We already raved about John Lemke’s latest album “Thawlines” on its release three months ago. It is the third album of the Glasgow-based composer and sound designer, who performs numerous balancing acts and sophisticated maneuvers with his solo work…
Minimalism and richness of detail shake hands here. Calmness, almost standstill, and movement playfully alternate. Restraint suddenly breaks out into exuberance, only to dissolve right back into melancholy. Uneasiness turns into joy. Likewise, it elegantly moves between electronica, modern classical and post-rock, completely dissolving their boundaries in the process.
“Thawlines” will certainly warm our ears a few more times this year in the cold winter months. For the winter, or rather – the “harsh Finnish winter”, has been the big theme and inspiration for the album. But instead of winterly coldness, it delivers a blanket of sound to warm you – which is perfect for bleak, cold winter evenings.
John Lemke’s title Overture (Of Futures Past) was featured in the tenth episode of UNEARTHED. In the following UNEARTHED interview, he tells us more about the inspiration, influences and work on this album.
More of his solo work can be heard on the previous albums People Do (2013) and Nomad Frequencies (2015) and on the EP Walizka, released between these two albums. All releases are available at Denovali, Bandcamp and other record stores. His numerous compositions for film & TV can be heard on the artist’s website.
THE UNEARTHED INTERVIEW WITH JOHN LEMKE
KAE: We start with the traditionally first UNEARTHED question: please describe your music in five words!
JL: Earthy, oscillating, matured over time.
KAE: Your new album Thawlines, which was released May 27th this year, was inspired by a trip to Helsinki and the “first encounter with the harsh Finnish winter”, which initiated a second trip to Finland with residency near the Arctic Circle. Where exactly was this residency and how was living there?
JL: The residency was in Mustarinda, a small, artist run farm near Hyrynsalmi, just south of the Arctic Circle. It feels completely detached from the rest of the world, especially in winter. I only stayed there for a couple of weeks but the isolation in that extreme environment was the perfect way to reconnect to the emotions of my first journey and focus my energy on the new album. I actually didn’t end up recording a huge amount of material there, but the experiences, lonesome walks, sounds, sights and atmosphere of the place had a huge impact on the record.
KAE: The album is a beautiful, delicate work of music. Though instrumental, the pieces seem to be speaking and telling stories, with a wide range of emotions. What other experiences and influences went into the album, besides the aforementioned harsh Finnish winter?
JL: Thank you – I’m glad you’re getting that sense from it. The initial idea was simply to sonify the impressions of my first trip to Helsinki in 2011, which had been a real turning point in my life for various reasons. Following the residency in Mustarinda some years later, I found myself extremely busy with many different soundtrack commissions. And before I knew it almost another five years had passed with only few gaps where I could properly develop the album’s ideas. So inevitably a lot of the lived life and emotions of those years became just as influential. I lost my father during that time and in the same year became a parent myself, so those two experiences alone had a very significant effect also. It’s probably the reason there is such a nostalgic, melancholy air to the album. After being conceived as a very cold, electronic record, I started feeling more drawn to acoustic instrumentation and specific memories of sounds from my own childhood, whether it be particularities from my parents’ record collection or the soundtracks of 80s children’s TV programmes. So you could say a lot has been digested in this album.
KAE: You’ve worked on Thawlines for six years, which is a very long time. You’ve described that you’ve crafted the pieces on this album “over a number of years, with long gaps in between recording, letting the ideas ferment somewhat in the meantime”. How does it feel to give them finally to the world after such a long time of having them for yourself?
JL: That is a very good question. I acknowledge that six years is a ridiculously long time to chisel away at an album. There were many long gaps in between creative phases, however that way of working was really ideal for this particular work, letting the songs breathe and develop over time in a way they couldn’t otherwise have done. The problem of course is that you end up feeling that extra bit more precious about it all after all this time. You also build up some unrealistic expectations, which is always unhealthy. But I’ve let go now and feel all the better for it.
“Apparition in the woods” – photo by John Lemke
KAE: Unlike your previous releases, which are solo projects and more electronic, this time you decided to work with other musicians to give the album a “band-oriented sound”. How was this desired sound realized in practice, was everyone present in the studio at the same time?
JL: Getting the other musicians involved was one of the final, yet very crucial jigsaw pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately it just so happened to be during the middle of the pandemic. Clive Deamer (drums), Pete Harvey (cello) and Urška Preis (harp) all recorded their parts in their own homes or studios remotely. I would have much preferred to share a space with them, on the other hand it is one of the very few ingenious things about our age that such remote recording is possible. And it was also a lovely way to collaborate and connect during a pretty isolated time.
KAE: Will there be live performances of Thawlines?
JL: There will be a live album launch on November 11th at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow with a full band. It was always my dream to perform the tracks in the way they were written which means it has to be with a full band. I’m not sure there will be more live performances of the record thereafter, as touring with a six piece is not an easy, economical feat these days. However I would love to put a smaller ensemble together next year to see if we can do some European dates, which would be fantastic to do.
KAE: You studied sound design and work as a TV and film composer. What impact does your professional work have on your artistic output?
JL: More than anything, it allows me to work with music and learn every single day, which I feel incredibly grateful for. Working on my own material I often go through long stretches of writer’s block or non-inspiration, where ideas don’t quite come together and you start doubting yourself. With soundtrack work you tend to not have these pitfalls because you’re working to a brief and as part of a team. There’s something comforting about that, servicing someone else’s vision. So I relish both experiences even though they only inform each other to some extent. The only issue is that I’m finding it hard working on soundtrack and solo projects simultaneously – an element of separation is necessary between the two – which is why Thawlines has taken me so long to complete.
“Recordings in Mustarinda” – photo by John Lemke
KAE: To my knowledge you were born in Berlin and now live in Glasgow. How did you settle in Scotland? And what is the music scene like there?
JL: I was actually born in the US but grew up in Berlin. I came to Scotland to study soon after finishing high school. Through previous travels I had felt a somewhat of a connection to it, although looking back, it all happened on a complete whim. I studied theatre & sound design in Edinburgh and soon got involved playing in bands, then focussing more on film music and eventually moving to Glasgow, craving the more urban feel I grew up around. It’s a strange place and surely not for everyone but I have great affection for it. The people are some of the best and most welcoming you will find and it truly is a music city. I’m certainly no scenester but there is a tremendous amount of talent, homegrown and from the rest of the world, which make the city an exciting music destination. And as a result most interesting acts won’t miss out on playing here either.
KAE: Which five artists or bands -contemporary and active- would you like to recommend to our listeners and readers?
JL: Circuit Des Yeux, Susan Bear, Everyday Dust, Deradoorian, Ela Orleans
KAE: Please share with us what is to be expected in the near future?
JL: The primary focus will be to get our band together and rehearsing to prepare for the album launch in November to truly bring the album into the world, with perhaps a tour with a smaller ensemble to follow next year. The next release will be my most recent soundtrack for Marie Lidén’s documentary Electric Malady and then hopefully a new album in under seven years!
“Icicles” – photo by John Lemke