Sunday, May 10, 2020

INTERVIEW: Beyond the Noise Crowd Ghetto: The Birth and Death of Justice Yeldham

NOTE: This interview was originally published by Heathen Harvest in 2015, and has been republished here only because Heathen Harvest is no more, and I wanted people to still be able to read it.  
 Beyond the Noise Crowd Ghetto: 
The Birth and Death of Justice Yeldham

For any Australian fan of unpopular music – whether it be pure balls-out noise, outsider weirdness, or brutal dada electronic tomfoolery – Lucas Abela has been a hard chap to miss.  For the last couple of decades he’s appeared playing amplified trampolines, turning meat skewers into record styluses, creating hybrid pin-ball-machine/pianos/electric guitars/gamelans, torturing vinyl with Freddy Krueger-style record-needle nightmare-gloves, and using the interference generated by his old Kombi van to manipulate radio signals.  If it makes an interesting sound, odds are Lucas Abela has done it: his latest installation, “IV:BPM”, is made of 18 interactive intravenous drips, and uses the sound of dripping liquid onto contact-miked objects (paint tins, shitty plastic tambourines, wooden ping-pong paddles, dog bowls, etc) as real-life source material for an audience-tweakable set of effect pedals.  But, for the bulk of the last ten years, Abela has been known mostly for his unnerving, loud, and very often bloody[1] glass-playing work, under the name “Justice Yeldham”, in which he coaxes all sorts of filthy and uncompromising sounds out of an otherwise-innocent sheet of contact-miked plate glass.  Well, sorry to let you know, but it’s all over: apparently, “Justice Yeldham” is no more, replaced with the more “Kenny G”-styled “Granpa Abela”.  But don’t cry just yet: just because the good Judge is dead doesn’t mean Abela’s putting down his glass any time soon.  Heathen Harvest popped in for a chat with Granpa over some electrified scones and a miked-up cup of tea.

Heathen Harvest: So.  'Justice Yeldham' is over.  Why did 'Justice Yeldham' exist in the first place, and why did it end? Are there any particular events that sparked off either the beginning or the end?

Lucas Abela:  It’s odd, you know, as I’m still playing the glass, I just feel I’m not playing it in the same way as I did back when I started playing, and I feel I’m heading into a new period musically and need to separate myself from those reckless years, when my performances were more frenzied ecstatic blurs.  To be honest, this shift has been going on for a few years already and the decision to put Justice Yeldham to bed has been a long time coming. 

It’s like, back when I first picked up the glass in 2003, an idea I had during soundcheck, then I was still performing as Peeled Hearts Paste, and it wasn’t until halfway through a US tour later that year that I thought I needed to differentiate what I was doing with the glass with my previous music explorations. I felt the glass was a paradigm shift in my evolution as a musician and I thought it needed its own identity, which is how Justice Yeldham came to be.

Now my musical identity has changed again even while playing the same instrument, so I decided to perform now as Granpa Abela, a nickname I have which has stuck for some reason and thought more clearly represents where I am now.

HH: So what would you say really defines 'Justice Yeldham', as opposed to 'Granpa Abela' or 'Peeled Hearts Paste' (etc)?  Is it all about approach, rather than what instrument you use or the way it sounds?

LA: It’s hard to define, especially when most of these project names are all solo.  Going from the start, ‘DJ Smallcock[2] was the name I used for radio performances on Skid Row which I kept to define projects I did that used pre-recorded material, while the other name I had at the time, ‘Peeled Hearts Paste’, was still me experimenting with turntables but using textures rather than records as my source material.

This project evolved over time to where the turntablism almost disappeared altogether, I was using high powered motors as decks with circular saw blades and grinding stones etc as records which I played with hand held stylus made from turkey skewers and swords etc.

When I was first asked to tour Japan, I tried to recreate my instrument using local motors but the ones I bought weren't as powerful as my decks back home, so out of desperation I began to play these skewers with my mouth, which, as a technique for making music I loved, as the results were so much more personal as now I was vocalising the music in my head through these hand held styli. 

It was this technique that evolved into the glass, which was also about the time I started using high end contact microphones rather than repurposed turntable cartridges, so even though I consider the glass to be giant diamond tipped styli, I started feeling what I was doing was beyond turntablism and decided on a name change to signify this.

Now as ‘Granpa Abela’, it’s mainly cause I'm getting way more Kenny G with my playing lately and, in my mind at least, think my playing is getting less and less noise and more and more musical, which is something I want to explore further.  Basically ‘Granpa Abela’ is my adult contemporary phase!

HH: So, Justice Yeldham the sheet glass player, is dead.  But Granpa Abela the sheet glass player is well and truly alive?

LA: Never say never again! As much as I’ve wanted to move on from Justice Yeldham and all the baggage previous performances gave it, I found it hard to kick old habits, and have recently smashed my instrument across my forehead to punctuate the point that I’ve enjoyed the show. Even though this reckless behaviour may enable the senseless bloodlust of some people[3], I refuse to stop enjoying myself and, if it suits me, will sign off in this way.

HH: Whether Granpa Abela, Justice Yeldham, DJ Smallcock, or Peeled Hearts Paste, you are clearly the world’s foremost player of broken glass in the world.  Which raises an interesting question: if playing broken glass actually caught on and became mainstream – like, imagine Kanye West does a ‘broken glass’ album, and it’s a massive best-seller – would the instrument lose its allure for you?  Do you do what you do partly because there’s a certain intrigue/excitement in being “that guy who does the shit with broken glass that no-one else is doing”? 

LA: Would it lose its allure?  Probably not…  it would be more like a vindication to all the naysayers out there who think the glass is a shtick.  I think being the only person playing something brings with it a lot of misconceptions, as people can't place it mentally, let alone understand how it works.  So many people misconstrue what I do – it's often described as me “screaming into glass” which can't be further from the truth, as the vocal techniques I use when playing are small subtle vibrations of the mouth.  Others think it's all pedals, but technically I'm totally adverse to “ghost in the machine” noise making, and am proud to say when my mouth isn't up against the glass, I get silence.  I choose pedals to enhance what I do vocally, pedals that make the tiny sounds I'm making explode, not pedals that add things that aren't there. 

As an instrument, amplified sheet glass is very versatile and capable of a wide variety of tones directly related to my vocal techniques (not to mention percussively, but there are other people doing that).  One day I do hope someone else takes it on as a vocal instrument, I'm not precious about my ideas.  One of the disappointing aspects of contemporary instrument-building is that people tend to not explore other people’s instruments: for some reason, they are considered not just as instruments but as their instruments, and because of this, some great new musical instrument ideas will only be played and explored by their creators.  Personally, I believe that everyone can bring something different to an instrument, so why not the glass?  So I very much look forward to seeing Kanye jam that shit one day.

HH: Having been around for a long time, and having toured around various places in the world, would you say there is any particular quality you have noticed that defines an "Australian sensibility" when it comes to music/art/noise/vision?  Do you think there is such a thing, or are we just past that point, with our fancy modern globalised internet lifestyles?

LA: I think there is an "Australian sensibility" to the extent that Australian musicians tend to take themselves less seriously than some I’ve experienced from other parts of the world – but that’s generalising, as I definitely know Australians that take themselves way too seriously and irreverent Europeans.  Then looking back on your first question, maybe I take myself too seriously.

HH: You can take your art very seriously and still be piss-funny.  Your art in particular has always straddled the line between high art and hilarious silliness.  Playing records with stylus-fingers, guitars played by pinball machines, remote controlled stylus-cars zooming over a race-track made of LPs: these are brilliant pieces of conceptual art, with such clear and elegant ideas behind them, and yet at the same time are low-brow and funny and dumb and end up making a lot of unfriendly fucking noise.  Is the humour something you think about when creating your art?

LA: I don’t think in terms of humour, more on how my audience will enjoy what I'm doing; I'm a popularist at heart, I guess.  What separates me from a lot of the noise scene is that I want to create things that engage people, not alienate them – even when I've been making the most excruciating music, I manage to gain the audience's focus, even beyond the noise crowd ghetto.

I remember back in the late 90's I auditioned for Hey Hey, It's Saturday’s “Red Faces”[4] at the Twin Towns Complex in Tweed Heads, it was a packed auditorium filled with retirees, and I managed to impress this crowd who applauded me – one old lady even took the time to hunt me down for a personal praising session, telling me (long before I even knew it existed) that I should apply for arts funding.  It’s moments like this I love the best: performing in front of an uninitiated crowd who have no idea of (let alone an appreciation of) 'experimental music', and being able to win them over with my performance and the uniqueness of my instrument.

HH: Reminds me of that footage of Frank Zappa playing a bike on the Steve Allen Show in 1963[5] [6]: although the show’s angle is all about laughing at him – “look at the wacky guy playing bikes” – he’s totally chuffed to be making modern art that the audience actually engages with.  Making people laugh is human-to-human engagement, something that is so often lost in the high-brow seriousness of modern art.  Why do you think so many people equate “art” with “seriousness”?

LA: So many people equate art with wankery more like...  I guess the seriousness that a generalised amount of artists project has a lot to do with that preconception.  A good example of the basic appreciation the general public has for its artists would be my Aunty:  normally, family is proud when a member of said family wins an award… take my music fellowship, which I received last year after dedicating 20+ years of my life to music without much financial reward: the fellowship is awarded once a year and is given to artists at the top of their game, the best in the country.  So what was my Aunty’s reaction?  “Why should my tax money go to your frivolous music making?”  (She didn’t say this in words, but it was all there in her facial expression.)  Had I won the Brownlow[7], maybe then her eyes would have lit up with pride, but pride is not a place in the hearts of most Australians when it comes to the creativity around them, even though the vast majority of people enjoy art day in day out without realising it.

HH: When you say "the vast majority of people enjoy art day in day out without realising it", what do you mean?

LA: Well, the fact that most people work in order to buy or attend things created through artistic endeavour, whether it be going to a concert, seeing a movie, watching TV, reading a book, shopping for fashion, admiring architecture, walking in manicured gardens, cooking, eating, etc, etc.

HH: Okay, right. But if you actually call it “art”, or even “Art”, then people are all of a sudden wary and defensive.

LA: The art world itself lives in a ghetto of its own making built around the fact that they don't actually want my Aunty to enter their galleries and concert halls, so I guess the serious amount of art wankery is a defence mechanism designed to repel the unsophisticated masses, and it works to a large extent.  Shame really, as both sides of the coin have really misread each other and the culture of both suffers because of this.  The general public scorn creativity as a useless trait (I say this as someone who was never encouraged to use his creativity even though it was the only thing I ever excelled at), and the art world reflects on itself, producing art about art (my least favourite art genre) as they avoid engaging with the culture around them.  (I should at this point point out that generalising is never useful and obviously there are many exceptions in the art world and the unwashed masses to the rules expressed above.)

HH: So, now Justice Yeldham is dead… what’s next for Granpa Abela?

LA: While in New York I went out to see TLASILA (To Live & Shave In Los Angeles), got drunk, and woke up a member of the collective, so next I'm heading out to Europe in September to tour with this band which has songs I'm unfamiliar with which we haven't rehearsed.  Should be interesting for a guy who typically makes shit up as he goes along!  Balazs Pandi[8] is drumming, so I'll probably just stick to him and help drive the rhythm section with occasional solo blurts when I hear an aural gap worth inserting myself into.

HH: Sounds like it’ll be brilliant! Thanks for your time.

LA: Cheers.


[1] “I think the worst I ever did was my arm across here [points to deep scar on right wrist] where I did 100 percent of a nerve, 75 percent of one tendon and 50 percent of another tendon. But that was before the glass. That was from a drum cymbal attached to a high speed motor. One of the early turntable experiments I did, once I’d gotten rid of the decks, was attaching them to high power motors and having skewers and knives as styluses, more like a scrape percussion kind of thing. I also had amplified springs. Early in this set I’d been playing it with a bowie knife and some of the edges [of the cymbal] became jagged, so when I used the spring it got caught and brought my arm down with it and cut my wrist. [Points to deep scar on left wrist] this is from a piece of glass falling on my wrist in Tenerife, it’s still really sensitive there because part of the nerve is close to the surface and there’s only a very thin layer of skin there. That was a nasty deep bastard, it was a really heavy sheet of glass and it kinda broke while I was playing and a corner chunk fell onto the arm.” – Interview with Shaun Prescott, Mess and Noise, 2001 (

[2] A name chosen after an irate listener to his experimental radio show told him to “get off the air, smallcock”.

[3] But it’s not really about bloodlust – it’s about shamanic super-human ritual.  “I like to get lost when I play, and I think part of getting lost, part of the ritual, getting into enough of a frenzy to take a bite of glass and spit it out: I’m not human anymore at that point. I’m somewhere else. If I were to grab a piece of glass now and start biting it I would tear my mouth apart. I do get cut and I do bleed, but when you consider what I do and how unharmed I am at the end of it, it’s on a shamanistic level. Not that I’m a spiritual person, but mentally I’m going on the same tangents. I think the performing of the music is part of the ritual for me to get to that state where I can go fucking nuts, I guess.” – Interview with Shaun Prescott, Mess and Noise, 2001 (

[4] “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” was a variety-type show that screened on Australian television for the best part of three decades, and is now mainly remembered for being “old fashioned, out of touch, stale, [and] misguided” (Sophie Black,, 2009).  One of the segments on this stalwart of mainstream Australiana was something called “Red Faces”, an open-mic-style amateur variety competition where someone like Lucas Abela might actually stand a chance, as “weirdness” was often just as valuable a criterion as the more traditional aspects of entertainment. 

[6] Or, in fact, similar footage of John Cage himself playing music with a bath, a bunch of radios, some game calls, and a watering can (etc):

[7] Apparently this some yearly award given to the “fairest and best” player in the game of “Australian rules” football.  Not sure what that means, but I think it’s kind of a big deal.

[8] Incredible drummer who has worked with Venetian Snares, Merzbow, and Zu (amongst others), and currently makes music with Bong Ra and Deformer as Wormskull.


  1. Could it be that the Mess & Noise (in 2015 subsumed by Junkee Media) interview with Shaun Prescott have been conducted in 2002? As far as I can recall the inaugral glass show manifestation was in Early Jan 2002, just before Menstruation Sisters at Lanfranci's Memorial Discoteque in Redfern - I think it was Lucas that mentioned this sometime when I was (erroneously) claiming that the first JY show was in a quintet at (Now Now Jan'02 Space 3 Redfern) which was also the launch of NIL STOCK...

  2. errata: it was 2003, Jan 03 Crucified Chicken & Amplified Glass mouthing Quintet at Now Now Festival, Space 3 Redfern NSW