January 26th, 2010 | Interviews

charles mallison

Singer/songwriter/filmmaker/etceterator Emily Lacy is currently crashing the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA and creating “Temples of the Mind,” a loop-heavy soundscape that feels like Linda Perhacs broadcasting over a secret shortwave station. She speaks now about shape-shifting, pedals and the origin of “Temples.” This interview by Drew Denny.

When did the idea for ‘Temples’ come to you? Did you build it from the ground? Receive it from the sky? Wake with it from a dream?
Emily Lacy: I was seated on the perimeter of the Pavilion for Japanese Art and felt like I was looking down into a canyon. I felt I was inside a giant mind. I thought of the brain inside my head and then I saw an infinite matrix of brains echoing in all directions. It was a very specific sequence: the big brain of the building, my little brain, and then the mega-matrix of infinite brains. On a deeper level, it’s coming from thinking about Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and interesting myself in a musical experience that is not afraid to embody mythology. I liked the title because it made me picture a Led Zeppelin T-shirt.
How did you determine the set up for ‘Temples’?
Emily Lacy: I felt like I was casting parts in a film and a lot of stuff had to be painted or altered before I could use it. I scoured used-instrument shops, pawn shops, regular music shops and the internet… I found it interesting the complete lack of females in the business of selling musical equipment. I was seriously in the ‘dude onslaught’ throughout the whole process—when you don’t want to even feel your gender but you are required to because it’s just so clear that it’s a marketplace completely occupied by men. On the first day I went out to buy stuff, I actually had a really bad experience with a salesman who was showing me a guitar and he—in a sort of textbook way—violated my space when he handed me the guitar. Let’s just say he didn’t even hand it to me. He—in a gross way—insisted on placing it on my body and it was disgusting. It was such an amazing example of someone thinking they can touch you simply because you are a woman.
Unfortunately I can identify. Wholeheartedly. Could you explain the process—level by level—of creating your sounds in the Pavilion?
Emily Lacy: I find myself drawn to mathematical models. So let’s say you start at zero, which means there is no sound. No signal going into any of the pedals. You start with nothing at all. Right now I have five different decks in the Pavilion that can generate music. Within those five levels there are nine mechanisms that can create loops or information cycles within the network. That just means within the five spaces there are nine different things that can literally make a signal without you physically remaining afterward. These things range from delay pedals to loop stations to small computers to an actual physical tape loop created by two reel-to-reel tape machines, which runs across and actually connects two of the decks together. So these are the shapes of the tools in the equation. They help structure the possibility of the music. I begin by creating a sound and then making a decision at a certain point in time to begin recording that sound. Then I can walk away and repeat the process at another station and choose to interact with the previous sound in whatever way I see fit. I look at it as cycles of information, and constantly creating or destroying them through improvisation in the space. The most exciting thing to me is that nothing is saved—everything is constantly generated anew within each device at every point in the system. It’s incredibly liberating to make music in a circle where no one position is privileged as the centerpiece of the sound. At any point in the game, one thing could be more prominent than the other, or they could all be equal. Also, it’s just so freeing to make a sound and then walk away while the material continues to play back without you. Certain games I play with myself are about desire and restraint: How long can I wait before the compulsion to loop overtakes me? How long can I stay at the drum station before moving on? How quickly can I fall in love with a loop and then kill it? Also, I should say my ideas about loops and echoes are different than what the dominant interpretation of the materials might be—I use these things as aids to some kind of strange improvisational chanting or trance. As a way to get outside of time and to deviate from the dominant temporality. My main understanding is that most people use looper pedals to save parts to songs they’ve already written. I use them to write something beyond myself, and a way to feel connected to other dimensions of potential.
What drew you to the Japanese Pavilion?
Emily Lacy: I was drawn to the space because of the multiplicity of the levels and its total circularity. The relationship of the collection inside—as it dealt with themes of meditation, consciousness, nature, temporality and thought-experiments—were very heavy and entered me completely. The stories of monks, sages, mystics, hermits … these are all things that are important to me to begin with, and the work inside the Pavilion felt like a way for me to explore that content in my own practice. There’s a Pink Floyd film where they play an entire concert in the ruins at Pompeii to no audience—just themselves in the architecture and remains of something long past… They were able to bring their energy into the space and channel a power which bridged gaps across time. I thought if I shacked myself in there for hours at a time and made a whole album on-site, I would begin to feel that way—that I was conducting a music which bridged periods of time and circumstance with artistic evolution.
What is your relationship to the LACMA employees?
Emily Lacy: To my knowledge, LACMA hasn’t ever had an Artist-in-Residence before. In my first few weeks of installing and performing, I felt much more connected to security guards and electricians than I ever knew I would. Those are the faces I am seeing and interacting with the most. I feel like a cross between a maintenance worker and a shaman. The Pavilion is very quiet and what I am doing is peculiar and somewhat unprecedented, so it’s bizarre to feel that no one really minds or cares or notices on the day-to-day level. The environment isn’t ignoring me, but maybe it’s just not phased. Or it has adjusted. I feel like I am slowly cracking open a mountain, but with just a couple small tools.
What about the robes?
Emily Lacy: The robes came to me in a mysterious vision, which I love. I was in Oregon and an image appeared that transfixed me… A seated figure on a beach, back to the camera, fully cloaked in the black and white zigzag robe with a red electric guitar strapped on the back. I immediately drew a picture and started laughing. I couldn’t believe how mischievous it appeared! Originally it was just this deviant image—but just as it used to happen in my paintings, one element appears outside the pattern and then just takes over because the seduction is just too intense. I realized it could serve a great purpose by allowing me to completely check out of the visual field while playing. Where I could play but not be looked at—or not be aware of people looking at me—and I could become genderless… Don’t get me wrong—I like that people can read me as a ragged 30-year-old female folksinger, but I also love that I can shapeshift out of that reading—and all its associated baggage—whenever I want. The most powerful effect of the robe is that it’s making its own mythology. It’s giving life to some deeply perched energy which is still being unearthed from the mind: sage, monk, musician, nagual … I like to think of the people or the energy under the robes as ‘Carrier Spirits’ to a place outside of time. They can grant us access.
Have you ever tripped on those robes?
Emily Lacy: I have tripped, but I have not yet fallen. I also ‘tripped’ in the sense that during one performance that was filmed I had a hard time ‘coming out’ of the robe. I was disoriented and had a hard time speaking for a bit afterwards. I think I just went to such a far-off place in my mind—really trying to ascend to a space that was beyond me—that then to come out of the trance for another take or small-talk was really jarring. I think I even said, ‘I need to step away from the robe.’ It’s hard to come out of the trance and step so easily back into regular life. I have had fears or visions in the robe of the worst possible thing happening, which in my opinion would be someone appropriating the energy and imagery of my work into something violent.
Where do you think those fears originate?
Emily Lacy: I think that fear comes from my own fear of America and its truly terrifying patterns of modern violence, combined with my own worst fears about audience. My background is really in cinema theory and that informs a lot of the way I perceive things. So those issues I’m sure are lurking in the dark theater of my mind somewhere. It’s likely that mixed with my own worst fears about the robe’s mythology. Let me just say that I got a certain feeling when I would hold a Castaneda book in my hands last spring—The Power of Silence—and it was a feeling of nervous excitement and fear, a sense of ‘Now be careful—you’ve got something powerful in your hands.’ I felt that way about the robe when it first existed: ‘Be careful—this is a strong image you’ve got here.’
Who are your ‘Temples’ collaborators?
Emily Lacy: Ezra Buchla has been performing music and helping me conceive of the greater technological and relativistic environment, and Laura Steenberge doing great work with light. Behind the scenes—as in a film environment—tons of people have helped me with everything from studio time to the production of costumes, cabins, lanterns, images or idea-meetings. I consider all those points in the chain as sites of collaboration. Working with Ezra has been amazing because he is just wired differently than most humans—we’re both interested in some form of musical physics at work in the system we’ve created, that of sound generation and degradation across a whole network of information and echoes. Working with Laura creates a strong sense of the laboratory—we’re working with very primal elements and on the brink of unleashing something I don’t quite understand yet. Machine has influenced me to look at artistic experience as a series of potentials, or as an experience where the simultaneity of things can be a strong function of their appeal- I feel I am truly going on a journey through Consciousness—no joke!—with the people who work on this. We’re all losing our minds together in some strange radiant bliss.
How’s the album coming along?
Emily Lacy: The album is a huge challenge to record, which I hadn’t foreseen at all… It’s a lot of information to capture in the recorded form. None of the sources of sound relate back to a mixer of any sort—everything is a stand-alone piece of the equation contributing to or retracting from the whole. What’s great is that such a rich environment has been created that truly feels like a living thing—full of diversity and weird texture-pockets of difference and invisibility. What’s difficult is thinking about how best to make an artifact of this living ecosystem of sounds—how to decide what will live for others to see. In the end, the album may actually be a film that you could either watch or listen to—I’m still not sure.
Tell me about the Hermit’s Cabin!
Emily Lacy: Physically, it’s an actual cabin where I’ll occasionally be performing. It was designed on wheels so that its location could shift from time to time. It acts as a speaker for the music coming from the Pavilion when I am not inside, and is sited on the big public plaza at LACMA. People can’t tell if someone is inside or not, so they will try to peek through the cracks… I still feel like I am breaking it in and negotiating the energy of it. I built it because I think it’s an image that recurs throughout folklore—you meet a spirit or another version of yourself inside a cabin in the woods, and you come away changed… There is a sense of being re-aligned, or maliciously interrupted in some cases. I think it has something to do with our ideas of the woods—of the forest—and a kind of hidden fluidity or elasticity of the Spirit. I wanted to investigate that through performance. So I will be in there, singing for people one to two at a time…
Where were you born? What comes next?
Emily Lacy: I was born on the eleventh day of 1980 in Modesto, California. My parents moved to a house in the woods in Oregon when I was 8 months old. There was a creek. My first memory is of my mom coming toward me with food in our kitchen, likely with eggs. I came to L.A. when I was 18 because I wanted to make movies, and I’d gotten into film school. I keep coming back because I feel an immense comfort from this place. I feel love and community. Also I think there is something about being casual here, which stems from the climate and the culture. You can have rigorous ideas and work very hard, but you can be very casual about it. You can be playful in your endeavor, and you can be friendly to people. There’s the sense and the spirit that you can just open up a storefront for whatever it is that you want to do with it, and maybe even just figure it out along the way. Folk music, punk music, conceptual art, these things are all thriving here. And maybe they’re blending together. I also like making work here because it’s a site of image and sound production for the rest of the world. In terms of theory, you just can’t be more fulfilled than working with Los Angeles as a site or origin for works. I mean, it’s fully loaded and operational. I’m like one little window cleaner inside a giant dream factory!