Lou Rhodes of Lamb on Philosophy, Negative Space and ‘The Secret of Letting Go’

Manchester, England duo Lamb, the brainchild of singer-songwriter Lou Rhodes and producer Andy Barlow, emerged in the mid ‘90s with a unique take on emergent sounds of the era. They combined the frenetic energy of drum and bass, along with elements of hip-hop a few levels removed, and elegant jazzy stylings paired with vaguely folk sensibilities, forging a sound with a certain Bohemian, reflective lyricism and a combination of light and dark sonics that set them distinctly apart from their peers in the peripheral, largely Bristol-based trip-hop scene.

When a band’s sound is so inextricably linked to a specific moment in musical history, it’s easy to lapse into tired routines and stagnant drivelry, but Lamb has evolved gracefully through the years, delving in new directions while always retaining a clear core aesthetic. There was a disbanding and reformation in the aughts, and a nearly calling it quits during the recording of their latest album, “The Secret of Letting Go.” Fortunately, Rhodes and Barlow chose to mine their creative tensions for new possibilities, and emerged from the struggles freshly radiant, releasing an exciting set of spacious songs with some hefty lyrical underpinnings and some fresh stylistic detours, alongside music videos inspired by adventures traversing the globe.  

Lou Rhodes spoke with Entertainment Voice for an enlightening conversation, digging into the band’s conception of itself, the duo’s unique working relationship, and the inspirations behind the new songs’ sounds and sensibilities.

You’ve been making music together for over two decades now. When you first began, the ‘90s trip-hop scene, a term often used to describe your music, was a burgeoning style. It seems to have largely dissipated over the years, with just a select few artists keeping it fresh with new spins on the sound. What do you think about the trip-hop moniker and the current state of the sound?

(Laughs). I have to be completely honest with you. I hate the name trip-hop. It’s always been kind of like a noose that people try and put around us for like the last twenty years, and it’s so limited as a term. We never started out being that, and yet, people put us in the genre, I guess because we emerged around that time, but we were based in Manchester, and most of that was from Bristol. We’ve been trying to shake that moniker off for many years, really.  

One of your best known songs to date is “Górecki‘,” named after Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” which saw a modern resurgence earlier this year in a collaboration between Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. What did you think of that rendition and about the impact of Górecki in general?

I have to say I haven’t watched the Beth Gibbons performance. I need to see it. That’s really interesting that she decided to do that piece! It’s kind of a full circle, in a way, because people always used to kind of assume that we were usually influenced by them. It’s funny I’ve actually thought about doing something like that a while ago, so she kind of beat me to it.

In terms of Górecki‘s influence, contemporary composers like him and Alvo Part just have a particular flavor to what they do that I think has a really profound effect. When I first heard Górecki’s Third Symphony, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” obviously it’s in Polish, but it just was so deeply moving that I really wanted to use that influence in a song. I think that genre of music, particularly those two composers, has just got a profoundly emotive flavor to it.

Are there any other contemporary composers that stand out to you?

It would be Jonny Greenwood if I was going to talk about someone. I’m completely blown away by the film stuff that he does. He’s just a heavyweight. And the strings on Radiohead’s last album, as well, were just another level. It kind of made that album, his string arrangements. He’s amazing.

Your new album is titled “The Secret of Letting Go.” There’s a certain sense of liberation that generally comes with the act of letting go, and your music does seem to have a sense of freeness about it. Tell us about the title of the album, and its personal meaning to you.  

(Laughs.) Well that song in particular was quite interesting because it was kind of a central point in the writing, and also ended up being a sort of centerpiece in the playlist of the album. I guess we were someway into writing, and it’s quite well known that Andy and I quite often have a problematic writing relationship. There’s quite a lot of creative friction which kind of makes our music interesting. You can guarantee that if he has one idea, my idea will be in the opposite direction, or vice versa. It’s kind of been a bit of a tradition with Lamb, so it can be a challenging writing relationship. Actually, we’re the best of friends, and we’re like brother and sister, but it still doesn’t stop there being this creating friction, and “The Secret of Letting Go” was written in a moment when we had another of our many creative impasses, and actually thought about dropping the whole thing and walking away from the project.

Just in that kind of moment, we just decided that we’d try writing a track. We were just like, “ For the hell of it, if we’re going to let it go, let’s just write this one thing,” where each of us went into separate rooms and wrote something. I don’t know whether you’ve ever played that game when you draw a bit and you fold the paper and pass it to the next person, and they don’t see what you’ve drawn, and they draw something else. It was like that. We both wrote something, and the idea was to put it together without, kind of, previewing what we had done, and that’s how “The Secret of Letting Go.” The music is really angular, and almost like a sort of bucking bronco (laughs) trying to get rid of my vocals. It’s just like, where do you land the vocal in that arrangement, you know? And my lyrics were kind of talking of the anger and frustration I felt toward Andy in that moment. Ironically, the process of writing that kind of spurred us on to carry on writing the album. It was the exercise of letting go that helped us carry on.

Your single “Moonshine” is a truly unique song, full of splattering, vaguely tribal percussion and sprightly vocals, as well as rapping from Cian Finn. What was the inspiration behind this song, and how did it come together?

Well, it was written in Goa a couple of years ago, in 2017, and basically, I had gone there having just ended a long-term relationship and feeling a little bit broken and lost, where love was concerned, and kind of was generally questioning what love is. And Andy and I had a conversation about what we thought love was, in our different ways. No conclusion, really, but the song “Moonshine” is about that feeling when that first spark of love is present — that attraction and that electric feeling. It was just exploring that. And the thing about it was in India, and in the east, the moon sits back. When it’s a sickle moon it lies back in the sky instead of sitting up on its side, and I was really enthralled by that. The moon has always been known to, kind of, govern love and emotions and so on, so when it says in the chorus that “the moon shines differently out here,” it was just a feeling of new beginnings and new possibilities of love, I guess.

You filmed the video for “Moonshine” in Maharashtra, India. Did you have any especially profound experiences in India that come to mind?

People through the decades have gone there to find themselves, and there’s a really different view of life because obviously, Indian culture is based in Hinduism and Buddhism, and so there’s a very different approach, and I think Indian people, when they’re born, have a real belief in that their life is predetermined, like a spiritual tradition that makes them surrender to whatever happens. So it’s very easy to find a certain freedom when you go there, if you fall into that culture. It’s a pretty far out place, you know? In the west, we’re so into control (laughs). Every step of the way, we’re like, “I need to control this. I need to make this happen in this way,” and in India they just, kind of, let go. It might be predetermined, but they don’t know how it’s predetermined, or what the steps are going to be, but their philosophy is very much about, “what happens happens,” and so they kind of surrender a degree of control. It doesn’t mean that they’re not the authors of their lives, but it’s just a very different approach, and it’s quite subtle unless you actually experience it.

The funny thing is that they have very little health and safety concerns (laughs). So you see people carrying huge sheets of glass on scooters. That’s pretty far out. Everyday you’re on your scooter, kind of laughing at all these crazy things that are coming from the other direction on scooters, like guys with huge boxes of beer on their scooter so they can’t actually see over the top. It helps to be really careful at night not to bump in cows that stroll about on the road (laughs).

Another new single is the strikingly titled “Armageddon Waits.” Doomsday references have likely never been as frequent in music and popular culture than over the last several years. What exactly inspired you to write a song with such a title?

(Laughs). Well, actually ours is more ironic. A lot of people assume it’s a political reference, but it actually isn’t. Basically, the music came first with that track, and there were something quite mysterious and slightly dark about the music, and it had this whole number of incarnations, in terms of lyrics and vocal melodies. The song is about that kind of attraction that you might have for someone, which you know is dangerous, in whatever way, but you cannot help but act on it. That’s the idea of “Armageddon Waits,” like shit is going to hit the fan if we act on this (laughs), but damn, we’re probably going to act on it anyway.

We have a new single that’s about to come out, “Bulletproof,” and we’ve just been working on a video for that, which I’m really excited about it. I’ve just been editing it with an editor in L.A., but it was filmed in Mexico, in Guadalajara, and it’s featuring one of Mexico’s top ten freerunners. You know freerunning or parkour? This guy’s off the scale! It’s so exciting. My god, just wait until you see this video. He’s just jumping off roofs, and it’s crazy. It’s literally ready to be graded, and then it’s ready for release, so it’s really exciting.

Your song “Bulletproof” sounds like you might have been listening to old Squarepusher and perhaps Fever Ray. Any truth to this?

Oh no, not specifically. I mean, it’s very fractured or fragmented, beatwise. It’s very much one of Andy’s calling cards really, those beats and the bass. He just sent me the rhythm track with the sub-bass, and I was just kind of hooked immediately on that, but no specific reference really, in terms of any other artist or whatever.

What are some lyrics from any of your new songs that come to mind as particularly meaningful or noteworthy, and why?

Oh god, that’s a tough one. It’s all kind of very relevant in its different ways. The track “Imperial Measure” was written about a really profound kind of experience of a conversation I had with someone that kind of blew my word apart in a very positive way. In Zen Buddhism, they call it “Satori.” It’s kind of like a moment of enlightenment, and that song was very much a description of that moment, so I guess that’s pretty special.

It was about life and Buddhist practice. I guess what we’re here for, as human beings. In Zen Buddhism, they have a stick, and during meditation, you get hit with this stick on your shoulders, if you can’t focus. They call it a Zen stick, and this conversation was kind of like a Zen stick that woke me up. I think it kind of threw everything up in the air, in a really profound way.

One feature that stands out about your music is your use of open space, with decluttered arrangements that seem to make all the sounds mean and matter more. What do you think about using silence as an instrument, and is this an intentional choice in your process?

That is a great question. Yeah, that’s really a big part of this album. Obviously, we’ve got the track “The Silence In Between,” which speaks of that, and it was definitely a kind of theme on this album — the fact that the space between notes is as important as the notes themselves. A lot of time in art, people talk about negative space — you might have a canvass that’s completely blank except for a couple of strokes of a brush, and it’s the negative space that makes it, almost. So in music, I think it’s really similar. And in a lot of modern music, we’ve got so much potential to fill it with sound because we’ve got everything available. People have fake strings, fake, you know, everything. It would be very easy to make very, kind of, dense music, but you lose something in that process, and so I think the negative space aspect was something that we really wanted to keep in mind throughout the whole of making this album. It just keeps an edge there, and keeps a rawness to it, and hopefully a timelessness as well. I think so much music is confined and defined by the sounds that you use in it, and so I think by keeping things raw, there’s more of a sense of it coming out on its own.

On the topic of negative space in contemporary music, an artist that stands out is James Blake. What are your thoughts on him?

I’m a bit obsessed with his new album actually, I have to say (laughs). I went to see him live. He played in Bristol. I live in Bristol now, funnily enough. Before I went to the gig, I thought, “Oh god, I have to play the album. I better do the research.” I started playing it, and it’s just been on pretty constant repeat ever since. There’s something really special about that album. I love the title track and “Into the Red.” I’ve got huge amounts of respect for him as an artist, and I loved his show. He basically just played with just him and two other musicians, and again, talking in negative space, there was this real simplicity in that show. There was no fancy lighting, no fancy anything — just three musicians on stage playing this amazing music, and his voice is just always stunning. And he’s just such a lovely, humble character. He comes across as this really real human being. Obviously, he’s worked with some big stars recently, but it’s not changed him one bit. I’d love to collaborate with him sometime. That would be so cool. We could do a little duet (laughs).

As of now, you just have a couple August tour dates in Belgium and Germany. Do you have plans to bring the new album elsewhere on the road, and if so, what can fans expect from the live show?

Yeah, we’re just about to announce a tour of the UK and Europe, and we’re also due to play a special show at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in September, and then we’re really hoping to come to the states early next year. We’re working on that now. In terms of the show, we get to decide what the lineup is going to be when we come to the states, so it may be as stripped-back as a trio or it may be a four-piece, but obviously myself and Andy are the core project, and then usually we would have our double bass player, and we have to decide what other musicians we’ll have with us. It’s a very dynamic show, even if it’s just the trio. I think that even though we’re in a sort of the electronic genre, we’ve always really fell into it as a live performance, as opposed to so many electronic acts you see and it’s just, kind of, guys with laptops (laughs), and not an awful lot going on. For us, it’s very important that the show is dynamic, and that it’s a real performance.

The Secret of Letting Go” is available April 26 on Apple Music.