An Interview with Leafcutter John

    Hey, John. You're pretty familiar to a lot of Max users who have been around a number of years, but can you let us know how you got into Max and learned about it? Can you remember?
    Yeah. Wow... It must have been when I started doing concerts because I've got this really funny picture, which I’ll try and send to you, which is me doing my first gig and it's in completely empty room in a pub with no stage and just a mattress on the floor. And then, there's like a piece of wood that's about maybe 12 feet long. It's got one string on it. There's a mixer, there are about two mini-disk players. Then, there's a zoom effect rack from my studio? And, that was it. That was the gig.
    Leafcutter John - debut live set 90s
    Leafcutter John - debut live set 90s
    And I thought, oh wow, there must be a way of performing which doesn't rely on just playing back stuff from mini disks. And, I was playing shows in Germany at the time. And, I actually think I probably came into the very first incarnation of the Ableton offices when Ableton was just starting out. Because people were just kind of thinking about Live as a way of performing... I don't know, I think I probably found Max before Live existed actually, to be honest, but I remember downloading a demo of it. Not getting into it at all and then suddenly finding a project that needed Max and then I couldn't afford it. So I ended up with this terrible cracked copy.
    At the time, I'd had some like bad mental health thing. I'd had this really bad agoraphobia, so I couldn't go out. And, I basically used a year just to learn Max.
    Sounds like a good use of your time.
    Yeah. If you can't go out, you might as well do something useful like learn Max.
    And then, yeah, that was like it opened up so much stuff. Yeah, I started making my own software and I made a bit of software that I'm still working on today. 2006, I think it was.
    Is that Forester?
    Yeah. I've made little bits of little patches that are still just really useful today.
    I was going to ask about Forester. Because, the first time you ever came on my radar I think must have been 2005, somewhere around then, I discovered Forester and I was on my Max journey and Forester fast-forwarded me in a way in that I was, holy crap, this is kind of in ways what I've been trying to build. If anything, maybe it stunted my Max learning because I just got lazy and used Forester for a whole minute there.
    There's definitely some magic about that. And, I think you might find it amusing if I tell you how I made it.
    Forester v1
    Forester v1
    Let's hear it.
    I think it was in about 2005 that I started to make it and I was doing this album called The Forest And The Sea, which got released in 2006. And, I'd been recording in loads of forests and I'd noticed that because of the trees, sound doesn't travel as far. Say, you move through the forest, you can hear stuff that's happening in a more isolated way. And so, those, I imagine, sound sources and their spheres of influence, I thought, oh, this would make a great interface. I then over the next few months became very intimately acquainted with the LCD object and how to... and, oh yeah, I had to go back to a lot of high school math business.
    Because there were no objects. Now, there's an object in Max called Nodes, I think it's called. And, it basically does exactly what I programmed Forester to do. I honestly think I spent months making just the interface and then I made the sound part at the end and it took about four hours to do the sound bit.
    The GUI was all the work.
    Yeah. But in my head, it was like, oh yeah, as long as the way you interface with this thing feels like magic, then the sound will too. I think I got quite lucky because actually over the years I've found that if you don't get the right sound for a physical instrument or a GUI, then it doesn't work.
    That's really interesting, John, I hadn't thought about that, but there was somethingfound very attractive about Forester. Firstly, I love forests. I grew up in Tasmania and now, thankfully, now live in a forest again and I find them calming and just an absolute joy to be inside of and around. And, I found the GUI very attractive. It's so great you've shared this because just being in it was fun before you even got to the cool sounds.
    It's quite an unusual GUI, especially for the time, I think, Maybe there was stuff like that, but I hadn't seen anything like it. And then, also what's nice about it is that the sounds are essentially 50% of what you put into it. So, it doesn't make any sound on its own until you start putting your field recordings or your studio recordings or whatever into it.
    There was something about it that had this fluidity to it. This natural, obviously environmental quality, and it almost had this kind of semi-modular quality in the way the trees... You could clump the trees and you could walk through the forest. Yeah, it's a good point. Other than obviously just Max in itself or Reaktor or whatever, there weren’t a lot of modular electronic software GUIs that I recall at that time.
    Who was the guy, Ross Bencina from Melbourne, Australia. He developed Audio Mulch. That did have a node-like interface for one of his granular effects, I think.
    Yeah. I definitely used that a little bit.
    Audiomulch - Metasurface (morpher)
    Audiomulch - Metasurface (morpher)
    It was really inspiring. It's so weird because I never knew how that thing worked, I think. Do you know what I mean?
    Yeah. It had its own space. It had modules and object-like things, but then it did some unique stuff that I don't think anything else did at the time.
    I wanted to take a bit of that. I wanted Forester to be a little bit mysterious. You can't just put in, I want 500ms delay on the left and 250ms delay on the right. It's not that kind of software. It's kind of, you touch it and then see what happens.
    That's definitely important. There was this autonomy to it as well like once you set it off on its path, it was away. I think that's what really attracted me to it because, yeah, I was trying hard to make generative stuff and had somewhat succeeded, but it certainly wasn't as versatile as Forester. And so, it was just fascinating to me to put this stuff in and be continually surprised at what came back at me.
    It's interesting. It's like generative music in a way that what comes back is not necessarily cool music, but it's definitely stuff that you can find places for and use. I found that lots of people used it for film soundtracks.
    Understandable. Yeah.
    And I can't remember who it was, but I think it must have been a couple of years after Forester was released the first time so it must have been about 2008, someone wrote to me from a record label saying that 90% of the demos just sound like they're just sounds thrown into Forester.
    There are people that have emailed me at least once or twice a year between 2006 and 2022, when's the next version coming out?
    Forester v2
    Forester v2
    I guess that was the impetus, right, for recreating it. It was like having some time and space and some distance from the first version, right?
    For me, I can only do stuff when I really feel it, when I'm really feeling that I'm fascinated or excited about it. And, I just spent ages making this master, do everything patch inspired a bit by chatting with James Holden, actually.
    James released my last record Yes! Come Parade With Us. So we would communicate on a fairly regular basis. He was building this really amazing patch and occasionally he'd be like, how do you get this to work? And I'd be like, oh, I'm not sure, maybe try this. And sometimes I'd be able to help, other times I'd just be like, wow, this is crazy, what you're trying to do, but carry on.
    That's awesome.
    Yeah, you should speak to him, he's got... He's made an incredible kind of 3D GUI for his modular and music set up.
    James Holden UI -
    James Holden UI -
    I've seen a little bit of it on Twitter. He shares little glimpses into it and yeah, you're right, he's someone I need to talk to and catch up with. I first saw him at Loop, actually.
    I had my first decent chat with him at Loop, actually.
    Oh, was that the same one we were at in 2015?
    Yeah. He's really good at Gen. He's got this kind of brain that really works well for Gen, but yeah, he's got a very interesting way of working and he's very committed to making it happen in Max, which it's quite inspiring. So I think I'd been inspired to try and do a similar thing.
    And I thought about Forester and I thought, well, maybe I'll try that again. So yeah, I just got excited about having a really flexible architecture for sound. But, the first version of Forester has got fixed architecture.
    So all the trees are mapped to delay times and amplitudes and drives and stuff, but it's basically got its sound and you can explore it to a certain extent, but the new Forester has got loads of different modules and it's just got endless kind of possibilities. And yeah, I've done a few gigs with it and it's like, wow, it's constantly surprising me, which is pretty exciting.

    Leafcutter John - LDR/Arduino Instrument at Max Connect, Loop Berlin

    That's cool.
    Yeah. So, in some ways, then the first Forester was an instrument and then the Forester 2 is more like a collection of instruments, in a sense.
    So you can use it in a lot of different ways. You can be working on a track and think, "Oh, I want to have this particular aspect of it process" and it can do that really easily. But then a month ago, I played with a pianist friend of mine Michael Wollny in Austria and for the first 20 minutes of the gig, he and the saxophonist played and I just recorded chunks. I just sat there on this stage recording little chunks. And then, after 20 minutes I started playing with them and it was just, yeah, this is a great use of Forester.
    Nice. Would love to see that.
    There is a video. It's a full gig. It's about 90 minutes of stuff, but yeah, a really interesting way of working. It's one of those things where you've already got a framework to play with. And if you want an extra thing you could, I can just write another little bit to that patch. I don't have to make all the interfaces and what have you.
    I don't remember exactly personally when I hit that point with my own Max patching, but it's a beautiful thing when you're able to create a framework for your own creativity.
    Yeah. Definitely. It's worth the price of admission, isn't it if something just gives you some little gem that you weren't expecting.
    It's a really nice thing. And, a lot of us spend a lot of time working or playing or both on our own. One of the things that I always fancied was making myself a little electronic band, you know? So there's a kind of aspect to that. Especially where Forester moves around of its own accord, there's a kind of element of it just doing its thing while you do your thing.
    It really is a performance tool the laptop, a symbiotic relationship between you and the computer/program you’ve developed then?
    Yeah. I think, personally I was doing gigs when I'm sure you were when laptops started being used on a regular basis. And, I was pretty quickly dissatisfied with the way that people were generally just sitting behind them, looking at them.
    And so, pretty quickly, my sort of technique to help people understand was that I would show a sound going in by actually making that sound in real time and then be entertained by how it was going back out again, which is something the new version of Forester does really well. You can just record really quickly into buffers while it's actually treating that buffer. But yeah, people find all sorts of marvelous ways of connecting with the audience or not at all. There were various acts that just sit behind the laptop and that was it.
    This reminds me of the first time I ever saw you play, John.
    Where was that?
    Open Frame 2007, Brisbane Powerhouse, QLD, Australia
    Open Frame 2007, Brisbane Powerhouse, QLD, Australia
    We were on the same bill in Australia at The Powerhouse Museum. 2007 I think?
    I can't remember. You can tell me.
    Okay. So you were playing, you sat on a chair, you had the laptop and you were doing what you just explained, you were showing people the sound going in. You had an acoustic guitar with you.
    Yeah. You were playing and it was all going good and then the laptop crashed.
    Right. Okay.
    And you had to reboot and you told jokes. You were telling jokes to the audience and it happened twice during your performance. And it was like, wow, that was amazing. You just kept the candor in the whole set and you totally won the audience over. Because, 2007, I think, this was, laptops, they took a little too long to boot back up. There was an awkward distance between the last sound and when you'd finally get back to making sound.
    Yeah. Because it would take a couple of minutes to boot back up. And then, you got to load your Max patch.
    Then, you've got to see if the audio interface is still there and all that business. That tour was fairly insane. I think we were probably very tired.
    And, we'd driven the whole length of Australia in a '76 Mercedes.
    Yes. That's awesome.
    So, it was kind of fairly insane. And in fact, Sebastian Roux was in the back of the Mercedes with me.
    Ah, who was driving?
    Do you remember an artist called Sanso-Xtro?
    Yeah. So that's Melissa Agate and she released, I think one or two electronic albums. Really beautiful music, really quite an individual voice. And I'm not sure if she's still doing music or not.
    I remember.
    She and possibly her partner for a bit drove and I think we must have annoyed them so much because we were so bored in the back of the car. We were being so stupid. She probably got driven to distraction, but it was amazing. Which is really nice. And, we ended up in Adelaide.
    Yeah. Okay. That makes sense. Weren’t they from Adelaide?
    Melissa, she lived in Adelaide at the time.
    But we started in Perth, so we went to Perth and we did a gig there and then flew over and then drove down from Brisbane.
    I remember we went to Newcastle.
    And then, we went to Canberra. Various places. It was fun.
    Yeah. That drive down the east coast of Australia is one of my favorite drives to do in the world.
    There's big objects, aren't there on the road?
    The Big Merino - Australia
    The Big Merino - Australia
    That's right. The big shrimp, the big banana, the big sheep. Yeah, that's a real Australian thing, for sure. Tourist stop to get a pictures.
    Just abandoned beaches as well. That are just miles and miles of the most perfect sand.
    Exactly, I'm obviously biased, but I think Australia's probably got some of the best beaches in the world. Just due to the low population, they're just relatively perfect and clean, fresh.
    It was amazing. I think it was probably one of my first gigs outside Europe, so it was really exciting and I think it was all organized by a guy that had wanted to put me on at a festival in Newcastle and I said, oh, well, it'd be cool to do a few more gigs.
    Was that TiNA, This is Not Art festival?
    Leafcutter John, TiNA/Electrofringe, Newcastle, Australia
    Leafcutter John, TiNA/Electrofringe, Newcastle, Australia
    Argh Newcastle, there was a whole industrial workforce there and steel works and everything. And all of that got shut down, I think in the 90s sometime, but it kind of decimated Newcastle for a while. Half the community left and TiNA had basically just took over all of these warehouses and it was a little bit like Detroit. It was just lot of redundant industrial spaces. And, TiNA festival ran for a number of years. It was able to run on a shoestring budget because it literally could just get the keys to these places for basically free and put on these awesome shows and art. Luckily I got to go and play at TiNA and be part of that. It was super special and I don't think it's happening anymore, unfortunately.
    It was definitely coming out of hard times, but there was something kind of quite edgy about these weird events happening and maybe people living in that area, like what the fuck is going on here?
    Newcastle, Australia
    Newcastle, Australia
    Ha... literally thousands of weirdo sound, visual artists whatever, Australia's best weirdos would roll into town, take the town over for a week. I'm sure the locals were like, what the hell? Is this our future after steel works, we're just a weirdo arts town.
    Now what's happening, I believe just from what I've seen online, I haven't lived in Australia for 12 years, but Sydney is like everywhere, completely overpriced and Newcastle is only two hours or less up the coast. Now, people have been pushed out. People are living there and it's just booming, I believe.
    I bet. It's got everything you need.
    Yeah. Beautiful beaches and it's only two hours from Sydney.
    Well, people love the idea of living in a really artistic community, and then they complain that there's too much fucking noise. It's the same everywhere, isn't it? Same in London.
    Sydney has great stories of that, people wanting to be close to music venues that had existed since the 70s and stuff and then they would move in and then they'd start complaining about the bands playing every night.
    Get the fuckers shut down. And it's, yeah, it's unbelievable. It's like a complete disconnect in people's minds.
    It's really sad, actually. I've been fortunate to be part of several of these cycles in different countries, like Brisbane had a whole period in the 2000s until the early teens kind of thing. And then, even LA had a real moment, 2014 to basically the pandemic. Yeah, it's fascinating how those cycles occur and then the next one happens somewhere else.
    Yeah. Berlin was really massive, probably, well, mid 2000s onwards.
    Everyone was moving to Berlin.
    Same in Australia. The second anyone that was outside of mainstream arts got some traction they were moving to Berlin.
    Well, did you go? It was absolutely amazing. It was really cheap to live and there were loads of things happening.
    I toured there, but that was all.
    I was going to say, I could see why people wanted to do it, but, at the time, I was in London, that was pretty amazing as well. The period that I started doing music was absolutely bonkers and the whole kind of birth of laptop gigs. And, there was a good 10 or 15 years of just excited concerts around Europe.
    Because I think people didn't really realize about any environmental impact of touring, sort of naive and kind of fairly exciting time, I guess. And, things are so different now. I often wonder, how an earth the next generation are going to kind of survive this weird coming back into doing concerts after the pandemic and establishing themselves. It seems extremely difficult now.
    I think there might continue to be this online component.
    When there was the boom in the early 2000s, I don't think anyone thought about it, but obviously now, if I travel, I really try hard not to get on an airplane.
    Yeah. I remember going to Europe in the 2000s, John, you could get from Milan to Berlin for $10. I definitely was using more than $10 worth of air gas, that's for sure.
    Sometimes there'd only be three people on it as well.
    Buses and Trains too. They were never full. I was touring with another Australian guy and had the whole backseat to myself. We would go to sleep and stuff. We'd catch up on sleep.
    It's like your own personal tour bus.
    Yeah. This blew my mind. This is 2007, 2008, 2009, something like that, we had wifi on the bus. I remember doing a Skype call with Mum in Australia on the mega bus for a dollar.
    That's incredible.
    It was a low bandwidth audio Skype call, we weren't video chatting or anything, but I was able to call her on the mega bus from Skype and talk to her.
    They should have made you the poster boy for mega bus. It would've been brilliant. I think they'd have got loads of people on it.
    I didn't want to tell too many Australians because they all would've been going there to tour after. I wouldn't have been able to get a show anymore.
    They were amazing. I do occasionally use them, but I had two very contrasting journeys on mega bus both to Bristol probably to play the cube actually, which is a great venue and still going.
    That's so cool.
    Yeah. I went in the middle of winter and all the windows were stuck open and the heater wasn't working and we got there so cold.
    It was crazy. And then, the other time we went was in the summer and it was just so hot. So it was a bit disastrous. So, my band mates were, no, you can't go on the mega bus anymore.
    Ah, I love the mega bus.
    Yeah, trains are so expensive in this country. We've got actually a brilliant transport system in London, since I left London three years ago and I now realize how good the transport is and how fairly priced it is.
    Because outside it's all been privatized.
    It's crazy.
    Ah, man. Yeah, it's definitely a dilemma for the future for touring artists. Right now in America, it's crazy, airline flights are expensive, gas is record prices. I'm not really even thinking much about touring right now. I'll play a show in Los Angeles or I'll just work on stuff at home to disseminate across online, because it's just so expensive. It's expensive and obviously the environmental impact as well.
    You've carved a niche for yourself and we both have been doing what we do for 20-odd years.
    But if you are just coming into this, how the hell do you get going... I could take loads of risks. I had no responsibilities. Now, you can't, it's just so expensive.
    Well, the classic move in the US was just because there's so many places within a hundred miles of one another was to do the van tour, right? But now, you're going to be running definitely at a loss even if you're sleeping in the van and only eating McDonald's fries. You're still going to be at a loss because the gas is so high and everything else.
    You're going to be malnourished, your band's going to hate each other by the end of two weeks because they're all in there farting and breathing in the same air and it's a horrible bus. Yeah, it's just hard.
    I think we're going to see a lot of change, for sure.
    I think you're right. I think there are some aspects of the online experience, which should definitely stay
    I hope so.
    I would definitely go to see more theater if I didn't have to leave the house.
    Oh yeah. It's going to be interesting.
    I definitely felt a bit spoiled in London. I lived really close to Café OTO.
    Café OTO, they have this legacy there they're standing on top of, and I think that certainly helps. They're grandfathered in and the likes. But, I can't imagine starting a venue right now.
    A massive risk. We're just in the middle of massive fuel scare about the price of fuel. Yeah. I think people are going to become financially really strapped.
    Well at least we have the internet and Max.
    Yeah. Just spend 10 years learning Max [laughs]
    Yeah. It's interesting. You mentioned about having to stay home for a year and that's when you really knuckled into Max-
    When I had a project that I wanted to do.
    Yeah. A lot of people took that journey in the pandemic, actually. I had several friends who'd been saying for many years, oh one day, one day, one day. And, that day was the pandemic. And it's been really interesting to see. Some of them did the usual courses and they decided it wasn't for them and it's completely fine. And then, others were, oh, of course, kicking themselves they didn’t dive into Max years ago. It's interesting how that happens.
    I've tried to teach it. I've been sort of artist in residence or kind of associate artist to a few different universities in my time. And occasionally, I'll get a student that is like, ah, I want to learn Max. And, it's a very hard thing to teach because it's so big. And, the students that do best are the ones that are really self-motivated, that will probably have learned it anyway to be, to be totally honest.
    I don't know what the recommended way in to Max is at the moment. But, when I learned it, there were these tutorials that led you through the uber basics. You had to do a Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion and bits like that. But I don't see that in the Max software anymore.
    So a lot of people are learning through this... the Kadenza course, maybe you might have caught that. And, Music Hackspace in the UK actually is putting on intro to Max courses for free each month. And then, they have several flavors of other more advanced Max programming. Yeah. It's interesting though, because a lot of that is online and not everyone learns that way. Once that self-motivation is there, there's no stopping them.
    Yeah. If I think back, there's a bit where it feels very eccentric. There's a bit where you start to understand right-to-left ordering.
    And then, then suddenly it's like, whoa, this feels very eccentric.
    The thing with Max I think is, just not implying that you have to master it, you just need to get what you need to get done and you're good.
    Yeah. I'm fully behind that. My patches are dirty under the hood. They're really horrible. There are people out there, the Rodrigo Constanzo's of the world, that make absolutely beautiful, very readable patches, but I'm not one of those.
    It's a great tool for just getting that thing done quickly. And for me, it's a lot faster than writing C or any other kind of stuff. I know I'm not going to master it. When I started using Max, it didn't have Jitter, which is like another massive world to explore, people are really good at Jitter, it's a whole different planet.
    And then, you've got kind of Java, JavaScript, Node, Gen, it's all just... you're not going to master all that stuff. There's no reason to.
    I personally like that there's always that option to go further. I quite like it. I don't find it daunting anymore.
    Well, it's a kind of maturity I think... Also, you know that it can change as well, there's always new stuff coming.
    I think there are new objects in this new Max 8.3 update, which I've not had a chance to look at properly, but, yeah, I think as long as it keeps growing, it sort of still kind of remains being slightly exciting that something might pop up that you find very useful.
    And, it informs and reinvigorates past ideas, which is great because we have patches sitting on our hard drives that are decades old. I love the fact that one subtle change or tweak or improvement can completely reinvigorate this past idea or project that perhaps you didn't master at that moment. And, the next thing you know, you've got a plethora of inspiration and new sounds. Yeah. I love it too.
    Yeah. I saw some stuff that Cycling ‘74 released and got excited about and sort of support. I can't remember who it is, but they were algorithmic little patches that made really nice little tunes.
    Yes. Sandbox.
    We were doing that in early 2021.
    It was a little social media idea, to create this integrated set of little components to create interesting algorithmically-driven works.
    Musically, they were quite good. They were quite interesting anyway. Quite often examples can be a bit dry, can't they?
    Occasionally with Max, I'm, I have no idea what I'm going to do with the subject and sometimes I want a bit more of a musical clue of what I might do.
    But, I think that, yeah, obviously that you have to be a bit agnostic because everyone's got different ideas of what they want to hear and-
    But yeah, I thought they were really interesting and it reminded me that for a long time, my dream was just to have Max just make all the music for me. Just have it completely algorithmic.
    Wow, John, I think that’s a great spot to wrap this up. I want to thank you for spending your time chatting with me, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
    Thanks, Tom.

    by Tom Hall on
    Aug 1, 2022 4:45 PM

    • Roman Thilenius
      Aug 02 2022 | 12:21 am
      i met "mandolin work" and somebody who uploaded it to a certain server about 100 years ago.
      it was two years after i started with max and i was pretty sure that the track was made with either kyma or supercollider. :P (two tools i also used a bit, but was just about to replace them with max.)
    • jonathan segel's icon
      jonathan segel's icon
      jonathan segel
      Aug 02 2022 | 7:37 am
      Nice interview. It made me happy and sad, reading this in 2022. The ability to play and tour weird music around the globe 15-20 years ago was special. Glad people are still doing it, if only in little cliques. I also lovingly played with Forester, and used it on at least one album as well (though honestly I don't remember which track(s)...? It's on this one: Summerleaf )
    • Julien Bayle's icon
      Julien Bayle's icon
      Julien Bayle
      Aug 19 2022 | 9:58 pm
      Very interesting and pleasant conversation.