In February 2014, the London duo LV—electronic producers with a taste for global sounds—found themselves in Belgium's Chris Maene Instrument Museum, a private collection of historical keyboards housed in a restored brewery an hour outside of Brussels. They were there to meet, and record, Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan who was also in town for a few days, and whose deft playing dots their latest album, Ancient Mechanisms. Sticking their heads inside pianos and crawling beneath them in order to place microphones, the pair began to get a sense of this instrument as a “weird old machine,” Will Horrocks, one half of LV, tells me over the phone from his south London home. Getting to grips with the piano in such a physical way led them to new approaches, which is how they began to “get into the actual sound of the mechanisms of the piano, rather than the sound pressing [their] keys produce,” explains Simon Williams, the other half of the duo. Despite what the title might hint at, their new album is, according to Horrocks, simply “about the working of things.”
Pinpointing LV's place on the spectrum of electronic music has never been easy. Williams and Horrocks have been making music together for close to 15 years. They first came to recognition in 2007 with a pair of dub-tinged singles on Hyperdub and, over the past eight years, have built a discography that includes numerous singles, remixes, and production work alongside three albums, all fronted by vocalists: Routes (2011) and Islands (2014) with London poet Joshua Idehen for the Keysound label, and Sebenza (2012) for Hyperdub featuring South African MCs Okmalumkoolkat, Ruffest, and Spoek Mathambo.
“LV and Tigran Hamasyan exist in different spheres but share a real attention to detail—for Tigran melodically, and LV sonically.”—Gilles Peterson
A close look at the sum total of their work so far puts them closer to the producers of old—effacing themselves into a multitude of studio-related roles—than to the modern bedroom-producer-cum-artist that typifies many of their peers. They define themselves “with difficulty most of the time,” Williams admits. “Some days I’m like DJ Premier, making beats on the MPC,” Horrocks picks up, half-jokingly. “Sometimes I feel like Rick Rubin, telling someone why their stuff isn’t good and what to change, and sometimes I feel more like an engineer doing things for people.” As Brian Eno first theorized in the late 1970s, LV consider the studio to be their instrument. When I press them further on their choice of a more traditional producer role, Williams suggests they are “reluctant artists,” uneasy with being at the front.
The seed for Ancient Mechanisms was sown in 2012 when LV and Hamasyan were invited by renowned radio personality and DJ Gilles Peterson to the BBC's Maida Vale studios in London for a live session that fused the lilt of piano playing with subtle production and atmospherics. Peterson called the result “a bit special” and the session earned the three artists a victory at the 2013 edition of his Worldwide Awards. Having fostered a mutual respect and interest in each other’s work, LV and Hamasyan took their one-off collaboration on the road for a short run of shows throughout Europe that summer and the pair remixed “Road Song” from Hamasyan's Shadow Theater album. In late 2013, LV approached Peterson's Brownswood Recordings label with the idea for an album project involving Hamasyan. It was a logical choice considering that Peterson, who has made a career of connecting seemingly disparate artists and genres, had brought them together. Over email, the London DJ explained why he signed them: LV and Hamasyan “exist in different spheres but share a real attention to detail—for Tigran melodically, and LV sonically.”
“Artistry is about moving on and trying to grapple with new ways of doing things.”—Will Horrocks, LV
Faced with the task of crafting an album that, for once, wasn’t anchored around a vocalist led LV to rethink their approach. They honed in on the piano as a point of melodic focus. “It’s a sound we’re both into,” admits Williams, before Horrocks adds: “It is known for aping the human voice in how it operates sonically.” The result of two years of work, on and off, Ancient Mechanisms fuses the old (pianos, strings, voices) with the new (computers, samples, found sounds) and thus finds itself somewhat suspended in time. Hamasyan's playing—he features on five of the 14 tracks—moves from melancholic ("Ruiselede") to joyful ("Jump And Reach"), yet never falls foul of the tight-but-loose mechanized grooves that have become a signature of LV's work (see "Transition" and "Dansaertstraat"). The recording session in Brussels was short but intense: Williams remembers Hamasyan being “very relaxed and efficient,” laying down contributions over rough sketches. The album also includes recordings of a piano LV found during a trip to Essaouira, Morocco, in late 2014 as well as a “weird, out of tune old piano” lying around in Williams' flat, which they fashioned into a virtual instrument that appears throughout. The attention to detail that caught Peterson's ear is evident in how Ancient Mechanisms evokes shifting ideas of time and space: the piano lends a sense of timelessness to the urgency of the electronics as you're led through jazz back alleys, acoustic halls, and smoky club rooms before taking a lonely ride home.
Despite modest successes over the past five years, LV has never quite capitalized on any perceived hype. The duo's admitted reluctance to the accepted notion of what an artist should be hints at the underlying tension that plagues most creative minds: how to survive and still do what fulfills you. They know that there are more lucrative routes open to them but, as Williams admits, “we just like to do what we want musically.” Ancient Mechanisms is yet another exquisite example of their uncompromising ownership of their art, and of their unfettered curiosity. “Artistry is about moving on and trying to grapple with new ways of doing things,” Horrocks affirms. “New subject matter or trying to improve on what you’ve done. I always think we can do something better than the last.”