Julian Langer is a Devonian singer-songwriter playing progressive acoustic guitar and folk, roots, and rock music. His approach to his art is a unique one, blending with his love of philosophy.
When did you first start playing music?
When I was six, my mother tried to teach me piano, but I was more interested in pressing the demo buttons. I had my first guitar lesson when I was around eleven. After a few lessons, I’d learnt about four chords, and gave up. Then I sang in a metal band, learning more guitar chords over the years. By the time I was seventeen, I hit a really low point and bought an acoustic. I started picking myself back up and by twenty, I was moving into the style I have today.
I remember your school-era punk days with The Safety Pins, and now you play more folk. Do these two genres influence each other?
Actually, folk predates punk for me, but they do overlap – I don’t see genres in isolation to each other. With me being dyspraxic, my mum thought it’d good for me to learn Irish dancing, and she had the videos from River Dance which I’d watch every single day after school. I just loved the music. I later got into punk through my dad, and started playing punk music as part of the angsty-ness of being a modern teenager. Folk has a very similar spirit to punk rock. Its traditions have always been about people retaining something, such as holding onto Irish culture while the English were trying to impose. That for me is punk. What punk might say in an aggressive way, folk might say in a gentler, prettier way, but both genres have an important focus on authenticity and being true to yourself as an artist.
How does that affect your creative process?
A lot of dedicated acoustic guitarists or percussive guitarists talk about having a “natural sound”. Andy McKee talks about having his window open and hearing the sound of a drill, and then sitting down with his guitar, replicating that sound and creating a piece from it. For me, the process is a bit more flitter-y. My thoughts aren’t very linear, so I just freestyle on the guitar, and from that I slowly find melodies that I like, and then tie lyrics in.
Do you think this freestyling gives you the freedom to draw inspiration from more places, like your use of the didgeridoo and sitar?
The didgeridoo is a big part of the album [see his album Forest Floor Pirates]. One review called it “avant-garde jazz”, and being acknowledged in that way was really cool for me, because it’s a big part of the way I look at things. I don’t believe there are any absolute things in life; there’s no absolute object, as objects are always changing. There’s no such thing as a “true” form – there’s never a “true” chair or a “true” cat, because it’s all variations. For me, there can’t be a true genre or true sound. You can be true to yourself as an artist, but you can’t create something that absolutely fits one thing – every time you play a song, it’s different. For me, taking melodies, scales and instrumentations from different parts of the world is partly due to that, and partly because I’m musically disjointed.
It’s impossible for me to listen to my iPod on shuffle because I’ll have Kate Rusby singing something sweet and melodic, and then the next song will be Every Time I Die or The Bronx doing some hardcore, high-energy punk. Afterwards it might be some kind of Americana-y, country-folk music, and then it might be metal. It might even be gangster rap, and then it might be classical. I love listening to artists like Anoushka Shankar, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Wolfmother, John Martyn – and also the obvious like Newton Faulkner, John Butler, Ben Howard, and Laura Marling. I’m massively influenced by metal guitarists. I can’t play anywhere near their style, but I still find it inspiring.
Do you put a lot of thought into your process?
I really try not to think about it. Like the didgeridoo – it wasn’t a niche thing, but rather me hearing it and thinking,“wow”. It’s the oldest instrument that’s ever been used. It’s the sound of the world, the vibrations – it’s just amazing. When I first started playing this style of guitar, I used to watch these amazing guitarists play. I wanted to recreate the sound, but also change it so it wasn’t just a reproduction. It’s the same with my progressive guitar techniques – watching John Martyn and being amazed. Music isn’t rational thought. You can apply mathematics to it, but I think if you ask any artist, they’ll say it’s not some kind of contrived thing. Ultimately, it comes down to being real. It’s a purely existential process.
Is that a concept you’ve always had?
It definitely wasn’t one I had as a teenager. Back then, I was wanting to literally create a sound, and I think to an extent, all teenagers are. I was inauthentic and a bit of a douchebag, wanting to make angry, left-wing music, writing songs about economic systems to say “I can see it, and it’s bad,” but not knowing what I was talking about. The music that came from that was immature and naïve. I’m probably still immature and naïve! My concept was drawn later, from real and personal things.
The fact that you’re a philosophy student comes across there.
Nietzsche is a massive influence. My favourite quote of his is, “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” It sums up a lot of huge things for me. If everything is changing and there’s no fixed thing, then everything is only a fleeting representation of a thing. There’s a philosophical idea called “the will to power”. It’s not about power over people, but rather about being as good as you can be, and creating something significant and beautiful in a fleeting, absurd world. Schopenhauer is another philosopher, and he spoke about music being the ultimate in aesthetics, because it’s not an attempt at creating a fixed thing. To me, music – real, non-mass-produced music – is that.
How does mass-produced music differ?
Mass-consumerist music is a fixed form and is really banal. A big part of my approach is a rejection of that, and wanting to do things differently. I like jazz and psychedelic music for those reasons – it’s a different form of consciousness. Civilisation likes to create the idea of fixed things, or one ultimate, fixed truth – such as God, or the King, or the government, or evolution. I like music that takes you to a place of discordance and irregularity, and that for me is music through Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It’s very jazzy. Take scatting [he scats] – that sound will never be recreated. That moment only exists between you and me, really.
And how does that affect your approach your music?
I’m trying to create experiences. I want to create sounds that are beautiful but also jar with normality. That’s another big part of my album; a lot of people said it was beautiful in parts, and other parts were really jarring. Some say it’s interesting and they love it, and others haven’t got it, and that’s fine. I knew I was creating something that not everyone would get. Some people don’t get it but like it, some people don’t get it and don’t like it, some people get it and don’t like it [laughs], and some people do get it and do like it, and that’s great. It’s all perfectly fine for me.
In another interview, you described your songs as stories. Is there a favourite story you have to tell?
There’s not one song I could answer with, but there’s one about my fiancée that I love. It has a lot of meaning for me, but meanings change depending on the people. Even though for me it’s about my fiancée, it’s not absolutely about that. But if there’s one story I want to talk about, it’s the song on the album called The Woodsman. I love folk acapella songs, and it was my first attempt. I’m also a big, environmental hippy-type and I love trees, and the narrative of the song is about protecting a forest. The woodsman warns people who come to the forest to try to claim the natural world, and slays the people who try to cut down the trees. That’s me saying I will do everything within my power to protect the forest. It’s me saying I don’t believe in hope as a concept, in entrusting outside my own power for an event to happen. I’m not saying, “I hope the forest will stand” – I’m saying “I will not let the forest fall.” Not saying if someone chopped down a tree in Barnstaple I’d slay them because, y’know, for one thing, I’d go to jail and someone else would cut it down. I’d still try to find a way to stop them, though – you know what I mean?
I do. Could you also share some of your favourite on-stage memories?
I used to play an instrumental called The Storm. It’s in D-sharp minor, and it’s got a very tricky melody with an aggressive strumming bit, and was one of the more energetic ones of my set at the time. One time when I was performing in a pub, a guy yelled out “Yeah! Acoustic death metal!” and as a massive acoustic and metal fan, that was really cool. Another time, I played my song, Pirate’s Love Song, at Sidmouth Folk Festival. I asked if there were any pirates in the crowd, and loads of people went “Yeah!” and then I asked if there were any lovers in the crowd. There was a group of very macho young men, and the drunkest of the lot went “Yeah mate, top shagger!” I also played at my childhood festival that I went to every single year when I was growing up in Wimbledon – Wimbledon Village Festival – and there was a kid in the audience pulling funny faces at me as I played. It was such an awesome moment. I love people who do things without giving a crap what other think. I’ll tell you one of my favourite gig experiences: a lot the time, I play with my eyes closed because I feel it more, and I’m more aware of my body. When it gets to the end of the song, I open my eyes and usually I see someone at the front of the audience. They’ll smile, and you know if they’re smiling the song went right – there weren’t too many mistakes, and no-one died.
That’s very heart-warming. And what’s next for you?
I recently released my album, and it was a really full one. I worked on it for ages and it took loads of time because I did it all myself. It’s my last year of uni in October, and I plan to do my Master’s after. Next summer I want to travel, and do some conservation work in Africa. Apart from that, it’s going to be more gigging, hopefully more festivals and maybe a tour with another performer or band. I’m doing a couple more live videos, and I’ll be writing. I don’t plan to release another album until 2017 or 18, depending on how things go. It’s more about the live experience for me. Also, there’s general life stuff – I’m engaged and getting married.
Thank you. Were these questions pre-planned?
I’d like to answer a completely spontaneous question. Maybe something like a favourite childhood fish.
What was your favourite childhood fish?
When I was eight, I had a fish named Goldy.
You actually have an answer? Great, carry on.
Well, that was it. I was thinking of the most bizarre answer I could give.
“What’s your favourite colour?” is a pretty popular one.
Nice, me too.
Photo credit: Robin Beer Photography