My Life In 10 Songs: Old Fire

Voids, the new album by Old Fire (aka Texas-based composer and producer John Mark Lapham) features an impressive cast of collaborators, including the voices of Bill Callahan, Adam Torres, Emily Cross, and Julia Holter alongside a host of excellent musicians, all adding their talents to twelve songs that slip effortlessly between genres from ambient drones to dusty country and haunting spiritual jazz.

With half of the album comprised of instrumentals and half featuring guest vocalists, the album evolved as it passed through the hands of his collaborators, as Lapham explains, “I usually send a collaborator a piece of music with some general ideas of what I’m looking for, and let them develop it as they see fit. I give them some preliminary lyrics I’ve written, or at least some themes of what the song is about, then they write lyrics and ideas based around that. Sometimes there is a lot of back and forth before we get it right, and almost always there are unexpected turns in the process where it ends up being something very different from what we started with. I bring it all together, but the album exists because of their contributions.”

We caught up with John Mark Lapham to find out more about the music that has inspired him throughout his life.

1) What is your earliest music-related memory? What do you remember being played at home when you were a child?

A few earliest memories… probably the first is walking through the hallway of the house my family was living in when I was only a couple of years old. I remember hearing ‘Yellow Submarine’ and thinking “yeah, this is speaking my language”.

Beyond that, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell and ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ by Gordon Lightfoot were big hits in the Lapham household.

2) What was the first record that you ever bought? Where did you get it and do you have any recollection of the experience?

The first record I can remember buying with my own money was the Flash Gordon Soundtrack. Queen had something of a “sci-fi” sheen to some of their music which I really loved. Similarly, the first cassette I remember buying was ELO’s greatest hits. They too had that sort of futuristic production that really excited me. The Flash Gordon record only got rotation for a short time but I played that ELO tape hundreds of times. I took it to a musical show and tell at school one day and I played “Turn To Stone.” I can remember all the kids rolling their eyes or looking bored except one girl who was tapping her foot. I thought to myself she’s one of my kind!

3) When did you really start to develop a passion for listening to music? How did that come about and what were you into at the time?

My first feelings of musical fixation began in my early teens when Duran Duran came along. They were the first band that I really became obsessed with. I loved the production of their records, and all the components that went into them. Their music was mysterious and painted exotic pictures that were exciting to a kid raised in a small conservative town in West Texas. It was around that time that I became familiar with the 12” single. Their early remixes further expanded that sense of mystery and intrigue! During this period I also first heard Kate Bush who really blew my mind and gave me some indication there was more out there than just the top 40 rock I grew up on. From there into high school years it was a natural progression to Cocteau Twins, Chris and Cosey, Cabaret Voltaire and a million other UK acts, which was what inspired me to learn audio production in England.

4) What was the first gig that you went to? Where was it and what was it like?

My first gig was a double bill of Loverboy and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. They played a show in my hometown, Abilene, Texas, and everyone I knew in middle school were there all losing their minds. I wasn’t particularly a fan of either of them but it was exciting to be introduced to the energy and craziness of the live music experience.

5) What are your memories of starting out making music? What was the first song that you learned to play?

My entry into music production came through being a DJ. I started out playing records at a local teen club (me still being a teen myself). From there I became really excited at the prospect of sampling and creating remixes. This led me to Manchster, England to study sound production. I was primarily just interested in learning the AKAI S3000 sampler and that’s how I built all my early compositions. It wasn’t so much a question of learning to play my first song as it was how to throw random sounds and beats together to start forming something cohesive. Those early records were electro inspired and just sketches that helped me learn song composition.

6) What was your first band? What music was influencing you at that time? What are your memories of playing your first gig and are there any recordings out there?

My first band was called The Earlies. I was living in Manchester with a good friend of mine, Giles Hatton, who I formed the band with. I was primarily listening to electronic music and he listened to a lot of Beach Boys, Sparklehorse and Van Dyke Parks. We both got excited by the idea of blending these two types of music together, which was how The Earlies initially began.

We had some luck around 2003-2004, releasing a single on the Rough Trade Shops For Us record label. From there we put together an album, and then a live band that consisted of 11 players. Our first show I believe was at the Arts Cafe in London. It was a very small venue which was good as it sold out easily. We were all nervous as hell but the crowd were very enthusiastic which helped ease our nerves. This was pre-social media so I am not aware of any recordings of it.

7) What are your memories of starting Old Fire? What was your first release and what do you think now when you listen back to it?

Oh man, the Old Fire process has been a long, twisting road. My first ideas for this project were actually conceived initially for another project I used to be in called The Late Cord. We signed to 4AD for an ep and an album. The EP came out but the singer and I realized shortly after that we were wholly incompatible and couldn’t record together. I had a lot of ideas for that album so decided to take them and start a new project that would feature a changing roster of vocalists and musicians. The first release was a song I wrote with vocalist Sara Lowes and David Stith called ‘Bloodchild’. I wrote the lyrics for a friend who had passed away when he was very young so I’m still very fond of it.

8) Which band/artist do you think has had the biggest influence on your music over the years? What is it about them that inspires you?

Since my teen years one of my biggest influences has been This Mortal Coil, the music production project of Ivo Watts-Russell on 4AD. It was such sad, beautiful music with beautiful production, it was what initially steered me toward making music first for the Late Cord then Old Fire. I admired Ivo’s vision and knowledge of music that he brought to the table for those recordings. Learning about his process gave me the confidence to pursue music production. I’m also a big fan of ambient music so the likes of Stars of the Lid, Johann Johannsson and Brian Eno figure heavily into that influence as well.

9) Who are some of your favourite current artists? What do you like about them?

I’m a big fan of Cate LeBon, Trees Speak, Wayne Robert Thomas, Jane Weaver, Weyes Blood, Jessica Pratt and many others I’m not thinking of at the moment…

I think all these artists are either good songwriters or sound designers (or both). There is a strong emotional core to their music but can be quite unpredictable or forward thinking. I often get bored with a lot of full length albums but these artists can hold my attention throughout.

10) You have a new album out this week, how has your approach to making music changed since you started out, and how has your sound developed over that time? Is there a particular song on the record that epitomises what you’re aiming to achieve or that is particularly special to you for any reason?

When I first started recording ideas for Old Fire, it was all quite nebulous. I had a couple of covers in mind that I knew I wanted to be on the album, but beyond that there was a lot of experimentation and feeling around in the dark until things started to materialize. With the second album, I had a much clearer vision. I knew that I wanted there to be less covers, and more instrumentals. I wanted it to be more concise and thematic, and not to be bound by any restriction in terms of sounds or genres. I constricted myself a lot on the first album to try and keep it in the same world. With this new album, Voids, I wanted to open that world up into other micro worlds, to try new things and not be afraid to let the music grow organically. Finding the voices that ended up on these new recordings, Bill Callahan, Adam Torres, Emily Cross and Julia Holter, really gave the album its heart and guided the first half of it in a way that I would have never predicted when I first started laying out ideas for it.

I would say the song that is most special to me on this record is ‘Uninvited’. It was the first track that I recorded for the album and in many ways laid out the blueprint for how I wanted to proceed with the rest of it. I crafted this song very carefully so that it touched this indefinable place in my brain that I’m always trying to reach with this music. It’s somewhat alien but also emotional and sounds to me like a dream that is half-faded. That pretty well sums up what Old Fire is all about.

Voids is out now on Western Vinyl – order or stream from all of the usual places here

Find out more on Old Fire’s official website

Article by Paul Maps
Photo by Deborah Cannon

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