"I'm quite attracted to the way being in your house can be a mundane thing," Younger says. "You know, I'm sat here—even though this isn't my house—having a glass of water and checking things on my phone. There are certain house-based rituals that everyone has, and in a very loose sense I like documenting some of that. I've always worked an element of that into my records."
Younger's music as Helm is densely woven with self-recorded sounds, many of them taken from his home. "I don't know how many more times I can record my bathroom," he jokes. But it's fitting that we're meeting not in Younger's house, but in somebody else's. (He's helping out his friend and fellow PAN artist Lee Gamble, who's away at Sónar.) Younger's music doesn't celebrate the everyday, but dislocates it, using processing and layering to make the familiar seem anything but.
"I do like the ambiguity, that appeals to me," Younger says. "I don't really like the idea of people being able to listen to my music and go, 'That's this, that's that.' What I enjoy about making this kind of music and working with these sounds is that you can create something that's not so specific or referential to its actual source. You can make new environments, or new worlds of sound."
A musician with over a decade's experience in noise and experimental music, Younger's sonic worlds have been getting ever more absorbing recently. His latest PAN album, Olympic Mess, is probably his best, hovering elegantly between industrial gloom and balmy ambience. The pair of EPs that preceded it, also on PAN, brought Younger's music to a broader audience with a dark, sometimes aggressive sound. By contrast, Olympic Mess is flushed with consoling warmth. Unsurprisingly, this shift reflects Younger's domestic situation.
"Prior to starting to record the album I'd just moved out of the house that I'd been living in with my ex-girlfriend and moved all my stuff back into my parents' house," he explains. "I was balancing working a full-time job and playing a lot, going away a couple of weeks a month. So that became quite difficult."
Younger worked for a London-based music distributor at the time, a job he "fell into" after finishing university. "I was working five days a week, in the office and at home, looking after record labels and things like that. I was getting paid way more money than I ever thought I'd get paid in my life, to be honest. But I wouldn't say that was ever a dream of mine, to get to that position."
Younger quit the job last year and immediately left for a four-month tour supporting Danish punk band Ice Age. He describes the experience as positive, barring the odd heckler, and the seeds of Olympic Mess were sewn during those live performances. The experience of touring itself also contributed to the album's aqueous mood; Younger's tour van listening gravitated towards transportive styles like dub techno.
"The album was definitely informed by being on the road and performing, and living quite a transient lifestyle," Younger says. "[Dub techno] is very immersive music, and that was something that I wanted to try explore with this record. Almost a feeling of being carried along in this cloud—this feeling of perpetual motion, but really you're not going anywhere. It's the same thing as being sat in a van for eight hours a day: you're sat down, physically you're not moving at all, but you're in something that's carrying you along. I listened to a lot of that kind of stuff while driving."
Younger is no stranger to the touring lifestyle. As part of the duo Birds Of Delay with his friend Steven Warwick, he spent much of the 2000s on the noise circuit, recording prolifically for labels like American Tapes, Not Not Fun and Hospital Productions. The pair met at a Trans Am show in London at the beginning of the 2000s, and they bonded over a love of extreme music. Younger once told The Wire about them being the only people under 40 at Whitehouse and Coil shows.
As the band gained momentum, they moved to Nottingham and then Leeds, where Younger lived for a year "with no real purpose." Seeking direction, he moved back to London to take a degree in Sonic Arts at Middlesex University, a course recommended by his friends Lee Gamble and Tom James Scott, who graduated shortly before he enrolled.
Younger has mixed feelings about his time at university, having attended in an era when higher education funding was shrinking rapidly. The course did, however, reacquaint him with electronic music, a world in which he'd lost interest after a youthful fascination with Orbital and The Chemical Brothers. Particularly important was his discovery of musique concréte pioneers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, the grandfathers of sample manipulation.
"That's what really got me listening to electronic music again, because it threw me back to being a teenager. I realised that a lot of this stuff was referenced pretty heavily in popular '90s dance music. So that put me back onto the path to listening to typical electronic music. Around that time I was only listening to noise music, really."
Younger and Warwick, meanwhile, began to lose interest in the flourishing noise and drone scene around them. "Around that 2006-2007 time, we did a considerable amount of touring," Younger recalls. "It came to a bit of a head and we were like, 'Maybe we should do something else.'" Working on what would eventually be their final LP, 2010's The Cut, they came up with an unusual idea. First performed in 2007, In Shuffle saw the pair sitting on stage with a pack of cards, playing snap to a pre-made recording of their voices. It was a complete inversion of noise music's performance conventions of spontaneity and liveness.
In a recording of a later performance, also called In Shuffle, Younger makes shrieking feedback with a mixing desk and an assortment of small boxes, while Warwick builds playful rhythm-loops on a keyboard. It feels like an uneasy marriage of their burgeoning solo projects—Warwick as the colourful, dance-leaning Heatsick, and Younger as Helm.
Younger says that Birds Of Delay is still technically active, but that he and Warwick struggle to find the time to meet. His solo work, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength. The project crystallised with 2010's To An End, an absorbing set of gothic concréte that reflected both Younger's newfound interest in electronic music and his shift away from noise music's high-volume release ethic.
"If you were to go back and listen to the first ever things I did, a lot of those old cassettes are just one-take things where I looped something and played over the top, or fucked around with a tone generator or a delay pedal or something," he says. "The first LP that I put out, I realised I was more into composition and layering rather than one-take improvisations. That's when I started using the studio as well and working with John more closely, so I became more interested in the studio as the instrument—like how Nurse With Wound would have maybe approached his earlier works."
The John to whom Younger is referring is John Hannon, a member, alongside Tom Scott, of the band Liberez, who have appeared on Younger's Alter label. Hannon runs the No Recording Studio in Rayleigh, Essex, and has received credits on all of the Helm LPs to date, whether for mixing, engineering or technical assistance. Now that laptops give so much power to bedroom producers, it seems odd for an underground musician to use a professional studio and personnel. "It's just the way I've always worked," Younger says. "I probably do about 60% of my recording in the studio. It puts you in a specific mindset as well. If I was fiddling away at home by myself I'd probably never finish anything."
Olympic Mess features several collaborators besides Hannon. Sean Ragon, of the New York record shop and studio Heaven Street, brought more of an "industrial-focussed" perspective to several tracks, while Ville Haimala, better known as producer Amnesia Scanner, mixed the record and made some final edits alongside Younger. Younger concedes that working across several studios (and continents) meant that the album was "definitely not cheap to make." But perhaps this was also the key to its meticulous, enveloping sound.
Younger has been approaching this sound slowly but steadily. 2011's Cryptography reflected a new focus on "dry found sound and field recordings," blurring the boundaries between live-recorded and synthesised. 2013's Impossible Symmetry was better still, specialising in dizzying shifts in space and tone—like the bright bell clangs that sweep away five minutes of gloomy distortion on "Arcane Matters," or the gentle footsteps in the lunar landscape of "Above All And Beyond."
On Olympic Mess, this focus on the disorientating and the unexpected takes new form with "Strawberry Chapstick," a bizarre four-and-a-half minute monologue nestled between tense ambient moments towards the record's end. The track samples an ASMR video, part of an online community in which YouTube users record certain sounds meant to induce pleasurable tingling sensations in the listener.
"I think the full video's 25 minutes long. I just took a part of it—probably the most mundane part—and cut out a few things that reference ASMR explicitly, to remove it from that context. I pitched the voice so it sounds like it's neither male or female, so you have this androgynous, non-gender-specific person talking. The mundane aspect of the monologue seemed to fit with the idea of having so many mundane conversations day-in and day-out, that in the end you become oblivious to."
Once again, Younger's intention was to make the everyday new and mysterious. It was also to upset the album's otherwise smooth flow. "I liked the idea of being taken out of the record slightly and having this human element put in. And then the piece ends and you get the sound of the drum and you're thrown directly back into the music again."
Younger credits this structural trick to '00s Whitehouse albums Cruise and Bird Seed, both of which break into speech recordings partway through (to the irritation of many Whitehouse fans). Of course, the content of those tracks—voyeuristic collages of the accounts of sexual abuse victims—is quite different from Helm's cryptic ode to the mundane.
Younger considers Whitehouse an important influence, and while his defence of their questionable content ("It's the bigger picture, it's the whole thing") is unlikely to convince sceptics, it's consistent with his worldview, which sees in extreme music not a provocation but a question. I'm reminded of something he said in that interview with The Wire: "The idea of noise music as transgressive—it's bollocks, basically."
"I guess a lot of this experimental music, when it's framed in a particular context, can come across as provocative," Younger concedes. "But I would say for the most part that's not really the case. I mean I don't want to speak for other artists, but just from knowing people who make that kind of music, confrontation isn't as common an intent as people would think."
Younger's music, while sometimes dark, never sets out to shock. As Olympic Mess shows, its moods are much more ambiguous, the worlds it creates more seductive. Perhaps, more than anything, it's the questions he leaves unanswered that bind Younger to his forebears.