Combining the considerable talents of Justin Lockey of Editors, Minor Victories, and Mastersystem and Hazel Wilde from Lanterns On The Lake, Lights On Moscow has been their hidden work for the past decade.
Over the ten years the pair have known each other, they’ve been furtively passing scraps of songs between each other to complete their music in secret. Free from the constraints placed upon other performing acts, they’ve been able to pursue their own unique sound unfettered by expectation or criticism. And as their relationship has grown, so their music has developed, with this unique way of documenting a shared history only heard by a handful of people at two New York shows some considerable time ago. But in recent months, Wilde and Lockey made the decision to share their secret with the world.
Their first release is an EP titled Aorta Songs – Part 1, a patient four-track record which is awash with anguished beauty that marries the classic Motown rhythm with the decaying distorted guitars associated with shoegaze. It manages to condense a wide range of sound despite its short length. Opening track 'Lord Let Me Know' brims with abundant confidence, 'I Must Come Clean' takes a more raw and stripped down approach, while 'Like Lovers Often Will' starts with a brittle, icy fragility before rising to a mighty roaring wall of sound, all the more impressive given that it’s just two people performing. Aorta Songs - Part 1 finishes with the pensive 'Spirits Around My Bed', summarising a record possessed of a somewhat timeless quality and leaves the listener begging for Part 2.
But what happens when you’ve kept a secret for so long? How do you suddenly reveal the years of intimate friendship in a very public manner, and how will that subsequently affect the relationship? We sat down with Lockey and Wilde to find out.
Hazel is from Newcastle, and Lights On Moscow first started when you moved there Justin?
Justin Lockey: Yeah. That’s where I met Hazel. We lived around the corner from each other but weren’t really friends. We knew people who knew each other, we had mutual friends, but I didn’t really know her until I started working with her to be honest.
And when you say first started working with her, you mean literally on these songs?
JL: Yes. The only reason we got to know each other is because we started to work together before we knew each other. I’d heard her voice and stuff, and had friends that knew her, and I was like: “Oh, can you put me in touch with this Hazel lass? Because I think she might be cool on some stuff I’m working on.” – and that’s how we met! Essentially, we met for the first time in a studio.
Had you been listening to Lanterns On The Lake and decided you wanted to work with her?
JL: I think it was even before Lanterns On The Lake. I think it was one of her old bands, it might have been right at the beginning of Lanterns – first EP territory. But I didn’t know her at all so it was quite weird. Just meeting someone and essentially working with them straight away.
What’s it like working with someone that you don’t know? Do you get excited to see how it would unfold or nervous in case you don't really gel?
JL: To be honest, I do it all the time. I’ve always collaborated. My other band Minor Victories, it’s just one massive collaboration between four bands. I didn’t really know Stuart (Braithwaite – Mogwai) or Rachel (Goswell – Slowdive) before I started. It was just, again, a shared philosophy of what we were trying to achieve. It’s quite natural for me to work with strangers who then become friends. It’s just the way I’ve always worked.
And for you Hazel, what was your experience like of when you first started working together?
Hazel Wilde: So, we sort of met each other about ten years ago and started making music probably from the first day really. Justin had got in touch to get involved with another project he was working on, through a mutual friend, so I went to meet him and he played me some other stuff – it was just last minute, wasn’t it Justin?
HW: And I was like: “I really loved that”. So that day I took it home and started putting vocals and stuff to it. And probably within about a week, we had a huge batch of songs. It was quite exciting.
Over the years you must have written quite a lot, so we can expect quite a lot of material to come and this EP is just the beginning?
HW: Pretty much. There’s a massive catalogue of stuff that we’ve written together, a few different chapters to the story of us really. We thought this would be a nice little introduction.
When you say you took things away to write, is that the process? One person writes something and the other takes it away and carries on from there. And you pass it back and forth?
JL: We went into the studio once together, didn’t we Hazel?
HW: Yeah, we did.
JL: We’re both pretty competent in production so we generally just bat each other things across. Even though we lived around the corner for about ten years, I don’t think we spent any time together in the studio. Most of the time we spent together was planning when we were going to put a record out and then everything kept slipping. Lanterns took off, I was with another band and then Editors, and then it’s just one of those things. You aim to put something out but it never really felt like the right time.
HW: Like what you were saying the other day Justin, it became a bit of a running joke because a few labels were interested in putting the music out and we’d talk ourselves into doing it and then literally a few days later we’d change our mind and say: “Nah, maybe it’s not the right time.” But in a weird way, I sort of…I don’t know about you Justin, but I felt like it was scary to let go of this cool thing we had going on that no-one else (knew about).
JL: The story of our entire friendship.
HW: Yeah. It was kinda like this secret club that we had because when you don’t have a release schedule or tours or no listeners in mind other than the other person, that’s creatively quite liberating. And so the idea of letting go of all that was scary.
I guess then it becomes public property, people can criticise it, love it or dislike it. How do you feel now? Are you ready for it to be released?
JL: Yeah definitely!
HW: I feel worried about it.
JL: I think we’ll always feel a bit weird because we’ve got other bands which have all got extensive catalogues. So, we have our limits and whatever people’s perceptions are of what we do and the records that we’ve released or been a part of.
Me and Hazel would go out once every couple of months, but sometimes we wouldn’t speak for three months and then we’d go out. And obviously, the one thing we had in common all through our decade of friendship was; we were in a band that no-one knew about and we’d made probably a couple of albums worth of material. It became, like Hazel said, a running joke, like a secret club and putting it out – even just listening back to it when we were getting it mastered – we were different people when we did this. But nobody else heard it. It’s new, but not! And in a way, that’s weird.
What’s it like for you guys returning to those people you were all those years ago? Can you still summon up those feelings you had when writing these songs or is your own past now a foreign country?
JL: Yeah... It’s like an aural kind of representation of our entire friendship on a record. Which is why we’re staggering the release over however many…well, probably three EPs. We’ve actually got material that we’ve been working on this year and last. We’ve always been working together so it’s a case of how we stagger the timelines of our relationship to how it works musically.
JL: It’s between me and Hazel how it all comes together. Which is quite a weird angle for a band to take. Usually, you work a couple of years on a set of songs, you finally get to put a record out and then you go and tour it for two or three years. But now, this is like; this is what we were when we release this and now we’ve got the new stuff that still fits with the old stuff. I think, musically, we’re still on a similar path to where we were when we started because it’s not such intense project. But I think mentally, between us, we’re completely different people than we were ten years ago.
HW: And when I listen to the songs, when I listened to the test pressing of the vinyl, I felt weird about it and other people hearing it because it was like somebody reading your diary from years ago; you want to cringe really. I’m not that person any more but at the same time, it will still resonate with people and I don’t feel a massive connection to the music and the songs. I think that ultimately we just want to honour the people that we were, the paths that we’ve taken, and the progress we’ve made over the years.
What’s particularly interesting is the way you say it’s a snapshot of who you were or reading your diaries, but also because it is just the two of you. Especially ‘I Must Come Clean’ which sounds particularly intimate, so I totally understand why it’s so nerve-wracking.
HW: Yeah definitely.
JL: The thing is about those songs and where you’re coming from… I remember my emotional state when we made them. So, I remember how much I knew Hazel and how much Hazel knew me, which obviously is a lot less than we do now. And so, every time you listen to it you’re like: “Oh god. We barely knew each other”, but they are really emotionally heavy tunes that we were making together.
HW: It was how we got to know each other as well.
JL: It’s exactly how we got to know each other. It’s like, if the music is the soundtrack to the relationship, there are unspoken things. This is how we made music together. Instead of your relationship being marked by someone’s birthday or going away on a trip or something like this, this is how we marked us knowing each other. By making a secret band which is quite strange when you think about it.
HW: We probably know each other as well as anyone does know each other really.
If this relationship has been characterised by being in a secret band, how do you think it will change now it is becoming an open secret? Do you think it will affect the way you now act together?
JL: I don’t think so. It will just give us a boost to make it more of a thing, more of a reality. Because essentially music and what we do with our other bands is, you come up with ideas and somehow, they become real and then you put your life into them. You get it out there, you tour, you take the criticism, you take the people loving or hating it which is fine.
And then with this it’s like, me and Hazel will be sat in the corner of a pub which is all we ever used to do, meet, sink a couple of bottles of rum and talk about a record and in between meeting and not meeting we’d make music. Now it shines a light on just two people; essentially, this is what we are together. And I think it’s more of a positive thing than anything else.
Speaking about shining a light, that brings me to the band name. Where does that come from? What is it a reference to?
JL: I had an old book which I never read, I just picked it up at a flea market because it has a cool cover. And it was some really wanky book about Soviet foreign policy in the post-war period or something, probably really outdated. The header of the book was Lights On Moscow – Soviet Policy From ‘39 to ’45 and the name always stuck in my head. Lights On Moscow – sounds like a really good band name! And I hate band names fundamentally because no matter what you come up with someone’s going to think it’s shit and someone’s going to think it’s good. We just stuck with it because it kinda suited the nature of what we were thinking in terms of it was quite ambiguous; you want to tell what kind of band it is just from the name alone, so that’s why it stuck.
It does remind me of the air of mystery about what lay behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Funnily enough, I recently saw a black and white photo of St. Basil's Cathedral lit up at night taken during the height of that period just before listening to the EP. The use of light on such a dominating building seems like a very fitting parallel to your music; you present an ethereal side which is light and airy but then ‘Lovers Always Will’ also has a real density to it.
JL: I think it goes with the nature of the band – doing a band and then not telling anyone about it and no-one really hearing it, and having that mythos of post-World War II, Cold War kind of thing. Just works for what we do and I guess the music unconsciously has gone further into that area because of the name. It’s just the way things work. Sometimes you do unconsciously kind of drift and so everything fits together. You don’t really think about it, it’s just the way it naturally unfolds.
What I love is the way you describe yourselves on Twitter as “a really sad Roxette”. Where did that come from?
HW: (Laughs) It was just a joke really. We’ve always been looking for a band nemesis you see, a duo. We do like Roxette, but it was just a funny thing between us.
JL: We’ve had long conversations over a decade about who we could most likely be comparable to, or who’d be our arch nemesis band. I think we had Roxette, The Ting Tings…Who else was there Hazel? There are loads. We’ve been through everyone, we’ve exhausted the list of boy/girl duos throughout the entire history of popular recorded music. But we settled on Roxette being the most righteous choice.
HW: I did read that somebody did a blog post or something recently where they mentioned they thought it was serious, that we really did think we were like a sad Roxette.
JL: We kind of are, we just haven’t got their tempo. We haven’t got their choruses, and we haven’t got their video budgets.
Who are you guys deriving influence from? Have you tried to summon the sound of any other acts?
JL: I think this has an element of that Shangri-Las, (Phil) Spector girl group kinda period but just on half speed. It always reminds me of that almost kind of sexy but really emotional Spectorish orchestration. So, it’s like taking the Shangri-Las, slowing it down half speed, and fitting it in with what our influences are in terms of post-rock and stuff like that.
We talk a lot about Oasis between us – I don’t know why. We spent ten years talking about which tune off ‘Definitely Maybe’ we should cover, and it always comes down to ‘Slide Away’, doesn’t it Hazel?
HW: Yeah! We never sat down and said: “Which bands are going to influence this song or this sound?” But as we were going on we’d be like: “Oh Justin, what about if we put in a bit of this Motown tambourine-y thing in there?” So stylistically, we’d take cues from stuff we were really keen on.
And I guess without that pressure to play it live or release it, you had that freedom to explore different sounds, to bring in different elements and see what works for you.
HW: Yeah exactly.
JL: We did do a show in New York as a two-piece about eight years ago, wasn’t it Hazel?
HW: Yes. Two shows, actually.
JL: Two shows in New York which were the only shows we ever did right at the start. That was just because we were both over there doing other things and it was really liberating just to play drums and keyboards and Hazel on guitar. It did have quite a powerful effect live and whenever we do take it live, we’ll definitely keep it as a two-piece. Like a big guttural wall of noise, how it turned out to be. Which is pretty good – not as dynamic as what it is on the record, but it definitely had a soul to it.
So, there are no firm plans to tour or gig at the moment? Because it would be a real shame to not do these tracks live at some point, somewhere.
HW: I think we will.
JL: We’ve always said if we were to do it live, we won’t do what we do with our other bands. So, we won’t do a regular tour, we won’t play in a regular venue. We’ll try and keep it in a way that we’ve kept the whole thing along all the way. If it suits what we want to do we’ll go and do it. It’s not the sort of thing where we’re gonna say: “Oh, let’s do a massive festival season.” It’d be, “Let’s go find something we can turn into a venue and have a little night of it.” You could be in control of the whole mood and visual aspect of it as well.
That sounds really exciting. Will you just be releasing EPs or are there any plans to release a full album?
JL: We’ll get to an album. The plan at the moment is there’s going to be three parts to the EP and then we’ll seed into an album of sorts when that’s run its course. So, within that, the whole other side of the band will develop. At the moment, we’re just getting the music out.
It does feel like most of the time you’re in a band, you do an album, you tour it for a year, you come off and go into the studio. That’s not us, not how we do this, and I don’t see it as a project, I see it as a band. So, it’s kind of; how do we make an album work for our band when we’re not really following the paths of our other bands.
HW: It has to be something exciting to us.
JL: And personal to us. In music there are no rules, so we can work it out as we go along.
HW: In terms of the release of how many EPs and albums we put out, like I say, this first one will be some of the earliest stuff we did and we’ve made so much music over the years we’re going to keep putting it out and eventually we’ll catch up with where we’re up to now.
You're both hard at work with your other bands as well. Hazel, what else is going on with you at the moment?
HW: I’m bang in the middle of recording a new Lanterns On The Lake album. So hopefully that will be out at some point next year.
And Justin, I don’t know how you have the time to get everything done. You’ve just released album Violence with Editors and there was the Mastersystem album this year, have you got anything else on the go right now?
JL: I’m touring France still. I’ve got two weeks off and then I go into a UK tour, another European tour, and I think I’ve got Mexico as well. So that’s mainly the seeing out the rest of the Editors tour. And I’ve got this stuff. We’re already working on two and three and how we put that together for the EP.
Apart from that, I’ve also got to start the next Minor Victories record. I’m actually on my way to Glasgow now to meet with Stuart from Mogwai to talk about it. I’m on like a Minor Victories band night out tonight. So yeah... Always stuff to do.
Aorta Songs - Part 1 is out on 19 October via Physical Education Records. For more information about Lights On Moscow**, please visit click here.