Despite receiving outstanding critical acclaim from the likes of Lauren Laverne and Clash magazine, Left With Pictures was not always the affirmed and impressive ensemble that we see today. Starting out ten years prior as a risqué move from classical to pop, Left With Pictures comprising three musicians (Tom, Stuart and Tony) went down a completely unforeseeable route. After debut album ‘Beyond Our Means’ and sophomore album ‘In Time’, LWP have continued to expand their sound, both in the studio and to live creating a combination of both electronically and acoustically awesome songs.
Their new album ‘Afterlife’ is a true testament to their capabilities both as performers and as orchestrators, taking the band just over four years to complete. Their sound juxtaposes internally between ambient arpegiatted synths and folky pop beats, which the trio impressively morph to their desires. I got a chance to talk to Stuart to discuss their ideas behind textures, the bands history of spontaneous gigs and what film they’d love to create a soundtrack to.
Ten years ago you left the orchestral pit to go out to succeed with your music independently. Down the timeline have there been any regrets in doing so, and do you find it hard to maintain the rigorous amount of practice required for classical musicians?
Tom, Toby and I met studying music at Nottingham University, and that was when we spent our time in the ‘orchestra pit’. The fact is none of us could be bothered to maintain the rigorous practice required to then become professional orchestral instrumentalists – and the more we studied the more we got into composition as oppose to performance. I think we’ve used playing instruments as a tool for writing music, rather than to be a virtuosic violin or piano player. We certainly don’t spend time practicing scales and doing finger exercises!
‘Afterlife’ is not your typical album. It really shows off your versatility as an ensemble, flipping between ambience and electronica to beautiful folky pop and cinematic soundtrack. What was your attitude and writing process entering ‘Afterlife’?
Our attitude was simply to make an album that we believed in, and not share or release it until we reached that stage. This was very much a move away from our previous album, ‘In Time’, for which we wrote and released a song every month in 2010. For ‘Afterlife’ we had about 20-30 songs at demo stage before we entered the studio, and there was an even greater array of styles amongst them, but as we began to get a sense of the tone and atmosphere of the record we began to lose the songs that didn’t fit with that
You have given credit to Richard Formby (Wild Beasts, Ghostpoet, Darkstar), as being the driving force behind your arrangements and direction behind ‘Afterlife’. Given your different walks of life was this new thinking refreshing to your artistic approach, or hard to adjust to?
Working with Richard was very refreshing. Sometimes we’d be working on a song and he’d say ‘I just want to try something’, and spend 2-3 hours programming a modular synth part from scratch while we sat around idly with no idea what he was doing or how he was doing it! That definitely took some getting used to, but it was quite mesmeric watching him work in that way, and once we heard the results we were more than happy to let him play.
Percussion acts almost like the steering wheel in some of your songs. Before feeling too comfortable in the acoustic style, out of nowhere a simplistic drum beat will signal the transition to a new direction. Is this something you feel is prevalent in your earlier releases, and will you continue to connote similar transitions with specific instruments in future releases as a signature?
I think using percussion as texture rather than to hold down the beat is definitely something we like to do, and it happens more on ‘Afterlife’ than on previous albums. There’s still plenty of drum-kit on the record too, though. We’re very interested in using instruments for their texture, rather than to just hold chords or play melodies and I’m sure we’ll keep doing that. As you say, a new sound can totally change the direction of a piece of music
The album’s topics are blatant. Did you set out to address death and ways of coping with ‘Afterlife’, or would you say it has more of an overall conversational approach to death and what comes after? Is there a narrative to it?
It isn’t a concept album, but I think the narrative is created by the decision to place specific songs in a specific order, which is what you do when you make an album. We noticed part way through making the record that almost every song dealt with death, fear of death or endings, and once you are aware of something like that it definitely influences how you proceed. To me it’s a hopeful record, but others will probably disagree…
Tracks like ‘Multiplex’ and ‘Who’s There’ demonstrate an ambient and also unnerving style similar to the style of Penderecki and George Crumb. Are there any modern composers or classical musicians that inspire you in your arrangements?
We love 20th Century Classical music, and composers like Ligeti, Boulez, Stravinsky and Ravel, but I think overall our music owes more to the pop tradition than the classical tradition. We’re probably more directly influenced by people like Wild Beasts, Autechre and Sufjan Stevens, where you also find use of ambience and orchestral techniques.
How does the live performance translate from the album, taking into consideration the vast selection of instruments you employ?
It’s difficult! We’ve tried to strike a balance of finding ways to reproduce the exact sounds that are on the record, and acknowledging where it can be more exciting to find a new way to reproduce the arrangements. We’re always battling with that a bit, to be honest.
What film would you love to see ‘Afterlife’ feature as soundtrack in?
I’m not sure! I think Kubrick was a master of using pre-existing music….so maybe one of his? Either a Kubrick film, or something like Top Gun, I reckon.
Album closer ‘The Night Watch’ grants a sort of closure to the challenging topics discussed in ‘Afterlife’. The organ samples and angelic arpegiation, combined with subtle pianos and violins, creates this fluctuating element of power that disintegrates towards the end. Did you have this track in mind as the closer and if so did you create the album with a linear narrative in mind?
All the songs were created separately, but as soon as themes started emerging we knew The Night Watch had to come at the end. To me, it resolves the fears and tensions. But it probably won’t for other people. There is certainly no fixed narrative.
You’re renowned for impromptu performances, as opposed to scheduled tours and gigs. Do you plan to do more of these down the line or have you grown into more scheduled and calculated performances?
Yes – we did a ‘bedroom tour’ where we just played in strangers houses – but that was 8 or 9 years ago. I think we’re too old now! We are playing an instore show at Flashback Records on Bethnal Green Road on the 5th May which might be cramped and chaotic – if that’ll do!
‘Afterlife’ is available now, via Rough Trade Records.
This Left With Pictures article was written by John Gittins, a GIGsoup contributor