‘Radical tenderness’, Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez write in their 2015 manifesto of the same title, ‘is to be critical and loving, at the same time’, it ‘is to not allow our existential demons to become permanent cynicism’. In the world we find ourselves in — call it the Trumpocene, the Anthropocene or simply late fucking capitalism — it’s difficult to resist this cynicism, to find productive ways of channelling the angst and frustrations that belong to us but also seem much more than us, that link our smallest actions to global feedback loops. How do we productively engage with events whose scales elude our usual modes of expression? Naming his latest album Western Culture, Kiran Leonard could be forgiven for falling short of doing justice to such a sweeping title, but that would be missing the point. As Leonard says:
as a phrase I think [Western Culture] is really funny, because when somebody says it it’s got these heavy grandiose connotations, like they’re drawing at the roots of something — but the phrase has no concrete meaning in itself. Any attribute you can apply to it, there are hundreds of examples throughout history where you can undermine it as a term. It’s not consistent.
The term Western Culture is one of many problematic signifiers that Leonard unpicks across the ten songs of his new record. With deft combinations of subtlety and sweep, Western Culture explores the poetry and politics that are possible in the present moment, casting a nuanced, historical long-view over the conflicts many other indie practitioners seem ill-equipped to sing about, let alone talk about. But maybe the lyric mode is its own conversation.
After reviewing Western Culture for GoldFlakePaint, I sit down to chat to the Saddleworth songwriter ahead of his gig at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, with support from mesmerising Heir of the Cursed (based in Glasgow via Dumfries and Kenya) and the otherworldly Ubaldo, hailing from Spain. What’s striking about the support acts is the stark intensity of their work: Heir of the Cursed weaving stories with her crystalline voice and guitar, Ubaldo sending the bustling crowd into trance with his splintering, almost meteorological arrangements. Leonard’s own performance explodes that intensity with a full band, shaking the room up with an irresistible sense that this was something to see. I find myself jotting odd tuning commentary on my phone: ‘Tom from MySpace this goes out to you, to a happier internet’.
I ask Leonard what kinds of crowds he typically gets at his gigs, and aside from the reliable 6 Music Dad demographic, there’s definite interest from younger audiences who find themselves drawn to what seems different. He mentions going to see Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma in London and being delighted to find ‘an amazing cross section between queer teenagers and 6 Music Dads’. It’s nice to see the demographics of gig-going crowds evolving alongside supportive stalwarts. Aside from the general enthusiasm of youth, part of this, I suggest, is due to a bit of innovation in the kinds of gigs folk are putting on now. In March, Leonard had a break before uni exams and ran his own solo tour. I caught him playing Mono alongside local artist/poet Jessica Higgins and experimental guitarist Jon Collin, an event billed as ‘late start feel good sit down heavy listening/viewing after hours party’. He’s also done the rounds of pubs and arts collectives, as well as Manchester Central Library.
Although Leonard admits it can be tricky to get people to respond in-depth to his lyrics, there’s something of a latent DIY energy in his work that crowds definitely respond to. The care he takes with his lyrics (you can read them, lovingly presented, for free here) is basically akin to poetry; but with the energy of math-rock rhythms and tendencies towards epic or eccentric riffs, even the more intricate or ‘difficult’ lines deliver a universal punch. It’s important to highlight this word lyric, because what Leonard does is play with voice, and I don’t just mean those Jeff Buckley-esque leaps of octave: he inhabits the lives of other characters, marries marginalised experiences with structural forces, pulls us into the harmony of chorus, makes literary use of his academic background. There’s a sublime quality throughout Western Culture that is nevertheless controlled by a narrative arc, where clamour is followed by quiet reflection, walls of noise by careful intricacy, suspension by release. You can tell Leonard has thought long and hard about the challenges involved in singing about the morass of chaos and apathy that we are faced with as millennials, human beings, selves and others, innocents and actants all at once. He writes about the sad decline of a man who loses his job and struggles to ask for help (‘Working People’) with the same deftness used to tackle a lecture delivered by a human rights lawyer (‘Exactitude and Science’). There’s a timeliness and timelessness across the album, which makes it as rousing as it is reflective. It offers both the noise and stillness we need in a time of insidious, pervasive war, migrant crisis, media confusion and mass extinction. With so many people and species and values lost on this planet, sometimes it’s all you can do to cling to a single voice, bask awhile in its quiet wisdom, which rises sometimes to a shout.
For it’s the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ that Leonard points me to when I ask him about the role of empathy in his work. D’Emilia and Chávez, both transfeminist activists and performance artists, describe the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ as an ‘embodied poetic exercise of resistance’, and you might say the same about tonight’s cathartic performance at The Hug. I sense that tenderness, for Leonard, is not just affective choice, but an ethical position to take as a maker of culture, a way of being radically self-reflexive, conscious and careful of one’s positioning and power in a world that demands immediate expression and response, a crowded echochamber where we fight to be heard. Radical tenderness asks for space, consideration, which isn’t always easy for anyone who spends a lot of time online.
For Leonard, the song that most engages with this idea of radical tenderness is ‘Unreflective Life’:
‘Unreflective Life’ is the song on the record most to do with [radical tenderness], but a lot of that is to do with misconceptions around internet use. The internet not as this thing that magnifies the self but instead the thing that disintegrates it. The metaphor I came up with to describe it was: if we think of narcissus as a figure that looks into the lake and sees his reflection, the computer sees every particle in the water and loses a sense of themselves. So there are strands I try to follow in that song: the first is the individual anaesthetised by the weight of history, they can see and access everything so how can there be a capacity for activity; the second strand is fascism — if we want to make a neutral generalisation of what fascism is, it’s an extremist desire for things to make sense. […] What I wanted to get across is that there’s almost like a desire to find something beyond this complete exhaustion by violence.
And of course violence is there in that search for meaning, it’s the wrench that stings in lyric, it’s the painful awareness of one’s complicity, one’s own frustrations, one’s disintegrated identity. But there’s an ancient, philosophical beauty in that search for meaning, even when manifested in the fraught conditions of the contemporary. While many musicians respond with sheer anger or apathy, aggressive walls of sound that do little but mimic the frustrated commuter’s journey on the London Underground, Leonard is striving for something genuinely different. He’s writing from the heart, he’s writing from the history of literature, he’s writing sensitively from different languages and cultures (Leonard studied Spanish and Portuguese at university); I’d wager that he’s making genuine attempts to swerve the passage of the western indie canon. And he does it with a humbleness, eloquence and care that inspires me to try harder with my own writing.
We talk about the lyric ‘fiction in leverage’ from ‘Exactitude and Science’ and Leonard suggests that ultimately the song is about how much of the Israel and Palestine conflict is
a question of maps and lines: how do we redraw, who drew what. That supplants the very real murderers and human beings. That’s an aspect of the Borges story [from which the song takes its title] that I think is very true, especially if you think about the way representation now more than ever preempts everything, the way that things are framed becomes reality.
Going back to his previous thoughts on the internet’s disintegration of identity, I suggest this is what web 2.0 does: maybe social media is a sort of map that constantly remakes itself and the world through targeted ads and data dissemination, these endless feedback loops that we navigate in the map, rather than with it. So all questions of identity and conflict, from something as individual as cultural selfhood or ‘brand’ to geopolitical conflict, are all about framing, the tailoring of fictions.
When asked if he writes consciously within a cultural context, Leonard responds:
I feel like in terms of what I’m trying to do, maybe it’s not a question of communicating something but instead to assess what the value of that communication is. A lot of the songs on Western Culture are to do with this difficult paradox within art-making in the context of general communication and articulation. On the one hand, writing something in response to an event is — from most pragmatic points of view — a waste of time, and I think you see this in a lot of post-Trump art: a lot of it’s really bad, pointless and coming from an arrogant place. Being anti-Trump is the easiest thing in the world; organising against him is difficult but writing against him is a complete performance. One of the things ‘Exactitude in Science’ is about is that these kind of verbal responses are almost doomed to fail because they lack a physical activity in the world, yet at the same time it’s impossible to deny that the way these things are framed within language both changes the way that we interact within reality and also changes the way that that reality happens.
Art, then, has the power to structure reality. We can’t escape ideology, we can’t write from some ideal non-partisan position, we can’t deny that every little event in culture is contributing to the way politics, identity and such abstractions as space or time are framed. We can’t dismiss the complex identity politics of a pop song with ‘Oh it’s just a song, it doesn’t mean anything’. Even as this process becomes increasingly diffused with the internet, the album is a form that, like the lyric poem, bears a cultural weight. People still talk about albums on the radio; Leonard admits most of his gig-going audience is probably owed to coverage from BBC 6 Music. This isn’t an admission of hubris around the importance of music, but a humble statement about a cultural artifact and its wider dissemination. And hopefully a statement of hope. Albums express things, they are containers of multiple points of view, they provide escape from reality while changing the way we experience reality. They are points of contact, contrast, friction. Leonard elaborates:
The central thing in ‘Exactitude in Science’ is a talk I went to given by an international human rights lawyer, which leads him into work around Israel and Palestine. Inevitably when he’s invited to talk about these things, he’s saying he’s doing all these things but he’s mostly failing, admitting that we’re not getting further with this. If there are active attempts to amend oppressive activities, what’s the point of verbal responses? It shows an interesting juxtaposition between framing the world through language and how that impacts on the world, especially with that incredibly complex and sad issue, which is totally a question about how we verbalise what genocide is. And the difference between that has an impact on the extent to which that genocide is perpetuated. So yeah, especially if we’re dealing with any of the big-2016 nonsense — it’s about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating.
It strikes me that this is more succinctly and eloquently put than many of the academic perspectives I’ve come into contact with during my five years of higher arts education. Stepping back from who might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex, entangled, deeply historical issue, we should ask ourselves what we are doing when we comment on something we might be involved in, or otherwise ‘simply observing’. What world do our opinions and comments contribute to? It resonates with so much about what we do when we make art of any kind, when we express anything in this cultural sphere or that. This admission of the gravitas of the speech act; awareness that what I am saying has impact, accumulates within a wider discourse, ripples across the water, does something.
I was curious to find out if Leonard had much experience with a sense of cultural commons within the music industry. While his first two LPs were recorded at his parents’ house (Leonard grew up in a ‘really old farm, so the neighbours were never really an issue’), after label Hand of Glory picked that work up he had the opportunity to participate more in the Manchester scene, on a somewhat tangential basis. Leonard is clearly comfortable with making music on his own, and while he admits most of his attempts to form bands ‘never really worked out’, it’s clear he gels well with the musicians that play with him on this tour. What’s more interesting, however, in his response to this question, is a point he makes about representation in arts communities:
Music is often less receptive than other art communities to think about the contextual importance of their scene and representation within their scene. In Manchester there was quite a big debate around a venue which had an all-dude bill on a night, and when someone called them out and started a boycott it was surprising how that concept developed — the gig was eventually pulled and replaced with an open panel discussion on the day. I often feel like in art communities, because it’s grounded in theory from the get-go, people get it.
It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the next few years, whether the music industry will continue to take representation seriously and how this plays out in terms of the politics of promotion and access around diverse identities. Does DIY and self-release culture present a formidable challenge to the mainstream, whose macho Gallagher avatars still haunt the walls of many a Manchester pub?
Aside from this nuanced, socially responsible approach to music and lyric expression, we also talk about bands who do provocation in more direct ways. Specifically, our shared love of Death Grips. Leonard mentions a quote from Mark Fisher’s K-Punk about how Kurt Cobain is a symbolic embodiment of ‘the person who’s completely exasperated by the thing in culture where the best thing to play on MTV is a thing that’s against MTV’. If consumer capitalism subsumes all postmodern attempts at irony and critique, maybe we need something that’s ‘reactionary in the right way’, rather than simply ‘hostile and alienating’, as Leonard puts it. As an all-male band making noise rock, it’s important, he admits, to be aware of what the ‘imperative’ is here. For Leonard, Death Grips seem to get this spot on. He refers to their work as ‘genuinely funny and provocative, the real deal’: ‘they manage to make something on paper that could be incredibly macho and annoying, but I kinda like the character of MC Ride – I like his words, he’s a vulnerable figure in his lyrics, incredibly intelligent’. Not to mention the fact of the band crossing the line of business, and deliberately getting dropped from their label.
Maybe what we need in a time of crisis and fragmentation is a turn to something maximalist or long-form, sensorially and intellectually challenging, or (with regards to mainstream culture) simply ‘imperfect’ in some sense. Leonard agrees that there’s probably
a hunger for people to see a process where you work stuff out. I think art’s very prone to answering, because a lot of artists are very arrogant and think they have the answers, to say it in a plateau kinda way. But I think that’s really important — going back to what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation — to be against atrocity and fascism in a verbal way is easy, but it’s often more helpful, especially with something like the Brexit vote, to properly engage with the reasons for that, to take in the history. The way we think about the European vote is riddled with amnesia; I find it funny that nobody talks about the miners’ strike around this issue.
We’re almost out of time, and there’s still so much to unpack here. Kiran Leonard is someone you could share many a pint with and learn a lot from, but I’m also content listening to him as we sip water in the venue basement, the ethereal sounds of Ubaldo’s soundcheck leaking from upstairs. I ask him what’s next, now that he’s got his degree and some solid album reviews under his belt. I’m especially interested in whether he’s considered working with poetry or translation. Leonard tells me he’s ‘hoping to put a pamphlet out next which year which is a load of very short essays which are tangentially relevant to songs on this last record’ and also an exciting new double-CD release, which promises one side of ‘long abstract’, ‘kinda My Bloody Valentine but more through-composed’ songs and the other ‘more sparse acoustic songs’. ‘Something that’s got more space in it’. It’s only been about forty minutes and already I feel a lot of my worldly cynicism dissipate. There is still so much to be said for the world, and I want to hear it.
Western Culture is out now via Moshi Moshi.