In advance of the new album from the British, experimental club producer, we revisit Swiss-born Thomas Fehlmann‘s—electronic musician and founding member of German NDW legends Palais Schaumburg—review of his previous one. Currently based in Berlin, Fehlmann is a frequent collaborator with numerous British and Detroit-based techno acts, as well a floating member of The Orb and co-presenter of weekly radio show Oceanclub Radio together with Gudrun Gut. This recommendation is taken from the summer 2012 print issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, began his career as a professional soccer player for West Brom. Thankfully for us, he turned his talents towards music after suffering a knee injury when he was twenty-five. Well, nobody wishes injury on anybody else, but with music he seems to have found his true calling, as there aren’t that many artists or producers out there today who are as skilled at converting their inner sounds, their inner music, to tape. That’s how I hear R.I.P—as a “mind” record that seeps into the body; it’s sensual, melancholic and beautiful without indulging too much in superficiality by being reduced to the essentials. Dark, ambient techno tracks with tuneless synths, breathing compression and bathed in strangely warm pink noise. Actress leaves out all of the unnecessary stuff, both melodically and in terms of production, and sticks to a very specific sonic palette, avoiding what I would describe as the “safety” elements in electronic music. He dares to be uncompromising and at the same time miraculously succeeds in making something entirely accessible. Actress rejects the dancefloor appeal, and the songs on R.I.P are more explorations of specific structural ideas. He’s looking at a single musical recipe from a number of different angles, and there’s no listening manual. R.I.P follows the true-school idea of an album thoroughly reflecting the inner world of an artist at a certain time. From a producer’s perspective, I find artists often get lost in the machines they use, and the result is usually them being more controlled by them as opposed to the other way around. Actress is able to maintain control while keeping the spontaneous feel throughout. It sounds like the sign of being in a healthy relationship with his artistic self.
From very early on I’ve been not only buying Actress’s albums and singles but also listening to his remixes, and it was immediately apparent to me that he has his own playful voice, which, by the way, is also apparent in his DJ sets. He’s an originator who’s also not shy at hinting at his influences—who, importantly, are originators themselves. Take the Derrick May feel from “Marble Plexus”, or the Black Dog-ish references on “N.E.W.”. But there’s also something about Actress and R.I.P that reminds me of Constantin Brâncusi, a sculptor from the beginning of the twentieth century. Aside from Brâncusi’s general minimalism, he created these “endless pillars” which were patterns carved into tree trunks and placed directly into the floor. The pillars had no beginning and no end, and neither did the carvings. You only see a section that implies endlessness. Similarly, Actress’s endless compositions start more or less in the middle of the action, and only build or progress very subtly, if at all. And he has success with it—or at least what you can call success in today’s bizarre music industry. His label, Honest Jon’s, has proven once again to be a rare haven for fresh approaches, giving their artists the necessary space and freedom to explore. I guess it’s success minus the obvious sales figures—which is to say it’s success for my ears. ~
Actress’ R.I.P is out now on Honest Jon’s. This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 30 (2, 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
In this in-depth interview from last summer’s issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, Editor-in-Chief Max Dax speaks to electronic music’s great British eccentric Squarepusher. Here he talks about growing up his early obsession with radio bands, musique concrète and why having “entertainer” stamped on his visa doesn’t quite cover it. Main photo from EB Festival 2012 in Gdańsk by Luci Lux.
Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, was born in 1975 in British synth-rock Mecca Essex, homecounty of myriad classic electronic acts, including Depeche Mode, The Prodigy and Nitzer Ebb. But despite the local lineage, Jenkinson grew up knowing little about band histories and pop cultural contexts; he was too busy building his own radios and obsessing over circuitry. The unabashed electronics geek had a special interest in radio in its entirety: the noise, the interference, the music (all of it), and the ability to jump from broadcast to broadcast by spinning the dial. Today, Jenkinson has come to see radio as “the first instrument I learned to play,” and the beginning of an interest in both content and method—electronic music and how it’s made. It’s an appropriate history for an artist widely considered to be one of the most innovative acts on Warp Records’ roster of digital envelope pushers. On Ufabulum, Jenkinson once again applies his special brand of programming ingenuity and musical ability to create even bigger, more pulsing breaks and futuristic rave anthems, not to mention a live show equally as seizure inducing. In a good way.
Tom Jenkinson, you’ve created an impressive LED set-up to visually represent your music. How complex was it to realize?
We’re forced to use different gear every night, so there is quite a bit of trouble-shooting every time we build the huge LED screen up onstage. We always have to rent a good chunk of the equipment locally because it would be too expensive to travel by plane with. That’s probably the most complex aspect of the whole experience—to deal with new, unexpected problems on a daily basis.
Did you design everything yourself?
Well, I programmed everything that you see. That’s all my work.
It’s interesting how much effort you’ve put into staging your show. Instead of hiring somebody to take care of visuals, you seem to spend an equal amount of time and energy on it as on the music.
Absolutely. I guess I must have learned it from Kraftwerk. They do everything themselves, and they let no outsider into their creative inner circle. I hate it when something gets lost in translation, and in my case, I’d literally have to explain a picture with words that someone else would have to paint. It’s obvious that the result would be different than the picture I want. As it currently stands, what you see is like a negative or an inverse visual inspiration of my music. I definitively didn’t want to do something like all the others—to use found footage from TV to illustrate my tracks. I hate random or arbitrary visuals because they tend to draw attention away from the music. If what I’m displaying on stage doesn’t lock-in with and accentuate the sonic experience, then I don’t see the point.
Are the visuals triggered by acoustic signals?
Partially. There are two sources of control data: The first is the audio, with each separate signal broken into different instrumental sources. Those sources then get analyzed for pitch, amplitude, waveform irregularity, which in turn function as visual control parameters.
So when you improvise, the visuals will be different?
To an extent. If I affect the audio then obviously the visual parameter it controls will also change.
What about the second source of control?
That’s pure code—instructions that tell the screen to strobe at a particular frequency or change the dimensions of an object being displayed.
That’s a very technical description, but you could also say that with your stage set-up you’re operating a kind of childhood fantasy. You look like you’ve stepped right out of a yet-to-be-made sci-fi flick with your futuristic helmet and the thick data cable that connects it with your machine. It’s like Matrix come true.
I’d probably say that I’m in a state of arrested development. Of course, I mean that half-seriously because I think children love exploring and learning and playing with things without having any specific objectives in mind. It gets harder and harder to do that as an adult.
Doing things without objectives?
Exactly. And that’s why an integral part of my work involves reserving time to carry on with that kind of playful exploration.
One way to maintain that spirit as an adult is to force yourself to do things on a daily basis that you’ve never done before.
That’s a good way to keep yourself open minded. Of course, you can’t always live like that. Every now and then I need to get an analytical overview and think about where things are actually heading—that is, when I’m not doing pure research. I guess I split my time between child-like experimentation and figuring out adult-like objectives.
You once said in an interview that as a child you were fascinated by the size and sounds of power stations and big machines like Ferris wheels.
I’ve used noises from both in my music.
Would you say your music is like a coded language and you’re the only one who’s able to decipher the origin and history of a particular sound? Is there meaning in the original sound sources?
I’m probably not the right person to analyze what I am doing.
But you could describe it.
Well, the Ferris wheel sounds exist for real. The power station I think of more abstractly. You see, from a very young age I was fascinated by electricity, so I constantly read books about it as a kid. One of the books I had was about how power stations worked, and there was a time in my life when I almost lived inside this particular book. I memorized all the pictures and the descriptions of how it worked—how steam rotates the turbines and how the generators produce the electricity that’s being fed into the substations and then into the electric grid. I have this fascination with networks, and the way electricity is distributed is probably one of the best examples of how a network can function. As a kid I was also captivated by circuits. I often thought about electricity going through the pathways, being split here and there and changed into different quantities by various components… and then switched into new pathways.
Radio waves are also at the intersection of music and electricity.
Yeah, and that’s another one of my obsessions. But I’ve always been interested in both the technique and content of broadcasting—how and what music is projected through space. One of the most basic things to do as a kid when you’re into electronics is to build your own radio. Building a tuned circuit which could decode radio signals and then transmit them to loud speakers so that I could hear them: that was magic. The moment when I could listen to music on my own radio for the first time enthralled me. I never really lost that feeling of wonderment about the discovery of electricity and radio waves. I don’t like thinking that it just exists; I tend to see it as a huge man-made effort in scientific advancement.
Discovered by Madame Curie… No, Hertz?
Yes, via James Clerk Maxwell. I was always intrigued by tuning the radio, as well as switching it on and off. I suppose the radio was the first musical instrument I played. I used to just go through the bands and listen, less to specific songs and more to the range—that is, where I was being connected to. Especially with shortwave, where you can find stations in Siberia and Asia and all over the world, with all the foreign languages and distorted sounds. That I could flip in no time from a song being played in Gibraltar to another in Moscow strongly influenced my listening habits.
You mention distorted sounds—those also seem to play an important role in your music.
Like I said, I like the artifacts of the broadcasting; the things that are present but not intended. I like noise, chopped up pieces of music, distorted voices speaking in foreign languages. I see it all as one. I see the programs and the noises in between as a single listening experience.
It sounds like musique concrète.
Absolutely. The radio is like a junior musique concrète development device, like the tape machine. It was an equally defining moment for me when I realized that I could record and play back my own voice on cassette—as well as the sounds from the cars on the street, ambulances, and my mother’s washing machine. I soon realized that I could easily build up a sound archive with my cassettes—the only limitation being the amount I owned. And again, it wasn’t all about the content. It was also about the cassette itself and the sounds you’d get when you played around with the play, the fast-forward and the record buttons. There is no easier way to get pitch modulations than fucking with your cassette player. I’ve ruined many with that kind of abuse. But as a kid one rule always applied: testing things to destruction is probably the best way to test things.
Einstürzende Neubauten’s Andrew Unruh has similar stories about his unconventional uses of contact microphones, like attaching them to subway ticket machines. Of course, the result was usually incorporated into a song.
I never met him, but I know his work of course. We seem to be like-minded. And in that respect I don’t see myself that much as a musician. I rather see myself…
A strange thought occurred to me right now. Every time I apply for a visa and work permit in America I have to describe how I’m earning money. Then it’s up to the border authorities to classify me. When I finally get my visa, it often says: “Tom Jenkinson, Entertainer” or “Tom Jenkinson, Composer”. It makes me laugh when I read it, because it seems like such a horribly limiting description of what I do; I am as interested in the ways of doing things as the things themselves. As a musician, I have always used conventional instruments as much as I have field recordings or electronics or computers. I really don’t care about sound sources or methods as long as it fits to the big picture. Everything for me has musical potential.
Did you listen to a lot of musique concrète—Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, Eliane Radigue?
Yes, but not as a child, obviously. As I said before the radio was my first contact with music. But I was never really interested in who was playing the music that I heard. For me it was always this box, not a particular artist or group or composer. It was about the airwaves. Radio was depersonalized. There was no artistic hierarchy. I never differentiated between quality and bad commercial music. But, of course, I became aware of these classifications later on through other people.
You were never a fan of specific genres or musicians?
Not as a child. In fact, biographical details of the artists bored me to death. I wasn’t curious. Instead, I thought about being an artist myself. I wanted to know how it was done.
While listening to your new album, Ufabulum, I keep hearing what sounds like church organs beneath all the breakbeats and rhythmic complexity. Just before this interview I was listening to it with the bells of a local church here in Gdansk in the background—it seemed to fit perfectly.
The primary school I went to was affiliated with the local cathedral, so we’d be marched up there on occasion. I’d like to stress that I am not a Christian, but I did go on a weekly basis to take part in church things. I’ve forgotten everything about the services, except the organ. It absolutely annihilated all of the other impressions I might have had. It was the only thing I was interested in in the whole building. And it fascinates me to this day. If you’d ask me who’s my favorite composer, I’d probably say Olivier Messiaen—Complete Organ Works.
I DJed once before a Keiji Haino performance at the Berghain. I played a couple of Messiaen’s organ compositions over the Funktion-One system and it was just mind-blowing… for me as well as for the audience.
I have so much admiration for Messiaen, but what I also find striking is that the potential of composing for organ has yet to be exhausted. I’ve worked on a church organ myself and I will say right now: this is not a purely historical machine. It seems utterly conceivable somebody making contemporary music could do it exclusively with a church organ.
You called it a machine…
It is a machine.
One of the oldest machines that exist. I like imagining how it must have been for people living in the fourteenth century; listening to a massive cathedral organ must have been an otherworldly, futuristic experience.
You know, Messiaen’s compositions for organ were composed in the 1940s but could have been written or played hundreds of years ago—technically speaking. I mean, what he did was historically determined, and it wouldn’t have been possible without, say, Bach and what came before him. But in a purely technical sense, the parameters given by the machine were the same at the time when he composed his organ works as they were in the fourteenth century. I sometimes ask myself how these instruments will be played in two hundred years. How will people write organ music in the future? I like to think about breaking conventions, social and logical. I imagine the music I make today like a Messiaen organ compositions four hundred years before it happened.
A vision of the future from an alternate reality?
With my music I try to steal from the future. I know about the difficulty inherent in claims like that, but sometimes I feel constrained by history. One of the most important things for me is to avoid any redundancy in my music—not only in historical terms, but also within my own work. So if I do something, I have to honestly be able to say it contains something new. Otherwise, I don’t see the point. ~
People in America tend not to have seen Shoah for a very silly, practical reason: its unavailability on DVD. You can buy a copy from absolut MEDIEN, but very few people know that this version is code-free. So if you didn’t get a copy when the DVD was in circulation a decade ago, or if you weren’t an adult in the mid-eighties when Shoah was in theaters or on public television, you’re kind of out of luck. We’re talking here about a generation of Americans in their twenties and thirties that don’t even know what Shoah is. Of course, watching the film on YouTube is a literal option, but not an ideal one. I’ve certainly watched plenty of films on YouTube, and I also consider the website to be the cinematheque of the future. But Shoah is a grand-scale movie, and it gains a lot from being projected onto a large screen. Conversely, the smaller you see it, the more reducible it becomes to a mere delivery of information, and devoid of its—how should I put it?—unique beauty.
Beauty isn’t the opposite of horror—it’s the sublimation of horror. It’s the transcendental redemption of horror, but certainly not its absence. When you see the beauty of the Polish forests in Shoah, you realize that only the knowledge of what took place there actually despoils it. Visually speaking, there’s nothing left that evokes murder—a point also brilliantly made in the beginning of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. The killing fields, in their post-war state, reveal nothing. In comparison to Resnais, Claude Lanzmann raises the aesthetic risk in Shoah to an even higher level by bringing the actual survivors—his interview subjects—back to these places of indescribable pain and suffering. Simon Srebnik on the boat or in front of the church in Chełmno are images of theatrical daring stronger than any method. They carry with them incredible aesthetic risk and reinforce that what you’re seeing is, in many instances, drama—not a documentary, though entirely the truth. You don’t need to see piles of bodies to know that a colossal crime was committed. And if you do, you’re probably morally obtuse.
Every film and every book is actually two films, two books. There’s the work itself and then the making-of. Especially with non-fiction, where the author or director spends so much time travelling, interviewing, and researching. The experiences that go into the production can’t all be reflected in the results. Also, these experiences, even if related to events of complete horror, don’t have to be horrifying themselves. Lanzmann’s memoir, The Patagonian Hare, is often humorous, and that wasn’t shocking for me in the least. I was more blown away by the life he led overall. Before reading it, I knew next to nothing about Lanzmann’s biography, with only the vaguest awareness that he had been together with Simone de Beauvoir and was a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre. But I didn’t know of his adventurous nature; his involvement in the Resistance; his experiences of anti-Semitism in Paris in the thirties; his athleticism; that he would go out of his way to confront physical danger. I suspected he was a tough character because I had interviewed him in 2003 in Paris for my book about Jean-Luc Godard—who had proposed a joint film project to Lanzmann that was never realized. Lanzmann was very generous and it was a good discussion, but I found it very intimidating to talk to him. Lanzmann had an intensity in his gaze when he looked at me that seemed to contain a condensed and extraordinary strength, an amazing moral authority. It was like interviewing Moses.
After reading The Patagonian Hare, I realized this strength was built on experience, on the willingness to confront grave physical, emotional and moral danger. Lanzmann has lived his life running the risk of nonexistence, running the risk of death. The Patagonian Hare made clear that Shoah didn’t come out of nowhere. I had always wondered, “Who is this man who made this film in the middle of his life?” I felt as if I understood, because I myself didn’t write professionally until my forties, and Lanzmann didn’t complete his first film, Israel, Why until he was around forty-seven. Waiting that long to undertake his first big work is, in Lanzmann’s case, an incredible act of bravery—and he topped it by putting twelve years into Shoah, which he didn’t finish until he was almost sixty. Somebody with such an overflowing mind, soul, and energy being patient enough to wait to accomplish something so great, is nothing less than astounding.
At its core, Lanzmann explores in his memoirs the most basic question of his life: What does it mean to be a Jew? For him, the very idea of the survival of the Jewish people went hand in hand with the promise of resistance: the founding and endurance of Israel, the willingness of Ben-Gurion to fire on the Zionist paramilitary Irgun as they were bringing arms into the country for their own militia—these were integral parts of the promise of a Jewish future, the willingness of Israel to function like a state. The concept of resistance was also a main theme in the last part of Shoah and one that people don’t talk about very much. In fact, the film ends with the acknowledgement that Jews weren’t only passive victims, but also attempted to fight back as best they could. Or, to put it in Lanzmann’s terms, Jews attempted to “reappropriate violence”. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Anti-Semite and Jew that Jewish identity is defined by the anti-Semite, without whom Jewish identity would be lost. After Lanzmann went to Israel for the first time in the fifties, he claimed to have found proof of the opposite. Indeed, his life and work are dedicated to fighting against Sartre’s definition. I’m not sure he’s been entirely successful, but The Patagonian Hare undoubtedly succeeds in exposing the paradox of his struggle. ~
Richard Brody is an author, staff writer and movie-listings editor for The New Yorker. His most recent book, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, was published by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company in 2009.
photo: © Medien GmbH, www.absolutmedien.de
This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 30 (Summer 2012). Read the full issue on issuu.com:
It’s a bold statement in more ways than one, but put me on the record: if Anti-Pop would have an heir apparent, it would have to be Death Grips. At least I’d like to think about it like that. The first track I heard off their new album was actually “Lost Boys” on a YouTube video of them practicing the song, shot from the floor behind the drums and with Zach Hill’s footwork the focus. The loud, hard, live drumming and aggressive production fits perfectly into the hip-hop template—or should I say created a new one?
Death Grips, both in terms of MCing and rhythm, have infused hip-hop with a punk aesthetic. In a way it makes sense considering Zach Hill’s background as a punk drummer and a former member of Boredoms. Nevertheless, so many rock and hip-hop fusions have failed miserably in the past. The same goes for jazz and hip-hop. And nine times out of ten it has to do with a lack of respect and understanding brought to the table by both parties. In contrast, Death Grips exhibit a total mastery of both. You see, a lot of people think hip-hop should sound a certain way and be about certain things.
I think that’s a backwards way of thinking. For example, with Death Grips, you can’t understand the lyrics, which is pretty uncommon for hip-hop. But that just adds to an overall aesthetic of aggression, through which you can still gleam some kind of message. Take the album’s title, The Money Store. If you didn’t grow up in America, you might not know that it’s a reference to a consumer finance company that specializes in sub-prime mortgages. Basically, these are legitimized loan sharks. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I have a feeling the anger on the album is vented in that general direction.
In that sense, they’re rawness feels almost like, say, Public Enemy— like It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back. Death Grips is Shocklee and Bomb Squad raw, production-wise, and they also have something of the dichotomy between Chuck and Flav, that tension in the middle of a cacophony, which explodes into something hard hitting, dirty, unpristine, and aggressive. There’s nothing pussy about it. And there’s nothing pussy about Death Grips. ~
If consistency is the hobgoblin of human minds, we can all be thankful that Jason Pierce is from outer space. The Spiritualized architect and founding member of Spacemen 3 has regularly cheated death over the past decade, most recently fighting his way through chemotherapy to concoct what’s rumored to be Spiritualized’s final album. The sometimes brooding sometimes soaring Sweet Heart Sweet Light is mature, psychedelic pop with Pierce at his most repentant.
[Jason Pierce pointing at a copy of Electronic Beats Magazine Fall 2011]: Ah, Björk. Haven’t had a chance to listen to the new album yet. What’s the consensus?
AS: Taken as a whole, with the app and interactive elements, it’s certainly innovative . . .
The last time I saw Björk was at Alexander McQueen’s, um, I don’t really know what you’d call it . . . I guess it was a memorial of sorts—a gathering in St. Paul’s Cathedral. She was asked to sing, and she performed a Nina Simone song a cappella. For the occasion, it was absolutely amazing. I don’t know how else to describe it other than moving. [pointing at a stack of vinyl] What did you steal?
MD: Well, it was supposed to be a few copies of the last Grinderman record, but I waited too long to pick them up, so I’ve ended up with a few copies of the new S.C.U.M.
I really like that last Grinderman record.
MD: I think it’s brilliant.
We went on tour with Nick for a while. We ended up playing a festival he curated in Australia with The Saints and a bunch of other great bands. Nick played, Suicide was out there, Harmonia was out there, Silver Apples were on the date. It was also pretty cool for Australia, and as festivals go in general, kind of uncommon.
AS: Sounds like ATP.
That’s exactly what it was. Nick’s one of the good guys, isn’t he? I mean, I don’t own that many of his records but I truly enjoyed some of the classic stuff he played on tour, like “Deanna”. When most people play older songs, there’s a sense of revisiting something that they haven’t got anymore. Especially in England, with the whole trend of hailing everything as “classic”. It’s usually music that was created in the stupidity of youth. Come to think of it, you could almost call it the ATP ethos. It can be enjoyable, but there’s also something deeply wrong about it.
MD: Figuring out how to deal with your artistic past—archiving or digging things back up—is a big challenge for lots of musicians. Bob Dylan or Miles Davis had been able to wade through their back catalogue and reinterpret it in a fresh and even risky way. I always find the reinterpretation much more inspiring, because it leaves open the possibility of failure.
The alternative is trying to relive your youth. There’s something very unsavory about middle-aged men and women doing that so publically, especially in England, where it happens so often because there’s money to be had in it. I mean, Spiritualized did three Ladies and Gentlemen shows and we didn’t really earn much from it, because we spent everything on making it bigger and more glorious. But there was money there if we would have pursued that for the next year and a half. But why would we want to do that? Not wanting to make new music as a musician—to me that’s bizarre.
AS: I read that you were in tears onstage during a recent performance of Ladies and Gentleman.
It was on a weekend in Scotland, and people properly come out there on weekends. They’d all taken their ecstasy, and the venue was kind of electric. It was like one of those snake handling churches where somebody would just stand up and shout, “I fucking love you!” and then sit back down again. We were playing an acoustic set with three gospel singers and a string quartet. The noise from the audience was actually greater than the noise from the band, but not like talking over the music or anything. It was more excited noise connected to the music. We started playing the title song and when we got to “Wise men say . . .” I looked around and saw all the gospel singers with tears streaming down their faces, because it was so glorious. But not in a hushed reverence—it was properly mad in there.
AS: There’s been lots of talk about the ridiculous amount of money you’ve been offered to reform Spacemen 3 . . .
“Original” band members, “original” venues, “original” audience: it’s all an attempt to capture a moment that’s gone. I mean gone. The thing is that music evolves very, very slowly, even though people are constantly looking for something new. Most listeners pick up on big changes in style, but the actual progression is in tiny increments over long periods of time. Either way, it’s important to be oriented towards the future and making music for now, not just regurgitating old crap.
MD: Don’t you think changes in music are more like paradigm shifts in science, brought about from the introduction of new technology and new tools to express new ideas within a different conceptual framework. Or at least reinterpret old ones?
It can be, sure. I don’t mean progression in terms of “improvement”. It’s more like evolution. But you still want to, like, encourage the change. But that’s perhaps where the comparison stops. I mean, it’s not about making a musical soup with a little bit of Stooges, a dash of Patsy Cline, a pinch of Willie Nelson; rather it’s about appropriating a feeling or artistic spirit. When I was a kid, it was still possible to catch Bo Diddley or Candi Staton playing in some tiny venue with a couple dozen people in the audience. Or I could go to some Motown revue thing at Butlins holiday camp resort. But I wouldn’t do that, because that was geared for people who had been listening to Motown when it came out, and were dead set on reliving something. Bo Diddley on the other hand was timeless. I think that’s the difference to catering to uncritical audiences, between wallowing in the past and moving on. I mean, who the fuck wants to be in the catering industry? Or do professional battle reenactments? It’s like those people who put on fake beards and buy fake guns to go reenact the Civil War on a Sunday.
MD: Simon Reynolds wrote a whole book about it. Have you read Retromania?
No, but people have recommended it to me. When I went on tour with free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, I asked him how much of what he does is “new” and how much is the Evan Parker that people want and expect. Clearly, there had to be a good deal of new, because so much of what he does is improvisational. He said it was fifty-fifty. I believe sometimes you have to force the music somewhere else; somewhere it doesn’t want to go. The whole reason we do this is because it’s exciting. That’s rock and roll, isn’t it? It’s the most glorious, beautiful, powerful thing around. And it’s so easy to mess it up. The difference between truly beautiful, heart wrenching music and crap is fractional. The difference between Patsy Cline and some god-awful bar band is maybe a slight change in tremolo. It’s the difference between Kraftwerk and what you hear piped out of your local shoe shop.
AS: You can sometimes draw a line between psych bands that rely heavily on orchestration and those that do things free form. Spiritualized are often seen as doing more of the former, although there are long stretches of Sweet Heart Sweet Light that sound like the latter. How much of what you do these days is improvised?
That would be most of the album, actually. You see, I don’t write songs. I just come in with ideas and then we work it out as a band. Some people that talk about the “symphony in their head”, one that “just” needs to be recorded. That’s a very conceited notion of making music, one that doesn’t allow for mistakes or things going hopelessly wrong. Some of the best bits of music are the product of people seriously fucking up. For Sweet Heart Sweet Light maybe less so because I was really looking to make a classic pop record, but I still didn’t instruct anybody to play parts. Everybody just played into that sound. But that takes time. With the band, communication is like osmosis. It’s like with friends: you learn how to talk around your friends; you learn how to dress around your friends, or whatever. It’s easier to get to the heights without the needle going into the wrong area. A good chunk of the new album was pulled from old bits and ideas that had been rejected from records in the past—you know, bottom shelf stuff. No, not really. But “Too Late” was like that, which I wrote for Candi Staton. I had this bizarre idea that Marianne Faithfull would have done it somewhere down the line. “I Am What I Am” was written with Dr. John almost eight years ago. But this was all stuff that didn’t fit at the time. It was too pop. But they don’t sound now like they did back then. Without trying to sound romantic, I thought of this as the last Spiritualized album, and I wanted to tie up all these loose ends. There was no reason to feel embarrassed by them. I’m talking lots now, but also, in a weird way, you can hide behind abstraction and distortion and always claim that people just aren’t “hip” to something when you make stuff like that. You definitely can’t do that with pop.
AS: Sweet Heart Sweet Light certainly doesn’t hide behind any fog of reverb or effect-driven atmosphere—at least not the unfinished version we heard.
Exactly. I thought for all these classic moments in rock and roll that have been written about to death, many of which I own on record, there are equally as many brilliant records that aren’t full of the stupidity and single-mindedness of youth. They have wisdom, musical wisdom. Beefheart’s Clear Spot or Iggy’s Kill City or even Elvis Country were records that had to be made. That’s what I wanted to make: something that’s more fitting of my age. Though I thought it would be easier to make a pop record.
AS: Really? That’s surprising to hear from a perfectionist.
Well, I’m not trying to make a perfect record, just something that fits perfectly with where I’m at . . . not that I know exactly where that is, but I at least have some approximation.
MD: Do you have any role models when it comes to aging with dignity?
I think there are a lot of musicians that age or had aged with dignity, but I don’t really have role models. For me, seeing The Sun Ra Arkestra and Peter Brötzmann have been some of the most inspiring musical moments of recent years. There’s also a lot of “new” music out there that’s just aping stuff from the past. I wanted to make a pop record that didn’t just sound like snippets of things you’ve already heard, but rather had its own identity. This isn’t the record of a young man that was writing on your walls and messing up your floor and kicking bottles over.
AS: One of the paradoxes of pop culture is that the things that are embraced by the masses are the same things that people feel speak to them personally—a dynamic Spiritualized seems especially attuned to.
I suppose so, but at the end of this record I realized that I had made something that was almost for a single listener . . . I guess it’s just how pop music works. Whatever your intention, how the work affects people is always out of your hands. I mean, when I listen to “Sister Ray”, I’m not thinking about sailors and prostitutes.
MD: Do you remember your dreams?
Some, yeah. But I’m not particularly mystical. I like science. Part of the reason why this record took as long as it did was because I had been doing a chemotherapy type thing, where the drugs they gave me were worse than what I was actually suffering from. The dreams that I had during the chemo were so closely connected to real life that there was a good six months of difficulty in telling the two apart. But dreams for me almost never have any deeper meaning.
AS: You’ve told us about crying to your own music—when was the last time you cried to somebody else’s?
I do it loads. I feel myself welling up all the time. Not properly crying though. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I don’t listen to other people’s music when I make records, because I can only hear production values; how somebody records a snare or sibilance levels . . . I’ve only just started listening to music again, so I can’t report on any crying in the last couple weeks. But it’s always the same songs that get me again and again. “Day by Day” by Jimmy Scott, for example. I guess that’s an obvious one, but when I play it for somebody else and they’ve never heard it before, I usually get emotional because of their reaction. ~
Photo: Max Dax