On “Lament,” an absurdly ambitious paean to youthful idealism that first surfaced in 2013, Lost Under Heaven frontman Ellery James Roberts delivered his personal manifesto. It’s a guerilla-style resistance guide to corporatism, populism, nativism, and other provincial, small-minded values: “To the powers of old / To the powers that be / You have fucked up this world / But you won’t fuck with me.”
For nearly a decade, the fiercely-independent Roberts has been preaching this kind of call-to-arms opposition. As the precocious firebrand of the Manchester band-cum-anarchic collective WU LYF, the teenage Roberts led a shadowy insurrection against popular culture and politics, shredding the fatuousness of modern life while keeping the personal details of his group refreshingly discreet.
Roberts carried over that same rebellious fervor to his next act, Lost Under Heaven — frequently referred by its initials, LUH — a recording project with his romantic partner Ebony Hoorn. The group’s first album, Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing maintained WU LYF’s dogged aversion to apathy, as Roberts growled to the rafters about the need to challenge the powers-that-be.
Yet the world has changed inexorably in the past two years. Just a month after Spiritual Songs was released, English voters shockingly approved Brexit (a deep disappointment to Roberts, whose family firmly backed the Remain campaign). Five months later, American residents upped the shock value by voting in Donald Trump to the presidency.
While Roberts still retains his principled verve, the mood has been toned down slightly for LUH’s second album, the aptly-titled, Love Hates What You Become. The album has its proletarian rallying cries, but more so than ever before, Roberts and Hoorn dare to look inward on their latest creation—resulting in LUH’s most personal recording to date.
“In the past, I think I instinctively reacted to things in a defiantly antagonistic way, and I’m trying to move past that, because there is only so far you can go with that attitude,” says Roberts, Roberts, whose group plays at Café du Nord on Oct. 28, LUH’s first official show in San Francisco. “Showing a level of vulnerability is one of the hardest things you can do creatively, but I always think it produces the most profound and rewarding kind of art. The great ones can communicate an idea from the depths of their person. I often dressed that stuff up in intellectual anger, but I’m trying to move past that now.”
The gravel-voiced Roberts made his mark by pairing his trademark howl with cavernous sonic backdrops, giving the feel that he was screaming his lungs out on a desert floor beneath a star-filled sky. The group reins in that approach on the new album, which is set to be released on Jan. 18. Yes, there are plenty of screamers with righteous screeds on Love Hates, but on the title track and tunes like “The Breath of Light,” Roberts and Hoorn peel back the noise, offering an unguarded and previously unseen glimpse into their aesthetic.
Roberts says it actually took confidence to show those vulnerabilities, an esteem he undoubtedly gained from creating art with his wife. While WU LYF was an intoxicating blend of angsty energy, Roberts described the project as “guided chaos.” Working with Hoorn has offered him new creative outlets he could not explore under the tumultuous circumstances of WU LYF.
“We just flow so much easier,” Roberts says of his wife. “For me, it’s more fulfilling and creatively rewarding and explorative. We just came together so naturally—it was like one of those things that didn’t really have a beginning. There was something there from the moment we met.”
Roberts met Hoorn while the latter was studying visual arts in Manchester, and the two quickly eloped and moved to Amsterdam, Hoorn’s hometown. While Hoorn’s imprints can be found in pieces on LUH’s debut album, Spiritual Songs felt in large part to be a Roberts’ solo work, or WU LYF 2.0. On Love Hates, the result is much more collaborative, with Hoorn equally shouldering the creative burden. It is telling that the second single released from the upcoming album, “Bunny’s Blues,” is a Hoorn tour-de-force piece, with Roberts ceding the spotlight in the smoldering, sultry industrial rock number.
“Ebony has just been growing and growing continuously in musicality,” says Roberts. “I never really wanted to make a solo record — I always wanted Ebony to be an integral part of the band.”
Roberts and Hoorn wrote most of the music while living back in Manchester, in a riotous part of the city that featured plenty of bars, clubs and other indulgent attractions. Roberts says the experience had a profoundly dispiriting effect on the couple, with the mindless pleasure-seeking representing a stark contrast from the progressive and lofty ideals of Amsterdam.
“We were living in a pretty rarefied life in Amsterdam,” Roberts says. “We were near an art school in an international community, talking about universal basic income and embracing futurism. Moving to Manchester was a real slap in the face—we could see firsthand the volatility and the ugly face of populism. It sounds absurd, I know, but it was like we went from someplace that was thinking 20 years ahead into the future to another place that was 40 years in the past.”
Witnessing that regression up close could be one explanation for the world-weariness of Love Hates. Roberts has not waved the white flag in resignation — that is simply not in his DNA. But after enduring the cataclysmic global events of the past two years, he is more likely now to concede that it is okay to have doubts about the future — and to be open and candid about expressing those misgivings and how they affect him personally.
He can rest easy, however, knowing that he is making revered art with a person he loves deeply. And whenever LUH performs live, he will be supported by the same fans who first turned to WU LYF as the unsparing conscious of the resistance.
“People don’t go to churches anymore or large group gatherings, but they go to concerts,” Roberts says. “We don’t view this as an escape, but a return — a connection to something beautiful and deep.”
Lost Under Heaven, with Tiny Deaths, Sunday, Oct. 28, at Café du Nord, 2174 Market St., $13-$15, swedishamericanhall.com/cafe-du-nord