Interview: Lamplighter

The producer chats about his upcoming collaboration with Ed Scissor Tell Them It's Winter and musical influences

Posted on Jul 7th, 2016 in Features and Interviews, Lamplighter, High Focus / By Sam Bennett
Interview: Lamplighter Lamplighter has carved a niche out for himself in the hip-hop scene over on these shores. His work with Edward Scissortongue has been critically recognised, and their left-field dynamic is yet another extending branch of the incredibly versatile High Focus tree. The duo are preparing to release their sophomore album Tell Them It's Winter (review) later this month, and Bearded caught up with producer to talk about the new album.

'It's the usual UK head story' says Lamplighter on his introduction to producing music. 'I grew up on Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, Gang Starr, that kind of stuff. I starting producing on my home computer, making jungle rave, and slowly realised that I was more suited to producing hip-hop. I hit the point where I realised that you couldn't really make professional sounding hip-hop on my equipment, and saved up some cash and bought myself an MPC2000. My whole game was trying to make sinister music, it was all about being scary, and dark, with classical music samples in everything'.

I wonder what the somber soundscapes were influenced by. 'I think there's two sides to this. I grew up in Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland, and it's the greyest, rainiest place you've ever seen, and there's definitely an element of wanting to mirror that. It felt right to be making music like that. The other side is that I didn't grow up just listening to hip-hop, I listened to a lot of electronic music. That always had a darker vibe. The beats that I make, the influence always came from hip-hop, but the emotional side of it, the emotion that I try to stir in people, came from electronic music. Early Warp records and things like that. It's the two sides coming together I think'.

'Oh God! (laughs)' exclaims the Scottish producer when I ask what he was listening to before hip-hop made it's mark. 'It's hard to remember. I think the first things were guitar bands, but I quickly turned from guitar music to drum & bass, jungle, techno and IDM. I used to go to techno clubs quite a lot. There were a lot of hip-hop acts making it up to North East of Scotland which was bizarre; that was really lucky. Classical music as well has always meant a big deal to me. I probably got into it through sampling, it was almost an easy route into making emotive music. I'm sure if you speak to any producer they'll say 'sampling got me into jazz, funk, fusion', it's the same with classical for me, I guess maybe I wouldn't be listening to classical music today if I hadn't been sampling it'.

I mention the heavy reliance of classical samples by groups such as Army Of The Pharoahs and German production outfit Snowgoons; Lamplighter's approach is definitely on the flip side. 'It was always something more subtle that drew me to it. I do buy into that kind of music, but it was never for me. Another thing I was really conscious of was never sampling the hook. I hate the idea of sampling and not flipping it into something else. You have producers taking the most dramatic bit and just slamming a beat over it. That seems kind of inauthentic'.

With musicians such as Flying Lotus going from strength to strength, with critically respected work finding success with wide, global audiences, I ask Lamplighter whether he's surprised that left-field, experimental production work is becoming so popular. 'I'm surprised it wasn't more popular in the first place rather than being surprised that it is now. That's a natural response from a producer again. If you have a room full of MCs and a room full of producers, I've kind of got a feeling that they'll be different kinds of people. I remember being into hip-hop, one of my friends who got me into hip-hop, when I was younger I didn't understand how excited he got about the lyricism in hip-hop. Some people latch onto the production, some to the lyricism, you're one or the other in my opinion. Obviously I'm not saying you can't love both, but one always grabs you more. So for me, it just makes huge sense that people get into this music. It's so interesting, and again emotive, I wish it could have a bigger audience than it already does'.

'It was through MySpace' says Lamplighter as he describes how he first got in contact with Scissor. 'Back then it was a great thing, everyone had their music posted, and you could find like minded artists and that's how we hooked up. We just stayed in touch. It took us a really long time to actually start making music together. I'm guessing we got in touch, and three or four years later we started discussing Better. Luck. Next Life, which was a very long process'.

That album catapulted the duo into the ears of hip-hop fanatics the world over, and Lamplighter's ingenious sample-work made his style instantly recognisable. 'There were a lot of tracks that pre-existed in some form before we started doing it' he describes. 'In terms of my production, it was the first time I started realising that I could layer synths on top of samples and do it effectively. Before, everything I did was based on samples, and I mean everything. I think from that point I switched my music up from just being a dark thing. You might not agree with me. It's surprising when you hear other people's opinions on your music. People tell me that my music is really dark, or that it's really minimal, and to me I listen to my music and I think there's loads going on in it, it's not minimal at all (laughs). The 'dark' thing, that album had a whole post-apocalyptic thing, but for me there are bits that come through that have positivity and hope to them. The synth work brought that through a lot. Wastewater; the first few minutes is dark, it's not a friendly piece of music, but when the synths take over there's a bit hope that starts bleeding into the tune, and it's not as dismal as it was'.

'Coma was the last track we did for the album, and it was a real bastard to get finished, it took a hell of a long time. It was the track where Scissor had the most input, saying 'Can you do this for me?', 'Can you introduce another bit?'. The guitar part at the start of the track was the track to start with, and it changed a hell of a lot as we went through. I didn't hear any of the verses on it apart from Baxter's until it was completed, so I made all these parts with absolutely no idea which MC was going to be on each part, apart from Scissor, so it wasn't like I was producing a bit for Dike, a bit for Mr. Key. I made these segments that I hoped would have enough contrast between them and hoped that it did work, and thankfully it did'.

'To be honest with you I think it was luck' says Lamplighter regarding how well suited his production and Ed's lyricism are. 'The two of us are into the same sort of vibes, and I think that by some happy coincidence two people came together on a project wanting to do the same thing. I don't think what I was doing swayed what he was doing, or that what he was doing swayed what I was doing either, it's almost like we both had the same agenda, and naturally, organically, this album came about. Don't get me wrong, it was a lot of work and it was a lot of back and forth between us, but again it was almost really lucky thing that two people who wanted to build the same thing just came together, so yeah in a word luck (laughs)'.

The last time we heard from the genre-bending duo was on the Chavassian Striking Distance EP (interview) and Lamplighter explains the thinking behind that project. 'We had a lot of tracks earmarked for the album, and we were making the album a long time before we decided to put Chavassian Striking Distance together. We had a couple of tracks that we loved, but didn't really fit with the album, but we liked them too much to not drop them, so they ended up being the meat of an EP. We wanted to do something a bit different as well. We knew we didn't want to release something that sounded like Better Luck Next Life 2, and we'd got a couple of years passed that and neither of us were really into that vibe anymore. It seemed interesting to switch it up too by having instrumental tracks; I was keen to do that as it gave me the chance to experiment a bit more and do things that I wouldn't be able to on an LP with him spitting bars on it. Tracks like Construction, it's techno, and there's no way I could have squeezed that onto the album (laughs)'.

With Tell Them It's Winter due for release this month, any self-respecting hip-hop fan is anxiously awaiting the project's arrival. 'It's very much an entity of it's own' says Lamplighter about the project. 'I think the vibe of it is a bit different. I guess we started working on tracks for this about three years ago. I played him some pieces of music and we thought maybe we'll get an EP out of this. He went to Chemo's studio and laid down some bars, and I think we got excited by the result of that, and thought that we could do a bit more with it. We agreed let's definitely do a second LP. It's seldom that we're in the same room, we're probably in the same place about twice a year. We just ping millions of emails back and forth. I wanted to make something different mood-wise, and nowadays I'm really quite obsessed with mood, and the emotion I'm putting across in my music. The other thing I've realised is that I'm almost always going for the same emotion, which is this sort of feeling of despair about the way the world is but with a bit of hope coming through; you have days where you think this world is bleak, but fuck it there are beautiful things in the world, let's not be too negative about it. I hope there's a vibe that comes through like that, instead of the darkness that's all the way through Better Luck Next Life. I think if you asked either of us what the album is about, you would get slightly different answers, but if you took the two, a lot would cross between them. I think he once referred to it as a love album, but for me it's a hope album, if that makes any sense, and doesn't sound like the most pretentious thing anyone's ever said (laughs). We're really happy with what we've got, and we're excited to drop it and see if people are into it'.

'It's more collaborative than most MC/producer situations' says Lamplighter on his and Scissor's creative process. 'If one of us sends us something, we're quite happy to say 'I don't like this, can you change this'. Granted, one of us may want to stand our ground and say 'No I'm not changing that', but there's a lot of flexibility. We respect what each other wants to do so we can make compromises, but we don't have too that often because there's a lot of happy coincidence in what we both want to do. I'm not very good at making pieces of music on demand. I remember an MC asking me 'Can you make me a track like this?' and I was like 'Yeah, I'll do that', because I wanted to work with him, but I sat down and made a completely different piece of music that had fuck all to do with what he wanted, because I'm kind of incapable of doing that. What I'm trying to say is, when I sit down and make a piece of music I have no idea what I'm going to do, I just do something. Scissor might hear a bunch of things, and then we'll discuss what might work on an album. Some of them die later on; there's a lot of lost tracks that will never see the light of day, but there's definitely a lot of discussion and a lot of back and forth. It's not 'Here's my beat, rap over it', it's a bit different, even though we're not in the same room'.

I wonder whether he's working with any other musicians on other projects. 'A lot vague things, but the only things that are concrete would be that I'm working on a solo album which is very likely to have some guest spots on it. It's also looking like Mr. Key and I will drop an EP; we've already started working on that, and I'm excited. Key's whole ethos, he's a great guy, the kind of messages he puts in his lyrics I feel sit well with what I'm trying to do, so I feel as if a natural and easy working relationship is going to come out of that as well. I'm really excited about doing a solo LP, so the direction of that, I'm not (laughs), i'm not totally sure about at the moment. The movie Highrise starring Tom Hiddlestone excited me; it's really bleak. Portishead did a cover of the Abba song S.O.S for it and it's amazing, they turned it into this incredible bleak piece of art that makes you want to cry. If I could do anything with a piece of music I'd want to make people cry; I think that's the ultimate in music making, if you're doing something that's beautiful enough to do something to that extent, that song made me feel like that. My point is that it's got this Bladerunner vibe, and I want to pick up on using synths again, and maybe create a whole vibe out of that and make an LP and keep away from samples. I say that, but then I'll probably drop the album and it'll be full of samples (laughs)'.

As our conversation draws to it's conclusion I ask what Lamplighter has been listening to at the moment. 'Not hip-hop is the short answer (laughs). I'm very excited about the new Radiohead LP (A Moon Shaped Pool); they're a band who just don't stop getting better in my opinion. I wasn't into them back when the music was more guitar based, but their new material speaks to me so much. I listen to way more techno than hip-hop nowadays. One guy is Stephan Bodzin, a German producer. It's about the melodies, it's heartbreaking stuff, I love that kind of shit. Hip-hop, I'm not listening to it so much these days, for no reason, I've got a big love for it obviously, but it's not my go-to thing at the moment'.

I know that I go through phases of being into certain styles or subgenres before ultimately coming back to my first love of hip-hop, and I wonder if Lamplighter agrees. 'That's a really good point, it does work like that. The way you put that, 'You remember why you were so excited about it in the first place', that's such a truism. You suddenly hear some new thing and you get excited about it; hip-hop is one of these genres isn't it, I bet you've never spoken to an MC or a producer and you asked them when did you get into hip-hop, and they say 'I used to be exclusively into Russian folk music and when I turned 25 I suddenly got into hip-hop', everyone you ask I bet they say they got into hip-hop as a kid and have been obsessed with it since. It's one of these things that you invest so heavily into, and you've always got this love for it and you're never going to lose it. Even though I'm telling you why I love this techno artist, I'm always going to come back to hip-hop, and it's always going to be the thing that I care most about and that I relate to the most'.

What does Lamplighter have planned for the coming months? 'Hitting some production is what I've got next, because as I say there's this project with Key waiting in the wings, but the work that's been done on that was quite a while ago, so there's been a bit of a hiatus. I was just speaking to him and we're gonna pick that up and try and run with it quite quickly. We signed off Tell Them It's Winter, the hilariously titled summer release, in about late November, and I haven't touched an MPC (Music Production Controller) since, which I still use which makes me a sort of production luddite. I really want to hit it again but I can do it soon, and I've got a lot of time on my hands these next few months, so that's what I hope to do. I've got my little island retreat here for a week or so up in the wilds which I'm enjoying, and then back down to Glasgow and booting up the MPC again (laughs). Finally, of course, I'm really excited about dropping the album, I cannot wait'.

Tell Them It's Winter is released on 15th July through High Focus