LA Priest built a homemade analogue drum machine for his new album. We speak him and co-producer Erol Alkan about the record – and about what it’s like to have a child during isolation
GENE, Sam Eastgate’s new album as LA Priest, takes its title from an analogue drum machine that he built from scratch following the release of his 2015 album Inji. The GENE machine was developed for over a year between California, Wales, and England’s south coast using dozens of electrical circuits that Eastgate built himself, and is more unpredictable than your usual rhythm box, behaving somewhat like a real drummer. GENE’s unique sound underpins the entire record and gives it a genuine sense of unpredictability, but this isn’t a purely technical pursuit – its earthy sound only enhances Eastgate’s beautiful songwriting.
Building a working drum machine from scratch seems like an insane undertaking, considering how easy it is for a lot of musicians to just say ‘fuck it’ and use the presets, but it’s one that Eastgate says he only slightly regrets. “When you're working on something for nearly a year, it feels like you’re just in purgatory,” Eastgate laughs. “Even though this drum machine was perfect for me, my brain was so rewired to think logically that I couldn’t really write songs for a few months. I don’t recommend it – but then again, I do.”
GENE the album was co-produced by Eastgate with London DJ and producer Erol Alkan. It was the two artists’ first time back in the studio together in over a decade, when Eastgate was barely out of his teenage years playing in the cult UK band Late of the Pier. Alkan produced the group’s super inventive debut album Fantasy Black Channel and their final singles “Blueberry” and “Best in the Class” towards the end of the 2000s, but Eastgate has been busy since then on his own, first releasing Inji, then a collaborative record with Connan Mockasin under the name Soft Hair, and later co-producing the excellent debut album by Xenoula.
We caught up with LA Priest and Erol Alkan to talk about GENE and the latest single from the album, “Beginning”. Eastgate spoke from his home in the mountains of North Wales, where he currently lives with his partner and their recently born child. The rural location seemed to prepare them for the period of self-isolation we’re currently finding ourselves in. Eastgate’s connection to the outside world is spotty – he’s still using a landline phone. “We were battling technology while we were making this record,” Erol Alkan laughs while we hover on a conference call waiting for him to join. “Telephones, internet connections, all that stuff.”
How are you guys faring with the lockdown?
Erol Alkan: I’m very lucky to live where I live – I can live and work and do anything that I do on a daily basis. The social distancing part is tricky, and it has started to show its effects, but we are lucky to be where we are.
LA Priest: I feel like I’m maybe more equipped for it, ’cos I’ve been practising social distancing probably longer than anybody else – I’m always isolated somewhere.
Sam, is it right that you’re expecting a kid right now?
LA Priest: I expected one, and my expectations were met. That’s another thing about this whole situation. Right now, nobody is seeing him – which isn’t bad, because I always think newborns should be given a chance to get rid of that first squashed wrinkly appearance a bit. We definitely feel the isolation in that respect, because usually you’d have a lot to do and a lot of visitors. We’re on our own up here.
You’ve had to cancel your comeback gigs because of all this, too.
LA Priest: I didn’t really know how to react, because everybody’s going through the same thing. It was just my bad luck. So many people have it worse. At least I’ve got more time to spend here with the family. The strange thing was just not playing shows for so long and everything building up to this. It’s like, “If only that show had been about a week earlier,” you know? It was a matter of days. I haven’t played live properly for a while – maybe about four years – so the temptation is to think, “How would that have gone?”
It was going to be a bigger, better version of (my previous live shows). I had lots of thoughts about whether to change everything or have a full band. I will be doing that one day, but right now I was just looking at it and thinking how fun it was going to be unpacking the box containing all the gear, like a magic show.
“The track would not sound like it does if we weren’t living in a wood cabin with these pine walls and pine ceilings and pine trees outside” – LA Priest
The vibe of your new album, GENE, feels a little less chaotic than Inji.
LA Priest: Well, originally, I intended to make much more of a record with a really singular sound that went all the way through. I had that idea in mind – and I just hit a brick wall. It turned out to be really good for this record, because it has so many elements from that idea and then parts where I’m just like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do this instead,” veering off wildly to one side. It was a good balance in the end.
How’d you get on board, Erol?
Erol Alkan: Sam sent me a stream of it, pretty much all recorded, and said, “It’s gonna be my next album, tell me what you think.” I remember listening to it in a hotel room. There were so many new things that I was hearing in there that I was really captivated by. He was trying to find new ways of writing songs and new ways of communicating certain emotions. It’s one of those records that on first listen you remember certain points, and then you’re captivated to go back in and pick up on all the little things in between. And then you want to pick up on all the bits in between those parts as well. Before even thinking twice about my workload, I was like, “If you want me to be involved...”
Did you work on it remotely?
Erol Alkan: Yeah, until the last bit, when Sam came up to London for a few days. Even if you’re working remotely, I still think there will always be a moment when you need to hear things through that other person’s ears. That difference is integral to getting something right.
We’ve got history from spending time in the studio, going back a long time now. There’s a dialogue you gain from that, like friends, or couples, where you can finish each other’s sentences – this is the musical version of that. Sam and I share a love of unusual and esoteric music. We can hear the references – even a really simple sound, like a bongo, I can hear it and I can know why he’s used that bongo.
LA Priest: I’ve listened to a certain amount of records in my life, but Erol is on a totally different level. When Erol comes in, he’s like, “It can be done like this, or this, or this, or this.” He’s got 20 different ways that he can actually do this one kind of mood. He will know the different things that can be combined in a track, and understand exactly how those can go together – a trumpet that sounds like a bongo, and a bongo that sounds like a Spanish guitar.
Erol Alkan: There are a few moments on the record that I think, emotionally, are incredibly intense. When I hear it, I hear it completely devoid of any baggage of being part of the creative process. I listen to it in the same way as someone that hears it for the first time. It’s the character, the charisma, the resonance. Nothing can hide that.
LA Priest: I’ve learned a few technical tricks watching you work, but I don’t really learn that much technically from you. I learn way more about how something is going to feel. I think the way you work isn’t overly technical. It’s more about, “Does this sound need to be in your face, loud? Does it need to grab you? Does this need to give way to the next sound? And how is it going to push and pull?” It’s not like an engineer reading a book of formulas to achieve these things. I think that naivety, not just in making music but understanding the creative process, is so much more important than how experienced or professional you are.
When you went to the studio, was that the first time you’d been in the same studio making music since Late of the Pier?
LA Priest: That was in 2019, so it had been about 12 years. Is that right?
Erol Alkan: It actually is. The last time would have been mixing “Best in the Class” and “Blueberry”.
LA Priest: Last time we worked together, I was 19/20. I’m hopefully as naive as I was back then. Erol has the same approach that he had. We go with our instincts.
Erol Alkan: Those kinds of relationships don’t tend to change unless there’s been some kind of major personal upheaval, and that’s not happened to us. So we did pick it up where we left off – but along the way we’ve had separate journeys that we subconsciously bring out, and that informs it too.
How did the idea of GENE, the drum machine, come about?
LA Priest: That was really about having a writing tool. After my first album, I’d finished a few tours and was thinking “Right, what am I going to do next?” I wanted a really quick way of writing an idea. I tried a few drum machines out, because I was going on the road and I needed a box that could keep time, basically, but then I thought, “Why does it have to be all these other things? It’d be cool if it was way more of a freeform, flexible thing, a bit more like a synthesiser.” I had all these previous experiences of drum machines being very rigid. I wanted it to just be like, “This beat goes here, and you can slide this point wherever you want it.” Just like a real drummer, you could play something a few milliseconds early or late and change the sounds however you want them. “I want this to be more aggressive. I want this to sound like a bell ringing. I want this to be a conventional drum.”
I’d already made so many weird bits of stuff for my first album, one of them being a synth that everyone thinks is an amazing guitar. The first track on that album has layers upon layers of guitar solos, but it was just because I built a synth wrong and that was the only sound it could make. So I knew that if I built something, something interesting was gonna happen. I think it did exactly what I wanted. It made it possible for me to think outside the box more. It really just felt like an extension of me.
“I listen to (the album) in the same way as someone that hears it for the first time” – Erol Alkan
If you listen to a lot of electronic music, you get used to certain sounds. You know what an 808 kick drum or a 909 hi-hat sounds like. So it’s quite rare hearing something like this, where it has similarities to some sounds but is still fairly unfamiliar.
LA Priest: I could have just copied the circuits for those other sounds. When I was starting out, I was having some references to other circuits, like the 808, but I didn’t want people to think I’d made a custom 808. The bass drum is vaguely related to an 808 bass drum, but half the circuits are missing and it’s got some other weird stuff. If you wanna get technical, the snare most closely resembles four of the different drum sounds off Roland’s first drum machines just layered together – which is closer to a real snare, I think, than a lot of other drum machines, because when you hit a snare drum you are hitting all of these different frequencies. So I hadn’t seen that before. It got weirder after that. I couldn’t really tell you what’s going on in other parts. I’m really proud of it, but I’m also glad it’s done.
Erol Alkan: We had a conversation about the drum machine after I’d been working on the first track together, “What Moves”. I said, “Sam, the BPM is wildly fluctuating on this.” He says, “Oh yeah, because this is the drum machine.” He started telling me all about it. I think some people would have just straightened it all out and made it more manageable on the grid (of the audio editing software). When it’s on the grid, it’s easier to engineer it, but I’m always happy to work off-grid. I was really happy because, in the context of the record, how much of it is Sam has been massively expanded. He’s created the drums from his own hand. It glides with the BPM, which would have affected how Sam played to it as well, so that would have dictated the rhythm and those subtle shifts that occur throughout the whole track. I felt it had to be showcased as much as possible.
Your new track, “Beginning”, is out. What can you tell us about it?
LA Priest: The song has actually been around way longer than any of the others. It was demoed while we were in the studio doing “Blueberry”/”Best in the Class”. As you’d expect, it was very different sounding back then. Everybody knew there was something there, to the point where we played it when we went into a record meeting when we were trying to get signed. I remember meeting with Virgin and all these executives were sat around this big table, and we were jumping around on our chairs playing a demo of that song. It was really fast-paced and electro.
Me and my partner went out to America and we were living in this log cabin. We went to LA and were thinking of living out there, because all these musicians and our friends are out there. But we decided there was something not right about it. At the last minute, after we were looking at renting this flat in the middle of LA, we took a U-turn and went to live in the mountains. I think the track would not sound like it does if we weren’t living in a wood cabin with these pine walls and pine ceilings and pine trees outside. It was just totally frozen and isolated, a literally chilled place. The track just came out like that, really easygoing. So that song, from the way it started, is probably the biggest change in direction I’ve done in a song.
The video has an appropriately isolated vibe too.
LA Priest: The video was shot last autumn. I think people might think we shot it now, during all this stuff, because I’m walking around on my own in the countryside. People will probably read into it a lot. It’s basically me wearing a hat that’s about two metres tall, playing a guitar that’s about double-size. I’m walking through the countryside wearing a guitar that I then set on fire. I spent a week making that guitar, so it was a bittersweet moment. From the neck upwards, it’s charcoal, the body is completely untouched.
LA Priest’s new album GENE is out June 5