Leafcutter John is a force to be reckoned with in the world of electronic music. His first recordings reached the offices of Planet Mu Records in 1999 where its founder and Aphex Twin collaborator Mike Paradinas encouraged John’s more experimental efforts. During this time, he acquired his artist name, suggested by a friend who compared his creativity and industriousness to that of a leafcutter ant.
Bradford-born, Wakefield-raised John Burton grew up fascinated by sound, and as a young boy would often drift off to sleep to the diffuse tones of his dad’s progressive rock collection emanating from the room beneath him. He tried piano, guitar, and a short stint playing mouth organ but they failed to captivate him. It wasn’t until halfway through his painting degree at Norwich School of Art and Design that he discovered the computer he bought to write his dissertation could take him on new sonic adventures by recording and manipulating sound.
Since 2004 John has been a key member of experimental jazz band Polar Bear, recording five albums with them, touring extensively and picking up two prestigious Mercury Prize nominations. John has also performed with Shabaka Hutchings, Talvin Singhand, Imogen Heap, supported Matmos, Otomo Yoshihide and Yo La Tengo and twice been part of Beck‘s band at the Barbican, London.
Describe your music in 3 words.
Communal, Inclusive, Hopeful.
You recently released your new album Come Parade With Us! There’s something about it that makes it feel from another planet. What’s the story behind the title?
For me it’s very much based on the Norfolk coast but my fantasy version of it. I wanted the music to feel like a communal move forwards. So the title is an invitation.
Lots of the tracks on Yes! Come Parade With Us include field recordings from the coast. Sounds of the sea have featured in your work before – for the track Gulps, from Resurrection, you used a recursive software system to layer a recording of the North Sea 7.1 billion times, once for each human alive on the planet. What’s the significance of the sea for you?
All the field recordings are from the Norfolk Coast Path, made on a 60 mile walk along it a couple of summers ago. The environment between the sea and the land is really interesting and always changing. This stretch of coast is very shallow so one moment you’re walking along salt flats and the next everything is under water.
You have hand-drawn the labyrinthine album art for Yes! Come Parade With Us and animated your own rainbow-hued video to accompany the restorative title track Yes! Come Parade With Us. Tell us about how that was made? There’s really similar colours used in the Doing the Beeston Bump video too – what’s the significance of them?
It’s an animation I made with Blender which is a free 3D design software. It’s got a physics engine and the video came out playing around with it. I wanted the colours to be full of joy and optimism for the most part. If you watch it on youtube it’s interesting to see that all the suggested videos are brightly coloured ones aimed at children.
You’re currently using a hand-built light interface, which is a really innovative way of expression. It is pretty mind bending to see light converted into sound – it is a kind of magic. Where did the idea of building this kind of technology come from? How did you know how to do it? What’s the significance of light to you?
Yes, I use the light interface to control my live show and it really does feel like magic sometimes. The idea comes from wanting to be able to play my computer more like a musical instrument. I use handheld torches like a cellist might use a bow. I taught myself enough electronics and coding to make it work by using internet forums. The tech is not particularly complicated but it’s pretty refined now because I’ve been making revisions of the hardware and software for 7 or 8 years now. Light is a beautiful way of playing music because it’s very dynamic – you can be really brash with it or very subtle. It’s also really nice that the audience can see what’s happening onstage to make the sounds.
You studied Art at the University of Norwich – when did you start making music? Do you think there’s a crossover between your visual art and sonic exploration?
I studied painting at Norwich School of Art (1995-1998). The painting department was very cool and open minded, while I was there I did painting, performance, and installation. One of the things I learned at art school is that there are lots of different ways to express an idea, and it’s worth spending some time working out which might work. I use this approach a lot and it means that I don’t always make music. It might be that a drawing or installation might be better.
What would your advice be to emerging musicians just beginning?
Find something that fascinates you and follow it and don’t worry about where it leads you.
What piece of art (made by somebody else, of any era) do you wish you’d made and why?
I love the diversity of all kinds of art and the people who make it. I tend to like a great concept like Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a Room. Or something which manages to be challenging and beautiful at the same time – I listened to James Holden’s The Inheritors a lot because it manages to sound both new and old, ugly and beautiful at the same time.