Masters of Sound: Stephen Lawrie (The Telescopes)

Lisbon Record Shops has completed a year and a month by now, and to commemorate the occasion, we've joined forces with Reverence Valada to bring you our new feature: Masters of Sound, where we interview artists/bands that push the music envelope further.
Opening this new chapter, we have Stephen Lawrie from cult shoegaze/experimental band The Telescopes answering our questions about his 25-year old career. In this interview, Stephen unveils his views about noise in music, the shoegaze scene and the role of third parties in his band, as well as giving us hints about his upcoming gigs in Portugal.
Picture: © Gaëlle Beri 2011
First things first: what drove your attention to music during your childhood/teen years?
I needed a creative outlet that drawing and painting couldn’t provide, it wasn’t enough. Discovering i could paint with sound, without anyone telling me that I was holding the brush the wrong way, was a revelation.

How did you discover that noise could be a good thing, creatively speaking?
Songs like [The Beatles'] "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Helter Skelter" fascinated me as a child. And the freakout section of my generation. I saw the catharsis in it. By the time I heard The Velvet Underground in my teens, they made perfect sense to me. None of the bands I played in prior to The Telescopes understood that kind of expression and were freaked out by the kind of things I was doing, so I started my own group. Which was mostly imagined at first. I had a lot of bad experiences that I desperately needed to get out of my system. Annihilation, of the senses in particular, gave me the outlet I needed. It made me feel instantly better and I liked what I saw in the music that came from it. I could recognise the humanity in it.

What was it like to start a band in a period of time full of talented peers? Was it inspiring or challenging? Did you fed on that energy?
It was liberating. All of a sudden there were hundreds of bands that all had Velvets records. It was as revolutionary as punk, but as one journalist wrote about us, it was more a revolution of the psyche than the sidewalk. So the music was much better. The whole DIY fanzine culture, squat gigs, independent labels, were all about empowerment. They held up big signs that said you can do it as well. Things we inherited from punk, and put to more use in my opinion. It was less of a joke.

What about the music business? You've worked with a lot of labels by now, from Cheree to Creation and a whole lot of small indies afterwards, ultimately creating your own (Antenna / Static Charge). Now that you have experience from both sides of the matter, what's your view of things? Have you made peace with any bad experiences from the past or has the biz changed completely?
It’s still basically the same, doing all you can, within a budget. I have more of an idea of what labels are up against now. The more information you have, the more creatively you can navigate your way through any obstacles that present themselves. Although it can take crashing on the rocks a good few times before clarity reaches.

Do you miss that 90's media frenzy of interest for new indie/alt.rock bands? Was it in any way better than making your music quietly available to fans through live gigs and the internet?
I don’t really miss anything that has gone before. I have the memory.

The Telescopes have evolved from a more song-based approach to drone/noise experiments. Have you grown more interested in sound than in song?
I became more interested in loosening the parameters of song, opening up the framework, allowing them to breathe more readily, which led to pure improvisation on the Infinite Suns album and a few other singles from around that time. I feel the new LP HARM is a step towards a firmer sense of song, bringing with it ideas I have gathered along the way, maintaining room for improvisation. I have two albums worth of material almost completed and ready to release, all of which most people would recognise as having more of a traditional structure. The interest in sound and texture has been there all the way through. It’s audible on all of the records.

By the way, HARM is a great freakout piece! Will it be released in any physical format? Are you playing it live?
We’ll be playing both of the tracks live. It is out on vinyl courtesy of Neon Sigh Records. i find CDs wasteful and throwaway. Since the advent of downloads they don’t sell as well and people only load them onto their machines and forget about the disc anyway. I prefer small runs of vinyl as a physical output.

What about those new albums?
There are two new albums on the way, a split single with Deadly Cradle Death from China, another split single on Fuzz Club Records and an EP on the Dream Machine label.

Even though you've been the main songwriter from the beginning, in the last decade or so The Telescopes have been basically your solo project with rotating personnel. Do you find the input of other people essential in your work or do you prefer to have it your own way?
I’ve been the only songwriter all the way through The Telescopes, with the exception of purely improvised recordings I made with Bridget Hayden, such as Infinite Suns and Another Whip. If The Telescopes have ever been my solo project, then it has always been my solo project. More so on the first records, which were all written and arranged almost completely by myself, but credited to The Telescopes. I usually have a good idea of what I want, which develops during the writing process, but sometimes I leave holes for people to fill. within certain paramaters, so I credit them as arrangers as well as musicians. Having it my own way is not essential, but I do have to be happy with what is coming out of the speakers in the final mix or the whole thing gets trashed. Or reinterpreted at a later date. Sometimes other people’s input is essential, other times it gets in the way.

How do you evaluate those first 2 records today? I know that you've revisited Taste live with One Unique Signal, but does it feel like the work of a different band or just another side of the same coin?
The Telescopes house has many rooms. I gave myself that freedom when I made the second album so different to the first. I have always considered psych to be the thread that runs throughout The Telescopes' music, but the [term] has been hijacked in recent years and has become compromised, so it has lost its sense of infinity. The Telescopes are about so much more.

What about Portugal? Is it your first time here? Do you have any expectations about the gigs or your stay?
We played in Cartaxo and Porto last year with two Portuguese musicians in the group, André Pedro Pita Groz sat in on the drums with us and Sandro Oliveira played the bass. They were amazing. We had one brief rehearsal together beforehand. Nick Allport from Reverence Valada and all the folks from the Cartaxo Sessions collective took us to see Fado singers while we were over. And Jorge Coelho, who booked the show in porto, took us to see the city there. It was a brief visit but we crammed in as much as possible and had a great time. We’re very much looking forward to coming back again.

Can we expect some of the old classics in your shows or will it be a more experimental affair?
We’ll be playing past, present and future material. Everything we’ve ever done has been experimental. Even with songs like "The Perfect Needle" or "Flying". sometimes it’s more apparent than others, but it’s always there.

Don't miss The Telescopes live in Sabotage Club on September the 11th, and on the Reverence festival in Valada the following day.