interview by Michael McCarthy
“So much to say I’m lost for words,” sings Lamb’s lyricist and vocalist Lou Rhodes as the duo’s new album, The Secret of Letting Go, begins. The song is called “Phosphorous” and it consists largely of piano and strings behind Lou’s ethereal vocals. It has a haunting and intoxicating effect on the listener, as if Lou is a siren calling you forward or a sandman lulling you off to sleep. But soon “Moonshine” begins and ensures that you don’t doze off with its addictive, clapping percussion, which reminds me of some of the duo’s early work when producer/musician Andy Barlow was hooked on drum ‘n’ bass and injected many elements of that into their songs. You can still hear its influence on the new album, such as in the song “Bulletproof,” and you could probably call the title track trip-hop, but the album as a whole does not subscribe to either of those genre distinctions. The only category that even loosely covers it is electronica, being that much of the album is programmed using loops and samples that have that vibe. That said, there are plenty of live instruments interlaced with the programmed, so it often sounds as organic as electronic. As you can tell, it’s difficult to explain. Just think of their sound as pop music for people who don’t like pop music. If you’re already a fan, I’m sure you know what I mean. If you aren’t, well, you should listen to their songs below and see if you don’t become one. And do read the following in-depth interview with Lou in which we discuss the creation of the new album, its accompanying videos, touring, and many other things.
MM: What does the new album’s title, The Secret to Letting Go, mean to you?
LR: Oh, gosh, it means a whole number of things, really. I mean, that song that suggested that as an album title is in the middle of the album and it was an interesting experience. Over the years, Andy and I have always had quite the challenging working relationship and on this particular day we’d written quite a few songs for the album and we had a bit of a difficult situation around something in the studio and struggled to agree. It came to the point where we felt like we should call it a day and just for the hell of it we decided that we would just go into separate rooms and write something. I went into the room where the piano is at Andy’s place and he stayed in the control room in the studio. We each wrote. He wrote some music and I wrote some lyrics and a vocal melody and we decided that we would just write and then bring that together. Without hearing what the other had done, we’d bring it together and make a tune and whatever that tune was it would exist as that. And that was basically the way we wrote “The Secret of Letting Go.” In the process of writing it, I guess in my words and in Andy’s music, you can kind of hear the anger and frustration with each other. But it became this striking track in the middle of the album and I guess we were exercising letting go of that anger and frustration and letting it be something else. Almost like a metamorphosis happened with that. And, also, the quote “the secret of letting go” was something that I’d heard a kind of modern day philosopher speaking in one of his talks. The full quote is “the secret of letting go is forgetting to hold on” and I think it’s a good way of looking at things. People are often tortured by holding onto information or whatever, just stuff we feel people have done to us and if you just let go of it helps life flow a lot more.
MM: Was the new album recorded at Andy’s studio like the last one?
RL: Well, some of it was. We started out, gosh, we started out very briefly there but then for the last ten years Andy has spent his winters in Goa in India, and I guess I started to go out there more recently over the last five years, and we decided that we would do some writing out there. It’s a very good environment for writing. A lot of people think of Goa as this kind of party techno capital but the place that we stayed is nothing like that. It’s quite quiet. You can live a really simple life there and it’s a really good atmosphere for being creative and whatever you do. There’s a whole lot of our friends who go out there to do their work as well so it’s nice being part of an atmosphere where people are doing their thing, you know? And so we wrote a good chunk of the album out there and then came back and carried on here. It’s the first album I guess we have written at locations around the world rather than just at Andy’s studio.
MM: How does your songwriting process work? Does Andy create the music then you write the lyrics and vocal melody or do you ever start with lyrics – how does the magic happen?
RL: It happens in I guess both those ways. What we’ve realized over the years is that it only works if we share ideas when they’re at their simplest stage. It would never work if I came with a full song or if Andy came with a full track of music. It seems to work best when we just throw simple ideas between ourselves. That process of throwing them backwards and forwards becomes the process of how they grow into songs. We try to let that be as open-ended as possible and not really have too many rules apart from that. Aside from the fact that we bring these simple ideas of grains together. We like to have it be very open-ended in terms of how the songs end up.
MM: How much of the sounds that we hear with your music is programmed and how much consists of live instruments?
LR: Again, it’s a real mixture. A lot of it was programmed and I guess that’s our writing process really. We work mostly with programmed music. We found that it really didn’t work if I start writing on an acoustic guitar or whatever. It then becomes a Lou song rather than a Lamb song. The kind of the interplay between the voice and technology is the roots of what makes Lamb what it is. So, that tends to be our starting point. And there’s also so many opportunities with technology. You can kind of have an open-ended experiment, you know? Just do weird stuff. I think that’s very much the case with The Secret of Letting Go. We were just experimenting with new synths that he had. It didn’t even have a time signature or a regular speed. It’s quite hard to get a musician to play that. But then, of course, there’s a bunch of musicians that we play with when we play live. We bring them [in] at stages of the process. And a lot of the time it’s the icing on the cake, but there are times when their input does kind of turn things around as well. On the song “One Hand Clapping” we’ve got John, our bass player, to come in and try these kinds of higher chords on the bass as the intro on the track and it just really changed the vibe around and brought new life to the song. So, there’s always the openness for something like that to happen.
MM: How do you keep track of your ideas if you’re out doing shopping or something and an idea comes to you. Do you write them down or sing into your phone, for example?
LR: Yeah, singing into phones. I’ve got a whole load of ideas on my phone. It’s full of stuff. I’m sure if anybody found my phone they’d find it very amusing. All these kind of half built up ideas sang into it. That’s the joy of the smart phone I guess.
MM: When you get ideas do you know immediately if they’re for Lamb or solo albums or do you figure that out later?
LR: It’s more of figuring it out as it goes along. What I’ll tend to do is I’ll sing an idea into my phone and then leave it and come back to it and you get a new perspective when you come back to an idea. And then it becomes a big clearer when you let it be for a little while then you come back. And, also, Andy is quite prolific in the number of ideas that he churns out. I guess that’s the joy of technology. You can kind of experiment in a very open-ended way. He will quite often send me a whole number of seeds of ideas and then I will tell him which ones trigger something for me and which ones won’t. And he’ll often go off and use the other ones for other projects. And then we’ll continue working on the ones that kind of trigger something for me. So, it’s a natural filtration process.
MM: How often would you say you get writer’s block and what do you do to defeat it?
LR: A lot. I think, yeah, I get it a lot. I get it I guess more than I used to. As the years go by and you’ve written a whole load of songs, you start to think, have I got anything new to say? And that can be quite challenging. I guess the way that I for one deal with it is just to try to get out of my own mind really. Either through meditation or I’ll go for a walk. Just anything that will shift your perspective because human beings are terrible in that we let self-doubt block us in a whole number of ways. Our through processes get in the way. The more we can swerve those thought processes, the more we can allow ourselves to be creative again. If you really think about it, there are a myriad of ways we can be creative. We just have to let ourselves find them again.
MM: Did you know you were going to make the video in India at the time you wrote the song “Moonshine”?
LR: No, not at all. We didn’t. The video for “Armageddon Waits” before that was a total last minute thing because we commissioned a video for “Armageddon Waits” and it came back and it was not right. It didn’t represent the song. So often you can have creative conversations with people but quite often there’s a black hole in the middle, or a black box where all these creative ideas go in, and you hope it will come out in the way you both thought you’d discussed but it doesn’t. We got the video back and it just wasn’t right. We thought, oh, shit, what do we do now? So, we just put out the song without a video. And I was in the middle of doing a training in Goa. It was like a 12 day training. I was like, why does this have to happen now in the middle of all this? We didn’t have an awful lot of a budget and obviously we’d blown our budget already on the video that didn’t work out. And then one day I was riding back from my training and I was on my scooter in India and every day when I rode my scooter out there I just got this sense of freedom and joy and just kind of watched the crazy things that happened around me and laughed. And I suddenly thought, we’re missing a trick here if we don’t make a video because “Armageddon Waits” is about just throwing caution to the wind and just going for it. And the freedom of riding a bike in India with absolutely no protective clothing or helmet – it’s probably pretty stupid in many ways, but it’s also just such a buzz that you get out of doing it. I guess part of the buzz is the potential danger in it as well and it’s what the song “Armageddon Waits” is about. Wanting to be with someone even though it could potentially be a quite mind-blowing event. So, we just kind of made that video. I had one day off in the middle of my training and we just made the video in one day. The filmmaker edited it in 24 hours. It was basically 48 hours of work. It’s kind of an example of how things flow out there. I think when you’ve got a whole bunch of creative people in one place it’s like, yeah, we can do that. We can find people to do hair, make up, clothes and everything all within a few square miles. So we decided to also do the video for “Moonshine” and found this amazing location which could be anywhere in the world, I guess. It’s pretty tropical-looking; it could be a whole lot of other places than India but it’s just so beautiful. And it fit the idea of the song in the way that the moon shines very differently out there because it lies on its back.
MM: I didn’t know that until I read the quote in your press release about it lying on its back.
LR: Yeah, it’s so funny when it hits you. You’re out there and you look up at the sky and you’re like, oh, shit! [Laughs] It’s lying on its back and sort of on its head. And that became a good symbol for new beginnings and stuff.
MM: Were you at all nervous when you were riding the motorcycle in the video and you’re kind of waving your arms around and dancing in your seat?
LR: Not really, no. I was used to that. Not that I was waving my arms around all the time. I mean, when I first went out there several years ago I didn’t even want to get on a bike at all. I’d always had a big fear of riding motorbikes. Especially if somebody else is driving because I didn’t trust that they’d ride carefully, but over the years I guess I’ve really grown to love it. It’s that kind of surrender to something that is potentially quite dangerous but the freedom of it is just so incredible. There were a couple moments in making the video when I was, like you said, kind of waving my arms around where I got carried away but we were actually riding quite slowly in the video. There’s quite a few takes where we’re riding quite slowly and we speeded that up so it was a lot safer in that sense.
MM: The percussion and the vocals in “Armageddon Waits” are pretty upbeat, but then the strings sound like they could have been from a 1960s horror movie. Were they sampled from anything or did you create that with live instruments?
LR: It’s a combination. Basically, Andy wrote a lot of that track, the basis of that track, in India. It definitely has a kind of Eastern feel in the strings in it. It was one of the most challenging songs to write lyrically because I tried to get something that worked with that feel that didn’t fall into that cliché where western people kind of use eastern music. And so, yeah, a lot of the strings are sampled, but I’m kind of cautious to give away where they’re from. But they’re really beautifully recorded and are very, very convincingly live. They’re really well recorded sampled strings. But then what we tend to do is often get our string players to track to those strings to get a live element as well. We’ve got our bass player, John Thorn, and a wonderful musician called Quinto, who plays violin and viola. So, we get them to track to those programmed strings and then it gives a more three dimensional feel to it.
MM: On “Phosphorous” you sing, “So much to say, I’m lost for words.” Is that how you felt when you started writing the album?
LR: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why it’s the opening track. It felt like it was a very good opening for the album. I guess I was really at a turning point in my life. I came out of a seven year relationship and then went out to Goa. And I was just questioning so much about what it meant to be in a relationship and out of relationship and where my heart was at and all of that. And then I guess I started to feel a glimmer of love in my heart again and that’s the subject matter of quite a lot of the album, really. That’s the theme. It’s quite literally having so much to say that you don’t know where to start. It’s kind of crazy. I’m a songwriter so I should have a real good access to language but it feels like when it really, really matters it’s very difficult to find the words.
MM: I write books so I know what you mean.
LR: What kind of books?
MM: Novels, but I’ve written a memoir that’s yet to be published.
LR: What’s your writing name?
MM: Michael Beaulieu. B-e-a-u-l-i-e-u. It’s French. It means beautiful place.
LR: Beaulieu, yeah. Funnily enough, I went out to Goa with the idea that I’d started writing what I’d hoped would become a novel and I got to the stage where I wrote about 25,000 words of it and then ended this training and I haven’t written anything since. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again at some stage.
MM: You’re doing things independently now, which gives you a lot more creative freedom but entails a lot more work. So, would you ever consider looking for another label deal?
LR: Well, we do have a label, actually. We’ve got an independent label deal with Cooking Vinyl for this record. We self-released the last two albums and although that gave us huge amounts of creative freedom, we found that it was so labor-intensive to put out the records ourselves. Even a year after putting it out there were still people who hadn’t heard of it because we didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that you would get with a label. So, there were definitely pluses and minuses to that process. So, we decided that this time around we wanted to partner up with a label and had conversations with a few different independent labels and decided that Cooking Vinyl had a really good approach. They don’t take too much control, but they give us a lot of support. That’s the ideal scenario, really. They’re also very creative in the way that they constantly think outside the box, which you kind of have to do with the way that the industry is changing. So far, it’s looking like it’s quite a good working relationship.
MM: Sweet. Now, the last couple of albums have been released in deluxe editions with a whole disc of bonus tracks. Will there be such an edition of The Secret of Letting Go?
LR: There probably won’t be a disc of bonus tracks, but we do have some extra tracks from the writing process. I’m not sure. At the moment, we’re just focusing on, obviously, a CD, which is becoming an out-dated format, and then we’re doing a very lovely, heavy weight, audiophile vinyl, which seems to be the way to go these days. It’s great how vinyl has completely had a new lease of life. It’s a lovely format. On all levels, I think it’s more satisfying to put out vinyl as an artist. It’s almost taking over from CDs again.
MM: I have a feeling that before long CDs will start to make a resurgence because they’ll become this nostalgic thing and all of a sudden people will be curious.
LR: Like cassettes. I think we’re actually releasing a cassette. I know I had to locate some artwork. I have to double-check on that. But that would be funny, you know? I have two sons who are 17 and 21 and they got really into cassettes because they thought they were just really cool. And they both buy vinyl. They’re very much into the old school.
MM: I know you’re doing a one-off show in London at EartH on April 29th to debut the new album live. Would I be right to assume it’s sold out already?
LR: I think it’s pretty close. I think the idea behind that was to do a really small, intimate show and sell it out quickly and just preview the album in a limited release kind of way. And, obviously, we’d like to do this all over the world, but at the moment it’s the very early days. And then we’ll do probably just a few festivals during the summer. But, obviously, because the album’s only just out, there have not been any reviews or anything like that. It’s gonna be a slow building for us. We’re doing a UK and Europe tour in the fall and then, hopefully, come over to the States. It’s looking like early next year we’ll come to the States. We’re really looking forward to that because it’s been a really long time since we’ve played over there.
MM: You didn’t come to the States on the tours for the last two albums, right?
LR: No, we couldn’t afford it. [Laughs] It’s getting more and more difficult with the visa situation. I know a lot of U.S. musicians are finding it difficult this way around as well to come to the UK. But, yeah, we really want to do this so I’m gonna trust that it’s gonna happen.
MM: What countries would you say you’re the most popular in?
LR: It’s hard to say. I guess, well, we’ve got a big history with Portugal because we had a number one hit there with our song “Gabriel,” but obviously that’s quite a few years back. We’ve got a very strong following in Belgium. The phrase big in Belgium is definitely true of us. And in Holland and that part of the world. It’s hard to say. We’ve got a strong following in Australia as well and we’re hoping to get out there this winter. It’s kind of a long way and there’s limited cities you can play in, having traveled all that way. Historically, we had a good following in the Bay area in the States and in New York, but we didn’t spend enough time touring there to really, really make an impact on the country as a whole. And that’s a country where you’ve got to spend serious time out there. At the time, I had young children and it was difficult to spend a long time away.
MM: Do you find that you’re more popular now than you were during the first half of your career or is it about the same? It seems like I hear about you perhaps more now, but that could be more so because it’s the age of the internet and everything’s on Spotify and everywhere else.
LR: Yeah, that could be the case. I mean, I’d like to think that our popularity has grown. I’ve certainly noticed that when we play shows it’s an ever-changing audience. The great thing is that we’ve got a strong core of fans that show up a lot at our gigs, but then we’ll see young people who are obviously new fans come along and, you know, we’ve always made a point of moving forward and not staying the same. The people still try to throw this trip-hop categorization at us but it never really stuck back then and it certainly doesn’t stick now. Some people stayed in that genre and didn’t really move away from it, but for us we like to constantly reinvent ourselves musically. So, one reason we continue to appeal to new people is that we continue to move forward. It is a whole different world than when we started out, obviously, because we started out before the internet. So, it’s a whole different experience of getting our music out there.
MM: With a lot of artists who debuted when you did, a lot of times I’ll go see them live and 90 percent of the set will consist of songs from the first few albums. Kind of basically being a nostalgia trip with a few new songs thrown in. Are your sets similar to that or do you focus on the new material?
LR: A real mixture, really. Over the years, the set obviously evolves. So, the new material comes in. And, for us, it’s much more exciting to play our new stuff because it’s fresh for us. But at the same time the audiences want to hear the old favorites. So, you just do a kind of mixture of both. And it’s funny, certain songs have their day. We play them for a while and then you find yourself playing them and you’re like, this isn’t really working anymore. You just don’t get that tingle feeling from it that you might have gotten in the past. We like to keep sort of rethinking the set and bringing new stuff in and leaving old stuff behind, you know? And you’ll always get people who are your longtime followers who go, why don’t you do such and such anymore? You’ve just gotta let yourself be free with that. We’ve gotta get a buzz out of what we’re doing because then that translates to the audience. But, still, there are certain tracks like “Górecki” and “Gabriel” that we could probably never leave out of the set. Literally, they’re the kind of songs that constantly reinvent themselves and take on new meanings and continue to make a powerful connection with the audience.
MM: You’re the author of two children’s books, which are based on a character you created called the Phlunk. I know he’s a cat-like alien creature and he lives on a spoon-shaped planet but what’s the actual plot to the books. What does the Phlunk do?
LR: He’s basically a character who lives in outer space but he can hear everything children say and do and so it was kind of written by chance years ago when my kids were small. I made it up for them. It was based on a poem. The first book is based on a poem that I made up for them. Because they always – small children – they always want you to look and see what they’re doing. Like, look, look! And often adults are too busy or they’re tired of looking at what they’re doing, you know? [Both laugh] I liked this idea of a character who’s always looking and listening and you knew was there even if mom and dad were too busy. The Phlunk would still be there watching and listening. And that was the idea of the first book. And then the second one is called The Phlunk’s Worldwide Symphony and it’s about a symphony of all the sounds that children are making all over the world that the Phlunk is hearing all together and it becomes this magical symphony.
LR: I never meant to be a children’s author and there’s only those two books. The first one happened by chance. I rediscovered it in a drawer in my house and I thought, maybe I should make a book out of this. Then I wrote the second book, but, as I said, I’ve got real yearnings to write literary fiction for adults as opposed to children. So, I’m hoping that that’s my next step, really.
MM: Are you currently binge-watching anything?
LR: Mmm… Well, no. Funnily enough, as I said, I became single again a year ago and my binge-watch as a single girl was to watch the whole of Friends because I’d never watched it at the time that it came out. And it was one of those guilty pleasures because it’s kind of tacky. I would get into bed and laugh out loud at Friends. So, that was my binge-watch. I’m kind of struggling to find the next thing, really, because most of the things that are out there are kind of a bit too scary to watch late at night. I started watching the thing about the guy who makes crack – the science teacher who makes crack.
MM: Breaking Bad?
LR: Breaking Bad! I started watching that and then I realized it didn’t help to give me a good night’s sleep so I had to stop watching that. So, yeah, I’m kind of looking for something as gentle as friends but probably a little less tacky. But otherwise I just read books.
MM: If you have Netflix, there’s a comedy on there called The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and that one’s very funny and it’s kind of trendy.
LR: The Unbreakable who?
MM: Kimmy Schmidt.
LR: Kimmy as in K-i-m.
MM: Yup, K-i-m-m-y. But Schmidt I think is S-c-h-m-i-d-t. It’s very funny. So, what’s the worst day job you’ve ever had?
LR: Gosh. Oh, working for British Telecom, which used to be the British telephone company when it used to be a nationalized company. I did that when I was a student. And I did it in the summer. I worked in the complaints department and I developed an absolute fear of answering the telephone because I would spend the day answering to all these complaints and people giving me a hard time. So, even when I went home I didn’t want to talk on the phone because I associated it with difficult people on the other end. That’s probably about the worst.
MM: Who are your favorite lyricists?
LR: I think Sufjan Stevens is probably one. I love the very literal way he writes. I know he initially went to study creative writing at university and then broke into songwriting and so many of his songs are like short stories. Like “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” and stuff like that. They’re just so beautiful and dark at the same time. And I’m quite in awe of his lyric writing. And Elliot Smith as well, who lyrically, again, the way Elliot Smith would write these super dark lyrics and the music was kind of jolly. It would take a few listens before you realized how dark the message was in the songs. And it was quite devious the way he put them together, logically as well as lyrically. And Father John Misty as well. When I get to sit down and listen to his lyrics they’re so clever.
MM: Yeah, they’re very witty.
LR: They’re very witty. There’s a songwriter I’m trying to think of the name of. There’s a song with a line that goes “you could take what I know about you and drown it in a sink” and it’s such a wonderful line. [Editor’s note: I Googled the lyric and it’s actually Father John Misty.]
MM: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead and they’d be happy to be back, who would you bring back and why?
LR: Definitely Elliot Smith. Yeah. And also Nick Drake. I think both of those two never really realized how much they were loved. I know they both struggled with playing live. Especially Nick Drake because of all the alternative tunings that he used. He was always retuning and having people heckle him and stuff like that. I think the thing about singer-songwriters is how fragile they are and that’s why they write such amazing songs. And I guess outside of Lamb I would definitely associate myself with that genre. I identify a lot with those people’s difficulty on stage. With Lamb I step into a bigger machine so I almost become a sort of alter ego, but when you’re sitting there with an acoustic guitar, you can’t be anything but yourself and that’s quite a vulnerable place to be.
MM: Is that how you feel when you do your solo stuff?
LR: Very much, yeah. I mean, I love it. I’ve learned over the years that the vulnerability is all part of it. It’s kind of scary as well. And it depends how supportive your audience is. It’s a very thin line when you’re up there on your own. When I think about people like Elliot Smith and Nick Drake and how fragile they were, it’s kind of sad, like I said, the effect of their music on people. And I guess a lot of that impact happened after they died. I’d love it if they could really know that.
MM: Finally, if someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to the same charity or cause, which would you give it to?
LR: Wow, that’s a big question. Damn. I don’t know. I think right now it would have to be a refugee charity. Especially one that helps children in those situations because we’re in such a crazy time. You look at so many people being forced out of their countries because of terrible war and how communities are being devastated. And nobody wants to take them. It’s showing no sign of abating. It seems like it gets more and more intense. And certainly in the west, it’s more and more xenophobia and more and more barriers being closed. I think there’s a definite need for resources to be put into helping them. Imagine having nowhere to go. And having everything that you’ve ever known destroyed. That’s tough, yeah.
The Secret of Letting Go will be released on April 26th, 2019 via Cooking Vinyl.
Special thanks to Lou for taking the time to speak with us and to Rey Roldan for setting it up!
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