The mid to late 70s was a staggeringly fertile period for early electronic music production in Europe. Some German and UK-based artists like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno, in particular, were at the forefront of this evolution. Meanwhile in Seattle, Kerry Leimer was so intrigued by the sonic sounds coming from Europe that he began creating his own extensive volume of work spanning genre, style and instrumentation. Most of his work was only known to a select few, until the New York-based imprint RVNG Intl. started digging into Leimer’s fascinating catalogue. Sonny Meijer takes you on a trip exploring the sounds and story behind this mysterious man.
A while ago on a warm breezy evening I stumbled upon Land of Look Behind, a documentary about the unique culture of Rastafarians in Jamaica, filmed just after the passing of Bob Marley. Besides the rare insight into Rastafarian culture, I was truly mesmerized by the score supporting the documentary, a composition by K. Leimer. After discovering that he’s been making records since 1979, an activity that has continued to this day, I spent weeks going through all of his work in the hopes of gaining some understanding into his motivations as an artist.
Leimer’s curiosity and artistic undertakings in his formative years were led by an obsession with Dadaism, surrealism and musique concrète. During those years he’d decided he wanted to learn any and everything about the potential of electronic music. The popular music at the time never seemed to interest him; on the contrary he was drawn to simpler machine-driven, tape-manipulated music made by the likes of Cluster, Terry Riley, Faust and Neu!, who regularly blurred the boundaries between music and art. Especially inspiring him were the loop-based compositions by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp on No Pussyfooting. As he puts it himself in the liner notes of A Period Of Review (1975-1983): “None gave me more of a push than Eno, specifically…No Pussyfooting. The attractor was the loops: the loop provided an instant structure – a sort of fatalism.”
Leimer’s interest in tape manipulation began at a much younger age. His parents were immigrants who had fled decimated Europe during the Second World War and moved to Winnipeg, Canada, where Kerry Leimer was born. He was raised in Chicago before his family permanently settled in Seattle in 1967. At the time, there was still some family in Austria and instead of writing them letters they’d decided to use reel-to-reel tapes to communicate with each other. However, during the recording of these tapes things were always going wrong, resulting in fake multi-tracking and weird voices. Those malfunctions sparked his interest so profoundly that by the age of 10 he’d acquired his own splicing block, a razor blade and some tape, which he then used to cut up his own recordings, making little tape collages out of it. He would go on to use some of those techniques he learned back then while working in the studio on his future albums.
During the late 70s and early 80s Leimer spent most of his time working in his small studio. The equipment he used was mostly found in local pawnshops and consisted of a Micromoog scaled up to a Memorymoog and different kinds of tape machines. His music is often referred to as ambient; while that tag does apply to most of his work, I find that it doesn’t sufficiently cover the diversity of styles in his full catalogue. In his work you will also find influences of the Fourth World explorations by John Hassell on ‘‘The Cockpit’’ and ‘‘Wajang Kulit’’, fragmented computer funk on “Entr’acte’’ and “A Spiritual Life’’, and crooning art pop on ‘‘Lonely Boy’’. If there is a thread that does tie the music of Leimer together, my description would be: serene, minimalistic, ever-evolving sounds with avant-garde tendencies that bridge the gap between the organic and synthetic.
Between 1979 and 1983, Leimer made seven full-length albums, most of which were released on his own Seattle-based imprint Palace of Lights. He founded the label in 1979 with his wife Dorothy Cross, years before the regional titans K Records and Sub Pop were established. Nowadays if you look back at the legacy of Seattle, it is primarily known for famous prog rock and grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Jimi Hendrix. Although interests in the experimental electronic music scene were very much off the grid at the time, he and some fellow composers managed to create an infrastructure of independence that supported the growing community of people who were into these kinds of sounds.
Palace of Lights is a fairly small label with limited releases by a handful of like-minded artists over the years. They were connected not just by similar interests and ideas about music; they also shared a healthy disdain towards commercialism and the need to appeal to the general public. For these artists, the work process and time spent in the studio was a greater intrinsic reward than any resulting commercial success. Although the releases on Palace of Lights are pretty consistent due to the small, but active, group of artists, the label itself is pretty passive when it comes to marketing and distribution. Leimer sees the work put out as more “a library of references for people who are into this kind of aesthetics’’. Furthermore, all of the copyrights and decisions lie with the artists themselves, allowing them to make what they want on their own terms. In that sense, Palace of Lights is pretty unique.
At some point, Leimer started a collaborative project with some of the artists associated with the Palace of Lights imprint. The group was called Savant, and instead of using machines as sources for the tracks, what Leimer normally does, he used musicians. The process stayed somewhat the same, except that he would work with sounds recorded by the artists separately, rather than working with all of the artists at the same time. In other words, the musicians who worked on this album generally were either never in the same room at the same time, or didn’t meet each other at all. He would give the artists free reign to play whatever they wanted in an attempt to get anything interesting on tape.
In his own words: “The whole basis of Savant was the pursuit of self-organizing outcomes that emerge not from real-time collaboration, but by reaching a critical mass of recorded events.” At the end of the day, it was only him and his splicing block making tracks out of the recorded sounds, just the way he’d started out at the age of 10. The Savant album The Neo-Realist (At Risk) was released in 1983, later reissued by RVNG Intl. in 2015 under the name Artificial Dance.
After a few years of releasing music on the label, Palace of Light ceased in 1983. Leimer’s day job was running the design company that he also founded with his wife Dorothy. The high demands posed by his office job made combining the design business with producing music and managing the label an impossible task.
In 2000, after having laid down his music for twenty years, Leimer decided to relaunch the label. Since then, Leimer has never done anything other than producing music, collaborating with the same artists who had joined Leimer in returning to the label.
If you are interested in checking out more of his work, I recommend that you start with the reissues of A Period of Review, and Artificial Dance by Savant that RVNG INTL. put out a few years ago. These albums provide a glimpse into the diversity of his work. If you do like it I would also suggest listening to Marc Barreca, Gregory Taylor and Steve Peters, all who have also released music on the label through the years.
(Original Recordings: 1975 - 1983)
The Shining Hour