Los Angeles based recording artist Brian Williams has spent a career enshrouded in a veil of intrigue emanating from the subsonic ruptures of his tonal scaffolding. From his creative inception during the days of early punk and industrial music to extensive collaborations with members of Tool, Isis and The Melvins, Williams has stayed current in a tide of musical change. The mind behind Lustmord and the pariah poster child for massive production talks about the insanity of creativity and the landscapes of inspiration.
Like the vigilant fringe anti-heroes of LA’s shadowy imagined past, Brian Williams, or Lustmord as he is known to fans, simultaneously embraces an illuminating creative spark and vivid perspective with a droning musical identity that is too often misunderstood as a gospel of darkness. However conflicted in intent or interpretation, the creative machinations of Lustmord, first constructed during his upbringing in Wales and a homestead in London only to be transplanted to Southern California, find a uniquely vivacious resonance in our city of angels. From within the expansive cyborg grid and beneath the chasm skies of his adopted Los Angeles, Lustmord’s music rumbles with terrific tremors and bends that seem to magnify the apocalyptic quality of the region.
Working under the moniker of Lustmord since 1980, Brian Williams has created an influential aural movement of experimentation that has been too widely reduced with the tag of “dark ambience” but well appreciated amongst a bevy of colleagues who count him amongst their most profound influences. From his work with early industrial figures SPK to his much-publicized collaborations with modern progressive giants Tool, Isis and The Melvins, Lustmord has spanned the creative gamut in his many-decade long career.
The epic soundscapes that have come to define the electronic wizardry of Lustmord disdain classification. Droning with a cosmic ambivalence, the music is simultaneously shadowed and dark but also incandescent and luminous. In each composition, tones and synthetic sweeps hum with a profoundly paralyzing presence. When supplemented with feedback loops of endless vamps and echoing sustains, Lustmord’s music churns into a hypnotic subsonic wash.
Combining music with a minimalistic visual approach, Lustmord packages his work so as to create an essential paradox. Songs titled often with a single word such as “Item” or “Element” weave amidst cold, basic imagery and recurring hexagrams that define the subtly stated aesthetic approach. In similar fashion to the limited, but well extrapolated tonal vocabulary of the music, the imagery’s minimalistic statement of apparent nothingness is crushing in its embrace of simplicity.
But despite the best attempts of fans and journalists alike, Lustmord by no means a basic concept to be easily reduced. Though booming and expansive, to marginalize his music as dark or evil would be a simplistic denunciation. In fact, the work of Lustmord is near agenda-less. Instead serving as the equivalent of a musical hallucinogen—meant to inspire and invigorate each listener’s individual creative facilities while offering an open helmed transport to whatever space the individual cares to journey to.
In keeping with his work, Williams himself is not some monolithic grave marker for the macabre. Tasked with a channel of talent from an immense unseen vision known only to his own consciousness, he seems almost resigned to the obligatory misunderstandings that accompany his abstract work. He ponders life with a wondrous skepticism that he extends to a humble perception of his own work. However, through his long career he has remained dutiful to his own innate responsibility to ears that expand our sonic frontiers deeper, farther.
Williams invited me to spend an afternoon interviewing him in his Los Angeles area home and studio. With an unassuming candor, he outlined his perspectives from a career that has spanned genres and decades. Though he offered his basic thesis that the creative figures in our society often “have to be crazy” to create with integrity, he spoke not from insanity but from the sort of madness that nourishes the hemispheric synapses of the right brain.
What kind of music are you actually into? What do you listen to normally?
My tastes are very broad and eclectic, from Martin Denny and hard-bop through Jamaican dub of the 70’s and electronic music too early hip-hop, Berlin techno and soundtracks etc, with all kinds of quirks in-between.
Mostly I listen to music with a slower groove.
I don’t listen to anything that sounds like what I do, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s what most people assume I do. That style is the last thing I listen to.
What kind of films are you into? Do you have a favorite?
The simple answer is I like good movies. I can enjoy a broad range of stuff if it has some kind of integrity or intelligence. It can be silly as well, but you can be intelligent and silly. I like originality. There’s a lot of things that I like and a hell of a lot more that I hate.
Alien, Blade Runner, The Thing, Stalker all stand out. I really enjoy most Kubrick, Leone, Lynch and a lot of Hong Kong and Korean cinema. Everything from “art house” to major blockbusters appeal to me.
There are a lot of movies I don’t like though and I find most recent Hollywood movies particularly condescending.
Your aural influence especially can be heard in the more experimental bands that hail from Los Angeles: Isis, the Melvins, Tool. What’s the community like between musicians here? How have collaborations with these artists changed the way you make music or influenced you?
They haven’t changed it at all. My way of doing things is the same. Those examples you gave are very specific. They’re a specific group of people, well not a group, but they know each other.
What’s interesting about where I came from, is that I went to art school for a year and then we had a-- the running joke is--we had a mutual agreement that I should leave. So I went to art school, and I was good at art, but the main reason for going to art school was because it delayed getting a real job. You can either leave school and actually get a job or go to art school and fuck around and find out what you want the hell you’re going to do in life. Of course, all these years later I have no fucking idea what I’m doing with my life anyway.
The whole creativity thing you don’t really think about so much but you mentioned with music and film, etc. It’s an interesting thing in itself, what’s its purpose? Why do we do it?
My basic thesis on art is that you have to be crazy to do the kind of thing that we do because no sensible person would do it. As humdrum as earning a living with a “regular” job is, it’s far more sensible then being “artistic” because you’re just asking for poverty for most of your life.
I’m giving you the whole background story. I’ll eventually get to your question --don’t worry. Coming from there and then leaving art school and also being disgusted by the whole art world from a school perspective and getting really burned out on it and then in that same period the punk thing was really happening. Bands like The Clash had their first single, The Ramones had their first album out, The Sex Pistols were around.
Those bands are still quite fresh, but they’ve been diluted by imitation, but at the time it really was a big breath of fresh air. Something’s happening. Something of our generation. Something that people like myself felt. Also during that time the whole industrial thing was going on. Throbbing Gristle were very active. They were dealing with a very similar area from what real punk was doing, but also very different. That was very inspiring. I came to know Throbbing Gristle really well. We became very good friends and Chris and Cosey specifically were very supportive in my doing something of my own.
And through knowing people like them and the whole punk thing I came to make sounds for my own amusement. Like artists doodle. I’m no musician. For lack of a better term, I was kind of goofing around at the time. And in turn, getting to know my contemporaries, mostly through the scene that developed around what Throbbing Gristle were doing and as these things happen I become good friends with most of them.
It wasn’t a scene in the normal sense as everyone was very much individual, but we were all on the same side. Everyone supported each other. If one group needed a PA maybe somebody else would loan them one. If you needed to book some gigs, here’s a phone number of somebody who can help. Or, you need to get a record done, go to these guys, they’ll give you a good deal, mention our names. All this kind of watching each other’s backs and much more than those examples, actual physical help but also moral support, the exchange of ideas etc. the “you can sleep on my floor” kind of thing. Which is what its all about because we’re all a bunch of fucking crazy people basically and we don’t necessarily need each other, but we do way better if we have each other.
That ended and I really missed that. Like I said, the whole industrial thing wasn’t really a scene, but we all knew each other and we were good friends. Not a scene as if we all sat down at a table and wrote a manifesto. It was just a bunch of people who were likeminded with the same kind of aspirations. What we all had in common was we were all a bunch of outsiders.
Getting to know the Tool guys and through them The Melvins, the really great thing I discovered is that they operate very much as we did in that early scene in London I mentioned, an “all in it together” thing. It was really refreshing to actually see after a long while that yes, there are still people who look at things in that way.
Especially Tool. Usually the more successful/rich somebody becomes the less inclined they are to bother helping people, because they don’t need anything. A lot of people help you because they want something. You know the really decent people because they don’t have to help you, but they do.
For me, getting introduced to the LA people that you mentioned, it didn’t change anything about the way I did things, but it was so reaffirming. It was just damn good to be experiencing that feeling again. To be with people who actually get it. A lot of people don’t get what the fuck we’re trying to do and some times we’re not so sure ourselves , and it’s good to have people to bounce ideas at.
As far as an influence over how I work, its not about music its about attitudes and mindset. There’s no set manifesto. It’s about living your life as opposed to trying to do anything else. You’re just being who you are and its really great when you meet people who are on the same wavelength and have the same principles in a sense of watching each others’ backs.
Earlier you touched on how both of you (Williams and Tracey Roberts) came to LA. What’s the appeal of the city for you?
We come from Britain, which is a small island geographically and in many ways culturally. You can’t go anywhere without bumping into people. Coming to America, to the Southwest in particular, is amazing, these huge vistas of open space. We go on off road trips in the dessert. You can just disappear into the landscape.
It’s like a different planet out here. You take it for granted. Like where we are talking now here in Los Angeles is supposed to be a dessert but we pumped millions of gallons of water into. It’s just a weird, crazy place to live conceptually if you think about it.
When we came here it was the first place that we both felt was like home. Like we belonged somewhere. There’s the cliché about California, with the laid back vibe and attitude. But it is just that, a cliché. There is a more relaxed feeling here, but it’s also a very busy, very industrious place and things most definitely get done.
Coming from Britain, people tend to be very negative there and it wears you down. If you try to do something people invariably give you ten reasons why you shouldn’t even bother. People in America, as a whole, are much more interested in and supportive of people trying. The “Why Not?” attitude. Growing up a place where people tend to be so negative all the time, its much healthier being here.
And LA specifically, it’s a big city and like any big city, crazy, interesting people tend to congregate in big cities because they know they’ll meet people like themselves. And LA, being so big is a particularly good example of increasing the odds of meeting people on the same wavelength.
As far as the really large physical ambiences of the Southwest and California, you had mentioned the expansive space, the skies. Do you think that resonates at all with your music?
I would imagine subconsciously it does. The cliché about the music I create is that no matter what the hell I do, people will call it “dark”. I never thought that myself. I can see why people think that, but growing up in Europe it’s dark and rainy and cold most of the fucking time. We moved to LA 15 years ago, it’s usually 90 degrees and sunny here and the music hasn’t changed. I don’t think it’s directly influenced the sound but your environment does influence your mood and that is of course conductive to being creative.
Many of the people you’ve collaborated with are guitarists and they bring a lot of guitar tones. A nice synthesis between your washes and sweeps and their heavy, often feedback roaring guitar sound. How do guitars augment your own musical style and what’s the appeal of the specific instrument or the people that play them and the mindset?
In the examples you’re talking about, its more the people playing than the actual sound. Such as with Buzz (King Buzzo of the Melvins) who has a great sound anyway, its about the attitude. It all boils down to attitude and sensibility.
It definitely adds something. I’ve been doing this 27-28 years and if you’re not careful you end up doing the same fucking album over and over. It’s nice to try different things. Haha, if you look at my body of work you might think I’ve done too much of the same.
But working with friends is always a plus and after meeting the Melvins and the Tool guys they made me realize that there were more opportunities to include guitar which is something that haven’t been particularly drawn to try in the past. Especially because they’re friends, it’s particularly rewarding and again, being on the same wavelength.
For my last album [ O T H E R ] it was an interesting experiment to see if it was viable to include guitars in my sound, but with very specific guitar players,--Buzz, Adam from Tool and Aaron from Isis.
I can’t really tell you if it worked or not…and I think it did, but I can’t really tell you. When you do something it takes quite a few years to be removed enough from it to be actually able to listen to it fresh. I think it was a good idea, but either way it was worth finding out.
The first thing I did in that vein was to work with the Melvins and then through working with them I did something with just me and Buzz (Juggernaut). He did this guitar riff that I just loved. I don’t listen to my own music because you can only fault your own work. Collaborating with people like Buzz is great because I can listen to the results and enjoy it.
Adam Jones is another good example of not so much the instruments he plays, but the person himself and the attitude and the aesthetic he brings to it.
We had talked about him maybe not using a guitar because he makes great electronic music and really interesting experimental work outside of what he’s known for. We’re both big Kraftwerk fans and we share interests in things like Aphex Twin, Autechre etc. so it didn’t have to be him playing guitar.
There’s also the fact that he’s the guitarist from Tool and anything he plays is going to have that Tool sound. We didn’t want it to sound like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with sounding like Tool, he does that really well, but if you’re collaborating with people you try to do something different.
Of course, the obvious thing would have been to make it sound exactly like Tool and sell a shit load of records. But Tool already exists and it’s more interesting to try something different.
Working together with The Melvins was really interesting and we laugh about that quite often. Some Melvins fans really hate the album (The Pigs of the Roman Empire) for the parts I did and some of my fans really hate the album for the parts Melvins did. But what’s really funny is that they have no idea which parts were done by who, they just assume they can tell. Some of the material they assume I did was actually the Melvins and vice versa. Seeing the reactions was a lot of fun.
Playing games with them, huh?
Not so much playing games, haha. But people assume you do one thing and if they hear something they assume it can’t be the Melvins. You might not like it, but it’s the Melvins.
Some of it was deliberate, though. We were deliberately fucking with them. That’s what we do. We fuck with people. You have to have a sense of humor. If you’re not having fun doing this, you shouldn’t be doing it.
You manipulate a lot of sustain, reverb, echo and as a result your music creates a very large, kind of cavernous sound. How do you conceive of space in your sound? Do you model your songs after specific places or ideas or is it the result of experimentation that gets a sound that fills such a large place?
No, I don’t try to recreate a space. I used to originally with my very first few recordings, actually recorded at specific places, which is a big fucking pain in the ass, lugging equipment around everywhere.
The large part of what I do with my music is too create a space that only exists in the music or rather when the music is playing. The music is the space. The idea being, when you listen to the music it actually takes you somewhere. When you say something like that out loud it sounds so pretentious and bull shitty though, but not as if I care.
The whole point is to take you somewhere. There are many elements in the recordings, the graphics and in the text that give you subtle and not so subtle clues of what is being explored.
I’m not trying to create a specific place, but a place most definitely. It should be your interpretation. You could be 180 degrees from where I was headed, but if it works for you, perfect.
Do you have a favorite acoustic space somewhere? A venue? Your home?
When we lived in London there used to be an abandoned cold storage. It was massive…all concrete, no windows. Four or five stories tall and each story was twelve-fourteen feet. It was the size of a football field and had concrete pillars to support it. Pitch black and you’d have to break in there. The reverb space was absolutely huge. I’ve never heard anything like it.
We left London and they’ve torn it down since then to build some yuppie apartments. That place was amazing. I think it helped because it was so dark. You had to take a flashlight with you. Once you put the light out, you couldn’t see a thing, pitch black.
Are you working on anything now?
I’ve just started work on the next album. The concept I always worked out way in advance and then it’d just a matter of bringing everything together and getting on with it.
The concept for this one I’ve had for a long time. For me, the concept is the exciting part, the working on ideas. Actually recording the album is the boring part because it’s already figured out.
The next album has the human voice as basic foundation. I have a couple of vocalists lined up and hopefully things will work out as far as schedules etc. No lyrics by the way.
You released an album called Rising, a recording of your live performance on June 6, 2006 at the Church of Satan. You’ve been very scarce as a live performer as Lustmord.
Not that scarce. I did play that once in 27 years. So you can’t complain, haha.
What was the show like? How did you get talked into doing your first live show as Lustmord?
I didn’t get talked into it. I did a few live shows early on and for once reason or another I stopped. I was in this band SPK for a while, playing live as part of SPK was fun. As I evolved my own sound though, it was something harder to create live. After a decade the computer thing came in and I moved over completely to computers. I’m a really hardcore Mac guy. I do everything with my Macs and became possible to do much more live. The downside was it’d be kind of boring, just me standing there with a computer. I wouldn’t pay to go see that.
I had been thinking about playing live again wondering if I should use a laptop. Everyone fucking uses a laptop, just standing there. I was skeptical that it wouldn’t be dynamic enough. It is all about the sound but if you’re just standing there the sound has to be good.
Seeing Kraftwerk live again made me reevaluate. It was four guys with laptops. They were amazing. I was one of the best sounding gigs I’ve been too. I became really interested in playing live again. I thought “why the fuck not?”-- Get a good PA and get the volume up so your chest in literally vibrating.
I was thinking about it and I got a call from the Church of Satan, as you do, because they tend to call people. They said they were doing their first every public ritual on their 40th anniversary and on 6.6.06. I hadn’t played live for twenty five years and I thought this was perfect for it, the whole 666 thing.
People have asked me quite a few times, because they assume since I’ve done something with the Church of Satan that I’m somehow allied with them. I’m a hardcore, outspoken atheist and I’m not going to defend being a Satanist or not, because I’m not, but who gives a shit anyways.
That is priceless.
Exactly. I cannot turn down a chance to play on 6.6.06. It was fun though. It was me and Trace and a room full of Satanists chanting “Hail Satan”. We were the only two heathen there.
Because of its abyssal depth and its popularity amongst people of non-traditional beliefs, members of the Church of Satan for instance, your music has often been marginalized as “dark” or “evil”. What’s your take on the music?
That’s a good question because I don’t have a very specific take on it. It is what it is. I don’t actually try to explain what it is. You only have to listen to it. Either it works for you or it doesn’t. I don’t feel the need to explain it. That sounds corny because you’re asking me about my music. I feel no obligation to explain it; I think the music speaks for itself.
The dark thing doesn’t bother me, it did for a while, because it became rather boring hearing all the time. I don’t mind being called dark, but it gets really unimaginative. Does anybody have any new perspectives? I see why people call it dark. It tends to be slow and very low in frequency. People tend to associate that with a dark feeling.
For me, it’s more of a deep thing. Dark sounds so two-dimensional. I’m having fun. Its not like I’m morose in this dark room. I’m enjoying myself when I make music. But I get why people consider it dark.
You have a pretty big interest in barbed wire. How did that come about?
Something like 16-17 years ago, watching TV in London there was a documentary along the lines of “Weird America” about all kinds of eccentric stuff you guys are so good at, and one of the segments was about this barbed wire collectors’ convention somewhere in the Midwest. All these guys had their tables and they were buying and selling barbed wire. I though “Fucking hell, people collect barbed wire? That’s nuts!” But if you’re going to collect anything, that’s a pretty damn good thing to collect. Since then I’ve managed to get a barbed wire collection of my own. We have a bunch of stuff around the house.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Macs. I used to have a shitload of gear. I started off with nothing and for my first two albums. I’d borrow off friends and improvise. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, but it didn’t matter, I’d just do something, figure it out as I went along. That was the whole punk think. I wasn’t that much into synths. I was more into sound manipulation rather than pure synthesis.
In the late 80s I bought an Atari computer. Half a megabyte of memory, and an Akai sampler with a half-megabyte drive. I did the Heresy album, which is one of my more popular albums with that setup, all 8-bit.
I bought my first Mac around 1990 and have never looked back. I remember buying my first external one (1) GB drive shortly after for $4,500. People always want to know what equipment I use. It’s easy to answer now. Just buy a Mac and Logic Studio.
I get asked often and I always tell people that it doesn’t really matter what you use. The first album I had a cheap microphone taped to metal pipes and I hit bricks with a hammer.
If you have ideas and you’re a “creative” person you don’t have a choice, it just comes out. If you have really good ideas, you’ll do something. You’ll have to compromise a lot, you’ll improvise. That’s the whole point, its not what you have, it’s the ideas.
People want to know what gear they should have. Well, have ideas. If you have ideas you’ll do something and it’ll be interesting. If you’re filthy rich and you have all the gear in the world but no ideas, its pointless. Get the ideas first. Don’t worry about the gear, that’ll take care of itself.
The modern paradigm is four-minute songs, but you find a certain appeal in long tracks. What opportunities do so much available time and space afford you?
I don’t think of it in those terms. The reason the tracks are long is that it’s a gut thing. That’s how long I feel it should go. The music itself goes somewhere and hopefully takes you with it. You can’t necessarily do that in four minutes. Come to think of it, there are some great two-three minute songs that can take you places emotionally, but I like to take a slow pace to get there. The journey is part of the process.
The kind of structure I use for Lustmord is, for want of a better word, is a hypnotic one. The problem with hypnotic is that there’s a very fine line between hypnotic and boring. Sometimes I’m not too sure if I’m actually going over that line. But the point is you have to try. See if it works. I just go with my instincts but it’s up to others to decide if I’ve succeeded or failed.
What’s next in the evolution for you? Do you have any ideas for where you want to take Lustmord in the future?
I want it to be fresh, for me if nobody else. The last album [ O T H E R ] revisited ideas from years ago, but I wanted to re-approach them. The vocal idea for the next album is something I’ve wanted to explore for a while, and there’s an album that only uses sounds for deep space that I’ve been meaning to record for a while and I’ve been collecting sounds for that for 10 years and have enough now to do it.
As long as I have ideas I can have fun with I’ll keep doing it. There won’t be a radical change in the sound as Lustmord is what it is. I just hope it gets better technically, sounds better and I hope it stays interesting. I know what I would like, but I’m not sure its possible.
And success, that’s ironic. You do this for so long and you get a following and a reputation, then with connecting with people like Tool and the Melvins, a new audience. It’s very much appreciated and music is way more popular than it used to be, but the irony is no one is buying the records anymore, they’re mostly downloading them for free as you’re well aware. That’s the dilemma.