Great Lost Bands no.17: Labradford

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I was going to include Labradford in my great lost bands series anyway, but this week they were included in the John Peel Archive. This interview dates from Autumn 1997 and first appeared in Weedbus fanzine, issue 13

Think minimalism. Think ambient. Think atmospheric. If you've never heard Labradford before you would be best advised to think along those lines before you approach them. Of course it's easy to take the piss out of their kind of electronic ambience. Most pop kids will see it as music where nothing happens, but for those of us who were brought up on the likes of Spacemen 3 and Brian Eno, or who aware of current people like Flying Saucer Attack and Codeine for instance, Labradford make perfect sense.

Bizarrely, they're named after a Louisville basketball player, Labradford Smith, an athletic connection which belies their blissed-out music. With so many people making this sort of thing (post-rock is what they're calling it, whatever that means) it's hard for bands to stand out and appear original. Labradford have achieved this from the outset, with their debut 'Prazision' (a low-key mix of guitar and moog), through the more harmonious 'A Stable Reference', which was the first to see them expand to include the bass playing of Robert Donne. Both these albums have served as a blueprint for the magnificent third album 'Labradford', expanding further to bring in strings and even the odd bit of percussion. 'Labradford's ice-cold but endearing collection of tunes and atmospheres was served up to the UK last November, and we managed to get a few words with the aforementioned Robert Donne when the band were in London in February.

Labradford is known for being the brainchild of Carter Brown (synths, organ) and Mark Nelson (guitar, tapes and vocals) How did you link up with them?

"Well Richmond, Virginia, is a fairly small town and I've known Carter and Mark for a long time now - I would say I've known Carter at least ten years, and we've all been in the same circle of friends for a while. After the first Labradford album ('Prazision') came out they just asked me to join and have a go at playing with them, it's as simple as that."

They were a duo and you've come along - do you have a say on songwriting and arrangement?

"From the time I joined you could say that we started again. When I joined they didn't ask me to play any of the early material - it was very much a case of the three of us all writing songs together."

In what way is this third album ('Labradford') a move on from 'A Stable Reference'?

"There's a few new things we've been playing around with - sequencing, percussion and so on. The chains rattling and the scraping sounds on the opening track ('Phantom Channel Crossing') aren't samples though, they're all played live! All those sorts of things were added, and our friend Chris Johnston who is a classical violinist helped out, although he isn't a permanent addition. He doesn't perform live with us, although I do think we want to continue in that direction. Ultimately I think that he could become involved in some of the writing and have him do some string quartet arrangements."

Have you any affinity with modern classical music and minimalism?

"I don't listen to a lot of it. Carter would probably be a little more interested in that. At the same time I do appreciate what I hear."

What do you make of the British music press and their constant labelling of scenes - Labradford are always lumped into 'post-rock' aren't they?

"I'm not quite sure. I understand it to a degree and I see why it's necessary. At the same time you want to say that in general the idea of labelling is distasteful. Hopefully not many bands would start out wanting to belong to a specific genre - we don't sit around and say, "hey, we're a post-rock band!" It seems that over here the music press is much more lucrative and immediate than in America, especially with the two weeklies that come out. You don't get that kind of exposure in America."

Does rock music (in the traditional sense) have any bearing on what you do as a band? Are there any rock bands you think are important now?

"Sure, I suppose! I still like some rock, but I don't hear a lot of it that's really great. I am a big Bad Seeds fan though, particularly the early work. I was in Breadwinner prior to Labradford and that was a more traditional hard rock set up. The others don't have that. Labradford is the first band that Carter has ever been in, he started from scratch with it. He studied organ in college. We read somewhere that Carter went to Bible College and that's not true at all! He studied music for two years at Richmond and organ was his instrument of choice, but it doesn't really go beyond that."

How do you view your contemporaries? For instance last year you issued 'Scenic Recovery' as a split 10" with Stereolab - is it a big deal to get involved with them?

"I suppose there might be a vague association. I don't see a lot of similarities between bands like Stereolab and us really, even between Tortoise and us, but at the same time I really like a lot of that stuff and I think it's good that those bands are getting as big as they are."

A lot of people have said that this new album feels very wintry - from the overall ambience of it, right through to the packaging and cover design, it feels icy and evocative of snowy landscapes.

"Well it was recorded in Spring and mixed in Summer - it was warm and sunny when all that wintry music was taking place! It's not a conscious reaction to summertime even though I think I prefer winter."

Would you also agree that there is a move towards more accessible melodies, like 'Pico' on the new album?

"I think I know what you're saying but from knowing Carter and Mark for a long time I would say that that sort of thing has always been there, even from the first record where it's not at all obvious. Maybe it's more apparent or visible now. I don't know if it's something that will continue or increase, but we're not afraid to pull out a basic pop melody now and then!"

Interview by Jonathan Greer

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