Leafcutter John is the pseudonym of John Burton, a UK-based musician and artist known for his collaborations with the British experimental jazz band Polar Bear. Although John comes from a more traditional folk background, his musical style incorporates computer-based production and highly manipulated samples of everyday sounds. Leafcutter John first came to iZotope’s attention when he won "Best Pad" in our 2012 Iris Sound Design Competition with Sonic State, and he's since been a huge proponent of Iris, our sample-based virtual instrument and synthesizer. We talked to John about Iris, the new Polar Bear record In Each and Every One, and, of course, creating a light-triggered MIDI controller made out of cardboard.
What do you like about Iris?
I like how Iris makes it really easy to manipulate organic field recordings, which I work with a lot. You can immediately take a recording of something that’s free and fairly random, and find tonal bits in it to use as harmonic content. And then you’ve still got the option of using the spectral tools to decide what noise you want to keep in there. It’s just really fantastic.
Do you primarily use field recordings to create your sounds for Polar Bear?
Polar Bear has been like a 10-year thing for me. I’ve done all sorts of stuff in that band— from Max/MSP and controllers to playing guitars, so the role that I play is very changeable depending on what the record calls for. What I do is pretty much in response to the ideas that Seb—our drummer—puts forth. For example, in the early days he would say something like, “I hear the sound of a garage door opening,” and I’d find a way of creating that sound out of field recordings, synthesis or some kind of live method.
It’s an interesting way for me to work because I’m usually very self directed, so it’s kind of nice to take someone else’s ideas and then work to realize them. Since I’ve been doing electronic music for 15 years, I really know that field. Now that I’ve gone away from playing the guitar, I feel like I’m a bit more in my element now. On our latest stuff, the rhythmic core of it is just Seb,the bass player, and me. The electronics are part of the rhythm section in an uncommon way—I hold the beat in most of the new material.
When you say you’re holding the beat, are you sequencing things on the new record?
I used just a couple of samples that I recorded percussively. Then I make MAX/MSP patches which allow me to have a lot of control over the sequences that I’m playing, and generate them in real time, things like that.
What does Iris offer that other soft-synths can’t do?
The key thing about Iris is that it all comes from the recordings that you put into it. I don’t generally use the built-in sounds, although they are really good—you could just use those and be totally happy with it! Iris unifies sampling and synthesis in a way that is just brilliant. I love it.
"Iris unifies sampling and synthesis in a way that is just brilliant. I love it."
The simplicity and ease of use are also great. Iris isn’t like most synths where you just get 500 knobs, and you have to work for hours to get a sound out of it. Being able to work in a spectral view kind of breaks down the relationship between where the frequencies are. It’s really inspiring. The idea of being able to mask certain frequencies is really beautiful too. More than any other synth, Iris really makes new sounds inspiring. Putting your own samples in is exciting—you never know quite what Iris is going to do! That’s one of the great things about Iris, it’s so dependent on what goes into it.
“Putting your own samples in is exciting—you never know quite what Iris is going to do!”
Do you have a favorite Iris moment on the new record?
There are two tracks that have Iris all over them as kind of a drone: ‘Life and Life’ and ‘Open See’. The patch in ‘Open See’ is based on several field recordings of rain and other natural sounds that I treated inside Iris. I’m playing the patch on the little GUI keyboard that is part of the plugin, so it’s just one note at a time.
Can you talk about what you’re up to now?
We’ve already toured on this album in the UK, and we’re hoping to come to the States at some point. The UK tour went really well. I’ve not seen Polar Bear audiences that stunned before. Seb did quite strong production on this record, so I think people are a bit like “they won’t be able to play this live”, but actually, we create those sounds live anyway. So it’s nice to demonstrate that it’s a live thing rather than a studio record. Plus, when you play the music live for a couple weeks, new ideas develop, things change and the music grows. It’s a really exciting process. And I developed the Iris things because it sounds very different when you’re playing it through a big system. It really dirtied up the sound of Iris, so I was playing about with filtering it and distorting it in MAX MSP and in Trash too.
What’s your solo stuff like?
Well, I’m really into electro-acoustic music. I’ve been releasing solo records since before Polar Bear. It’s very hard to describe. All sorts of stuff like IDM, electronics with folk. There’s a lot to explore in that world. I’m doing lots of live shows and also dance and theatre projects, and I am working with many different musicians and producing things.
What’s next for Polar Bear and for you?
Polar Bear has already recorded a new record, and I’m also recording a new solo record at the moment. Next year I’m going to be supporting Imogen Heap on her tour in the US. I’ve also been designing a control interface for laptops that works with light. It’s made out of cardboard— it’s super cheap but mega-effective!