That famous promotional tagline for the film Alien—"in space no one can hear you scream"—is true, at least in a literal sense. If you travel far enough away from the Earth's atmosphere, there's nothing for sound waves to bounce off of—not even expressions of utter terror. Total silence is a terrifying prospect. It's part of what has made space such a compelling location for horror movies over the years, especially if you count the uncomfortable isolation of Sandra Bullock floating alone across the universe as horror.
When the ambient pioneer Brian Williams, AKA Lustmord, announced that his new album, Dark Matter, would be composed of recordings of various American space excursions, a few of his fans brought up the notion that space is silent. But on a recent Skype call from his home in Los Angeles, Williams stressed that such a simplistic understanding ignores the reality of what's actually going on out there. "Well," he says, chuckling through a thick accent that belies his British upbringing, "They need to read up a little bit."
Pulsars, cosmic dust clouds, and other interstellar activities all put forth torrents of measureable audio data. Most of it, Williams says, is just "unpleasant noise." Take a moment to imagine that alternative to cosmic silence. Imagine how loud the universe would be if you could hear every atom in the universe squelching and shrieking all at once—how magnificent, how overwhelming, how unsettling such a racket would be.
This sense of sheer scale is at the heart of Dark Matter. He first got the idea to make a record composed of sounds from the Voyager deep space probes—the first machines back in the 80s, but didn't get access to the library of sounds until 1993. The first batch of cassette tapes came from Los Angeles' Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who he simply called up after finding its number in the phone book. The sounds he sorted through yielded ten minutes of usable raw material out of two hours worth of recordings, but over the years his archive expanded, as he was granted access to recordings from the Kennedy Space Center, the Very Large Array, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and more research facilities. In a process he likens to the monotony of "digging a trench," he'd spend hours and hours just listening to the material, building up a sound library before finally, toward the end of 2015, putting together the three long pieces that comprise the album.
On Dark Matter, those years of massaging and shaping seem to have paid off. The album's monolithic bass drones are as gut-wrenching as any of the landmark works that placed Lustmord at the forefront of so-called "dark ambient" music. But what that term always missed—and what Dark Matter's source material highlights—is that his work has always been about more than sheer gloom. The melodies and textures are lead-footed and stark, sure, but they're less a source of foreboding than an excuse to slow down, look up at the sky, and think about your place in the cosmos. In advance of Dark Matter's release this Friday, September 30, Williams took some time to talk about the 25 years it took to make the album and humanity's insignificance on a universal scale.
THUMP: Tell me about your relationship to space. Is it something you grew up fascinated with?
Lustmord: I guess I could be clever and say that my relationship with space is that I live in it and that it has a very profound effect on my existence. But being glib aside, it's always fascinated me, the vastness of it. I'm an atheist, but you still wonder about stuff. As a kid, I remember looking at the stars, taking in the sheer scale of things. Then, as you grow up, you realize that it's way bigger than you thought! I don't think we have the capacity to understand how big it is. I find it fascinating that we tend to think of ourselves as individuals at the center of things. As a species, we think that at any given time in our history we're at our peak, we're cultured, we're intelligent. But when you stand back and look at [things from] a cosmic scale, our insignificance is really interesting. It's good to be aware of that and be humbled by it.
How did you first find out about the archive of recordings that you used on Dark Matter?
I grew up when the Apollo program was going on. I watched the moon landings live on TV. It was all fascinating and really exciting, what we as a species were doing. I was aware of the Voyager probes, the first man-made devices to leave the solar system. I was also aware that they were recording audio as well as they went. [I had the idea] sometime in the late 80s, but then how the fuck do you get [access to] those kinds of things? I grew up in Britain, and when you live on the other side of the world, things like NASA and the Voyager and Apollo are for all intents and purposes on another planet. You can't just go up there and knock on the door.
So what happened?
I moved [to the United States] 23 years ago. I'd been living here for six or eight months, in the [San Fernando] Valley. I was having this conversation with my wife, and I mentioned I'd really like to do that project. Being a little bit smarter than I am, she said, "We live in LA now. Aren't the Jet Propulsion Labs in LA? They're probably in the Whitepages!" I rushed to get the phone book, and sure enough, they were in there. The next week, I spoke to somebody at reception, and explained that there were these Voyager recordings that I was aware of. She put me through to somebody else, who asked what I wanted. I explained and they asked for my address. They just sent me a box of the original cassettes!
That was around '93 or '94. The stuff I got from them was two or three hours' worth, but only 10 minutes of it was usable. If I was going to make a Japanese noise album, it would have been perfect, but some of it was completely unlistenable. It took a long time, tracing possible sources, to slowly gather stuff. Only last year, 25 years since the original idea, I thought, "Well, I should actually get around to doing that thing." It's kind of a cool tagline...the album that took 25 years. Of course, not counting the millennia that it took the sounds to get here.
What are the actual sounds?
There's all kinds of stuff. There's pulsars. A lot of it is radio astronomy stuff. There's quite a few galaxies in there. There's anomalous activity like dust clouds. It's mostly radio stuff that's pitched down. There's a lot of stuff going on out there, but since you're in a vacuum, you can't hear it.
Like most of your work, Dark Matter can feel really overwhelming at times—which I think is what most people mean when they say it's "dark." Is there something that draws you to music like that?
It's about a concept of the unknown. We're not capable of really understanding the scale of the universe. What does a million dollars look like in single notes? No one really knows. Does it fit in a suitcase? It's much smaller than you probably think, but what about a billion? What about a trillion? What about a trillion trillion? We have no way of being able to comprehend any of this stuff. Our brains were evolved to survive in the grasslands and keep away from predators and stuff like that. We're here in order to breed, so the species keeps going. So when it comes to this cosmic scale stuff, we're not able to take that in.
I guess some of these places are dark, in a primal sense. But I'm checking these things out; I've got a huge flashlight and I'm shining it on [the world]. I guess some people are uncomfortable with a light being shown on some things.