Anika – On the phone with Max Dax

in Interviews
by Max Dax about ,

Anika - On the phone with Max Dax British-Born Annika Henderson, aka Anika, subverts the music industry’s dominant paradigms in unexpected ways. The twenty-four-year-old singer recently released her debut long player—a mélange of dubby, rough-around-the-edges protest music with monotone vocals that sounds like Nico for the post-post-rave generation.

Good morning Anika. I know you’re on tour—where have I managed to reach you?
I just woke up in Detroit, where we played last night. It was pretty wild; we did kind of a punk show. I’m actually still half asleep. The only problem with the U.S. seems to be the quality of the coffee.

So you prefer Italian espresso to filter coffee?
It doesn’t matter as long as it’s strong. But the American stuff is just too watered-down.

You’re currently touring the U.S. with Beak>—the same band, with which you recorded your debut album, right?
Yeah, only Geoff Barrow is missing. As the “leader” of Portishead, he had to choose between them and us, and understandably, he went with them. But he made it clear from the beginning, that Portishead is his priority, so I don’t blame him. We’ve managed to substitute him with two new musicians, but it’s all good. On top of that, Beak> and Portishead have tried to coordinate tours through the US, so we’d be able to catch some of their shows and vice versa. Only recently, Beak> had to do a TV show for a U.S. cable network—without me, but with Geoff. It always works out one way or another.

Do you DJ, when you’re not playing shows?
Yeah, all the time.

Vinyl only?
Not in the States . . . Vinyl is just too heavy to carry around. I used to spin vinyl only, but then I moved to Cardiff for a couple of years and when I went back to Germany to check on my record collection, it had strangely disappeared. I took it as a sign and stopped buying records. It took Geoff to bring me back into the game. He also introduced me to a lot of stuff from the eighties, which was largely unknown musical territory for me. But I suppose, that’s typical for people, who grew up in the nineties. Digging around for interesting music from the eighties became an obsession: I wanted to share, what I’d found with people my age. I loved it all: Einstürzende Neubauten, all the New York stuff . . . It was probably a similar thing for DJs who grew up in the eighties to mine stuff from the seventies, I would imagine.

Since you know so much music from DJing, I’d be interested to find out who you’d like to collaborate with.
Yoko Ono, for sure. She’s a real artist, you know? You should check out her twitter feed … that’s what I call inspiring! Also, as a general matter, the artistic symbiosis of Yoko Ono and John Lennon is still so relevant today. We can all learn from them.

Did you ever have the chance to meet Yoko Ono?
I could have gone to one of the shows she played with the Plastic Ono Band at South by Southwest, but I was booked the same night to DJ. It was the first time, that I actually cursed DJing.

Does Yoko Ono serve as a role model for you?
Honestly, I don’t know enough about her to claim that. I always tell myself: I’ll find out more, when I know I’m going to meet her. Sometimes it’s good not to know very much about someone, that you admire. It can be really inconvenient, you know? If I would try to study everything she ever did, I might lose my confidence in my own work. I mean, Yoko Ono didn’t only do a few great things—she’s really prolific.

You’re now twenty-four years old. How did you become so interested in the music and art of the past?
You know, I grew up in the countryside almost exclusively with people of my parent’s generation. They knew everything about The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead … and that’s how I learned to love it. Of course, I don’t feel limited to older stuff, but growing up with it was just inspiring.

Would you agree, that one of Yoko Ono’s biggest merits was to insist that the private is always political?
Are you talking about the Bed-Ins for Peace?

Not only—Yoko and John celebrated their love on the albums they recorded together by addressing each other publicly, and Yoko’s frankness underscored the strength of her voice as a woman. In contrast Dylan did this only once in his career, on the song “Sarah”.
Absolutely. Yoko Ono knew exactly, that her voice would be heard—she knew, that women all over the world would listen to what she was saying. I think, that’s one of the reasons, why she stood up with so much self-confidence. One of her greatest slogans was and is: “War is over, if you want it.” I’ve never seen more convincing proof of the private becoming political. And of course Yoko Ono wasn’t the first to pick intimacy or personal pain as her central theme. But she revolutionized music by doing it the way she did it.

What other examples come to mind?
Take Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit”. It’s about the lynching of blacks in the South—people hanging on poplar trees as “strange fruit”. Holiday sings the song with such heartfelt emotion, that it also becomes personal. That song changed the world.

“Strange Fruit” is often considered the first protest song.
“Sister Suffragette”, the famous women’s lib song from Mary Poppins, is pretty early too.

But the “protest” isn’t only in the song itself—it’s also in the singer and place it gets sung. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society in New York as a black woman in the late thirties …
I get the point. It’s also fascinating to realize, that this song has become an integral part of the mainstream culture. Hang around Starbucks for a couple hours—sooner or later, you’ll hear it amidst the hissing of the coffee machines. Even though that’s an odd development, it still makes me happy, that these songs exist the way they do. And of course there are so many more women in the worlds of art and literature who taught us how to tear down walls—from Simone de Beauvoir to Patti Smith.

Who continues to carry the torch today in your opinion?
No Bra from Berlin comes to mind. She performs bare chested. In the sixties it was almost commonplace. Today, it’s become a statement again. But I doubt that she will become part of the mainstream culture with her message.

Who knows? It’s hard to say what will come out of times of crisis.
That’s true. I also think that crises change our habits—how we receive information or how we consume art. When if not now does it make sense to become political again, to question authority? If you ask me, songs have always been a primary medium to articulate protest and political statements.

How do you see your own role in this context? On your debut album you include a number of covers, among them Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, which is perhaps the prototypical protest song.
I’ll tell you the main reason why I recorded that song: I was sick to death of all these nice and gentle people who have nothing better to do than reassure themselves of the seriously uninteresting music that makes up the “indie” canon. It’s like people have completely forgotten how political music can catapult your thinking into new territory. So many people I know say that Bob Dylan is the best singer-songwriter in the world. The funny thing is: they don’t even listen to the lyrics! I did “Masters of War” to wake people up. First of all, this is a song about another song. The original was “Nottamun Town”, which is a British folk tune. By rewriting the text, Dylan already establishes a really important connection to the past. In the process, he describes the guilt and sin of the “masters of war”—those attempting to guide the so-called military-industrial complex—and, of course, the Vietnam War. The song had such a huge impact on the American anti-war movement, which was important, because war was and is one of the biggest American exports. People who ignore the words and just celebrate the beauty of the song’s form make me sick.

It’s difficult to recognize Dylan’s melody in your version. If you wouldn’t have included the original title, people would have problems identifying the song.
That’s why I recorded two versions of it …

The second one is a dub version. Dub is more a vision than a genre, because dub songs don’t really have a beginning or an end—which makes the music infinite in a way. Also the idea of an “original” in dub becomes obsolete because there’s an endless amount of versions. Some people go so far as to claim that dub provides a kind of answer to questions of copyright and ownership—which again makes it political.
My whole album was recorded spontaneously in Geoff Barrow’s studio. We were four musicians who are all into dub. It’s a wellknown fact that Bristol and its reggae-infused music scene is considered an outpost of Kingston, Jamaica. There’s a long tradition of bands doing dub versions of songs produced here. Bristol is where pop music is produced like reggae, including strategies to disorient the listener, collective work processes, and lots of debate about the copyright. It’s all a very Jamaican way to produce and experiment with the results. Personally, I am totally fascinated by our two versions of “Masters of War” and it makes me so happy to feel that we were able to retain the gravity of the original in both. Actually, playing around with it, we were really forced to listen carefully. And at the end of the day, Dylan did the same when he took “Nottamun Town” and squeezed a new song out of it.

Your debut album can be seen as a musical commentary on a number of songs made famous by other singers. Were you afraid that your own songwriting would get swallowed in the process?
Appropriating music and lyrics from other singers is an excellent way of raising new questions about music.

You say this with such authority.
Our approach is the opposite of what Simon Reynolds calls “retromania” or nostalgia. When we do a dub version of Dylan, we’ll also play with the emptiness and purity of the dub sound. Ever since people have been able to record in their bedrooms on the computer, we’ve been losing a sense of measure and proportion, sonically speaking. Everything has become overproduced. Before I joined the band, Beak> made it clear on their debut that they have mastered the art of reduction. And since I joined the band, we’ve been really keen on taking other people’s music—songs we truly liked—and purifying and simplifying it. It didn’t take long until we all agreed on doing that consistently, like as a method.

How important is the influence of Geoff Barrow? As the sonic architect of Portishead, he’s been a real innovator when it comes to creating atmosphere.
It was Geoff’s idea to try out Beak> with a guest singer. Even though Geoff sings on and off on the first Beak> record, the band is thought of as an instrumental trio. When I joined the band, it soon became clear that we had a whole new group. But to answer your question: Geoff plays a key role, but the idea behind Beak> is that nobody gives any directions. We usually all pick a song the day before we meet for rehearsals or recordings and then try to play them the next day. In the studio, we’d listen only once to a song that one of us had found on YouTube or whatever and then we’d try to play it from memory. We wouldn’t write down chords or arrangements. And since we always would record everything we played, we had lots of recordings in a very short time. Almost all the songs you hear on our first album were done like that.

So you really stuck to a certain method …
Yes. However, I printed out the lyrics because I couldn’t memorize everything in such a short amount of time. But otherwise, everybody took care of their own parts from memory. Maybe that’s why all the songs feel like they’re held together by some centrifugal force. And of course, you can only record like that when all the musicians are really good at what they do. You don’t have to explain anything to anybody. They can turn anything into music—whatever the context. You know, I never expected that the songs that we were recording from day one would actually get released. I honestly thought of the whole thing as a try-out, because for me, it all wasn’t more than one long, intense jam session … at least during the first few days.

Is it true that you didn’t know who Geoff was in the beginning?
Yup. Nobody mentioned a thing about either Portishead or Beak>. And Geoff introduced himself only as Geoff. After a couple days though, he gave me a copy of the Beak> record. Then I understood.

Do you guys have a lot in common?
I would say we have a common rage against the music industry. It’s the industry’s own fault that audiences nowadays understand music as something to “listen” to in the background—and that people want it for free. Both the industry and large parts of the club scene serve that need like a fast food chain. Musically, if you want to avoid contributing to that, you need at least two like-minded people in a band. Interestingly enough, it was Geoff who seemed to be searching for a person who shared these views. I think we found out pretty quickly that we saw key things from a similar point of view. He wanted a critical and political voice in his band, but he wasn’t explicitly looking for a political songwriter.

What do you mean?
I mean I think that he didn’t want a songwriter who was so obviously topical or literal about what they do. It’s not about lyrics that I could or couldn’t write, but rather about alternative methods of music production and refusing to write music for the industry. Giving interviews can also be a part of it. My function is more analytical than anything else.

So, in a sense you’re attempting to create an “alternate” reality?
It’s not by chance that we left the album raw and didn’t attempt to correct obvious “mistakes”. I think this is also a way of providing an alternative understanding to all the “perfect” music that’s played and produced according to certain norms and standards—like airplay, for instance. If you consciously reject standards, you’re committing a political act in the true Situationist sense.

How do you integrate that into the daily routine of playing shows? You mentioned that you played a “punk” show in Detroit. What does that mean? Are you improvising? Is it violent?
That’s a good question, and I think a contradiction in terms of what we do. Beak> are really a bunch of nerds. If you listen to the first album or a record from Portishead, you’ll hear all the patience and concentration that’s invested into a really sophisticated sound architecture. We’re talking here about extraordinarily gifted musicians—and they get especially nerdy when it comes to the tiniest bits of sound.

That sounds more like perfectionism to me …
Well, even if Geoff doesn’t play at a live show, the band can still play “perfect” sets night after night. I would say that like a jazz band, we define a certain framework for our shows, which gives us security. You can’t underestimate the need to have something you can rely on structure-wise when you’re on stage, thousands of miles away from what you know. By having a framework, we’re able to create a temporary home away from home. But sometimes we look at each other and collectively decide to break the routine, which gives the music a totally different spin. Then nobody would recognize us by our sound alone. ~

Photos: Anika, photographed by Georg Gatsas in Berlin.