Cate Le Bon on “Pompeii” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, February 25th, 2024  

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Cate Le Bon on “Pompeii”

Adapting to the Vacuum

Feb 04, 2022 Photography by Koury Angelo (for Under the Radar) Issue #69 - 20th Anniversary Issue
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“It became a symbol to me of everything that I was marinating in, all this existential fear of this relationship with time that was just changing,” says Cate Le Bon, on her latest studio album, Pompeii. “Someone was just constantly fucking with the focus lens.”

The story of how Pompeii came to be seems reflective of the artist’s struggle to create amidst a global pandemic: plans were made, flights were booked, studio space was found—only for plans to change on a dime, and for the creative process to become a lot more digital. For Le Bon, she’d just begun production on Pompeii early last year and was looking at recording in beautiful places like Chile and Norway. “I have always got these ideas of, you know, when I make a record, I want to go somewhere and I want to put myself in a vacuum and I don’t want to be disturbed,” the Welsh musician says. But the pandemic hit, she turned to her local surroundings, and found a terrace house in Cardiff, which she’d lived in 15 years ago. “A vacuum was dictated to us,” she laughs, “but not by our own design.”

Le Bon goes on to share that making Pompeii was a form of therapeutic escapism. With cities going into lockdown and people not even sure if the world would ever be the same, the tracks on Pompeii became the only thing Le Bon could control.

So she settled into the house in Cardiff, “in a child’s bedroom with The Animals of Farthing Wood painted on the wall,” with her romantic and artistic partner Tim Presley (of White Fence, who releases music with Le Bon as DRINKS) in the front room. Producer Samur Khouja and Le Bon would have 16-hour days, putting the pieces together. “It’s pretty intense energy,” Le Bon says, “when you’re working closely with someone who’s going through the same thing.”

The album cover was painted by Presley, and Le Bon describes its influence in the album process as if it was another member of the terrace house: “everything we did had to feel like it belonged to that painting.” Le Bon and Khouja would work underneath the painting (which depicts Le Bon dressed as a nun) and make artistic decisions that they felt would please the figure watching over them. Wanting to start from a different place, Le Bon began writing Pompeii’s nine tracks on bass guitar. “I was always waiting for someone to give me permission to pick [it up] and play,” she says. “And sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

At the time, Le Bon was listening to Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar, an album by Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes, and was inspired by how bass can affect a song’s structure. “I just love the way bass can transform a song,” she explains. “If you’re gonna have a bass that is pretty much playing a solo for the whole song, then the guitar has to pipe down.”

To this effect, Le Bon did change her guitar playing: allowing the space, the timing, and the pulse of Pompeii’s tracks to exist front-and-center. Opening track “Dirt on the Bed” is a pulsating meditation on silence itself; “Pompeii” is an ooze, reminiscent of its namesake; and over a charismatic bassline, album closer, “Wheel” raises “a glass in the season of ash.”

As with any Le Bon release, the lyrics are poetic, mysterious. The album’s underlying message is deep and dark. Le Bon was in school when she first heard about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and she was so horrified by the history that she deemed it a Biblical tale. “There can’t possibly be statues of people trapped in their final gesture,” she remembers thinking. But as she grew older, the stories rang more true. She felt torn between our desire to not repeat history and the resounding idea that life will go on. “Pompeii is such a horrific tragedy but it’s also just a thing that happened. You have to move on as humans, you can’t get caught up in all that stuff.”

It’s in this dichotomy that Pompeii exists. It’s at once a powerful rumination on our own mortality, and a nod to what the natural world can do to us if we let ourselves forget its power.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 69 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, our 20th Anniversary Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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