Artist Interviews

Q&A: House Of Black Lanterns

By | Published on Thursday 9 May 2013

House Of Black Lanterns

Dylan Richards, who has previously released music under the names of King Cannibal and Zilla for labels including Ninja Tune and Warp, last year announced a new project called House Of Black Lanterns.

The new venture sees Richards move further away from the drum n bass and dubstep realms he’s previously inhabited, though he very much retains the distinct dark and foreboding atmosphere which all of his productions are swathed in.

Having recently DJed at Boiler Room and performed his debut live show as HOBL at Fabric, Richards released the debut album from his new project, ‘Kill The Lights’, through new Fabric label Houndstooth, this week.

Ahead of the album release, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Dylan to find out more about the House Of Black Lanterns.

AM: Why did you decide to start House Of Black Lanterns, rather than recording another King Cannibal album?
DR: I was writing material that wasn’t really falling in to the King Cannibal style, whilst the palette of sounds I’m using is similar, it really isn’t the ‘brick in the face’ that the King Cannibal album [‘Let The Night Roar’] was. I was playing that material to a few friends who really liked it and were surprised by it, enough for them to query if it was really viable under the name King Cannibal. I’ve done enough shows as King Cannibal now to take what I feel I needed from it and I was having a difficult time getting people to co-operate with me regarding the second King Cannibal album. Everything was pointing me towards starting something new, and it was important that I followed where my creative inspiration was taking me.

AM: Is King Cannibal still a going concern, or are you retiring that project?
DR: I’m retiring it for now, maybe indefinitely although I’m not sure. The last few things I did as King Cannibal were working with Björk and being asked to write and perform an interpretation of a piece by Witold Lutosławski, I’d rather leave the name to rest on something I’m proud of and it seemed like a good time to do that. It would be nice to be able to pop my head out of the sand now and then for special arts festivals and projects. Either way if it ever did return under that name I don’t think the material would be suitable for the dancefloor.

AM: How did that Björk remix come about, and what sort of involvement or feedback did you get from her?
DR: She picked up one of my old mix CDs, named ‘Grinted Teeth’ and ‘Brawlsville’, years ago and unknown to me was a big fan of it. She was looking for people to contribute to her ‘Biophilia’ album by way of working pieces of original music to set demos. It was a really interesting experience, although I think she was looking for something more aggressive than the creative space I was in at by that point. I’ve learnt that no matter who is asking and however nicely they ask, if you have an idea of what will work that opposes theirs it really is difficult to put that initial spark to one side. I’d rather spend time doing something that excites me.

I was dealing directly with Björk herself and whilst the drums I was working on weren’t really in keeping with the album project she and her team were really happy with where I was taking it and asked if I wanted to pursue my idea fully and remix the track in question. It was certainly a test of sticking to my guns, as it would have been a pretty big fish to let get away, but I’m really happy with the end result and I think it worked out the best for all parties.

I think when Ninja emailed me to say that she wanted to get in touch, I was at work weighing out grass seed at the time to sell to an old lady. I can’t comment on what the other collaborators were doing when they heard.

AM: Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the HOBL sound to be when you started, or did it develop over time?
DR: I was writing solidly for a few years and as both time and the music progressed I decided that I wanted to make something more musical. There are a few albums that are always on reserve when I find myself occasionally walking back home in the early hours of the morning and I wanted this to fit in amongst them. These are usually bittersweet, heavy in atmosphere and often dramatic in tone. I didn’t really make a conscious decision to write house music, I just found dubstep, on which I had existed on the very edge of, had mutated in to something I found deeply uninspiring.

AM: Are there more genres you’d like to explore, either within electronic music or even broader? You performed with the Kronos Quartet last year – would you maybe do something with more of a classical influence?
DR: For sure, why limit yourself by thinking in genre terms and convention? Where is the fun in that? Much like genre movies I really grew up listening to specific genres of music and they have really informed what I’m doing, but the real special moments you write should transcend genres and stand on their own terms to be judged as a piece of music first and foremost. I have always tackled a lot of different genres and taken conventions of one style and placed them in another. If you are sitting down and trying to write a ‘drum and bass album’ or a ‘house album’ it’s really limiting your tools for self expression. If I do tackle more of a classical style it will be rolled in to how I usually do things rather than trying to make a classical piece of music per say.

AM: There are an interesting selection of guest vocalists on the album. How did you choose who to work with? Are there any other people you’d like to collaborate with?
DR: Never really being someone out and about partying or part of a scene, I’ve never really found myself with many connections, so finding the right vocalists is usually a difficult task. I usually have a really strong idea of the type of voice I want to find but lack the ability to find someone who can fulfil that role. This is why there are a few occasions on ‘Kill The Lights’ that I recorded vocals myself. Necessity meant that I had to just have an experiment and learn to fill in the blanks the best I could myself. I’ve always been a sucker for old pitched down Chicago house vocal styles, like Phuture’s ‘Your Only Friend’, so that seemed a good route for someone like me with severe vocal limitations.

‘Pale December’ is something I’d been try to place with vocals for close to three years before I’d thought of approaching Rudi Zygadlo. The song went through different stages, but the initial mood the instrumental put me in really reminded me of a scene in Michael Winterbottom’s ’24 Hour Party People’ where Joy Division are driving home in the rain fresh from a grueling day recording with Martin Hannett and they put the product of a first long session on the play in the car. So I became obsessed with finding someone with a very untrained raw gothic-like voice, which obviously isn’t what I ended up up with. I decided to go with someone who could contrast and bring a lighter, sweeter tone to the song.

There are people I tried to get on the album that I couldn’t get, and there are people and acts I’ve recorded and worked with who are not on the album – I had a great session with The Spokes who laid down some really powerful stuff for me and also vocals from Beans of Anti-Pop Consortium but sometimes the pieces of the jigsaw just don’t seem to fit together, despite everyones best intentions. In many ways the vocalist talent really made this album – my initial writing with Catherine from Alpines initially for a different project was key in really started me off in this different direction and it was hearing Ghettozoid‘s music and meeting her that really gave me the ability to continue pursuing and working on the album.

As for people I’d like to work with, Cannibal Ox are back and performing again, that would be a dream. Johnny Jewel, Thomas Bangalter, dBridge, Bowie, Miss Kittin. Lots of people really. I’m good at lining up ideas of working with people and having chats about sitting down together, but I’m terrible at following it up. I just get really selfish and want to finish what I’m working on at that moment.

AM: Where do you see House Of Black Lanterns going next? Is this a project you plan to develop across a second album?
DR: I’m not completely certain as yet, I think the key is to see where the music takes me and follow that. I’ve got a lot of material which was a little too dancefloor for the album and I’m putting them out with other people, first up being releases on Hypercolour and Appleblim’s Applepips. I did announce I was going to start a label named Shock & Desire, something you published previously, so I guess I need to do that too.

Immediately though the next thing, aside from writing material, is to get a visual show put together for the live performance, and also develop my initial version of the show I debuted at the Fabric recently. I’d really like to work on the ‘live’ aspect of the material, although that can be a difficult nut to crack and that might be something that develops along with album two.

AM: You’re one of the first acts to sign to Fabric’s Houndstooth label. How did the deal come about?
DR: Like a lot of people in the electronic music scene, I’ve been listening to Rob Booth’s ‘Electronic Explorations’ podcast for a long long time, and Rob had been asking me to contribute a mix to the show for an equally long time. After I finally sat down to put something together for the show Rob asked me if I wanted to contribute a track for an ‘EE’ compilation he was putting together. I’m a difficult person to wrestle tracks from, but I’ve a lot of time for the show and Rob has done a lot to push electronic music regardless of style or genre.

Shortly after I turned in that mix, he landed a job A&Ring for Houndstooth. It wasn’t long after I’d parted ways with Ninja and moved over to Germany. I had about three years worth of material that I was going back over and finishing up. It seemed like an obvious choice to mention that I had the raw ingredients for an album and we just started talking, and talking. I’m happy to say that the conversation hasn’t stopped since.

AM: Did the label have much involvement in shaping, or directing the HOBL sound? Or did you come to them with the album pretty much complete?
DR: The raw tunes were there, although some were still in demo form. I think the main input from them was picking though the all the material and finding the strongest tracks and also that they wanted another track along the lines of ‘Truth & Loss’, so I went back and made ‘You, Me, Metropolis’. It was about finessing what was there and making sure it sat right together as an album.

AM: What has the response to HOBL been like so far?
DR: I’m happy to say it’s going well. For a long time it felt like this album was never going to get finished and questioned if I still had the enthusiasm to get it done. I felt like Klaus Kinski in ‘Fitzcarraldo’, slowly unravelling what seemed like an impossible task. It feels good to be able to send new music to people again and feel attached to the music scene rather than seeing it as an abstract. I’m excited that a lot of people I have a great deal of respect for are really interested in the music and have been very supportive of it.

It is great to have Doc Scott, Photek, Om Unit and Breakage supporting the music that is more informed by drum n bass and also get support from artists like Dave Clarke, the Hypercolour guys and Tale Of Us on the house and techno-influenced material. Sometimes if you try to write music that spans genres it can all to easily end up pleasing nobody.

AM: How was the Boiler Room set?
The Boiler Room set was interesting, as due to the large amount of prep work I did sorting the initial version of the live show for Fabric (which was the day after Boiler Room) I didn’t have more than a few hours to think about what I wanted to play. Boiler Room is a unique show to play, because you are in a venue of sorts and streaming live playing in-between other acts simulating a club environment.

The main way people are going to access the mix is after the fact on BR’s website, streaming it on YouTube or downloading it from SoundCloud. So you are in this club-like set up, but when people hear your slot it will be completely detached from that, they won’t hear the other performers before or after you unless they find those mixes and play them in order. With that in mind I just thought I’d play some music I like, not worrying about how it fits in context to what else was happening. I tried to give people a rounded insight as to what HOBL is about as it was the first show I’ve played under that name, so the notoriously ‘difficult’ chat room had to be patient whilst I let the whole ‘Funeral Of Queen Mary/Clockwork Orange’ cover play out.

AM: Electronic music is going through a surge in popularity globally at the moment. How has the industry changed for you since you first got into it?
DR: I remember when EDM was all fields for as far as the eye could see. You could go out for the night see Deadmau5, take an ecstasy trip or two, pick up a copy of the Mixmag ‘Drugs in Ibiza’ special issue for the night bus home and still have change from a shilling. There wasn’t any Twitter so Azealia Banks would send out over 500 hate filled telegrams a day and have a team of town criers on permanent patrol who would shout obscenities at random people. Major labels used steam to power YouTube plays and Facebook likes back then and I remember hearing that the new details of the new Boards Of Canada album would be given to whomever could pull Excaliber from the stone it lay resting in.

AM: Does the popularity of the likes of David Guetta and Deadmau5 have a positive or negative effect for the more underground producers?
DR: For me they serve as a good touchstone for remembering what I don’t like about dance music and big business. I guess electronic music was always a counter culture, and as soon as people try to turn it in to a product targeted at the masses, it really loses any sense of excitement. In Deadmau5’s case that seems to have been replaced by him being very derisive about what music performance is and ‘what he has said next’ more than any music he was written. Those are very negative things, and are very negative things that often drive the wheels of the press machine.

Pop music will always have its place, and it works best when it is at it’s most honest and focused on catchy songs, realises its opinions aren’t the most exciting, and that it isn’t cool.

One thing I do actually worry about is how the underground producers affect things. I started thinking that there are a lot of people making music at the moment who seem perhaps too caught up in writing music which is purely functional, almost mechanical in purpose. Pieces of quantised music identikit music with no heart or soul. I don’t think that this has been something influenced by the EDM of any big names, as they are trying to write a catchy song that makes people dance. Certain areas of the underground scene get caught up in just trying to make people dance, and sometimes forgetting to express themselves.

Whilst I understand the notion that art is what you of make it, this doesn’t seem a very healthy process. For the millions of people now with the resources and ability to put together decently produced music how many albums of any real worth have been written in the last five years? Has there been anything recently that will stand the test of time and will sit next to ‘Leftism’ or ‘Homework’?