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Cold Roads: In Conversation with Mitternacht’s Jonny Davis Le Brun

We talk to the Liverpool-based artist about the release of his new album, ‘The Snake’.

For those unfamiliar with Mitternacht, the solo project of Rongorongo’s Jonny Davis Le Brun, to eliminate treading over old ground, a brief history, if you will.

Last year during the strictest stretch of lockdown, Davis Le Brun resurrected his Mitternacht project by releasing his first LP in five years, Bask.

Bursting with humid drones and sun-laden field recordings, Bask was an experimental release for the summer, the smell of freshly cut grass drifting through the air.

Shortly after the release of Bask, Davis Le Brun quickly went to work on the follow-up, and whilst contrasting both in sound and feel, The Snake is the perfect remedy for those short days and cold nights as we batten down the hatches for the winter months ahead.

Thematically, The Snake is inspired by Davis Le Brun’s journey across Snake Passage from Liverpool back to his hometown of Sheffield. 

Filled with cold beats, dark ambience and nervous energy, The Snake is a tenuous journey through the hazy world of electronica. Sounds and themes meld beautifully across these nine compositions, and after catching the attention of independent label, Cruel Nature, the Tyneside tastemakers agreed to release Davis Le Brun’s latest conception.

A label employing total DIY ethos, Davis Le Brun’s Mitternacht project is the perfect fit for Cruel Nature, who release a swathe of interesting releases from all over the world. Suffice to say, The Snake is among an ever-growing list of fine releases within the CN catalogue. 

At the beginning of November, finally in a position to swerve the laborious endeavours of Zoom, we caught up with David Le Brun in a café on Lark Lane to discuss The Snake.

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Sun 13: Where did the idea of The Snake come from?

Jonny Davis Le Brun: “Well, because I live in Liverpool and grew up in Sheffield, Snake Pass is the main road between the two. I use it quite a lot to visit family and friends. It’s a pretty incredible route. It’s not just a motorway, it goes through the Pennies and gets closed in winter when it snows, it’s pretty treacherous. It’s tied up in memories and things like that – every time I’m going along that route, it’s to either come home or to go and see friends and family. So it’s always got a good purpose to it. It’s not like commuting, or a boring thing to do. And it’s just a lovely road. I’m always driving it at night, and it’s got a really evocative feel to it. It makes you want to listen to techno. It makes you want to listen to expansive, long form things, so it really made me want to write something that would work in that kind of environment. So that’s the reasoning behind it.

“I find with making music, I always want a catalyst for doing it. You know, I do a lot of noodling around and messing about, but in order to create something decent, I feel like I need a theme. A concept is a bit too far-reaching a word, but an idea to help me along when making the music.”

S13: So the theme is like the circuit breaker?

JDL: “Yeah, exactly! Because I can just sit there and play stuff, but if I want to come out with something at the end of it that feels cohesive, I need to know where I’m going, in a way. You never know where the destination is, but it helps, for me anyway, to know at least what mood I’m trying to create.”

S13: With the themes, and you mentioned techno. The Snake is a really big departure from your last record, Bask. Are you always looking to do that? Like, for your next record, if you had a different theme, would it be sonically different?

JDL: “Yeah, unless I kind of feel like there’s more to get out of that. Like The Snake II (laughs). Find another lovely road and do that. But yeah, I think… to retain my own interest in doing it, I don’t really see the point in doing the same thing again. Once I get the idea, I’m kind of excited about ‘how can I create this?’ It’s about my own enjoyment of doing it. So the concept, as you say, is a circuit breaker – a reason to do it. So my reason needs to be something new every time.

“I mean, for this one in particular, because of lockdown and working from home, all that kind of stuff, I had a little bit more time to think about what I wanted to do before it came out. So building playlists, listening to a lot of music that I think is what I want to make, and building that into more of a cohesive idea in my head. I think I got to where I wanted to get to with this one. I’m quite excited about that concept by having a theme and then going through it.”

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S13: The field recordings were something on Bask that stuck out for me, and there are still some on The Snake, too. Traffic and things like that…

JDL: “They creep in. There’s one where there’s quite a few bits on there. Field recordings have always been something I liked, because it’s completely unique. You know, if you’re making something on an instrument, you’re always going to bump up against things that have been done before, whereas a field recording is just totally out of nowhere. So the track that had the most on it was inspired by Emeka Ogboh.”

S13: That’s who I had in mind, too! Like the cars…

JDL: “Yeah, that was kind of like the recordings of Lagos, I think.”

S13: Exactly.

JDL: “Yeah, nice, crisp beats over it. It’s a really nice idea. So I kind of pilfered that and I thought it sounded really nice. As I say, it adds something that takes it off the grid, and allows you to not just do a loop, the way you get those 10/15 minute techno tracks where it’s not just… like it is a loop, but then you have some synths over the top that glide into the distance. That’s what field recordings can do as well, it takes you away from that kind of grid-based approach.”

S13: Turntpike is probably a good example of that. Preceding that, though, there’s Untitled with the chimes. That kind of lulls the listener into a false sense of security…

JDL: “Yeah. I did that quite early on, actually, so I maybe went off on a tangent after that, and never really returned to it. I do use that same bass line in the next song. I don’t know how obvious it is, but I tried to weave it in a little bit, here and there. But yeah, the chimes on that, I actually bought a set of chimes specifically for that, and then barely used them for the rest of the album (laughs). But I think they’re called winter chimes, so they’re in this minor key, and I thought, ‘Yeah’. That crisp, melancholy, minor key thing was just perfect. Like winter, through the elements. It had that eerie thing to it –  kind of folk-ey, as well. But yeah, you’re right, it does this little Sigur Rós sort of intro, then goes into techno.”

Mitternacht - The Snake

S13: The track Nowt but Horizon has a kind of King of Limbs Radiohead vibe to it. Were you thinking about that?

JDL: “No, not at all. I don’t even like that album!”

(Both laugh)

S13: I know one record, or records, that you do like. The Kompakt artists. There’s Magic Reflections, which seems to penetrate through the ideas of The Field? Is that a fair thing to say?

JDL: “The Field was definitely someone that I would always listen to in that kind of context if I want something for long drives… perfect. So yeah, obviously GAS, Wolfgang Voigt too – his stuff is definitely influential on that kind of sound, I think.”

S13: And then Snowstorm, which has like a trance-y element to the Kompakt body of work, I would say. There seems to be drama attached to this song. Like a snowstorm along that road driving, I imagine that would be pretty intense. 

JDL: “Yeah. That was definitely one of the songs where I wanted to achieve a certain thing. It was called Snowstorm before I wrote it. I wanted to achieve that intensity. Bits of fear and trepidation. When you’re driving over the top of that road and the wind is whipping you, it’s intense. I wanted to capture a bit of that. Someone like Skee Mask, as well as Basic Channel. Bits of that could go in there, I think.”

S13: With an album like this, and the times we’re living in, Snowstorm could have been the closer, but with Temptress on the Hills, it ends the record with these hope-inspired soundscapes that you would associate with someone like Daniel Avery. How close was he in your way of thinking?

JDL: “Yeah. He was definitely involved, the first Daniel Avery album. It’s more earlier on in the record, really. Maybe with Turntpike and Landslips and Sinkholes. That kind of bouncy bass line.

It’s interesting you mentioned the second and last tracks in the ordering, because I actually had Snowstorm last and then Steff [Davis Le Brun’s wife] said, ‘That’s such a Rongorongo thing to do’. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know.”

(Both laugh)

JDL: “For me, that was an obvious ending. Like, the climax, it’s long and it builds up and then it just kind of dissipates, and I thought, ‘That’s got to end it’ and Steff was like, ‘No’. So Temptress on the Hills is kind of like the calm after the storm, you know what I mean? It’s almost ambient. It has a beat, but it’s a bit more relaxing. And she was absolutely right. It just calms you down after that, so when it finishes, it’s like, ‘Breathe out’. It’s nice.”

S13: So I guess lockdown has been pretty fruitful for you in terms of creativity and output?

JDL: “Yeah. I mean, the initial thing, like with the last album, Bask was in the summer of 2020, which was ‘proper’ lockdown. Working from home, and then not doing band practice with Rongo‘, I needed to do something, so that was the outlet. From then on, after doing that, I was quite pleased with how it came together, because sometimes you can do stuff and it ends with nothing and you get a bit bored. But that one I was quite happy with, so it gave me the confidence to know that, ‘Yeah, actually, you can get something out of it in the end’.

“The process itself is fun and doesn’t have to lead to an album. But it’s nice when you can tie things up at the end and go, ‘Right, here’s a package. Here’s the thing that I’ve done’. With the whole lockdown thing, I think we all found that creative juices disappeared for long periods of time. You think ‘If only I had all this time to do stuff’, and then you have all that time, and you don’t do it, like you sit about doing nothing and watching Netflix. So it was nice to get off my arse and do that. And then it kind of rolled on to another one. Now I’m thinking about the next one. Obviously, I might be a bit busy, life starts again. But yeah, it gives you that impetus to do it.”

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S13: It seems out of a lockdown period, there’s been a lot of really good experimental music coming out in the UK. Have you found that as well?

JDL: “Definitely. I think people have been introspective, I guess. Being on your own and doing what you want to do. For the bigger artists, they’ve been in cycles of touring albums. I think people have just had time to think, ‘What new avenues can I explore when I’m not with a band or tied to schedules and stuff?’ So yes, I think it’s been great, that side of it.”

S13: How much is it a different mindset from your solo work, and with Rongorongo?

JDL: “It’s pretty different, because with Rongo‘ I don’t write necessarily. I’m involved, we go in, and we just play, and you can never recreate how great that is; being in a room with people and just going through it and seeing what happens. So that I mean, that’s kind of where the thematic thing comes from. On my own, I kind of needed something to give it that push and the reason to do it. Whereas when you’re with a band, you just go in and you already know what you are as a band, and you explore the boundaries of that and you push it. When you’re at home on your own, you can do whatever you want. And that’s a blessing and a curse, because you can just keep going and making a lot of terrible stuff, or you can give it some parameters.”

S13: You spoke about confidence earlier. It must be pretty good to be on such a great label like Cruel Nature?

JDL: “Absolutely. It’s amazing! It’s such a good label as well. What Steve [Strode Cruel Nature founder] does with that, I can’t imagine how relentless that must be, to listen to so much music from disparate artists, as well. And it’s all good stuff.

“For me, it’s great, because it’s a totally different thing for me now, because everything I’ve done before, I’ve just released myself. You kind of finish it and you go, ‘Right! There! I just put on Bandcamp’. That’s kind of it. I’m not one to market myself, really. I’m not going to go out there and go, ‘Hey, look what I’ve done’. So having someone on board in that regard is just incredible.

“I finished it quite a while ago, and it’s going to come out in December, and then it’s been nice to have it sat there. I listened back to it today before this and thought, ‘Yeah, I still like it, you know?’ With the previous stuff, it’s just out there, there’s no real need to revisit it. So it was nice to have that gestation period before it comes out. And yeah just a massive thanks to Steve for that!”

S13: It’s really interesting, because when we talk about time and being by ourselves and that opportunity to discover new music, there’s so many labels that have been discovered too, like Cruel Nature. Just the scope that the label has; independent music needs more of that.

JDL: “Oh, absolutely. As I say, the effort that goes into that, because it’s so disparate, so many different artists, but it’s all tied together by that kind of creative spirit and that experimentalism. Everyone seems like they’re on the same page with it, even though it’s totally different types of music. That’s a lovely thing. I mean, it’s an online community, I guess, in that sense. I don’t know anyone from the label personally, but it feels like that. It’s got that ethos to it.”

The Snake is out now via Cruel Nature Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

5 replies on “Cold Roads: In Conversation with Mitternacht’s Jonny Davis Le Brun”

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