A Quietus Interview: Jamie McDermott of the Irrepressibles, Alexander Geist, Ebe Oke and MJ Woodbridge (March 18th, 2015)

It’s been a busy couple of years for The Irrepressibles’ Jamie McDermott. The critical and commercial success of the band’s second album, Nude, a celebration of and reflection on male homosexual love, has shot the singer to new heights of recognition, resulting in a series of well-received tours that have taken him and his bandmates around the world, from the United States to Russia and beyond. Last year saw a series of EPs expand on the premise and aesthetic of Nude, often stripping away the album’s lavish electronics and symphonic textures to reveal the heartfelt lyrical honesty underneath. Now residing in Berlin, McDermott will be back on UK shores on March 20 for a one-off spectacle at Islington Assembly Hall, London, which will see The Irrepressibles recreate Nude in all its glory, bolstered by support from genre-pushing queer acts Ebe Oke, Alexander Geist and MJ Woodbridge. The Quietus caught up with Jamie, Ebe, Alexander and MJ in September to discuss what audiences can expect from the show and what it means to be a gender- and sexuality-bending musician in the 21st century.

How are plans for the show coming along?

Jamie McDermott: Speaking for myself, we’re just doing the elements that will make up the main show, because at the moment we’re touring Nude: Viscera, which is more rock-focused with strings, but also doing some Nude: Landscapes. Hopefully, there might be some more videos, so that’s something else I’ve been doing, but I know that Ebe has also been rehearsing for the show.

Without giving away too much, what can people expect from the Nude spectacle?

JM: It’s going to be a full event. We have music that’s kind of part of the arts and culture aspect of music, more acoustic, more symphonic at the beginning. We’ve got Ebe’s music, which he’ll explain himself, but which has elements of classical music and queer avant-garde tradition. And The Irrepressibles’ set will move from moments that are with just piano and guitar and other stuff that’s more rock, more visceral and more sexual, with electronics. It will be audiovisual, so something that’s not only explained through sound, but also through video work and movement. It all helps express the message of Nude, which is my story as a homosexual guy growing up, a discourse on sexuality and art.

It sounds like it’s going to be a ‘big’ show. Is it the most ambitious one you’ve done?

JM: It will be the biggest one since we played Mirror Mirror [The Irrepressibles’ first album] at the Barbican, so this is us bringing the big spectacle of the second record to London, and after that show’s finished, we’re going to the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen for MJ Woodbridge and Alexander’s performances. So we’ve got a lot of different artists who are part of the new movement of LGBT artists in music, or at least artists who happen to be LGBT.

I was going to ask – is there a new movement of LGBT artists in music, or are you all artists who happen to be part of the LGBT community?

JM: For me, with Nude, it was necessary to say something very clear and confident about being gay and working in art, and, with the event, it’s become a beacon for a little moment of artists who are so different, but are able to be honest about their sexuality. There are so many artists around, from Owen Pallett to Antony to Grizzly Bear, and it’s all happening now. It’s a movement, I think, and we’re just one part of that movement.

Alexander Geist: I think, in the queer community, there are people who don’t necessarily have homosexual sexual identities but are still part of that community, and it will be great to have people like that involved.

Ebe Oke: I personally don’t feel as though I’ve fully found my tribe yet. Although I relate to the LGBT community I don’t feel adequately represented by it. My sense of gender and sexuality is mutable. I’m a sky person and lean toward sapiosexual tendencies.

It sounds like it’s going to be quite different to shows you’ve been doing of late, Jamie, with much more stripped down shows…

JM: I think it was really important for me to do that, because a lot of people thought Mirror Mirror was all about flamboyance and things being decadent, which it wasn’t, it was about the European tradition and flamboyance, but more in terms of art’s connection with fashion and how there’s a connection between the visual and sound. With Nude, it was interesting to strip it back and focus on the elements to make it more visceral. When I look at the spectacle, it’s not coming back to something that’s grand, it’s more hearing all of it and it may be one the last concerts of Nude, so it’s a bit like, ‘Here is all of it, and this is what this work was about’.

That suggests you might be working on new material. Is there anything you can tell at this point about that?

JM: I am working on new music, but I don’t know if I want to talk about it yet, because I don’t want to jinx it! I’m not in any way precious or arrogant in any way, but it’s always such a strange process for me, making music…

How many musicians are currently in The Irrepressibles?

JM: It varies. Sometimes there’ll be three, sometimes there’ll be five, sometimes there’ll be eight. When we started doing Nude, we didn’t work with a woodwind section anymore, but it will still be a large ensemble.

How did you all end up crossing paths with Jamie and getting onboard? Who wants to go first?

AG: I’ve known Jamie for a long time, we have mutual friends, and I saw The Irrepressibles when they were a four-piece before the first record came out seven or eight years ago. I opened for The Irrepressibles last summer, and we’ve worked together for some time.

EO: I first discovered Jamie’s music at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s club years ago. He’s become a trusted friend and confidante. His empathy and capacity for feeling is astounding.

I’ve listened to all your musics, but what will your performance involve on the night?

AG: I’m going to have two backing singers and one musician. It’ll be mostly electronic music, inspired by late-70s and early-80s synth music. The lyrical output is inspired by someone like Morrissey, sort of wry and somewhat political and somewhat obnoxious, but sort of cinematic in scope. And you’re going to have a great time!

EO: I discovered The Irrepressibles because an ex-boyfriend took one of their early shows at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Jamie and I became friends and I worked with two of his former band members on my first record. You could definitely say that some of my music is quite minimal, but I think it’s actually quite varied. I don’t think I have one specific style. For the show, I’m going to work with a string trio and some electronics. I’m going to be presenting some music that I’ve written for my next record, which is going to be an electronic record.

MJ Woodbridge: I’m the new girl! A good friend of mine/manager got in touch with Jamie and he invited me for the night. My live show for this is going to be stripped back, possibly acoustic guitar and me on vocals, playing my original songs and some covers of big gay anthems that I turn into my style.

EO: ‘Big gay anthems’?

MJW: I do Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ and a Britney Spears song and a Mariah cover, which I kind of mash up into one of my original songs.

How do you three feel about this notion of an LGBT musical community? Is that something that was high up on your mind when you got involved with the Nude spectacle?

EO: I’m always excited to discover new queer artists. My understanding of being queer is that it deviates from the traditional stereotypes we’ve been conditioned with. I feel this queerness carries with it a sense of freedom from conformity but not necessarily. I look back at writers like Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, William S. Burroughs and artists like Claude Cahun and applaud them for their bravery in paving the way through such nebulous territory. I like to believe that the queer spirit is at an advantage for being somewhat ill at ease in the world and for often having a broad range of gender identities to perceive from. For me being queer is not limited to homosexual or bisexual people. Heterosexual people can also be queer. Although queerness is becoming more widely integrated into the fabric of our society, let’s not forget Alan Turing and Wilde who were prosecuted for being true to themselves less than a century ago. Let us also be fully aware that queer people are being hunted down and brutally executed in Africa and the Middle East. I want the scope of my conscience to include everyone.

One of the things I find really beautiful about Jamie’s work is how honest and upfront it is. Do you think it’s easier now to be that honest about one’s sexuality?

AG: I don’t feel like I have much choice about being upfront about my sexuality or gender identity. A lot of people decide it for you, but I’m certainly not going to beat around the bush. Things are different from one day to the next, and from one place to the next, you can be hassled or you can be adored, but all that matters is to hold on to who it is you are. Maybe culturally things are opening up, which is great, but you have to be aware of how culture works, and how it always finds something subversive and then gives it a marketing angle. We can be grateful for culture opening up, but be careful because you don’t want to be used to promote nachos or Burger King or something.

JM: I think it’s great, though, when a massive company makes a stand [for equality]. I think a lot of people have big issues with what they call the normalisation of LGBT society, but I think homosexuality is always going to be an anomaly, because we are by default one in ten. But homosexuality is about love, so it’s not unusual. You can be heterosexual and unusual.

When we spoke last, Jamie, you told me about how difficult it was to perform in Russia. Do you still get different reactions from crowds from place to place?

JM: I think now that heterosexual men are more comfortable with themselves and therefore comfortable with there being gay men who fall in love with other men. Things have changed vastly throughout the world but there obviously still are many places where it’s difficult. I just performed recently in Rome and I was concerned because they have recently tried to put a stop on gay marriages being recognised in Italy, which we think of as being a very modern country. So the concert became a bit more political, even somewhere like Italy.

Jamie’s music is very autobiographical. Do you three have a similar approach?

EO: My music is often autobiographical even if it’s not directly about experiences from my life. I incorporate various ways of writing that can include the induction of trance-like states often leading to lyrics reflecting the inner world. It gets fun when you find creative ways to weave the outer and inner worlds together. I’ve written a few character studies of people in my life. For instance, my song ‘Nissa’ is about a very dear friend whose work as a dancer and performance artist has had a significant influence on me as an artist.

MJW: My music used to be based on the whole LGBT thing but now it’s more personal and helps me discover who I am. It’s the journey rather than the end product. I don’t necessarily set out to write about specific issues – although I have – and I think my work is more conceptual.

JM: I think we now have the ability to be more graphic, be it in music or on television or whatever, and the great thing is this reaches a heterosexual audience and not just a gay one. It’s like when Jim Carrey was in I Love You Phillip Morris and he was getting ripped to pieces in interviews [for the graphic content] and he was like: ‘Is this still an issue? How is it still an issue?’

Finally – are you looking forward to the show? Nervous at all?

EO: Yes, I’m nervous. I’ve got some new songs that I am still working out parts for. If they aren’t ready we will perform them anyway and play with the uncertainty. I often throw improvised passages into my set. The setlist has changed a few times but we will perform some piano-led songs along with electronic works that are a nod to my next record. I work with an incredible ensemble. I’m very lucky!

JM: I’m always nervous before every gig! But for me, it’s such an important, cathartic process, so it’s a bit like a séance or therapy between me and the audience. You’re exploring things, some of which may be quite dark, through performance. It helps me find peace.

A Quietus Interview: At One With Chaos & Abandonment: The Irrepressibles Interviewed (June 19th, 2014)

The first thing that hits you when listening to Nude, the superlative second album by London-based art-pop group The Irrepressibles, is the vocal power of lead singer and songwriter Jamie McDermott. McDermott’s capacity to wrench heartfelt, overwhelming emotion with every word that emerges from his mouth brings to mind Antony Hegarty, with whom he also shares a penchant for lyrics that openly and honestly explore issues surrounding homosexuality and gender. Over the past few months, The Irrepressibles have been touring incessantly, including a trip to Russia – home of some of the most homophobic laws in Europe – and have also returned to the material on Nude for three EPs that showcase the wide tapestry of the band’s sound. Nude: LandscapesNude: Viscera and Nude: Forbidden contain alternate versions of tracks from Nude as well as new material and remixes, but they differ wildly from one another, together creating an alternative vision of McDermott’s inner and outer world from the original album. The Quietus met with Jamie McDermott to discuss these three differing soundscapes, the honesty of his lyrics and that remarkable voice.

How are you? It seems like it’s been a busy year for you…

Jamie McDermott: [Laughs] Yeah, I dunno. It’s sort of like heaven and hell at the same time, it’s been pretty extreme. For a lot of musicians at the moment, it’s like you’re making music and managing to get by living on very little. I live on a council estate, which is really quite rough and harsh, and the next extreme is getting on a plane getting booked at the Academy Of Music and hearing opera being played! It’s quite extreme for musicians.

Nude, your second album, was released to considerable acclaim in 2012. Could you tell me a little bit about its creation?

JM: It was quite difficult, because we knew we needed to make the second record as soon as we could, as the first had come out in 2010 and there was quite a lot of pressure to make the second. I wanted to make a very different statement, but also to make it in a way that wasn’t contrived. The idea was to do something that was both visually and lyrically honest about my sexuality. I wanted to make something that kind of communicated the experiences I’ve had growing up as a young gay man. I took songs that I’d written from various times, when I was a lot younger, and felt I could give them an arrangement that would set them in a time. I used 80s and early 90s-style electronics and then, as with Mirror Mirror, I used orchestration, but instead of orchestrating it in a very polyphonic way, I wanted to make something that was a bit more American and filmic. A use of strings that doesn’t have a specific style, so I used the strings in a way that was a bit more about memory and time, rather than being set in time.

That’s how the record came together, but when we handed it over, we had a difficult process because the label decided they didn’t want it, so we had to find a different way of releasing it. And that was a really big challenge. We’d made this thing which, for the time, was very honestly gay in a way that many artists weren’t really doing in terms of mainstream music. Now, there have been a lot of artists that have done similar things, even people like Goldfrapp – who’s done music that deals with gender and homosexuality – which is fantastic, but at the time, it was a bit like “woahh… ok”.

So it’s been quite a difficult couple of years, but the finishing line was, for me, performing at the first ever gay wedding in the UK, singing ‘Two Men In Love’, and performing out in Russia, being part of the movement and meeting with the LGBT resistance. It was really interesting to be involved with the LGBT movement worldwide, including with our videos, which is hard to do with no budget [laughs]. People say “It doesn’t look aesthetically very good”, and it’s like “Yeah, but we don’t have any money!”

Could you please give me a bit of background on The Irrepressibles, and how the band was formed?

JM: We’ve had about two or three incarnations of the band. The first one was back in 2002, and we were a band for about three years until two of them got married and decided to move away. It had been so intense, trying to make a budget work, but we had a great time, running nights such as at Candid and putting on interesting artists. I then went on to do a site-specific performance choir, but someone was trying to do something similar to the Irrepressibles and put an advert on Drowned In Sound, so I got a bit angry and decided to put a band together again. I put an advert out, and ended up with more orchestral instruments. As someone who isn’t trained as a composer, I didn’t really know what they were, so would just have a listen and then, once they were in my head, I could just sing parts and figure out what to do. That band started in 2005, and we eventually got signed in 2010.

You’ve recently released three EPs, also called Nude, that sort of reimagine and transform the songs from the Nude album, whilst also combining them with unreleased tracks. What made you decide to return to the Nude recordings?

JM: Well, Nude originally was a record that I’d made by myself as a solo artist, just with guitar and voice, and it was very similar to Nude: Viscera, the second EP. So, when I came to do Nudeas a studio album with The Irrepressibles, it was more focused on telling my story as a gay man growing up, so sonically I wanted to bring in elements of electronica as well as carry on the lineage of Mirror Mirror. So, it became a very different record and some tracks didn’t fit. It wasn’t that they were outtakes, they just didn’t fit. There was also a kind of time limit, we needed to get the album finished. But tracks like ‘Not Mine’ and ‘Forbidden’ were part of the same message, and I’ve always wanted to make statement albums and not just the same album over and over again. I want to make different sound worlds with specific messages. So, I felt these songs needed to be released in some way, but they didn’t combine into one second record, like a Nude Two.

The stuff that was more rock and more visceral came from a time when I used to be an indie-rock kind of singer. Then there was the stuff that I’d performed solo, versions of ‘Arrow’ and so on, that were very different versions that I was actually quite nervous of performing without the other musicians. But I did it in Paris, and people were actually quite moved by it and said I should perform that way. It ended up online and people were asking where they could hear these versions, and so there was a reason to release them as well. And then there were the electronic tracks, like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Edge Of Now’ that needed to be put out somehow, especially as we’d had these remixes done. For example, Ghosting Season, the Mancunian duo, did remixes of ‘Arrow’ and ‘Forbidden’, and I really love their work, as well as iamamiwhoami, who remixed ‘New World’. It seemed like the right thing to do, to create these three EPs, kind of like a band doing a live album, a kind of add-on.

It also allowed us to perform in different ways. A lot of people expect to hear a replication of the album [when it’s performed] live, and Nude is symphonic and electronic, with quite medium-scale production values. So, it’s quite difficult to replicate onstage. I don’t want people to come expecting one thing from the album and then hearing something else, so the idea is that if we release these EPs, people will get an idea of what to expect on tour. So we toured Nude: Landscapes in the UK and the US and then took Nude: Viscera on a more extended tour in the UK. And we’re about to do a more expansive tour in the USA. It’s kind of blown up a little bit, so we’re going out to Tel Aviv and Greece… Eventually, we’ll come back and do the full Nudespectacle, so we can do the more visual side of my work as well. It’s really nice, though, to play onstage and just be in the moment, rather than as part of something that’s very choreographed and set. That’s very tight, whereas with just piano and strings, using loop pedals, and with the “rock” EP, there’s a chance to be in the moment, which is just great. And I can sing more! Because I fucking love singing [laughs].

You’ve kind of touched on this, but does each EP represent a different facet of The Irrepressibles, in some way?

JM: It’s interesting, because some bands set out with a very specific idea of what they want to do, with a clear mission, but I never did that with The Irrepressibles. The mission statement was always to be like the name is: unrestricted. It can be quite confusing to people, because we’ve kind of moved from what was a rock-pop style into something that’s more electronic or whatever. There isn’t a sound of The Irrepressibles. Somebody mentioned that there is a sound that you can hear throughout everything that “says” The Irrepressibles, but in terms of style, I’m completely at one with chaos and abandonment.

Also, I think I’ve been very much a control freak with The Irrepressibles, but I’m still very interested in collaboration and it’s been very interesting to have people remix stuff. I just gave them free reign, and it’s the same when we do music videos. We’ve just done some music for a Shelly Love film. She’s making a trilogy of films based on the Forgotten Circus, and I’ve just written some music for the first short film, which was, in a way, more in the style of Mirror Mirror. It’s nice to suddenly be in a room full of orchestral instruments and write just by singing parts while I’m in the room, before going into the studio working with electronics. Maybe it’s because I’m gay, but I’m very open! [laughs]

What made you decide on which songs should be performed in a certain way?

JM: Mainly, it was just informed by what they were. On the first EP, people wanted the orchestral version of ‘Arrow’, before I’d built it up with electronics, so that was already there, same with the live version of ‘New World’. Then I was asked to do a cover by an American film company, and I’d never wanted to do covers, so it had to be something that meant something emotionally to me in this time, and ‘Always In My Mind’ seemed right. I love that song, the sentiment is so powerful.

What is the meaning of each EP’s title?

JM: With each title, it kind of has a double concept, it some ways. Nude: Landscapes is to do with expanding the landscapes with loop pedals. All the arrangements are being built on top of each other, so there’s a sense, for me – and I know this sounds kind of spiritual! – of there being a line put into the loop that is then a memory that you then build upon, and it becomes a reflection of the memory. I actually really enjoy that way of arranging. I’ve always done it, really, but the loop has allowed me to really expand that. In ‘Arrow’, for example, the ending is massively orchestrated: it’s got loads of different lines that are to do with emotions. When it’s the electronic version, it’s quite difficult to hear that, unless it’s through a really big speaker system at a concert. So, it’s nice to release it in this way. All the arrangements on Nude: Landscapes are to do with expanding landscapes, taking something from minimalism and expanding it into a landscape to do with time and memory.

With Nude: Viscera, it’s kind of two things. One, catharsis, so on a track like ‘Not Mine’, it’s something that’s very in the stomach and emotionally there, but also in the same sort of place there’s sex. So the song is all to do with sex and the visceral, really. They were all written at a time when I was discovering my sexuality, or that were about the end of something. ‘Now That My Lover Is Dead’ and ‘Not Mine’ are about the end of a relationship, and they’re quite bitter and visceral. It’s exploring sex and sexuality, and it’s interesting to perform that way, viscerally, onstage, and it just be about not being restrictive, which electronic music can be. I always find electronic music to be like orchestral, because in a way it’s quite mystical and magical, but it’s also more elemental, like furniture or glass orbs: it’s got a shape to it. Working with orchestration is often more linear, where rock music comes from there [points to his stomach].

On the electronic record, Nude: Forbidden, the electronic tracks are all focused on time and memory, and their connections with sexuality. It’s darker, and [tied in with] the videos. So, the video for ‘Forbidden’ is about a boy discovering at a very young age that he’s in love with his best friend, whilst ‘Edge of Now’ is a fucking dance of defiance, with lots of different people from the LGBT community dancing completely naked, so it’s not about lifestyle, y’know, putting clothes on to say, like, “I’m a lesbian, this is how I dress, because that’s my choice”. No, it’s stripped bare, completely naked, “this is physically who I am, but this is my sexuality depicted in the video”. It was interesting. We had straight guys in the video as well. It’s also one of the earliest songs, I wrote it when I was about eighteen, and it’s about the bullying I’d experienced. I was bullied viciously, and so it’s about trying to break free from the restrictions and constraints people try to put on you. So it’s connected to ‘Arrow’, and to the album.

I have to ask you about your voice. I saw you at Snape Maltings two years back (singing in David Toop’s opera Star-Shaped Biscuit), and I found it to be extraordinary, and it’s the same on record. How do you achieve such an amazing vocal prowess?

JM: There are a couple of ways of approaching the voice, I think. The way I approach my voice is very Afro-American in its technique. I was trained in rock, soul, gospel and jazz, and was originally a rock singer, and I learned what’s called “head-voicing” in Afro-American style, which is just the voice that resonates in the head. In classical music, it’s called the countertenor, but it’s slightly different in its technique. I was never classically trained. In classical training, a lot of it is to do with control, physically, and it’s a very different approach. In Afro-American styles of singing, it’s more about letting the diaphragm or the body release, so it allows me to move from head resonance into something that’s within a larynx mix, more like a jazz crooner. I never use baritone, I don’t really know how to do it. As I used to be a rock singer, I sometimes push my chest forward to use to full voice.

It’s all bits that are to do with Afro-American styles of singing, but I think in the context of working with string instruments, it’s become a little bit more like a classical countertenor, even if it isn’t one. I could never achieve the control, I don’t think, in terms of singing so many notes per second. I tried to learn some Schörnberg. Lore Luxembourg, who was also at Snape, tried to get me to sing some Schörnberg, and I was like “Ummmm, I can’t read music!” [laughs]. It was very difficult, but she was very adamant I should try. I’ve always sung, since I was a child, and a lot of singers tend to develop a thing called “singing Tourette’s” – we basically can’t stop singing, all the time! [laughs] It’s obsessive, you’re always in your voice, always exploring what it can do, and exploring emotions with it.

You’ve mentioned your sexuality. Do you feel LGBT artists have a duty, of sorts, to speak out about LGBT issues in their art?

JM: I don’t think they have a duty. There’s a lot of amazingly talented gay artists, but, I dunno… I can’t really say what other people should do, but, for me, it’s really upsetting to hear that kids have killed themselves because they were being bullied for being gay. I was viciously bullied, and still do get it – I got hit not long ago on tour, in the street. I get heckled all the time. In this country, we’re very lucky, but there’s still a lot to do and say. For me it’s like, why not express your experience fully through art and music? ‘New World’, the video and song, are what I experienced. To say that message clearly was important. It’s fun to just make music, but I think it’s important for LGBT people to make work that communicates their life expressively. I’ve always thought of pop music as being about communicating something.

Has the reaction to your lyrics been a mostly positive one?

JM: We’ve had messages from the National Front, we’ve had Christian groups, and all kinds of things said online. But we’ve never experienced anything in a big way. When we went to Moscow, it took the technicians eight hours to deal with things technically, we nearly couldn’t go onstage. When we did, they refused to turn the sound on, one of the drummers had to throw his sticks to get them to turn on the video for ‘Arrow’. I dunno… I’m just kind of in it, I can’t really intellectualise it. I’ve always made music that is honest, I think it’s part of my personality. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I’ve kind of left behind the emotional worry about what I’m saying, because I get so involved in the creative process.

The Irrepressibles’ album Nude and the three Nude EPs are all out now

A Quietus Interview: Bohren & der Club of Gore (April 30th, 2014)

In 1991, German hardcore band Bohren & Der Club Of Gore made the radical decision to shed the shackles of the style they’d been playing for four years in favour of slow-moving, jazz and ambient inflected instrumental music. Since then, they have released eight albums, usually separated by three-to-four year gaps, but each containing exquisitely snail’s pace sonic constructions dominated by echoing piano, gently brushed drums, gently grinding bass throbs and mournful saxophone. Each album builds patiently, with every track a slow-burning capsule of melancholic atmosphere, and latest salvo Piano Nights is no exception. The title suggests a focus on the piano over the other instruments, a subtle shift that makes it possibly their most evocative album in years. The Quietus caught up with multi-instrumentalist and keyboardist Morten Gass to discuss the album, along the way learning that Bohren don’t see themselves as making dark music, compare their sound to elevator ambience and – perhaps surprisingly – don’t really consider their music in jazz terms.

Could you please provide me with a bit of background on the development of Piano Nights?

Morten Gass: It was three or even four years in the making. We put a lot of patience and research into the record, looking at studio techniques and instruments to get the easy listening sound that this album has. The title, Piano Nights, came first, as always with our records. We think of a title and then come up with the music for that title. It’s like a kind of theme, and this was the same with Piano Nights. So we needed a piano [laughs].

The title suggests the piano sits at the heart of the album. What drew you to taking this route?

MG: The album is not really based around the piano sound, it’s just in the title. We chose a piano because we always wanted to use a vibraphone, which we’d used before but you couldn’t really distinguish the sound between the Fender Rhodes and the vibraphone. It’s almost the same sound. That’s the main reason why we used the piano, and on this album, we actually used an acoustic piano.

Piano Nights has been described as your best album since Black Earth, which many consider to be your masterpiece. Would you agree? Do you have favourites among your albums?

MG: Favourites… [laughs]. Musicians always say “our last record is the best”, and for me it’s the same. We didn’t say that this record is as good as Black Earth, it’s something that record companies write to sell more records, I think. We never would describe the album in that way, it would be silly.

One word often associated with Bohren & Der Club of Gore is “dark”, and this album has titles like ‘Ganz Leise Kommt Die Nacht’ (‘Quiet Night Is Coming’) and ‘Fahr Zur Hölle’ (‘Road To Hell’). Do you think of yourselves as making nocturnal or dark music?

MG: That’s a tough question. We never think of ourselves as making dark music, it’s beautiful music, and you can listen to it at night. That’s maybe right, but is it dark? I don’t know. What’s dark music? It could mean goth music for some people, for others it’s black metal, and some think an album is dark because the artwork is dark or the musicians have black fingernails. It’s nice, warm music, and for me dark music is cold. In the end, it depends on the listener.

For me, the mood [of this album] is the same as on other records. Maybe it’s because of the sound of the record, which I would describe as “easy listening”, more than the other records. It’s more James Last than the other records [laughs].

Although it’s almost always purely instrumental, there is an emotional resonance to your music. Do you seek to convey certain feelings and thoughts through your music?

MG: We have no lyrics, just titles, and I like it when things are abstract. I don’t want to tell a story or force anyone towards a certain story. Everyone can do with the music what they want. That’s why it’s instrumental music in the end. When we write the music, we have a sort of theme, because we have the title. There are pictures in our minds when we think of a title, and the other guys in the band know in which direction we want to go with the music if we’ve got the title first. It is important, but not so much for the listener.

How do you compose and record your albums? Is there an element of improvisation at play?

MG: There is no improvisation. Like I did 30 years ago, playing on the guitar and getting to a riff, we play on the keys of the organ, vibraphone or piano, each of us at home, and come up with cool riffs, which we put together and make a sound. We make demos, and when everyone’s happy with a demo, we record it in our own basement studio, in a painful way.

I’m always amazed at the pace of your albums. Everything advances with incredible slowness and patience. Was that conscious decision from the start?

MG: It was our aim from the start, to play slow music, albums that feature only ballads. I’ve always liked ballads, and it’s a pity that every record only features one or maybe two.

Is it hard work to play so slowly?

MG: Of course, we don’t jump around! You need to concentrate and be a bit focused. On the other hand, you have lots of time to think about the next chord. But you have to concentrate on the music. If you play a wrong note, it lingers for ten seconds, and the audience will notice.

Interestingly, although your music is based around familiar instruments: guitar, bass, drums, sax, piano, people seem to find you very hard to define. I’ve heard you called dark ambient, post-metal, doom jazz, even… Do you think any of those or other terms apply? If not, how would you define your music?

MG: That’s a good question. We describe our music right now as elevator music [laughs]. That’s more a joke, but somehow it’s true. We try to be a bit original, we don’t want to be copycats, so it’s hard to describe the music because it’s a little bit weird. But, for us, it’s a good thing that it’s not so clear what style we play and that we don’t belong to a specific music scene. A black metal guy can listen to us, a jazz or pop guy can too.

You mentioned wanting to a band that only plays ballads, and your music makes me think of classic ballads like ‘Love and Hate’ by Jackie McLean and John Coltrane’s Balladsalbum. How do you think you fit into the jazz tradition, if at all?

MG: Hmm, the jazz tradition… It’s hard for us, because we’re not so much into jazz at all. We like the sound of jazz music, but we don’t like what they play. They’re all such good players, and we’re such bad players! We came from a hardcore band and we’re not masters of our instruments. We can play the way we do, so to describe our music as jazz would maybe be over the top. We understand why people make the connection, because we use the same instruments, which was our aim at the beginning, but I don’t know if it’s really jazz music. A real jazz guy would maybe laugh at our music.

Could you please tell me a bit about your background as a band? How did you come to evolve from a hardcore band into what you are today?

MG: We didn’t want to just cover other bands that we liked, we wanted to make something of our own. In about 1991, we chose to make something different. We were into so many other types of music, such as Sade and Chris Isaacs and even Detroit techno, so we thought “let’s make our own music”. We weren’t fed up with hardcore or metal, but for us it was boring to play that stuff, because we never reached the same level as our idols. It was fun to play, but there was no real joy for us. It wasn’t that much of a shift, really. We don’t play chart-friendly music. It’s underground, and just a few people like it. The only difference is the pace of the music.

Your previous record, Beileid, included one track, ‘Catch My Heart’ with vocals by Mike Patton, which was a first for Bohren & Der Club Of Gore. Is this a direction you might explore further?

MG: No, no. As you can see with Piano Nights, we don’t want to use vocals again. I see that as a kind of remix album, you know? Some people add breakbeats under their music, whereas we thought “let’s do something with vocals”. We always had the idea to cover this nice German metal ballad, and that’s why we needed vocals. At first, we hadn’t thought about Patton, we had someone like Amanda Lear in mind! But the final version was so slow and difficult, we needed somebody a little tougher when it comes to extremes. And Patton has a beautiful voice, and it was an honour to work with him.

In recent years, you seem to be performing live more often. Has your attitude to live shows changed?

MG: No, it’s the same as every year. We play around fifteen to twenty shows every year, and have done so for fifteen years or so. Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing more shows in England [that you feel we do more]. We don’t like to play more, but we don’t like to play less, it’s a perfect number. So, as always, we will now play our fifteen shows per year for the next three years. Why not? [laughs]

Bohren & Der Club Of Gore’s Piano Nights is out now via Ipecac

A Quietus Interview – Nature Eclipses Culture: An Interview With Richard Skelton (March 12th, 2014)

Richard Skelton distills music that reflects both landscapes and the human heart. For many years, he has been exploring the countrysides of Britain and Ireland, pausing when inspiration takes him to record aching, heart-rending string drones in a manner that is as intuitive as it is arresting. His Landings album, initially self-released but later delivered to the wider world via a 2009 reissue on Type, revealed an musician whose musical explorations of the wild landscapes of Britain’s north-west somehow resonated with deep-felt emotions inherent in every man or woman listening to them. With his wife Autumn Richardson, Skelton later formed *AR, enmeshing her beguiling, exquisite wordless vocals with melancholic guitar and string drones to elevate the aura of Landings to new heights – most recently on their latest *AR album, Succession. The Quietus caught up with Skelton via e-mail to discuss his unique relationship with landscapes, the emotional impact of his music and how *AR differs from his previous work.

You are perhaps best known as a musician, but are also a writer and – if this is the correct term – printer. How would you define yourself?

Richard Skelton: I make music, but don’t think of myself as a musician; I write, but don’t think of myself as a writer. This is possibly because I haven’t followed the conventional path of ‘formal study’ to either of those professions, and therefore don’t conform to the stereotype. I don’t consider this a deficiency, in fact, for myself, I would consider self-study the only path to personal discovery. Nevertheless, definitions are useful. On my last tax-return, I think I put ‘publisher’, as I run a small press with my wife. Most of our output is our own work; words, music, pictures, but in 2013 we began to publish the work of others for the first time. It feels good to champion the work of others…

How did you come to form *AR?

RS: I met Autumn in 2008. We discovered a shared love of poetry, music and landscape. Given these sympathies, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up working together. We initially collaborated in 2009 on a collection of place-poetry entitled ‘Typography of the Shore’, and later she lent her voice to ‘The Clearing’ on my Black Swallow & Other Songs album. Autumn then asked me to add strings and piano to her album Stray Birds. During this time ideas for a larger collaborative work began to take shape. We wanted to create a multi- layered response to landscape; a distillation of ‘place’ through texts, music and artefacts. The resulting Wolf Notes comprised a sequence of place-poems and essays, an album of music and a series of found objects.

From this initial, not-for-sale, work we derived a small ‘folio edition’, which we sold through Corbel Stone Press. Each exemplar was named after a toponym in the landscape, and included the music, texts and a small glass phial of incense. On the subject of toponyms, the root ‘*ar’ is an ancient river-name element, thought to mean ‘starting up, springing up, setting in motion’ – we thought this was an appropriate pseudonym for our collaboration, especially as it also spelled out our initials.

Succession is the second album by *AR. Apart from the fact that Autumn is a stunning singer, what made you want to start using vocals in your music?

RS: I don’t consider *AR ‘my’ music, nor Autumn’s voice as simply an added element to an existing formula, although I can understand how it might be perceived as such. Wolf Notes began with her wordless vocal refrain, which itself was a form of call-and-response; hearing the contours of the landscape and transposing them into song. As such, she would never claim the melody as her own. The music then gradually accumulated around it – a long, slow process of deposition. The strings are therefore embellishments of an initial theme, and the work itself is a collaboration, between her and I, but also with the landscape. This may seem rather fanciful, as simply a metaphor, but we spent many months living in that landscape, experiencing it in all weathers, followed its tracks and frequently losing our way – so there cannot help but be something of it distilled in what we made.

 

Read the rest here.

Richard Skelton plays in collaboration with the Elysian Quartet at Aldeburgh Music’s Faster Than Sound on Friday March 21st (click here for info and tickets), and again at the North East’s AV Festival on 23rd March (information and tickets here).

Much of Richard Skelton and *AR’s back catalogue is available to listen and buy at the Aeolian Editions site, and to keep track of Skelton and Richardson’s activities, click here to visit the Corbel Stone Press site.

A Kit Interview – An Interview with William Basinski (February 22nd, 2014)

William Basinski is an artist who should need no introduction. Since the release of his seminal tape loop masterpiece The Disintegration Loops in 2002, Basinski has shone like a beacon in the fields of ambient and drone music, with his unique blend of sustained resonances and acute emotionality winning fans across the globe. In the wake of last year’s Nocturnes and a sell-out concert at St John’s Church in Hackney, Basinski is set to return to the same venue for a week-long residency in March of this year. Joseph Burnett caught up with the man to discuss his unique career, singular approach to music-making and the background behind his best release in years.

Joseph Burnett: Could you please tell me a bit about the creation of Nocturnes? Am I right in thinking the two pieces on the album were created at very different times?

William Basinski: Yes. The title track was a very early, very formal experiment that I did in, I believe, 1979, in San Francisco. At that time, I was working with tape loops and experimenting with prepared piano. I would hit the note and then hit the record on the loop to cut off the attack, and see how it sounded without the hammer on the string. This helped to create the great sense of suspension in Nocturnes. I had a very formal graphic score laid out for the piece, and had decided on twelve or so loops which I laid out over a time period, almost how the programme Live Score is laid out, with lines and sections and tracks. Unfortunately I got a little indulgent at the end. Understand that I was multi-tracking on a cassette deck, so I had a piece of tape over the erase head to overdub. But these kinds of overdubs are not like recording on separate tracks that you can go back and change. Once the piece was done, that was it; they were all hardwired on top of each other. You could be bouncing in and out of different levels, which was great, but at the end I added these things that I decided almost immediately I wished I hadn’t. Sometime later, digital editing comes along and eventually I was able to go back in and take out these little overindulgences and correct things. So the piece, which I always thought was really good, now has had its little plastic surgery or tooth cap (laughs).

I’ve been so busy travelling the last few years that I haven’t put out a record since Vivian & Ondine in 2009, so I decided to release Nocturnes. I thought it was a good time to release it. It’s a very dark album, kind of a warning, with an unsettling theme. I had recently done The Trail of Tears, with a couple of loops on a couple of tape decks with delay, and the loops just melted into this drone. I then put in this other loop at the end, which creates this wonderful resolution. Finally, I got the album and the artwork done, so it came out in May.

JB: As you’ve said, the album is very dark and melancholic. What made you aim for this particular mood?

WB: It’s a lamentation, so it’s not a happy album, but it is what it is. I think the resolution does something really amazing at the end. Sometimes you have to walk a trail of tears so you can find your epiphany.

JB: Do you have this sort of central idea or theme on each album you release?

WB: It’s not as though I start out going “I want to do this”. It’s like painting: you have to make the first mark and then you have to resolve that mark. Then you make another mark and have to figure out what’s going to happen next. It paints itself, and when it’s done you have to know that it’s done. That’s when it teaches you what it is. From there, you think about that and maybe come up with a title. It’s a learning experience.

JB: How do you go about the tape loops you use? You must have quite a few to root through!

WB: It’s just what strikes me at the time. I dunno… it’s hard to describe. It’s just what resonates at the time. It’s like taste, y’know. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you don’t eat a pickle.

JB: So it’s very intuitive?

WB: Yes, yes, exactly.

JB: Has your way of recording and selecting loops evolved a lot over the years?

WB: Yeah, of course. I’ve gone through a lot of different changes and lots of different techniques, working with lots of different equipment. In the beginning, I had nothing. Tape decks were cheap, used tape was cheap, so that was what I had available to me, how I began. It’s how I developed my sound: creating all those loops was like building a synthesizer. I had my patches. Over the years, without having anyone beyond a small group of friends being able to understand that it was even music, I began playing in bands, doing all kinds of stuff. I continued doing my work, but before the internet and being able to self-publish, there was just the music industry. If you wanted to be a player, you had to do what was accepted as pop music.

When James [Elaine, William’s partner] and I moved to our second apartment in Brooklyn in 1989, we had fought for years against a local development, which was going to be built by tearing down all the buildings in the neighbourhood. They had to settle with us, and we found this ruin in Williamsburg, which we rented and spent a lot of money restoring. It was an extraordinarily beautiful place, which became Arcadia [Basinski’s performance space and studio until 2008]. I was able to build a proper studio and control room, and we had a sound system, and this wonderful mini-ballroom with this beautiful sound. It turned out like a Venetian palazzo or something overlooking Manhattan. We were holding the Arcadia evenings, and I was producing bands, working with synthesizers and better recording equipment. I tried more pop music then, and worked on a song cycle with my friend Jennifer Jaffe, a poet and member of an art group called TODT. I tried to get this very gothic work released in the nineties, but there were no takers.

Eventually, when CD burners came out, I got one and found all these cases with my old tape loops in them in a storage room we had, which was full of old furniture and Jamie’s paintings and all this junk. I didn’t know what had happened to them! Knowing what tape does, that it would disintegrate, I started archiving the old work. Around this time, Carsten Nicolai came to New York, I think for a residency at PS1, and was staying downstairs with my German neighbours. We met when I was working on shortwave music and listening to that again, and he just flipped over that, and asked to release it on his label. I’d been waiting to hear that for a long time! So that was the beginning of being able to release work, and it turned out that all of a sudden there was an audience of people who were about the age of these tape loops who were ready to hear my work. It’s been incredible, because I never thought I’d live to see the day.

William Basinski kit records

JB: When you performed in London, I noticed you used a laptop. Do you find that computers and synthesizers allow more freedom and a wider range of possibilities than tape loops?

WB: Well there certainly are benefits. There are certain things I do with computers that I can’t with tape loops. But I’m an old dog and I’m not so good at learning new tricks, so I have certain things I can do. For example, in shows the computer is sort of a back-up. Sometimes the tape decks break or don’t function properly. In London, one of them had crashed or something. When I started the tour, it was perfect, but after one of the early shows it came back and it was only playing on one speed, which was a speed faster than it was supposed to. I had enough time to cut and record new loops for this machine on the speed that it wanted to play at. I was using this old tape that Richard Chartier had sent me, so I just started using them and something amazing happened. On the back of one of the loops, there was some recorded material already there, and at the speed I had it going, it was this incredibly beautiful thing that happened to go beautifully with these variation loops that I did at the end of the concert. It might even have been some Beethoven or something, slowed down, that came in towards the end of the concert. These little accidents can happen, and it’s always a blessing. The computer is also good for remastering analogue material, digitising it and preparing it for release, but I don’t create sounds with it like a lot of people do. I’m not proficient at that. Like I said, in the last twenty years in Williamsburg, at Arcadia, I had a control room with synthesizers, MIDI and a big console with multi-track tape decks. Unfortunately now, all that is sitting in my garage, waiting for a place for me to set it up. But I’m hoping that after this year-long tour, I’ll be able to look for a studio space I can install it in and get the old spaceship back up again. That’ll be lots of fun.

JB: You’ve mentioned the tour that you’re currently on. How do you approach performing live as opposed to recording in the studio?

WB: In a way, especially when I’m working with loops, it can be very relaxing for me, because it’s kind of just like when I’m in the studio. Often, there’s a random element. I have a plan, but you never quite know what’s going to happen. Things can go wrong, or sometimes interesting things can happen. Time just disappears. Every room is different. You’re moving air and resonating a space, so there’s always the time in soundcheck when I get to work with all the nice technicians, boys and girls who know their space and know how to fit the resonances in this space. I’m listening the whole time, just trying to surf these waves.

JB: Your music evolves at a very gradual pace. Does that present a challenge when performing live, and do you find some audiences more receptive than others?

WB: I was very nervous this year, because I wasn’t sure how Nocturnes would go over, but it’s been amazing. The audiences know what to do, they know the work. People either get it, and can’t get enough, or they don’t, so this year my experience has been that the audiences are there. They get prepared, smoke pot or do whatever it is they do, and then just sit or lie down and close their eyes and go there. They’ve been so quiet, so great, and the response has been fantastic. I’m just thrilled to death.

JB: When I saw you at St John’s in Hackney church, I was reminded of a performance of Eliane Radigue’s music, also in a church, from a few years ago…

WB: It’s the best way, it’s all you have to do: just open your ears and… I’ve got Jamie’s beautiful video. It’s not necessary, but it’s beautiful and great, and it creates an atmosphere. But if you close your eyes, your own movie will appear. And the time just goes away, changes.

JB: The first adjective that comes to mind when describing your music is “emotional”. Does emotion play a big role in your music?

WB: Yeah. It’s very much a part of me and who I am. In fact, I have to be careful, because I get so hung up about stuff and tend to respond emotionally! I’m a year of the dog, I always get my back up, so that’s definitely all over my chart, let’s say.

JB: It’s impressive the way you’re able to communicate that back to the audience, just in the way you select your sounds.

WB: Thank you. It’s been a good run (laughs).

JB: About a year ago, I saw an orchestral performance of The Disintegration Loops in London at The Royal Festival Hall, and noticed the difference between the tape loops on the record and how it came out when performed, but the end effect was the same.

WB: That was extraordinary. Those young musicians were brilliant, to do that there, and the audience was incredible. I think there were five minutes of silence after the last note. We were blown away! Max [Moston, the arranger] did an incredible job, he’s amazing.

JB: A lot is being written right now, by music journalists, about silence and quietness in music, and I recently saw a film called Silence that approached that very notion outside of music. Zones without people, if you will. Do you find that to be something that resonates in your music?

WB: I heard about that film! Absolutely, and silence is such an ephemeral thing, it’s something we can hardly ever experience these days. We were just on the island of Pantelleria, near Sicily, this volcanic island, and we’ve been there six times, but the difference this year was incredible. After the big economic crash, it was silent. There was no-one there. You could hear the ocean and the wind in the trees. There are hardly any birds on this island. It was incredible to have that. Like in films, there’s always some kind of sound. It’s not a digital silence, because that’s so unreal, in a way.

JB: The Disintegration Loops recently received a lavish reissue as a beautiful box set. Did you anticipate at the time that it would become such an influential and important work?

WB: Not really. Jeremy Devine, who did such a brilliant job art directing and overseeing the whole thing, and releasing it, came and talked to me in LA about it, and I was a little wary at first. When I got my copies, I was like “Oh my God, this is amazing!”. So yeah, the response has been incredible. It’s quite a lovely object to see on my shelf. When it first happened, over two days in my studio, I called all my friends to tell them to come and listen to it. Everyone just flipped, we just lay around the loft and listened to it all the way through.

JB: When I interviewed Antony Hegarty recently, he mentioned that he first met you when you were handing out fliers for a Diamanda Galás concert at your loft. You must have a lot of fond memories from that time in Williamsburg. Do you miss it?

WB: Well, I miss my beautiful castle, that’s for sure! It was such an amazing place and home. It was a home for artists. But we have a lot of recordings from that time, and a lot came out of it. It was a huge petri dish that really grew something. And [in March 2014], we’re planning on doing a series of Arcadia events in London, over a period of a week, with a bunch of creative friends of mine from Europe.

JB: Finally, what are your plans for the future? I know you’re touring a lot, but do you have any releases planned also?

WB: The two don’t go hand in hand. I just released Nocturnes, you greedy bastard! (laughs) I’ve been going all year, and won’t be doing so many next year so I can get my studio set up, and then we’ll see…

William Basinski’s Arcadia residency will be held at St John’s Church in Hackney from March 12th-20th, with performances by Michael Gira, Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham, amongst others. Excitingly, composers or ensembles can apply to perform a support slot within the series through the Sound and Music and Art Assembly.

Main picture by Peter J. Kierzkowski.

A Quietus Interview – Psychic Hi-Fi: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s Favourite Albums (January 23rd, 2014)

Neil Megson, now known as Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, stands tall as an almost unique individual who has dedicated h/er entire adult life to h/er art. Best known, perhaps, as the intimidating and provocative lead vocalist in seminal, genre-founding industrial giants Throbbing Gristle, who evolved out of performance art group COUM Transmissions, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge became a key figure in the UK underground, with TG paving the way for the likes of Whitehouse, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry.

However, as interviews with, and articles about, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge have consistently proved, there is more to Gen than h/er position as the first leading light of British sonic terrorism. Through h/er work with his post-TG band Psychic TV, and as an artist, s/he has consistently transformed the idea of how an artist can work and live through creativity, culminating in h/er collaborative work with h/er late wife Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, in which their all-consuming love led them to transcend the barriers of gender and identity, until they existed as two halves of one romantic and artistic creation, The Pandrogyne. Since Lady Jaye’s tragic passing in 2007, Genesis has dedicated h/erself to pursuing their shared vision, via the latest, righteously psychedelic incarnation of Psychic TV, and by continuing to share h/er and Jaye’s work, most recently in a lusciously-presented book compiling photos, artworks and writings.

Head to First Third’s website to get hold of the book.

Hapshash_and_the_coloured_coat_1390411452_resize_460x400Hapshash And The Coloured Coat – Featuring The Human Host And The Heavy Metal Kids

Do you think it’s an unusual list?

Sort of, but I remember when we last spoke, I said that, contrary to what I’d imagined, you do come across as a bit of a hippie! Or at least deeply psychedelic.

Well, I grew up in the sixties. In 1962, I bought the first Rolling Stones single, and I still have it. I still have every single they released, in order, right up until Brian Jones was murdered. I saw Pink Floyd god knows how many times, and even did a couple of light shows for them…

We started listening to pirate radio and John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, and had a friend at school called Spidey who was very good at spotting interesting new music. John Peel was the first person to play The Velvet Underground, and Spidey said, “Listen to this, you’re gonna love this!”. That’s when we got the first violin.

We used to go to Birmingham, to this tiny little record shop that had nothing of interest except some Albert Ayler and free jazz. There was a record in there, and we recognised the artwork from Oz magazine so we knew it was by Hapshash and The Coloured Coat, because they used to do psychedelic posters and Oz. So we bought it just because of that. It was on Magnet Records. When we pulled out [the disc], we were shocked to see that it was on red vinyl, which we’d never seen before. We later discovered that all these people on the scene in London wanted to raise money for the legals fees of John “Hoppy” Hopkins, the first person who’d been busted for drugs and who co-founded the International Times. He was a real mover and shaker of the times. It’s like twenty to a hundred people high on acid jamming! We fell in love with it and still listen to it all the time. When we DJ, people come up to us and ask, “What was that with that great riff?” Guess what one of them ended up doing? Writing “We Are The Wombles”! That really got me in the head, that was worse than a bad acid trip!

Mike Batt! He also wrote the music for William Hague’s campaign…

Oh no! How could he go from Hapshash to that! That’s disappointing to say the least. Michael Batt, what a twat! I didn’t even like The Wombles…

Acid_mothers_temple_1390411485_resize_460x400Acid Mother’s Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. – Lord Of The Underground: Vishnu And The Magic Elixir

It was my manager, Ryan Martin, who also does Dais Records, who said, “You don’t know who Acid Mothers Temple are?!” I knew the name, but had never listened to them, so he immediately burned about 30 CDs! We loved it, and then he rang me to tell me they were playing live at The Knitting Factory the following week. He took me, and I was absolutely entranced. The guy at the front, with hair longer than mine that had gone grey, and he was swaying off the rhythm of the music, in perfect time to something in his head. It just blows you away. And then, what’s his name with the guitar, begins with an M…

Makoto Kawabata?

That’s it. He then freaks out, and does the opposite to this Zen thing. He’s everywhere, with his big afro. And you just think: “Fucking hell! That’s what music’s supposed to be like!” Psychedelic, free-form, and when you feel like going nuts, you go nuts. And then at the end the one who was so zen suddenly got his guitar and hung it from a pipe in the ceiling and started swinging it so it started to feedback. And then they just walked off. And we just thought: “After my own heart!” [laughs]. Afterwards, Makoto came up to us and said, “We’re such huge fans of yours, we can’t believe you came to see us. Here’s my guitar!”, and he signed and gave me his guitar neck, which he’d snapped off! He had a t-shirt of Che Guevara that he’d turned into himself, and he wrote lots of stuff in Japanese in a silver pen and gave it to me. We were so proud of that t-shirt. And then my fucking cleaner came in and laundered it! All the writing came off, all I had was the Che.

And everyone’s got a Che t-shirt! It’s interesting because a lot of the bands on your list, including AMT, are ones I discovered through Julian Cope.

Oh yes, of course. He loves all our new stuff too. He’s the same: it’s acid jamming. And it’s my roots. My roots aren’t rhythm & blues, it’s this. And a day comes when you think, “Fuck what the world thinks, I wanna hear what I like to hear, and there’s no-one around me doing it so let’s play our music”. And strangely enough, we’re more successful as a result of having just let go of all preconceptions and deciding to go back to this era. The audiences just go nuts. There you go. Be true to yourself.

Church_universal_and_triumphant__incChurch Universal And Triumphant, Inc. Featuring Elizabeth Clare Prophet – The Sounds Of American Doomsday Cults

This was the hardest one to track down and gather information about. I found a video of some chanting on YouTube.

Isn’t it weird? How do they do that with their voices [ululates manically]? There’s a really good documentary called Death Cults or something, and it shows you them digging this enormous bunker, and [Elizabeth Clare Prophet] says: “The world is going to end on this date with a nuclear war”. The bunker’s not finished on time, but they go down anyway, come back out about a week later and the world hasn’t changed [laughs]. She says the master’s order wasn’t right, and that the world will actually be in four or five months. So they all go back down, and it doesn’t happen. It turns out she has brain tumours, which probably explains the entire cult, and then she dies. But it’s still going! They interviewed them a few years later. The women all look like Elizabeth Clare, with their suburban haircuts and clothes, and big smiles! There’s one piece on the album where they’re cursing pop music, and it’s just stunning. Hilarious. We play them at the beginning when we DJ!

Hawkwind_1390411557_resize_460x400Hawkwind – Hawkwind

I just saw Nik Turner on Sunday night. He’s doing good. We have a strange history with him and Hawkwind. In 1971, in COUM Transmissions, we somehow managed to con this benefit concert for a commune that had been busted for drugs that Hawkwind were headlining, and got the second slot on the bill. None of us had ever played anything, except me on drums, and it was the era when everyone was trying to have the biggest drum kit, so we borrowed drum kits from some of the other bands involved. We got a dwarf on guitar who’d never even seen a guitar before. We had someone from Bridlington on a surfboard on a bucket of water as the vocalist, who just told jokes because he was actually a comedian. Cosey was dressed as an English schoolgirl with a starting pistol, firing in the air, and her own whips. Nik Turner and Lemmy and everyone remember Cosey!

Then in ‘92 or ‘93, Hawkwind came to tour the West Coast, and Nik called me up and asked if I wanted to play keyboards for Hawkwind. I said “of course!”. We got to San Francisco and Jello Biafra was there and he came running into my dressing room and said, “Gen! I love Hawkwind!” I thought he was kidding, but he was serious and said it was his dream to sing ‘Silver Machine’ with Hawkwind. So we got him to join in on backing vocals on ‘Silver Machine’. He was thrilled.

HH.P. Lovecraft – H.P. Lovecraft

Wonderful! Brilliant! It’s very different to everybody else, and it’s all men singing who sound like women. It sounds like Jefferson Airplane at times, and you think, “Who’s that woman?” and then you realise it’s a man. And now that singer does TV commercials and plays accordion in coffee shops.

They were quite big. In England, quite a lot of people bought their records. We DJ-ed a lot with our original one, and somebody stole it from a club. We’ll find one again! H.P. Lovecraft were really underrated in terms of the sixties bands from the West Coast.

I suppose they were quite different.

They were! They were all classically-trained, and refreshing because of that. They weren’t just following everyone else.

The_incredible_string_band_1390411608_resize_460x400The Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

I’ve got everything they ever did, and it’s hard to pick one, really. We like ‘A Very Cellular Song’ – who else could write a song about an amoeba and make it sound great? That was Jaye’s favourite Incredible String Band song, so that’s why we picked that album. You can see the connections growing here, can’t you?

DrDr. Strangely Strange – Kip Of The Serenes

We came across the song ‘Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal’ on a psychedelic compilation and fell in love with it. I just thought, “Who could write a chorus of, ‘Strangely strange but oddly normal’, and make it a really catchy song?” The whole thing was sort of irrationally brilliant, and later we found out that one of them went off to Japan and tried to become a Zen priest. Of course, when we considered the history of literature in Ireland, with James Joyce and everyone, it started to all gel. And then we found out Joe Boyd was involved. They did the first one in one afternoon, because he didn’t think it would sell. We’re not sure which, who and when, but there was some exchange of personnel with the Incredible String Band at certain times.

DrDr. Strangely Strange – Heavy Petting And Other Stories

The second album has the guitarist from Phil Lynott’s wonderful band.

Thin Lizzy? Really?

Yes! He does the guitar on my favourite track on there. It’s very different to the first, it’s a little bit more rocky. There’s a drum kit in there, but they also sing some church hymns. That whole thing that the ISB and Dr. Strangely Strange did, with sudden shifts. You’d think you’d know where [a song was] going and then it would stop dead and something completely different would happen. We always loved surprises and novelty and chaos happening that reprograms the brain to stop assuming things.

Joe_byrd_and_the_field_hippies_1390411691_resize_460x400Joe Byrd And The Field Hippies – The American Metaphysical Circus

This has a bit of an H.P. Lovecraft feel to it. We were stuck, because there were two albums, the other one being by his band, The United States of America. That one’s much more weird, and we like it a lot, but this one we always found harder to listen to, so for that reason we chose it. Because if it’s still hard to listen to, there must be something in it that’s playing with my expectations, whereas The United States of America is fairly funky. So, it was a struggle to choose one, but in the end we picked that one for the singing.

There are more people on it…

Yeah. It was done as a project for his college!

The_13th_floor_elevators_1390411726_resize_460x400The 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators

Well, I had to have this on it! We’d like to have it on vinyl. Did you watch the documentary about Roky Erickson’s life? There’s this moment when you first come across him in the documentary. He’s sitting in this room that’s filled with junk. He has about ten or more television sets. Some are black and white, some are colour, some have no picture, just zigzags, but they’re all on full. And he’s got radios on full. And he’s sitting in the armchair and says, “This is the only way I can go to sleep! It drowns out the noises in my head.” And you’re thinking those are the noises in your head! [laughs] But he’s playing again! He’s back, it’s incredible.

I know. It’s hard to believe, because I’ve read interviews with him from years ago where he’s barely coherent. But on that album, vocally he sounds like Mick Jagger, but with screeching!

“Aaaaaahhh!!” And then there’s that jug sound, which is just incredible! I don’t know how they did that!

Blossom_toes_1390411755_resize_460x400Blossom Toes – The Psychedelic Sound Of Blossom Toes, Vol. 1

From what I’ve read, this is a bootleg…

You’d have to ask Giorgio Gomelsky. It’s probably a bootleg by Giorgio Gomelsky. Do you know the story about him? He was the guy who first managed the Stones and put them on at the Station Hotel. He was right that he thought the only way to get the Stones publicity, as the house band, was to get the Beatles down to hear them, and they loved the Stones. And then he got Andrew Loog Oldham down to see them, and Brian Jones secretly did a commercial deal with Andrew, because they’d never written anything down with Giorgio, he just trusted them to stay with him. He then went and got The Yardbirds.

Good ear!

A very good ear! Which he still has to this day, because – he lives in New York – he has hundreds of thousands of amazing tapes. But they left him, and he found the Blossom Toes, whom he thought would be the next of his successes, but they weren’t because they were so fucking quirky. There’s one song which goes, [sings] “You should have come home you little frozen dog/ You stupid little frozen dog”, and that’s the chorus. They were trying to do a sort of Sgt. Pepper’s based on Giorgio’s Eastern European understanding, and so it’s just really odd. Very English, and very quirky, and fun, with lots of funny effects and brass bands – the whole thing that everyone was trying to do. And it didn’t sell at all. So he decided, after The Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin, that Blossom Toes should be like Led Zeppelin. So he tried to do a Led Zeppelin album, which is absolutely terrible! Sorry Giorgio, we’re friends, but it’s terrible. So that’s them, the one thing they did, in my opinion, that is worthy of discovery because it’s odd. He should have just let them do their thing.

The_zombies_1390411840_resize_460x400The Zombies – Odessey And Oracle

That was the first record that Jaye ever played to me when we met. It was surprise. This is a girl who ran away from home at age 14 to Alphabet City in the eighties, lived in a squat there, was into the hardcore scene so went out with one of the biggest hardcore guys in a band so no-one would beat her up or touch her, and yet she loved sixties psychedelic music. The Electric Prunes, The Zombies… Eventually The Zombies reformed to do one gig in New York, in this little club, so I got tickets, and they were spot-on. They did Odessey And Oracle, and afterwards I introduced her to The Zombies and they signed her album. It’s an excellent album. The harmonies and Colin Blunstone’s voice are stunning. That voice with the hissing in it. We had this friend, who did a lot of co-production on early Psychic TV, and he said my voice took to tape really well because it had this hiss in it. Apparently, it gave more resonance, so I accidentally have the same sort of resonances as Blunstone. Sadly, not the same voice or skill!

Syd_barrett_1390411875_resize_460x400Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs

I had to. I mean, how do you pick one? Syd Barrett, brilliant. One thing he did which just knocked me out, at a very early gig – and we thought we’d imagined it because we were stoned but we read about it in a magazine – in those days a lot of the bands would do an hour set, and then maybe the drummer would do a half-hour drum solo while the others went off to do drugs, or they’d all go off and we’d all be sitting around for half an hour because we’d do drugs. And then they’d come back. So, anyway, they went off, and we thought, “Oh no, drum solo, I guess it’s time to do drugs”. And they changed into workman’s outfits and old macs and one by one they all came back. One of them brought some wood, another one had a toolbox, another one had a flask and tea-cups, and the floor of the stage was miked. They made themselves things to sit on, and it was all done rhythmically, creating this piece of musique concrète. They made a table and sets of chairs, then sat down, turned on a transistor radio and drank cups of tea! Then they left and came back on as Pink Floyd! I was thinking, “Did I really just see that?”, and for years thought we’d imagined it. And we didn’t, it really happened.

Kind of sums up Syd Barrett in one anecdote!

[laughs] People used to say his solo stuff was all crap, that he couldn’t do it anymore, but as time has gone by, I think anyone with any brains has realised just what a genius he was. My two children grew up with his music and would say that ‘Baby Lemonade’ was their favourite song of his. So, every birthday we’d have to play ‘Baby Lemonade’. Pretty good taste, no?

A Quietus Interview – Pure Undisturbed Reality: An Interview With Stara Rzeka (August 14th, 2013)

Despite being comparatively unknown within the wider world, Poland’s alternative music scene is in diverse, forward-thinking and exciting health at the moment. From ferocious metal to tonal explorations and avant-garde jazz, via aggressive alt-rock and novel takes on techno and dubstep, there’s a huge swathe of Polish artists that merit far more interest than they’re currently receiving.

Among the myriad innovative individuals currently making the country feel like such fertile musical territory, Jakub ‘Kuba’ Ziołek stands as a key figure, having made his name as a member of some of the most intriguing and exploratory groups in the country. They include Innercity Ensemble, an improvisation-based collective whose wide-ranging pieces draw from members’ backgrounds in jazz, post-industrial and electronic musics, Ed Wood, and Alameda 3, who are due to release a new album in the near future.

However, 2013 has shed fresh light on Ziołek’s singular approach to rock, metal and folk-leaning traditions with the release of his first full album as Stara Rzeka, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. The album is both astonishing and beguiling, composed on an acoustic guitar but broadening to draw from a wide mix of styles – folk, krautrock, black metal – with a radical and open-minded attitude that makes the resultant music impossible to pigeonhole. It’s already reached the upper echelons of the Quietus’ albums of 2013 so far list, with Quietus editor John Doran describing it thus: “it shifts through sparse BM moves that remind one of Norwegian second wavers Thorns, and through the arboreal drones of early Growing, before ending on a celestial cover of Nico’s ‘My Only Child’ with speaker destroying drone metal.”If there is any justice in the world, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem should be the vehicle to propel Ziołek to attention in the alternative music community well outside his home country. Fascinated by the oblique and beautiful world of Stara Rzeka, the Quietus caught up with him via e-mail to discuss the album, the tensions and connections between humans and nature, and his own remarkable perspective on music.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself and Stara Rzeka? I know you’ve performed and recorded in a number of outfits, such as Ed Wood and Innercity Ensemble, but when did you start working as Stara Rzeka?

Jakub Ziołek: My background is in metal and hardcore music, and it still plays an important role in bands like Ed Wood or Alameda 3, or even in Stara Rzeka. I like radical, material sounds… Even in ambient or acoustic music, I like sounds to be massive and extreme. I participate in numerous different bands. Innercity Ensemble is a free-form improvisational collective of seven musicians, a band blending jazz, post-industrial, psychedelic and ambient music. Hokei is a RIO and post-rock-influenced sci-fi phantasmagoria with two drum kits. Alameda 3 is, in a sense, a continuation of Stara Rzeka, but a little more rock-influenced. T’ien Lai is, in a way, a tribute to so-called ‘krautrock’ and bands like Cluster or Popol Vuh. Kapital is a mix of electro-acoustic experiments and extreme space-psychedelic music. Stara Rzeka is three years old, but I only started playing live last year.

How do you feel Stara Rzeka differs from your other projects? I believe it’s a completely solo project?

JZ: The whole idea of Stara Rzeka, and also Alameda 3, T’ien Lai and Kapital, is for them to be completely DIY bands, and I think that those bands should be responsible for recording and mixing their material. I have no money to pay for a real studio, so everything is done DIY style. I know nothing about mixing, but I work very hard listening to the music and doing the best I can for it to sound satisfying enough. Stara Rzeka doesn’t really differ from my other bands. They’re all a part of the same story.

Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is remarkable in the way it takes in a wide variety of genres and styles, including heavy rock similar to black metal, folk, electronic music and drone. Are these genres that you have been versed in a long time? What – if any – were your influences when making the album?

JZ: It may sound trivial but the only true influence is the German music of the 70s. For me, it’s the most important legacy in post-World War II European music – Kraftwerk, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Faust, Neu, Amon Düül II, Guru Guru and many, many others. [They had] diverse, original, inspiring concepts that never concealed the pure experience of sound. There are also many other artists that I admire: Robert Fripp, Keiji Haino, Richard Pinhas, Loren Connors, Robbie Basho, My Cat Is An Alien, Sun City Girls, Charalambides, David Hurley… and there’s philosophy. I don’t listen to music a lot, but I read a lot. Very little fiction, mostly just scientific and philosophical books. I’m more inspired by books than by records, although I don’t consider music to be purely intellectual. Quite the opposite.

I believe the songs were initially composed on acoustic guitar. What made you want to flesh them out with other instruments and musical styles? Do you play all instruments on the album?

JZ: Yes, I play all the instruments on the album. 90% of the time I compose on the acoustic guitar because I live in a flat and I cannot play loud music at home. I practise a lot on the acoustic guitar, and hope that in the future it will be my only field of expression.

Was it a challenge to juxtapose these varied styles whilst still maintaining the album’s coherence? It’s something of a triumph that, for all its frequent evolutions, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is so focused and cohesive.

JZ: I never hoped for it to be musically cohesive. If it is, it’s just pure coincidence. It’s conceptually coherent. It’s focused on the concept that mankind should consider the loss of the connection with its humanistic tradition of Renaissance and Enlightenment as a gain, not a loss… and that objective reality (not only nature) is not something that mankind is supposed to conquer and defeat. It’s connected to us but keeps its own autonomy. We must learn how to communicate with it, not conquer it. I realise that this is not a new or original concept…

I believe metal music, notably black metal, is quite popular in Poland. Are you a big fan of black metal? What is it that draws you to it?

JZ: Metal music is popular in Poland, but I don’t think black metal is popular. Of course there’s Behemoth, but it’s not really black metal, and Nergal is a celebrity in Poland like Paris Hilton is in the U.S. There are great black metal bands in Poland nowadays: more old-school like Mgła and more avant-garde like Furia and Thaw (just to name a few). To me black metal, along with doom metal, is the only metal music that’s devoid of the testosterone aspect of sound, which makes metal music just a continuation of a penis-oriented rock & roll music. Black metal is a negation of humanism and hence [a negation of] the oppression of men over women… the sex factor disappears in black metal. It’s subject is asexual, like a ghost. This is one of the reasons why I think of black metal as very closely connected to the truth of nature and its pure, undisturbed reality. I don’t support any right-wing connotations in black metal, or nationalistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Varg Vikernes-style bullshit.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I speak no Polish, but note that some of the lyrics are in English. What was the thought process behind singing in English? Are most of the lyrics in Polish?

JZ: Actually, only ‘My Only Child’ is in English and it’s a cover. The rest of the album is sung in Polish. To me, the voice is just another instrument. I listen to music from around the world and I love to hear songs sung in other languages than English. It makes them more mysterious to me. I try to interpret in my own way the meanings of words in those songs… even if they may be originally just shitty love songs. To me they sound magical.

Stara Rzeka means Old River in English, and in your biography I read that you have a keen interest in nature and its preservation. Has that always been the case? Do you garner particular inspiration from landscapes that surround you?

JZ: I don’t feel comfortable living in the city and I seize every opportunity to go out to some rural areas. Nature and the way it connects within itself and with people is very important to me. Sounds of nature are beautiful and purifying. But I don’t mythologise or idealise the countryside or nature in general. Also, I don’t think of nature as some kind of unity (contrasted to another unity – culture). Actually, to me, there’s no nature, just various forces and material objects that need to be considered in their autonomy.

The combination of electric and acoustic sounds on the album suggests a desire to explore a sense of conflict in humankind’s interaction with nature. Is this a fair assessment? Do you see Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem as having something of a political or social commentary at play?

JZ: Yes, there is some political background behind this music. People must stop thinking of nature as a beautiful, innocent virgin that should be conquered. But, to me, this thinking deals with the whole objective, material reality (natural or artificial). Material objects are not the neutral background of our lives, they constitute our world and our thinking of ourselves. We must learn how they are and how they act in their own autonomy. Again, I realise that these ideas are not my original concepts. I’m just deeply devoted to them, so I like to talk about them.

I was struck by the potency of the folk aspect of your music on hearing the album the first time. Little is known here in the UK about traditional Polish music. Do you see yourself as part of that sort of tradition?

JZ: I don’t consider Stara Rzeka to be a folk band. I don’t know much about traditional Polish music as well and there are no traditional Polish folk tunes on Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. Folk music has great power and I sense truth in this music. But, I don’t see a reason I should consider Polish folk music to be more important than, say, Thai folk music.

I’m reminded of many English folk bands of the 60s and 70s who shied away from modernity in order to explore ancient, sometimes pre-Christian traditions, as well as more modern Scandinavian acts who do the same thing, such as Tenhi and Wardruna. Do you feel an affinity with any of those bands, both past and present?

JZ: In Poland, there was this great band Księżyc – sort of medieval, pagan folk music. Their music had some amazing primordial aura – a deep journey into unconsciousness of the senses. I admire Księżyc, but Stara Rzeka is something different. I don’t care much about past and tradition, I’m more future-oriented.

When I went to OFF Festival in Katowice last year, I was impressed by the quality and diversity of the local bands, but also thought it was a shame that they were often on very early in comparison to the big American and British bands. What is your view on the Polish music scene? Do you think it’s harder for Polish acts to gain the recognition they deserve?

JZ: It’s great that you’ve noticed the fact that Polish bands are not treated with respect they deserve. It’s an effect of a servile mentality and inferiority complex. British and American bands are seen as the great lords that honour Poland just by their presence in our little country. Just take a look at numbers: My Bloody Valentine gets 150,000 Euro for their concert at OFF Festival this year, my band Hokei gets 500 Euro (and it’s mostly public money!) Stara Rzeka plays at 16.00… Just imagine black metal-drone ritual, in the beautiful August sun with fifteen people attending, at this early hour. This is a real problem with big festivals, because club concerts and small festival organisers also suffer from the thoughtlessness of the big festival policy.

And the Polish musical scene is amazing! It’s absurd to compare Polish music to American or British. Different worlds, different traditions, different financial and political environments. But very often I find Polish artists more interesting than British or American ones (and I’m not a patriot)… Just check the work of Wacław Zimpel (Hera), Mikrokolektyw, The Kurws, Piotr Kurek, Napszykłat, Macio Moretti (LXMP, Shofar, Baaba, Mitch&Mitch). And those are just few artists whose names came into my head at the moment.

I can imagine that it might be a challenge to bring this music, which is so diverse and multi-faceted and subtle, into a live setting. Have you performed many concerts? If so, did this throw up any specific challenges?

JZ: The first few concerts were very difficult for me technically (using acoustic and electric guitar in one song is not easy). I decided to make it more simple but more condensed and intense. I think it’s good when live performance differs from what can be heard on an album. Those are two different things. I hate it when bands play their albums live note by note.

What are your future plans? I believe the album is set to get a new pressing, which is great news.

JZ: Yeah, the first pressing sold out very quickly. Both CD and cassette. Currently I’m working on split cassette with two artists from Poland. Stara Rzeka’s new album will be released next year.

Stara Rzeka’s Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is out now via Instant Classic.