In the many turbulent winters that enveloped our delicate island since the formation of The Telescopes in 1987, Stephen Lawrie and Co. have sought to plant subversive little seeds into the tortured soil of our cultural landscape. Each seed could be differentiated from its sisters by her shape, weight and age, as well as by the various different people who contributed to her parentage. When inspected carefully under the scrutinising gaze of a turntable needle, they all sounded different too. Nurtured slowly by an otiose star, the seeds grew into polished staples, becoming revered by many fans of fuzzy noises across this godforsaken globe.
I am, of course, speaking figuratively. The Telescopes have just released their eighth album, Hidden Fields, on Hamburg’s Tapete Records. Recorded in Glasgow with the help of local talent, the new LP combines the restless tendencies that characterised the band’s debut, Taste, with the subtle reverence showcased on #4 and Third Wave. Their latest record is already a firm favourite among music journalists and it won’t be long before the rest of us fall victim to its seductive charms. I caught up with lead troubadour and founding member of The Telescopes, Stephen Lawrie, and probed him about the motivations behind the band’s latest project.
Backseat Mafia: The new album, Hidden Fields, employs the talents of Glaswegian psych-noise outfit St. Deluxe. How did that collaboration come about and what were they like to work with?
Stephen Lawrie: It was a breeze, they have a great feel and a fine approach, and the sessions were all inspired. I’ve known them for a while. We were on the same bill up in Glasgow when I was playing acoustic shows on my own. They offered to step in for a few songs at the end. I think Slaughter Joe Foster may have introduced us, or their ex-guitarist Martin Kirwan got in touch. Martin played on Hidden Fields as well, handling the wah guitar on Don’t Bring Me Round.
The Telescopes have gone through significant line-up changes over the years, with you being the only constant. Have you found the continually refreshing membership to be frustrating or conducive to the creative process?
It’s not just the line-up that has changed, the instrumentation too. I have to keep moving forward because the past isn’t there as it was. If I delve into old material I’m forced to reinterpret things from a current perspective, which I find liberating. Sometimes I have no idea who is going to turn up for a show. I certainly have no idea who’ll be on the next record. It keeps it interesting. I feel like I achieve the impossible almost every day. It’s a good way to be present.
After the extended sonic assault of Harm, the new record sees The Telescopes return to songwriting, in the more traditional sense of the term. Is there an underlying concept that unifies Hidden Fields?
Hidden fields are all around us. To define it any further feels like an imposition on the listener. I have people tell me what a song means to them, what they think it’s about; it can be completely different to everything I had in mind. I don’t feel a need to force my perception on them. Their interpretation is as valid as mine. I’ll happily discuss the source of certain ideas, but their meaning fluctuates for me. I gravitate towards words that may resonate in as many ways as possible, the idea of singing about something very specific and literal every night of a long tour doesn’t appeal to me. I can’t fake it. So I need to keep a door open so there is a way in for me.
Drawing and lyrics by Stephen Lawrie
Where does the title come from? Were you reading anything during the writing/recording process which helped to shape the album in any way?
No. The title came from a line in another song I’m working on for another project. In fact, Julie R. Kane used the lyrics to that song in her [Indestructible Energy] zine. I made a sketch (above) in Berlin when I was there to record with One Unique Signal. The song will be on that album when it’s finished.
The last record was made in Los Angeles and the new one in Glasgow. You also tour constantly. Do you see The Telescopes as an itinerant project? To what extent does psychogeography influence your songwriting?
About half of my time is spent leading a nomadic lifestyle. I find myself gathering impressions and writing little bits here and there along the way. As a group, we summon magic out of chaos in an ever-changing environment almost every night. There’s a lot of inspiration to be gained from that. I find myself writing music especially with an abstract presence or sense of a place that I can draw from. The Winter EP, for example, those songs were improvised on the road. When we hit Chiasso in Switzerland, there was a certain magic about the place: the time of year, the people at the show and the way the musical arrangements landed. It was still in our bones when we recorded; we felt we had to get it down. The rest of my time is spent almost completely isolated in West Yorkshire, where I can thread loose strands into coherent strategies for whatever’s going on.
The Telescopes ‘sound’ can be characterised as being in a constant state of flux. Do you keep moving, metaphorically speaking, because you’re searching for something? What is it?
Joseph Chilton Pierce calls it “the crack in the cosmic egg”, which is a kind of postorbital breakthrough. When ideas have been fully absorbed from all perspectives, the focus shifts away from them, allowing something completely unrelated to trigger the spark that brings fusion. Some people refer to this as the Eureka Moment. I see it as a way in. It’s an addictive, all consuming process; riddled with endless frustration, complete restlessness, loss of self worth and deterioration of health. Until that moment of release, when it all opens up, a moment of birth and a death. It would be soul destroying to then make it my business to replicate that. I feel a cosmic responsibility to see where it wants to go next. I don’t feel like that’s something that can be reached from a stationary position or by following a previously established process. Life just isn’t like that for me; it’s a stream of moving rivers.
Hidden Fields, while drenched in noise and feedback, appears to be more upbeat than some of your previous releases. Is this evidence of a more optimistic state of mind at work?
I’m not sure I’m able to write during the lows, but I certainly feel the manifest of their influence in the afterwards. I feel like I’m in lots of different states of mind when I’m working on stuff. There has to be some optimism in there somewhere for things to evolve from seed to fruition. I would say that applies to every record I’ve made. The way a record sounds is just the way it lands. I work with so many different people all the time. There’s a lot of different energies involved.
It seems that duality plays a large part in what you do: noise/silence; harm/healing; creation/destruction; dominance/submission; melody/discord etc. Do you ride these waves consciously?
Duality is everywhere. It’s not something I seek out, its part of the human condition. The presence of duality in the music is relevant to the experiences I draw from. Sometimes that’s arrived at unconsciously, other times otherwise.
Does ritual play an important factor in your work? Have you picked up a set of techniques, when approaching new projects, over the time that you’ve been making music or do you rely on intuition alone?
I’ve picked up on and formulated many techniques, which are part of the craft. Intuition is guidance. And both can be reliable. I’m not sure about ritual. Doesn’t seem like a good foundation to me. I regard each project as a new conversation, it’s not something that can be scripted.
What’s on the immediate horizon for you and The Telescopes?