Experimental musician and DJ Justice Yeldham says his audience either calls for blood or walks out.
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A white-haired man named Lucas Abella—performing as Justice Yeldham—leans over a chunk of broken glass, running his bloodied mouth along its edge. He kind of beat boxes and blows raspberries, and the sound of reverberating window is fed through an amp, producing, well—music. It sounds like a distorted guitar laid over a harmony of dying cats.
“I've never cut myself on purpose,” says Yeldham, acknowledging that his lips get unintentionally sliced on a fairly regular basis. “I'm never even conscious that I've cut myself until after the show when someone says ‘you’d better clean yourself up.’ It’s like the playing is an out of body experience in which I never feel pain.”
Justice Yeldham’s shows are notoriously hard to watch. He admits that his audience members oscillate between calling for blood and walking out, but most sit enraptured. But his punk-inspired sound/art is also an acquired taste, for obvious reasons. He calls it free noise, because: “you don't know what you are going to do before you play. You just make noise, um, freely.”
Yeldham describes himself as an experimental musician and DJ. In the early 90s he was playing radio sets in Sydney that sometimes got a bit vigorous and busted the station’s turntables. He got around this by replacing the record needles with hardier objects like pins, which led him to realise that any fine metal tip will carry a sound. Soon he was using knives and skewers, before he graduated to building his own DIY phonographs with recycled electric motors. It was a long-winded course in pressure waves, and it led him to realise the potential in broken glass.
In 2003 Yeldham was at a new venue in Chippendale when he found a pile of broken glass among building rubble. He picked up a shard and placed a mic pickup on one end, then started blowing.
“I was really taken how just kind of crystal clear the resonance was as opposed to the resonance within metal,” he says. “Finding glass was a hallelujah moment.”
Yeldham’s shows began incorporating glass, and news spread quickly once audiences realised he was bleeding in the process. “I started getting people coming to shows expecting to see blood,” he says.
I had people complaining after shows that they didn't get their money’s worth because I hadn't cut myself.
For a while, Yeldham says he was being invited to some of the world’s biggest festivals, but the booking slowly dried up as he became reticent to play to the role of the sadomasochistic musician. And also, as he points out, once you’ve been booked, a festival is less likely to book you again.
This feeling that his music was misunderstood began to change only recently with a collaborative invitation from Californian hip-hop trio, Death Grips. He describes working with their production team and how co-producer and drummer Zach Hill had called him a genius, which obviously meant a lot for a guy who specialises in weird music played on broken glass. “Having someone like that say things like that to me, it kind of pumped me with confidence,” says Yeldham. “Since that moment I've wanted to get back into performing again.”
He’s now slated to tour with Death Grips later in the year. He admits that playing with Death Grips has turned things around for him both personally, as well as professionally, and he wants to use this newfound public interest to showcase the sonic possibilities of glass.
“There's something interesting going on here musically and I don’t think people have really understood because they see it as a shtick,” he says. “I don't like to just be written off as the glass guy.”Julian Morgans is a freelance contributor to The Feed and the editor of Vice Australia.