Explores The Orinoco Flow
Interview Ari Spool
Photography Milan Zrnic
The day I visited Laurel Halo at her East Williamsburg apartment it was literally raining ice in the streets. Falling, sparkling shards is a strangely appropriate image under which to address Halo, who is 25 and released her first EP, King Felix, on Hippos in Tanks in the US in November of 2010. King Felix is really positive dance music, winding lilting sing-songy melodic vocals over dramatic clock-ticks and pining low tuba-synths. It is pretty braids wound with fiber optic line. It is calling the future and the concierge politely inquiring “When will you be arriving?” It is dancing with that smooth robot from the vodka ads and then when you go in for the kiss, the silver metal turns to lush, green moss.
Halo is tall and pretty and her hair is long and straight. When she plays live, it migrates to the front of her face and she does a Cousin It for the whole set. Her fingers dance over her keyboards and synths and other technical whosiwhatsits that I know nothing about, of which she uses at least five. Her performance attire is usually pretty cosmic. She didn’t sing live when I saw her but used her own vocals in the mix. There were 12 people watching when I arrived but by the end of her set the room had filled quite a bit and people were dancing, no small feat for playing the culture drought that is the Lower East Side at 8 p.m.
When I buzzed up to her spare apartment, she made some tea and put on a record while I turned on my recorder. She said she was nervous.
What are we listening to right now?
This is Richard Youngs’ Like a Neuron. I think this came out in like, 2009. It’s really different from a lot of his other stuff. I like the cover.
Where is he from?
Richard Youngs is a composer and he does music in a bunch of different styles, but I really don’t know too much about him, to be honest.
It sounds cool and it really makes a lot of sense. Have you ever seen Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Do you know that character Deanna Troi? The empath who is really busty and she has this love affair with the first officer but she is always brought in to sense the feelings of the other races, like ‘Are these beings dangerous? How do they feel towards us?’ I was thinking that if Deanna Troi ever had a spin-off show, your record would be the perfect theme song!
Yeah, sync licenses would come rolling in! (Laughs)
It definitely has the feel of future theme music.
It definitely has a sort of ‘soundtrack-to-your-favorite-sci-fi-movie-that-hasn’t-come-out-yet’ vibe.
If you were going to soundtrack a movie, what would you want the plot to be?
I guess the movie would have to be made at least 20 years from now, so CG could catch up, but when I was younger I was always really fascinated by books that went into great detail in describing different types of creatures, like alien races, or bizarre spirit creatures that existed in between dimensions. I guess I’d really like some kind of dystopian, escape-from-Earth, J.G. Ballard-style film where Earth has run out of its resources and you have to colonize a new planet and come to terms with inter-species relations, sexual or otherwise! (Giggles) I would be really interested in the consequences of mind control on the human race by another alien race and how humans’ technology might prove itself useful or not-useful in this sort of conjoining of forces. Does that make any sense?
I’m really interested in things that aren’t possible right now. What I do makes me feel like I’m part of the future, even though I’m not really. I’m just part of the present. There’s something very exciting and visceral about playing with drum machines and synthesizers and making electronic music that makes me feel like I’m part of this future conversation. Even though my actual programming experience and my actual technical wisdom is fairly limited to making jams. (Laughs)
What series of books did you read when you were a kid? I say series on purpose because they were always like ‘Book 5 of 10 of the Redwall series’. (Laughs)
Totally. I did read Redwall. I really loved His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. They made a really shitty movie about it but the books are amazing. The last book in that series goes back to the ideal surreal abstract fantastical movie ideas that were swirling in my head earlier. That whole series was about humans in another world that was basically Earth but it wasn’t exactly Earth, and your soul lived outside of your body in the form of an animal that would change shape to different animals depending on your mood until you hit puberty, when your spirit animal became fixed. The main character, Lyra, her spirit got fixed into the form, I believe, of either a white leopard or a white tiger. The book was about her and this other dude, I think his name was Will, and he had the power of cutting in between dimensions of space-time. He could take a knife and cut a line into the fabric of space and push through to another world. Basically the last book’s plot is there is a massive war and all hell breaks loose and Lyra and Will escape to this alien world where there are these horse-creatures and they have circular hooves. The richness of detail and the viscosity, it was so vibrant and so vivid and it just sticks with me.
I used to read a lot of books like that when I was a kid. But I always chose the ones that were the longest because I never wanted those worlds to end in my imagination.
They are really tripped out for 12-year-olds, man!
I was always a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her stories often center around earth-beings interacting with other species. The ideas of terraforming and things like that were always metaphor for how we treat our planet as a society.
A lot of music in general is escapist. But I feel like a really common vibe, with electronic musicians in particular, is a sort of malaise or dissatisfaction with the world as it stands today, how people treat each other, and how they treat nature. There is always this constant searching for a future vision, or a future world, that doesn’t quite exist. But in the process of making these sort of electronic sounds you feel like you’ve leapt and taken yourself from where you are right now and made yourself part of this circuitry. You find that your personal expression and your heart meets halfway with technology and there is some sort of cathartic sense of otherness that you reach. You get that vibe from reading sci-fi and fantasy books, or from watching The X-Files, which I’ve been doing a shameful amount of recently. I mean, I watched it a lot when I was a kid but there have been these insane Twitter conversations going on about The X-Files, and it’s really interesting to see how many true dorks there are in electronic music! (Laughs)
I was never allowed to watch it as a kid so I am watching The X-Files for the first time right now!
What’s amazing is that I listen to the soundtrack and I hear the same synths that I’m using, in the show! I feel really excited that my music has this connection. Mulder and Scully also have some amazing chemistry! (Laughs) It’s pretty undeniable.
It’s so blatant. It’s so full of innuendo.
There’s something so classic about that show, too. Scully has this amazing film noir approach to her character, and everything has this overarching tone of campy murder-mystery. It was so good! It addressed a lot of topical issues like the Internet – and fax machines! (Laughs)
What other things did you do as a child other than read science fiction novels?
(Laurel gets up to flip the record) When I was a kid my parents had me start a bunch of different activities when I was five or six. I was miserable at soccer, and even worse at ice skating, and the only thing I actually liked doing was piano, because there was something really satisfying about it, you know? You practice, and you hear the result or whatever, and it’s an instantly gratifying thing. And being an inherently clumsy and socially awkward kid, I think music was sort of a natural thing for me anyways.
How many years have you played the piano?
I started playing when I was six. I was never a virtuosic musician, ever. I was always a supremely average piano player. But I was really curious. I was in Odyssey of the Mind [Ed. note: an international academic competition]. I liked tessellations and I liked math class. I was a very intellectually curious young child and I became quickly dismayed by the sexual politics of middle school and beyond. (Laughs)
They are dismaying.
Yeah, everything was peachy keen until about eighth grade! But then things eventually became better again. But that’s another thing that’s really interesting about sci-fi. You find so many amazing female role models there that you don’t find anywhere else. I mean, Scully is an amazing example of strength, and intelligence, and wisdom, and what-have-you. Major Motoko in Ghost in the Shell.
I agree with you about female role models in science fiction. Do you think that the idea of the strong woman who has great intelligence is still sort of a utopian vision?
No, I don’t think it’s a utopian vision, and I think there are many examples to the contrary. I just think that the status quo is still the status quo and to get outside of that requires, sometimes, an out-of-this-world amount of effort. (Laughs) In music there are tons of female role models.
I’m always inspired by other electronic musicians. I think Cooly G and Ikonika are making lots of strides in the UK dance scene. I guess I’m more impressed by women in music when they are actually behind the controls and mixing and producing the music themselves. Granted, I mixed King Felix with someone else, Ben Greenberg [Ed. note: of Hubble and Zs]. He’s a great guy. Even though I mix myself with other people, I still produce everything myself and I write and arrange everything and perform everything. I’m always amazed when I hear of other women doing similar things. Of course, obvious examples are like Kate Bush, and Björk. I think both of them have made fantastic contributions to the musical language, and they have keen singular visions for what they are doing.
I can’t really think of that many other people in expressly electronic music, but if you go into pop or experimental music on either side, you find a lot of women. There are not too many women in the group of people who are making things like you, though. But in the experimental side, there’s like, Ellen Fullman.
Yeah, Marcia Basset is insane. I recently discovered her work and it’s so phenomenal. Like Double Leopards and Hototogisu, it’s astonishing. And she’s so prolific, too. I would be so honored to just meet her and pick her brain. There is also Broadcast, Trish Keenan, who is also an amazing voice in contemporary music, and it’s really unfortunate how she passed away recently. It’s so wrong.
Life is random.
Life is so fucking random. Like, Legos and Ableton are not random! You can arrange them however you want.
Do you think that electronic music is a way to compress the randomness of life into something that’s more arranged?
Definitely! You are engaging in this controlled time activity. You are curating however many minutes of time. So you make an EP, and you are curating 15-20 minutes of somebody’s time. Your own, or somebody else’s. Making music can be manipulative in that way, because it’s all about creating a feeling, or a mood, or a scene, or an attitude, and sustaining that over a matter of time and making other people feel the same way. I feel like that’s what a lot of people aim for. I mean, I aim for a little bit of mind control in my music, but I don’t feel like it’s all about mind control – I feel like it’s also about creating a sense of freedom within that time, and allowing your head to wander. I would hope that people would listen to my music when they are driving, or when they are trying to space out—
Jumping over slush puddles.
Yeah, I just hope that my music is utilitarian in the sense that it makes people feel free to do what they want. I want my music to give people a sense of agency, or a sense of concreteness.
You can only curate one of their senses, logically.
Yeah, it’s not like I can create music that makes people want to rob Guitar Centers. (Laughing)
The idea of one’s mind wandering while listening, I would call that the ‘Orinoco Flow’! (Laughs)
(Laughs) I definitely appreciate the resurgence of new age music, but I hope that I’m not necessarily aligned with that. There’s the commercialized spirituality of it all.
Of course, and also genre-speak is often insubstantial. Like, how you were telling me that people tag your music as ‘witch house’ on Last.fm, and then I was listening to the record and I wrote in my notes ‘fairy house’, as a joke. (Laughs) Not that I want to coin that genre especially, but ‘witch’ infers evil and darkness in the way it’s being used.
I just think it’s funny because there is a ton of dark music that happened before 2010 that wasn’t witch house.
Yeah, like Einstürzende Neubauten! (Laughs)
It’s so insane that people are so myopic to think that music has to be witch house, or it has this certain kind of beat, so therefore it’s this thing, or it has a female vocalist, so therefore it’s that thing. It’s all inaccurate.
I feel like none of it is descriptive in a way that’s audible, so it doesn’t really matter.
I don’t want to detriment people. But for a lot of people, it’s daunting, because there are so many musicians on the Internet and there’s so much music out there, that it’s sort of natural to want to attach these signifiers to make it easier on yourself to make sense of everything. I try to make sense of chaos with Legos and Ableton, and other people try to make sense with blogs and micro-genre names. But it’s all kind of silly.
So much of that is just trying to create debate for the purposes of web traffic anyways.
You just have to have a sense of humor. (Laurel gets up and puts on a new record.)
What is this?
This is Deustche Wertarbeit. This is actually one of the few females in krautrock. Her name is Dorothea Raukes. I don’t really much about her apart from that, though. It’s a reissue. I wonder if Medical Records has any affiliation with Hospital Records. The record is from the ’70s. Anyways, what were we talking about? Witch house.
It’s just not memorable.
Anytime anything like this happens, people are so busy restricting things into quadrants. Like you said, people are trying to make sense of the chaos and randomness that is everything coming at you at once. Because there is no level.
Completely. My friend, Dan Lopatin [a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never], has a good expression for it. He says ‘morphing the grid.’ I find myself doing it a lot. I notice he does it in his work, as do a lot of our contemporaries, not even musicians. Rational, curious people know that these quadrants exist to help you make sense of things. These quadrants and grids exist to help us make sense, but ultimately it’s about establishing these grids that you can then break out of and destroy and regain a sense of freedom in the unknown and freedom in chaos. So it’s figuring out the balance between the two. That’s something I always think about when I’m working on my music. Making sense, and having a balanced song structure and track structure. Having sounds that make sense in my head but also being delighted by mistakes and being excited by things that initially sounded weird but then achieved a sort of transcendent place or role within the track. And then it ultimately all comes back together.
Everything unifies into the ‘Orinoco Flow’, and then—
(Laughing) Whatever ‘Orinoco Flow’ we might have in Brooklyn, all oil-infested, and icy, and what-have you!