Out of This World: Ladytron’s Reuben Wu Listens to Brilliant Machines

February 5, 2014

Liverpool musician and visual artist Reuben Wu is best known by millions of his global fans as the keyboardist in the pioneering electronic pop group Ladytron and an accomplished photographer. Last year, GE and the railroad company CSX gave Wu a chance to combine both of his passions.

Wu wrote a hypnotic soundtrack for a futuristic-looking video clip capturing a day in the life of a massive freight terminal in Ohio. The terminal is using GE locomotives connected to the Industrial Internet, an emerging digital network connecting people and machines with software and data.

Wu made the video in collaboration with director Noah Conopask, The Barbarian Group and GOODCOMPANY. Tomas Kellner, managing editor of GE Reports, talked to Wu about his inspiration, Ladytron, and making film music.

Tomas Kellner: You shot the video at a container terminal in Ohio, but it looks like it could easily be set in orbit around a distant planet. How did you come up with the concept?

Reuben Wu: Both Noah and I are really into science fiction. We were talking about Ridley Scott’s Alien, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Koyaanisqatsi, which are among my favorite films. They all portray technology, machinery, and also humanity in a very real way. This Industrial Internet technology is not that far from this future, it exists. And we realized that if we also subverted time and scale, we could produce something quite out of this world in northern Ohio.

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Photography: Landscapes by Reuben Wu

TK: You succeeded. Tell me about the process.

RW: We started from a musical perspective. I think that was important. I created three musical ideas before we actually went on site. If the visuals and the music were to be synchronized together, the music really had to be there first, not the other way round.

TK: Can you describe the three ideas?

RW: The first idea combined pulsing energy with the kind of crunchiness and spiky-ness that we wanted to use for portraying the whole container yard. That’s why we decided to go with it. The second one was a little bit more minimal and smoother and utopian-feeling, I suppose, and the third one used more break beats.

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TK: What happened next?

RW: We created a proof of principle, a scouting video, the basic idea of what we planned to do. We went to the shipping site and shot-handheld footage, and I patched it in with the sounds.

TK: Did you take part in the filming?

RW: The idea was I would be collaborating on the visual level with Noah, as I’m as interested in vision as I am in sound. Also the subjects that I take pictures of are generally in the realm of science, technology and nature. So I shot as much footage as I could.

TK: The terminal is huge. How did you wrap your arms around it?

RW: At that point, everything was still very loose, as far as the concept went. I captured the sounds of everything that moved, that was mechanical. Before coming to the site, I knew that there were going to be cranes, containers and trains, and they were going to be the main elements that we would feature in the video.

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TK: The soundtrack is full of machine sounds.

RW: I was recording absolutely everything during both the scouting and the shooting trips. I wanted to end up with a comprehensive library of sounds to pick and choose from as I composed the music. That’s exactly what I did.

TK: Did you have a system to organize the sounds?

RW: Once I had recorded my samples, I categorized them into groups. I had crane, train, and container sounds. Those could all be separated within sub-categories as well; sharp percussive sounds, drones and bass sounds, for example.

TK: The machines seem to be playing a melody.

RW: Yeah, I was able to break the sounds down into musical elements as well. I found that a lot of the sounds of the cranes moving across the yard, for example, were almost melodic. They produced hydraulic hums and vibrations, which I thought worked on a different level than the percussive sounds.

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TK: Like those made by the containers?

RW: The video really was all about the container. It was our building block for the whole video. It was important that there was a very simple, almost primal, sonic and visual language so I used the sound of the container hitting the ground. It’s the first thing that we see and hear when the music kicks into play. We wanted that to really drive the visual language which develops over the course of the track.

TK: How long were the samples you recorded?

RW: All of the sounds are quite short and many of them are repeated quite a bit throughout the music. They make up about 65 percent of the audio content.

TK: How did you splice the samples into the original track you composed?

RW: I kept the music track intentionally basic, so when I introduced the samples, the samples would form a large portion of the musical backbone as well. I ended up doing a lot of swapping things in and out. Some samples I decided I needed to enhance with analog synthesizers. I spent some time complementing some of the samples with further electronic layers.

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TK: Can you share an example?

RW: In the very first part of the piece you have a visual of a train whizzing past. It’s a quick horizontal movement. I layered the train sample going from left to right in stereo with Korg MS-20 synthesizer sounds. A lot of the soundtrack elements are this combination of real and synthesized sounds.

TK: I can also hear voices.

RW: Yes, we recorded them in the control cab slung underneath the wide-span crane. Everything inside is computerized and there was a continual radio feed from operators at the terminal. We thought that it was important that we incorporated the human element within the whole piece.

TK: How did you synchronize the soundtrack with the film footage?

RW: We started with the music. Alex Hammer, our editor, imported the music into the editing suite and I provided him with my thoughts on phrasing, that any movement on screen would need a sound to go with it. I didn’t want it to end up as a mishmash of sound effects. I sat with him and the director and there was a lot of going back and forth in iterations. What I really enjoyed about the process was that the editor had done some things on screen, which I hadn’t anticipated. We had some really effective happy accidents.

TK: I like happy accidents.

RW: There is a bit where everything goes quiet after the sunset. It appears that all is quiet and calm, but things are still moving and the facility is still operating. The section that comes directly after that is the finale. There needed to be something just before the finale, like a big drum fill, so Alex cut in a crane shot that shows the cab from underneath. It’s been cut in a quick, staccato way. At that moment, the music is actually mirroring the visuals with a synchronized sequence of beats and samples.

TK: You make it sound easy. Is there a film soundtrack in your future?

RW: I’ve always been interested. The GE project was my first commercial venture combining music and visuals. I am hoping that I’ll be able to do a lot more in this field.

TK: What’s happening with Ladytron?

RW: I’ve been concentrating on photography and projects like this one, but the plan is to do a new album this year.