The first taste of that album arrived in October 2014. "Unhappy"'s stylistic departure felt drastic. High-definition beats had given way to hypnagogic haziness and wistful vocals. A few days later at Unsound Festival in Kraków, Latham's first-ever live performance confirmed that the metamorphosis was complete. Armed with guitar, microphone, laptop and gentle pop songs, the new Jam City clearly had a message. Performing with the slogan "Love Is Resistance" projected onto a backdrop, his new sound was obviously informed by more than music.
The Unsound performance was a shaky introduction, but when a new track, "Crisis," appeared in December, it helped crystallize his new sound. Under layers of fog, the machine beats remain, providing a heartbeat for politically charged lyricism and post-punk/art-pop guitar flourishes. The combination of the referential and the refreshingly modern balances Dream A Garden, which comes out this week on Night Slugs. It's Latham's presentation of our dystopian present, colored with hope for a better future.
It sounds like your work as a producer has made you a very good arranger. How long did it take you to make this record?
All the songs were crafted just with keyboard and a click track to get the idea down. Then you get into a weird space of overdubbing layers, and it becomes almost trance-like, in a way. But most of that arrangement work was done before all the production happened, then it kind of built up. But once you have that core, once you have that good song in there, you can fuck with it. Then you can allow it to go off on a tangent and get lost in a black hole, or kind of destroy itself.
Is that different from how you used to make music?
I think it's the same thing, to be honest, but the writing and the lyrical side of it is perhaps what comes first. What I used to do—what I still do, when I make beats for other people and other stuff to DJ with—I just make sure I've got a strong idea to begin with. And that can come about in any way, through jamming, hearing a little something. Just starting out with a little nugget of something you could listen to on loop for a while. It's the same thing, really, just trying to get a good idea down, and then allowing it to take on a life of its own.
What's your history with using instruments?
I always wanted to be in a band, but I could never really find anyone who wanted to be in a band with me [laughs]. I played guitar when I was a teenager. I didn't study music at all, but then as I started doing production more I began picking up instruments a bit more and learned backwards, in a way. And I gradually incorporated that into the beats I was making. There's actually a lot of guitar on Classical Curves, it's just processed differently.
How did you find the process of writing lyrics? You had never released anything with lyrics before.
I've always quite liked writing. I keep a little notebook with me. I've always liked words, and I love lyrics and lyricists. With Classical Curves, there's a lot of written notes in the margins which were things that inspired the songs, and it kind of segued into Dream A Garden in a similar way where I was making notes and writing these little poems and humming things to myself. They kind of just walked into the beats, really. I almost didn't think too much about it, and before I knew it I felt quite comfortable with the sound of my own voice. I felt ready to progress in that way.
It sounds like it was an organic process, but externally to us, going from release to release, it seems like quite a big change.
I understand, because you're only able to tell one part of the story. Records take a long time to make and get out. It might sound hard to believe, but I'd say maybe 15% of the record was probably written in the three or four months after Alex [Sushon, AKA Bok Bok] and I finished mixing down Classical Curves, before it was released. Also if anyone saw me DJ around, they may have cottoned on to where I was at, at the time. Gradually, since then, I've been playing a lot of records that are kind of slow-paced, still with a degree of energy, and actually DJing informed a lot of the mood of the record. Pretty much all of the tracks are about 80 or 90 BPM, and just understanding those grooves and exploring that kind of space and tempo felt very natural.
You did give us an indication with the Earthly mixes. This term, "earthly," what does it mean for you? You used it for the release party in London as well.
My partner actually came up with the name. It had a real resonance for us. I think a lot of the digital culture that we live in makes a virtue out of being freed from the physical, freed from the earth, in a way that can feel quite emancipatory. And it's really important to escape or transcend a lot more concrete versions of identity that imprison us on Earth; they can be incredibly oppressive. But at the same time, it's important to not lose track of that physical world, and we want to reclaim the physical from all the things that make us want to escape it.
The internet was a real lifeline for me growing up. That can be incredibly powerful, that freedom, the unearthly, the intangible, the freedom to create your own avatar. But at the end of the day, I still have a body, I still live in an actual place and I want to be able to make peace with that. You have to ask yourself, "Why is it that I want to escape these things? Who or what is making me feel like I want to escape?" None of us should have to feel uncomfortable in our own skin. And "earthly," as a word, is rooted in the club experience. We have huge online club music culture, but that doesn't make sense unless we're in the dance, or we're hearing live music, or whatever it is. And we're hearing it loud, and we're feeling its physical impact on us with bass. Those are all things that I'm not ready to give up in the name of this kind of virtual life. I need to be around other people, I need to be in a community, I need to be able to touch and feel things, and feel music.
There's a new emotion in Dream A Garden that I can't say I've heard before in your work: tenderness. Why do you think that is?
Changes in life, finding myself in a situation where I'm lucky enough to have a lot of love and support in my life. Also, the flip of that coin is seeing and feeling how bad things are getting. To respond to this situation, the world that we're in at the moment, via more pessimism and coldness, it didn't seem honest and it didn't seem sustainable. Being pessimistic is exhausting. I think there has to be tenderness because that's all we've really got. I need love, just like anyone else needs love, and I source a lot from the love I have in my life, so I felt like I needed to put that energy back out there. It's like I almost have nothing left but to be more sensitive; to go in the other direction.
I think it is still quite an angry record, but at the same time, I feel like you get out what you put in, in terms of energy. And I feel it's incredibly important, and I feel responsibility as an artist to try and put out an energy that isn't cold, that attempts to be understanding, and perhaps softer and more tender. Whilst being angry, whilst being critical and disillusioned, but all we really have at the end of the day is the belief that some sort of love and warmth of human connections will save us. We have to cling onto it sometimes. It's really difficult.
Can I confirm how old you are, exactly?
I turned 26 last November.
So basically you're a millennial. When people use this term, they're talking about your generation.
[laughs] I suppose so, yeah. I mean, there's a lot of different millennial experiences, but I was born at the end of the '80s, so yeah. I don't know if I would identify as one.
On your press release it talks about Dream A Garden as, "an alternative to the total colonization of art by neoliberalism." Coupled with some of the lyrics, I see it as a call to arms. You're talking about still feeling angry, although you're wrapping that anger up in sensitivity and tenderness.
I don't know what a call to arms would even sound like. But I think it's basically just being like, "Look, I'm in an incredibly privileged position to be able to make music and be able to spend a lot of time on it. And at the same time, I know that there are a lot of things that just aren't right in the world right now, so I should try and make a start on trying to talk about those things." I know I'm not the only person who feels like this. All I want to do with this record and the interviews that I do and the performances that I give, I want to hear how other people are feeling. I want to hear it in their art, I want to hear it in their music, in their writing, however they choose to express themselves. And I think that could make for some incredible and unheard new cultures and new sounds and new songs and new voices.
I guess that's what the meaning of all this is, really. I want to know about other people's dreams. I want to say to people, "Yeah, you can imagine things, there is a space where we can think for ourselves which isn't colonized by constant pursuit of wealth or empty lifestyles. There genuinely is another world that we could build for ourselves." And I think that once we get that ball rolling, who knows what's possible? Perhaps then we can take on a lot of political situations.
Neoliberalism, especially, has been a big conversation in Britain in the past ten years. When I said that you were millennial, one of the clichés about millennials is that they're not political. Did you know that?
Yeah, of course. I've had people say that to me, people that don't really know me. I'm definitely on the receiving end of that stereotype.
The reason people say that, at least in the US, is because the millennial age bracket didn't turn out to vote in the most recent midterm and presidential elections. I don't know if the same is true in Britain, but I guess we'll see in this year's general election.
It's interesting you say that. I think it was a while ago when Thatcher died, Harry Styles [from One Direction] tweeted, "RIP, a great woman," or something like that. And I find that so deeply offensive. It's not that this generation isn't political, I think there's a gap left by believing in any kind of party politics—which I completely understand, because what has changed, really? I completely understand that cynicism. In the gap filled by that, we take on the forms of ideology from popular culture around us, and that's why we have someone like Harry Styles, who—was he even born in the '80s? I don't even know. Well, he obviously didn't live through Thatcher. That's why that ignorance is going to allow you to say something like that. So there's this kind of vacuum where people aren't voting, but they're being politicized via a culture with an agenda of greed and monetary gain at any cost. Therefore people like that are celebrating Thatcher who didn't have to fucking live through that—I wasn't alive then either of course, but we live in the world she created.
On the other side of that, I do think that this generation is incredibly clued into what's going on. I think there is a tremendous awareness about stuff that's going on in other countries and stuff that's going on here. The internet is actually amazing in that sense, because it facilitates a lot of these conversations—you'll get called out much quicker, it's fantastic. But I think the cynicism remains, where it's just like, "Yeah, we know about all this stuff, and it's terrible, but what are we really going to do about it?" And I guess that's the point where I want to say, "No, but things can change. Honestly." Even if I'm being naive and blindly optimistic, I do still think change is possible from our generation.
That's why I come back to that point: if you make music, if you have a platform, use it. It doesn't matter who you are, we're all in this together. And recently I've been shown work that's doing this, for example Cecile Emeke's Strolling series, and Mat Dryhurst's articles. If any of us out there have a platform, we need to link up, make connections and support the people doing this work. That's how I feel about the whole millennials being apathetic thing.
One thing that I've observed, if only anecdotally, is that even though they don't vote, the politics that millennials do seem passionate about are the politics of social justice.
Yeah, that could definitely be a problem. And also, at the same time, you can have an interest in fighting those causes but you may not find capitalism problematic. I was in New York at the time of the Ferguson protests and we were at the sit-in in H&M at Times Square. This amazing woman that was leading the march made this speech about how it was a peaceful protest, we'll conduct ourselves with order and civility, we'll not vandalize anything in this store, we'll not shout abuse at anyone working in the store, but most importantly, we won't buy anything in the store, because buying things aids this corrupt power hierarchy that allows innocent men to be killed by policemen. That was amazing to hear articulated so powerfully and succinctly by this woman. I wish I knew her name.
It's an educational process for me, as well, because I don't really know what I'm talking about [laughs]. I'm just trying to read whatever I can, and talk to whoever I can, and see what's going on. But we have to start thinking about these things as interconnected. And so my experience in America made me quite optimistic about that. Myself and a lot of other people are beginning to see the links between social injustice and a consumer society.
One thing that's been noted about post-internet art specifically is how depoliticized it is. Especially in the realm of capitalism, because it will often replicate or play on the aesthetics of capitalism without any critique of capitalism. Your record seems to be quite a clear critique of capitalism.
I think we'll probably see a lot more people who will be voicing their discontent. To be honest, I'm not fully familiar with a lot of the examples you're talking about, but I think I know what you're saying. I think my main problem with that would be, yeah, when you're replicating those things, all that stands between you and the furtherance and replication of lifestyle advertising's ideologies—which, at their heart, are about greed and exploitation—all that's hiding you from being an advocate of those things is a thin veil of irony. And that's incredibly dangerous.
Also, more than being dangerous, it's just so boring. It's so boring to walk out and get a pint of milk and be bombarded by these empty dreams, these empty lifestyles that we're being sold in these kind of glossy surfaces. Then I come home, having bought my milk, and I can choose to engage and be a part of what I consider to be an underground, or at least a currently non-mainstream, art/music community, and I see the exact same thing staring back at me. I see the violence, I see the stereotyping, I see the awful ideals of body image and fashion, albeit it's meant to be questioning things in some way. Well, I'm just not buying it. There's a problem somewhere. Perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps I need to do my research, but I don't want to see any of those ideas even if they're meant to be being critiqued ironically. I want to see new things, new identities that don't adhere to all those things anymore.
I guess that's the whole thing of dreaming a garden. I want to be able to imagine a new space outside of all this, one not controlled by our current power structures, even if it's referencing them with a nudge nudge, wink wink. And, also, a lot of that kind of aesthetic—and I'm definitely guilty of it myself, in the past with my own work, visually, at least—it assumes that we're all living in a world of the same luxuries. We're all living in a world where we own the latest iPhones or beauty products or wealth and live in gleaming capitalistic interiors. And that's just not the reality for most people, I'd say. To think that that aesthetic could prosper in a culture that doesn't have to effectively sell anything, really—it's in the business of SoundClouds and little underground parties and stuff like that—it's depressing. No one's checking for us [laughs], we don't have to sell their stuff for them.
Touching on one of the things that we had talked about in the past, I feel like you've made it clear that in terms of temporality, you're concerned with the present. You've said that a number of times. I would argue that with the aid of the internet and that subsequent flattening of time, i.e. the atemporality that results from that, all of recorded history becomes the present. Unless you were there, you have to work hard to reconstruct context of that. How does that affect your view of "the present?"
It's a process. I haven't figured it out yet. That flattening out of time, whilst it obviously has incredibly dangerous consequences and is perhaps fundamentally wrong and disorientating, there are some positives. I'm a massive fan of Curtis Mayfield's work, and I have been for a while, and that's been facilitated in part by having an internet connection that's allowed me to hunt down more and more of his work. So at points in my life, where I get really depressed about things and I want to give up, it's his music that, momentarily, saves me and gives me hope. Now, I'm listening to something that's 30, 40 years old, but the resonance I get from that message is still clear. Why is this? His message of love, understanding and peace is still relevant today, maybe even more so. And sometimes it feels like it's the only one I've got these days.
So I think it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's dangerous to think about time as just this huge soup that we can just pick from and consume at will. Susan McClary talks about this in her work, that it is essential we learn and understand the historical and political context surrounding the art that moves us, and, as you say, it can be hard work. But when we begin learning about that historical and political context—for example, with Curtis, the civil rights struggle—we allow ourselves to become more aware of, and sensitive to connections with other struggles, other artistic responses, past and present. And perhaps then we can take that understanding of art as a universal response to suffering, or an affirmation of life in the face of that suffering, and begin to somehow try and apply it to our own practice, now, whatever that might be.
In a way I feel like having access to hours of music and film from the internet probably makes up 80% of what you'd call a political education. The present is massively important to me, but the past and all its documents are incredibly important to me as well, and once you start learning about these things, you see that in some ways the situation we're in now, we've been here before. A lot of things I've been talking about in this interview, they've been said more eloquently [laughs] by other people who are dead now. It's so important to be able to hear these voices from the past and see how vital they are to our times now, and we have access to all of this through the internet. Not to mention all those voices that the dominant narrative of history has tried to censor. What can we learn from these voices and how do we honor them? They go into making up a present, but also keep the path lit for a brighter future. But it's up to us if we use our access to those materials properly. Or we can just make nostalgic rip-offs of Chicago house music [laughs].