Damian Taylor can lay claim to a breathtaking musical CV. He has been credited with contributions, in varying capacities, to a wide range of contemporary artists' work. From providing programming and Pro Tools expertise to stadium-fillers The Prodigy and Kasabian to co-producing and cowriting material with U.N.K.L.E and breakbeat pioneer Adam Freeland, Damian has achieved a lot in his 11 year full-time career in the music industry. Not withholding his original material under the Stone Lions moniker, his recent work touring with Björk for her album Volta must stand as a career high-point.
"I did piano when I was six and then did the classical thing until I was 14", Damian explains, "then played in bands, got bored of the other people in the band and bought a 4 track, which is how I got into recording. Then, when I was 19, I moved to London and just worked in studios night and day."
Regarding the Volta tour Damian says, "I was working with Björk for a year and a half on Volta and she asked me if I wanted to come on tour as the musical director of her band. I thought it would be a nice change to studio life, and really interesting to see the 'other side' of an artist's cycle of recording and touring."
The Lemur takes away the computer's unfortunate reputation as a somewhat lifeless (yet useful) audio generation device best hidden at the back of the stage and transforms it into a powerful, visually interesting musical device to be showcased and thrust into the limelight. In Björk's latest show, dedicated cameras are mounted facing the two Lemurs which are used as prominent, striking visual elements.
"Björk had the idea of not having pre-recorded or abstract visuals but instead using instruments which have a strong visual feedback", says Damian. "Mark (Bell, of LFO fame - also involved in performance on the tour) saw the Lemurs on Youtube and had done a lot of research into them. He showed us clips when we were mixing Volta with Spike Stent in November 2006", he explains. "Björk really liked how they strongly represented the performance of electronic music in a visual way." Once the record was done and the focus turned to the live show, the call went out to get the Lemurs up to Iceland for Mark and Damian to try for themselves.
"They arrived about half way through our month of preparation and rehearsals!", Damian exclaims, "This was in March 2006. I'd be at rehearsals with the whole band in the day, then I'd stay up all night trying to program and prepare another 3 or 4 songs for the next day. Mark and I decided early on that he'd focus mainly on the beats and bass, and I'd do the more "musical" electronic stuff. We have a ten piece brass section as well as an incredible virtuoso keyboard player, so I'd need to figure out how I could add to what they were doing without getting in the way musically and sonically. Then obviously it's a live gig - so how could I add in these new elements but in a very spontaneous, live, dynamic and off the cuff performance way? After a couple of hours sleep I'd go to meet up with the band and see how those elements integrated into our performance, and get feedback from Björk to ensure her music was served in the right way."
"So far I think I've probably only used about 10% of the Lemur's true potential as an instrument", admits Damian, "but with the number of songs in Björk's repetoire the ability to create your own custom control surface for each song has been absolutely amazing for me. At the start of rehearsals I was relying on a more conventional controller with physical knobs and faders. Switching between a few songs starts to scramble your brain pretty quick - what the hell does the 5th identical grey knob do on this song? - with the Lemur you can have a screen with ONLY the controls you need, laid out in a clear and intuitive way tailored to each piece of music." The band has a repertoire of 42 songs (of which about 19 are selected just hours before the show), so this ability to create unique and fresh interfaces is invaluable and unparalleled.
So what does the Lemur actually control in the show? "Ableton Live, at the moment. I've used Live for years and I really really like it. Mark (Bell) and I have both really stripped back the software on our laptops for optimum reliability, responsiveness and for quick loading between songs. Basically we exclusively use the Ableton Live software and use our Lemurs to control levels, effects send, clip triggering and plug-ins. I also use Native Insturments Guitar Rig for very particular effects on a few tracks - to me Guitar Rig is one of the best multi-effects units you can find in a computer, I never use it for guitars! Mark also runs the Drumazon for one or two songs. We might start with one or a few layers of pre-recorded sounds but then the interactivity of the Lemur lets use turn that into a totally live performance by manipulating those sounds to a ridiculous degree - levels and sends and starts and stops, but then some pretty extreme mangling and re-processing with plug-ins which we'll then often tweak further in the analogue domain with our respective mixing desks.... "It's funny as well, when I just had the knobs and faders controller I was using lots and lots of layers of audio in my performances. However when I got the Lemur I could interact far more with each individual sound. I then didn't need to put in so much stuff - I could achieve much more dynamics, much more subtlety and organic movement with just one or two raw elements. Because we have 15 people on stage it's quite different to DJing or producing a record on your own where you have total control over everything. Playing with a band you really have to find where you fit in the jigsaw with everyone else. The Lemur let me achieve more with less, which really opened up the sound of the band, giving everything more space to breathe."
What's it like manipulating non-physical controls compared to the more conventional faders and switches? "Well I think it's just different, which is partly what I like about it", he replies. "You start getting into the whole way that you touch it - it's more like giving a massage! I think if you've spent years and years physically hitting physical objects it is a change, and I was actually a bit resistant to the idea to start with. But it's fun - it's a whole new thing and a different way that you can explore and interact with music, a new circuitry of your brain, body and nervous system to fire up."
And when you're excited and in "the zone" mid-performance? "Now that I've gotten used to the feel of the Lemur, I actually really like the way the tactile interface encourages me to play live. I'm now fully rocking out during gigs- you don't have to hold totally still to work it. You can interface with the Lemur in a totally visceral way."
The Lemur is also a valuable tool in the studio, allowing the producer to interact with sound in a very organic way. The objects and properties which can be attributed to them allow parameters to be manipulated naturally and musically. Damian is convinced: "It's definitely inspired me a lot in terms of working with software and that kind of thing. I spent years and years just on Pro Tools and i was like: 'I'm only gonna use a keyboard and a mouse. Listening to music is an entirely non- physical thing, you just hear it - so why do I need to use a physical object?'", he says - but now with the Lemur "you can get into the music straight away".
For the Future? "I'm looking forward to incorporating it into different scenarios", Damian states, "and when I do Stone Lions gigs it'd be fun to use it in a different context again."
Damian Taylor's Stone Lions project will be releasing its first album in the coming months...
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