THE WORLD'S BEST BROKEN GLASS PLAYER
I sat down with Lucas and his 2 year old son Ernie (a budding noise artist) to snack on carob and chat all things glass biting, instrument building, free improvising, and expectation subverting. The musical snippets bookending each section are taken from Justice Yeldham's forthcoming release on Feeding Tube Records.
Justice Yeldham is playing a FREE show at The Foundry this Thursday May 9th, supported by Barbry Allen, Wrong Man, and Lilith. Check out the Facebook event for more details.
Lucas spent his high school days bouncing between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, channeling teenage angst into primitive sonic explorations. These years saw his first experiences with Australia's experimental music culture.
It was about this time I first started experimenting with records, though I wouldn't say there was an experimental scene on the Gold Coast. Think the first experimental band I saw was Strontium Dog, at a 4ZZZ Market Day. It was a long time ago, this was probably '89 or something.
I was kind of a teenage goth and got into [Einstürzende] Neubauten, then started banging on metal percussion in a friends garage on the Gold Coast, but I don't think that constitutes an experimental scene.
Strontium Dog were a rarely recorded staple of Brisbane's noisy rock underground in the late 80s. The few grainy cuts I found feature frontman Greg Hilleard torturing his vocal cords atop a bed of feedback drenched guitars. Given Lucas' love of abrasive textures, their influence comes as no surprise.
Strontium Dog's 1992 Album 'Another Noise In A Different Bedroom' is available to stream and download for free, containing fitting sounds for 4ZZZ's anti-establishment attitude. Lucas would end up playing a few Market Days himself in the early 90s.
I used to do a show on a trampoline where I amplify the trampoline then boing around on it with effects pedals and blah blah blah. Did that at a Market Day in... maybe '97?
Recordings of these trampoline performances don't seem to exist, another tragic loss for the noise community. After moving to Sydney in the early 90s, community radio would continue to give Lucas a platform to workshop new concepts.
I moved in with a friend of mine who was in a band called Heathen Earth [?]. He had a show called Morning Sickness on Radio Skid Row. I started doing it with him then eventually on my own in a graveyard [timeslot]. I kind of continued these bedroom experiments, breaking up records, drilling holes in records, re-assembling records, on radio.
So was that a space for you to explore new ideas?
Yeah it was my only platform at the time, I hadn't begun performing live yet. It was actually Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim, who were doing the What Is Music? Festival, heard me on radio and asked me to come along to do one of my first live shows. I'd done two shows prior but this was my first proper one as I was previously billed as a DJ, even though I wasn't really DJing
What Is Music? played an important part in establishing Australia's experimental music scene. The festival was founded in 1994, the same year Lucas started performing as Justice Yeldham. Further information on the festival and its intentions can be found in this 2008 piece from Real Time Arts.
Robbie and Oren weren't the only ones who heard those twilight broadcasts. Another infamous incident from Abela's stint on Radio Skid Row came when he was experimenting with feedback atop a Village People song. A caller rang up just to say "get off the air smallcock", leading Lucas to adopt the name DJ Smallcock for his work with pre-recorded material.
It started off with records [but] even going toward the glass, I see the glass as a giant, diamond tipped stylus that I vibrate with my mouth rather than a record groove. So it's a long evolution of ideas, I kept removing parts of the turntable.
I started off with decks and breaking up records then removed the tone arms and started using knives and skewers, then I removed the decks and started using motorized powertools, then started playing these skewers and knives in my mouth, then one day I saw a piece of glass in the corner of the room and that was my hallelujah moment.
So there's kind of a trajectory to be drawn there? A record stylus amplifies the frequencies, but now the vibrations are coming from your mouth?
My lips are the record groove, is essentially the difference. I still see myself as a turntablist.
There's a fascinating history behind Lucas' love of glass. Bloody and face-lacerating performances might be what he's best known for, but they're far from his only creative output. A 2002 interview with Cyclic Defrost saw Abela describe his performances as 'free noise', comparing them to jazz improvisation.
"Essentially I'm an improviser in the jazz tradition of free jazz, however the instruments I use create noise, hence 'free noise'"
Glass wouldn't become Lucas' primary focus for another few years, around 2003. This same interview also sees him describe sticking a phonographic cartridge (record needle) attached to a turkey skewer into his mouth to create noise. Yeldham's Artistic development came from honing the considered spontaneity of these live shows.
I'm big on the idea of pure improvisation, kind of not preparing. Stream of consciousness and 'follow the sound' is my philosophy with music making.
Would you say there's a improvisational skill that's matured over time though?
Yeah, I think I'm a better improviser today than I was back then. I didn't rehearse for the longest time, which I kind of regret but it was also due to circumstances. I was homeless for a lot of those years in Sydney, I'd sleep in my van and do the occassional gig, even when I did have places you can't really get in your bedroom and make all this noise in a sharehouse.
Given the immense physicality of Yeldham's work, it's easy to see the glass as an amplified acoustic instrument. In reality, it lies in a grey area between acoustic and electronic. Lucas explains.
As an instrument the augmentation through the effects pedals is quite important, you're vibrating the sheet. Normally you'd use glass percussively to get an audible noise, the kind of vibrations I'm putting in are completely inaudible. It needs to be picked up by a contact microphone and the gain needs to be put up to more than 11.
So it's pointless to practice without amplification?
I could sit there and practice technique but we wouldn't really know what the results were. It needs to be amplified to work. It's an electronic musical instrument, but it's an organic electronic musical instrument.
This unique mindset is what connects all of Abela's work; whether it's under Granpa, Peeled Hearts Paste, or even DJ Smallcock. Another quote from Cyclic Defrost's 2002 interview sees Lucas elaborate upon his approach to electronic music.
“I don’t make what is traditionally considered electronic music, to me, truly electronic music exists only in machines, which play people. Any sound created during my shows is born from physical cause and effect, its created there and then, nothing is hidden away in drives or chips.”
This philosophy has guided Abela, particularly when creating his own instruments.
[Creating instruments] is inherent to the culture. It's one of the most important elements of post-punk culture. Instead of punk where it's 'I'm going to play instruments I don't know how to play', it's 'I'm going to make instruments I don't know how to play'. When you invent your own music, there's no one to compare you to. There's a beauty in that.'
Despite the body-horror nature of some of his shows, Lucas insists the music comes first.
The showman in me, especially in the early days, led me to do things like bite, smash, and gnaw at the glass, bleeding and things like that. I got wrongly compared to a GG Allin type shock person, but it really couldn't be further from where I'm at. I've always been a joyous noise person.
I'd cut myself and wouldn't really know, the shows would be bloody, [but] it was never about transgression, I think what I do is post-transgressive. The shock thing was the 70s and this was 2 decades later, people weren't looking to get shocked anymore. I was just trying to do something sonically interesting and sonically different. But also, the Jimi Hendrix in me wanted to make it a show.
I think since I've been making noise in the early 90s, since my teenage goth days in the 80s, it's always been an explosion of sound: wanting to explore sonics and make a room shake.
The Intricacy of GlassI like the anxiety that glass caused a room, and how it changed the mood of a room. No one was expecting anything. I guess I lost that midway, people started coming to me expecting that. I tried to just to reject the idea of people coming to see me hurt myself. I'm only just starting to come back into it because I really like the physicality of performing.
It's common among noise artists to release music under multiple aliases, an attitude wholly embraced by Abela's many side projects. However, he's been performing live under Justice Yeldham for over 25 years and is starting to feel restricted by reputation.
When I was younger I thought it was pretentious to play under your own name, and then as I got older I realised that it's the opposite. I dropped the Yeldham and started playing under [Lucas Abela]. Then I thought I'd just call myself 'Granpa', but found out there's a US noise artist calling themself that already. Even when booking this tour everyone wants 'Justice Yeldham'.
So is there a sense of wanting to shed expectations with the name change?
Yeah there's a bit of that, I wanted to move on from the reputations I was talking about before. Clean slate. When I was young I'd change my name every few [performances]: there was Peeled Hearts Paste, DJ Smallcock, Black and Budget Minded, Has Been. All sorts of project names and I'd swap them all the time. I was kind of always moving against establishing an act name.
It's hard in the internet age, when people want to search for you under 3 different names.
Yeah it's difficult and a pain in the ass, I think I've just stuck with Justice Yeldham now. It's as fine a name as any.
Justice Yeldham's style of unplanned performance is easily shaped by expectations. He recounted an incident where audience members came up after a show to complain about the lack of blood.
It was always a 'will I bleed' rather than 'I'll definitely bleed', I'd say 10% of shows might be a bloody show. It was a symptom of what I was doing, I never cut myself on purpose. If you've got sharp glass against your lips and play it in ecstatic performance, you're going to cut yourself from time to time.
'From time to time' is an understatement, many of Abela's recorded performances feature jagged panes smeared with blood and spit. Further injury comes from Yeldham's 'signature move' of sorts, biting the glass in half. Far from pointless showmanship, every action has a direct effect on the sounds being produced.
An early Justice Yeldham glass performance, features a confronting glass bite at 2:30
I used to start off with relatively large sheets [of glass], which were more uncontrollable actually. So I'd break it down to get more controllable sounds. You'd get a different tone and timbre out of it as well, it's like a surface microphone of sorts. The thicker the glass, the more energy you need to expel to vibrate it.
Through years of practice and performance, Lucas has learned to manipulate the sonic qualities of glass as you would any other instrument. It's highly variable though, as every piece of glass used is found locally before each show.
One of my favourite things about travelling the world is finding the venue then scouring the neighbourhood for glass. Sometimes you'd find it in the first couple of seconds, other times you'd spend hours looking for it. I remember one day in Kobe [Japan], I was searching the whole town and couldn't find anything. It was minutes before the show and finally I looked in this crack between the venue and the next building and there was this little pane this big [playing card] just sitting there.
I've never had a moment where I haven't been able to find glass. I've had to break motel picture frames and things like that: I've broken into many buildings and had to smash glass out of places.
Going back that free jazz comparison Lucas made earlier, imagine if John Coltrane used a different saxophone every time he played. When it comes to improvisation, Abela is a fascinating case study.
You just have to start playing it and hope for the best. I've rocked up to shows and had pieces of glass that didn't really do it for me, I had trouble getting what I wanted out of them. You gotta play to your ear, as I said follow the sound. If you're not hearing something you like, you don't get lost in the sound, you get frustrated by it. Play until you hear something you like and then follow that lead. Sometimes you have bad shows y'know.
Have you ever discovered something you wouldn't otherwise by recording with a 'non ideal' piece of glass though?
I don't listen back to a lot of my shows, but sometimes I've heard ones I found excruciating at the time and found they're a lot more listenable than the ones I was actually enjoying. In the fog of performance you never really know how it's coming across. It's hard to judge what's actually happening when you're not in an audience position.
Sometimes you're pulling off sounds in the middle of a show and think 'wow this is amazing', then afterwards you can't get it back.
That's kind of the magic of improvisation though isn't it?
Yeah of course. My skill set was all live, always in front of people, as I said I rarely rehearse. Every single vocal technique I've managed to come up with on the glass was invented in front of people. [It's gone from] really crude shows in the beginning, but they're getting more and more polished I think.
The past decade or so has seen Lucas shift his attention toward designing interactive 'noise toys'. Some of his most ambitious include the 'Temple Of Din', a pinball parlor that encourages noise making over scores, as well as the genetic mutation between playground and synthesizer that is Fort Thunder.
I have this philosophy that noise, or experimental music in general, is far more rewarding to play than to merely observe. So I wanted to create situations where people were forced into playing experimental noise music. I came up with things like pinball machines, arcade machines, and now I'm doing playgrounds. People know the language of these games, they know how to play them to start and then all the noises start happening. So they inadvertently become the musician.
Lucas launched an Indiegogo campaign for Fort Thunder late last year, raising money to repair water damage ahead of exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.
|'Balls For Cthulu' - A 5 player noise making pinball machine|
When you book a show months ahead you don't know what's going to be happening, where you're going to be emotionally, anything like that. When you're improvising it's a very emotive way of playing so how you feel is going to come through.
In general I prefer a place like Alchemix, I like an intimate audience. I don't like the separation of church and stage, it's just this artificial barrier. I've got that kind of Lightning Bolt philosophy of just playing on the floor. I've started insisting on playing on the floor whenever I can, maybe I will [at Foundry].
Lightning Bolt are a legendary noise-rock duo known for playing on concert floors while a ring of protective mosh-lovers forms around them. Their performances are as much improvised noise as they are riff-based rock, carrying a similar intensity to Yeldham's shows. Minus the potential gore.
A surreal Lightning Bolt performance at experimental Japanese festival TAICOCLUB, 2014
We finished up by talking about his appearance on Death Grips' latest record, the announcement of which caused international interest in Lucas' work to explode. The genre-bending trio have near-singlehandedly popularized elements of abrasive sound in modern hip-hop, attracting a cult-like mass of fans who follow their every move. It's an interesting change of career direction for Yeldham as he approaches the fourth decade of a performing career.
It's very weird when Zach [Hill, drummer] is a fan and he gets you to play with them, but their fanbase doesn't know you. The weirdest thing about it is I've become a gateway act. I get 12 year olds writing to me asking 'how do you make noise?' and I go 'use a contact microphone', then they're sending me videos of amplifying milk bottles and [screaming into it].
That's kind of amazing.
At the Alchemix show there was this young 12 year old chaperoned by his parents, who came and introduced him after the set. That's happening so much recently, the audience has gotten a lot younger. I'm no longer playing in front of jaded, 30-40 year olds, first generation noise experimental people. There's this new audience. I find that great.
A lot of people were complaining about my new US tour because I'm playing 21+ venues. I didn't know I had any fans that were under 21!
Despite their enduring online presence, Lucas hadn't heard of Death Grips when drummer Zach Hill asked to collaborate.
It was weird because I hadn't heard Death Grips when Zach asked me to play with them. I thought it must be a metal project because it sounded like one to me. I was asking him for a show in Sacramento and he said 'there's no shows here just come record for Death Grips'. I was getting in the car in San Francisco and going 'I should listen to a bit of this'.
They seem up your alley, to be honest.
Yeah I really like them, they're a good band. The last time I saw Zach was in 2010 when we played together, and I think he formed Death Grips after then. I knew his stuff before that but hadn't been following it afterwards, it was a big surprise. I was just happy to record with Zach and didn't care what he was doing but... I just assumed it was metal!
Footage of Zach and Lucas playing together pre-Death Grips. Sydney, 2010.
As Ernie began crying out for his mother so ended our interview. I helped carry his pram up the stairs and wished him luck for Thursday's show. Thanks for reading/listening and a massive thanks once again to Lucas for being so genuine.
If you'd like to support Justice Yeldham, he releases exclusive music through a low priced subscription service. And again, there's an album coming out on Feeding Tube Records later this year. Look out for that.
If you'd rather listen to the interview whole, here's a playlist with all four parts over on Soundcloud. Bonus content includes hilarious origins of the 'Granpa' pseudonym where Lucas was mistaken for his girlfriend's grandfather. Enjoy!
No Guitars Allowed :)