Talking Heads: Leo Abrahams

Arcana is paying a visit to the studio of musician and producer Leo Abrahams. We are there to talk primarily about Scene Memory II, his recent solo guitar album – sequel to a first Scene Memory of 2006. Perhaps inevitably discussion wavers during the course of the interview, and we end up talking about a number of the prestigious musical acts with whom Abrahams has worked and about influences on his music, who range far and wide.

We begin, however, in Siberia – which is where Scene Memory II has its musical origins. In what seems an unlikely turn of events, Abrahams was touring the region. “I have a Russian friend, a promoter, and it’s his life’s project to bring obscure music to the far reaches of Russia. For many years he’s organised what are effectively travelling festivals, which start out in the west of Russia, and drive all the way across to Vladivostok, gigging all along the way. It’s quite incredible, and it’s almost like a performance art project. He’s quite a mischievous character, but very passionate about what he does.  The tours are called Muzenergo, and back in 2013 I did one of those tours with a project I had called Amoral Avatar, and before that, when I did the Scene Memory album in 2006 he got me over to do some gigs in Moscow. That was where we started our association. The Amoral Avatar tour was a killer, with virtually no sleep – two hours a night on a coach, juddering down these roads. It was really brutal but a wonderful experience.”

The audiences proved engaging, too. “Everywhere you went, even in the very small towns in Siberia, everyone would turn out to hear it. They want to hear challenging music, they’re very interested in it. They’re partly interested because Western musicians have bothered to come to thi very remote place, and partly it’s a legacy of Soviet arts education, or the meaning of art in the Soviet system – it’s kind of a hangover from that. There’s something important, something for everybody that’s worth experiencing. So I started having the idea of making another solo guitar record some time ago, but I was struggling to write it. I thought the best solution would be to actually go on tour and force myself to improvise, and see what comes out. That coincided with my friend Iouri offering me this opportunity to tour together. I don’t think I would have been able to break the block if it hadn’t been for that experience. It was quite difficult, because although I have experience with live improvisation I have no experience with solo live improvisation. It is a whole different ballgame, because you don’t have anyone else to spark off. It was an immensely rewarding experience – it didn’t always go well, but even the failures were instructive.”

There’s no better environment for coming face to face with your limitations, and then finding ways around them. I think a lot of what I found on that tour was that I was trying to be too clever, and trying to hide behind the technology a bit. When I listened back to the recordings, I could hear my nerves. It wasn’t all bad, but it made me what I had to change to make it a viable record, as opposed to a novelty act – like look how many sounds this bloke can make with his guitar! Some nights people came to the show, and because I’d played with Roxy Music people were expecting to hear proper guitar solos. Some guys came up to me at the end and said, “Why didn’t you play guitar? It was all backing tracks!” It was guitar, but they just weren’t ready for that. In one way that validated my sonic aspirations for it, but in another way it was a failure because it felt like there was no performance for the uneducated listener to latch on to. That was also instructive. I did one gig in a Science University, outside Moscow, which was absolutely incredible because all these young students completely understood intuitively all of the structural principles that I was trying to implement. They got all the Morton Feldman-inspired ideas of imperfect symmetry and inaccurate memory, all these playful techniques. I was really not – and still am not able – to execute them properly, but they still saw those principles. and that was astounding. We finished the concert and then they all came up to the stage when we had this little seminar. It was quite amazing, and I thought I’ve finally found my audience after 20 years – science students!”

Some of the material on Scene Memory II, and the space created – for your interviewer at least – harks back to early ECM records, and a sense of time and place that seems to fall in with Pat Metheny’s solo work for the label. Could this be the case with Abrahams, reflecting his Siberian surroundings? “Maybe it was an ingredient, yeah – but even before I was in Russia, I was reaching for some of that sense of space. I would always refer it to the people who work on ECM who were in turn influenced by John Cage and Morton Feldman. It’s in this area, harmonically and structurally, that is in between – I don’t want to say classical and jazz, but more of a liminal space. I think part of that could be related on some level to the wide openness of Siberia, but in the end it’s a holistic feature rather than a linear progression of influences.”

Given the time Abrahams takes to work with other artists, did he need to devote special time to his solo work? “Yeah. I do find it difficult to switch back and forth. I always feel like I need at least five clear days, without even doing a session or mixing for anybody. I need to know I’ve got a week to just go into my own space and to waste time if I have to waste time. That’s important, but

Fortunately it’s always been the case that I’ve had these little pockets of time. Sometimes they don’t come along for a long time because I’m busy working for other people. It means that whenever I run out of work there is a backlog of ideas that I’m keen to jump into. I really love working with other people, and I never work on anything that I don’t like, which is an enormous privilege. It has also meant that I don’t have to make my own music work for me economically. It’s a passion, and it feeds into my work with others, but I’ve never thought of it as a career. It’s always something that I want to investigate for myself. In a way it’s like my little holiday.”

This would seem a relatively unusual spot for a musician to be in, but in a good way. “Yeah. It goes back to seeing one’s career as a sort of ecosystem, in a holistic way. It’s an area that fertilises other areas, a part of the whole. All other things are tangential.” It is possible to imagine a Venn diagram, with the solo work as one element. “Yeah, and to be honest, in future I think I would like it to be a bigger part of the picture. This record is the first one I really wanted to go and promote. I have made all my other records out of curiosity than anything else. Once they were finished, and I could listen to them, and they were released, that was the end of it. This one is more like the beginning of an area I would like to keep exploring, and to do live performances. I feel like I’ve found an area I want to explore again, and making a completely different record next time, which is what I’ve always done before.”

The earlier albums are certainly a different style to Scene Memory II – which is a guitar-only album, if using a number of techniques to secure the sounds. There is one effect that sounds like bowing, but Abrahams reveals how he gets it. “It’s the sustained elements, made with something called the Plus Pedal. It looks like a piano sustain pedal, and it freezes little bits of the sound. There have been pedals that have done that before, based around. granular synthesis, but the way this particular thing does it is very pure, implemented very beautifully. All the predecessors have been somewhat clunky or even a bit abrasive. This pedal opened up a lot of possibilities I hadn’t considered before. The way the pieces on the record are made is through the guitar going directly into the computer on one channel, and then changing the plugins. There’s another channel that goes to the Plus Pedal, and then that goes into another block on the computer – and there’s a whole other set of chains of plugins. It becomes like duetting with oneself, not looping in the sense that you’re playing over the previous idea, but you’re always resampling tiny bits of what you’re playing, sometimes with unexpected results – and that’s the fun bit.”

Abrahams uses the extremities of the guitar’s range, from high harmonics down to glitchy, percussive throbs that sound like drums pads but aren’t – such as the track above, Spiral Trem. “Literally every sound on the record is the guitar”, he confirms, “because it’s so processed. That particular sound is like a distortion gating, which gives you a thud. Then you EQ the thud, and it acts as a kick drum. Some of these things go so far away from the source sound that it’s arguable whether it really is guitar. There is an analogue physical instrument at the start of that chain, which by its nature is inconsistent. Rather than feeding the same thing into that system all the time it’s always changing, and I think that’s what helps give the music a sort of irregularity that relates it to a real instrument, rather than it being a sample.”

He expands further. “I did actually try playing acoustic guitar through those patches, but it was very difficult to make it work live because obviously, being an acoustic instrument, it picks up everything that’s coming back. It became slightly ungainly. I’m still thinking about ways to solve that. A lot of the pieces were made with this Telecaster”, he says, turning to the stand of guitars next to him and picking up a metallic instrument. “It has a hollow metal body and still feeds back quite easily. The body itself is kind of microphonic but feels really alive, but it’s stable enough not to compromise the performance by getting the wrong material into the patches. That’s definitely one of the areas I want to explore, to bring in more acoustic properties.”

The feeling is that Abrahams is at the start of a longer-term project. “I think so, and I feel excited about it. It’s as much the restriction as the openness which is inspiring, because some days I come in and sit down and have lots of synths and piano, and have all these colours. What do you do? It has to be dictated by either the musical idea, which is exciting, and then you orchestrate the idea, or it’s the idea of a framework that’s exciting. It’s like looking through a tiny hole into quite a big world, and that’s how I feel. After a lot of dabbling back and forth I have realised the guitar is my instrument, and I wanted to explore sounds but through the guitar.”

Abrahams has worked with a wide variety of musicians, including Brian Eno, Katie Melua, Jon Hopkins and Paul Simon, to name just four different examples. Has he shared any music with them, or is it a private project? “No, I’m quite shy about it. I think it’s out there, if people want to find it, but I don’t force it on people. I struggle even to use my mailing list. Sometimes I read the press that I’ve done and I come off as being almost pathologically self-effacing. I do think what I’m doing is interesting, but I do struggle to promote myself and I think that’s what differentiates artists from whatever it is I am – maybe artisan. There’s a really positive thing that makes people want to share, and I don’t really have that. I more enjoy just making it, but some artists have an extra gene.

One of Abrahams’ collaborators is former Wild Beasts vocalist Hayden Thorpe – he played the well-received second album for the singer, Moondust For My Diamond, earlier in 2021, and produced the first, Diviner, in 2019. “I’m really lucky because I do believe in all the collaborations that I do, and my heart’s in all of them. I feel like that part of me is quite satisfied, but as I said before, there’s something about this record which has made me want to try and reach out a little bit more. Last year, I did a couple of collaboration records, which I found really rewarding, and it ignited something in me, and gave me the confidence to do something solo again. That was really positive. In terms of sharing, I’ll show people if they’re interested, but if they’re not, I won’t. Brian Eno, for example, constantly has people trying to show him their music. I never wanted to be one of those people. I understand why people do it, but he is actually, after all this time, first and foremost my friend. If he wants to hear what I’m doing he’ll ask, and sometimes he does. I don’t want to impose.”

Sometimes it works the other way round. “I played on the last Harry Styles record, and he was so nice and really engaged. At the end of the session, with a great deal of sincerity, he took me aside and said, “Let me know when you’re doing a gig, I’d really like to come.” He’d heard all these ambient guitar sounds and he was into it. And I will. I could tell he wasn’t just being polite, he was interested, as a human being.” One of the Styles tracks on which Abrahams appears is the single Falling. “The thing is on those sessions, though, is that you do ten tracks or so but don’t know which ones made it through. I did a lot of tracks and I think I got on to three or four on the final mix. Falling is a beautiful song. He (Styles) is definitely in it for the same reason as somebody who maybe isn’t working in such a mass market. He’s fundamentally interested in music, which shouldn’t really need to be said, but it’s obvious.”

It occurs to me that the friendship with Brian Eno is helped by this lack of persistence on Abrahams’ part. “Maybe. I think the more time you spend with someone, the more you come to understand them and consider things.” The two worked closely together on Eno’s 2010 album Small Craft On A Milk Sea, which was billed as Brian Eno with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins. “That was characteristically generous”, he says of the billing, “especially at the time before Jon was quite as huge as he is now. It was a really nice thing to do. He does a lot of jamming with people, and that record came out of jamming, but on this occasion he finished it quite unexpectedly. At that point he was often giving me big batches of files that he’d made with different people, and asking me to help him edit and mix them. Sometimes it would be released and sometimes it wouldn’t, but with the Small Craft record he just e-mailed Jon and I one day and said, “By the way, I finished that record!” We were both really surprised, and glad about it. He must have felt quite strongly about it.”

With the earlier reference to Morton Feldman, it is fascinating that people perceive the music as being ambient because it’s slower, and that it wouldn’t have intensity – but as Small Craft On A Milk Sea shows, that is not the case – and also Scene Memory II. The album could be listened to as an accompaniment, but never as background music. It remains an intense experience. Abrahams agrees. “That’s right. In a way it invites you in to have a different experience. Within the category of quiet music or even within ambient music there is a lot of different kinds of intention on the part of the composer.”

He gives a specific example. “Even the hypnotic quality that Feldman might want to induce as opposed to Brian or Jon is for very different reasons, and by very different means. The thing that really touches me about Feldman is that it is quiet music, but it is also very hyper-focused and dense. Sometimes it is quite fast in terms of its rate of change. It is written music, and sometimes his music is a conversation with the performer, and even quite playful, challenging the performer in playful ways to heighten their attention, so that what the audience experiences is not some kind of blissed-out manifestation, it’s a hyper concentrated and focused performance of something that is quiet and spacious. For example, quite often he will notate the music in a purposefully complicated way because he wants you to count in a certain way that’s more difficult, so that the music comes out sounding a certain way. It’s a little bit like the Rite of Spring. Somebody in 1917 wrote out the Rite of Spring in 4/4! You could do the same with Morton Feldman but you would definitely lose something. That is key, because what I definitely wasn’t trying wasn’t trying to do was make a pad and then disappear in variations to maintain interest, but essentially in a static space. I definitely didn’t want to do that. I think I wanted it to be more like seeing the elements of each patch as being like sculptures in a gallery. You’re moving round and looking at a sculpture from different angles, and I wanted to contemplate this sonic object, without sounding too pretentious! I wanted it to be focused, and not drifty.”

Abrahams talks in a way that suggests he has explored a good deal of modern classical music. “When I was a teenager, I thought I was going to be a ‘classical’ composer. I went to the Royal Academy of Music, and I quite quickly realised when I got there that it probably wasn’t for me – not just because I didn’t want it, but because I wasn’t really good enough. I showed enough promise to get in, but I don’t think I really had what it took to be a professional composer. Also, in those days, there was something called crossover, and my teacher was a wonderful composer and teacher called Steve Martland (above). He was a great person and artist, but he was in this category called crossover, which in a way was a bit unfair. His teacher, Louis Andriessen, had the same thing – because the music was rhythmic, or used ‘band’ instruments, it was termed as crossover. Thankfully, due in large part to their innovations, that term is gone now and it’s just music. That’s definitely a good thing. I think the difference is much more in the composer’s intention rather than the finished results. Experiments in notation and incorporating improvisation, or aleatoric elements, have been around for a very long time – 100 years or so – and I think we’re still playing in that ambiguous world about how much is written and how much isn’t. There is a certain quality that makes some quiet music clearly meditative, and other quiet music is clearly cerebral – and there’s a lot in between.”

Our talk moves to the shorter piano pieces of Schoenberg and Webern, with which Abrahams is familiar. “Those pieces are so, so wonderful”, he exclaims. “It’s really interesting, I think because their compositional philosophy was so intimidating and intellectual that it closed their music off to a lot of people who might enjoy it on a visceral level. They didn’t want people to enjoy their music on a visceral level, it was just that time in early 20th century, when people were ‘manifesto-ised’ to an insane degree. I love that period of art history, Russian Suprematism. In that area there were so many manifestos coming out from artists, but it doesn’t mean we have to experience the art as a manifesto anymore, because it’s part of history. One of the CDs I listen to most is a double CD of Schoenberg and Webern piano music, and I love Berg’s Piano Sonata too. It’s like he had the heart of a romantic and the head of a 20th century composer.”

“It’s moving to think of those days”, says Abrahams. “Because art meant so much, and orchestral music meant so much, people would travel from all over Europe to experience it. The victory of those people who broke the mould is that we now live in a creative world where there aren’t really those borders – but maybe there isn’t quite as much passion either.”

Returning to the inspirational figure of Steve Martland, what did he learn from his teacher? “It’s a very hard question because in a way, I think I was too young (to be kind to myself), or maybe too incompetent (to be unkind to myself), to really have learned compositional things that I might have been able to learn. Maybe he saw that. But what I really remember of him is his passion. He cared so deeply about justice. He had very clear ideas about what was right and wrong in music, and would express them in quite provocative ways. He knew that he was going too far sometimes, but he also did really believe it. He had very passionate views, which was fine and inspiring, even if you disagreed. He set up his own band too. I met him when I was fifteen, on a course called Strikeout. He would take us all to a retreat, and we’d write a piece for two weeks which would be performed by the band. It was an incredible thing to do. He must have had some sort of Arts Council funding, but it was a passion project.”

Things did not always run smoothly, however. “His main gripe with the academy at the time, where he eventually became a visiting professor, was that they didn’t take music seriously enough. He was very frustrated by that. He felt he was supposed to be the enfant terrible of the situation, but he was actually the only one taking education seriously. He sort of stormed out in the end, because one day a student reprimanded him for coming in dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, which tells you a lot about the place because the seriousness of intention and the love for what you’re doing was far exceeding that of anyone else working there. That was a terrible day. He was a wonderful man.”

His hairstyle and disposition are not too dissimilar from another self-professed enfant terrible, Nigel Kennedy. “It’s partly a class thing”, says Abrahams, “but Nigel Kennedy had a sort of a dissolute quality, which isn’t cultivated – that’s just who he is. Steve was more like a Marine, with discipline – discipline with a smile behind it, which you can hear in his music. That was who he was. He was a humanitarian without a doubt, but in art he liked precision and discipline, and sharp edges. When he died, I still felt as if people weren’t getting to the core of the person. He was a mystery, even to some of his closest friends, but I’ve always carried this deep fondness and appreciation for him.”

There is a final, classic, Martland story. “We were on this composition retreat, and I sat down to rehearse with the band. I’d written myself an electric guitar part, and we started playing. I was 15 or 16. He stopped, and said to me, “When you’re playing the guitar, please can you try and look less like you’re having a shit!” That has literally stayed with me until now. Sometimes I’m on stage and I think, have I got that face on?!”

Turning to the future, Abrahams has plenty of irons in the fire. “Yeah, I’ve actually just finished quite a few productions and mixes and stuff like that this week. One of them’s a Syrian composer called Maya Youssef, who plays in Canada – her music is beautiful, and I’m really happy to have worked on that. I’ve got some guitar sessions dotted around, but I want to try and use the next couple of months to work on my own music. I’ve got quite a lot of unfinished ideas in a slightly more ambient or even neoclassical form, than this kind of atonal and abrasive world that I’ve been in. Some of it will be pure synth, and no guitar. I’d like to try and finish those pieces. There is also one of the collaboration records that I did last year called Krononaut, with a jazz drummer Martin France and trumpeter Arve Henriksen on trumpet. We’re going to do another record, I’m not sure if Arve can but Martin and I are going to get together here in January. It’s another one of those times where I’ve got not quite such an intense production schedule, and I want to use it.”

Now the studio is where he wants it, is the writing more fluent? “It’s early days because I’ve only been here since July, and since then it’s been non-stop work. When I used to work from home in a little bedroom studio, I used to sort of fall out of bed and start work. I knew I’d had a good day when I’d not got out of my dressing gown by lunchtime!”

Scene Memory II is out now on figureight records. You can listen to and purchase the album via this Bandcamp embed: