Helena Celle is Kay Logan, a multi-disciplinary artist, instrumentalist, and sound engineer from Glasgow, Scotland. I'm tempted to call Logan one of the city’s best kept secrets, but that would serve to communicate a lack of familiarity with Glasgow’s rich musical landscape (it's been home to The Jesus and Mary Chain, Strawberry Switchblade, Belle and Sebastian, The Pastels, Lungleg, Yummy Fur, Franz Ferdinand, among the more well known) more than articulate what is so special about Helena Celle’s intricate, unfurling first album.
If I Can't Handle Me At My Best, You Don't Deserve You At Your Worst, Logan’s Helena Celle debut, was released last year on Night School Records. Helena Celle is “a fierce, inquisitive mind active in Glasgow’s underground culture,” says Night School. Logan made her album “using faltering machinery recorded live and loud to consumer dictaphones.” The Glasgow label’s iconoclastic roster ranges from the instant-hits-in-an-alternate-dimension pop delights of Molly Nilsson to the slamming freneticism of Divorce, making a fitting home for Helena Celle. But for all intents and purposes here, the chattering, mechanical biomes Logan built from the ground up on If I Can't Handle Me At My Best, You Don't Deserve You At Your Worst make it a debut with few traditional siblings, and certainly no direct parental lineage to speak of. Helena Celle is a remarkably self-made sound.
A quick study of Logan’s musical CV proves she's no novice to adventurous musicianship -- her guitar and bass work in sweaty, thrashing outfits like Herbert Powell and the recently thrilling Anxiety are an inverse corollary to the curious tapestries of layering in which Helena Celle songs take shape. The preternatural stylistic sensibility Logan exhibits in all of her work isn't limited to sound, either -- she's a prodigious visual artist (responsible for most of what Anxiety looks like, be it on record sleeve or t-shirt) with the kind of signature sartorial sensibility that could launch a thousand ships, or lookalikes. Logan’s seasonally practical look as of late -- sun hat at the punk show, for instance -- I am certain inspired more than one show goer at the Anxiety gig I caught on the bottom floor of a Barcelona parking garage.
I had the recent pleasure of emailing with Logan about some ideologies behind Helena Celle, computer programming, how to make a banger, and translating curiously human mechanical sounds outside the confines of one’s own head.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Helena Celle got started?
I got a Roland MC303 [sequencer] really cheap and decided to make a techno record. I listen to a lot of it, but I tend toward not being into clubbing. The only ideological form behind it is "I want to make a banger." Despite this, I keep having ideas for a record that tends more toward atmosphere, and intuition tells me to go with pervasive ideas that appear to exist elsewhere, and bring them here.
Can you please tell me your five favorite bangers, or at least five Very Good Bangers.
I always think of “Garden of Linmiri” by Caustic Window. Maybe the “Logical Song” by Scooter, which was the first song I ever legally owned. I think Jun Togawa has made a lot of music that makes me want to dance, as well as Madonna, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Prince. I’m really not a technohead. I find those sorts of people largely to be beyond dull.
You're a sound engineer! Is this in live clubs or in a studio? I would assume this kind of work influences the music you make.
I work in a live setting. It’s a job like any other, but it's certainly the best job I’ve ever had. I would record bands but I have no interest in doing that as a day job.
It helps me know what to avoid doing in my own music. It can be frustrating, largely due to limitations imposed by environment and time (and people), but can also be rewarding. It's nice when everyone communicates well, consciously and subconsciously, and when you know you've helped someone out with something they care very passionately about.
Do you know about the sound engineer stereotype -- when the sound person is listening to bad music, it means they're gonna be good at doing sound? I figure I should go straight to the source and get an expert to weigh in on this.
I think listen to a lot of bad music, so it's hard to say, but it's all subjective isn't it? I like to embrace music precisely for its capacity to be undefinable.
It is subjective of course. I often wonder what is “good” and “bad” to people as it's vaguely indicative of a value system, taste etc. Speaking to music’s undefinable nature, what do you make of “genre” as an organizing principle?
It serves a purpose, but the map is never the territory. Terminology describes the mental processes we put ourselves through to attempt to describe phenomena, not the phenomena itself. We can't avoid this, that's the catastrophe of the infinite regress, and it haunts everything, not just art. I suppose that's what the work of semanticists like Korzybski try to navigate, rather than circumvent.
If I Can't Handle Me At My Best, You Don't Deserve You At Your Worst is the first Helena Celle I got. Is there more? It's a great record! Each track feels like it's own little biome to me, or like you are making the sonic equivalent of landscape paintings. Does this speak to your songwriting process at all, or is it really different?
I recorded that record around a year or so before it came out, and it was just sitting there doing nothing for a while. I went back to finish my degree, where I looked into using open source technologies to build accessible systems for live performance of electronic music. I've been continuing that work independently for about two years now, and it's finally in a state where I'm using it to make new music.
I find it hard to convey what exactly occurs in [my] songwriting process, perhaps that it's as if there's something that already exists somewhere, and you're bringing part of it into being, but like an aspect of the totality of the whole thing. I think that's what interests me about live performance, that each performance can contain differing instances of a composition, like looking at it from a different angle every time and seeing the light and shadow change.
That was the approach with the LP that came out on Night School. All the recordings are the best live takes of all the different tracks. I like working that way, and the new methods I'm using help facilitate that. It's C++ code running off a microcontroller, reading MIDI into internal wavetable oscillators and can connect to hardware controllers and synthesisers. It gets away from having to use a laptop, having to have a screen there.
I think it's important to me to facilitate a state during performance where consciousness is altered to come into contact with the unconscious, and to communicate on that level. I don't think I can get into that headspace if I'm having to look at a screen.
I relate to that-- I find devices with screens are useful, but also really disruptive to my creative process. I use them more for socializing and work that isn't creative. It sounds like the act of performing and the act of songwriting are very intertwined with Helena Celle. Do you feel a bit like you're doing dream interpretation with conjuring sounds/songwriting?
It feels to me as if they come from elsewhere and I work to bring them here.
Wait so can you tell me more about C++ code?! The approach you take to completely cultivating your own setup and sound, rather than working with preexisting tools, laptop, whatever, it's very exciting and explains the uniqueness of your sound.
As a young child I loved the escapism of video games. I didn't really care for playing them, but I liked to walk around in them and experience anything but reality. I grew out of the hobby with age, but while I was still young I discovered that they were made by computer programmers.
We didn't have a computer (my parents were very old fashioned) so I went to the library to look for books on computer programming, and ended up stealing a book on C++ without knowing a thing about it. I don't know why I didn't just borrow it, but it felt appropriate to do at the time. Despite this it, would be some time before I really got into it, largely due to discouragement and abysmal computing education standards in the U.K, where you are taught to be a consumer rather than taught to appropriate automation for positive ends, which I suppose is the opposite of what they want to produce in a child.
I grew out of the interests that initially got me into it, but became intensely motivated to utilise it to break out of the class limitations that surround audio culture. It was really the discovery of Throbbing Gristle as a teenager that got me into this, I think I found them through Nine Inch Nails, and they changed everything for me.
I can't afford audio equipment, I managed to buy a tape recorder, hardware synthesiser and amplifier with my student loan and money I worked for, but that’ll be it for life. So now all I’m interested in is doing my own thing, outside of the market forces of audio culture that are still regulated by class and difference.
I use cheap microcontrollers onto which I can download my own code from free cloud storage repositories I keep it on, so if one breaks then it's always within the boundaries of my financial limitations to continue my work. I’ve set my own processes up in a manner that allows for interfacing with either control devices I’ve built myself, or generic USB controllers that you often come across unwanted. It allows for a very varied body of capacity, and I imagine I’ll be utilising and advocating this approach for the rest of my life.
You got booted off Twitter not long ago and had to start a new account, right? The circumstances around that sounded really sketch to me. [Note: Logan was removed from Twitter after a spat with a popular online troll, whose followers reported Logan and her account was deleted.] Is Twitter a shit social platform? Are we all doomed to be booted out of public platforms owned by potentially fascist-leaning troglodyte billionaires?
I believe that decentralisation is key to the avoidance of these situations, situations where power stagnates and is concerned with maintaining its own hegemony. We are living in a strange time, where the internet has been forced into states of centralisation in opposition to its own inherent tendencies. You can see this in how governments are reacting to circumvent freedom of information also, but I believe that the force of acceleration that brought the internet into being will eventually collapse all forms of control, and for me that is what it represents. It’s in its infancy. We live in a time where access to all accumulated human knowledge has never been so widely available, where autodidactism is possible, but simultaneously there is this cultural reaction, perhaps unconscious, to prevent this.
Information spreads primarily today through vectors that are massively inefficient, resource intensive mediums such as film and video games. If you conceive of it in terms of the electricity that a modern day console requires to run a four hour video game developed for billions by a team of a thousand people, it seems absurd. I think about how much memory these media take up on our storage devices, and comparatively, how little space text files can take up. It has never been easier to access liberatory information, yet nobody wants to do it.
This may relate to the predicament of social media, centralising all interaction and information into character limits, enforced reorganisation of access to information relating to capacity to pay for it to be seen, class structures replicating themselves (for example, through absurd constructs such as verification, likes and follower counts) in what was once the free, difference, class and gender abolitionist environment of cyberspace.
I think there are fascist sympathisers running these spaces, which would not be surprising whatsoever, as these are spaces that embody difference, classification, and control based on classification.
As for my own situation, I could point fingers, but ultimately view what happened as the result of a feedback control system eliminating people like me, mirroring our society at large. Social media appears as a human comfort construct erecting within the alien expanse of cyberspace. I align myself with the alien force that throughout history has worked in the interests of people like me, the same force that brought women into the workplace and caused low consciousness men to react with misogyny.
They are domesticated primates floundering in the face of alien evolution, and at this point in time, we pose a threat to their continued existence, so their systems will act to eject us. This is a futile effort, as the force that acts on our behalf is unstoppable, and inevitable. I imagine, for now, it will cause them to react with equal intensity until they can no longer keep up. I think this goes a lot to explaining our contemporary collective predicament.
I feel like social media is wack, but I still use it. It feels like it poisons my mind if I'm on it too long but also I like talking to people. What's your overall take, on a personal level and also for artists in general. Is it a good tool for us at all?
I don't see any personal benefit from it other than staying in touch with others. I’m not saying that to be facetious, but that it literally has no impact on my life other than negatives. I think we can conceive of platforms that are less centralised, as our current options are fascistic in nature and are thus antithetical to the interests of artists.
Alternatives will emerge with time, but they will require a complete detachment from monetary interest and investment, and reconsiderations as to how we facilitate the power and resources required to establish and maintain nodes and networks. It seems likely that pursuing this at this point in the timeline will get you killed by sinister forces, but information over time acts to free itself. It seems to me that is what the function of history is.
You've been on a big tour with Anxiety. How is the open road? Are you seeing any places or bands you're excited by? When are y'all coming to the USA?!
It’s our first extended tour outside of the UK, so it’s been a new experience. We wouldn't have been able to do it without the encouragement of Paco at La Vida Es Un Mus, so I’m very, very grateful for his support.
It’s my first time visiting a lot of the countries we went to. It's been very eye opening. I think about Clement Attlee [saying], “the people of the earth are islands shouting at each other over oceans of misunderstanding.” Not only language barriers, but you move a hundred miles in any direction and consensus reality changes from the position you set off from. I never traveled growing up, so I understand now the sentiment that seeing other places expands your reality tunnel.
We played a few shows with Exotica and Ohyda, which I really enjoyed. I liked Belgrado, and Piñen, who we’ve played with before. I’ve really enjoyed the shows we played with bands more leaning toward noise, like in Milan with Brutal Birthday and Holiday Inn, who are involved with the label Maple Death, who put out one of my favourite records of recent years by Cindy Lee. I come from more of a noise background than a punk one, and while I enjoy both, I’m more naturally inclined toward the former. On that note, we had some people in France question our “punk” status, which I openly welcome and encourage people to do.
I got to bring my teen cousin to a show the other day and it got me thinking about music I was looking for and hearing at 14. Can you think of what you were listening to as a teen and something you heard that was really paradigm-shifting?
I definitely got into a lot of important things through Nine Inch Nails. I think through them I got into Coil, Brainiac, David Lynch, all sorts of things. I’m unsure as to where it came from exactly, but the most important thing for me was to realise that you can just organise sound throughout time, and that you don't need to complicate it any more than that.
Very taken with the idea of organizing sound throughout time as a mode of songwriting. Do you spend much time involved in other creative pursuits besides music and does this sensibility speak to how you create in those other forms? Does it speak to the songwriting process in your other bands where you're writing with others?
It’s all the same to me. It all comes from the same source, then redirects through varying outlets.
I do a lot of visual art, mixed media, most of which is not public, but I make more than I do music. I do artwork for Anxiety, and do my own album artwork and packaging.
I have a lot of writing on varying topics, but it's taken a long time to get over the imprinting and conditioning that working class people inherit from schooling. I think soon I’ll archive musings on interests of mine on my website. There are some writings about Jung and Robert Anton Wilson that are waiting to go up.
I don't like to write fiction. I loathe dialogue because to me language feels like a curse, but I’m working currently with an old friend on fictional moving image work that we intend to distribute openly and freely online.
[I] also play in a band called Herbert Powell. We have a 12” coming out this year. I don't know how to classify the music!
I’m an avowed tarot obsessive, but for me it goes hand in hand with another important interest of mine, which is meditation. I think that to tell others that you can tell fortunes with tarot is to con them - that is not the purpose. I very strongly believe this. I think the “occulture” is misguided, looking outward rather than inward. People need to read that Alejandro Jodorowsky book.
I’ve also contributed a little bit toward some open source software libraries, relating largely to C++ audio and MIDI functionality, but I approach that world at an arm's length. Luckily, you can do that with open source repositories, like, that 90s cyberfeminist approach of obscuring identity to involve yourself with the boys club.
Katie Alice Greer lives in Washington, D.C. She sings in the band Priests and is most interested in intersections of feminism, art, social justice, pop culture and politics. She often interviews artists and other cultural workers in a recurring column for The Media called "Fan Club". Reach her by twitter @K_ALICEGREER or email Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org.