Last year was a special one for Cate Le Bon. The Welsh musician had a hand in three records that were released in 2019: She co-produced Deerhunter’s eighth studio album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, collaborated with Deerhunter bandleader Bradford Cox on a joint EP, and released a full-length record of her own, Reward. Taken together, those three releases paint a current, compelling portrait of Le Bon as a musician.
The records are different, but their chronologies are very much connected: After Le Bon collaborated with Cox on the EP, Myths 004, while in residency at the Texas festival Marfa Myths in 2018, they continued to work together on the Deerhunter album. Reward, though, Le Bon had begun writing in 2017 when she wasn’t immersed in a year-long furniture-making course in England’s Lake District. The LP, which she later fleshed out with collaborators like co-producer Samur Khouja, Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer, was shortlisted for both the Hyundai Mercury Prize and Welsh Music Prize in 2019.
Guitar.com caught up with Le Bon over two conversations – one over the phone and one in person at Singapore’s Alex Blake Charlie Sessions music festival in December 2019 – to talk Reward, working with Cox, her takeaways from producing records and more.
When did you start playing guitar and what were your first experiences with the instrument?
I think playing with my dad, because he was in a band. He just taught me chords so I could riff off the top. And then, yeah I guess I was kind of self-taught. I was in a school band and ended up playing with some amazing musicians.
Were there any early formative experiences for you – like seeing a band live, or playing a show – that were a milestone in your growth as a musician?
I think hearing Pavement for the first time and being aware of different guitar styles. [Stephen Malkmus has] got such a unique style of playing. So that was important for me.
With your latest album Reward, you wrote songs on the piano instead of the guitar. Why’d you put down the guitar?
I think it was just a more conducive environment kind of thing… When it came to playing guitar on the record, it was a very different experience, because I was playing around with piano parts which were meant to have kind of, a ‘crashed’ guitar part, which is probably a bit more spontaneous than when I play guitar.
So given that break, how would you describe your relationship with the guitar now?
You know, I haven’t been playing guitar, but I think at the moment I’m really enjoying just singing. And then you know, playing guitar, I’m not a master at that, but when I do play because I enjoy it so much more. I guess it’s like anything when you’ve been doing it for so long: it’s time to try and challenge yourself and try to approach a different relationship with it. I think the next record… will probably have a lot more guitar. (laughs)
Would you say you learned something about yourself writing songs on the piano instead of guitar?
Whenever you’re writing you’re kind of always accidentally learning things by yourself. And it’s just something a little bit more dramatic about the piano, maybe. When I was living by myself in a very small village, the piano seemed to suit my mental state at the time. It’s physically a lot more involved, with the piano. It’s quite hard to walk past the piano without playing for even, you know, 10 to 20 seconds. That’s kind of an instant gratification to be had. One of the reasons why I took a break for so long is I became quite tired [of it], I put the guitar away with those kind of feelings of fatigue. So, to turn my attention to the piano was this other way of taking a break.
Can you tell us a little bit about the guitars and effects that you did use on Reward?
Yeah, I tend to always use my Telecaster from the 50s. It just really near and dear to me, and I play it on every single record. So I think I only play that guitar and then Josh Klinghoffer came in and played guitar on some of the songs. I mean, he’s got one of the most insane collections of guitars I have ever seen in my entire life. Maybe only challenged by Jeff Tweedy’s collection of guitars. I can’t even remember what he plays on the record, I just remember just being really jealous of all of it. (laughs)
For effects, I’ve got a Cusack Tap-A-Delay that we used a lot of. Coupled with a chorus pedal and… I have a pedal called Spectrum, which Josh actually gave me years ago. It’s one of the first pedals that Boss ever made, it’s a pedal that makes your guitar sound really thin and wiry.
Do you use the same setup when you play live as well?
Not the exact same thing. I think the chorus pedal I’m using is different live. Do you know the pedal brand called Catalinbread? They’re made in Portland and I recently got a Adineko Oil Can Delay from them, and it’s one of the best pedals I’ve ever owned. It’s incredible. I’ve been using that quite a lot live.
In November, you released Myths 004, a joint EP with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter. How did you first meet and how did you start to collaborate?
We’ve been in touch for years. He said something really nice about Mug Museum for Pitchfork, and I got in touch with him because he was so considerate in what wrote. And we just stayed in touch. And then when I toured and played Atlanta for the first time, Bradford insisted that I stay at his house, which was so generous. We stayed up all night talking, stayed in touch, often spoke about, you know, trying to tour together and do some things together and make something come to fruition.
So, when I was asked to choose somebody to collaborate with for this Marfa Myths EP, Bradford seemed the perfect choice really. We spoke to each other on the phone often and you know, we’re very like-minded when it comes to our attitude towards music. And that ended up the first thing I did after a year’s break from music. It was such an incredible kind of baptism of fire back into making music. Bradford is so dedicated and connected to the integrity about music… to be exposed to that immediately after taking a break was so valuable to me.
Can you tell us what he’s like as a guitar player?
He is amazing. Everything he does is incredible, then it gets instinctive and it’s intuitive. You know, he responds to the music so he can be erratic and he can play the nastiest guitar line that you’ve ever heard, but only if it’s necessary. And likewise, he can play the most beautiful guitar melody. He’s a really responsive, considerate musician and guitar player.
You produced Deerhunter’s 2019 album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, and co-produced Reward. What were your takeaways from those experiences?
I mean, being a producer is quite a nebulous job. People desire different things from you, sometimes within the day, sometimes minute to minute… For me, it’s about making the artist sound as much like the artist as they possibly can, encouraging deviation. Every time you’re in the studio, whether it’s playing guitar on someone’s record or producing, or my own record, I always take away some kind of lesson, or some kind of growth, even if it’s been a negative experience. It’s a wild job.
You spent a year learning how to make furniture. Is it a stretch to suggest that changed the way you think of design principles and by extension, instruments and guitars?
I guess so. You maybe respect craftsmanship and the time and skill that’s needed. They existed as two separate things for me. It was more important in terms of how music wasn’t this constant presence [in my life] that it had been for 10 years. It was really a holiday.
Do you think you might return to furniture-making?
Yeah. It’s hard to do on the road. (laughs) But I’m trying to build a shed. It’s good for the soul, it’s grounding, to think about the strict process.
Cate Le Bon will tour North America with Kurt Vile in spring 2020. Find dates and ticket information here.