Total Need – An Interview with Algebra of Need

“The face of ‘evil’ is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: ‘Wouldn’t you?’” This is how William S Burroughs defines the “algebra of need” in his book Naked Lunch. If we could transmute this sentiment into the context of music, perhaps the “total need” Burroughs speaks of could reflect a side of music that goes against every fibre of decorum in the pursuit of the most honest and purist form of the art. It’s music that “degrades and simplifies” the listener rather than pander to his/her/its demands – suffering the degradation of the product and the music in the process. It’s music that feeds the most primal urges of its creator to satisfy the music’s need for artistic expression and foregoing all common politeness in the process of raw art. If we could in fact transmute Burroughs’ words then Thomas Barnes and Henry Gillett could not have chosen a better name for their label Algebra Of Need. “I was reading the book Naked Lunch and that part particularly stuck”, says Thomas, the more vocal of the two friends, production partners and label affiliates via London. Joining us on the call from Melbourne is Henry who is letting Thomas do most of the talking while the more taciturn Australian only chimes in when a question is left notably open for a response. Thomas and Henry have known each other since their “Drum n Bass days in Perth”, and before Thomas left for London, a seed was planted, a seed that would eventually be known as Algebra of Need. “Henry and I were drunk at club, and I mentioned it to him and he was like ‘that’s a cool idea’.” Algebra of Need was to be the exclusive vehicle for Thomas and Henry’s plethora of musical projects with the first release, The Engineering of Consent, marking their official debut with a 12” that featured Henry Gillett as himself and Thomas as AQL Measure. They spent a “year refining the ideas” behind the label before the release finally saw the light of day towards the end of 2013, and when Marie De Cuir, “who got involved in the art side” completed the trio, Algebra of Need became a fixed constant in the world of experimental electronic music. “It’s a bit of a mess”, says Thomas of how the label’s operated since. “We just do what needs to be done. We just get chatting and work out a cool way of releasing it.“ For the most part Algebra Of Need is focussed on releasing collaborative and solo works from Henry and Thomas through projects like The Trainables, Pterygium and Lofthaus, but it wasn’t necessarily meant as such to start off with. “We literally planned to just have one 12-inch”, says Henry of the origins of the label, but as more music came through these various projects, more releases inevitably came through the label too. “It’s a bit of a Helter Skelter”, agrees Thomas. “We come up with an idea and just roll with it. In a couple of months you’ll have music, artwork and a format.”

These personalities behind the label and the music, is what ties a lot of Algebra of Need together. Henry and Tomas’ involvement in the Drum n Bass scene naturally played a role in their development and although you can hear that coming across in Thomas’ AQL Measure project, it’s hardly a DnB label. At the heart of the label is something more universal, a desire to look towards the darker corners of music, and probably something that’s also most perfectly embodied in their Lofthaus project. “Lofthaus is Techno but it’s not Techno”, says Thomas. “Most of the stuff we do is taking a given genre or sound and putting our slant on it.” “The Lofthaus stuff was a real turning point” agrees Henry, but at the end of the day Algebra of Need was merely “an incentive to write.” At the same time however, Algebra of Need is not just an exclusive vehicle for the Australian cohorts and their creative outlets, and other artists, like Consulate have also found a home there. But Henry and Thomas insist on personal relationship with their artist, a personal relationship built upon a shared taste in music. “We put our influences on display and you find people that have lived the same music you have. So it has the same DNA”, explains Thomas. Henry and Thomas never actively seek out new music, but rather rely on the friends they’ve made through a common interest in music delivering music to them. “Yeah, you don’t want to release music, only to find out later the guy’s a cunt”, says Thomas, not mincing words with a hearty chortle at the end of the statement. It’s got a lot to do with “what the person’s intentions are for making music” clarifies Henry later in our conversation with much of it tied up in a sound that’s “quite dark and broody”. But there are rarely preconceived ideas pulling them into a particular direction. Algebra of Need can go from the “avant garde drum and bass” of AQL measure, to the more drone/noise/beat projects like Pterygium or The Trainables. Even a Techno-referencing project like Lofthaus is not as easily defined as such. Loftahaus is about “doing things that we weren’t hearing other people doing. We’re working with different time signatures”, explains Henry before Thomas adds “we didn’t understand how we could possibly make this type of music DJ friendly.” They like to think of Lofthaus as Techno for household ceremonies like eating dinner and it’s clear that they feel that this project is very much the focus of a lot of their music. They are planning a live project, with each of them able to take it on the road individually, from their remote locations, opening up their music to more audiences.

What also becomes very evident from talking to the guys is that there’s a very simple and personal investment in their music, one that won’t likely conform to anything in particular, even a style. “One of us will be like ‘I wanna make a hip-hop album’ and then we’ll all laugh and then six months later there will be some music that suits us.” Thomas feels that everything surrounding the label is very ingrained in the things happening behind the music. There’s no real marketing strategy to the label, and they tend to spread the word by “going to parties and talking shit” about music with other music lovers. “When we go out and meet people on the same wavelength, that’s when we exchange music,” expounds Thomas. Word of mouth is exactly how I got to know of Algebra of Need and what they do, but like so many labels like them, it’s their DIY aesthetic, sound and artwork that stuck with me. “A lot of standing out is the visual side”, agrees Thomas. “The first thing you see when you see music online is a picture. That’s one reason Marie is so important to the project. He gives us a visual aesthetic that compliments the sound.” Like many other labels today, Algebra of Need use Bandcamp to distribute their music, but also rely on physical releases to retain some of that exclusivity that only a physical release affords, much of which they capture with the tape format. “Tapes are an incredible medium to use. Not only do they sound great, but they are incredibly fun to produce.” Although a 12” established the label, and is due to make a return on Algebra of Need in the near future, it’s tape that’s been the format they’ve turned to most often. It’s in that format they’ve made their most aesthetically pleasing release in the form of Pterygium’s matchbox style cassette The Revival of Unwritten Laws.

“It’s probably our most popular release and a really fun one to make.” It’s one of those pieces you’ll enjoy holding in your hand as much as you’ll enjoy the music and gives the listener something truly special in the packaging and the exclusivity of it that invariably relates to the music. “There’s that element of fun when you can say: ‘ah mate look at this cassette I got there’s only fucking thirty of them.’” At the same time Henry and Thomas are nothing but realists, and that’s why all their music is also available as digital downloads. “It’s early days for the label, so if people want to buy it it’s just open” explains Henry. “The last thing you want is people pretending that they are into your shit, just because it’s on the Internet.”

Their personal approach to music, aesthetics and distribution is what ties everything together for Algebra of Need, suggesting a very non-conformist attitude at the core of the label, and the music that it champions. They operate on an algebra of need to create – a total need for the most original and truest form of creative expression, with the end user, the consumer, the listener, being manipulated towards an appreciation for their sound, rather than the artist abiding to a sensible idea of music and losing something of the originality of the work. Algebra of Need isn’t the type of label that you’ll stumble along just to ignore after listening to a single release, but a label, that will grow on you, perhaps even breaking you down from an initial sceptic to a full-blown addict. For me, personally it was the mixtape Transmisogynynoir #7 that won me over and made me appreciate the original releases on the label. I soon realised that something this uninhibited, natural and obstinate was bound to produce something that I could enjoy, and found such joy in Lofthaus and Pterygium especially, but not exclusively.

With that I also look forward to what the future holds for Algebra of Need, a future that will inevitably exist beyond any structural idea, like its done in the past, and is sure to produce even more surprises along the way. “The rest of the rest of 2016 will be bigger album projects and compilation projects rather than shorter things”, says Henry at the end of our call while Thomas is a little less specific in the future of the label. “We’ve got about 40 projects going all in different stages of completion.” He might not know how much of this might make its way onto the label, but one thing he’s sure of is that “it’s going to be gloomy…”