Name: Lasse Marhaug
Occupation: Sound artist, composer
Recent release: Higgs Boson, Lasse Marhaug's recent release with Runhild Gammelsæter, is out via Ideologic Organ August 19th 2022.
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Lasse Marhaug and would like to find out more about her work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, twitter, bandcamp, and Soundcloud.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it?
That fascination came really early, probably around the time I got my parent’s old stereo in my room when I was around six years old. I found it fascinating that I could record and edit sound, and it grew from there.
I got interested in music and when I found the international underground metal underground as a teenager, and I’ve been involved in music ever since.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusual or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
That’s a hard one, as different stages of my life have had different things affect me. I could probably make a long list and there’d be a number of things for every year, at least up to I was in my mid-20s.
If you want to go really early I was fascinated by how some of the songs by the Beatles had elements that clearly wasn’t of the four musicians playing, like old radio voices, and that some things were sped up or slowed down. It made me realize that the music wasn’t just played, it was a studio creation, and this of course lead to my understanding of the studio as an instrument, which has basically been my life.
Today, you work as a sound artist, composer, musician, engineer and producer as well as a video director. Can you talk a bit about the different roles that sound plays for you in these different domains? What are constants for you when it comes to working with sound?
The constant factor is that every project is different. Every time you start from scratch. You have the experience of what you’ve done before, but there are too many factors that will be new or in a different configuration, so you can’t fall back on what has worked before.
You have to stay humble in order to make it work.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and do you think similar creative processes are at work when you're creating music vs creating a cover design, like your recent work for Aerophonic Records?
I also have a visual perception of sound, and I thought everybody else does, at least those who work or listen to it with dedication, but I’ve come to realize they don’t. For me it’s almost a kind of controlled hallucination that I can turn on and off quite easily. I envision the sound stage visually when I mix, it’s a very helpful approach. When I’m making my own music I’m often attached to images, either one’s I’ve done myself, like photos, or other people’s work.
When I do graphic design and illustrations for other artists I try to think what could compliment the music they make, so that the visuals serve the music, which isn’t always the same as describing the music, it can also be a visual that contrasts the music, something that gives the music an extra aspect.
Physicality clearly plays an important role in your sound work – can you talk about that a bit, please?
Volume and physical sensation of sound is one way of working with music in a performance context. For studio work it doesn’t really work, as most people don’t have full-size PA systems in their home (unless you’re Daniel Mensche!), so you got to make it intense without the luxury of working with physical sound waves.
Me and Runhild have only played live one time, so for now it’s more or less a studio project. We’d love to play live more, but it seems that elaborate studio work is something we both enjoy.
What interests you about working with the human voice in general and Runhild's in particular?
Every voice is unique. It’s not like a guitar or synthesizer, it’s completely bound to the person and its qualities are deeply personal, that’s why it’s so interesting to work with artists who use their voice. Also I can’t sing myself, so I’m in awe of those who are able to do it.
We usually tend to find it perfectly reasonable that someone should be inspired to write lyrics when hearing certain sounds. On Higgs Boson, how would you describe the opposite process for you – how do words trigger sounds, noises, compositions?
There’s actually lyrics on the album, Runhild wrote them for several tracks, but they’re not placed in the center of the music, you’re not supposed to hear them in their complete form, they’re more part of the soundscape, sometimes obscured by purpose.
It also helped Runhild to create the vocals when she had words to work with rather than just do wordless vocals.
In an earlier interview for Tiny Mix Tapes, you said that both harsh and gentle sounds can be beautiful to you. For a project like Higgs Boson, which probably many listeners would find unsettling, how important is beauty to you? What, to you, is the beauty of these pieces?
I kind of disagree with you there. I don’t think the listeners of Higgs Boson will find it unsettling. I think it’ll mostly be heard by a niche audience that are either well versed in this area of music, or that have an appetite and openness for new sounds. I don’t think it will reach a large unsuspecting audience that are hoping it will sound like more common music.
There are thousands of albums of experimental and electronic music, this territory is hardly new, and it’s catering to an audience with a specific appetite. I so wish it could reach a large number of people who would find it unsettling, that would be wonderful, but it’s not the reality of music in 2022.
So the music is not made with that in mind, it’s made for those who know the language, and then it’s a matter of how well we do or our work, we can’t rely on tricks, we have to bring something new to the table. Hopefully we can use this language to tell something that feels fresh, and that it doesn’t feel like just another noise/drone/doom album thrown together.
Obviously the concept of beauty is extremely subjective. For me every track on Higgs Boson resonates within what I’d classify as beauty, and that would go for the more full-on harsh noise works I’ve done solo, I make music that pleases my ears and triggers my imagination. Beauty is one word to describe it, but it also feels a bit limiting, and implies some kind of purity and set truth, which I’m also slightly uncomfortable with it. I don’t know.
Can you talk a bit about your process of working with sounds and lyrics in the context of this project? How did the pieces take shape?
It was a matter of back and forth. I first sent Runhild a bunch of simple sketches I’d recorded, mostly simple moods, drones and pulse-like pieces, and she picked the ones she felt she could work with, and she started recording vocal ideas, then sent it back to me and I responded, then we met up and recorded some of the vocals, and then I started mixing, Runhild gave me feedback, perhaps recorded some more, or changed the lyrics. It really was a very elaborate process that went on for over a year.
We also recorded more tracks than what ended up on the album. We probably had double of what’s on the album, and those were finished tracks that we both felt were good, but when we were working on the sequencing and we started to weave things together it became obvious that some tracks served the album better than others. Having an idea of how the album should flow made this process easier.
We could easily have made a double album, but we both wanted it to be a focused listening experience. That said we didn’t want it feel to jammed or busy, the music needed to breathe. Sequencing is a tricky process, sometimes you have to go back and do changes in the mix when you find the place for a track. For example the last track on the album we for a long time thought should be the opening of the album, but when we placed it last we found it had a lot more impact.
I must say I really enjoy working with Runhild, not just for her skills and talent as a musician, but just as much because she’s able to sustain focus over a long period of time. Many musicians are impatient and want ideas to be explored immediately, they want to ride that wave of excitement, which is understandable because that first spark is a rush, but they can’t sustain interest and focus if something takes a long time. Runhild is a long distance runner, and this is probably why she’s had a career in scientific research.
If something takes times to get right then we’ll use however long it takes. And it’s not about second-guessing or being unsure of the material, which is often the reason things takes time, it’s about being thorough and really making sure everything is explored. That said, some tracks came together quite fast.
I found it interesting that Kelly Lee Owens, with whom you worked for her LP8, mentioned that she wanted to create sounds between “Throbbing Gristle and Enya”, which is pretty much exactly what you were describing with that statement I mentioned. Can you describe what the process of uniting such seemingly polar opposites in the world of sound?
For me that was not the mission when I made LP8 with Kelly. I can’t remember us discussing that. Maybe Kelly said it to the label, or it was decided after, either way it’s press release lingo (which is fine). That album was made really fast, just three weeks in Oslo, it was done very spontaneous, which I think is Kelly’s way of working and why it speaks to people.
We met up in my studio and as a producer it was my goal to find out what Kelly was interested in expressing, where she was at that time, and try to give it a shape and form. I co-wrote a number of the tracks, so musically it was a collaborative project, but it was still her album, I was involved to help her realize her ideas. Which can be great fun, I like that task of not just trying to understand someone’s ideas, but to see where it could go. The album with Runhild is very different, as it’s me as an artist, not a producer.
But yeah, I do see the Enya/TG thing, and it’s probably no wonder since I’m better known for making noise than pop.
For LP8, where did you find the sounds you're working with?
Almost everything on LP8 was done in my studio. Mostly synths or electronic gear I had, but also some acoustic instruments. I had Kelly play drums and pump organ, things like that. One of the tracks is Kelly playing piano, but that was recorded by her at home. It was all quite spontaneous. She didn’t bring any gear, and I didn’t plan anything, we just went for it.
We also recorded hours of ambient synth drones, which didn’t make the album.
When it comes to your sound work, what are some of the most fulfilling collaborations?
As an artist working with people like Runhild, John Wiese, John Hegre (in Jazzkammer), Maja Ratkje, Okkyung Lee, Paal Nilssen-Love, Jon Wesseltoft, C Spencer Yeh, Anla Courtis, and many more - has all been special. I especially like the collaborations that have gone on over longer periods of time and have developed into proper artistic dialogues.
Of course spontaneous one-offs are fun. As a producer the work with Jenny Hval have been especially rewarding.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
A simple way of saying that is that I work with the studio as an instrument. What configuration that instrument takes changes all the time, there’s no set way for it, I’ll change it all the time. I have no strategies.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of sounds for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
I don’t think it’s that much different from an analogue archive. You just got to remember what you got, and try to keep it somewhat organized. And for both it’s no good if you don’t remember what you got.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of tea, which you also enjoy? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Of course making a cup of tea is different from making a piece of music. I don’t express or discuss anything through enjoying some tea, it doesn’t pose any questions, also the tea is usually made by someone in China, India or Nepal, and I’m just consuming it.
But making music can also be a quite mundane task, sometimes it’s a grind, you just work and it feels like it’s going nowhere. Often it takes time, and there will be a lot of errors and failures, you can’t wait for inspiration, you just got to put in the work and see where it takes you.