to propose a piece of work for the Beaconsfield art space back in May 2006. I was not at all sure if I really wanted to start making work in an ‘art gallery’ kind of way after several fairly miserable years spent pursuing this goal at the end of the 90’s. Regardless I decided to go and visit the entire two-story building which is a former Victorian Ragged School and includes cavernous railway arch space to the rear. I was particularly inspired by the upper space (the girls school room) especially it’s original 160 year old wooden floor which creaks and groans underfoot, I left thinking about what kind of things I could do with the floor. On the way home I fantasized that I might turn the floor into a big instrument played by moving about on its surface.
I decided to use contact pick-ups (C-ducer phantom powered units) placed at 6 positions under the floorboards and two conventional microphones to pick up the sounds of the floor and any other sounds present in the room. These sources run into a MOTU 8-Pre interface which is connected to a Mac Laptop running the Max/MSP patch.
When I come to program a complex Max patch, I try to break the problem down into manageable chunks. In this case I have a floor that is capable of making creaking noises when walked upon. I decided that I wanted to incorporate the floor sounds into the piece as well as using grouped sets of pre-recorded sample material.
The patch itself has a number of discrete parts. Firstly there is the ‘listening’ part, which monitors the level of sound from the 6 contact pickups and the 2 mics. The data from this section is mathematically compared in order to obtain useful information such as: Is anyone in the space? Is someone in there talking but not moving? Are there a few people in the space? How is the visitor moving (softly, heavily) etc.
I call the next part of the software program ‘What now?’ It takes the data from the ‘listening’ and decides what to do. For instance if there has not been any sound input for a while it might decide to load a different sample set into the audio buffers. If the visitor is moving very softly on the floor this section will pick a suitable sound set to use for accompaniment.
There is also a section of the software that records both the room sound (using two Octava microphones) and the sounds directly from the software output. The recording is triggered when activity is sensed on the floor.
There are a couple of things tied into the show the first being a special performance on July 7th of 3 pieces IHere are two example of the floor in action the first example shows an encounter with a member of the public at 2:45 on Thursday the 14th of June (a few days after the opening of the show).
The second example is a test recording I made of myself riding a bike around on the floor.
There are a couple of things tied into the show the first being a special performance on July 7th of 3 pieces I have written for the floor. There will also be a CD released of selected encounters and the floor also transmits a live web stream on: Wednesday – Sunday 12-6pm, http://hopefull.spc.org:8010/beaconsfield.m3u. I hope you have a chance to listen to it.
Soundtrap II: Leafcutter John CD out autumn 2007, £11 plus p&p (£2.00) Available to pre-order via PayPal.