“Did you turn right instead of left out of the station?” says an anxious voice on the phone. It belongs to Leila Arab, Iranian-born cult electronica artist, and she’s right to be concerned. Betrayed by Google Street View, I am utterly lost. Under her guidance I retrace my steps until finally I reach our rendezvous point. Leila stands across the street with one hand in the pocket of a large woolly coat and the other guiding a cigarette quickly back and forth from her mouth, her pale skin and thick curly mane of jet-black hair standing out from the familiar grey of the city. I wave at her, relieved, and cross through the traffic.
As we settle down at a table outside of a nearby café, we both order a non-dairy smoothie and settle down to some questioning. Leila is in a very laidback, chatty and pleasant mood, and her razor sharp answers quickly establish her as an intelligent, articulate and down to earth woman with an all-consuming passion for her work and absolutely no time for, or interest in, anything smelling remotely like bullshit. “The thing is with me,” she begins, “is that I’ve never approached anyone about my music, they’ve always approached me. I think because of my character, people must assume I must think I’m like, amazing or something. But I’m just quite shy and I don’t think art should be ingratiated like that. But then, that’s why people get managers. But I don’t fucking want a manager, so it’s a complex one.”
Complex could also describe Leila’s remarkable twelve-year solo career. Legal wranglings surrounding her difficult second album Courtesy Of Choice were followed by eight long years spent on a sleepy hiatus that was largely self-imposed after both her parents passed away within a short time. Having only re-emerged last Spring, releasing the stunning Blood, Looms & Blooms on influential electronica label Warp, there ought to be plenty to catch up on.
Dismissing any suggestion that her lengthy absence was related to her personal musical development, Leila is refreshingly pithy: “My evolution doesn’t really have anything to do with music. It’s everything else that affects me. I mean, I really do have an incredibly accidental career, so I think when you didn’t really want something in the first place, you’re sorta not really that chuffed to have it. But obviously losing my parents just made me grow up a bit and understand the finite nature of things a bit more.”
Such a profound loss understandably kept Leila’s career on hold that bit longer, but if it wasn’t for this major catalyst, Blood, Looms & Blooms may never have happened. “It was probably the most conscious out of all the albums. Basically, I never make an album to ‘make an album’. What happens is I do some work, then I suddenly realise that I have a body of work that could be an album. All art is about variables, isn’t it? Music is no different. I never really stopped making music in those eight years. What I’d lost was any sense of belief to make any concrete decisions. And also, I just didn’t really care. My version of grief was a kind of…hmm…”
She thinks for a moment. Like apathy, I suggest? “I think I’ve always had a bit of that!” she grins. “I’ve got quite a nihilistic strand in my bloodline. But I think it was a bit more extreme than that, as I think true apathy is a genuine ‘what-ever!’ and mine was more of a coma state of ‘how little can I do?’ – it was interesting for a bit, but after a while it was actually really painful. Because I was thinking that if you do nothing, then you might not get the good bits but you won’t get the bad bits. Almost like an experiment. But actually it was more like, no, you still get all the shit bits but without the good.” She laughs.
Leila’s parents moved to the UK in 1979 following the Iranian revolution, putting their three children straight into a boarding school that Leila charmingly describes as “some fucking English, Brideshead Revisited shit.” A few financial troubles later, she moved to a state school in central London and started playing piano in her spare time. At college she became a DJ and something of a regular on the London party scene, and in the early ‘90s was a patron of the city’s jazz clubs. Here she encountered the Brand New Heavies, who later recommended her to Björk. The Icelander was putting together the touring band for Debut and on the hunt for a female keyboardist who could sing, and Leila fit the bill. Soon after she was playing live on stage to a sold out Wembley Arena for what was only Björk’s second ever solo gig.
Invited back for the Post world tour in 1995, Leila put her foot down about doing any kind of backing vocals this time. “It was a bit like Tom Waits duetting with Mariah Carey,” she laughs. “She sings so high, it was like torture for me.” Björk’s first and last comparison to Mariah Carey aside, Leila was appeased by being put in front of a mixing desk for the very first time, giving her ultimate control over everything the audience heard. After baffling a few technicians with her naivety for the desk at first (“They’d say stuff like, ‘and if you press this button, you can hear that channel through the headphones.’ And I’d be like ‘Noooooo way!’ They thought I was taking the piss!”) this new tour duty would form the basis of her future career and sound.
The art of live mixing captivated Leila and makes her unique in a world of boys and their laptops. “The whole point of my music is how ‘alive’ it is,” she grins. “I tend to go wrong more than a real band, which I think is brilliant. People associate electronics with the murder of all possibilities and the potential for it to go wrong. But for me it’s the opposite. It’s incredible how different the same track will sound at three different gigs, for example. It’s weird because there’s a whole generation that, ultimately, what they love about electronic music is how sterile and controlled it is. But I stand by live mixing as I think it’s really valid and important, and on a good day it sounds really amazing.”
On a bad day, she admits, things can go quickly awry. “One thing I do, which is a bit fucking deranged, is mix the vocals and everything just from the stage monitors, so the potential for feedback is devastating, and it means I can’t judge the room. There was one terrible gig in Paris where the venue had, like, a maximum limit of 105 decibels or something. The sound guy called me over and said that my monitors alone were hitting 103db and that we could just stick headphones on for the rest of the PA and we’ve hit our limit.”
It was while on the Post tour that Leila first struck up a friendship with Richard D James – better known as Aphex Twin. This new alliance ultimately led to an offer to put out an album of her own on James’s Rephlex Records. Like Weather arrived in 1998 and set the template for Leila’s trademark atmospherics and chilling effects, dirty basslines and intriguing guest vocalists. The album was an unexpected cult success, and received huge thumbs up from the press. Naturally, she didn’t give a toss about that at the time. Her response to the suggestion that electro-funk stomper ‘Won’t You Be My Baby, Baby?’ might be something of a commercial breakthrough was to issue an incredibly distorted remix of the song on extremely limited 12” at Christmas, backed by a rather bizarre but genius version of ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ from ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ and an accompanying note about how the cover was questioning the culture of ideology. “They were like, ‘This is just taking the piss!’…which I was,” she laughs, “but I liked it.”
Despite her high-profile outings with Björk, touring under her own name isn’t something Leila does very often. When XL Records put out Courtesy Of Choice at the turn of the millennium she simply walked away, leaving too much legal mess for any kind of live promotion. But this March she surprised everyone with an 18-day mini-tour across Europe, with full-scale production in tow – giant film installations, live video feeds, and a plethora of guests including Martina Topley-Bird and HK119 – and it seems she loved it. “What’s amazing about touring, and we even noticed it with this little tour we did, is that it’s like a dream job for autistic people, or something. Because you have your own rules and you know exactly what you’re meant to be doing. One of the hardest things about life is this issue of what the fuck are you meant to do everyday? What’s awesome about touring is that’s all looked after as you know that you’ll be doing something every day that validates you. Thank fuck.”
The intricacies of Leila’s new show have developed slowly over the years and, thanks to a few less than successful festival appearances last summer, had a rather steep learning curve. She explains how she was stuck in a few dance tents with people who “were just too fucked to get out,” and that because she was labelled as an electronic musician by the promoters they probably presumed she’d get the crowd throwing shapes within minutes with some straightforward dance music. “A friend of mine made a good point about that; he said, ‘You don’t want to be the act that ruins their E’, and I think that’s what I probably did that summer. I forgot the golden rule about festivals, which is to just play the hits or the big tunes. But I was totally treating them like my own fucking gigs. People just want beef head noise in those tents, they don’t give a shit.”
Can she do those kinds of shows though? “It’s an interesting one, but ultimately I don’t want to have to,” she smiles. “It’s a good show what we have now, and the truth is I want people to hear what I’m doing, but I’m incredibly strict about what I’ll compromise.” An obvious solution might be to play in one of the little weird tents, but Leila shakes her head. “Then they can’t fucking afford me; I’m not a cheap date my friend!” she beams and shrugs her shoulders.
When Leila first returned to occasional DJing, she went through a phase of discovering ‘new’ old music. In one tale she recounts, she rang up Richard James and gush over a track from his Selected Ambient Works compilations only to be told that it was “even older than the last one I liked”. Quite an eye opener for those who still claim that Leila is directly influenced by Aphex Twin then, no? “I think he finds that idea quite funny as well,” she laughs. “I think what I share with him is more of an aesthetic courage.”
Despite her associations with the electronic scene and its major players, Leila insists that her musical tastes and influences are actually a bit more mainstream. “I became obsessed with Prince. I used to love that when you bought a Prince record, you just didn’t know what you were going to get. But he kind of lost the plot. His sense of synthesis went to shit. I have a whole catalogue of my own Prince music, for Prince. He just doesn’t know about it.” A more-than-meets-the-eye wink indicates that this isn’t a joke. There really is a Prince/Leila album out there then? “Yeah, totally. I do all his synth ballads these days. That’s what I used to love most about him. The funny thing is I’ve had people say ‘Oh, just hand them to me and I’ll give it to him’ but I just can’t be bothered, so it’s not like I don’t even have the possibility. But I quite like it not being real anyway. He’d tell me not to swear and stuff, and I’d probably just be like ‘Oh, fuck off!’”
Leila claims not to listen to much music, especially when she’s working on her own material. Last year she had a few support slots on the UK dates of Björk’s fiery Volta tour with a specially designed “processed noise” set which was half live mixing of abstract sound effects and compositions and half DJing, including some of her own tracks, some jazz, and a bit of Snoop Dogg. This rather avant-garde mix of styles didn’t necessarily go down well with everyone but it said a lot about what inspires her. She admits that the type of hip-hop she tends to like is quite misogynistic, adding that it’s because she finds it hard to take the lyrics seriously. It’s the production she loves. “If you heard that Snoop track I played [‘You Got What I Want’] just as a backing track you’d think it was one of the best techno tracks you’ll ever hear,” she gushes. “The way the bassline pitches up and modulates! It’s even got, like, one of those ‘80s drum breaks…what more could you want?”
With the 20th anniversary of Warp Records approaching, Leila is reflecting on her friendship with label co-founder Rob Mitchell, who passed away in 2001. One of her fondest memories, she reveals, is a short, almost insignificant car ride with Rob and his young daughter Isobel a year before he died. Tucked away on the backseat, the girl was singing pitch-perfect to herself on the way to the shops, and Leila was awestruck by the clarity of her tone. “A few years after Rob passed away, I spoke to his wife and said that if Isobel ever just wanted to experience a studio for herself, she should just bring her round. So she brought some pieces she’d been practicing at singing school, and I really liked the melody of one. It almost became an experiment of how you can start with a melody and where you can go with it.”
The resulting track became the extraordinary ‘In The Garden’. Based on a nursery rhyme lyric by WH Anderson, Isobel’s childish, innocent vocals glide above a few plinky-plonky, trademark Leila effects before veering off on an insane, Amon break-riddled drum and bass tangent, somehow without losing any of its tender magic. This tiny little masterpiece never actually made it on to Blood, Looms & Blooms, eventually emerging as a B-side for the album’s second single ‘Deflect’, but it’s well worth checking out. At some point, Leila plans to make more of buried treasures like this from the whole of her back catalogue.
“What I might do is reissue the first two albums at some point, but with all their B-sides for free. Or a whole B-sides album, or something. I went away for eight years and I know that some of the attention I got when I came back was based on the way I structured myself with things like the B-sides. I’ve never had one [external] remix on any of my releases, and the list of who’s offered is quite shocking. It’s fine if you’re Kylie and can get a bloody Thin White Duke Mix that’s going to sell millions or whatever the fuck! But some shitty house mixes or whatever can do more damage to a career than good in the long run. You’re better off doing an actually interesting remix, or a fucking B-side that will last. For artists like me, three albums in, people can really be like ‘should we bother or not?’, and it’s that kind of effort that make people think you’re still worth it.”
Before she wanders off in the opposite direction with a shake of my hand and a polite bow of her head, I venture to ask if she might venture to play a show in London soon. She says she’d love to but complains that they are just so complicated to organise, though she does hopes to appear at a few of the Warp 20 shows this summer, which is certainly something to look forward to. Until then, and indeed, until whatever the next chapter in her colourful career brings, we’re left with Blood, Looms & Blooms, an album so outstanding and exotic that regardless of where she goes from here or how long it takes her, her only real stamp on the ‘00s is already an indelible one.
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Blood, Looms & Blooms is out now on Warp Records.