The original artwork accompanying Maxwell Sterling’s ‘Hollywood Medieval’ featured the British-born Los Angeles-based producer taking a selfie in the reflection of a window looking into the garish interior of a Psychic Store on Sunset Boulevard. It’s a picture that captures the sense of a space that the Manchester-born, Leeds-educated musician and composer does with sound. His first album, also called Hollywood Medieval and released on LA label Memory No. 36 Recordings, features seven songs inspired by and made up of layers —layers of iPhone recordings and analogue synthesisers, layers of simulated string sections and choral patches; car horns, bird song, traffic, an uncanny voice describing the theology of a New Age religion. Together they’re moulded into urgent and odd movements with titles like ‘Synthetic Beach’, ‘Funeral For A Building’ and ‘$50 Curse Removal’; songs for the Californian city made up of cascading melodies and vocal samples reminiscent of the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never or James Ferraro. In fact, after a stint as nanny to some children of the rich on Mulholland Drive and studying film scoring at UCLA extension, Sterling put his classical training in double-bass and composition to good use with cult-producer Ferraro’s ‘Burning Prius’ to a cello ensemble, first performed at LA’s Château Shatto.
“When you know all the sites so well, and you’re aware of all this culture, I think you just have this pull”, says Sterling, over tea with milk at London’s Wellcome Collection about the reasons he found himself ‘visa-hopping’ in the home of fame and fortune for the last four years. He began his career in music production with the “old-fashioned notation on manuscript paper” of his early music education in Northern England’s Leeds, then nannied, then studied some more, then worked writing scores for moving image —here, a collaborative soundtrack for a video work by artist Sam Kenswil, there, a small-budget feature starring thirty-something child Disney star Raven-Symoné.
Even as we speak about the differences between native ‘Angelenos’ and cultural tourists like himself, as well as his very Baudrillardian approach to music production, Sterling is between rehearsals for the first of two projects he’s been doing with his mum, post-punk artist and musician Linder Sterling, commissioned by lofty cultural institutions ICA and Southbank Centre. Sterling Elder is perhaps as well known for her work and association with bands like The Buzzcocks and The Smiths as her claim to being the first to wear a meat dress, well before Lady Gaga, which is perhaps an appropriate access point for the kind of space that Sterling Younger himself occupies as an artist. It’s one that’s suspended between any conventional notion of old and the new, high and low, specialised and amateur, together crystallised in Hollywood Medieval‘s soundscape for a place that can’t be described.
It’s funny that when you speak of the “dark underbelly of LA” you’re talking about well-to-do suburban families.
Maxwell Sterling: Yeah, well I guess whenever you’re dealing with those sorts of people, if you’re working for them… I was just living in their home, it was great. But mostly they’re really keen on taking the kids to these kinds of schools in far, far out Pasadena or Downtown, so I think through that you see some really interesting sights and it really highlights the massive gap between wealth and poverty. I think it’s only really in LA where you see such a radical change.
Do you think that’s where that sense of dread comes from, because that wealth disparity is really visible?
MS: That is a good point, yeah. But I think a lot of Angelenos are pretty unaware of it. I think, perhaps with my experience of being a foreigner, or being even a tourist at some points, you’re really aware of it.
Someone might not be aware of it but they’re drinking Kombucha every day…
MS: [laughs] It’s true, it’s true. I think that’s a real desperation, that I think you’re more aware of as an outsider, or as somebody who is not an Angeleno. I was always terrified, I had this stupid fear at the back of my head: ‘what happens if I run out of money’. That line between comfortable and uncomfortable, it’s very thin and I was always slightly fearful of that but I do think that’s something you’re more aware of as somebody who’s an outsider there.
LA is a really weird community where there are Angelenos that live there but there’s also sense, like in London, of just all these people that are checking through, or checking in, or checking out. It’s just quite a transitory place, really. It feels like there are roots there but also people often go there to figure out their own shit, and you’re never unaware of that. Or at least that’s how I felt when I was there, that there is that sense of desperation and a lot of the people I was around seemed very lost too. For me actually coming back to the UK for a while has been a very refreshing period of time, moving back from that overbearing desperation that you feel sometimes…
I’m going to go through your album song titles, I have a screenshot… ‘Hollywood Medieval’, ‘Feeling Without Meaning’, ‘Your Last Cadenza’, ‘$50 Curse Removal’… what does that last one mean? Is that referring to the Psychic stores?
MS: Yeah, pretty much. For me it was kind of poking fun at that New Age-y or psychic love affair…
MS: Exactly, which is why so many young Californians are so, they might have their own private jet but they still want to make sure that they’re karmic-ally not in too much debt. So, to me, I was always fascinated by Koreatown and Los Feliz, where all these weird psychic stores were basically in people’s homes. That was part of it but it’s more of a humorous thing for me. I’m not an atheist myself, I’m actually quite interested in lots of different forms of spirituality but I was just really aware, in my time in LA, of just how gross it is. How people try to offset their way of living with some vague notion of spirituality to make sure they’re going to be okay.
Is there much of a concept underpinning ‘Hollywood Medieval’?
MS: I wanted to tell a very small story. There wasn’t a specific kind of character or anything but there was this very, with the whole album it deals with the artificial sounds and synthetic sounds of instruments and how far you can push those until they become neither the original, nor synthetic. It’s this weird uncomfortable hybrid, taking these found sounds, then cutting them up into very small pieces, then looping them, then building up on that until a point where you reach a certain level of tension that just releases.
This idea of hybrid music, Tim Hecker talks about it a little bit with his latest album [Love Streams] as well. He also lives in LA as an expat.
MS: Yeah, yeah I know [laughs]. I’m a big fan of his work definitely… For me, I made a really conscious decision with this album to only use sampled instruments and two synths, this Roland Juno and a Yamaha DX7, two synths that are very rooted in a kind of ‘1983’ sound and these samples that I find incredibly sterile, very saccharine. I really wanted a very specific sound palette. I wanted to convey certain emotions and ideas that typically would be easier to do with live instruments but I just really wanted the challenge of making something that kind of has a sense of struggle.
This idea of the feedback loop between live and synthesised sounds reminds me of this Baudrillardian notion of simulacra, of a reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction; the way an image decays. LA as a space is very much like that, where there is no such thing as an ‘original’ or a ‘real’ space in the city.
MS: That’s very true. I think music that I’m really interested in is getting that sense of decay but also that augmentation; what happens, what is added within that dialogue, as well as what’s lost. For me, I’ll always be more comfortable with acoustic instruments, so it’s just really being quiet limited with the sound. When you’re working on a feature film there’s a sense that you have to get as real as possible, a bit like PhotoShop retouching visually. There’s this idea of ‘what is real’ or ‘what sounds real?’ And often it’s something that’s actually completely hyped and extended. I just got kind of bored of that. So, for me with this album, it’s almost like trying to push it and make it a quite vulgar usage of the sounds.
Have you heard of Los Angeles Plays Itself? It’s basically a history of LA as seen through its own cinema. It’s like a fictional documentary of its own fiction in a sense and it’s a real head fuck, in terms of how Los Angeles is its imagined self.
MS: Yeah, for me it’s such a fascinating thing, you know. Also, over my time there —I have moved maybe three or four times —and you really get a sense of, as vast a city as it is, you’re always aware of these micro-almost-villages, so to speak. You’re really aware of those different cultures and different communities and I think it’s a kind of paradoxical thing where it’s one of the busiest, densely populated cities but you can feel so lonely there too. I really wanted to explore that in my work as well. But there is no true, authentic experience, I guess, wherever you are.
It’s like it’s own filter bubble or something. The first time I was there as an adult I hated it. I didn’t understand why anyone would like it but that’s because I was hanging out with people from the film industry, then I saw a side of it that I like.
MS: Yeah, for me, it’s hard to really get a sense of it or understand it. Well, I’ll never really understand it fully but it’s taken me at least four years to even get an idea of how to relax into it because I think you can’t really ever escape the pace of LA too. To me it felt like you’re treading water, everything felt like such an effort to do there. Part of that is just to do with the geography of the city and just getting around but you’re also aware that everything just happens at half-speed, which, the more you relax into it, it becomes easier to deal with. It’s a fascinating place and I’m sure when I go back there I will get to revisit it and it will be a new place again.**