Take a bizarre Roman road trip with James Brooks through his minimalist topographical-inspired album on Mute
Using the organic and pure rhythms of an electric guitar, former Appliance guitarist James Brooks interprets his 'road drawings' into a banging new solo project, aptly named, Land Observations. Brooks freshly released EP, 'Roman Roads IV-XI', is compiled with minimalistic and yet, complex, head nodding layers. With historical and topographical interests colliding and creating a conceptual stream of soft tracks, Land Observations soaks up its surrounding environment and projects a visual reaction.
It was important that the record wasn't just about where I lived. It felt necessary to be about the bigger picture of the Roman road network.. So the record purposefully has a geographical cross-section of roads
Tracks such as “Aurelian way” and “From Nero’s Palace” radiate the vestiges of ancient empires in the most contemporary sense, blending the past and the future with persistent beats and serene melodies. Brooks essentially takes us with him on a road trip through early architectural landscapes in his album.
Dazed Digital: How did the idea of interpreting geographical features into music first occur to you?
Land Observations: Well, it's one of those situations where you realise it has been burning away for many years without you fully grabbing hold of it... at least within my music making. However, with my art practice this idea of observation has been there for sometime- of looking at the world from a specific, acute angle.
Then, when I first started to pass by a while ago the 'Kingsland Road' in Dalston, London, I began asking myself what had gone before - the history of its previous incarnation as an historical route into and out of London. As I researched more, I liked the way some roads had evolved into major routes from city to city as motorways or A roads, then others had been abandoned for public use - becoming faint echoes of their former selves. Then as a listener, I'm instinctively drawn to music about places, whether through titles or the background information. Along with, for a long time I've had a fascination, amongst other things, with the repetitive motorik sound of the post-war kosmiche bands - Neu, Harmonia, Kraftwerk, Can etc.
DD: How was this process devised?
Land Observations: Once I had decided that this record was going to be about writing instrumentals for different 'Roman Roads' around Britain, Europe and Asia, I started researching various routes that interested me- finding out a little bit about them. Whether the roads travelled through 'mountainous, coastal areas etc...' or, whether it was a road about consolidation, rather than exploration. For example, for the track 'From Nero's Palace' it was important that it had a comfortable/slightly self satisfied feel... hopefully akin to Nero's hedonistic, indulgent life style and over the top building program. In counterpoint to this, the recording - 'The battle of Watling Street' needed to have a melancholic sense of loss about it. I guess in my own way it was trying to channel 'sound' towards being specific and emotive of environments. Initially the pieces of music were more tied to down to consistent systems and rules, but it evolved that I realised I needed to retain an element of flexibility in within each piece - creating a specific mood, dynamism within the music. Also, it was important that the record wasn't just about where I lived. It felt necessary to be about the bigger picture of the Roman road network - like a big interlocking communication network.. So the record purposefully has a geographical cross-section of roads.
DD: Has geography, roads and landscapes always been of personal interest to you?
Land Observations: Of course, instinctively it's there for all of us in some way - the landscape as a part of our lives - and I don't mean just the idea of picturesque spaces. More specifically, yes it has been hovering around. When I was first at art school, I started taking photographs and making paintings of electric substations and functional architecture, as I liked the way they were so real and unforgiving. This sort of developed onto 'Roads' as simple, minimal sculpture. Then a few years back, I filmed and showed a 3 hour road journey across France, Belgium and Germany back in real time - encouraging the ideas in travel of boredom, monotony and more importantly 'daydreaming.' I thought it worked well of just setting up a space for the introspection of travel if you like... almost like reality TV - but others might not agree... I like the way roads are like modernist functional sculpture - minimalism that Carl Andre would have been proud of! So, I guess my 'road drawing' inside the album are part of all this continuum....
DD: What has been the most interesting fact you've discovered in your research into Roman roads for this project?
Land Observations: Well... I've got to be careful, this could become a very Monty Python moment..."the aquaduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation...." Plus, I don't want to become like a musical time team... But I guess the facts that have stuck in my mind are, that Scotland had Roman roads, from an early conquest. A well known one, but still damn impressive, is Nero's revolving dining room, and that a Roman mile is a thousand paces - which I think is so beautifully simple...
DD: What's next?
Land Observations: I'd like to travel some of the roads across Italy that I've researched... 'The Aurelian way' looks and sounds like it would be a fantastic road to travel- taking in some great landscapes and places- So I'll would like to do this as a road trip at some point and report back... Then, I've actually have already started demoing a new set of tracks, as there are many more Roman Roads for me to write about- I think there was approximately 50,000 miles of roads...
Text by Lucy Chen