The Elephant Visual Album

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When I trace my musical history back to its origins, there are four or five key discoveries from my childhood that have gone on to become foundational cornerstones of my taste. I’ve written about many of them here from my first iPod and 2006 pop music to entire genres that I stumbled into by accident all thanks to people with better taste than me. I measure my life with music, and these events have all become part of my personal mythology; milestones that have gone on to inform not only my taste, but who I am as a person.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a dad who cared about music. While that mostly relegated itself to me raiding his CD collection to rip classic rock albums onto my iPod, there were also a small handful of (then) modern bands that we bonded over as I began to show an interest in music. The shared section of our musical Venn Diagram has expanded over the years as my taste has continued to mature, grow, and spiral in unexpected ways, but the first “new” band my Dad and I found common ground with was none other than The White Stripes. 

Luckily, because my dad loved The White Stripes, this meant I had the band’s entire discography at my fingertips. He owned their studio albums, B-sides, singles, live albums, demos, side projects, you name it. As a result, I have a worryingly-deep connection to (and knowledge of) Jack White’s musical catalog.

Around this same time, I was also taking guitar lessons. Aside from the standard “starter” songs like “Smoke On The Water” and “Pipeline,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” proved to be low-hanging, easy-playing fruit for a 10-year-old Taylor. Between borrowing the CDs and playing the songs, I showed enough of an interest that my dad decided to take me to see the group on tour in 2003 for my second concert ever. 

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While I’ll admit that the 1.5-decade marination time of nostalgia plays a huge part in it, Elephant remains one of my favorite albums of that genre, this era, and my entire life. Hits and overplayed singles aside, there’s a lot to love about Elephant, and there’s a reason it remains the band’s most enduring release this many years later. 

Literally every track on Elephant hits. “Seven Nation Army” is an unparalleled anthem of the early-2000’s. “Hardest Button to Button” bears one of the best drumlines of the decade. “Ball and Biscuit” is one of my favorite songs of all time with its lumbering blues riff that slowly erupts into blistering guitar solos. There isn’t a wasted moment or an unpolished idea. Elephant is rock in its purest form. A feeling that can’t quite be put into words made by two people with two instruments. Perfect.

As eye-opening as Elephant was, sometimes your favorite albums can slide into the background of your life without you ever noticing. New music, other mediums, or life events can keep you from venturing back, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, this had absolutely happened to me with The White Stripes. It’s almost like taking art for granted. I’d listened to Elephant so many times, heard “Seven Nation Army” in so many different movies and TV shows and commercials that at a certain point it just kind of feels like “well, yeah, everyone knows this album is great, so what’s the point?” 

While my relationship with Elephant is ongoing, a chance encounter with a designer completely renewed my love for the record with a project that was crafted as lovingly as the album itself. Sometimes the classics are not only worth revisiting, but worth diving into on a microscopic level, and that’s exactly what Chandler Cort did with this beloved album. 

Creating what he calls a “visual album” Chandler transposed Elephant onto a 9-foot scroll that tracks the entire record second-by-second. Interpreting each instrument’s volume and the exact starting point for every word sung, Chandler’s creation is one-of-a-kind and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. There’s something to be said for standing face-to-face with one of your favorite records and taking in the entire thing as it towers above you.

While it’s impossible to translate the feeling of interacting with the scroll itself, I wanted to share this beautiful and original piece of art with as many people as possible. Not only was Chandler kind enough to let me share his incredible work on Swim Into The Sound, but he also sat down with me to talk about the process that went into making it as well as his personal background with the band. So without further adieu, I’m excited to present The Elephant Visual Album. 

Full-resolution PDF version of the Elephant Visual Album at the end of the article.
 

The Visual Album and Its Creator: An Interview With Chandler Cort

Much like Taylor, I have a very distinct memory of my introduction to the White Stripes. I came to the party very late, as my parents found it borderline impossible to break away from anything outside of the typical 60’s - 80’s hits they grew up with.

There aren’t many specific events in my life that I would refer to as “life-changing,” but hearing “Rag and Bone” for the first time in my high school art class was absolutely one of them. My obsession with the White Stripes began with Icky Thump and worked its way back to the very beginning of the group’s discography until I had completely immersed myself in everything they had ever produced. The White Stripes were something I listened to exclusively for months. When I wasn’t listening to them, I found myself watching interviews with the members, reading about their history, and completely immersing myself in the group’s mythology. I had never quite felt myself become so taken by a band before.

Six years later, the White Stripes are still one of my favorite bands, if not my all-time favorite. Jack and Meg White have taken hold of a very big piece of my heart, and I don’t know if that will ever be able to be eclipsed.

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The way the project really came about was kind of funny. I was in my first infographics class at Portland State University, and we were told to make a timeline for our first project. The professor made sure he kept things very open-ended, so we had the choice to do an incredibly accurate historical timeline, or we could do something more whimsical like a timeline of the Harry Potter Universe.

I remember going on break one day listening to Elephant, and thinking “it would be funny to do an infographic on the number of times Jack White goes, ‘WOO!’ in one album.” So that’s where it really kinda started. I refined my guidelines a little bit further and decided that I would track the main instruments: guitar, drums, and piano, as well as the vocals. 

The process for this piece is something I feel just as proud of as the actual work itself. All of my research for this project was done entirely audibly. I printed all of the lyrics to every song, and I would sit down at my desk every day, listen to the song, and get the second-by-second timestamps for every lyric, and then go back through, and repeat the same process for the guitar, drums, and piano. This means I listened to every song at least three or four times in full, not counting pausing, rewinding, and playing again to make sure the time signatures were as accurate as possible.

In addition to the individual instrument timelines, each song also got a “genre gauge” that I had designed too. Because Elephant is such a diverse album, I feel like it was very important to describe how each song was different in comparison to the others. Every song was ranked on a scale of punk, blues, folk, and pop, with the end result being a circular graph that represented the track’s sonic texture. 

This was then translated into a second graph that I constructed to help best visualize the album in its entirety. I’d guess this project took somewhere between 40-45 hours total. It was truly a monster, which can be seen in the final 9-inch by 9-foot print. I remember people telling me in class that I was doing was ridiculous, and that I was crazy for even attempting something like this, which honestly just kind of pushed me to do it even more.

A lot of my design work has been very music-focused, and I have done very intense pieces about other albums I love, but I feel like this one is probably the most accessible, and the most interesting. I describe this piece as a visual album because I feel like it is the most literal visual translation of an auditory piece. I’m so happy that this piece has received the reaction it has, and I’m incredibly thankful that Taylor was moved enough to offer me this opportunity, and I hope to be here again someday. 

Until then everyone, be good, and love what you listen to.

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James Li Explains 'Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound' Track By Track

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Last month, UK-based musician James Li released his expansive ambient album Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound. The second record released under the Ministry of Interior Spaces moniker, the album is a soul-searching 39-minute meditation on depression, beauty, and life in the face of obliteration. 

While we caught up with him earlier this month for an interview, each track of the album is a multi-faceted work that’s deserving of its own analysis. Luckily James was willing to give us the details of what went into each song’s creation on both a technical and spiritual level. Here is his track by track guide to Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound.

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Track 1. Katie’s Apartment WA

The opening track was meant to be recorded live guerrilla-style at the Tate Modern. The London museum holds these repurposed oil tanks with an incredible fourteen-second reverb. But when I finally got there to record they’d just put in a new installation, so I recorded it at home instead. This was probably for the best.

After making a scratch track, I asked my incredible Seattle musician friend Katie Kuffel to send me vocal parts. I stayed at Katie’s apartment in Seattle when I went cold turkey on my SSRIs. It was a really dark time in my life but I think going out to visit her and other kind friends helped me stay alive. This is what I thought about while writing this track - a starting place of peace amid great turmoil overlooking Puget Sound.

Julianna Barwick was the biggest inspiration for this piece. There was a whole other version of Katie’s Apartment that was three minutes longer and more noise-based with samples of Seattle boats and foghorns. I was committed to it for a long time, but it didn’t work well as an introductory track.

Track 2. Hoyt Arboretum OR

I talked about its story extensively in this premiere - but on that same Seattle trip I took a bus to Portland alone, staying with a fan I’d never met before. It was raining, I was getting bad withdrawal symptoms, and listening to a leak of Carrie & Lowell.

At the crux of it I got lost and found myself in a nature preserve on a hill overlooking Portland. It stopped raining, the sun shone, and everything sort of came together at once. I felt the most incredible pain and joy at the same time, which is also a withdrawal symptom. That experience is what this track is about.

Hoyt Arboretum OR is made mostly from warbly guitar pushed through two delay pedals, and an improvised upright piano recorded from a significant distance (an SM57 six meters away). The OP-1 fills in the rest, while the reversed sample is a Totally Legal recording I took during a Sufjan concert in Cincinnati. It’s from the outro of Blue Bucket of Gold.

Track 3. C64 Falls ID

This particular piece was inspired by Bing & Ruth. I wanted to create a flowy piano-based piece with post-rock guitar as an ethereal undercurrent, representing the sensation of being carried underwater. The growling underneath is my electric guitar being fed into a granulator - I was scratching and scraping the strings while tapping the body. The broody trombone parts are by a Liverpool musician called John Denno - I love how mysterious and bodily they sound. The Montana river sample I used here is actually the last recording I made on my first TASCAM before losing it later that day (more on that next).

C64 Falls kind of looks like Lower Yellowstone Falls, except there are streams of code running down it if you look carefully enough on a sunny day.

Track 4. TASCAM Mountains MT

This was one of the first tracks I made for this album. The bulk of it was recorded in Japan during a work trip. 80% of it was done on the OP-1 and mixed on its inbuilt DAW. Denno plays the trumpet here which I think really completes the track, giving it its lyrical voice.

Musically it’s very inspired by Disasterpiece as I’d been playing Hyper Light Drifter a lot, an indie game that he’d soundtracked. I love how Disasterpeace uses entirely virtual instruments but degrades them until they sound undeniably physical. Destruction is also a recurring theme on this album, and you can hear it clearly in this track - the way the synths crumble and tailspin at the end of every sequence.

The sample was taken in the California desert with an airplane flying overhead. The gross wet sounds at the end are the “Paint Pots” at Yellowstone. I also utilised the same guitar-granulator method I used on “C64 Falls.”

I refer back to this narratively in the very last track, but I lost my first TASCAM and hundreds of hours of audio in some Montanan foothills. I went back looking for it many times, sometimes somewhat recklessly, before finally giving up. It symbolised a lot of unexpected grief I was experiencing at the time.

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Track 5. Cassettelands ID

This is the album’s William Basinksi piece. I took a John Adams composition (with the label’s permission) and slowed it down dramatically, ie. “screwed” it. After that, I ran it through a guitar amp with lots of distortion to create this crumbling tape effect.

Narrative-wise this was inspired by Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho and the drive back from it. I describe it in better detail in the zine, but basically, I was riding shotgun with a very quiet, very conservative professor called Cheryl who only listened to Christian music. By the end of the night we were driving through Montana dancing and singing along to Queen and New Order in our seats. I wanted it to go on forever. It was perfect.

Track 6. Platonitudes National Park WY

I don’t know how to play piano, so this piece was written in the key of C. Inspired by Max Richter - in particular “On the Nature of Daylight” which is a lucidly gorgeous and melodramatic work. It’s basically a poor man’s Max Richter piece, but I’m fond of it in the same way that I’m fond of my own dubious cooking.

The violinist on this track is a high school friend who’s now the CEO of his own Korean-American pharmaceutical company. Platonitudes National Park doesn’t exist, but in my mind it’s a perfect combination of Yellowstone and Glacier. I recorded this during my worst week of 2017 when both my mental and physical health was failing and I literally couldn’t speak. So I guess this spoke for me at the time.

Track 7. VHS Valley WY

The guitar part is a recording I took in 2014 of my old roommate, Andrew and I messing around on guitar and two delay pedals in my bedroom late at night. It’s honestly one of the coolest things I’ve heard from my guitar, and I’ve tried to recreate it since with no success. I’m grateful I recorded this at the time though, not knowing that I’d use it in an album four years later.

Narratively this is actually about Timber Canyon in Montana. I had a magical walk there with a friend I had a stupid unrequited crush on. It was great. Unfortunately the night turned disastrously bad soon afterwards, and we had to escape death via angry moose.

Track 8. Raton Pass Number Station CO

This song is actually the very first thing I ever made on the OP-1, a month before my first Ministry album Dying Towns of the Midwest. The .wav sat on an old hard drive, and I’m glad I rediscovered it.

After rescuing and mixing the levels on the .wav, I added a few more tracks. The radio chatter is from a Montreal police scanner. The woman counting numbers is my ex (mapped to my OP-1 and triggered by hand). The really heavy distortion is from an electric cello I borrowed. I fed it through an octaver, a reverb pedal, overdrive and a delay pedal which I fooled around with in real-time while playing. Which is a really difficult yoga balancing act to do with a cello.

The piece is inspired by a solitary Amtrak trip I took in the Summer of 2016 after graduating. It was 28-hours each way (actually a bit longer on the way back) from Chicago to Albuquerque. Raton Pass is a mountainous train tunnel by the Colorado-New Mexico border. Going through it feels like a rite of passage.

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Track 9. The Needles UT

This track is fairly straightforward and was very linear to make: Swell guitar via volume pedal, very distorted feedback guitar, OP-1 for a recurring synth line passed through a distorted reverb filter, and then two appregiators. I wanted to keep it simple yet beautiful through growing repetition.

During Sophomore year of college six guys from my floor and I drove 24-hours straight to Canyonlands National Park from Grand Rapids. Those few days in the wild transformed my life for good. I didn’t know how nature could be that powerful or make one wish to live forever. I also didn’t know how gross it was to walk behind your friends’ massive shit swinging in front of you wrapped up in a plastic Meijer bag.

Track 10. Island in the Sky UT

I thought of this track singing in the shower and quickly ran out to write it down. I’d been listening to a lot of Erased Tapes Records artists at the time, so I used Nils Frahm’s Una Corda VST as the key instrument. This was definitely one of the hardest tracks to mix because of the violins.

This track is about the healing, almost other-worldly power of nature - you know, the sublime. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is in this track’s blood. It also serves as the spiritual sequel, or second half, to The Needles UT.

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Track 11. White Sands Chapel NM

Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 inspired this piece, which is probably the most straightforward track on the album after Cassettelands. I used the OP-1’s FM engine to create the bulk of the song before placing a simple appregiator on top of it. I then reversed the track and added Valhalla Shimmer reverb and guitar pedal distortion which, for some reason, made it sound like a live church organ. About a third of the way in I fade the original unreversed track in but with a very heavy phaser. That’s it.

The field recording is from the Stockholm Public Library, sitting there quietly with my old roommate Anna. I tried to create a fictional cathedral setting in the desert by including hushed whispers. I think the illusion works.

Track 12. House of Eternal Return NM

Since the album starts at a home, I wanted it to end at another. A place of safety, creativity, and rest. The House of Eternal Return is an incredible interactive installation in Santa Fe. The concept is that it’s a house with multiple entrances to other times and dimensions, and I liked the idea of being free of this world’s physical constraints. Basically heaven.

However, when I listen to this track, I honestly think of the New Mexico desert more. I explain it more in the zine and also somewhere in this Imgur album. I was in a car with two strangers when we were so, so close to running out of gas in the middle of the New Mexico desert at night. We stopped the car in the desert and let the vastness of nothing sink into us for a while. And that’s what I think of when I listen to this track. Driving into an unknowable eternal darkness. Stopping the car. The ultimate ending.

Musically I lucked into this one. It’s two improvised synths (the Organelle) panned left and right, then screwed down quite a bit slower/deeper. Fittingly my buddy from Albuquerque, Audrin Niema, plays some percussion in the background which I mixed really low and cut a lot of the high ends on. He basically helps add a subtle human element.

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Track 13. The Perpetual Wound

Out of all these tracks, “The Perpetual Wound” probably went through the most changes. I want all Ministry albums to end with a song with words that summarise the thematic intent of the record, like the songs that play during the credits of a movie. It’s a nice way to gently wake someone up after their Ministry of Interior Spaces floatation tank experience and to restate the album’s mission.

Here are the ideas that I started then scrapped:

  • Recording the traditional folk song, “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” live at an open mic. I liked the idea of ending with something live and human, like entering the album’s universe in a body for the first time. I made a few attempts, including drastically changing the lyrics to a New Mexico UFO encounter, but there were always too many uncontrollable factors, and none of the recordings turned out to be usable.
  • A repetitive mantra song, like “Driving” by Smog or “The Wounded King” from Dying Towns of the Midwest. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t crack this one.
  • A folk song I made up about a crust punk saving his boyfriend from an Idaho conversion therapy camp (I have no idea where I got this idea from - probably a crust punk).

I finally settled on a strange folk/Americana song to represent an ongoing personal struggle. It was largely influenced by Bill Callahan - I’d been playing Supper heavily around its writing. The idea of a recurring acoustic guitar hammer-on and the instruments interacting with the lyrics came from Our Anniversary. In Callahan’s song a panned electric guitar represents the chirp of crickets, while in The Perpetual Wound the snare drum represents the crack of distant fireworks.

The drums are by this very talented high schooler, Josh Frenier, who I met in line during Pitchfork 2016. He also helped give me the idea of reincorporating the vocal melody from the opening track, thus making Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound perpetually cyclical.

 

Stream Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound here, or pick up a copy on Bandcamp.

Welcome to the Ministry of Interior Spaces: An Interview With James Li

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One of the most common words that people use when discussing instrumental music is that it’s “cinematic.” While this is often meant as an endorsement, I’ve always read this descriptor as a bit of a back-handed compliment. 

On one hand, this (hypothetical) person is saying ‘this so good it could be in a movie,’ but they’re also saying ‘I view it as background music’ in the same breath. They recognize it as music on a technical level, but the only reference point they have for this type of sound is when it’s pushed to the back of a movie with sound effects and dialogue placed over it. Almost as if it’s not musical enough to stand on its own due to the lack of vocals. 

I’ve written previously about my complicated relationship with post-rock and instrumental music, even (lovingly) using the phrase “background music” to describe it. While I stand by that term, the more vital piece of this equation is the listener’s role in the genre’s consumption. Instrumental music rewards its listener regardless of how carefully they’re paying attention. Sure, you can leave instrumental music on in the background, but something wonderful happens when you listen to it actively. 

When you put an instrumental record on with the music as your sole focus, the songs gain abilities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. In many people’s minds, this is the “ideal” way to interact with music of any genre, but I recognize it’s not always practical given how much commitment it requires. But when you sit. And kill your senses. And listen. The music can envelop you. It can access forgotten parts of your brain. It can retrieve long-lost memories. It can re-establish broken connections. It can help you feel. 

Music serves a purpose for everyone, and each genre possesses different abilities. Instrumental music allows the listener expression, projection, and reconciliation on a level unparalleled by any other genre. It’s the soundtrack to our own thoughts and senses, the backdrop to a mind running wild. 

On his newest release as Ministry of Interior Spaces, James Li takes the listener on a “mystical road trip through a magic-realist American West.” It’s a long-winding, heartfelt, and compelling release that means as much to its creator as it can for the listener. With each track named after real-world locations, Li takes inspiration from events in his life and weaves a narrative of recovery in the face of obliteration. While his story remains unspoken, the music acts as both his voice and emotion, carrying the listener from one happening to the next with ethereal grace. It’s a canvas that listeners can engage with, project their own experiences onto, and enclose themselves in. 


With (nearly) all of the song titles referencing real-life locations, how do you go about translating the feeling of a place into a song?

James Li: We all experience nature in a way that is subjective and relative to our own selves. There is no truly neutral way of experiencing nature - a family road trip to the Grand Canyon eating from Wendy’s drive-throughs isn’t neutral, but neither is solo backpacking in the Cascades.

As humans we can’t help but experience nature through our own individual-shaped lens. We’re always bringing our personalities, our anxieties, our philosophies, our memories, and emotions to the table. In my case, my worldview was seriously muddied with depression and anxiety. I was dragging a lot of ugliness to these places of often incomprehensible beauty.

There was a definite, discernible conflict whenever this happened. I’d find myself humbled and confused by the natural beauty in front of me - how could so much goodness and pain exist at the same time? So each track isn’t as much of a description of a place as it is a description of that event, that meeting. They’re not describing how the place objectively is but rather how they made me feel at that moment.

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On the Bandcamp page you’ve highlighted the fact that this album is two years in the making and recorded across three different continents. What led to such a long incubation period?

James Li: The two years I spent making this album were full of bruising seismic life changes. This included graduating college, leaving Michigan for good, taking an office job in Hong Kong, going through a bad long distance break up, spending some time in the hospital, a confusing visit to the States, then moving to England where I live now. I don’t want to talk about everything because it’d involve people who wouldn’t want to be involved, but it was definitely the most painful and truly nihilistic time of my life. Completing this project was the last thread pulling me through. I wanted to create an album that could justify getting through all of this loss, a reminder to myself that real objective beauty exists.

I had a clear idea of what I wanted Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound (LDATPW) to be early on, taking the atypical move of writing a thesis and track listing before starting recording. Because of that specific vision, I was merciless with what didn’t fit. I cut at least thirty tracks in the making of this album - some turning up on Sister in the Snow, an EP about Michigan I released in the interim.

Writing LDATPW was a huge learning process as well. Through trial and error I learned new methods such as screwing and granular synthesis, which made me constantly retread my steps and revise earlier tracks. For two years my life basically revolved around finishing this album, and at times I wasn’t sure if it’d ever be completed. I only allowed myself to put it out when I was certain it’d been fully realised.

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Your other band Liance seems to be a much more “traditional” project with a full band, vocals, etc. What spurred the need for you to create Ministry, and what drew you to the ambient genre?

James Li: Liance is an intensely personal project with little space between what I write and myself. It’s very literal. After releasing Bronze Age of the Nineties I wanted a musical outlet that didn’t have my personhood at the forefront, something completely untied to my ego.

Ministry of Interior Spaces started in January 2016 after playing the indie game Kentucky Route Zero. There’s this one scene where you visit a government agency called the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces. Inspired by the game’s ambient synth score and magic-realist American setting, I wanted to create my own Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, a “Ministry of Interior Spaces” so to speak. Dying Towns of the Midwest was to be an ambient album from that Ministry’s perspective, a government survey of post-financial crash towns I was familiar with in Michigan.

This was during J-term in the middle of a particularly cold Michigan winter. I’d just bought an OP-1 and slept in a sleeping bag as there wasn’t any heating in my room. I was experiencing serious anxiety about my post-college future and the upcoming presidential election. I was also reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and watching the movie Her to sleep every night, all-in-all a strange headspace to be in.

These different factors somehow came together as the perfect catalyst and I found myself churning out tracks on bus rides and 15-minute class breaks. I made friends at an antique store so I could use their Wurlitzer and recorded a borrowed cello in the kitchen. Dying Towns of the Midwest took just four weeks from conception to publishing, which is quick for any album. Unlike writing under Liance, none of it felt vulnerable even though it was still a deeply emotional process. It felt liberating to create something so completely for myself without the expectation of explaining my lyrics or performing live.

I still consider Liance and Ministry just as important as each other though. They simply occupy different parts of my mind, with the added benefit of being able to jump project-to-project whenever I have a creative block on the other. There’s a lot of narrative overlap as well, although Liance focuses more on memory while Ministry focuses on the spaces they occur in. In fact, the next Liance album covers events described in LDATPW.

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On the Bandcamp page you also give credit to all of the various musicians who have contributed to the album, even going as far as to call them ‘collaborators.’ How did you connect with all these people, and what was the collaboration process like?

James Li: I’ve been very lucky to have the musicians I’ve had on this album. All of these connections have been completely serendipitous. Katie Kuffel, who sings on the opening track, used to date my old high school friend during college which is how we know each other. I stayed at her apartment for a week when I started writing this album. It just so happens that she’s also an incredible musician and someone whose work ethic I look up to.

John Denno, who recorded all the brass on the album, reached out to me online after listening to the Liance albums. He teaches at an Indian boarding school which one of my best friends coincidentally went to. I met Josh Frenier, the high schooler who plays drums on the last track, while waiting in line for Pitchfork 2016 with his dad. Those are only just some examples of the many crazy connections on this record. The universe is abundant and I continue to meet exceptional human beings without ever planning to.

I think it goes to show that most people are inherently giving and just want to be part of something beautiful. It’s also a testament to the new possibilities technology has opened. Borders and regional scenes simply don’t matter as much as they used to. There’re stems on this album recorded all around the world, including India, Seattle, Liverpool, New Mexico, Brighton, and Hong Kong. All you need today are good strangers, a decent microphone, and a Google Drive account.

 

The title of the new LP is Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound. Without giving away too much, what inspired the name of this album?

James Li: Depression, and also just that life itself is inherently painful. The Perpetual Wound is also a theme carried over from the first album, which ends with “The Wounded King.”

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The idea of the “journey” seems to be a central concept to both the album and your life. Where did the “concept” of this album come from?

James Li: On Dying Towns of the Midwest I named some tracks after places in Michigan like Holland or Marquette. This was inspired by Bon Iver’s self-titled album, with titles like “Lisbon, OH” and “Hinnom, TX.” On LDATPW I wanted to take this concept one step further and turn a series of imagined spaces into a full narrative.

Worldbuilding and storytelling is inherently fun. It’s in our very blood to mythologise. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction and concept albums, or really just concepts in general, and wanted to try creating a self-contained universe in an ambient album.

The American West is perhaps the most sublime and unknowable place in the world. Its landscapes genuinely changed my life during a period of serious desperation. There’s something truly transformative in the West’s sheer scale of wonder - something spiritual, for lack of a better word. It felt like my duty to pay tribute to its beauty and document what I’d seen.

The idea of a journey came naturally as that was how I’d experienced the American West. Traveling is probably my favourite thing in the world - the notion of free movement and perpetual discovery. It’s something that I’ve been fixated on since a very early age, perhaps because Hong Kong is a small place surrounded by water and borders.

The events covered in LDATPW come from four separate trips to the American West during and just after college. In 2014 I followed some guys on my floor and drove 22 hours straight to Canyonlands for some backpacking, which was my first real encounter with the West. Then in 2016 I headed out to the West three more times - to Seattle over Spring Break after going cold turkey on my SSRIs, to Montana and Wyoming just two days after graduating for a geology course, and New Mexico via Amtrak a few weeks before my visa expired. Each journey was unique, challenging, and utterly transformative.

While designing the album I stitched these separate journeys together as one epic continuous pilgrimage, an album you could draw on a map. It’s a simple way of framing that helps give it a larger sense of progression and meaning, while staying true to the actual personal journeys I’d experienced.

A really fantastic book on the American West and all of its paradoxes is Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. If you’re able to look past his macho abrasiveness, it’s a perfect summary of this album’s core themes. It also informed some of the poetry on the album’s zine and the lyrics of the last track.

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Many people ascribe the “cinematic” label to instrumental music without thinking about the creator behind the art. While you obviously have a deep personal connection to each of these songs, what’s more important to you: the idea that your story is captured on these tracks, or the process of the listener imprinting their own emotions onto them?

James Li: The listener’s experience should always take precedent. It’s my hope that people continue to project their experiences onto my music. My favourite aspect of working on this project are the completely different takeaways people get from the same tracks. “This reminds me of an aquarium I went to when I was five,” or “This track totally brings back college summers in Lake Michigan.” Hearing memories like these gets me super excited. It means more than any good review could.

And that’s the beauty of ambient music I think. You get to choose your level of engagement, and however you interpret it is yours to own.

While some musicians may disagree, I see making music as essentially creating a tool. It’s a noble and necessary thing to do, but you’re still ultimately creating something that exists outside of yourself for others to use. When someone likes your music, they like the tool that you’ve created, not you. Your relationship to what you’ve created shouldn’t matter as it exists independently on its own. And that’s kind of freeing, you know? You get to contribute back to the world without forcing your ego onto it, and the people who need to find your music will find it eventually.

 

Stream Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound here, or pick up a copy on Bandcamp.
Read James Li's track by track analysis here.