An Interview with Daniel Land
If you don’t know who Daniel Land is, you should. He formerly was in the band Daniel Land & The Modern Painters, and was a member of the band The Steals and the Engineers. To say that his career has produced some impressive music would be an understatement. In 2016, Land released In Love with a Ghost which landed on our top ten list at the Somwherecold Awards 2016. Land answers questions about his musical history, his ambient project riverrun, and his writing and recording process.
Hello Daniel. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I guess I would like to start by asking you about your past work by way of introduction. Can you tell our readers what projects you have been involved in previously and what projects you are currently involved in musically?
Well, thanks for interviewing me! I’ve been releasing music for a decade now, but I was active a long time before that as well. I suppose the centre of what I do would be the dream-pop/shoegaze songs I release – first under the name Daniel Land & The Modern Painters, and more recently as a solo artist. Late last year I released a new album of songs called In Love With A Ghost, which I’m just coming to the end of promoting now. I also make ‘atmospheric landscape’ music under the name riverrun. I was also previously a live member of the band Engineers, along with Ulrich Schnauss.
You are incredibly adept at moving through various genres with what feels like a particular ease. Can you talk a bit about your choices to express yourself through shoegaze/dream-pop, ambient, or sophisit-pop and what draws you to these particular genres as vehicles for your own artistic voice?
I suppose like a lot of artists I’m quite creatively restless. One of the advantages of the way I operate is that when I’m at the end of a big project, like a song album for example, I can switch over and spend a few weeks working in a different realm. It’s good crop rotation, and it means that I don’t have to burn myself out with one particular way of working.
My creative role-models are people whose work spans several genres, whether it be musicians who flip back and forth between genres, or writers who work in a couple of different styles. In fact, that’s probably a good analogy – one of the things I like about the writer Edmund White, for example, is that he’s predominantly known as a writer of gay fiction, but every couple of books he’ll throw out something surprising, like a historical novel about Stephen Crane, or a biography of Proust. It’s refreshing. I’ve always felt a great kinship with writers, much more so than musicians in many ways. I think it’s something to do with working mostly on my own.
As riverrun, you released Romer Shoal this year. Since this is your third ambient release as riverrun, can you talk a bit about how you approach writing and recording ambient music? Has anything change about your mental process when it comes to working in this genre over the last 3 or so years?
The riverrun project is a hard one to analyse because it’s one of the most personal things I do. Those pieces are nostalgic explorations of geography and memory, and the tracks are named after specific landscapes, memories, even certain times of day. I’m really delving into my own history with those pieces in a way that makes me surprised when other people respond to it. I guess the pieces are so bound up, in my mind, with the memories that I cannot separate them. I really don’t make them with an audience in mind.
I have a very conditional relationship with that project, I really have to be in the right mood to make those pieces. Certain conditions give rise to them – quiet Sundays, a little bit of time to myself, a sense of nostalgia about something in my past that I’m thinking about on any given day. Most times I’m really busy and don’t really have any time to make any riverrun pieces, I need a certain emptiness of mind in order to make them. So periodically I’ll take myself on a little break, to certain areas or landscapes that inspire me, and it’s usually around then that a new crop of ideas come along.
It’s the biggest mystery to me, the riverrun project. I’m not really sure how those pieces fall together or why they sound the way they do – they’re made with the cruddiest, most crude equipment, yet they have a kind of mystery to them that isn’t always present in my other work. And in a funny way I think it is probably the most creative thing I do as well. It’s certainly the most distinctive; I don’t know many antecedents for that kind of style, apart from maybe Brian Eno’s record On Land, or William Baranski’s Disintegration Loops.
Warren Ellis, the graphic novelist, said something very nice about the riverrun pieces – totally unprompted, I must say, as I have no idea how he found it – that they were something “foggily comforting for the forebrain”. That’s almost exactly how I see it too, they seem to serve that function for me.
Your soundscapes are just beautiful. Where do you draw inspiration for them and what sort of draws you to particular tones and textures in writing and recording them?
Thanks! Well, I suppose this follows on from what I said before really. I’m not really sure why my stuff sounds the way it does, it just seems to turn out sounding pretty good most of the time. I certainly don’t use any special equipment – most of my music, even the stuff that has been played on the radio a lot, has been made in my own home studios, and using fairly primitive equipment – so I can’t really put it down to anything specific other than my ears and the kinds of judgements I make in the process really.
That said, I’ve always been attracted to big ambient sounds; there’s something about the right combination of echo and modulation that I just cannot resist. I remember when I was about 12 or 13 there was a busker in Exeter city centre playing an electric mandolin through loads of guitar pedals, and I just thought it was the most amazing, entrancing sound. I had never heard anything like it, and I watched him for ages. It wasn’t too dissimilar to shoegaze actually – no wonder I liked the Cocteau Twins and Slowdive when I first heard them, years later.
But even before that I had latched onto those kind of big, wide-open soundscapes. Over the last couple of years I’ve been critically re-listening to a lot of the music I was exposed to as a child or a young teenager, and one of the things I noticed is that a lot of them also have that big sense of space about them. For example, I loved the Deacon Blue song “Circus Lights”. The album that that’s from, When The World Knows Your Name, is a really commercial 1980s album, and some of the songs on it aren’t amazing, but it has amazing spaciousness in it, and some of the guitars are almost proto-shoegaze in a way. So I can sort of trace this line through to what I was listening to at an early age, through 80s pop records and then Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins and so on, all the things I got into later on.
As for where it comes from, I’m not really sure, except that I remember also being fascinated with echoes as a child. My parents’ house had this echoey stairwell, and I remember being about four years old and equally petrified and thrilled by the idea of echoes, being alternately excited by it and also having bad dreams about it as well, almost as if the echo itself had a consciousness and was speaking back. Very odd – but probably signals that there’s some kind of subconscious thing going on with this fascination with echoes and reverb…
It’s no secret that I loved In Love with a Ghost. It’s an incredible album. However, it moves you away from the sound of The Modern Painters (although I hear something of “Sleeping with the Past” in Ghost) and Engineers. First, what inspired you to make a solo album of this sort and how did you develop this very different sound and feel as a vehicle for your music?
Well I suppose firstly I should clarify that I was never really a big part of the band Engineers. I was really, just a bass player in the live version of that band – by the time that I was involved the band was really a de facto solo project by Mark Peters, and so I was just helping out a friend, really.
In terms of my new record – well, I suppose that, like most people, I have fairly catholic tastes, and a wide range of influences, some of which are more apparent in my work than others. One of the things I was trying to do with In Love With A Ghost was to try to mix up some of those influences a little bit, incorporating into my “sound” things that were part of my musical upbringing, but which I’d never really acknowledged creatively before, like those sophisti-pop bands, or the Deacon Blue album I mentioned earlier. It was a really fun experiment – but now that I’ve scoped out this territory, I think I’ve exhausted it, really. There are elements that I might draw upon in future releases, but to be honest the process of making the record was so debilitating and exhausting that I don’t think I want to do another one like this.
My next album will be a return to a more straightforward guitar-based sound, I think. That’s really where my heart lies – the guitar is my main instrument, and that dream-pop style is pretty much how I play guitar, and I’ve got a whole repertoire or tricks and treatments I’ve developed. But I dunno, from time to time I also like to wander off the track a bit to explore some other areas as well. I think this album was a good example of that happening. There may be more things like this in the future, or not. I’m pretty impulsive creatively so I won’t rule anything out.
I suppose I should also say that I don’t really consider this a solo album though, as such. I see it as a continuation of what I started with The Modern Painters records. Those records were made largely by myself in the studio, to be honest; sometimes it was in collaboration with my friends Graeme Meikle and Oisin Scarlett, but a lot of the time I put down most of the instruments myself, and got some of the guys in at the end to throw down some other colours. The process was the same this time, but with different musicians.
That said, I would love to go back and make another Daniel Land & The Modern Painters record – like, a proper record with everyone collaborating equally, a record that reflects the more raucous sound that live band had. It was really just my fault that that didn’t happen back in the day, I took too much charge of proceedings and I think other people didn’t get much of a creative look-in.
From what I have read about In Love with a Ghost, you had quite a journey in making it. Can you speak a bit about that journey and sort of the life experiences that shaped its eventual final form?
Well I started this album with great hopes, as is usually the case! There were a lot of changes in my life when I began working on it. I had just moved to London after living in Manchester for twelve years, I’d split up the Painters, enrolled on a music course, and met lots of new people. I was in a new city, and everything was fresh and exciting, and scary too. But ‘good scary’. Almost at the same time I met my current partner as well – so my whole life had changed, within a few short weeks. That energy and excitement fed into the album, and it was a really positive start.
And then a few things happened in my life that kind of knocked the stuffing out of me for a while. I was without a place to live for a few months, living on people’s couches and traveling back and forth between Manchester and London, which was quite exhausting. And when I finally got a new place, I had some really strange and unexpected health issues, like this weird inner ear problem that affected my hearing and balance, on and off, for about a year. I wasn’t able to work, the album was lying around half-finished, I didn’t have a band, and I was frankly too depressed to really do anything at all.
And I think it took about a year, maybe a year and a half, to get out of this weird funk – by which time, it was quite hard to pick up where I’d left off with the album; it was such a complicated piece of work, and it all seemed a bit bewildering and monolithic. It took a lot of effort to finish it, and then when it was finished I found that it took even more willpower to summon up the energy to put myself out there again. It was a crisis of confidence that went very deep, and for a while I considered walking away from it all, and not releasing the album.
But I’m glad that I did, because this album has ended up opened up a lot of doors for me, and I now feel like I’m going through one of the craziest creative periods of my life.
How do you approach lyric writing? Is there a process or is it random and different with every song you begin to birth?
I collect phrases. I always keep a notepad with me, everywhere I go, and most days I’ll come up with something – a word, a phrase, or just an evocative track title. It’s quite sad though because about ninety-
five percent of the words I write never make it to the record. That’s mainly because of the way I work – the music is almost always completely finished as a backing track before I try to put words and melodies on top of it. At that stage I’ll go through my reams and reams of notes and try to find bits that work – but there’s a very high failure rate because some things that look lovely on paper just don’t translate to singing. So I have reams and reams of lovely phrases that never fit in any of my songs, and I’m not sure what to do with them. Maybe I should ask someone else to set them to music!
Funnily enough though, the track title is usually in place long before I start to write lyrics. At the point of making the music I normally know exactly what I want the feeling and sentiment to be, so the title is in place at that point. I love track titles – I have lists of them that have never been used, they’re just waiting for the right situation.
You’ve express some connection with the city of New York on this record. As an artist, how do you see ‘place’ as important in how you go about thinking through your art? I guess, in a broader sense, how do you see environment playing into what art is and does?
It’s something I think about a lot because where I come from is a really quiet, rural market down in South West England, but as long as I can remember I was in love with the idea of the big city, and yearned to escape. I suppose that’s why I’ve gravitated to bigger and bigger cities – starting with little baby steps like staying with friends in Exeter in Devon as a teenager, and then moving away to live in Manchester, and then London, and then this recent habit of spending time in New York.
But concurrent with that has been a kind of nagging feeling that the city doesn’t always provide me with the quietness and solitude to do very serious and sustained creative work. I suppose the riverrun project is one way of addressing that, since it involved the creation, or I should say revisiting, of mental spaces that are nourishing to me, in a way.
I seem to be attracted to extremes – I love New York City, and would probably live there full time if I could, but I also love very quiet and remote places. Some of the best times in my life were spent in the St Audries Bay area on the North Somerset Coast, here in the UK – my family had a holiday place near there, and I lived there mostly alone for two summers running, in my late teens and early twenties. It can be really bleak there, but I used to love the grey days and the walks along the rugged coast, and getting to spend a lot of time on my own. A lot of the mood of that time went into the first riverrun record, which is really a nostalgic reflection on those times.
I’ve often seen the riverrun pieces as the flip-side to my song work, in a way, and the two albums that I released last year were, I suppose, the first time I’ve made that explicit. Both albums were heavily inspired by the time that my partner and I spent in and around New York, and both come from the same musical source material in some ways, but whereas In Love With A Ghost is the kind of night-time, inner city record, Romer Shoal is about some of the coastal areas around New York Harbour and the New Jersey coast that we also visited. For a while I considered releasing them as a double album; I chickened out of that in the end, but it’s an idea I might revisit in the future.
I usually like to ask artists about particular songs on albums that strike me within the context of the album as a whole. Can you talk a bit about the writing and recording of “Everyone’s Got a Guy Garvey Song” and the beautifully understated “Whistling Gypsy”?
Guy Garvey is the singer from the band Elbow. But the song isn’t really about him; it only mentions him briefly, so the title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more a song about Manchester, and what it was like to live there for 12 years, to be part of the local underground music scene, to be in a more-or-less successful band, and all the images that – in retrospect – I now associate with my time in the city; the wet streets, grey mornings, long winters, falling leaves.
It’s a bit nostalgic. This was one of the things I wrote during my first year in London, so I was just starting to think about my time in Manchester retrospectively, as a period in my life that had passed. I had most of the ideas in place for the new album but needed a couple of tracks that were a bit more upbeat. I was studying at the University of Westminster and living on campus, and one Sunday morning I hired a small recording studio on site, and worked out the chords on the piano, recording them at the same time. The rest of the instruments were added by myself and my collaborator Brin Coleman (aka Bing Satellites) over the next year or so.
As for ‘Whistling Gypsy’, that’s a song goes back several years now, in fact I wrote it in 2003. It was always hanging around, the Painters played it live a few times, and a version of it slipped out of the B-side to the ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ 7″ single. It was also nearly on the second side of The Space Between Us but it never really fit the album. Wherever I put it, it disputed the flow of the album.
But I was surprised when fans started getting in touch to say that they loved it and would I please, please release it on CD! I had to tinker with it a bit to make it fit, so there’s new drums, bass, and extra guitars by Andrew Saks and Gerard Hopes, but I’m very pleased that I was semi-pressured by people to put it on the album. In fact it fits in a lot better with this album than it would have on any other release, so it made sense to hold it back until now.
What artists do you regularly return to for inspiration? These can be literary, visual, musical, etc. Also, are there any recent bands or musicians that have really caught your attention?
There are certain people that I return to again and again. Musically, it would be people like Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins, Talking Heads, The Blue Nile, and a few others. Wherever I am with music I always seem to find my way back to them, so I suppose those are the linchpins in some ways.
But as I alluded to before, a lot of my inspirations comes from outside music. There are some artists that have been incredibly influential to me in a less obvious way, and I would include amongst those the painter Agnes Martin, the novelists Edmund White, John Updike, and Anthony Burgess, photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe, philosophers like Richard Rorty, and too many other little obsessions to mention really. I’ll tell you though – one thing I have noticed recently is that I’m quite able to separate someone’s artistry from their actual work, and in that sense I really appreciate the artistic integrity of people like Patti Smith, and love reading about them, without necessarily being an admirer of the music.
As for recent bands or musicians, that’s kind of a difficult question at the moment really. I tend to go through phases of disengaging from new music, and I’m in one of those phases at the moment. I really can’t think of any modern bands that I really like, aside from some fairly obvious things – I love Beach House for example, their album Bloom is probably my favourite record from the last five years, and I also loved the two albums they released on 2015, Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars. This week I’ve been loving the new album by Sohn, Rennen, particularly the tracks ‘Signals’ and ‘Harbour’, which I think are just magical.
But aside from that I don’t really know – it seems like every other year I get into a mad phase with discovering new artists but for the last year or so I’ve been a bit more focused on politics and podcasts – for obvious reasons! One of the things that only people close to me know, for example, is that I’m massively interested in US politics and I spend probably fifteen or twenty hours a week reading books, articles or listening to podcasts around the subject. One day I’ll write a song about what it was like to be in New York on the night of the 2016 election – one of the most distressing days of my life! – so maybe something will come from all this time that I could have been listening to music!
I want to thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I guess that just leaves one more question from me. What’s next for Daniel Land?
Well my life is just chaos at the moment, which is partly due to the fact that I’ve decided to do a Master’s degree in Record Production just at the time when I’m having one of the biggest creative spasms of life.
But to summarize what I’ve got on the go at the moment: I’m about halfway through making an album of straightforward shoegaze/dream-pop songs which will be a return to the kind of stuff I was doing around the time of Love Songs For The Chemical Generation. I’m really excited about that. As well as that, I’m going to be making an album in a kind of alt-country style which will fulfill the requirements of my Master’s degree; that will also be released either as an album or a series of EPs.
I’m also mixing the first Swoone album, which is a collaboration between my guitarist Gary Bruce, and Siobhan DeMare (who readers might know from Mono, or her collaboration with Robin Guthrie as Violet Indiana).
And at the same time, I’ve become incredibly interested in making new music under my riverrun moniker as well. That project was dormant for several years, and I really felt that I’d run out of things to say with it, but all of a sudden it seems like very fertile territory, so I’ve got a few things planned for that, including a double-album, a film soundtrack that I’ve been commissioned to do, and this slightly unusual generative project as well.
Who knows what will be finished first, but it’s almost like, after four years out of the game, it’s all been bottled up and waiting to manifest itself in the world, so the next couple of years should be very interesting, that’s safe to say!
[…] well as his ambient compositions under the name riverrun and much more. I interviewed Land back in 2017 and now he has been gracious enough to do some catching up on his past few years, his new album The […]
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