Getting existential with Shlohmo
Given the year we’ve all collectively suffered through, you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit existential. Starting the year with catastrophic bushfires, moving into a once-in-a-generation pandemic not long after and now dealing with the ongoing social and economic fall outs, it has been a year of turmoil. Civil uprisings, political distress, elections across the world and the omnipresent climate emergency, and that sense of impending doom starts to make a lot of sense. And while we can try to self-soothe with platitudes and relentless optimism in the face of reality, there is something to be said for cynicism or realism that the apocalypse might indeed be upon us.
In 2019, a mere fever dream in comparison to the hot mess of 2020, Los Angeles producer SHLOHMO (aka Henry Laufer) released The End, a soundtrack for dystopian times. Written from the perspective of having a smoke on the couch while the world ends around you, there’s an eerie sense of calm throughout the record that comes from accepting the things both in and out of our control. Sonically, it sat right beside his exceptional 2015 release, Dark Red, full of glitchy, gloomy and otherworldly soundscapes that were equal parts enticing as they were ominous. You were afraid to enter, but you wanted to all the same.
Fast forward to 2020 and the producer has returned with Heaven Inc, an extension or following chapter of what he started with The End. Comprised of four tracks, Heaven Inc is the soundtrack for after the world has ended. It’s all ablaze, you’re surrounded by rubble and debris — what now? How does one make sense of what to do next when “normal” is no longer an option. Brought further to life with visuals courtesy of Actual Objects, its this that Shlohmo ponders in Heaven Inc. With the videos portraying a character reckoning with a life of being different from everyone else at its core, the producer’s new EP doesn’t so much provide answers to life’s big questions, but joins you in the existentialism it dares to explore.
Heaven Inc is an immersive and full-bodied experience, gripping to the very end with its sonic, completely instrumental narrative. It’s a fittingly intense body of work for intense times, and almost takes comfort in the existential spiral many of us find ourselves in. Not only that, Heaven Inc also represents some of Laufer‘s finest work to date. A producer known for his perfectionism and sometimes reserved approach to making his music, Shlohmo delivers a refined and crystalised vision of the existential tailspin he’s been in for years now. Leaning right into the chaos that is literally just existing in the world today, he’s created a meditative, heaving and enveloping record ready made for dystopian times.
Shlohmo is a producer who’s career has had many chapters. He’s worked with the likes of Lil Yachty, Post Malone, Yung Lean and Joji. He heads up his collective, Wedidit, comprised of artists like D33J, RL Grime and Deb Never. He hosts a monthly NTS radio show which he’s maintained for four years. He’s just as famous for his avant garde electronica as he is for his lengthy catalogue remixes and for his iconic No More EP with Jeremih, and his debut album, Bad Vibes, is the stuff of canon for electronic fans. He’s fearless in his ambition to try new things, and he’s one of the most defining artists of the last ten years. With all this in mind, it makes his apocalyptic, weird and intense music even more fascinating. Constantly pushing his creativity into new territory, it’s funny then that some of Shlohmo‘s very best work so far would come when he’s contemplating the end of the world, suggesting that there might be a certain liberation that comes with that acceptance of things you can and can’t control. That’s not to say he’s given up -in fact Laufer maintains a politically active presence on social media- but perhaps it is to say he’s unafraid of asking the questions we might all need asking: when all this is over, what happens next?
Here, we had the honour of speaking with the man himself over Zoom between Brisbane and Los Angeles to dig deeper into Heaven Inc and share in some existentialism together.
How are you?
Yeah, fine. Everything’s fine!
That’s good. Yeah. It’s like 5:00 PM there. What have you been up to today?
Absolutely nothing. Well, I dropped off my mail in ballot and voted.
Don’t know if it’s going to get there or not. So there’s that. And besides that I drank water.
Okay. They’re two very good things to do though. Drink water and vote. Top of the priority list. That’s what you should be doing.
You can do a lot of things with both of those!
Absolutely. Well, it’s a pleasure to chat to you and I have been absolutely rinsing the new record. How does it feel to have it out in the world?
It feels good and weird to experience it only from behind my phone screen. It’s pretty interesting. It’s the first time I think that’s happened the whole time from making music for me, at least. It’s usually paired with travel and touring and meeting people and engaging with people in person that are listening. It’s interesting, it’s weird. It’s weird to put anything out into the world right now because of how quick our news cycles are, how short my own attention span feels. My expectations for everything have been lowered.
Yes, exactly. But it still feels good. It’s stuff that I’ve been working on for a long time. The visual aspect of it was something that really came together this year with the Actual Objects dudes and David Von Bahr, the painter who painted the cover.
It’s been described as like a kind of extension of The End. It’s the soundtrack to what happens after The End. Do you ever get a bit unnerved in how much your art might be imitating life at the moment?
[Laughs] Yeah, I get unnerved at that fact because then it makes the art seem irrelevant or redundant. It’s funny, I don’t necessarily think about themes while I’m making stuff or anything like that. This music was made, some of it was made during the process of The End, so it just kind of comes from the same mind frame and space and time. It was half that and half stuff that I started last year, but Heaven Inc was something that I worked on for like three years. I mean, obviously I’m not working on it every week or every day, but it’s one of those things that I’ll return to tracks that I feel a connection to for a long time. I won’t have an idea of finishing it for a year or something sometimes.
It’s all about trying to find truth in this weird world that we’re in. Did you get any closer to finding that truth in the process of creating this record or even in the process of creating The End as well? Did you have any big realisations?
No. No, it’s just asking questions. I don’t think the answers to these questions exist and I think that’s why the music exists as it does with no words. I think I’ve always just tried to not answer any questions, but just pose them in a vulnerable and exploratory way. Try and make sense of anything, and try and make sense of the asking of the questions more so than the answers. A lot of it’s very existential spiraling.
Story of my life. It’s a very realistic and perhaps sometimes a pessimistic view of what the future might look like or sound like or feel like. Do you think there’s something ultimately liberating in accepting how bleak shit can be? For example with the concept of The End when you’re smoking on the couch as the world ends around you.
Well, I’ve been thinking about the idea of pessimism and the idea of cynicism versus optimism and what it means. I’ve been reading a lot of Baldwin and it’s funny I actually forget if this quote is Baldwin or Nietzsche. But it goes something like “The cynics of the world are the true optimists, because they see the world as it can be or what it could be.” That resonated with me because I mean, for obvious reasons, but I feel like I’ve been fighting my whole life against people that assume that normal is normal or that what is here is to be accepted. And everything is such garbage. It’s like, how the fuck could that be a common mind frame? So it’s just something that I’ve always thought about. I hope the future won’t be that bleak, but I think there’s a kind of cynical optimism that I have in the way that my cynicism doesn’t feel deadly to me. It feels like my attempt at acceptance, no matter what or something, surrendering to whatever happens.
Yeah. And I guess also maybe self-awareness and an awareness of your environment, given the bizarre few months that we’ve all experienced. Maybe there’s a certain power and just accepting being like, “Yeah, this is actually shit,” as opposed to holding out hope that there might be something really good around the corner. It’s like, “Nah, actually, probably not”.
I could talk forever about the human need to move to Mars and continue the human race for no reason, as opposed to saving the earth.
Yeah. Picking your battles and being, “Let’s just move planets actually. This is done”.
We need to keep going. We need to keep the humans going guys, no matter what. Very important! I don’t care if I’m there to see it, but we need to keep it going guys at all costs! At any cost of the universe and all resources, there need to be more humans!
Yeah, absolutely. And also just more conservatives. If we could keep them, that’s the trick!
I just purely disagree with the human race.
It’s an interesting concept tying this together with your previous project and kind of moving it as an extension. How was revisiting the songs on The End now? It’s almost a bit like a prophecy in a way. Re-listening to that album this year, I kind of had to turn it off at one point because it was a bit too intense to listen to.
[Laughs] I actually haven’t listened to it since last year. I kind of find myself not listening to my own music very often. I’ve definitely been finding myself in weird modes of listening this year where I’m like, “This is… I can’t do this right now”. I’ve been turning a lot of stuff off. [Laughs] I can’t say exactly because I haven’t really been listening. I think it feels more aligned with [life] if you’re a listener and a fan, over being the creator of it. For me, I’m just like, “What?” I have no idea what’s going on. I have no idea what’s going on.
Looking at the visuals, they are so epic. I’ve watched so many times and the little bits that appeal, re watching and things like that. There’s this really weird serenity to that opening scene and ‘Looking At Plants’, where the guy’s driving through the aftermath and it’s almost like the song is playing on the radio or something. It kind of gave me that notion of maybe that acceptance of the world, metaphorically burning around you and you just having to keep going through it. Is this some kind of like interpretation of your views of the afterlife, or even just current life?
It’s really just life. Yeah. I think hell exists and it’s here. Nothing was on fire around me while I was making the song or working on the video with Actual Objects. I just sent them a bunch of videos from the fires from last year, and it was just red. Just red and driving through hell. And I was just like, “This is earth”. Not even on a realistic level yet. It was just pure metaphor. This is just what it is. And the main character of the Heaven Inc video, the main character being this corpse face paint black metal by birth. [It’s] just kind of the allegory of being different than everyone else and having to go through life with knowing these things and that’s all. Just feeling different from other people.
I’ve been a fan of yours for 10 years. Your music has always maintained this really deep emotional quality. Why has that emotion been so important for you to continue to include and to maintain throughout the many different styles of music that you’ve been making? Has it always been a conscious thing or has it just happened that way because you’re just an emotional guy?
Completely unconscious. I think it’s the only way I know how to make music. I’m not a musician, so I don’t know how to play very many instruments. I don’t know how to play any instrument really. I don’t know how to read music or write music or anything. So everything I’m doing is just feelings and what I feel like should happen in time and shit. So it’s hard to say, but it definitely doesn’t, nothing feels hyper intentional ever. It just feels like it is.
So, given the context of the world and the record that you’ve just released, how do you feel going into the rest of 2020 and moving into 2021? Is shit as bleak as the record suggests?
Oh, I feel absolutely terribly about it. [Laughs] I mean, I’m trying to move to Canada! I can’t say too much.
So yes it is.”Yes, it is bleak” is the answer to that one.
Yeah. I can really only speculate here and it doesn’t seem like it’s going in a great direction!
Not looking great, but that comes to the acceptance of your environment perhaps. Maybe that’s where we get clarity from, is accepting that shit’s fucked.
Maybe. I am no fucking guru. I am but a small student of fucking earth drama.
Heaven Inc. by Shlohmo is out now, buy/stream it here.
Words by EMMA JONES