Louis Law is a British songwriter now living in Utrecht, Netherlands. Most of the music on his Arachnidiscs Recordings cassette, Hirudinea, was recorded on his laptop, some on his girlfriend’s slightly better one. He doesn’t own a microphone. He is perhaps best known as a prominent expert on Tommy Cooper and the occult, as well as the author of several books on the subject (Spoon Sigil Spoon available internationally for a reasonable price in all good stockists), and as the co-host of TrousersDown FM, an exciting and irreverent independent radio show broadcast to a select audience from the pits of West Somerset in the late 90s/early 00s. We sat down with our respective computers and phones to discuss life in The Netherlands, racism, socialism, classism, leeches, the occult, lo-fidelity and the blues.
Arachnidiscs Recordings: You’re living in Utrecht, which has been in the news over here lately as either a bastion of progressive social policy or a socialist hell-state depending on the media outlet. So, are you going to be living large off of that guaranteed income money?
Louis Law: This was news to me. As a non-citizen who only gets to vote for which water provider my city has, the local stories that interest me tend to just be the ones in which someone has died in an interesting or amusing manner, so thanks for telling me. I would only have found this out if I picked up a tabloid and read about a hard-up family suffocating under a deluge of unearned banknotes.
Good to see there wasn’t a public outcry about it. Maybe people here think they’re fucking scroungers, but if they do, they keep quiet about it. It’s a fairly left-leaning city, Utrecht, albeit in that slightly smug matter-of-fact continental way that I’m both in awe of and irritated by at the same time. It’s a boring, trite, cliched thing to say, but I find it odd as an English person to live in an essentially socialist society in which there’s virtually no discourse around class. It exists, of course, like it does everywhere, but everyone’s convinced themselves it doesn’t. To a Dutchman, being working class means nothing more than listening to Smartlap and drinking Heineken from a tiny glass. To be middle-class means nothing more than keeping a bunch of books you never read and not owning any curtains. As a Brit, I’ve spent my entire life constantly waiting for a class war to break out, but people here seem content to just keep calm and carry on. It’s confusing and infuriating.
ADR: That sounds not entirely unlike Canada. We like to pretend we’ve eradicated racism and classism and smugly point fingers at the USA, as if we’re doing any better. But while they seem to be actually acknowledging and fixing their social problems of late, we just passed a law that literally makes immigrants second class citizens.
LL: The national dialogue here around immigration is conducted in a way that’s completely alien to me. The UK sensibility has an isolationist bent, I don’t know how it makes the news across the pond but our membership of the EU is increasingly unpopular and was a major talking point during our recent election. That’s virtually absent here in Holland, but it’s entirely acceptable to blame every societal ill on the immigrant population. Second, third, fourth generation immigrants are referred to by their ethnicity, white people consider Zwarteschoolen (“black schools”) places their kids shouldn’t be… all sorts. The veil was just banned. All this seems racist to my ears. It’s like anywhere, vast swathes of people just want to stick to their own. Saying that, my perspective will always be as an outsider, I’m not convinced my observations should be taken all that seriously. There are many things I like about this country, and I’ve always been accommodated. I’m just drawn to speak about the negative aspects because they’re the things that are most readily different to what I grew up with. I like it here.
ADR: How out in the open is the “Zwarteschoolen” thing? I definitely see all those attitudes here in Toronto, but it’s all very hush-hush. People pretend they put their kids in predominantly white private schools because they claim, as a whole, the public school system is shot. But I think that’s just a rationalization for an attitude they don’t want to publicly voice.
LL: Very open. It’s something that you’d bring up at a dinner party or something. The attitude is that kids from a non-white Dutch background can’t speak the language, so their nice white kids will be dragged down to their level. Goes without saying that that’s untrue. The structure of the Dutch language facilitates a very blunt and honest approach to conversation, which is something they’re very proud of. I still speak around everything in that English way when I speak Dutch, which they find very amusing. I don’t think the attitudes you find here are all that different from other places, but people are happier to say it. The British public (which means private) school system is no better in practice. Very similar to the Canadian one, from what you and others have told me.
ADR: A difference between Canada and The Netherlands would have to be I have no idea what Smartlap is. Google isn’t helping. The Wikipedia entry is even in Ducth! From what I can tell by the humorously poor Google translation is it’s something akin to the Dutch version of Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel?
LL: Smartlap is the Dutch version of Schlager music. Very simple, catchy pop tunes about drinking, losing the love of your life and partying. The word smartlap means a handkerchief that you dry your tears on. Andre Hazes would be the most well known of these singers. To a foreigner it’s hard to take seriously, but Dutch people either adore it or are ashamed of it. Nothing in between.
ADR: What brought you to the Netherlands? Work? Romance? Treachery? How does it differ?
LL: I moved here to be with a woman. I don’t have any particular fondness for, or interest in, Dutch society or culture, and will probably never be able to fully integrate. That’s fine though – I speak the language, walk amongst them and have figured out how to act like I’m engaged. It feels like I’m deep undercover, basically. Whenever I feel like I’m becoming enamoured to the Dutch way of thinking, someone will say something about Moroccans or something and I’ll realise I’m not one of them. It’s nice enough though, and I enjoy living life from the outside looking in.
ADR: Would you consider your music ‘The Blues’?
LL: Ralph Macchio in Crossroads has more of a connection to the blues than me. It’s not something I know enough about to be able to expound on in any kind of intelligent or informed way – if I were to try and talk about what I think the blues is, I would be about two sentences in before I said something that’s probably racist. I don’t generally play the identity politics game as a rule, but blues does seem to me to be a form of music that’s intimately tied to the experience of black people in a very specific period of time in American history. I grew up in a shitty town on the Southwest coast of England. It was depressing enough, but I can’t say I’m anything other than influenced by the blues as a genre. There are about five or six blues figures I could name as people that I spend any real time listening to. John Lee Hooker, Robert Belfour, Junior Kimbrough, Blind Willie McTell. I would have said Howlin’ Wolf, but in all honesty I haven’t listened to any of his stuff in years.
ADR: Crossroads, for better or worse, was a huge influence on me as a 13 year old learning guitar. That Ry Cooder soundtrack affected my playing immensely. It’s pretty horrific, though, when you put it in the context of the blues, as you described it, being “intimately tied to the experience of black people in a very specific period of time in American history.” I mean, it’s a story about middle class white kid on a quest to become a “real” blues man. Who thought that premise was okay? Anyway, I’d agree your music is more influenced by the blues genre than anything anyone would immediately identify as the blues. But what I wouldn’t be surprised is if people name-drop Captain Beefheart. Is he an influence?
LL: I’d be more than happy to be compared to Beefheart. Doc At The Radar Station is the only record of his I own, but I’m familiar with his stuff and I’m a fan.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint a list of musical influences on these songs. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d find it easier to talk about the literary influences. I sweated over the lyrics, but the structure and music of the songs just kind of sprang out of that. I was reading Arthur machen, as I said, and also had just gotten into Harry crews. A feast of snakes. Watt by Beckett. I was reading a Dutch translation of Pound’s cantos as I wrote the lyrics. I don’t really remember what I was listening to. Alasdair Roberts? Charlie Louvin, I remember. The Scott Walker and Sunn O))) record.
ADR: Bish Bosch is a masterstroke, but I could only listen to it a total of one time. And I only got as far as watching that infuriatingly pointless video from the Sunn O))) collaboration. Too intense and intentionally alienating. And I say this as, like, an Einstürzende Neubauten fan. But now that you mention it, I can hear some similarities between your album and Walker’s. I did, however, listen to yours ten times in a row when I was dubbing the copies and I enjoyed it more and more each time. It’s certainly not “easy listening” though. Was the aggressive sonic attack intentional, as an artistic statement, or is it just how it came out?
LL: I definitely wasn’t trying to sound abrasive. It came out that way, due more to my lack of access to quality recording equipment than anything else, but I liked how it sounded. What similarities can you see between me and Scott Walker? I would never have made that comparison.
ADR: Not a comparison in any kind of carbon-copy way. More of an overall tone, maybe? Like, perhaps, the same aesthetic but approached differently. And there’s some bits where you’re doing a sort of demented crooning over those abrasive sounds.
LL: Well, I’ve always loved crooners. Mario Lanza was what you could call a formative influence, back in the days when I was first getting into music. Arch japester and master of tomfoolery Jimmy Fallon wasn’t lighting up the airwaves at that point, so I wasn’t put off by their eerie resemblance. These days, I probably would be, which is a real shame. Much like the fact that I can’t watch professional tennis because my father looks too much like Andy Murray for it to be a coincidence, these kinds of things can ruin a young man’s enjoyment of great art. I’m told I look like the singer from the Wombats. Same thing.
ADR: I know when you first pitched me your recordings I was a bit reluctant thinking, “Well, it’s a bit low-fi, innit?” But now I think it wouldn’t have worked as well any other way. And it’s not nearly as lo-fi I initially thought. It sounds really great. Not that I wouldn’t encourage you to, you know, actually buy a good microphone. But the grit really adds to Hirudinea in the way people like to think the lo-fi DIY approach is instantly magic. This is one of the rare cases I’ve heard lately where I think it’s true.
LL: I’m a big Bill Callahan fan, but I didn’t listen to those early Smog albums until earlier this year. That whole lo-fi aesthetic, particularly on Julius Caesar and Forgotten Foundation, is something I’ve only really recently begun to appreciate. Before that, anything I liked that people called lo-fi was stuff I liked because it was good, not because of the way it was recorded. It did make me think that there can be something, as you say, magical about using shitty recording equipment if everything slots together properly, which is something that seems completely counter-intuitive and probably infuriating to a whole sector of the general populace. I’m not the guy to explain why it works, but it definitely does.
ADR: I think the problem with lo-fi, as a genre, is people heard the great records Smog and Sebadoh recorded with limited equipment and then thought “Oh, I can just record onto a surplus tape recorder and it’ll be good enough too.” Eventually shitty just became acceptable. Which it’s not. Anyway, my point is your album sounds raw but not shitty. In the notes for Hirudinea you claim to be an expert on the occult and a scholar on the subject. Is this true? Does the occult enter into your music?
LL: I do have a keen interest in the occult, it’s true. I would say any infiltration it makes into my music is unintentional, but it’s quite likely to be there. Literature probably had a more conscious impact on this bunch of songs than anything else, although of course there’s a heavy crossover between literature and the occult, particularly in some of the stuff I read. It’s interesting, actually – I hadn’t thought of it before you asked me this, but I re-read The House of Souls at around the time I recorded these songs. Listening back to a couple of them (Fourth and Hide in particular), I can detect a real influence that was completely unintentional at the time.
ADR: What is it about leeches (hirudinea) that fascinates you? Or do they? Why did you name the album that?
LL: I love leeches, and I love Latin names. I don’t know how interesting it is for anyone to hear this (I fucking hate it when musicians try and explain themselves), but when I was recording the songs for this thing I started to feel like I was transferring something, and that the recordings were holding some kind of residual energy. The tape is a leech, it’s not a two-way thing. I don’t think anyone can genuinely take that energy back from it, they can just watch it writhe and crawl in a jar like I used to with leeches when I was a kid. That’s what music is to me. What pretentious twaddle.
Interred Views is a series of interviews with Arachnidiscs Recordings artists. This interview was conducted by Jakob Rehlinger.