Ghost Hunters: Lilacs & Champagne Talk Samples and Rewrite History With Their Music
Go step by step with the also members of Om, Grails and more, delving into the samples that made their latest LP.
The original premise of this article was to go record shopping in Brooklyn with Emil Amos to help him and Alex Hall promote their sample-based psychedelic, hip-hop project Lilacs & Champagne's new record Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh—but that never actually happened during the four hours we spent hanging out. Instead we ended up drinking milkshakes and walking through the park talking. If it were a first date, it definitely would have been one of the best ones of my life.
"I just work every day on whatever my current obsession is that week," Emil (who also plays in Om, Holy Sons & Grails) explained at one point during our conversation—and that penchant for obsession, when it comes to crate-digging and artistic pursuit, is exactly what makes Lilacs & Champagne's music so refreshingly unique. "It's hard to explain but it's a bit like being a functioning schizophrenic," he continues. "Juggling the various projects creates a constant mountain of work to be surmounted but technical and conceptual problem-solving is one of the central skills in making records. Many artists put a lot of the responsibility on the engineer, the publicist or the person designing their covers—but we've generally done these things ourselves so that we can really wrench the project into the most unique thing we can imagine.
"In ways, playing live is more of a party atmosphere that's certainly an important communion later on in the process. But we've always been trying to build records with strong identities that can stand up outside of passing genres and built-in meat markets. There's a sense in which I don't even really care what it sounds like, if it's achieving what we meant."
Correspondingly Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh is pretty difficult to categorize and sees Amos and Hall rescuing everything from low-budget movie soundtracks to Eastern Europe psych singles from obscurity, re-contextualizing them into a setting that not only gives the source material a new life but also serves as a metaphor for the redemptive nature of existence. "When we're digging through records we're often looking those moments in history that are unloved, unwanted and disrespected," Amos says hours later as we share a milkshake at a greasy diner. In a world where pop stars have teams of musicians and producers beta testing pop hits, Lilacs & Champagne show just how creative you can be when you collaborate with people you never knew for the sake of art over commerce. In many ways L&C translate the work of ghosts, which is maybe why songs like "Dreaded Stranger" sound so haunting.
Below are the records that were crate dug during Lilacs & Champagne's and Grails' various record shopping adventures from years of touring as many songs from those records that eventually ended up on their tracks on Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh. They've uploaded the samples on Soundcloud as well as the covers. It's well-worth your time to listen to both versions to truly understand how the project came together but what's maybe more important is that through listening, you'll become a part of the process, adding your own experiences and internal narratives to sounds recorded in dusty basements and archaic studios long before we were all connected through ubiquitous machines. If nothing else, the album shows there's still significance in the insignificance of it all. You just have to take the time to listen.
Turgay Merih, 1979 (purchased in Istanbul, Turkey) -- used in "All the Room" from Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh
"I'd gotten this 7-inch in Istanbul and filed it away into a big bag of records to be scanned through on return. At least half the time you can't remember exactly what you saw in some of the records you bought. Especially while suffering from far too many Turkish coffees on top of the cold sweat of a continual tour hangover, unsure of when you'll be able to get back to this part of the world. The sampled area from this 7-inch passes by with barely anything to hold onto (sample at 2:16 to 2:22). But that's where the charm of this process ultimately lies. Its a confluence of absurd factors that bring specific samples into your life at a particular moment. And then you develop an affection for how the sources came crashing together and the coded meaning you imagine it all creates. I'd had the drums from Gianni Ferrio's Big Guns lying around and they seemed to naturally usher the chords along from the Turgay 7". I got the image in my mind that a Turkish Prince had been shamed and was condemning 'All the Room' to some terrible end." —Emil Amos
Baltik, 1973 (purchased in Stockholm, Sweden) -- used in "Made Flesh" from Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh
"Got this Baltik record at my favorite shop in Stockholm called 'Mickes Skivor' a few years ago after convincing myself that all Swedish psych must be good. I know next to nothing about this short-lived super group that seems to be pulling from some British folk vibes, but this song "One More Reason" greatly stood out and was written by Björn J:son Lindh, a Swedish Fusion star who recently died. The song has tons of hooks that seem to triple if you speed the LP up to 45rpm. And then after all the verses and multiple turnarounds finish up, a beautifully melancholy piano hook drops out of nowhere (1:30), creating the perfect moment from a perfectly obscure song to springboard off of." —Emil Amos
SBB, 1981 (purchased in Leipzig, Germany) -- used in "On Hold" from Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh
"Whispers Records in Leipzig is our go-to spot for cheap Polish Prog. Odd Hungarian and Czech stuff ends up there too because Leipzig is relatively close to the border of all these countries. Pressed against the wall for a final track on this record, this SBB record magically provided an easy listening coda to ease out on. Whenever I see SBB records I buy them out of some abstract urge to re-unite with the Polish ancestry on my father's side—but according to my mom it would've made more sense to have been collecting John Cale this whole time as she recently informed me that I'm mostly Welsh." —Emil Amos
Tereza Kesovija, 1976 (purchased in Prague, Czech Republic) -- used in "Case Closed" from Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh
"Bought this in a shop with books and records on a side street just off Wenceslas Square in Prague. In many areas of the world, a city's 20th century history is just sitting right there in the record bins. And it's especially true in Eastern Europe, where $80 price tags on beat-to-shit copies of Zeppelin IV or Terrapin Station are reminders of both scarcity and western contraband in the Eastern Bloc communist era. But this also means that Czech/Polish/Yugoslavian records from the 70's go for $2 or $3. And Eastern European pop music fits perfectly into our purposes and tastes as its thick with minor keys and heavy vibes." —Alex Hall
Lee Oskar, 1980 (purchased in Detroit, MI) -- used in "Euro Blow" from Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh
"I went to high school in Carson City, Nevada, a place well-known for legalized prostitution (and seemingly everything else). One bored Saturday night, a buddy and I drove the remote stretch of Hwy 50 to satisfy teenage curiosity and have a peek at the brothels, which are mostly just double-wide trailers mashed together under gaudy neon signs. My friend insisted we go inside 'Kitty's Guest Ranch' and ask for "the tour." By the time we had seen the jacuzzi room, I was nervously shaking so badly that one of our "guides" grew concerned and asked if I needed to sit down. I waited on a stained suede couch in the lounge for my friend to finish the tour while the bartender eyed me suspiciously as Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" played from a corner of the room. At the time, the saccharine adult-contempo tone of the song somehow managed to make me feel even more uncomfortable and by the time the dude starts yodeling at the end, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. But years later I realized that my true discomfort was because the song and the dumpy trailer brothel were kind of the same thing—or at least 2 sides of a coin: each a pretense to romantic adventure, but equally disingenuous in their humanity. Memories like these come up a lot while we're working on the records, dredged up by the songs' softcore vibes. The intersection of one's pleasure-seeking curiosity meeting with these kinds of nightmarish scenarios is somewhat of an emotional nexus that we shoot for. A way to do something with the psychic scar tissue built up from early sexual experiments gone wrong. Oh yeah, and I got that Lee Oskar record in Detroit." —Alex Hall