Lou Rhodes talks about the new Lamb album “The Secret of Letting Go”

With “The Secret of Letting Go,” Lamb once again manages to bring a fresh edge to their already unique sound. The duo of Lou Rhodes and Andy Barlow initially formed in Manchester, England, and released their self-titled debut album in 1996. They have often been associated with the trip-hop genre that was emerging at that time, but their music has never fit squarely into a particular style. Their minimalist electronic arrangements are always creative, and Rhodes’ powerful voice sounds like no one else. Lamb went on hiatus after their 2003 “Between Darkness and Wonder,” during which time Rhodes embarked on a successful solo career and Barlow worked on a variety of projects. They reformed Lamb in 2009 and have been performing and releasing music together regularly ever since.

Before the hiatus, you had been on a major label, but the past few releases have been independent. Has that had an impact on your approach or process?

Lou Rhodes: In many ways, it hasn’t changed a huge amount because even when we were with a major label, we were very, very protective over our creative process. Rather than going into a paid recording studio to write an album, we got money from the recording company to build our own studio so that it was our space that we could use when we needed to. We tried not to let them in too much. When you get people from major labels trying to get into the creative process, they start to railroad it a little. In that sense, we’ve always been very independently-minded about that and very protective over that process.

We’ve grown up a lot over the years and obviously learned a lot. When we started out, the first time we went into the studio, we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was still a real learning process for us. But also, that’s what made the music the way it was. When I listen back to the first album, I’m still really proud of it, because there’s something so fresh about that record. It’s carving its own path. We’ve tried to keep that dynamic in our creative process. With this album, we really had that aesthetic in mind, of less is more and if it’s not needed take it out. We’ve tried to preserve that same approach, even though the circumstances have changed quite a lot along the way.

What do you do to try to keep that aesthetic and freshness?

Lou Rhodes: We avoid any sort of formula. The only kind of strict rule we have is when we bring stuff to each other, it only seems to work if we bring the really raw, the bare bones of an idea. If I brought a full vocal, three verses and choruses, and a middle section, or he brought me a whole piece of music, it wouldn’t work because we’re both very strong-minded and so we wouldn’t feel like there was space for the other one’s input. We tend to bring really raw ideas to the table and then throw them between us, kind of like throwing stones at each other almost. I think that keeps the approach fresh in the sense that we don’t know where it’s going. We never know where it’s going. We try to have it be as open-ended as possible. That’s where true creativity resides, when you don’t know the end goal, and you’re just letting the creative process dictate which way you go from one step to the next.

I’ve always found that the overall mood you create is a big part of what makes Lamb music so unique. At what point does that tend to take shape? To what degree does it guide the process?

Lou Rhodes: Leading on from my answer to the last question, it’s such an open-ended process. With each album, it feels like a mood develops, but we only start to notice it halfway through the making of the album. It’s almost like each album has a particular flavor to it, or maybe a number of flavors that make the meal of the album. Our albums do tend to be quite diverse. When I listen to other people’s albums, I realize how diverse our albums can be at times. Sometimes, listeners find that quite challenging.

Quite early on, this album had two extremes are going on. There are dance-orientated tracks that are raunchy and driven, and then there’s another side that is very philosophical, tranquil, using a lot of beautiful textures and strings. Those two extremes seemed to be the theme of this album. In terms of the mood in each piece, it’s more about what the track asks for. We take each step thinking, “Okay, where does it want to go now? What does it need?”

For example, on “One Hand Clapping,” I always loved that song, and we always knew that it would be the album closer. The live musicians that play with us quite often come in late in the process, and we got John Thorn to come in and do a bass session on a whole number of tracks. He had the idea to put these bass chords on the beginning of that track, and it just seemed to turn the entire mood of the song around. We took a load of stuff out and had the bass be the only sound in the intro. It was a beautiful turnaround for that song.

You’ve also had a successful solo career, with more acoustic-oriented music. Did you have a strong desire to do something different? What effect has it had on your work with Lamb?

Lou Rhodes: When I started my solo career, it was a real sense of needing to do that. I was so hungry to make acoustic music that didn’t involve any technology and was free of machines. It also timed with obviously a time when we split at Lamb. Things had got to a stage with Lamb where we were pulling too strongly in opposite directions, both creatively and as human beings. I had two young kids and had just split from their father, and I guess I was in a very quiet mode in my life. Andy and the guys in the band were in full party mode. We’d had a couple of tours where we were trying to manage those two worlds, and it was pretty difficult.

So, we came to a stage where it felt like it wasn’t really working out to be together as a band, and that also coincided with me feeling the need to break off and make acoustic music. I went to live out in the countryside and made my first solo album out there, the one that was then Mercury-nominated. That was a perfect launch for my solo career.

The impact that’s had on Lamb is it helped to clarify what is Lamb and what isn’t Lamb. That acoustic element isn’t Lamb, and it’s really good to be able to have that outlet that takes its own course but doesn’t cross over in the music of Lamb. We have had moments where we’ve crossed with acoustic guitars and stuff like that, but I think the conclusion we came to when we reformed and made the album “5,” was, “Right okay, Lamb is about technology meeting my voice and being pretty stripped back and very technology-driven.” That’s what’s driven these last three albums since we reformed. There’s a lot more clarity about what is Lamb, and I think that’s really helped.

Not being on a major label, and with you both being involved with other projects, what makes you decide when it is time to regroup as Lamb?

Lou Rhodes: It goes in cycles. Last year, we were touring for our 21st anniversary of the first album. What tends to happen with the cycles of Lamb is, we’ll be touring and from that process, new ideas start to emerge. The whole experience of touring to celebrate that first album was quite enlightening in a way, because as I said, we were really proud of that album and here we were, 21 years later, deciding that we were going to perform the whole of that album from start to finish, some of which we’d never played live before. It was like going back in time in a way. Just like, “Wow, there’s these songs that we’ve not looked at in terms of performing them,” some of them since we actually recorded them for the album. It was like unearthing an archeological dig.

What was the experience like preparing for that?

Lou Rhodes: There was a real challenge in finding the actual parts for some of the tracks, because back then, the technology was so basic that we were using rack-mounted samplers and Cubase on an old Atari computer. We didn’t make stems for that album. It was just like, “Shit, how do we find the parts even?”

Did it have an influence on this new album?

Lou Rhodes: Part of that whole process sowed the seeds for making the new album, because it was like, “Okay, so this is what makes Lamb, these elements here.” That prompted us to want to get back in the studio and go, “Okay, well that’s what we were doing then, and this is how it pieced together live, and wouldn’t this be fun, to take this aesthetic and make an album now?” I really think there’s a lot of that in the new album.

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