Lamplighter makes beatscapes not beat tapes. Ashlar Ghosts is the Scottish producer’s new full-length album, adding to High Focus‘ growing stack of instrumental releases. The 18-track LP is a wet shoed commute through an icy dystopia, on the first day of finding beauty in the fog.
There have been seven years since Lamplighter’s last solo project The Senses, and five since Tell Them It’s Winter, his momentous collaboration with lyricist Ed Scissor. Now, on cassette tapes and digital platforms, Ashlar Ghosts is the sample-less, ambient electronica album for 2021.
“This record is not a typical High Focus release.”
We were lucky enough to learn all about the album from the elusive producer himself, who believes creating “mood” is the bottom line. Amongst talk of The Boys and the end of the world, we discuss Lamplighter’s perspective of his work and how he wants to show a glimmer of hope within the bleakness. He says it’s hard to make music that’s surprising these days, but trust us, this definitely is. You’ll even believe in ghosts.
Listen to Ashlar Ghosts now
It’s rare we see a Lamplighter release these days, where have you been?
“Tryna do something different I guess. I actually looked back at the last time that I did an interview and I was quite pleased to see that I got asked what I was gunna do next, and the thing that I did next was what I said I was gunna do. The last record I had out was Tell Them It’s Winter with Ed Scissor. Following that, I was really into the idea of making a record that didn’t have any samples on it. I’d already used synths and records before, but I did a bit of teaching myself how to get better at it, teaching myself about MIDI and things like that. I got myself a set-up I was happy with and then started working on making this record, Ashlar Ghosts. That process took me a long time. I’m also the kind of person who has periods where I do loads of work and periods where… not so much. Hence, what, five years passing since the last time.”
So, what are ashlar ghosts?
“I live in a building that’s made out of stone called ashlar. My thinking is that I made this whole record in this house and that the ghosts are in some way associated with what made me make the record. It’s an old building. Must have ghosts in it. It’s inevitable.”
What made you go strictly sample-based for this album?
“Probably a couple of different threads to that. One would be that just like anyone else I listen to a lot of different genres of music. The two biggest wings of genre that I’ve always been into have been electronica of some form and hip hop. Of course the two meet in some places, but I’ve always been into the idea of making a record that wasn’t so much like a hip hop record. I still definitely associate hip hop with samples, even though hip hop is obviously a lot less sample-driven than it used to be. So, I guess I partly wanted to do something that wasn’t really just a hip hop record and I partly wanted to explore kinds of music that I listen to but maybe haven’t really represented in the music that I make, in the past. So I think I was just trying to make a record that explored a few more of the things that I listen to. It’s a funny thing when other people tell you about your music and what it sounds like. In my head, most of the stuff that I’ve put out as proper releases, it’s coherent and has a similar kind of sound to it. And to me, this record has a different sound. But I’ve already been told by other people that it doesn’t.”
What is that sound then to you? What differences are there?
“I think why other people think it sounds the same is the mood of it – whatever emotional part of it and the mood. Then the reason I think it sounds different is more of a textural thing and just the obvious difference of having synthesisers making all the melodies, as opposed to samples of pianos, strings, stuff like that.”
How does your love for contemporary classical music inform your electronic production? Is that in relation to the textures you mentioned? Where does that come in to play?
“I’ve actually recently been thinking about the kind of music I’m going to be making next, and I’ve kinda got a feeling maybe what I make next might be informed more directly by contemporary classical music, perhaps. Although I’m not in any way formally trained as a musician, so I can’t claim to have expertise in that. Partly it goes back to mood. Part of the reason why I listen to contemporary classical music is that it makes me feel things and I would say the same thing about film soundtracks. It just really, really makes me feel emotions. The other way it maybe informs the music I’m making is that my new record has a lot of beat-less production on it. Its got a lot of production on it with beats but its got a lot of production without beats. My guess is, (well it’s not a guess), basically, if I wasn’t listening to a lot of ambient music, (which I am), and contemporary classical music, I wouldn’t have tracks that didn’t have beats on them. The more that I think about it, I’m just trying to tie together in my head all the different things that I listen to. I’ve never really tried to do that before.”
You mention soundtracks, and your ‘Vanity‘ video has this rolling, urban grey that’s very similar to what I picture when listening to the song. So I wondered, you talk about mood and trying to create emotion, to what extent do you aim to create a setting or visual environment with your music?
“I think the extent at which you’ve got me thinking there reflects the fact that I basically haven’t thought about having a visual environment. So my guess is that this is one of those fundamental differences between people, where some people have more visual representations of things in their heads and some people have less. Maybe it’s not even crossed my mind that my music has a visual representation, or maybe I’m misunderstanding the question mate.”
Well because you talk about your love for soundtracks, and obviously that’s music in relation to film, which involves visuals and settings. I feel like your music could be in a film, which must have been said before, so I just wondered if that was an aim at all.
“Yeah you’re right, absolutely it has been said a number of times. And yeah, I just don’t think I see it in that way. Yes, I absolutely love the idea of the association between my music and film, and I love the idea that other people would think that’s a natural connection, but for me, it’s not about the visual structure of film, and more just about mood really. Obviously, when you’re watching a film and its got a great soundtrack that you love, (pick one in your head), if you’ve got a film soundtrack that has a particular emotional resonance for you, (like you know if you hear it it’s gunna hit you), I guess that music wouldn’t have that resonance on its own would it? The first time you heard it was with the film and the whole package hit you. You got this feeling, then when you revisit the music you get that again. I think for me that’s more what it’s about: not a direct link between my music and a visual representation, but more like a mood that’s associated with a film, and the emotion then just being in the music on its own. I was very fortunate enough to have a friend make that ‘Vanity’ video for me. As far as I’m aware I’ve got no visual talent whatsoever.”
The album is out on High Focus, but it’s not necessarily a hip hop album. So where do you position yourself in relation to the genre, and given your time out of major releases, ‘the scene’ in general?
“Yeah, the first thing that comes into my head is that nowadays things aren’t as broken down and segmented as they used to be in terms of genre. I would like to think that nowadays most hip hop heads would have a very open mind with regards to listening to other genres, maybe more so than they would have in the past. In fact, I’m pretty sure of that. There’s no question that this record, Ashlar Ghosts, is not a typical High Focus release. For a start, it’s instrumental. Not that High Focus doesn’t do instrumental records, but it’s not their mainstay. Secondly, it’s basically a record that’s pitched somewhere halfway between bass music and hip hop, and synthesiser-based soundtrack music. But personally I don’t perceive a huge divide between different parts of the hip hop scene in UK hip hop. I think the production styles that you find across the UK hip hop scene now are so varied that almost anything that you could produce would not be a bolt out of the blue for people. I think it’s quite hard to make something that’s a surprise to people nowadays.”
“It’s quite hard to make something that’s a surprise to people nowadays.”
“I’m always interested by, do you know Mark Fisher the writer? He was basically a music and political journalist, sadly he killed himself a couple years ago, but he’s one of my favourite authors. The reason he came into my head is he said this thing that I really like. You could sort of accuse him of being negative about the scene nowadays compared to how it was 20 years ago, but he said something along the lines of: if you went to the mid-90s and played someone who was into jungle, hip hop and electronica at the time, if you played them new records from the same scenes now, no one would be that surprised by any of it. Whereas, if you went to 1975 and played them music from 1995, it would just fucking blow their minds. I kind of agree with his point because I think progress in music has slowed down. Things aren’t as alarmingly different as they were. I’ve got no idea how I got to that point in this conversation.” [Laughs]
I hear there’s an upcoming Ed Scissor album this year, is there anything you can tell us about that?
“I can’t tell you a hell of a lot if I’m honest. We’ve been working on a record and I hope it’ll come out this year. And that’s really about all I can say about it…”
Are you familiar with the character Lamplighter in The Boys? He creates flames with his hands so I suppose you’re both Lamplighters that make fire.
“I’ve watched the show but I’m not familiar with the comic. That’s a nice complement. I’m always quite amused by the character. Especially as I had no knowledge of the comic, it’s funny to have a namesake crop up in a TV show.”
I’d recommend it, written by Garth Ennis, another Scottish creative. On that, to what extent do you think that growing up in the cities that you have done impacts the aesthetic and emotion of your music?
“Firstly, it’s tricky because you’ve never lived anywhere other than where you’ve lived. But, someone a few years back described my music as ‘night bus music’ and I keep bringing it up because it stuck with me. I think that’s such an expressive phrase that if I say it, I take it you know exactly what I’m getting at? The idea of yeah, being on a night bus and it’s raining, the weather’s shitty outside, there’s definitely something about that mood that appeals to me and I want to recreate. I guess the three main places in my life, (all of which are in Scotland), have been Aberdeen, Orkney, (I’m lucky enough to get to spend time up in the Orkney Isles quite often), and Glasgow. These are all places that are well-known for having shitty weather, cold winters, etc. I think my music is not happy most of the time, although I’m trying. I’ve got no doubt that when I started making music all I was trying to do was make something that sounded really, really bleak and sad. Now, I’m trying quite hard for it to not just be that. I can’t completely get away from that, which is perhaps in relation to my roots and where I’m from, but I really, dearly want to be injecting this bit of hope into music. The main reason for that is that the music that moves me most that I listen to by other people is stuff that sounds really sad but has a tiny little slither of hope in it. To me, it’s not as special if that little bit isn’t in it.”
“We’re living in a neoliberal experiment”
“So, my background has had an influence on me wanting to make bleak-sounding music, but with age, I’m trying to make something that has something else to it. The other thing though, and this is obviously a universal thing, is the time we’re living in and all growing up in. With things like the 2008 financial crash, zero-hour contracts, and just everyone who’s even got a vague notion of what’s going on in the world knows that we’re living in a neoliberal experiment that’s not really working for very many people. To me, I find the idea hard of wanting to make music that doesn’t reflect that in some way. If you think that the world we’re living in is a bit fucked up and it’s not the best way that we could be with one another, then that’s naturally going to come out in the music that you make.”
That’s pretty poignant really.
“By the way, I can’t remember the author’s name but there’s this concept you might have heard of before: it’s harder to imagine the end of capitalism than it is to imagine the end of the world. Just to cheer you up.”
What’s next for Lamplighter? What does the future hold?
“Good question. I’m really glad to be speaking to you and I’m really glad to be speaking to you at this time as well. I really like our symmetry that I’m speaking to you and the last time I did an interview was coming out of me starting to make this record. Because at the moment, I’m starting to make some new music and when I started to make this album, Ashlar Ghosts, I didn’t really know what kind of music it was going to be. I had a lot of ideas in my head, like it was going to be this genre or that genre. I didn’t really predetermine that before I started doing it and in fact had a bit of a struggle with working out what the hell it was. I find myself in the same position again. As in, I’ve got a bunch of ideas in my head about things I want to do, but luckily they’re different ideas to the ones I had a couple years back when I started making this record. I guess what the future holds is me making at least one more instrumental project, but by no means attempting to solely go down that path. In an ideal world I would want to be working across genres, doing different things, making instrumental music, making instrumental music within this scene, for film, and working with vocal artists. So what’s next? I dunno, something good I hope.”
I did read in an interview of yours that you were gunna make an album with Mr Key, is that not happening?
“I did say that. Mr Key by the way, is an amazing guy, but it was just one of those long-out situations I think. We started talking about making the record and it was one of those things that sadly doesn’t exist. Me and Luke were both quite excited at the time and then I dunno, you know how it is, some projects run and some don’t. If I was to guess the reason as to why it didn’t happen, it was probably that I was concentrating so much on trying to do a solo record, I dunno. Maybe it’ll still happen.”
Listen to Ashlar Ghosts now
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Interviewed by: James Wijesinghe