Torn Hawk Is Electronic Music's Best Motivational Speaker
Luke Wyatt used exercise to overcome a history of depression, and his album is the soundtrack to getting better.
Luke Wyatt thinks he can help you make your life better. The musician known as Torn Hawk—but also as Infiniti, Lossmaker, and a few other tossed-off monikers—pretty much says as much, sitting in the Greenpoint location of a Swedish coffee shop chain that the New Jersey native describes as more "coffee shop-y" than the he expected. On a brisk but bright April afternoon, the Berlin-based producer and instrumentalist is back visiting New York City, his home from 2009 to 2014, and even in the biting wind, he'd rather be outside. That's why he's here, anyway.
"I wanted to get the hell out of [Berlin] for the winter because I was there last year and it was pretty...bleak," he says. "The weather was mild but the light thing... it gets dark at 3PM." Even New York's early spring chill is preferable to the psychically crushing effects of darkness: it can be hard to feel like a person, to go outside, do your grocery shopping, so you sit and sulk instead. To avoid that, he's back in New York, at least until the season passes. He's slowly figured out tricks like these to manage what he describes as his life-long struggles with "extreme depression"—to, as he puts it, "not lose my mind." Maybe, if you keep an open mind, those tips could help you too.
For years, Wyatt has been crafting warped and wily compositions as the grinning outlier of the tightly knit scene revolving around the Paris-via-New York label L.I.E.S. Within their clattering techno enterprises, he's carved out a corner for technicolor bursts of electric guitar, a vision of the dancefloor where a six-string can carry as much emotional heft as a TB-303. But if you head today to his snazzily redesigned Torn Hawk website, you'll see a vision of Wyatt that lies in stark contrast to any of the work he's issued over the last half decade, from his sunny guitar workouts to his more austere club material.
Across multiple photos, he stands with a headset mic, staring off into the distance or gesturing emphatically alongside garish gold text offering instructions for how to take hold of your life: "Every day you have the power to activate your best self"; "Positive outlooks produce positive outcomes." His is the oft-parodied pose of the motivational speaker or prosperity preacher, and by presenting his ideas in such a format, it's clear that he's joking too—at least a bit. (After all, he did spend a fact-checking email exchange trying to convince me that he's presently 56 years old. Another interview from 2014 said he was then 35. You be the judge there.) But there's something strangely serious about Wyatt's goofy recommendations, because well, he lives them.
Take the early morning "sweat commitment"—vigorous exercise, right when you wake up, every day—that he trumpets as his main secret to success on his website. (That way, he says, "you're not immediately dealing with heavy engagements first thing in the morning, looking at junk in your email, looking on your phone.") It reads as a joke on the page, but Wyatt's a living testament to the positive effects of exercise. Move your body to forget your mind—it's simple stuff that people have been doing for ages, but by Wyatt's count it's saved him from the mental anguish he's experienced over the course of his life. So why not share it?
his forthcoming new LP, out on Mexican Summer on May 13th—is a sunny and tightly composed testament to the powers of positive thinking. It's a psychedelic mesh of proggy rhythms, new age textures, and busy instrumentation, stripped of the fuzz and delirium of his previous work. The clear product of ambitious mental exercise, an obvious attempt at proving his own merits as a composer. He does. Even if his advice seems trite, Union and Return is the sort of record that'll make you want to be better at whatever it is that you do—or at least try harder.
THUMP: Physical exercise seems to be really important to you. How did that become a part of your life?
Luke Wyatt: It was something I had to start doing so I wouldn't have to take a pill, or worse... whatever that may be. Everybody has a chemical imbalance of some type. And I had a pretty rough adolescence. Adolescence itself is sort of a chemical imbalance honestly; it's brutal. I went through hell, a lot of it my own making. You can't blame a 15-year-old kid.
You went through hell emotionally, you mean?
Yeah, emotionally. But I also got sent away to this bootcamp place in Alabama. I was like 16, sent away for a year and a half to this a residential treatment facility for teenagers. It was a lot of rich kids. But some of the kids who had been sent there, they were not rich at all—they had been sent there by the state as an alternative to juvy.
The kids probably needed more help than the employees seemed to give. You were out in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, farm country, and if you tried to escape you'd get shot by one of the farmers. It was wild; I could write a whole fucking book about it.
You had to earn all your privileges. I went there, and I was like, "Oh cool, I'm going to bring all my cassettes," because I was a big cassette guy. I was going to bring my guitar. I had long hair, pink converse. The other kids thought I was a girl, because I was kind of like a "pretty" teenager. The first thing they did was cut off all my hair, which I was pretty pissed about. And then they just took all of my shit. Nine months later, I finally got to have my Walkman.
I used to write lists of what music I was going to buy when I came home. Imagine being deprived of music for nine months. Now that I'm saying this, it's actually crazy, because I never thought that that's what made it clear to me that music was so ingrained in me. My dad came when I earned my first off-campus visit. We drove around Huntsville; we bought a Cure tape and listened to it in the car. And I would come home and just lock myself in my room when I earned a home visit. I'd just listen to music for 10 hours [straight]. It was like ecstasy, like I was on MDMA or something.
What happened that got you sent to that program?
Just being a numbskull teenager. Not effectively lying to my mom, just wanting to tell her the truth all the time about what I was up to. I was depressed all the time and just had a lot of emotional ups and downs. So eventually, after I dropped out of college, I was living at my mom's house, and my friends and I from high school started working out. And I was like, "This is doing something for me." I realized that doing that was better than being on Zoloft and whatever else they were trying to give me, by a long shot. And also just the affirmative act of doing something where you're like, "I'm interested in being alive." Doing something like that first thing in the morning says to you that you're not going to dick around with thoughts of self-annihilation.
This all seems really tied to the idea of the self-help ideas you're digging into with your website.
This has been something I've been working on for a while, writing a self-help book. Because I'm always telling my mom what to do. I like to volunteer advice. I've spent a number of years figuring out how to run my life, and advice is a cool way to talk about other people, or pretend you're doing so, while you're just talking about yourself. So I already had a bunch of notes about motivational stuff, inspirational strategies. Just how to live an informed, conscious life. My music—now I make it as like a drug to propel myself into an elevated state of motivation. I listen to my own music when I hit the gym and stuff. And I seek out other music that does that for me.
So what exactly did you do to make your life better?
Exercise, and a lot of the self-corrective habits I've developed since I was a teenager—stuff I had to do to not take medication, basically. I just developed these routines that kept me out of trouble. So I codified those things, wrote up a bunch of stuff, and that's kind of what the website is. And I wrote a pamphlet that I'm doing, which is with the core things. Like starting your day with a "sweat commitment," which is like 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. Before you open your computer, before you look at your phone, anything. And just chemically, it's well known that exercise is good for endorphins; it's like opium.
And how does your music fit into this overall set of lifestyle changes?
[Union and Return] is the soundtrack to that. My goal is to get closer and closer to the ultimate propellant, drug-like song. For me, if I'm listening to a song, and it gives me that [narcotic] feeling, I won't be able to sit still. It affects me as much as any chemical that I might ingest. So with every record I try to make something that's closer to weirdo chemist guys making some designer drug. I'm trying to get even more pure, you know?
Is that why this record is cleaner and clearer? Since your last album came out you've been talking about doing away with the distortion.
I don't think people were aware that I could do things in a delineated way, but I'd like to be able to do both at the same time. I'd like the "smudginess" to exist like as a scummy planet inside a hi-fi solar system or something. Making this record was a lot of fun, just balancing [those impulses].
I need to direct [my] pickiness at something. And it feels like I'm kind of correcting the world when I do that. It's like this is how I would do it, so I'm going to do it. Rather than complaining how shit doesn't exist, I'm just bringing it to the world.
That feels tied to the self-improvement aspect too.
I guess that's what it is to be a creative person. People get all whacked out because of weird shit, and don't feel free to be creative. Not even to be a professional artist, but just to do stuff. That fucks up their life. Just on a day-to-day basis, it's always better for me to go down in my mom's basement and work on a track, than to have that instinct manifest itself any other way