The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was one of the great disasters of the ancient world, burying the city of Pompeii in a flow of lava and trapping residents in ash, frozen in their final gestures. It made history violently, but also stopped it forever for those affected. Archaeologists recently dug up an ancient cantina on the periphery of the site, where traces of food still remained in the pottery.
Cate Le Bon was thinking about Pompeii during the pandemic, another dramatic event that froze people in place, stopping time and the normal progression of ordinary events. After a sojourn in Iceland, she found herself back in her native Wales, at first reconnecting with family, but later staying, disorientingly in a house she’s lived in 15 years before, blocks away from old friends but unable to visit with them in person. She used the time to create Pompeii, her sixth studio album, building the spine of her songs first with bass, then adding guitar and synths and then inviting long-time collaborators including Stella Mozgawa, Euan Hinshelwood and Stephen Black to flesh out her songs. The result is utterly captivating, an album of mad-cap rhythms and absurdist imagery that is haunted by grief and isolation.
Following her appearance on our weekly Transmissions podcast, we spoke with Le Bon again about Pompeii and the COVID pandemic, the Tim Presley painting that came to embody her record but which she couldn’t bear to put on the cover and the way that the artistic process remains instinctual and mysterious, even to Le Bon herself. | j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: The image of Pompeii is striking in the song and the record. What were you thinking about when you thought about Pompeii?
Cate Le Bon: As the record was coming together in my head, I was looking for a title, and Pompeii, as a setting, moved me more than anything else. The complicated nature of Pompeii seemed to resonate with me and with the times we were living through. It’s like a strange playground of fascination. People look at this tremendous sad event and the last gestures captured. I feel like people are very willing to put their own pain in that but not willing to take on any of the pain or learn any lessons from history. Even when faced with the horrible scene captured at Pompeii.
Also, I like the way it plays with the perspective of time. That these statues have been there since the moment of this terrible happening. Everything just seemed to fit. The complicated nature of being confronted with that seemed to resonate with the complicated nature of everything we were being confronted by during the pandemic.
AD: I can see that. This album has a really interesting texture. It’s very rhythmic. There’s almost a mad music box thing going on in the keyboards.And yet there’s really lush vocal pop melodies on top of it. Can you tell me about how you constructed these songs?I hear you started on the bass.
Cate Le Bon: Yes, the bass to me is such a playful and joyous instrument. In my mind, I’m more interested in rhythms than I am in melodies but I think, too, obviously, when you’re able to marry the two in a really satisfying way, that’s something to strive for. The bass was like the spine of the record that everything needed to fit around.I had to kind of flex and move and tailor my guitar playing to fit around that, so that it didn’t clutter the bass, and then similarly the synths then almost had to fit around those things as well. Everything has its place. It’s almost like a machine.
AD: Yes, it does feel like a complicated machine where all the parts mesh in unexpected ways.
Cate Le Bon: I suppose when you don’t have anything else do to, when you’re in lockdown, you have time to think of these songs as puzzles or structures that you’re trying to build. You can make sure that everything has the right kind of support system and nothing is stepping on anything else’s toes. That was kind of how I was seeing it.And then the saxophones, to me, are where all the grief is in the record. Just sitting on top. Almost like a haunting presence.
AD: You had a couple of saxophone players you’ve worked with before. Euan Hinshelwood and Stephen Black.
Cate Le Bon: Yes, they’re so great to work with. They won’t tell me that you can’t do something. I’ll sing them a melody, and we’ll figure out how to make it work. We used pedals and a lot of imagination on the saxophones. It was a particularly joyous session, because we’d been in a very strict lockdown in the U.K. and I had to do the drum session with Stella Mozgawa over the internet. She was in Australia, and I was in Cardiff, Wales. By the time we were ready for saxophones, restrictions had lifted a little bit so you were able to travel and meet for work. We went to this beautiful studio in West Wales, a converted chapel, and we did four days just tracking saxophones. It was like a dream for me because we were all so happy to be in this room making music. It was particularly joyous.
AD: To what extent do you tell them what to do and to what extent do they bring you ideas?
Cate Le Bon: I think we’ve worked together for so long that they have a pretty good instinct of what I’m looking for. We’re able to translate ideas to each other very fluidly. You know, sometimes I’ll sing a line or sometimes I’ll ask them to play a guitar line that was on the record, and other times I’ll tell them the feel I want from the saxophone, and they’ll go and try different things and we’ll figure it out.
AD: There are records that very clearly feel like collaborations, and then there are others that feel very idiosyncratic and one person’s vision. Pompeii seems like one of the latter. Do you think that’s accurate?
Cate Le Bon: Yeah, I think so. Obviously, it’s my record, but I was involved in every aspect of it. I’d written all the parts for the synths and the bass and the guitars and the vocal melodies. I had almost a 360 view of it and where all the gaps were that needed filling.
AD: I was thinking about these songs, and they’re very kinetic. They move. And yet they’re too eccentric and cerebral to really be dance tunes, though some of the synths sound like that. Where’s the line? How complicated can a piece for movement be?
Cate Le Bon: I don’t know. I tend not to think about things like that. It can become quite inhibiting. we just made this record, and didn’t have any preconceptions or sense of audience. It was very much made in a small bedroom during a lockdown. I don’t think it could have been more of a vacuum really. It was really anything goes, under the conditions that I try to manufacture and make a record.
AD: You recorded this in Wales, which is where you’re from, during the pandemic. I’m wondering what it was like to be back in a familiar setting but in such a weird time.
Cate Le Bon: Initially, it was wonderful. I’d left America to work in Iceland with the intention of coming back to America a month later. When everything went down, I was in Iceland and I was unable to travel b back to the States. There were these surreal moments of getting messages on your phone, like “Breaking news: All Britons to return home.” It was like scenes you’ve only seen in a disaster movie.
As humans, you’re always thinking, “Oh it’s going to be okay. Any second it’s going to be ok.” And it just keeps getting worse. So, my instinct was to go back to Wales and to be with my family and my sisters. I fought that for two and a half months because we were in Iceland, and we had work, and we were safe, and everyone at home was safe.
By the time I did fly back to Wales, I’d never been so grateful for a Welsh summer. I got to spend that time with family and truly reconnect with them in a way that you don’t get to do as an adult. It was really, really special. And then I was still kind of thinking, you know, well, I’ll get to America soon. You kind of are under the influence of a plan that doesn’t actually correlate with reality. Then I freed myself from that and went to Cardiff.
I rented a house from a friend of mine, a house that I had lived in 15 years previously. We then went into a really heavy lockdown. I was in Cardiff in this familiar house but again the location seemed to be totally at odds, because I couldn’t see any of my close friends. I was Face Timing my best friend who lived two minutes down the road, but I couldn’t see him and so it was quite …it was very surreal. It was surreal to finally have this time in the city where you have all these memories and these people that you love and that nourish you and then you’re unable to access that. So again, it was quite complicated. To be in a house where you’re not surrounded necessarily by familiar things, but you’re surrounded by memories. Also, memories—it sounds strange—but memories of the future that I had when I was living there in my 20s. I was almost like strange time traveler. Yes, it was quite strange.
AD: It sounds like it. So, you touched this on this a little bit, but you came out of this very fertile, fanciful, psychedelic scene in Wales with Super Furry Animals and Gorki’s Zygotic Mynci. I was talking to Gwenifer Raymond a couple of years ago about what was uniquely Welsh about her work, and she talked about a certain dark sense of humor. What seems Welsh about your work to you?
Cate Le Bon: I grew up in Wales when Brit Pop was happening. We had Gorki’s and the Furrys who were on the periphery of that scene, but they were also …there was kind of a really polite disregard for what was going on, too.
AD: Oasis and so on.
Cate Le Bon: Yes, you know, you had the Furrys who were buying tanks and driving them into the crowd playing techno in Glastonbury, which is incredible, it’s so inspiring. As a 13-year-old, I had access to that because they were Welsh and so it was something that we were very aware of in school.
I don’t think there’s a sonic thread necessarily within Welsh music, but there certainly is that sense of you can really do whatever you want. It doesn’t have to fit into any genre and it doesn’t have to be part of any particular scene. There was Datblygu before the Furrys, who also had that mentality, too. So, it’s, yes, for me it’s people like Gruff and Euros and Dave R. Edwards who gave everyone the green light to do whatever you want to do.
AD: I’m getting a real sense of distance and remove from “Pompeii,” where you’re talking “pushing love through an hourglass” and “sipping wine through a telescope,” which are both such striking metaphors. Is that about the isolation of a lockdown?
Cate Le Bon: I think it’s about how we humans will buffer ourselves, wallpaper over extreme suffering and try and find ways to remove ourselves from it. People try to think of reasons why it would never happen to them or why they’re safe and everyone else might be in danger. Even though we’re all very connected. I’ve realized how heavily connected we are. We’re still capable of creating these conditions as to why we’re safe and other people aren’t, or as to why that happened there and won’t happen to me. It’s this kind of delusion that we’re all living in. It’s a sense of detaching.
During the pandemic, I had this very real feeling that we were all forever connected to everything. As I was getting a bit obsessed with Pompeii, I was thinking we’re connected to that event and yet we’re so aware of it and yet so detached from it in this time. We have all these little mechanisms to remove ourselves from suffering. We tell ourselves it’s different for us.
AD: It’s serious subject matter, but those metaphors are playful and absurd. I’d like to ask you about the use of absurdity in your lyrics. Is that something that you think about?
Cate Le Bon: Everyone’s language is so decorative. Sloganism is rife. During the pandemic, there was this sense that everybody knew what was going to happen when nobody knew.
There’s a danger in thinking you know something when you don’t know. Maybe it’s better to admit that you don’t know and live in the ambiguity. It takes a certain amount of negative capability to be living in ambiguity and not know and not trying to reach for meaning and for solid truths when there just aren’t any. There was hope in that for me.
Also, I think that singing to the times directly can be quite exhausting sometimes, and also too easy. To use absurdity and ambiguity, the nuance in that to me is more interesting. It resonates with people a bit more. It’s like Cabaret Voltaire and Dada.
AD: I was reading a little about Dadaism as I was getting ready for this, and I have this quote from Duchamp. He says, “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” Which I don’t even know how to get inside that quote, it could go so many different ways. Does that have any resonance for you?
Cate Le Bon: Absolutely. I’m so into that idea of turning something and inverting something. Of confronting something and challenging that and turning it inside out. That’s just far more interesting and harder to do than singing in decorative absolutes. There’s a lot more longevity in it, and it connects to people in a way that is maybe has a bit more purchase.
AD: I was watching the video for “Moderation,” which is really beautiful and also hard to get a grip on. It’s in a very wild looking setting with cairns and caverns and a brooding sky and you’ve got these incredible huge heels on. How does your work play with ideas about women and what they’re supposed to look like and what they’re supposed to do? Do you think about that at all?
Cate Le Bon: Women can look like and do whatever they want, can’t they? There’s the danger that you think that because you’re a woman in performing that you have some kind of image, that you have to be sexy or you have to present as beautiful. I’ve always tried to steer away from that and sometimes invert it. Because obviously you can work against that notion. But I also try not to get too caught up in it and just present how I feel is relevant to whatever the record is and whatever I’m doing at the time. It’s a complicated question.
AD: It is. And I agree that as a woman writer, I can go for a week without thinking about whether I’m a woman or not. It doesn’t play into what I’m doing, but on the other hand, it’s always there.
Cate Le Bon: Of course, it is. Yes.
AD: You’re wearing a wimple in the album art, so I have to ask you about Catholicism, even though it doesn’t seem to be directly reflected in the lyrics.
Cate Le Bon: It’s not. The album cover is a recreation of a painting by Tim Presley that he painted at the beginning of the recording session. It was a painting that, to me, first of all it came from nowhere. One morning it didn’t exist and then within five hours, this painting came to mean so much me. It had this presence in the house. It was almost as if Tim had no notion of where it had come from. Which I loved, this idea that it had just appeared. It appeared. It had no memory. It just had this presence. It almost had a religious presence. It felt ancient, and it also felt futuristic, and it felt powerful. I suppose you have to bear in mind that we’d been in the house for weeks and weeks. We were all going a little mad, marinating in all those fears and existential dread.
But this painting, it’s beyond words for all of us. I wanted the record to sound like the painting. So, when it came to the album artwork, I always thought it would just be the painting. But when it came down to it, I couldn’t bring myself to copy it. To just reproduce it in a way that felt like it diluted or cheapened the meaning of the painting to me. So, it made sense to me to recreate it. It felt like a powerful thing to do as well.
There was something about the presence of this woman in the painting that felt so resolute and powerful, like it spanned centuries. It just really I guess resonated with me and with themes of the record. There is a religious air to it, but it’s not any particular religion.
In the record, there’s exploration of trying to find your touchstones of faith. You’re thinking about this notion of how we’re forever connected to everything, and you’re thinking about how we’re all culpable for all the incremental decisions that have been made. We’re culpable for the mess of everything. It does start to smack of that idea of original sin. Which I hate. I hate those mechanisms of guilt. You’re born already a sinner and all that stuff. But there were also these cross overs with how I was feeling. So, it was again kind of an exploration of what do I believe in? So, there are threads of exploration of faith on the record, but it’s not religious.
AD: There’s a line in “Harbour” that says, “I was born guilty as sin to a mother guilty as hell.” That’s original sin right there.
Cate Le Bon: Yes and also the women born…women would suffer the hell of childbirth and men would just have a bad day on the fields.
AD: Do you have any favorite sounds or moments or lyrics on this record? Anything that just catches you up?
Cate Le Bon: Yes, I love the moment in “Running Away,” I think it’s after the second chorus, when the saxophones all start. They feel so emotional to me. That kind of peak of saxophones just is my favorite moment. And there’s some instrumental on “French Boys” again, the saxophone and the guitar playing together is really, yes…
AD: You’re probably not sure if you’re going to be touring this? Are you working on something else now?
Cate Le Bon: I’m in Topanga producing Devendra Banhart’s record. We’ve been here for five weeks, and we’ve got another week to go. But I am going back to the desert then to prepare for tour. So, it’s happening.
AD: I hope it does. I just got that little taste last year, and I realized how important it is to see people playing music. What have you been listening to lately, anything good?
Cate Le Bon: Let me think. Dev and I have been sharing playlists.
AD: He’s got amazing taste. I did an interview with him right after Oh Me Oh My and he gave me a list of people to listen to, and they all became pillars of the acid folk scene.
Cate Le Bon: Yeah, he’s great. We’ve been sharing our music with each other. There’s one record I keep coming back to, which is Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar by Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes. It was a big influence for me. I always knew I wanted Pompeii to feel like one piece of rock and have same value all the way through. Listening to that record knocked ideas out of me about how to change things up so that they still feel like one painting. So that’s been a huge influence, and obviously bass guitar and saxophone are two of my favorite instruments. And, oh, we were driving around, Dev and I yesterday, listening to Super Furry Animals which was great. I sometimes forget to go back to things that have meant so much to me and listen to them again. Driving along the coast listening to “Run! Christian! Run!”
AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?
Cate Le Bon: I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s beyond words, isn’t it? It’s like a flare up, these things that happen. Sometimes you have no notion. Whoever is making the song, it’s a surprise to them as well that this thing has emerged from them. We’re currently up in a house that Neil Young used to own working on Dev’s record and I keep imagining Neil Young walking around and wondering if all the songs were in his head as he was lounging around here, if they were already there like little eggs in this head waiting for the right moment to hatch. But yeah, I couldn’t tell you. If I could I’d probably be very rich.