ALTHOUGH their debut album, First Séance, was only released via Rocket Recordings last week, and originally through Forest Swords’ Dense Truth label in May 2020, the duo behind the Land Trance name have developed their musical selves in close proximity and in tandem with each other for more than a decade.
Land Trance are comprised of Benjamin D. Duvall – founder of the acclaimed Ex-Easter Island Head, in which he explored the transfixing percussive ensemble composition style that permeates parts of First Séance – and Andrew P.M. Hunt – embodying songwriting, synthesis and texture as Dialect (with a release for RVNG, Under~Between, out in March) and leader of art rock band Outfit.
As Land Trance, they incorporate electro-acoustic and studio as post-production techniques, using diverse elements like zither, drum machine, music box, dictaphone, synthesiser and melodica amongst other sonic sources. This manifested in pastoral and ruminative aural tapestries that tap into the duo’s personal musical vocabularies, as well as the geographical energies from which the album was recorded: a bedroom overlooking Concert Square, the thumping epicentre of Liverpool nightlife, and pieced together in the home studio they share in a converted embassy.
Here, Benjamin Duvall explains the effect of these locations upon the recording of the album, the cinematic influences on the album’s narrative, the choices that impact the array of instrumentation used, and more:
How did the locations inform the record, through this sense of place that runs through it?
There are two main places where we recorded the material over about a year and a half, here in Liverpool. The first was in a flat overlooking Concert Square which is a very loud, very busy quadrant of bars in the city centre. You’ve got sound systems blasting out of each bar, sub-bass rattling the windows, shouting, laughter, sirens, smashing glass and circling high above it all, hooting seagulls. The flat being on the fifth floor means that you’ve got a birds’ eye view of everything and all of the sound funnelled down the street and bouncing off the buildings. It’s a lot of sonic information, very present, and barely muted by a closed window.
It was in this space that we recorded “Regulate”, “First Séance” and “Transcript”. All of these tracks feel like small-scale, intimate scenes within this surrounding mass of external sound. They offer a different space for listening in the midst of the bustle. On the title track of the record you can hear the hum, thrum and pulse of the night outside the window, flowing under the other sounds like an underground river. These pieces are also marked by the compactness of their means – one microphone for the acoustic sounds, small instruments such as ocarina, Dictaphone, slide-whistle – other stuff that can be brought round in a backpack and not clutter the space in a small bedroom where we recorded.
The second place we recorded is in the house we share together with fifteen of our friends. It’s a pretty big place, built mid-1800s and is the former Brazilian embassy in Liverpool. As such it’s got an old grandeur and physical largeness that seems to suggest certain pieces on the album. It’s where my various odds and ends of musical equipment reside as well as several boxes full of cassette tapes with field recordings, four track experiments etc, so the pieces recorded here have a bit more of an expansive arrangement to them. Things like the inclusion of the bamboo marimba on “Beach Mystery” or the bells and toy piano on “Velarde” are a consequence of working in the embassy rather than in a small flat, and in the range of possibilities that that space suggested.
Was there a channeling of those places, intentional or otherwise, through the record with the tracks written and recorded in those locations?
In the piece “A Raft” there’s a cello loop playing all the way through recorded by Andrew in his flat just as he was moving out. All the furniture and furnishings were gone so the sound and resonance of this familiar place – one we’d recorded in many times – was changed. The sound of the cello not only becomes the rhythmic loop but also a marker of a changed space, of departure. Similarly the piece “Beach Mystery” has a tape recorded on Formby beach over a decade ago, so in addition to the sonic capture of that particular place – the waves, the birds – it’s also capturing snippets of conversation from the friends I was with at the time, marking a layer of personal, private time in the same space. This resonance of memory – whether conjured by a recording and its context or by a particular object or instrument – is something else we’re always drawing on.
With the long history the two of you have had, has this collaboration been a long time coming, and did this history make things a lot easier to work together?
We didn’t plan to begin collaborating directly but having known each closely other for fifteen years sharing practice spaces, band mates, friends, houses and social lives, it now seems inevitable. We’ve been making music as Land Trance for a couple of years but in a sense we’ve been collaborating for much longer in the way that close friends have influence on each other’s tastes and experiences. Our music-making and listening has always been in tandem with each other – nearly always under the same roof whether in a place we’re living together or in a shared rehearsal room – so we’ve each been informed by the others’ practice for a long time before beginning work together. Having the detailed long view of each other’s artistic development is definitely an important part of our working together. There’s so many shared aesthetic reference points accrued over time –amazing gigs we’ve seen together, exhibitions in Liverpool’s galleries, the vibe at a particular party – that it’s allowed us to make by doing, often with little discussion about what we’re making, and have a really good understanding of each other.
How different was this collaboration compared to previous projects?
With my group, Ex-Easter Island Head, our preferred way of making records for the last ten years has been live, with very few overdubs. The piece is written, rehearsed and then recorded – three or four people playing in a room, very ‘truthful’ and worked out to a very fine level of detail before recording begins. With Land Trance the interplay of two people in a room improvising is the starting point. Often our pieces begin as two sounds or instruments in spontaneous dialogue, live round a microphone or straight into the desk. This is then given another pass with two other elements, also in dialogue, also completely improvised. After that, the sculpting, detailing and framing begins. What kind of space are these sounds sitting in? Are they moving through several spaces? What’s the chain of imagery or association that these elements suggest and how do we guide that through the musical choices we make? It’s completely a creation of the studio rather than the stage.
Regarding the cinematic feel of the album, is there a narrative or characters envisioned within the writing process?
It is very dependent on the piece but often we will talk about certain sounds as characterful, maybe thinking about them in the sense of sculptures in a field, or distinct pieces of scenery within a stage-set. Narrative – or as we’ve been calling it – ‘potential narrative’, is stitched together from these pieces in the way that meaning and connection could be inferred from the different elements in an abstract painting. The use of organ and wordless vocals throughout much of the record suggests an ecclesiastical or spiritual dimension whilst the use of Dictaphones, cassette tapes, old keyboards could be seen as evoking archive, memory, obsolescence. We avoid attaching definite meaning to the elements grouped together in any one piece – partly because we’re not really following one. When we’re writing/recording (the two are one and the same in our case) we’re following a single sound, mood or process in search of what the next piece of the collage should be.
Are there are any specific cinematic inspirations?
For me, the work and writings of editor Walther Murch have been very influential in how to draw connections and meaning between elements of a composition. His famous edit in Apocalypse Nowtaking the viewer from a hotel room to the jungle by layering helicopter rotor sounds over a slow zoom on a ceiling fan shows how time and location can be compressed or transformed through the juxtaposition of two simple elements. Likewise, his idea of making film cuts at the ‘blink point’ – that is the natural point when the majority of the audience blink during a conversation, ie after the speaker has finished a sentence – has influenced my thinking on positioning sounds and events with the arrangements of our pieces.
How are you attracted to the particular instruments – especially the more esoteric ones, e.g. zither – in connection to the respective tracks: a matter of trial and error, or instinctively knowing the ‘fit’ of the instrument to the track?
Sometimes happenstance, sometimes purposefully chosen other times the end result of exhausting all other possibilities. The zither works for me because I’m used to working within the boundaries of a single unchanging chord with Ex-Easter Island Head and with the zither that’s what you get. It’s also a very tactile instrument, great for swarms of pleasantly tuned sound and very dynamically versatile. Objects such as the Dictaphone or cassette tape seem to bring with them a meaning or patina that only obsolete technology can bring, as well as offering a simplified, very intuitive way of creating novel effects that would be difficult to do digitally. Often we’ll take a number of passes at something just waiting for a characterful, arresting sound to emerge; We let the sounds lead.
Land Trance have also released the visual accompaniment to Transcript, created by the group in collaboration with film-maker Laura Spark and filmed in the former Brazilian embassy which a large portion of the record was born in, and that the band and many of their friends and peers call home.
Here’s what the band say of the video:
“It makes use of several boxes of projector slides gathered over the last few years selected and assembled in a way that reflects the groups’ working methods: re-purposing of ‘obsolete’ technology, use of found objects and the conjuring of threads of narrative and association through collaging materials. The unknowable original context of the slides offers an analogue to the sonic elements used to create the track; Two malfunctioning digital dictaphones as signal processors, warping a vocal duet and austere organ chords into something strange, distant and imbued with deep personal resonances.”