K Leimer: underground music's secret visionary

The experimental electronicist talks to archive auteur Matt Werth of RVNG Intl. about tape and why perfection is uninteresting

Music Head to Head
RERVNG03_PROMO_PIC_HIGH-RES_001
Kerry Leimer, photographed in the late 70s

Kerry Leimer spent the late 70s and early 80s in a small studio in Seattle producing music that emulated the experimental sounds he heard coming from different corners of the world. In his work you can hear the floating flutes and driving rhythms of German bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, rippling piano work reminiscent of Harold Budd, and forays into the the synthesised world music of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell. 

Leimer produced a staggering amount of work that spanned genre, style, and instrumentation. He released most of the work on his own small label, Palace of Lights, but much of this music went relatively unheard for decades. Then, in 2011, amidst a resurgence of interest in modular synthesisers, loops, and new age music, Matt Werth, the head of NY-based experimental electronic label RVNG Intl., started to dig into Leimer’s catalogue. 

Werth is no stranger to making the old – and sometimes forgotten – new again. With his label’s FRKWYS series, he pairs younger artists like Julianna Barwick, Sun Araw and ARP with originators and legends like Ikue Mori, The Congos and Anthony Moore for full album collaborations. He and Leimer worked together to assemble a collection spanning the artist's career. The result, A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975–1983), is available now on RVNG Intl.

Matt Werth: I was first introduced to Kerry’s work in the film The Land of Look Behind, which is an early 80s documentary focused on Jamaican culture after Bob Marley’s passing. It’s a beautiful, meditative movie, and it was all scored by Kerry. It was such a surprising symbiosis of visuals and the music, and I was immediately obsessed with finding anything I could about Kerry’s work.

Kerry Leimer: That film was an interesting experience for me, because most of the music I generated for the project didn’t end up in the film. Alan Greenberg, the director, actually used a lot of pieces from earlier records I’d done. He had originally come across them from their use in James Turrell’s Roden Crater project. 

Matt Werth: Digging into more of your work after that, I started to realise your percussive, rhythmic genius… or maybe tendencies.

Kerry Leimer: I’d say tendencies is a better word!

Matt Werth: OK, we’ll go with tendencies. But, that’s been my past several years of listening – delving as deep as I can into drum programming and the early use of rhythm boxes and drum machines. So, I immediately started searching for more of your music. Soon after, I went to Jamaica to make an album with Sun Araw and The Congos, and in that album, Icon Give Thank, you can hear some textural similarities with Kerry’s more ambient work. So, Kerry’s music was looming quite large inspirationally. Eventually, our mutual friend Greg Davis and I started a conversation about Kerry’s work. He had recently reissued one of Kerry’s albums that had only been available on cassette, and Greg had some plans to reissue another cassette called Installation View, which was a compilation of unused, unheard material. The idea of reissuing that eventually transitioned into an even broader review of Kerry’s music.

Kerry Leimer: I actually think reissue is not quite the correct term – it’s only true in the sense that’s it’s been so many, many years. But the bulk of that stuff was never heard by more than five or ten people at the time. So, to be honest, I was a bit curious about why you would have any interest in it. There seems to be a revival of interest in early works on reel-to-reel tape, early synthesiser stuff, and so on that’s actually stronger than it was at the time. I’m still curious about what might be driving that.

Matt Werth: Really, I’m not entirely sure. There are lots of labels putting out incredibly elaborate box sets of very niche music. But, my personal experience of it is, having been immersed in electronic music over the past 15 years, it certainly is pioneering work for a lot of the current music I’ve come to love. It has a developmental appeal for me. 

“Now in a fully digital studio, there are countless plug-ins and a lot of processing technologies that try to reintroduce things like tape problems and noise and all of these other things that it was an enormous struggle to get rid of in the first place" – K Leimer

Kerry Leimer: There seems to be a real nostalgia for that era. Even now in a fully digital studio, there are countless plug-ins and a lot of processing technologies that try to reintroduce things like tape problems and noise and all of these other things that it was an enormous struggle to get rid of in the first place. 

Matt Werth: You’re right. Now, so much computer-based composition is unfortunately flawless. So, those blemishes and the fact that you’re playing so many of the instruments yourself – that’s what I think people are nostalgic for. 

Kerry Leimer: The way technology and digital workstations have progressed, there’s a drive to a perfection that’s really uninteresting for me. You can get down to ten thousandths of a second, but that can be too much.

Matt Werth: What I’ve been striving for with RVNG Intl. is to offer an electronic umbrella with a more colourful palette. I wasn’t purely brought up on electronic music, so I don’t have that purist sensibility with the label. For me, Kerry’s music works in that palette — it adds this very specific colour. 

RERVNG03_PROMO_PIC_HIGH-RES_005

Kerry, was that similar to what you were doing with your label, Palace of Lights?

Kerry Leimer: At the time, I was interested in what was going on with a few German bands and some English groups, and that European aesthetic seemed under-represented in the US at that time. With the label, I felt an obligation to make available the things that I had done – I wanted to know if it was at all meaningful or worthwhile to anyone else. And through that, I found people that had a similar idea about music. It’s an activity of personal understanding or exploration, but it’s not the goal to become a professional musician. It was people who, like me, wanted to make what they wanted on their own terms. 

“My label activity of personal understanding or exploration, but it’s not the goal to become a professional musician. It was people who, like me, wanted to make what they wanted on their own terms” – K Leimer

How does it feel to know that there are people out there, 30 years later, that are appreciating this music that you just made for yourself?

Kerry Leimer: It’s very gratifying, but it’s a two-sided thing. I still make music, so it’s a little strange to hear people talking about my music in the past tense. That’s a little odd.

Matt Werth: Maybe we should have waited another 30 years to do this compilation! But, with the collection, we’ve tried to communicate that Kerry’s music continues. He’s been incredibly prolific over the last 30 years and so much of it is still available and in circulation. Hopefully A Period of Review is a good introduction to this body of work that continues to grow. 

Kerry Leimer: I think that’s true, and it’s really appreciated. Honestly, if you want to know know what this experience has been like for me, in a single world, it’s kindness. It’s nice to know that after so many years of just plugging away at it on my own, that it had a little bit of traction. In some ways, that’s more profoundly meaningful than some kind of anonymous success. I’ve found people, like you, Matt, that are genuinely interested in this — and that was always the goal. I wanted this kind of small, connected group of people who share this particular interest, and I think that has a profound value that is very different from the more commercial aspects of music. 

More Music