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November 2020
Feature

LA Priest: Machine head

A pop star’s job is not to be boring - so in making best mates with his drum machine, and then naming an album - ‘GENE’ - after it, LA Priest is living his best life.
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Published: 10:00 am, June 01, 2020Words: Blaise Radley.
LA Priest: Machine head

Samuel Eastgate's best friend is a robot. In fact, for a period of time, it sounds as if his only friend was a robot, or rather a slightly cantankerous drum machine. With a creative process that sounds awfully similar to certain social isolation protocols, when Dork reaches him on the landline of his home in rural Wales, the current chaos all seems quite distant. "I live with my family in a really empty, isolated area. It's almost like I planned ahead... but I mean I haven't, I haven't."

The robot in question, Gene, forms the crux of his new record, 'GENE'. After extensively touring his debut solo record 'Inji', the part-hermit, part-psych-popstar alternately known as Samuel Eastgate, Sam Dust and LA Priest needed some respite. He found it in some shonkily soldered synthesisers, and a secluded spot in the States.

"I settled in a place in California, in the Sierra mountains. I got a house up there, like a log cabin, and started recording this album. That was early January 2017. It feels like a lot of the album happened there and then, but then there's stuff on it that I did last minute. The main single that's just come out, 'What Moves', that was a last-minute thing. I was just like, I need another song, I need a tune on this record - need another one of those…"

Given how pivotal 'What Moves' feels to the album, it's surprising that the record didn't hinge on its slinky grooves. "It's a stepping back process, I think. I'll go through the main bulk of the writing process never reusing the same sound twice, trying to create something entirely different each time. Then, on the last songs, I kind of relax a bit, and I'm like: 'You know what, I like what I did on that other song, I'm just gonna repeat that.'"

More importantly, though, let's address the robot in the room. "Yeah, well, that's the other side. With the other half of my time, I was getting into building equipment that would take my writing and production into my own place. My identity is kind of inherent in the machines that I make, so the idea was that the foundations of each song from then on were totally my own." It sounds like the premise for a B-movie rather than a cosmic pop record: Escape from LA... Priest.

With the idea in mind that he wanted to make a portable drum machine for his travels through America, one that could truly match his own unusual tastes, Sam hunkered down with a soldering iron. "If I get an idea, I'll just get everything out on the floor and try to build it. I had enough knowledge from fixing old keyboards on tour to build bits of things. Most of 2016 I was just hunched over soldering wires. It's pretty bad for your back, being leant over for a year."

"My identity is inherent in the machines that I make"
Samuel Eastgate

So, how did the droid now known as Gene start out? "The first thing I got working was just this little loop of four drums going round: 'Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo,', and you could change the timing of those." Regardless of our poor phonetic rendition, it's remarkable how close Sam's impression sounds to the drums on his breakthrough single, 'Oino'. Perhaps the gap between creator and creation isn't so big, after all.

Certainly, Sam doesn't think so. When he talks about Gene, it's in the same tones reserved for a doting parent. "I feel like it's more than just a machine. It's like some weird personality. It's very volatile, and it does the same things that some real people would do: it decides not to work for a song, or it plays things at a different speed. I don't know what I'm doing, basically. I'm not qualified, I never learnt electronics at school, so it's got a lot of quirks to it."

How did those quirks come about then? Smacking it with a hammer? Sticking it together with gum? "I was always aware that some of the best stuff was on the breaking point. I was just building this thing... not trying to make it faulty exactly, but not making it foolproof. Whenever I found an imbalance or a mistake, I wouldn't remove that, I'd just let it be part of the circuit. When you combine that 100 times, you make this really convoluted system of little circuits, and you end up with quite an organic end product where everything's almost breathing."

Speaking of quirky personalities, what inspired him to name his progeny Gene? "I built a synthesiser for one of my friends around 2012, and I was like, 'What should I call it?' and he said, 'Oh, you should call it Gene,' because his favourite song off 'Inji' was 'Gene Washes With New Arm'. That was it from then on. Every machine has been a different character called Gene. The first one I made was Grandpa Gene, and then I had baby Gene. I don't know what this one is. This one's just Gene." The middle child? "Yeah, yeah. The current generation."

How about the song on 'Inji'? "Yeah, well that song is literally just named after Gene Wilder. He was still around at the time... I think he only died in 2016. I should know that, don't let people know I don't know that!" he says with a sudden vigour - he's right, so we'll let it slide. "So yeah, in a roundabout way this drum machine is named after Gene Wilder, but that doesn't even occur to me now. It's got its own personality. It doesn't really resemble him very much…"

As fun as it is to delve into his fantastical world of robotic companions, Sam is quick to dismiss the notion that 'GENE' is just an ode to his hardware. "There's a lot of other stuff happening, you know, the lyrics and the story... I'm not singing songs about a drum machine the whole time, that would be pretty boring." But some of the time? He laughs, "Well, it's the identity of the record in a way, yeah."

With his automaton companion in tow and a secluded spot in mind, Sam set about on some pretty severe social distancing. No people, no internet and no other music. "That place was quite out in the middle of nowhere - the radio didn't even work in our car. They sell a lot of very broken cars in America, so we were driving around with massive dents and things falling off. I didn't really want to listen to anything anyway; I always think it's better to make what you would want to hear. If you're starved of any sound, then you're gonna have more drive to create."

"Most of 2016 I was just hunched over soldering wires"
Samuel Eastgate

Space and place are constantly wrapped up in Sam's discussion of his creative process. "I remember really early on with 'Oino' from 'Inji", it felt like I wrote it just because I was in Switzerland. It doesn't sound very Swiss as a song, but because I was walking around in this new country it just popped into my head, you know?" With his extended, isolated writing period in America, these nomadic impulses hit their stride.

"The bulk of the writing was done in America, so it owes a lot to travelling. Even with those last songs, I was still running on the fumes and the excitement of that trip. I don't think travel is essential for writing, though. It's a bit like money. Money's not essential for art, but if you have it, well, it's oil in the gears or whatever. If you had no instruments, you'd still write a song... but maybe you should buy a guitar."

What used to inspire him then, if not the excitement of a new place? "Well, when I was a teenager writing music, I'd get ideas if I started making some food. I burnt a lot of food that way, 'cause I'd always start cooking and then go, 'Oh, yeah, great, I'll go write this song.'" Perhaps the next record might be a return to those roots? More Welsh rarebit, less Californian sunsets? "Travelling isn't essential anymore, but it'd still be nice to do it. Well, if there are no more travel bans."

For all his talk of beat-up American automobiles and his drum machine's family tree, what's most striking is the way Sam flips topics. His rambling musings about his music drift between passionate absorption and aw-shucks self-effacement, pivoting from freaky writing practices to mechanical bodge jobs, and the realities of releasing an album in the middle of a global pandemic.

The most interesting thing of all? That he's not just a nomadic steampunk traveller; he's also clearly a family man grounded in his rural Welsh home. Throughout the majority of our chat there's the distinct sound of a child bumbling around in the background (no, not a motorised one), who only comes fully into frame for one brief moment, when Sam mysteriously says, "I can see that yes, you've got yellow spots." Moments later, he's back to talking about Gene.

It's not something that's ever acknowledged, but it certainly discredits our joking assertion that his only friend is a bundle of half-broken motherboards. 'GENE' is an album that defies easy categorisation, and in that sense, it fits the man behind it. "I always think, well, it's about trying to explain the drum machine, but then I'll remember something like the fact that in Poole I had to record in this cellar for six months. I had to dig out all the soil!" Whether he's singing about loam, home or chrome, one thing's for sure: LA Priest has as many quirks as his creations. 

Taken from the June issue of Dork. LA Priest's album 'GENE' is out 5th June.

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