Now based in Berlin, Irish-born Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell have been pushing their incendiary twist on techno, hardcore and industrial as Lakker since their striking 2007 debut, Ruido. In more recent years they’ve been on a winning streak, dropping an abundance of quality records for Blueprint, Stroboscopic Artefacts and one of electronic music’s most cherished institutions in R&S.
After a two year break from the pair focusing on their solo projects, Arad and Eomac, they now return to the Belgian label as Lakker for their new 10-track album, Época. A record that sees them dive into their interests of ambient and natural sounds and utilize their voices for the first time, we sat down with the pair to reflect on the journey that led to the creation of Época.
How did you start making the album? Was there a concept behind it or did the sound just flow?
Ian: We got back in the studio after the Eris Harmonia EP on Eotrax with the intention of making an album, so there were discussions then about what that would be. We had various ideas. We had a loose concept initially, but in the end we decided, since we had been on a bit of a hiatus, that we should let it flow. For a while anyway, and see what we were both into.
Dara: Yeah sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in the industry side of music that you end up writing to deadlines and it’s easy to start to think ‘what label will this be on and will it work on the dance floor’ and lots of other thought that can get in the way of just wanting to write music for enjoyment.
I: So we had a period of experimentation, no rules or guidelines, just writing whatever we felt and seeing what came out. Influences and themes started to appear – influences from our solo projects like the use of vocals and polyrhythms, and other music that we were listening to. We liked what we were making so continued in this vein until we had a cohesive set of tracks that made sense as an album.
D: We’re lucky with R&S that they never put any restriction on our sound or asked of it to be more dancefloor or anything like that …
I: And all of it was made in the studio together this time. It was nice to get away from a concept as such, as on our last LP Struggle & Emerge, but there are still themes running through the album, like strands or veins – patterns in nature, place and time, world events and how we deal with them.
Época sounds more abstract than previous releases. How much of a step away from the old is this new release?
I: It’s funny how you see your own music versus how others see it. For me this record was more accessible and melodic, but a few other people have said that it’s more abstract, noisy, dense! In reflection I think it’s actually both. We wanted to push in all directions, so the melodic parts we wanted to be more melodic, and the noisy parts we wanted to be noisier. We wanted to try new things but it’s not a step away from previous material, more like a natural progression – in our minds at least.
D: I think the only concept we both stick to is a joy in researching new and weird types of music and this helps us to keep excited. Whether it’s through good friends of ours who recommend new music, personal research for both our radio shows, the constant immersion in strange and wonderful music keeps us constantly trying to challenge ourselves . Not just in a technical way but also emotionally and personally.
I: We’ve always wanted to try new things with each release, but even more so we try to be honest about where we are as musicians, and what we’re into. If we had felt like making another Tundra or Struggle & Emerge, we would have. But we didn’t, we wanted to try something new again. In that sense, it was a similar mindset to usual.
Do you put a lot of time into the individual sounds when you produce, or is it more instinctive?
I: Yes, we spend a lot of time making sounds, Dara especially.
D: Yeah I love making new and weird sounds, and if I have even a few minutes to spare I’ll try and get a sound I had in my head out, by creating sounds and tinkering around with synths and samplers. I love the space between organic and synthesized sounds – making sounds which can convincingly move between to two. I really enjoy playing with physical modelling . There are lots of great free VSTs that do some really weird stuff. But also
recently I’ve been using Reaktor blocks, and there are some great physical modeling components there that can be used in a more modular way.
I: For us sound making and track beginnings often go hand in hand as well. We’ll record or synthesise something and that will spark ideas for a track, or we’ll play with them immediately and see where we can take them. We realised really early on in this project that sound design was a huge part of it. We would get frustrated listening to other tracks (sometimes!) where the sounds were beautiful in one part of the mix but then it was let down
in another part – amazing synth lines for example let down by a weak kick / snare, or vice versa. So we try to make every part of our tracks sonically interesting, with each part complimenting the other. Whether that’s dense and textured sound design, or more refined sculpting – whatever makes sense for that particular track in relation to the sounds around it.
D: I think when you work on making your sounds great they just naturally inspire you to write something that’s worthy of that sound. I love the transportation into different imagined realities that good sound design can bring. Somebody like F.I.S for example can transport you to across several other worlds in a heartbeat with sound . And someone like Burial can create such a powerful rainy misty visual world.
Why the field recordings of Dublin? Do you feel like it has a significance in the current climate?
I: For me it was more about people and atmosphere than place, in particular. Some of the recordings are of friends playing an instrument or ambient noise from family gatherings. A sense of the personal but in an abstracted fashion so as to not be invasive. How do you use very personal material while keeping a sense of respect for the private and the sacred? Still something I’m trying to figure out. Maybe using such localised samples does have a significance in the current climate, maybe in the very choice to use such samples there is an inherent desire to connect with a homeland when it is under threat in a way. But it wasn’t a conscious thing – for me anyway. I wasn’t consciously trying to say anything about Brexit or
reflect anything in particular about Dublin or Ireland. It was more a sense of atmosphere and of the personal. Maybe it was different for you, Dara?
D: Same for me. I’m always recording stuff on my phone. I love the quality of these sounds. When you record for example a piano and just play some chords and notes there’s noise and ambient and conversation in the background. Then when you break it up into pieces you can use EQ to magnify or delete these different layers. So for me it’s more about obsessive recording of new atmospheres and sound palettes, and these can become like abstracted sound maps of your life.
Is this album trying to comment on the state of the world or just reflect it?
I: Reflect it, for the most part. There were no conscious attempts to comment on anything that’s happening right now, apart from the vocal tracks. Dara wrote the lyrics so he would be better to talk about them – they do comment on various aspects of culture right now, but in an indirect and abstract way.
D: Even though I wrote the lyrics they are still informed by conversations that we’ve had together. Obviously we’ve been mates for years and spend lots of time together on the road, so we end up talking about all sorts of crazy stuff that inform some of the lyrics. Generally I have a visual image in my head anyway – something that just jumps out of me and the stories evolve form there. With the track ‘Shoulder to the Bat’ I kept having this image of an animal being called to sea, and also a vision of a flock of birds with one of them breaking off and then the others following it. I started to look at ways the ways in which we organise ourselves in society and its parallels to herd dynamic and flocking, how sometime all it takes is a small number of people to change the course of history, in both positive and negative ways. Personally it took me a while to find a style of writing that felt like I was being honest without being preachy, so I see the lyrics more as abstract vignettes into imaginary visual images, that come from observation of real life.
I: Maybe personal response is a more accurate description than reflection – a response to the events that were happening as we were making the album. Varying from anger, sadness, escapist, joyful, despondent, numb…
How do you both affect each others’ creativity? Is it easy going or are there sometimes issues?
I: Most of the time it’s fairly easy going! We’ve been doing this a long time – over 20 years making music together and about 16 of those as Lakker. So we know each other pretty well, what we do and don’t like, our strengths and weaknesses. Of course there are moments when we disagree, but we’re quick to move on from those. It’s pretty democratic, we allow all ideas to be explored and if something is not working we can take it to one of our solo projects. We have a clear idea of what is and isn’t Lakker. Even if that’s hard to define in words we know it sonically and it’s quite clear in the studio when something isn’t right for this project.
Did you ever have conflicting opinions about how the project should sound?
I: We used to, but now we are a lot more clear about what Lakker is. Having solo projects really helps that. It really frees up a lot of energy and focuses the project a lot more.
D: Yeah I think we both understand the point of doing a collaboration is to work together in an enjoyable way. If one of us has something we really want to do and the other isn’t feeling it then we just work on it in our solo projects. Our main argument is whose responsibility it is to bring biscuits to the studio sessions.
What was the hardest part of putting this together?
I: There was nothing hard about this one! Struggle is often romanticised in art and things given more value when there is hardship, but I don’t think it’s necessary or true. This was a fun and thoroughly enjoyable music making experience. Even if the world events going on around us are dire and some of the themes reflected are difficult, the actual process of making Época was a joy.
D: Yeah me too. Sometimes I’m my most happy when I’m writing super heavy music, like the track ‘Discourage it All’. While writing that track we had so much fun. Letting the monitors rip a bit too loud and constantly trying to ramp up the intensity. It’s so much full to write heavy noise music.
Do you think you’ll need another hiatus?
I: No, definitely not! We’re back and hungry again. We’re already planning the next releases and working on loads of new tracks. We have a new AV live show and a few other special projects in the works.
D: The hiatus was necessary at the time but now we’re refreshed and ready to make sounds for another fifteen years.
Época is out now on R&S Records.
Buy it here.