Locean, who are based in the U.K. and perform noisy and sprawling avant-garde rock, capture feelings of metaphysically jarring clouds of menace on their swirling new album Top Ten Zen Meditations, which is available now via the Texas-based Artificial Head Records.
Scroll down for a Q & A with Locean about the process of crafting Top Ten Zen Meditations!
The entrancing album runs on a kind of disjointed belligerence, as if stumbling and staggering along. In its gentler moments, like those that open the album on the sprawling “Coca-Cola,” the music feels like looking into a bizarre and ominous void as internal unease slowly grows. From here, Locean build an immersive and expansive world of sound, including the brash instrumentals of “Sprucce Bingsteen,” the sweltering hard rock riffing of “Officer,” the angular blasts of tension that close “All Around Me,” and more.
The songs generally feel like musical streams of consciousness, and vocalist Lauren Bolger majorly supports this feeling with her spoken word cadence that moves along with the dynamic swings of the instrumentals. There’s no real verse-chorus-verse structure in sight — instead, the group, whose creations are based in improvisation, sound like they’ve built their songs around an experience of an emotional cloud of agitation.
The music feels accessible — Bolger’s everyday speech-like performances and the frequent breathability of the rhythms feel magnetically inviting — but there’s a fog of deeply permeating psychological tension. The music’s combination of a rather captivating underlying rhythmic swagger with consistent unrest feels striking.
Although the instrumentation occasionally shrinks to comparatively thin wisps of sound, with relatively isolated rhythmic thumps, the silence and space within the songs somehow feel like a part of the experience. Even the gentler moments feel inwardly unsettled, as though Locean have captured a sense of metaphysical nausea. The music sometimes feels bellicose, but it’s not exactly jovial — instead, the extended rhythms feel like stomping through mud in the rain and trying to find some solid ground but just finding more mud.
The often slower tempos help the journey feel pointedly accessible, but once within the music, this pace provides an opportunity to really feel the thunderous rhythmic shocks. It’s like a soundtrack for shivering when it’s not actually cold — the music’s expansive and psychologically resonant unease feels strangely captivating like some kind of entrancing gravitational pull, and stumbling into this sonic void feels inwardly illuminating. Diving into the record is a great time.
Top Ten Zen Meditations includes recordings from two sets of collaborators. Bolger and guitarist Jefferson Temple are the only two musicians on all recordings — “Clicking Fingers,” “Sprruce Bingsteen,” and “Twenty Zen” feature the two of them alongside bassist Ash Reid and drummer Danny Watson, while “All Around Me,” “Forever,” and “Looking For Melody” feature them alongside bassist David McLean, drummer Ben Nield, and keyboardist Marion Mucciante. (Neil Francis also contributed to these new tracks.)
Listen to Top Ten Zen Meditations below!
Read the Q & A with Locean in full below!
Guiding Themes for the Meditations
Captured Howls: Top Ten Zen Meditations is very compelling. On a broad level, there’s sort of a lot going on in the album, and there’s a lot of dynamic range from gentility to loudness– so where do you feel like the emotional core of the record sits, so to speak? What are some of the themes and threads that tend to hold the piece together, in your perspective?
Lauren: No two shows we do are ever the same, so how you hear things on the record is never ever going to be repeated again.
The core is, as noise improvisors, we have already moved on from the place where this album sits. And so, we will not be playing those pieces live anymore. Some people might say that’s quite emotional. But we are such a tight improvised band as a result of testing ourselves like this that people think we are rehearsed. I had John Doran once shake his head at me saying — you’re not improvised; you’re just not! But we are.
And being in the murky waters of improvised noise, however deep it gets or how shit, definitely likens to one idea of art that I have always been interested in, which is seeing it as a temporal event and striving to make it new. Making music for the love of it and for yourself, expressing whatever mood you are in, the moment.
We have played live so many times and it never feels boring for us because we make it fresh for ourselves each time. I value fun methods of making music with others.
And yes, we have used contrast on there, if that is what you mean by loud and quiet. When you’re playing in really loud conditions like we do, a use of contrast in my voice helps me to lead the music down different routes, and make it strange. Neil sometimes does it when he plays a sample of birdsong and it steers a beautiful change in us all.
Yes- I’m into gentility more now than I was when I first started to play music. I like popping little whispers in — I am also big into screams, but I don’t look metal at all. I’ve quite a few pairs of leather trousers, and I sometimes stick a cowboy hat on my head in honour of Michael Gira and that’s it. But it gets too fucking hot for me wearing one of them on my head for a whole show – my hair is much longer than his though. The first show that Jay and I did with Danny on the kit, I was wearing a black cowboy hat. Visually, that’s as metal as I can be. My look doesn’t match my vocals on this album though that’s for sure!
David: For me, this record’s strength and the whole point of the album was to show the variety of different sounds, moods and atmospheres the band can collectively deal with, keeping the listener on their toes as much as the musicians playing the songs.
There can be a tendency with improvised music to get caught in a kind of rut and continually mine just one sound. Lauren was really key in organising us to fight against that particular creative rut, planning each of the recording sessions that eventually made up TTZM to include different sets of musicians that would produce different results, which is why there’s such a diverse range of material on the record.
Putting Together the Meditations
CH: On sort of a nuts-and-bolts level, how did these songs tend to come together? As I understand it, different folks appear on different songs, and the tracks themselves are, of course, rather sprawling and expansive.
Jefferson: The record is (largely) made up of two sessions, recorded in different rooms, with different musicians (myself and Lauren the only constant), with quite a significant amount of time between them.
I think both have their own unique dynamics to them, for slightly different reasons. The first (“Clicking Fingers,” “Sprucce Bingsteen,” “Twenty Zen”) features a line-up that, by Locean standards at least, had played together as a unit quite a lot (Ash Reid, Danny Watson). So, while still quite rough around the edges (we hadn’t played in a WHILE), I think the ideas that formed as we played formed quickly and confidently, as we each had a good feel for how the others like to play. This allowed us to play around with dynamics quite intentionally while still being spontaneous and improvised.
For the second (“All Around Me,” “Forever,” “Looking For Melody”), bass had switched (Dave McLean), we had a relatively new drummer (Ben Nield) and the addition of some keys (Marion Mucciante). So this time, though some had played together before, the ‘unit’ itself was a new combination. This, combined with the stylistic difference of the musicians themselves, is where I think the more explorative, sprawling, slowly morphing dynamics come from in these songs.
David: It’s really hard to pinpoint, as all the material was improvised, but the more subtle and quieter material was definitely led by the tone of Lauren’s delivery, and her hushed vocal really made us quiet down to try and create a sort of canvas for her words. We wanted it to be almost painfully bare, which can be deceptively hard to play.
CH: Did you utilize improvisation in the song creation process for this record? In general, what is your approach like to improvisation — are there guideposts that come to mind that sort of surround your songwriting? As far as I understand it, improvisation does figure in at least some components of Locean as a unit.
David: Everything on the record is improvised, but I’ve always seen Locean a band that creates ‘automatic’ or ‘instant songs’ rather than just chaotic, unstructured noise. In the live shows and recordings that I’ve been a part of, that’s definitely been true. Everyone in the band instinctively pulls together to shape and guide the material into some sort of cohesive structure the audience can recognise but still be surprised by.
Jefferson: The entire record is improvised. There are no preconceived ideas before a ‘track’ is created; the only exception being the poetry/lyrics/words – though these are often improvised as well.
When we started out, tracks used to be made by snipping/cutting down our favourite parts of huge jams we would have once every couple of weeks or so. As the band became tighter, we found these jams would start to have quite natural beginnings and ends to them and sound more and more like ‘songs’. This then tended to be how we operated, even when line-ups changed. We would just play, and the ‘song’ would find itself. As each line-up gets tighter, the time it takes for the ‘song’ to become apparent decreases.
There have been one or two exceptions, over the years; say maybe a bass hook was matched to a lyrical line before a session or a riff or a certain style was suggested before we start playing… Sometimes we would give ourselves a time limit – things like that. What ensues from that point on though is still always improvised.
I think the only guideposts used by the band are of a kind of subconscious nature, simply because we all share a lot of musical interests. If someone drops a riff that’s reminiscent of a song/band/genre they enjoy, chances are the rest of the band will pick up on that, also be a fan of said song/band/genre, and adapt accordingly, so without having said a word, we’re all kind of aware of where the music is probably heading and how we’re going to interact with it.
Inspirations for the Creative Process
CH: The lyrics and wavering, propulsive vocals really paint a unique picture – from my perspective, there’s a sort of tension in there, and there’s also a consistent push forward. The instrumentals seem to deliver this same feeling. Are there particular sources that you used for thematic inspiration? Are there principles that weighed on how you shaped the vibe of this record, so to speak?
Lauren: Yes, we do push it when we play live, I have seen us play without much break for the best part of two hours. We love doing two sets on one night. To the point where the audience are just fucking exhausted with us — that is what I want. TG said they used to make the audience crawl through tunnels to get to them and got a thrill from making it hard for the audience to watch them play. That band are a big influence of mine.
The music I am making with Chris Haslam from Gnod is really fun, weird dance music. I think TG is what led me to want to experiment with my clothes and with my voice alongside electronics in that way. We are currently making our second album; the first came out on the label Tesla Tapes just over a year ago. Chris makes really sick beats.
David: I think each different grouping of musicians has naturally allowed us to focus on different stylistic choices and atmospheres, but we don’t generally sit down and discuss exactly what we’re going to do or why. A lot of the music is guided by gestures, whether that’s something Lauren does with her voice or something that naturally appears in one of our playing, the important thing is to keep open ears and support an idea that’s trying to materialize.
CH: Do you listen to a lot of other expansive and sort of drone-oriented rock? What music have you been connecting with lately?
Lauren: I listen to a lot of pop music. Lately, I have been listening to all of Swim Deep’s albums and Jack Harlow’s albums. My husband-to-be picked up a huge Serge Gainsbourg 3LP box called ‘Intoxicated Man’ which I have taken a lot of pleasure in during lockdown. It is really good background music. I’ve also been listening to the soundtrack for Shaft through my earphones at night and some 4AD albums lately like Visions by Grimes.
David: Yeah, I think all of us have a sort of shared language, knowledge and appreciation of the more extreme and experimental history of DIY music, from no-wave, free-jazz to post-hardcore, which is naturally expressed in the material that gets created for Locean.
The last record from that really blew my head off from that whole sound world was by our friends’ band, Holy Scum, who, to me, sound like a more vicious version of Caspar Brotzmann’s Massacre. Lauren actually ended up doing vocals on a few of their songs. (https://holyscum.bandcamp.com/)
Jefferson: Loads!! Though my intake of new things has dwindled a little since, well, yeah.
Last thing that really blew me away live was ‘Qujaku’! Absolutely amazing group from Japan. Last time they were here was for a collaborative show with IMPATV (responsible for our ace vids, too). They’re one of the most impressive bands I’ve seen in terms of using drone and hypnotic rhythms to create heavy sound. They seem to have a way of taking the music to it’s absolute peak, holding you there, and then somehow stepping it up even more?! Watching the way everyone had worked these sensations into the visuals was really inspiring.
I’ve been listening to lots of stuff from ZamZam Records as well, lately… Less of the ‘rock’ edge I guess but loads of really interesting drone experimentation and unusual instruments/sound sources. I think a favourite recently has been Zohastre. They have a great split with Gnod, actually, who should definitely be on this list. We’ve been lucky enough to share stages and collaborative projects with members of Gnod over the years and I think their back catalogue contains some of the best examples of this kind of stuff I’ve ever heard.
CH: Are there particular sources of inspiration that you used for the record, in a sonic sense? The instrumentals of “Officer,” for instance, kind of reminded me of classic longform rock songs, and then some of the brisker moments seemed to have a kind of punk edge.
Jefferson: With the exception of “Officer” and “Coca-Cola,” the record was captured live in rehearsal rooms on an 8-track. I think the only real aim, sonically, was to make those 8 tracks sound as big as they could?!
I like to record Locean in this way as I think it allows the music to blossom naturally, being more free of time restraints (/the cost of studio time) and expectations. I also find the lo-fi sound that results lends itself well to the chaotic nature of the sound, giving it that “punk edge” you speak of and kind of masking and complimenting the imperfections at the same time. I think it’s the only real way to get the ‘live’ feel that this music needs to make any sense. That’s kind of the goal when mixing, actually – to have it feel like a nice capture of a live show.
I guess in a way it’s inspired by the sound of early Sonic Youth/Swans records, but I think it’s more that we’re just running on the same principles of keeping as DIY as you can and making the best of what you’ve got.
Guiding Principles for the Project
CH: I’ve read references elsewhere to the Locean live show, and having listened to Chav Anglais and now this latest record, the band seems to carry a rather uniquely forceful imprint. Although as I understand it, Locean first came together back in 2012, are there guiding principles that come to mind for Locean as a project?
Jefferson: The band was born out of the simple idea to make some interesting noises/soundscapes behind Lauren’s poetry. As members changed and we started becoming more of a regular ‘band’ set-up, the music began to morph to reflect this.
For me… the main principle worth sticking to since conception was that of us not really being a ‘band,’ in the traditional sense. I used to record nearly every practice session I had with bands I was in prior to Locean, and would often fall in love with a jam we’d have in between practicing regular songs. I’d always want to release them in some way but other members would – quite understandably – instead prefer to work the ideas into a structured piece.
I always thought it would be great to have a band that sounds as free and unhinged as those jams did.. just letting them be what they were naturally, without worrying how ‘good’ they sounded or if anyone was going to care or even be able to listen to it. The set-up we had – being a group with changing members – combined with the rather free-form delivery of Lauren’s poetry, seemed like the ideal situation to try and do something like this.
Lauren: Thank you for the lovely words Caleb. Yes – the band is built on musical expansions around my voice and Jay’s guitar; we make the fuller understanding of what you might say is the ‘Locean’ blueprint for the sound.
Interestingly, the use of Marion’s keys lately has been a real catalyst for expanding on some of the lyrics of this album, I have written a translation book with her which includes English & French versions of my Top Ten Zen Meditations poems. I am planning to perform the essence of that book with her in fun improvised ways, as a duo in London & Paris.