Los Angeles based producer and songwriter Matthew Hemerlein, who records as the evocatively named Lo-Fang, is an interesting character. The musician is the latest signing to 4AD and his mysterious and sumptuous songs, as collected on debut album Blue Film, are a perfect fit within 4AD’s esteemed history.
About to embark on an US tour with Lorde, Lo-Fang is set for a significant year. Ahead of the album’s release in the UK, we caught up with Matthew on the line from Los Angeles to find out a bit more about his background, the fascinating landscape of LA and expressing himself through songwriting.
Can you describe a bit about your background and how you came to start making music as Lo-Fang? What were your musical entry points?
I started playing classical music when I was five; it was a mandatory thing in my family. My brother and sister also played violin. That was the entry point for us to get into music. I then got into musical theatre. I was focused on jazz for a while and I went through all sorts of different phases.
I was always just intending to be a musician. After school, I was playing music all the time. Music was just something that I needed. I never really wanted to be a recording artist. I made a decision a while ago, though, that I had a skill set where I thought I could provide for myself. I could keep an instrument in my hand and also keep a roof over my head.
You were originally making music under your own name. What differences are there between recording under your own name and that of Lo-Fang? Is it something subconscious and imperceptible?
Not really, as you peel away layers of yourself the artistic side of yourself as a musician becomes a little bit clearer. It turns into something that’s distinct from your birth name. I just wanted to have something that was reflective of that. The name revealed itself to me. I didn’t go into it thinking, “Oh man, I should have a name.” It felt right.
The words Lo-Fang, they make a lot more sense next to the sounds that are being created than, y’know, somebody’s first and last name. It sounds vaguely dramatic. That’s just where I was at the time. It gives me a healthy distance. You’re focusing on an energy and a state versus simply your name.
Have you always written and recorded on your own?
I had an engineer towards the end of it and a producer, so it had a couple more heads on it but I recorded all the parts for it and they’re all songs that I wrote. I’ve played with other people and I’ve sat in on a lot of shows. I’ve worked with other people in some capacity but not on my own music.
How long have you been working on the songs on Blue Film?
Some of these songs are old, honestly. Some of them are pretty new as well. A song like Animal Urges is probably around five years old. #88 is going on three years old. The first time I wrote that pizzicato part of the chorus was three years ago. Some of them were written a lot faster towards the end. Initially Blue Film was a mixtape. The intention was that I was signed for publishing but not for distribution so I just thought I need to get people’s attention and get them focusing on the work that I can do. I had such a wide range of sounds that I could use. I thought if I did a 45-minute piece that was really strong it might get the right reaction. It was fun as you can figure songs up against cover songs and use it like a creative sketchpad. That turned into the album. I got involved with 4AD and we decided that we should make that the record and build off that.
You’ve signed with 4AD to release the album. What attracted you to the label? Were you aware of its history?
I was definitely aware of them and many of the bands. They came after me so I was in no position to say, “Hey, 4AD, I’m going to sign to you!” They were into my music and as I got to know them, y’know, you’re really working with the people at the label. That’s what’s important. I like all the people at 4AD and we see eye to eye on things. That’s who you’re getting involved with. The history and whatever is cool but on a practical level, it’s not what you’re thinking about at all.
There was a pretty definitive biography of the 4AD label published last year (Martin Aston’s Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD). I first heard your music immediately after reading that book and it’s striking just how well Lo-Fang fits into the 4AD classic aesthetic.
Yeah, It’s kind of funny as I see this all the time. People ask me what kind of music I make and I say timeless classics and they think I’m kidding. I’m really not kidding at all. I think that the music that I’m making is distinct enough to stand out on its own but also fit in with the eclectic and excellent nature of what’s on their roster. They’re all different bands but they somehow hang together.
There’s a wonderful sense of atmosphere on the album, lovely textures and delicate touches. How did you weave in your classical training into the songs?
It’s really natural. When I arrange all the strings, that’s like in a way the more primordial side to what I’m doing. There’s things in the songs that I can’t quite put into words. It’s just really fun, it’s super intuitive. I don’t write anything out. I arrange it by ear and by feeling and it encourages me to sing with my fingers.
I can just kind of go nuts, get the right cello part and build off that. I get the outline first and then the lower harmonies. It’s actually the most fun that I have. I felt I was strongest in that area. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had to work really hard in investigating rhythms.
How do you get the balance between ornate, delicate classical sounds and modern electronic production? Is it hard to marry the two together?
All the electronic stuff is represented by the word Fang. The way I sing and the strings that’s more the Lo element. We’d sometimes make jokes in the studio saying there’s not enough Fang or there’s not enough Lo. It actually makes sense though. It’s like the balance between masculine and feminine energy. Hopefully it comes across in a subtle way in the music.
Blue Film paints you as a wonderful storyteller. Is it important to you to create stories and imagery within your songs?
Oh yeah, I spent a long time working on the lyrics. It was important to be really clear in what I was saying. Some of the songs are autobiographical and some of the songs are written from an intuitive place about things I notice in the world. Hopefully, you can’t really tell where one ends and one begins. The idea is to be a storyteller and an observer.
How do you develop that story arc in your music?
There’s always really fascinating things going on. I’m always surprised but I’m never amazed if that makes sense about people’s motivations and why people react in certain ways to certain situations. I’m fascinated by the world so hopefully I can show some of that. It can also be about stuff that really bothers me, something that I have a strong reaction against that’s not just whimsical shit.
You recorded the album all around the world on various travels including time spent in Cambodia and Iceland. How did the different environments affect the writing and recording process?
It’s really difficult to say how you’re affected by an environment until you leave it, I think. On a very superficial level, topically, there’s things you write about that are maybe distilled into a more universal narrative arc. It becomes a little bit more open.
Another thing is even coming to LA. Everyone wants to talk about these other places but LA is a weird and exotic landscape that’s pretty unfamiliar and I’m still acclimatising to. I’m really fascinated by how this is essentially a desert and the importance that shade has here. Shade has a huge amount of weight here. If you’re in the shade, it’s cooler and drastically more manageable.
I like the mentality that’s so ingrained in the culture around here. Everyone’s so immortalised in some regard. There’s cars on the street, the movie industry and billboards, names and brands. It’s just really interesting. It reminds me of the afterlife. That came out in the music too.
On a song like Blue Film that I wrote on the way to LA. Even on a song like Boris, even though I didn’t write it I still put my heart into it, changed some of the lyrics a little bit in order to reflect an attitude towards women that I found shocking. That’s also prevalent around here.
Where is home for you then? Where is your natural location for writing?
I’m writing all the time. I always have ideas that flow out. Right now, I’m living in Los Angeles and I’ve been here for a pretty long time now. Before that, I was in Baltimore, Maryland. I was travelling a lot at the same time. I’d go on these pretty outrageous trips. I’d have time to record while I was there, record things on my laptop, come back, work on those things, and have those experiences.
Also, I was living something of a double life. I’d go on these crazy trips and go back into a really boring existence. It was definitely dipping into this beautiful dream and then cold hard reality. In a way, living vicariously through your past in a song I was working on kind of keeps the vibe a little bit and staves away depression.
One of the most striking songs on Blue Film is your cover of You’re The One that I Want from the Grease soundtrack. How did that song come about?
It’s a classic song. It’s really beautiful. There’s all these peculiar attitudes in Grease too if you watch it. I remember watching it when I was little but I didn’t even watch it until after I made the song. There’s something in there that’s compelling and it’s really beautiful melodically. There were bands that I remember being into who would do interesting covers. I guess it’s more of a remake than a cover. Look at the way that Tim Burton handled Planet of The Apes compared to how Christopher Nolan handled Batman. It’s more of that person’s own vibe and aesthetic.
You’re heading out on tour this year to play some dates with Lorde. How did you make that connection with her?
Hell yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be awesome. She’s a total force and she’s amazing. I’m really into her record and the fact I’ll get to hear it every night is amazing. I’m just excited on that level. She got a hold of my record from her producer and we met up at the second show I was playing as Lo-Fang. Playing live is something I’ve done a lot of but not as Lo-Fang. I need to focus on recording and nail this, and then if I get that right everything will fall into place so I haven’t played live in a long time. It took me a while to make it sound like the record and find the right people to play. Lorde came to the second show and I guess we did a good job because she asked me to come on tour with her.
Finally, you’ve had Blue Film ready to go for quite a while now. Are you beginning to think about new songs?
I’ve been working on stuff. There’s definitely stuff in the works. It’s just a matter of launching this record first and getting ready for tour and playing these shows so it’s a bit much right now. I’m always working on things though. I have stuff that’s already written and allotted for the next record but it needs to be defined and explored. But there’s a lot of stuff that I can draw from.
Blue Film is out now through 4AD. Tour dates and more information can be found on lo-fang.com.