“Once I finish something I have a drunk listen and then a sober listen. I have my own little record completion party,” says Louis Johnstone via Skype from his Brighton home.
The image seems perfectly suited to Johnstone’s music – the fluctuation between inebriation and sobriety, fitful passion and stultifying numbness, all wrapped up in a quiet, wry solitude. Adopting a dizzying array of aliases including Wanda Group, Dem Hunger and GG Alien, Johnstone crafts electronic music of daring abstraction and impressive breadth, touching on mournful ambient, nimble synth minimalism and woozy hypnagogic pop – but never at the expense of his own sonic identity. Or as Johnstone puts it: “It all ends up merging into the same moody shit.”
Johnstone’s output over the past few years has been prolific, with releases on Astro:Dynamics, NNA Tapes and Further, plus innumerable self-released EPs – making him a significant, if quiet, presence in the contemporary underground. His most recent releases as Wanda Group,Piss Fell Out Like Sunlight, on Opal Tapes, and for the fledgling Woetone imprint, are his most challenging yet. They point to a distinctive sound that draws on the archival tendencies detected in artists of the past decade, the cultural omnivorousness of the Tumblr generation and an emergent fascination with moulding dance forms into strange, nocturnal shapes. In short, a sound which is as culturally relevant as any for 2013.
Johnstone’s route to the present has been a meandering one. He recalls picking up a guitar at the age of 12 and “just messing about with anything I could. I used to bang around in bands and then make stuff on my own. Mainly improvised stuff using whatever I could get hold of.” The results, he admits, “sounded like a right mess most of the time”, but this experimental approach led him to work increasingly with electronics. Hip hop – particularly the dense sample tapestries of visionary West Coast producer Madlib – became a central influence. “I think it was the whole cut and paste thing I loved [about hip hop] originally,” Johnstone recalls. “Messing around with vinyl or even just some little shit MP3 and cutting it about. That’s what really interested me. I ended up making beats for a year or so and then Dem Hunger happened.”
The Caveman SmackLP, released on Leaving Records in 2010, is the most prominent document of Johnstone’s Dem Hunger period. Its psychedelic melange of samples and hip-hop-influenced beats makes for a more colourful proposition than Johnstone’s later work, but nonetheless evokes his trademark atmospheres: ambiguity, alienation, anomie. Johnstone, however, soon grew bored of the parameters he had set himself and began to atomise his sample sources, breaking them down into smaller and smaller units until their origins remained only in buried, ghostly form.
The aliases multiplied, too, and with them the producer’s own identity, mediated through the internet, swelled into a hydra-headed beast. Johnstone’s compelling persona is as equally fascinating as his music, but it is a construct facilitated by the web: his Twitter account is a bewildering stream of stark truth, surreal fiction and bewildering metaphor, while aliases and release titles – The Hers, the More Pregnancy EP – repeatedly evoke the feminine, as if to obfuscate Johnstone’s “real-world” biological identity. Indeed, Wanda Group itself was conceived as a girl group. “I don’t have enough friends to be able to do that, though, so it was just me on my own being about five girls. Which ain’t bad.”
On paper, this hall-of-mirrors approach may suggest a postmodern refusal of authenticity or sincerity, but in reality Johnstone’s practice is genuine. “I agonise over [music-making] a lot, but once it’s finished I feel this huge lump just fall out of me,” he says, drawing on the imagery of childbirth that he identifies as the root of his fascination with the feminine. Ultimately, he believes, “that all I do is completely tied into my weird little family”, particularly his grandmother, whom he references several times in our conversation. “I think it’s just about wanting to know my nan more,” he continues. “She hides a lot of shit from me, which I think is fun. So I guess maybe I do that to others too.”
Opal Tapes are releasing Wanda Group’s previous cassette-only EP,PISS FELL OUT LIKE SUNLIGHT, on 12” vinyl in March.