Published Jan 24, 2012Leila Arab has always handled high-pressure situations well. Before the Iranian-born, London, UK-based artist released a single full-length, she was programming live music for Björk while signed to Aphex Twin's label. A year after reuniting with Iceland's number one export, working on her polarizing Biophilia album, Leila releases U&I. After collaborating with her sister, Roya Arab, and Tricky cohort Martina Topley-Bird as guest vocalists, Leila has teamed up with Berlin musician and the Knife collaborator Mt. Sims for her fourth LP. Over 13 pulse-and-pause tracks, Leila keeps the blueprint simple, expertly utilizing a singular method to craft each track. The icy synth of "Eight" and the black hail noise of "Interlace" sandwich the fluffy vibe of the Sims-helmed "(Disappointed Cloud) Anyway," showing Leila more interested in the mood of each song than its BPM. As resourceful as Leila sounds on the pop-minded "Forasmuch" and slow-burner "In Motion Slow," Mt. Sims demonstrates how ethereal and rubbery vocals can completely absorb a song's sound, as demonstrated by the robotic "Welcome to Your Life" and the barely there sigh of the title track. It's fascinating to see just how many tricks Leila has up her sleeve on U&I ― well, actually, just 13. Thirteen singular ideas fleshed out to their fullest potential.
Can you talk a bit about your upbringing?
Basically, I was born in Iran, but I went to school here before the revolution. But once the revolution happened, we had to leave, so we moved to England and I've basically lived in England since then. That's kind of the basics of my upbringing.
How did you get involved with electronic music?
It's a really curious thing, the idea of electronic music. The fact is I use electronics to make music, but I've always said that my loyalty is to music, not to a genre. One of the really good things about the kind of strange, live trajectory I've had is you kind of learn quickly that, ultimately, you don't belong to anything and that kind of frees you to do whatever you want. The truth is, I do adore synthesis, that end of electronics, but more than anything, with the equipment, you can make any music. That's what I find quite exciting. The thing that I despair about is the idea that somehow we are like a real band; people imagine it's real, but the truth is that they probably spent more expensive technology fixing their music than me or my friends do.
True, but the artists you've collaborated with mostly make music that would be described as electronic. Are you drawn to other people who make music in the same manner you do or are these just people that you've come in contact with?
To be honest with you, as a human being, I'm literally lazy, so it's just who I've come across. Except for, funnily enough, Matt [Mt. Sims]; I met him one of the few times I bothered to leave my house. I've always been kind of lucky, where the things that have come into my life are pretty amazing. But whom do you mean, "The people I work with"?
Well, you've worked with Björk, Martina Topley-Bird and Mt. Sims. I would qualify these people as musicians that work on electronic music.
The irony there is that on Björk's last record there were a lot of handmade instruments, fucking weird instruments. That's what made most of that record. I guess they were MIDI, but they were actually not electronic at all. And Martina, her records aren't very electronic. And Matt, yeah, his music is very electronic, but the most important thing when I'm making music is being more about the sound. Like some of the music I make, it's not like I listen to it; I don't know anyone who listens to their music after they've made it. But when I make music, it's really about honouring where it wants to go, like a certain song or sound. I guess, in that way, it is sort of electronic.
Speaking of the last Björk album, I know you've spoken about just how much work went into the making of that album. Were you surprised that it was mostly ignored once it was released?
What do you mean? You're saying that the album was ignored?
I would say that it was mostly ignored.
Yeah, but do you know why? There was something curious there ― the apps were really kind of the focus of that record. But, yeah, it's a curious one, but what I think happened was that Björk, as a person, is 100-percent with everything, as a mother, as an artist, as a person. Because I think that people think that she has 70 P.A.s that she just tells, "Go make me some apps," but she's really hands-on. But what I think what happened with the record was with the three years spent designing the apps, the reality of the record was slightly forgotten, because if you look at it from the gig reaction and the app reaction, it was phenomenal.
How much artistic freedom were you given working on that album?
Well, the fact is, everything was kind of there, so it was a case of half-going there as a programmer, but it's always interesting working with her, because she's 100 percent and I'm 100 percent, when it comes to music. But that's why she likes having me around, because she knows that I can't really pretend, I don't really have a grown-up capacity when it comes to music; it's just kind of hyper-instinct. So, with this one, it was just trying to flesh out what was already there.
Is there one anything on that album that has your flavour on it that you feel proud to...
No, nothing at all; it was too formed. To be fair, the day I flew out, there were already reviews on the album. It was ridiculous; we were working on an album that people had already heard. The fact is, the premise was very much set. It was a case of making it more of what she wanted. It's funny, because I don't really work like that, I just do stuff like that for her because of everything she's ever done for me. As an artist, everyone knows she's kind of interesting and amazing, but as a person, she's a hell of a good friend, she's a good sport, a proper person, I will always agree to do things like that for her. But also, it's a challenge, because to be honest with you, I'm kind of like an aesthetic fascist, I have kind of an instinctive reaction to noise and art. But I didn't go there to project my music on her, it was, "Do I have the skills to help her finish it the way she wants it?" Because, it's not about how I want it, I've got my record, I make those how I want.
Can you talk a bit about the recording of your new album, especially your working relationship with Mt. Sims?
To tell you the truth, he was extraordinarily generous. For someone who is able to produce that well, he was very gracious in letting me get on with it. He would come to my house, we would do work and I wouldn't even give him rough versions to go home with. It's interesting because the way I met him, I was at a party and I was starting to write this new stuff. I always liked his music and I thought that I needed someone like him on this, because the thing about his music is that it's emotional, but it's not sentimental; he's very restrained. For example, "In Consideration," that song is basically made from pure vocals, so when we recorded that, I just gave him the microphone and told him to just make any noise and I'm going to show you what my studio is set up for. My whole point was, "take the mic, let me show you what my studio is capable of, so if you do ever want to have a fiddle, you know where everything is." And I think it set the precedent of "anything goes" with this.
When Mt. Sims joined you in your studio, what percentage of the album did you have a rough idea on, sound-wise?
More than anything, I knew I wanted this record to be direct and not flabby. I wanted it to be quite lean. Do you know what I mean?
Wicked! Because most music, if you listen, you could say, "Okay, those eight bars could go, those four bars could go," and you wouldn't even know the difference. I wanted to make a record where you really couldn't do that. And where you could, I would be hard pressed to say to someone, "If we were to edit, tell me which bits you would want and which bits you would think is repetitious." And that ethic was set from the first track that came out, which was "Activate I," where there's no flab, it's just stripped down. And with Matt, a song like "All of This," we did varying versions and he was like, "Well, maybe if this part was longer" and I was like, 'No!" And there's this thing that if you're a girl and you make music that you're obliged to be accommodating and I find it difficult, the idea that I would be obliged to anything when it comes to art, not to the listener, not even to myself, the art is bigger than anything, even me.
Saying that, do you feel that you are accepting of letting go of certain things or are you constantly saying to yourself, "oh, I should have done this different; I should have re-done this part"?
If I went through my back catalogue ― every single track I've ever released ― I've heard better mixes that I've done myself at home. It's all about the version that most represents the emotion of the song; most producers are just concerned on whether the kick is fat enough or not. Most music, especially electronic music, sounds like it was recorded in a fucking science lab; it's not for me. I want to make music that feels alive and the best electronic music has that feeling. When I'm mixing, every channel on my desk, every fader is like a weird little character, like you would imagine in a rock'n'roll band. The biggest problem, and I've said it before, is that in a depressing way, I'm kind of like the Donatella Versace of music. Because, to me, less isn't more, less is less and more is more. I'm a bit of a wall-of-sound person. If I had to pick a producer who I'm sonically closest to, it would be someone bizarre like Phil Spector ― that kind of level where everything is loud. But the question is: is there anything that I would change? Yes, I would change it all tonight.
Was there an instance in your life that gave you the passion for art that is emotional and free from preconception?
I always loved music, but when I was young, I never had any plans to do it. I'm not the kind of person that used to stand in front of fucking mirrors and wish I was on stage and shit like that. When I was younger, I really did love loud music, but it was a private joy that's become public. Last year, when I was in Iceland, I said to Björk that I'm at the point in my life where I think that I could have really done something else with my life. Like, I could have done something important or good, instead of dicking about and making noise. But when I look at it, I think, "I'm so blessed to do this," but at the end of the day, the fact that I make a living out of it is a real bonus. (Warp)