There's a ripple, little more than a mere echo; whining shards of distorted guitar that sounds like it’s been placed inside a food processor ebbs and flows into view while a droning texture hovers menacingly up into the foreground.
All of a sudden things coalesce into the semblance of a beatless groove; machine-like drums quickly appear out of nowhere, the guitar shards begin to fly wildly like sparks from a flame before big blocks of melodic sound carry the piece forward over the remaining four minutes.
This is what LNZNDRF sound like.
Other tracks might throw in emotional vocals and wordplay, or slow things down into softer, more textural territory, but at some point across the eight tracks on their debut album, they'll return to that juxtaposition of chugging beats and noisy melodic splinters time after time.
Auckland, 2011. The National are on tour in New Zealand and their support act has failed to turn up. The band’s brotherly rhythm section backbone, Scott and Bryan Devendorf, along with Beirut multi-instrument Ben Lanz decide on the spot that they will fill the slot vacated by the support act, improvising spontaneous compositions, without ever having played as a trio and without any preconceived notion of what they were going to play.
This is who LNZNDRF are.
Though they didn't know it at the time, that serendipitous no-show by the support was the start of what would become known as LNZNDRF – an amalgam of the names Lanz and Devendorf – whose self-titled album for 4AD is just about the most accomplished record you'll hear this year.
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By any measure, four years is a long time for an album to come together. Scott Devendorf laughs at the notion before turning sanguine. “We didn't really have plan,” he sighs. “There were no expectations of this. No-one was asking for us to do this project, other than ourselves.” That ability to just feel out how this project might or might not sound as they went along is one of the luxuries that the trio enjoyed with this project.
Not that they necessarily always had the benefit of that casual approach: after that initial, slightly hair-raising performance in Auckland, the trio were given yet another unplanned chance to convene the nascent group. “We did that a couple more times,” recalls Devendorf. “We did it again before a show by The National, because we had another incident of a support band who didn't show up.” At this Devendorf offers a small, slightly nervous laugh, as if recalling how stressful that kind of short-notice change to plans can often be. Quite what it is about The National that means support bands have a tendency to drop out isn't exactly clear, but it allowed the trio another opportunity to jam out spontaneous ideas without any restriction other than the time The National needed to be on stage.
Recording the basic structures that would eventually become the first LNZNDRF album in February 2015 arrived at a convenient hiatus period for The National. Matt Berninger was quietly working on his EL VY project, Aaron Dessner would produce the likes of Mumford & Sons, Bryce Dessner was dabbling with classical motifs and working on the soundtrack to The Revenant, and the Devendorf brothers were performing as The Dead, a tribute band of sorts with Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. “It was good to explore those possibilities,” says Devendorf of the bandmembers’ individual projects. “All of it rubs off, in a good way, on each project.”
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It was all about slowly arriving at some sort of structure…
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The trio decamped to a church in Cincinatti where they would go on to improvise long-form jams in a manner reminiscent of the legendary German band Can’s mammoth sessions at Schloss Norvenich on the outskirts of Cologne. Spoiler alert: this won't be the first reference to German bands from the 1970s. “We just had a shared love of certain bands,” says Devendorf of the starting point for those church sessions.
“We found an aesthetic that we could all sort of agree on. It was all about slowly arriving at some sort of structure. Ben writes a ton of music himself, lots of chord ideas and he often has lots of structures in mind. Going into the recording it was mostly a case of of just getting together, having fun, making some noise and seeing how we all thought about it later.”
The recording sessions lasted a couple of days, with each piece lasting between twenty and thirty minutes. There followed a few months of listening back to the results before reconvening in the studio of an engineer friend up in Woodstock – which Devendorf describes as a “fun, kind of mythical place” – in August for what was essentially an exercise in turning these improvisations into actual tracks. “We started to structure it,” explains Devendorf. “We just went there for four or five days and mixed everything. We also did all the vocals and kind of ‘wrote’ the songs in a way while we were there.” We talk about how, despite starting out as freeform improvisations, a conscious compositional process was required in the studio, a process that would lead to heavy cuts and major edits, but which could have meant any number of possible versions of the eight tracks on what would become the band’s self-titled album could have been realised.
Vocals were among the last elements to drop into place. “Ben had a ton of lyric ideas and Ryan had some as well, and I threw in a couple as well,” says Devendorf. “And then we were like, ‘Oh, here's this thing. It's done,’.” The album was picked up by 4AD, home to both The National and Beirut. “It was a pleasant surprise,” he laughs. “To say we just didn't have any expectations, that's not exactly true; we’re really proud of the record, but that they picked it up was kind of cool.”
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Saying that, some sprawl is always welcome with us…
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If ‘LNZNDRF’ betrays one major influence, it would be Krautrock, that slightly dubious moniker for music that emerged from West Germany in the 1970s, as pioneered by bands like Neu! Krautrock was characterised by chugging, level, unswerving rhythms that were dubbed ‘motorik’; constant, frill-less, urgent grooves. Legend has it that the rhythm was a sonic evocation of the German autobahn system – long, unbroken roads cutting through the German countryside that permitted fast driving speeds. Motorik captured that sense of being propelled perpetually forward with machine-like efficiency while the landscape around the road continually changed.
Scott Devendorf readily admits how important Krautrock was in the genesis of LNZNDRF. “I think it was the clanging, sonic beds that I was drawn to,” he says. “That and that kind of endless loop with some modulation here and there, but not a whole lot of change. Saying that, some sprawl is always welcome with us.”
“It's just like this groove with some filigree,” he continues. “There's something quite utilitarian about it, mechanical even. There’s something about that structure, that base with stuff over the top. Music that does that kind of thing is very inspiring for us. Songs like the first song on the first Neu! record, ‘Hallogallo’. I think anything that's in that kind of zone – say Eno productions or just a generally minimalist aesthetic – is really appealing. Minimal art and minimal music are especially exciting for me. I like things that are plain, but with hidden corners and details.”
Improv as a concept is something that the trio were drawn to. “We are generally interested in improv, and that world, for sure. Ben’s a highly talented and a well-trained multi-instrumentalist player, but it's not really about chops or anything like that, or anything technical, it's more about finding a pleasing sonic aesthetic. What we were going for were more like jumping off points.”
Recording the LNZNDRF tracks, and especially performing them live, was something of a liberation for Devendorf, but not a wholly alien one. “It was a different process to recording with The National because usually we were structuring songs around the idea of Matt’s vocals,” he explains. “This began as completely instrumental and then we would work backwards, creating these fragments, and manageable pieces. There is a shared aesthetic with The National in some ways, because we're always sending Matt ideas and fragments, repetitive grooves that he works over as individual parts, and then we collide them back together. I guess with The National there's just the history of being in the record business and knowing the way that works, so if there's any liberation, it's just from doing something completely different.”
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If there's any liberation, it's just from doing something completely different…
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LNZNDRF are currently on a short tour to promote the album. True to the aesthetic that led to the group's formation, what they're not doing while on tour is running through the tracks on the record. Instead, the trio find themselves riffing off the themes there, while also improvising entirely new pieces and heading off down new paths.
Devendorf admits that the process can be a little daunting, the musician’s equivalent of a writer’s fear of the empty page. “It can be quite scary,” he laughs nervously. “I mean, when we first started playing the first show in London in February, we'd rehearsed for a few days and got it together, to a point, but then it was ‘Oh no, I've actually got to do it and I don't really know what's going to happen!’ Whereas after playing with The National for however many years it's been, you know, it's always fun and interesting but you have an hour and a half with a set list in front of you. With this we have eight songs, so the set list is more like inspiration, like jumping off points for improvisation, or we’ll just ignore the set list completely and come up with entirely new pieces.”
They've also found themselves in spontaneous collaboration with guitarist Marcus Hamblett, who supported them for a couple of shows and who seems somewhat more reliable than the support acts whose failure to arrive at the venue led to this group’s formation. “He does a solo kind of jazz, kind of instrumental, a little post-rock I guess,” explains Devendorf. “He's great as a human but he's also a great player and we're trying to get him in on the game.”
“You just don't know what's going to happen,” muses Devendorf. “That's kind of an exciting feeling because there's no start and no stop.”
‘LNZNDRF’, it seems, is unlikely to be a one-off. The unused material from the initial sessions that led to the album aside, the trio have signalled that further explorations are definitely on the cards. A small snippet from an unreleased track recorded at a Colorado session is currently playing at their website, and Devendorf suggests they have plenty more tracks and ideas in the bag. But just don't go expecting a swift follow-up. “We don't have any plans to do it yet, but we didn't have a plan for this one,” he laughs.
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‘LNZNDRF’ is out now on 4AD.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith