In 2013, van Hoen is still going strong. He has returned this year with the first album under his Locust alias in 12 years. You'll Be Safe Forever, made in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Louis Sherman and released on Editions Mego, marks a new chapter for the project. Track titles like "Remember" and "The Worn Gift" suggest an aged, careworn music, but the album's woozy, synth-led textures invite comparisons with much of the cutting edge electronic music of recent years.
In a sense, van Hoen is the quintessential outsider, having stood apart from his contemporaries, in age and musical background, even during his first flush of success in the early '90s. His output is a fine example of how a discography can cut through styles and eras while remaining committed to a single set of themes and ideas; proof, in other words, that a musician's career need not be wedded to a single scene, with the limited lifespan that implies.
This enthusiasm quickly spilled over into an urge to experiment. "I read a few magazine articles about how that music was made, on tape, so I started playing around with a 1/4 inch tape machine. I wasn't very successful at first but I gradually learnt how to do it. Then I saved a bit of money up and got a synth." Van Hoen produced music throughout the '80s, taking inspiration chiefly from Cabaret Voltaire and kosmische acts like Tangerine Dream. At the time, though, this was an entirely isolated pursuit. "There was absolutely no one [with similar tastes] where I grew up. People used to just think I was weird. I was sort of known as the Brian Eno fan around town."
All that changed when van Hoen, by now working in broadcasting, landed a job in TV and moved down to London at the age of 19. There, he was perfectly placed to catch the explosion of rave in the late '80s, and going out to clubs reinvigorated his music making. "At first I didn't really understand [rave] music. I heard it and thought, 'this just sounds like something I heard ten years ago.' But then I started going out to clubs and it made perfect sense. Suddenly there were all these people making this music that I used to make. Suddenly there was a market for this hypnotic, drone-based electronic music."
Van Hoen threw himself into the experimental end of the scene, becoming briefly involved in the band Seefeel in its germinal stages, and eventually co-running the Quirky clubnight at Vox Club in Brixton, which hosted the likes of The Orb, Richard D. James and Autechre during its 1993-95 tenure. Still, his pre-rave experiences set him apart from many of his peers. "I think I was five or six years older than most of those people, and none of them seemed aware of what had come before. For them, acid house was the beginning of it all. But I'd already kind of been through it—I was into Tangerine Dream in around 1979, 1980. To me, it was an extension of that."
This experience was brought to bear on his own productions. Following the likes of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, released on Apollo in 1992, the concept of the electronic music full-length had suddenly become not only viable, but big business. The format was perfect for van Hoen, and Apollo signed him for a multi-album deal. 1994 saw the release of his debut LP, Weathered Well, and the Natural Composite compilation, which included some of his previously unreleased '80s work alongside his early EPs. These records showcased van Hoen's already well-formed style: icy, forbidding and less melodically forthright than many of his contemporaries, and with distinctly cosmic leanings born of his teenage listening habits.
Truth Is Born Of Arguments, released the following year, showcased a more abrasive, industrial flavour. Its titles, though—"I Feel Cold Inside Because Of The Things You Say," "I Am Afraid Of Who I Am"—reflected an artist who wore his heart on his sleeve. Van Hoen's intensely expressive mode stood in stark contrast to the machine-code-like titles and purposefully post-human aesthetic of the time. Van Hoen has never been convinced by the arguments that electronic music is innately futuristic. "Electronic music has been around since the late '50s or even earlier," he points out. "It's as old as rock & roll, really. So why have those sounds got to be any more alien, or about the future, than an electric guitar, for example? To me, what it's always been about is expressing yourself through a sonic palette. That was really my ethos from day one."
It was an approach that paved the way for a shift into friendlier pop climes. Released in 1997, Morning Light appeared under the Locust name but featured a full band. Van Hoen's songs were sung by a range of vocal collaborators, resulting in a pop album that had more than a little in common with the prevalent trip-hop sound of the time. And while he proved himself to be a dab hand at rich, hi-fidelity pop arrangements, Morning Light and its successor, Wrong, recorded in 1998 but not released until 2001, feel a little mired in their time compared to much of his output. "I regard [Morning Light] as an anomaly really," van Hoen says. "There are still people that really like that record, but it seems to have almost disappeared in the way that people think of my music."
In parallel, though, van Hoen re-housed his more challenging solo work under his own name, and from 1997 to 2004 a trio of LPs further expanded on the aesthetic laid out in early Locust releases. 1998's Playing With Time was perhaps the strongest from this period. Its title and cover art—a fuzzy, artefact-encrusted image of a speed boat framed by azure seas—suggested a renewed focus on the notions of memory and loss that had always been present in van Hoen's music. Musically this manifested in a quasi-lo-fi cocktail of gorgeously hazy synthscapes and degraded breakbeats, inviting comparison with Boards Of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children, which was also released that year. But, far from an attempt to capture the spirit of the times, this was just the latest manifestation of an aesthetic van Hoen had been honing for years.
After 2004, van Hoen fell silent for over half a decade, not releasing another LP until 2010. Where Is The Truth in a sense merged the divergent strands of his output, pairing the mournful soundscaping of his solo work with his forays into song-form. This wasn't an artistic inevitability, though, so much as a one-off determined by circumstance. Though much of the music for the album had been written before van Hoen discovered that he had been adopted—only the vocals were added afterwards—the album's rich piano, guitar and sample-based arrangements, whimsical but carrying an undercurrent of dissonance, seem marked by the internal conflict brought on by that revelation. "People say everyone's got one good book in them—that was kind of like my book," van Hoen says of the album. "I was able to talk about what had happened and sing about it, and that was a really nice thing, but I don't see it ever happening again."
2012's The Revenant Diary, released on Editions Mego, returned to a largely instrumental framework. Inspired by van Hoen stumbling across a musical sketch from 1982—the very beginning of his musical life—the album served to crystallise the matrix of themes prevalent in his work to that date: a struggle between past and present, warmth and bleakness, memory and its rejection. By contrast, this year's You'll Be Safe Forever is brighter and more welcoming, perhaps down to the influence of friend and collaborator Louis Sherman, whose input makes this the first collaborative album to emerge under the Locust name.
There may be two brains involved, but musically You'll Be Safe Forever is van Hoen through and through—a synth-led, downtempo soup that echoes recent hypnagogic pop as much as Boards Of Canada or '90s ambient. And while tracks like and "Remember" and "Oh Yeah" are evidence that van Hoen's sound world has warmed up a few degrees in the past two decades, there are plenty of darker moments—"Strobes," "Just Want You"—that draw on the austere chilliness of the earliest Locust recordings.
Beyond the album, he has several new projects in the pipeline, and is open to the possibility of a follow-up collaboration with Sherman. Either way, his recent work seems to have fallen into a regular rhythm, drawing on a highly refined sonic palette to work through a familiar set of themes—intimacy, memory, loss—in subtly refreshing ways. For now, that puts him neatly in step with current concerns. For van Hoen, though, referencing the past isn't so much a creative strategy as an unavoidable part of expressing yourself through music. "Looking backwards is all we can really do, isn't it? We can, I suppose, wonder about the future, but I find it difficult to believe that most people are wondering about the future when they're playing on their synth. We are who we are because of the past. Therefore if we're expressing ourselves musically it has to be primarily about the past, about the foundations that we're built on. And if you play the violin, great, the electric guitar, great. If you happen to use the studio as your sonic palette, then that's the way you express yourself. That's the way I've always seen it."