The Sand That Makes The Oyster Pearl - an interview with Lou Rhodes

Mike Warburton spoke to Lamb's Lou Rhodes about the positives of creative friction, refusing to conform and much more ahead of the band's arrival at Farmfestival at the end of July.

Mike Warburton

Date published: 8th Jun 2015

Photo: Lou Rhodes

Bursting onto the scene back in mid nineties amidst the furore of the Bristol lead trip hop explosion fronted by the likes of Massive Attack and Tricky, you could be forgiven for lumping Lamb in with the burgeoning movement at that time, but you'd be wrong, very wrong. 

Whilst some of their biggest tracks like 'Gorecki' (below) may have seemed to the casual listener to conform to that style, a much more edgy, experimental power was at work in the Manchester duo's productions, heard throughout their eponymous debut album and, indeed, ever since.

From the freak jazz discordance meets drum and bass of records like 'Cottonwool' to the stripped back, cello lead 'Zero' via the crisp, instrumental chaos of 'Merge', all of which appear on that debut record, Lamb were clearly cut from a different cloth with lead singer Lou Rhodes' sublime vocals offset wonderfully by the edgy, sometimes abrasive beats of Andy Barlow.

The clash of styles and ideas that made Lamb such a breath of fresh air inevitably bled into their working relationship, with the band eventually splitting for a number of years before reforming back in 2009.

Since then sporadic new work has surfaced on low-key independent imprints Strata and Butler, eschewing record labels like Mercury and Fontana to pursue a sound unhindered by record company demands, and the results have seen them enter perhaps their finest form to date.

Mike Warburton caught up with lead singer Lou Rhodes ahead of Lamb's appearance at Farmfestival at the end of July to talk about the events leading up to the latest album Backspace Unwind, Lamb's long-running, but defining creative friction, her solo work and much more.

Last year Lamb returned with Backspace Unwind, can you let us in on what lead up to album and what approach you took with it?

We’d brought out our fifth album, imaginatively titled '5' back in 2011 after we re-formed in 2010. Before that we’d had a long hiatus following a split in 2004. 'Backspace Unwind' felt like the natural next step. In a way we’d reinvented ourselves when we re-formed; we’d simplified our approach to writing and recording, focusing on keeping our sound more raw and stripped.

With 'Backspace Unwind' (listen to 'What Makes Us Human' below) we honed that approach further giving ourselves short deadlines for songs and trying to keep, as much as possible, to the idea that your first idea is often your best. The album was recorded at Andy's studio “The Lookout” in the South Downs near Brighton in a period of around six months.

This comes after your well received solo albums, how does your approach to writing differ between the solo stuff and your work with Andy, other than it obviously being different genres?

My solo work is, in many ways, a much easier process in that I can write what I like, when I like. There’s a gentle freedom in that and you can hear it in those records. With Lamb there’s always a creative friction.

It’s something that we've learnt to harness and enjoy these days rather than have it drive us mad and it’s definitely what makes Lamb’s sound what it is but it was a big part of what made us split in 2004. I guess "it’s the sand that makes the oyster pearl”; the friction creating something unexpected and something neither of us would create apart.

Many of us were first exposed to Lamb thanks to the huge hit 'Gorecki' from the first album, how do you think you've evolved as an artist since those early days?

Yes, 'Gorecki' and perhaps also 'Gabriel' are the two songs most people hear first. I guess they’re the ones that have been used a lot in films as well as being reasonably successful singles.

I think so much has changed since the days we wrote those songs; especially since those early days of the first album. Back then we were incredibly naive to the whole experience of making music and dealing with the industry.

Obviously I can’t speak for Andy but I think I’ve evolved in a whole number of ways; mostly positive I hope. It’s been necessary to diversify a lot as an artist because of the pushes and pulls of an ever-changing music business but, in a way, this constant challenge makes it more interesting and inspiring and I hope to continue to evolve and explore new avenues of creativity as time goes by.

How have you enjoyed touring the new album? You've been right across the globe with it too, any highlights?

It’s been a great tour so far. The highlights to date have been The Enmore Theatre in Sydney, Manchester’s Albert Hall on my birthday and London’s Roundhouse. I have a feeling though that the best highlights are yet to come; we love playing summer festivals and we have the cream of the crop to look forward to.

Speaking of which, you'll be heading to Farmfestival at the end of July, for those of us who've not caught one of your live shows, what can we expect?

Our live show is extremely dynamic and fluid as, unlike a lot of dance inspired acts, we play a lot of stuff live. There’s just three of us on stage: myself, Andy on keys, live mixing, hand and kit drums and Jonny Thorne on bass but, between us, we manage to create a pretty big sound and have a lot of fun along the way (watch their performance at Wechter Festival in 2009 below).

We also have an amazing lighting director, Mark Wynne-Edwards, who’s almost like our ninja fourth member in the way he interprets and punctuates the show.

Lamb has often found itself classed under the trip hop umbrella term, but even the briefest of listens through your discography shows you've worked with a much vaster, often more experimental sound than that. Is that conscious decision to constantly try new stuff out or does it happen organically? 

Yea, it frustrates me when people try to reduce our sound to lazy terms such as trip hop. We’ve never wanted to fit in to a particular scene or genre and have constantly pushed our own boundaries in trying new ideas and avenues.

I think this is central to what Lamb are about really; in some ways if we’d conformed more we might have been more popular, especially with our old record label, but it’s the sonic adventure that drives us. We’d get bored with making the same sounds.

You've also got your next solo LP theyesandeye in the pipeline, when can we expect that to land (listen to One Good Thing from Lou's last album below)?

Yeah, I'm really excited about putting this album out, especially as I had to delay its release while I was busy with Lamb.

It’s a little different from my previous albums; veering away from the classic singer-songwriter mould and venturing slightly into the experimental and psychedelic with washes of vintage reverb, some spine-tingling piano played by co-producer Simon Byrt, blissful Harp played by the very awesome Tom Moth of Florence and The Machine and old-school mixing courtesy of Noah Georgeson. I hope to put it out early next year. Just putting a plan together now.

Looking back over Lamb's career, are there any tracks you recorded that still hold a special place in your heart?

Wow, that’s a tricky question. There are many and, I guess, different ones come to the fore at different times. 'Cottonwool' will always be precious as our first "clarion call" to the world and obviously 'Gorecki' and 'Gabriel' are up there as they’re classic timeless songs.

'What Sound' is precious to me because of what it describes: the strange beauty of human connection after a period of being alone. On the new album I really love playing 'We Fall in Love' live and 'As Satellites go By' is an emotional highlight too. The closing track of the album, though, 'Only Our Skin' is a little secret favourite of mine. We don’t play it live so it often gets forgotten but it’s one to close your eyes to and float (listen to it below).

What's in the future for Lamb? Can we look forward to more new records form yourselves?

We never know with Lamb and that’s the way it’s always been. I’m busy preparing to release and tour my new solo record and branching into other new creative ventures too. Andy’s very busy with his production work right now. A new Lamb record will happen if it happens. We love an open horizon.

Thanks very much Lou!

Catch Lamb playing live at Farmfestival, which runs from July 31st - August 1st by getting your tickets here.

Tickets are no longer available for this event