Name: Luke M de Zilva
Occupation: Musician, arts worker
Current release: Even Now / Levelled
Recommendations: Island of Lost Souls by Roy Montgomery/ For My Crimes by Marissa Nadler/ Fallen Trees by Lubomyr Melnyk / Minus by Daniel Blumberg / Celestial Blues by King Woman
If you enjoyed this interview with Luke M de Zilva, follow him on Instagram and Spotify and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My parents sometimes tell stories about me listening to music as a toddler, that I loved Vivaldi and John Lennon. I recall feeling something in the bottom of my stomach that I didn’t understand.
When I was still quite young, one of my best friends and his older brother introduced me to a lot of music that I never would have otherwise discovered. I loved lots of music before that, mostly some of my parents’ favourite music, but this experience with my friend was the first time that I heard something that completely shifted the way I listened and thought about music, and it sparked my desire to find more of it, obsessively.
I learned a couple of instruments here and there from primary school onwards but became more focused on music after high school as a drummer when some friends and I started a band. Being in that band was a huge focus of mine for a number of years and we really fed each other a lot of music discoveries over that time. Some years in, I came across a beautiful old guitar at a local market. It was unlike any other I’d seen, and I dreamt about it for two weeks. Luckily, it didn’t sell before I had a chance to get it. Finding that guitar took me from ‘I’ll learn guitar some day’ to ‘I’m doing this now’.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I first started song writing, I never imagined playing any of it for anyone – I’d never sung and I was mostly just trying to translate an atmosphere that I heard in my head. I still don't really identify as a guitarist, for no particular reason except that I don't believe that I can play how or as well as a guitarist should. There are musicians like Norman Westberg (Swans) and Grouper who I’ve always been more interested in than traditional guitarists, in the sense that it’s the unique environment they create more so than the instruments they’re using that defines what they do (to me, at least). That’s an idea I’ve pursued from the start – simply trying to create an environment that communicates something in a way that only you can.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
A few years ago I read an interview with the author Nell Zink in which she said, “People look to the tall white guys to be our avant-garde because they're the ones who are not obligated to be political, in the sense of advancing some agenda”. A few months later I was listening to a podcast with the author Michael Mohammed Ahmad who described being a young Arab-Australian teenager at the time of 9/11 and knowing that he would spend the rest of his life defending his culture, and that writing would be his mode to do it. I don’t take it for granted that I have the artistic option and luxury to be all concept or all about nothing, or to have my practice be purely for myself if I choose to, with the freedom to create something without anyone asking or expecting anything of me personally or politically.
Separately, I recently watched an interview with Emma Ruth Rundle and the interviewer asked her about whether she identifies as a ‘career musician’, which Emma was confused by (as was I), because it was ultimately about whether you do music and then you’re done with it for any number of reasons, or if you’ll never be done with it. It was clear Emma hadn’t considered it to be a choice and I think that I won’t ever be done with it, too.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Once I started working towards becoming a solo musician, I found it quite liberating at first – the freedom of being able to write at any time of any day or perform anywhere in any city. And to only be restricted by my own output. Of course, as much as I expected to work quicker once the onus was entirely on me, if anything I’ve become more obsessive and it takes me a long time to feel satisfied with anything I do. I’m unable to call anything finished unless it’s as resolved in real life as it is in my imagination, but I think there is value in that.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I try to limit distractions and focus on being very purposeful, and I’ve kept the core instruments I use to a minimum because I know there’s still more that I can achieve with them. Some of my favourite musicians as well as visual artists manage to create entire worlds that draw you in with one sound, or variations of one colour, and that’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time.
I’ve been extremely lucky to have had a few great studios. One was a 300 square-metre (3,200 square-feet) hollowed-out electrical substation and I became really obsessed with the way it would carry sound across the room. It was the first time that I’d worked in a space where the space itself felt like it matched what I was creating. I recorded my half of a split album with a Melbourne musician named Henry Lloyd Wilson in there. Eventually the building was sold but it was what spurred me to record my most recent release in a similarly interesting setting, being a 170-year-old sandstone church, which very much had its own distinct character.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
All the time. Siavash Amini’s album What Wind Whispered to the Trees makes me want to expand the instruments and technology I use, whereas Dustin O’Halloran’s Vorleben reminds me that so much is possible with one instrument and nothing else. I listen to a lot of instrumental music, maybe more than anything with vocals these days, and will shortly start working on a couple of composition projects.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
A while back I was speaking with a musician friend about some songs I was working on that I didn’t know how to resolve. Even Now was one of them, and his suggestion was to gather a few musician friends one at a time, press record and have them free-play over the top of the track to see what would happen. I was lucky to have the extremely talented Thomas Champion (The Preatures), Heather Shannon (The Jezabels), Mara Schwerdtfeger (Alaska Orchestra) and Kate Southorn (Ani Lou) contribute. We took about 12 recordings per person then chopped and edited the segments together. It was the first time I’d worked in this format, and also the first time I’d somewhat given a song over to another musician to respond to. Thom, Heather, Mara and Kate are very intuitive musicians and it was a hugely rewarding experience for me to hear them bring the song to life.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
For my day job, I’m lucky to regularly work to my own schedule and my morning routine is usually determined by how long my previous night was in the studio. I consider myself even more lucky to be able to see something in my job that informs or changes my creative thinking and I am often triggered to take notes for my creative practice based on something I’ve read, seen or heard during work hours. With that said, I strictly cut work off when work is done and I don’t compromise on that. With music, sometimes I work for an hour or two, other times until early morning, and I try to make time to write during the daytime as much as possible. When I’m not making progress, I give time to reading, listening and researching anything that might influence my music or help form an idea, and it’s not uncommon for me to feel that some of my most productive music days are spent not actually playing any music.