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Interview: Austin Lunn (Panopticon)

Austin Lunn has his reasons for remaining elusive. The multi-instrumentalist and sole member of Louisville, Kentucky’s Panopticon doesn’t employ obscurity for the purpose of long-tired black metal shtick or to earn the underground metal merit badge for mystique. Lunn’s purpose is as exacting as the music he creates, lending itself to the nature and experience of the ‘thing’ rather than an overwrought discussion of what the ‘thing’ might mean. There’s a solace in Lunn’s music and not just in his most recent release, this month’s outstanding Roads to the North. Pantopicon’s music has always seemed deliberate in its wavering between the connectivity to the known world of experience and the unpredictable realm that is instinct and our primal nature.

Lunn’s isolation isn’t from all of society but rather from those who simply do not factor in with his love of family and nature. Creative inspiration for Lunn has thankfully been something he has seen fit to share with listeners since Panopticon’s beginnings in 2007. There’s an inherent value to the deceptively simplistic for Lunn, and the characteristic is immediately present in the music he creates. The mystery lies in nature for Panopticon, and it’s one that Lunn is satisfied to explore without distraction. Invisible Oranges had the rare opportunity to ask Lunn a few questions about Panopticon as well as what the origins are for the incredible music he creates.

— Jonathan Dick

Roads To The North is the sixth full-length for Panopticon, and I’m curious as to how you’ve seen your relationship to your music and what you create grow or perhaps evolve in the seven years of the project’s existence. Are there creative approaches you might have taken in the beginning that you’ve moved past now, or has it been more of a constant/steady approach thus far?

Are you maybe referring more to the political nature of the project in the beginning? I am still a very political person, but I feel like I said what I needed to say, what I needed to get off of my chest. There is no sense in me bashing people over the head with an ideology or an agenda. I started Panopticon when I was 24 or 25 and I feel like now that I am 31 — have become a father, found a permanent career, traveled a bit more, gotten married, etc. — I have definitely changed as a person, perhaps in quite a few ways no doubt. But ultimately, I just don’t want to be a broken record accosting people with the same subject matter over and over. As I gain perspective I also have turned inward more. . . withdrawing from city/town life and seeking more time alone or with family. I live way out in the woods now and have really grown to love it and cherish the solitude. I feel like in a lot of ways the music reflects that. Much of Panopticon before was bitching about things that pissed me off, or what I felt was wrong with the world. I am ready to focus on what I think is right and beautiful in this world.

What do you find most valuable about the process of creation, and is that source of value something that’s evolved or changed since you first began creating music?

The most valuable thing for me is the creative outlet. A lot of musicians strive for performance and recognition. . . those things make me nervous and self-conscious. I used to like performing live a lot and doing interviews, but these days that stuff just makes me nervous that I will do or say something disappointing, so it is honestly a point of stress. The creative process and the emotional outlet is EVERYTHING to me. It is the only reason I record, to be able to look back and reflect on how I processed a feeling or a time in my life and have record of it, a reminder of how I have forced myself to grow and change.

Obviously regionalism is something that’s very important to what you create, Austin. On the surface there seems to be such a broad distinction between something that’s inherently abrasive like heavy metal and the pastoral serenity of rural Kentucky, but those two things are not so terribly different, and it’s a relationship that you capture tremendously well with Panopticon. Looking at black metal and folk metal, specifically, and the importance both of those genres have traditionally placed on nature and the seemingly unobtrusive, how do you personally view the relationship between physical environment and your creative mindset?

First of all thank you, that is a high compliment that you feel that way. I think environment and surrounding is very important. Look at Falls of Rauros: their music is drenched in the Maine woods, their music smells of ocean breeze. It is, to me, the soundtrack to New England. Forteresse, for example: their music is the sound of brutal northern winters and snow laden pine and spruce, a frigid homage to their surroundings. Ulver’s Bergtatt album brings me these visions of the mountains and hills I hiked when I was working in Norway. That landscape completely redefined that album to me forever. I loved that album before, but now I can’t hardly part with it. Vaiya from Australia. . . even though I have never been there, knowing Rob and seeing many pictures of his homeland provides all the visuals I need to associate the deep, spiritual atmosphere of his music the with lush, vibrant landscapes he worships. Fauna, Blood of the Black Owl, and Skagos: their music sings the praise of the Cascadian mountains and coastal pacific, evoking similar feelings that Vaiya does. Waldgeflüster writes love songs to the lands Jan has traveled to, the forests and mountains he has tread upon. . . his music is soaked with the memories of those places. To me, Panopticon has become the same. That is part of the reason I am starting to stray away from writing about political issues, to focus on the deep wealth of beauty in the natural world. A lot of my lyrics remained unpublished because they are too personal and deal more with my love of nature and those close to me. That is what I am craving, to use music to sing the praise of what makes this life worth living.

Does the creation of music and music itself have a kind of ecology to you just with regards to how experience and environment cultivate that sense of balance within the sound?

It drives my wife nuts, but when we hike (and we hike a lot) I always have this little speaker with me to listen to music during our hikes. She wants to hear the sounds of nature, as do I, but having this soundtrack to the world is so important to me. It cements the album into my head and my heart, so that every time I hear it, the visual of those places rush through my mind. There is a distinct connection with music and nature for me, as hokey as that sounds.

Kentucky wasn’t a planned record. It was inspired by a hike in the woods with Bek. I felt so overwhelmed and overcome by its beauty. . . I ran out of the forest and immediately drove home and started tracking without a damn thing written. I spent all week recording that album, just running off of the inspiration of the woods I tread and the state I love. That was all I needed. When it came time to write the lyrics, Bek and I went out into the mountains. . . visiting the places that the songs were to be about. I wrote the lyrics there. . . just trying to keep it as honest and spontaneous as possible.

There’s such an enormous amount of space with the music you create, specifically with regards to the contrasts between the played notes and the gaps between them. Did you find yourself exploring that idea of negative space more with Road To The North, or was it less of a directed approach and simply an instinctively creative impulse?

I just like to use a lot of reverb and delay to create atmosphere. I don’t feel that there is necessarily a lot of space between notes, because most of my riffs are tremolo picking, but I like the riffs to be less complex and repeated a lot more to build a sense of atmosphere and have room for layering. I love music that is emotional and builds on itself. I feel like sometimes less is more in those regards.

Where did music first find you in the sense where you felt that initial desire to create, Austin? Was there a specific band or song that resonated in a way that served as that kind of first creative catalyst for you?

In 1990 my old man bought me my first King’s X record. It blew my mind. Up until that point I had only heard music that was on the radio and never heard anything progressive or heavy. King’s X changed my view on music forever and to this day I am still inspired by their first five albums. As time went on I continued to check out more prog and prog metal. In my early teenage years I got really into punk, which blew my mind because I had never heard so much raw emotion and anger in music. So at 16 or 17 it made perfect sense to dig into thrash, grind and some death, and black metal as well. From there on I loved it all. Prog, punk, death, black, crust, sludge. . . as long as the heart and soul of it all was there, so was I.

The word “extreme” used in the context of music is almost a generic term at this point just considering the fact that we have access to virtually any kind of stimulus via the Internet. From your perspective, do you see extreme and experimental headed in a direction that’s more minimal or muted as a kind of instinctively primal reaction to a social context where everything is seemingly disposable, or has not much changed over the last few years with regards to music and art that seeks to push or redefine boundaries?

I think people are going to continually claim they have reinvented the wheel. For me all of that doesn’t even matter. Like Bill Hicks said, “play from your fucking heart.” This ain’t art school, it is metal. Trust me. . . I did two semesters in art school at the age of 18 and dropped out. It was not for me. Let’s focus on what is coming out of us, not what people will think of us.

Let’s not redefine extreme music, let’s redefine ourselves. Sure, boundaries will be pushed very rapidly because anyone can release a record now. . . but who cares? Everyone has a creative voice. What matters most is finding yours. With every album I get a little closer to finding mine, but just like chasing my shadow, I’ll never catch it. Every record is a snap shot of time and who we were when we recorded it. The next record, I will be a different person to some extent, so as a result my creative voice will change accordingly.

What lies ahead for you with regards to touring and writing, Austin?

I don’t want to tour and more than likely will never play live. It just isn’t for me. I want to be in the woods, I want to be with Bekah and Hokan (my son). Touring just isn’t in the cards.

A dear friend and I had a discussion about it recently over a few beers and my wife pointed out that performing live for me would be like trying to recreate who I was and what I was feeling when I recorded those songs. Something about that feels inauthentic to me. It feels fraudulent. So maybe it is best that Panopticon just stays a recorded project.

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