Lidell has just finished taping a performance on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. He describes the appearance as "being locked in a surrealist room with Craig Ferguson and a bunch of loveys running around doing people's makeup and getting five seconds to rehearse with a band I've never met before for a performance on American television." He adds, "But it was good fun."
Lidell will have to get used to the commotion if the swell of interest surrounding his music continues. His sophomore effort, 2005's Multiply, thrust the low-profile electronic artist onto a path of steadily increasing notice. Inspired by jazz and funk, Lidell's sound breaks apart and shifts just as he glides from the specific to the abstract in conversation. His projects vary, too, swinging from Super Collider, his Prince-by-way-of-Aphex Twin project with Christian Vogel, to "Multiply," the single that made him the toast of the blogosphere last year ("The song even your mother will groove on," Lidell says). Inevitably, though, Lidell's rising popularity has met with suspicious jibes that he's another golden-boy outsider trying to be soulful.
That Lidell, a white Brit, plants R&B in such a futuristic, technologically heavy context makes some people twitch and fuss. But Brits of a certain age people like Lidell's parents once had their own love affair with black music. Affection for Motown led to the Northern Soul movement, in which British artists such as the Velvelettes and Ellie Greenwich unself-consciously took the music on as their own. Speaking with Lidell, one gets the sense that he's carrying on that tradition of discovery and homage, playing music that he loves.
Lidell grew up in the countryside, and kids who spend their formative years in relative isolation must find ways to entertain themselves. It's not surprising, then, that he's comfortable onstage alone, though he has had several successful creative marriages. The album Multiply was co-created with the Har Mar Superstar-ish Mocky, a rapper, producer and singer in his own right. Musing about his current American tour, Lidell sounds enthusiastic about future collaborations and his early sketches for a new record.
"I got really lucky on the Beck tour and met a lot of great musicians," he explains. "It's just really exciting for me to take a song out of my head and realize it and to continually push myself. As far as I'm concerned, it's about continually trying to grow, to not stop, not get bored, not repeat yourself, not end up in the same old shoes, running down the same fucking road. For me, I'm still really excited about the prospect of going into a studio."
Long before he had any reason to enter a studio, Lidell studied philosophy for a time in college and it shows. Regardless of what he's being asked, he spins each answer into philosophical terms. Clearly annoyed by questions about the influence of Motown on his music, he points out that he believes motivation is more important than trying to tie an artist to his record collection.
"You should have an intention behind something," he says. "Like Nietzsche, for example, and the way that his concept of the Superman led many people to believe that he was propping up Nazism. That's one way of reading that material. I think it's important as an artist to clarify your motives."
Lidell's free-form expressiveness is downright striking in a concert setting. It's in performance that the rubber meets the road and his audiovisual point of view comes into play. Live, he toys with tracks on the fly, keeping several loops going between trips to center stage for some song-and-dance theatrics. If the final product weren't so stunning, his kinetic style could as easily be filmed as an instructional video for identifying symptoms of some sort of musician's ADHD.
"I'll tell you, touring is a really good way of getting into an artist's psychology," he says. "You go through so many different energy states. I think the assumption is that when people meet you during one of these low-energy states, that's just who you are, that you're somehow always a bit of a retard."
Lidell's various creative states have served him well so far. As capable of performing solo with backing tracks as he is getting down with an ad hoc TV-show band, he's a compelling presence on any stage.
Just don't tell him that.
"I think you believe your own hype, and you can also believe the criticism of others," he says. "You can be on a roll and develop a certain mentality. If you start to do well with a record and then you buy into the hype around it, and then you do another record and it gets slammed, you're rock-bottom and can't pick yourself up, because somehow the hype got in the way of the real shit."