Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Dresden Dolls

American gothic: Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione; photo by Kyle Cassidy

Choler catches up with Dresden Dolls frontwoman / piano torturer Amanda Palmer to ponder the band’s imminent voyage from play time to big time.

Let’s face it: if you’re a rock band based in Beantown, you’ve got more than one pair of skin-tight leather trousers to fill. If the bar band-turned-stadium-filling paleontology exhibit on wheels known as Aerosmith isn’t enough of an intimidator, meditate on this lineage: The Modern Lovers. The Cars. The Pixies. You can hear snippets of all 3 in just about every song on modern rock radio today (in addition to several albums worth of enduring classics by all 3 of the groups themselves). And they, obviously, weren’t even necessary to put the town on the map. Maybe it’s something hot-wired into the city’s DNA. You walk down the street and pass Paul Revere’s house. Turn a corner and stand at the square where the Declaration of Independence was first read. Go for a waterside stroll and pass by the site of the Boston Tea Party. The dirt under your feet is daring you to create something earth-shattering. What’s your first move, then? If you’re songwriter / vocalist / pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione, it’s simply to meet one another, and let the chain reaction take care of itself.

The world is slowly catching on to the twisted cabaret acrobatics of the Dresden Dolls. A video in rotation on MTV2’s “Subterranean” here, a slot on the Lollapalooza 2004 second stage there, and pretty soon, you’re courting real success. Los Angeles tastemaker KCRW has come calling for a “Morning Becomes Eclectic” spotlight, which usually portends Very Important Things, and the duo — which kicks out a live show heavy on the china doll makeup and cross dressing, but surprisingly light on the gothic histrionics — now has national distribution for its first album, courtesy of a deal with Roadrunner Records. Palmer has earned overexcited accolades as “the next savior of females in rock,” and the All Music Guide has already gushingly aligned the duo’s stripped down Kurt-Cobain-meets-Kurt-Weill sound with John Coltrane, the Beatles and Charlie Parker. (Consider the comparison horse officially flogged well past expiration.) A more realistic Palmer told us during our interview that the Dolls’ success — while every bit deserved — is building gradually, helped along tremendously by their tireless local touring, a little help from their friends, and the phenomenal, home-grown video for “Girl Anachronism,” the group’s lead-off single.

A blistering blend of piano-driven confessional, Wiemar burlesque aesthetics and land speed record post-punk, “Girl …” is that rare and beautiful thing that occasionally reminds people why Boston has such a bullish musical legacy: a frighteningly original, uncomfortably personal saga that threatens to burn your block down on its way to changing the world. Or maybe it’s nothing more than the explosive sound of two musicians enjoying one another to the point of obsession. Epic history can be written on an intimate scale — and that’s pretty much how Palmer laid out the Dolls’ past and present when she spoke to us by phone from her Boston arts collective home.

Sean Flinn: So, for those folks out there who haven’t visited the group’s Website yet, or some across any of your other press, can you give us the Reader’s Digest version of how the Dolls came together?

Amanda Palmer: I was being, pretty much, a slacker and trying to put together my own band — I knew I wanted to. Brian, concurrently, was playing bass, of all things, in local Boston band. He was utterly miserable that he wasn’t able to find a way to get out on the drums, because that’s really what he was interested in doing. And we met at a party at my house. I used to throw sort of salon / performance art parties, at which I would perform and I would get friends, performance artists, dancers and bands to perform as well (because I live in a rather large house). And Brian got towed along with a mutual friend of ours, and it was Halloween night, 2000. He saw me playing a set of solo songs – just on acoustic piano, no fancy set up or anything — and he knew before I did that we were completely destined for each other. He approached me at the end of the night and asked me if I’d like to get together and play and the minute we started playing with each other, we both … it was hilarious. I wish we’d had a video camera. The day we started playing together, within the first half hour, we were sort of screaming and jumping up and down and acting like really excited six-year-olds.

Sean Flinn: I know on the Website you described it as “falling in total rock love with one another.”

That’s exactly what it was. We were both completely convinced that we had found the missing link in our lives. And we were right. The way we played together was so perfectly complimentary, that it was like fate had plucked us both out and thrown us together. We still feel that way. We can’t believe how lucky were, of all people, to find each other because there’s just so much chemistry, it’s unbelievable.

Does the chemistry have something to do with the fact that you have limited the group to just two people? You’re a two-person band, just piano and drums, and most people would tend to think that that’s 3/5 of a group, not a full group. Did you fear that you might not find that chemistry with any other people to round out the group?

I never had designs on being a duo. I always figured I would find a band. But, you know, we experimented with different lineups. We added guitarists. We added bassists. We tried working with all sorts of different configurations, and we played out as a band quite a bit a few years ago. And the response was overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the duo. People really wanted the distilled version. We would play sets where it would be just half drums and piano, and half drums, piano, bass and guitar. And while some people were a little more turned on by the sound of the full band because it was more familiar, most people just wanted the nitty gritty Brian and Amanda duking it out on stage – which is what generally turns people on about the show; that it’s this really intense connection between two people. And I’ve thought a lot about why that is, but it’s just … I think the more you add to it, the more you kind of dilute it.

Yeah, I can see that.

I thought of a really good analogy for this recently. It’s the same way that, if you’re watching a play, watching two people have an intense argument on stage is a lot more effective and engaging than watching an entire cocktail party of people, where you don’t really understand what’s going on.

The other people tend to draw focus away from the main crux of what’s supposed to be happening on stage.

Yeah. In addition to that, I think both Brian and I would start feeling a little guilty if there were other musicians on stage and we’re just focused on each other, it’s not very musical. It not really fair to the other guys.

Getting into the style of music that you guys play: I played some of the first album for a friend of mine who immediately described it as “Brechtian punk.” I don’t know if I’d ever heard that phrase before. Is that, to your mind, an apt description of the group? I know a lot of critics have tied in the word “Dresden” in the band’s name and the fact that you wear makeup on stage into this sort of Wiemar Republic cabaret type music. Is that something you were shooting for or was it something that sprang out organically from what you were doing?

It’s more the second. It sort of appeared after the fact. When we started playing originally, we didn’t wear costumes on stage. We were playing in jeans and t-shirts. And one night, we were on a bill with a burlesque stripper troupe – they had a residency, and they invited us in as a guest band – and just for kicks, I threw on some really trashy lingerie and painted my face white, a la Cabaret. And it worked so well. It just sort of clicked, and from that day on, we kept doing it because it worked.

And eventually, Brian, who’s a complete closeted drag queen … well, not so closeted anymore … he’s been dressing up in his mother’s lingerie since he was seven years old. But he and I both love costumes and make-up and doing it up. We love dressing up. It’s another miracle of chemistry. We share most of our clothes on the road.

You can just take one suitcase then — it’s very convenient.

Yeah, exactly. We played an acoustic show the other night, and he wore my standard costume, and I just wore my regular dress. But he got all dolled up in the white stripes and the black dress, and he looked very cute.

Hope you got pictures. So, given the make up and the theatrical bent of the shows, what are you ambitions for the Dolls’ stage shows going forward? I know you guys are a two-man gig right now playing somewhat small shows, but in the future that’s going to start getting bigger. What would you like to do with the stage show?

I would really love to expand the stage show. It’s going to be a question of what’s practical, obviously. But, all of my life, I’ve struggled with the marriage of rock music and theater. And I’ve actually directed a lot of theater that was half concert and half music video half play. That’s one-and-a-half things altogether, but you know what I mean.

The things that really turned me on artistically when I was younger — The Wall was one of my obsessive favorites, and Rocky Horror — I’m generally not turned on by most musical theater or opera, but some people manage to do it and hit on it just right, where you can take rock and you can take elements of theater and sometimes put them together to come up with this brilliant mix. That’s something that I hope to shoot for. I would love to do really magical and theatrical — and probably dark and twisted — stage shows. That will be a really fun matter of finding designers and lighting people and working on scripted elements of the show and working with what we’ve got — which is sort of the way we tend to do it. We’re doing Lollapalooza this summer and it’s going to be as stripped down as it gets. We’re going to be on a bare stage and it’s going to be the drums and the piano and that’s it.

… and about a billion degrees outside as well.

Right. And when we travel around in clubs … when you’ve got 40 minutes to say something and 10 minutes to set up, you basically keep it simple. Which is what we’ve been doing and it’s been really effective. But when we get to the point where we’ve got time to set up and money to throw around and stuff to play with, there’s going to be some really beautiful theatrical stuff that emerges from that.

That’s cool. Well, you’ve given me a lot of jumping off points there. I’m going to start with you mentioning the theatricality of the music and your fondness for that, which, in one sense leads me to wonder about your songwriting style, and how autobiographical your songs are versus how much they’re reflecting a persona that you’ve adopted in order to tell the story of the song. What mix is going on there? How deeply personal are these songs versus how much of them are stories that you’re telling?

They’re mostly autobiographical. I think that the ones that are sort of more caricatures of myself or completely adopted characters that I wouldn’t want to lay claim to at all are usually pretty obvious. But then again, everything is borne from experience. A song like “Missed Me” is pretty obviously spoken from the character of this evil, manipulative little girl, and I’ve been close enough to that evil manipulative little girl — or accused of being that evil manipulative little girl — to feel like I can tell the story appropriately.

It’s always an interesting question, and it’s something that gets really sticky, because once you stop being a completely autobiographical songwriter – which a lot of songwriters are, surprisingly. A lot of songwriters don’t ever depart from what they believe is true, and you wouldn’t hear anything coming out of their mouths that they wouldn’t defend in cocktail party conversations. Then it gets very dangerous because then you find yourself perhaps having to defend point that you don’t agree with because it’s your character. Songwriting is especially dangerous that way. A novelist can do that and it’s pretty much acceptable. And certainly a filmmaker, or a painter can paint a pretty gruesome scene and it all seems pretty detached. But when you’re getting up there and you’re speaking somebody else’s story as if it’s your own, with [nothing to indicate that you’re not] being yourself, it’s a little frightening sometimes.

I can imagine. And I imagine too that you get the whole David Bowie school of songwriting, where he practically lives in these characters that he creates, and then puts them away and pulls out something else – you’re never quite sure if what you’re getting is actually him or the character that he’s created. Even when he’s not wearing the make-up or doing the big fancy stage show.

But that’s almost the beautiful thing about it. That’s the whole mystique. Who the person actually is become really fuzzy, even in the mid of the person themselves. But it does work both ways. I often find that through writing, I’m forced to define myself which is just fascinating.

Do you ever find that writing music gives you license to let things out that you otherwise might keep not public — keep more private?

Oh yeah. Constantly.

Are there ever any consequences to that? Do you think, “OK, I’ve written this song, and now I’m going out and performing and — whoa! I’m really putting out some stuff that normally I wouldn’t reveal to people!”

Yeah. You know, the real danger of that – and I’ve been thinking and coping with this a lot lately – is that, often, the most fertile material is directly about people you really care for and care about, but the conflict in the relationship is so inspirational that you don’t want to toss it. And thing that gets really sticky is when it’s something like your family, where everyone has these really complex relationships with their mothers and their fathers and they’re endlessly fertile ground for conflicted songwriting and conflicted emotions.

But your parents are going to hear these songs, and your mother is going to hear this song that you wrote about her or your father is going to hear this song that you wrote about him and they might not want to know the deep dark terrible emotions. And that really gets you into a bind. And, in fact, I heard Ani DiFranco, who’s an interesting songwriter in her own right – she’s one of those pretty much confessional songwriters – but I heard an interview with her which was really interesting. She was talking about how her private life becomes very invaded by her fans, and every word gets examined and over examined and applied to, you know, “Was this song about that relationship or that relationship?!” And she said she very deliberately doesn’t write about her family, just to protect the relationship itself. I’ve already not done that. I’ve already had to deal with the wrath of my mother for bringing her up in a couple of songs. Well, I wouldn’t say wrath. It’s more painful that wrath. It’s not that she’s angry. It’s that it’s actually painful to hear me dredging up these old emotions – but it’s such great material that it’s hard to avoid.

Does she have a problem, too, I mean … not only are you bringing this stuff up, but you’re doing it in front of — especially as the band gets more and more popular — potentially of hundreds of thousands of people.

Yeah. That’s the tough call. And that’s also where the inspiration for the writing often comes in, in that you’re forced to be a little bit more poetic, a little bit more subtle, or a little bit more vague – not use the word directly, and on and on like that.

Do you find, knowing that these songs, especially as you acquire a wider audience and you’re sitting down to write new material, that your self-censor is getting any stronger because you know there’s going to be a wider audience for them and the impact on people you know could potentially be greater? Is that a conflict that every songwriter runs into?

I would guess so. And it’s something I’ve feared. It’s actually something I’ve been trying to cope with in the past couple of weeks because I’ve had a couple of weeks off from touring, and I’ve been trying to write and piece together the new record. I have to admit: your self censors really do come into play once you know, not even who your audience is, but that you have an audience period. [That] changes everything, because, I would say that, probably 80% of the material on this record that we just put out was written before I had any audience at all. I didn’t even have an audience of one. I had an audience of none. I mean, I had an audience of thousands in my narcissistically bloated fantasy. But there was no real place that these songs were ever going to be. It was all theoretical. And that really does, on the one hand – on the flip side — give this kind of immediacy when you’re writing because there’s that [feeling of], “Oh my god, this minute this word come out of my mouth, I can take it right into the studio. I can take it right into the club, and a bunch of people will hear it.”

There’s something really amazing and fantastic about that. On the other hand, that also gives an incredible weight — and unwanted heaviness – to the writing. So it’s another kind of unlearning. It’s like have to train myself to be really disciplined, in a way that I haven’t before, to forget about all that, and forget about what may be heard and may not be heard, and just write. I’m sure – I can’t imagine that any successful musician or writer or artist doesn’t go through this once they have an audience.

We’ve talked a little bit about the acquisition of an audience for the Dresden Dolls and for your songs, so I really wanted to start talking about the video for your song, “Girl Anachronism,” which is really where you guys started reaching beyond a New England audience or a cult audience to serious, serious exposure across the country. How and when in the group’s history did that video get made? Was it before or after you signed to Roadrunner?

It was before.

OK, so, where did you get the resources for it and where did the concept spring from? Give me the story of the video?

Well, it’s a great story and it involved a lot of luck and fortune. One of my dearest friends, and one of the most incredible artists I personally know, is Michael Pope — he’s the guy that directed it. He and I met right around the time that Brian and I met actually, or maybe a few months before. He’s always lived a kind of rag-tag Bohemian existence, couch surfing from New York to Boston. He was working on his own film, at the time – a future film – and he moved into my house, which is kind of an arts collective. He started taping our shows, and we knew that, the minute we had resources to make a video, we would do it. It was always something we had talked about. And as soon as the band started getting really serious, and the minute the record was done and we had a single – we had a finished product of music that we knew was going to be released, that’s one of the first things we looked into doing.

We had no money. We were unsigned. So we hit up a friend of ours for $5,000. We said, “We’re going to make this. We’re going to pay you back within a couple of years.” And that was it. We took the $5,000, we stretched it about as far as humanly possible, and we made the video in about 2 days. And it’s incredible, because it really does look totally legit — and it is. It’s real film — but it’s the product of a lot of effort and a lot of underpaid people and a lot of free time and labor and a lot of winking a nudging and friends at film stores hooking us up. Basically, what you see is probably closer to a $10 — 15,000 video, and we got a lot of breaks. We pulled a lot of strings, just because we didn’t have any money. But with that video in our pocket, that’s definitely a huge part of what helped us get singed and get the attention of the people that we were trying to get.

It’s more than a little astonishing to me that you could make a video … not astonishing to me that you could make something that good with that kind of budget — but astonishing to me that something that good, made with that kind of budget by an independent group – something that’s truly independent — would actually get picked up by MTV and really gain a wider audience. How did you guys actually get that out in front of people to the point where it was actually being seen?

Well, when we first finished it, we did all the editing here in the kitchen on a Macintosh. Then we just started burning DVDs – we got a DVD burner and started burning them. We made Xerox copied artwork and we started taking it around with us. I would play it for people in New York that I would get connected to. I’ve sent it out to everyone I could possibly think of who was even remotely important. And right around then is when an A&R guy from Roadrunner hit me up for publishing, actually. I sent him a copy of the video, and he brought it to an A&R meeting and everyone there just lost their shit.

I can imagine. I pretty much lost my shit when I saw it on TV, so … it sounds like, beyond just having it seen by A&R people, when it was actually aired on TV, was there a noticeable or dramatic impact from having it on their air? Did you guys wake up the next day and notice it?

No, not at all, actually. I mean, we always get fan mail. We always get a lot of e-mail. And there was a trickle of e-mail from people who were like, “Hey, I saw you on MTV, I checked out your site, this is great!” But not a ton. I think … our record had just gone on sale, nationally, about a month ago, and we’re only just starting to get a sense of what’s happening out there and who’s finding out about us. It’s still pretty much under wraps. There a station here that’s playing it, and there’s a station there, and there’s a little group of fans in San Francisco, and no one has ever heard of us in Omaha. It still has really yet to happen.

Still a lot of building left to be done.

Yeah. But it’s actually exciting. I kind of like that.

Well, better to have a chance to build something like that than to have it dumped on you all at once. I imagine even the level of success that you guys have hit right now can be kind of a challenge to grapple with.

Yeah. Well, having management is the key, and we finally did find a fantastic manager. That was the beginning of a new era for us.

I read somewhere in an interview that the point you said you wanted to get to was where someone was actually sending out the press kits for you as opposed to you having to send them out yourself.

And it’s finally happened!

You’re living the dream!

Yep!

GoldfrappIf Marlene Dietrich were alive today, she’d be the world’s sexiest 100-year-old. She might also have something to croak about Alison Goldfrapp, the namesake of the British duo whose 2000 album, Felt Mountain, conjures up all of the mystique, class and modernist boudoir beckoning of Dietrich’s cabaret classics. There’s a good bit more in there too — both Goldfrapp and her musical partner, Will Gregory, flash influences like Dietrich used to flash her gams; a bit of John Barry here, a bit of Bacharach there, a lifetime of synth-pop radio listening everywhere. Somewhere in there it latches onto its own identity – a slinky, ermine sound shot through with Dusseldorf pulses and Bavarian dawns – that, some day, people will hear in other music and describe as “distinctly Goldfrappian.”

Wait. Start back a few years. A college-aged girl is cutting the odd track with Tricky (the sumptuous “Pumpkin” from Maxinquaye), Orbital and Add N to (X) (“Revenge of the Black Regent,” if our sources are correct) and catches the ear of a film / television scorer with a yearning to do something less … celluloid. A partnership is formed, a stunning record is born, a contract with Mute is signed.

Cut to November, 2001. The scene: a cabaret-esque nightclub in Hollywood, Calif. (The Knitting Factory, to whose gracious publicity staff Choler owes a giant debt), where the aforementioned film / television scorer is chatting with journalists prior to taking the stage with Ms. G, a violinist in Leiderhosen and various and sundry though quite capable) musicians. Once on stage, the quintet will proceed to drop all jaws. Gregory will conjure out of his keys an atmosphere so thick you’ll swear you see white stags leaping out of a misty forest just off stage left, while the ludicrously garmented violinist will, at one point, play so furiously that resin rises from his strings like smoke. And Goldfrapp … at this point, words fail. Taking the stage clad in faux military garb, replete with a smart hat and a short olive drab mini skirt, the goldilocked Goldfrapp will overcome throat problems to make noises weirder and more beautiful than any audience really has a right to hear — even this one, which seems appreciative. But all that is epilogue, really. We were talking about a composer and a journalist and a photographer, camped out at a table in a nightclub’s restaurant, speaking to each other over the din of some free jazz thing or another playing on the PA and trying to work out the ascent of Felt Mountain with no Sherpas in sight.

Listen to the full interview:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sean: My first questions really have to do with the formation of the band. I know you guys both have long individual histories working in music, but I was curious about how the band came together and why you decided to work together. What was the catalyst that kicked you guys together as Goldfrapp the duo?

Will Gregory: We both had been in music doing various things, as you do trying to earn your living as a musician. It seems like you have to be flexible, to say, at the very least. Looking back on it, I guess you could say that we’d come to a point in our lives, respectively, where we felt we needed to just stop doing all those little things that feel like a compromise, and try and do something that feels like it’s really what you want to do. But at the time, I think it was just that I heard her voice. I heard her singing on a very early version of a song that later became [the Goldfrapp track] “Human,” and it sounded great. I just thought, “This is someone I’d really like to meet. Wherever she is, I want to be there too – because I feel like I already am.” I just felt that there was a connection there.

It was a very inviting sound – an inviting voice?

Very. I mean, because you’re always on the lookout. I think that, having done a lot of writing for TV and film and stuff, you begin to realize that, OK it’s fun, the idea that you’re a chameleon – that you can put on any fancy dress music pastiche costume – but actually, what’s more interesting is finding your own voice, your own style. I got to a point where I think I’d found that, to some extent, and I wasn’t usually allowed to do it, because it wasn’t appropriate to the project. But when I heard Allison, I thought, “That really is appropriate,” because wherever I am, I imagine that she can be there too. So I phoned her up and said, “Why don’t you come and maybe I can get you down on the pretext of doing a demo – I’ve got to do a demo for a film thing – but the same time we can see what happens. We can check each other out.” And that’s what we did. I think we had a good time. I think the song we demoed was dreadful, but we lost interest in that pretty quickly and started doing our own thing.

After that, we spoke a lot on the phone and we also sent each other — because, at the time, I lived in Bath and she lived in London – compilation cassettes of our favorite tracks, just to see where our heads were. I remember she put some Add N To (X) on one, and I thought my tape machine was busted, because it was making this incredible screeching noise. I was like, “Wow! What is that? I’ve never heard … maybe it’s broken.” And it turns out that it was Add N to (X) [specifically, the track “Revenge of the Black Regent” from the band’s second album, Avant Hard].

I think they have that effect on the uninitiated. It can be a little bit of a shock.

It was a shock – but it was just the sort of shock I was hoping for, I suppose.

Now, when you guys started working together, the chemistry happened pretty much right off the bat? The ideas were flowing easily?

God, I don’t know. I’ve not had much experience working [with other people]. It was intense. That’s all I can really tell you. I think that the first thing we wrote was “Lovely Head,” and that was lucky in a way because we were really pleased with it. We wanted to continue in that vein, and that set a kind of benchmark. And the next track we wrote was “Horse Tears,” and that set another kind of direction up – the kind of slow space that we really enjoy – that intensity. So between those two, we really kind of covered the gamut, and they ended up being the first and last track on the album, but they were actually the first two things we wrote. I think that that was lucky for us, because it meant that we had a standard, and we had a benchmark and we knew that, if we’d written tracks as good as that – we felt they were good – then we had our work cut out. After that, it was sometimes harder, because we were trying to recapture that direction.

After working together for a period, have you found that you’ve established any set patterns for writing songs? Does she [Alison Goldfrapp] come up with lyrics and come to you with the lyrics first, and then you start composing music? Or is it more of a meshing of ideas together? Or do you try to mix things up and keep it fresh?

All I can really tell you is that we both write the music together, and Alison writes the lyrics. How we get there, I don’t really know. We haven’t found a formula for doing it. I think that’s probably a good thing. But, at the same time, I’d like to be a fly on a wall with some other songwriters – particularly good ones. I’d like to see how they do it. I was very encouraged – I saw a documentary with Burt Bacharach where he said something to the effect that, “Songwriting is really bloody hard work.” And I thought, “Well, that’s encouraging, because I think it is too.” And they interviewed his second wife, and asked her why they split up, and she said, “It was because we couldn’t agree on the upbeat to a tune – whether it should be a crotchet or a quaver; a quarter note or a half note.” And I thought, “They broke up over that?” It’s a serious, hard business. And if he finds it hard, that makes me feel a bit better.

Well, since you mentioned the songwriter issue and being a fly on the wall, who are some of the songwriters whose walls you’d like to be a fly on? We’ve established Burt Bacharach. But what sort of songwriters do you find yourself admiring and wishing you had more of a window on?

Oh God, anybody who’s written great songs. I suppose Lennon and McCartney – it’d be really interesting the have seen them sing together at a piano. I’m sure either of what they said was nothing close to what actually happened. It’s a subjective thing. Classical composers. I’d like to see how [Enino] Morricone works, because I’ve heard all these wild rumors from Italians who kind of canonize him as a composer. But I’ve heard that he doesn’t compose at the piano, for example, and that he writes directly onto 32 staves of manuscript.

So, he’s just hearing it in his head as he’s putting it down on paper.

Exactly. I’d like to know whether or not it’s true, because I’d like to go up to Morricone and say, “I’ve got a little bit of film footage here. We’ve got 20 minutes. Let’s see what we can do.” Just to see how he did it. I would love to do that. I’ll bet he’s got a piano in there.

Or something. Maybe a kazoo or something to hum along with. You mentioned too that you’d been working on film scores for a long time, and that Goldfrapp was pretty much your venture into doing this full time. Is this what you originally wanted to do? Did you envision yourself, say, 10 or 15 years ago when you were learning to play instruments, being in essentially a pop band – or doing more popular music, as opposed to doing scores.

The thing is, it’s weird, because I don’t think of it as a pop band. What we do is a very strange amalgam of a recital and a pop band.

I guess the word “pop” is a little ill-fitting.

I’m sure it’s true of every band – every band is a little bit different – but I think that, if I’d asked myself, “Will I be playing music that I’m really happy with to people in a live context, who’d come to see it and like it,” then yeah, I’d be very happy with that.

You mentioned that this has other elements in it, besides just the formal identity of “the pop song.” It has the recital identity. You come from a film score background. Alison comes from a fine art painting background. Do you guys ever go into the studio with a visual idea of an atmosphere that you want to create? Kind of an inner cinema that you want to score to?

Yes. Quite often. And I imagine that that’s quite a useful thing, because the English language is not equipped – it does not have words to describe music. I don’t know how journalists manage. I mean, what can you say? Louder, softer, faster, slower? Louder quieter? That’s about it. You have to do it by analogy. We quite often send ourselves into fits of giggles, because we do that – we play that game. “Imagine this is a scene with Audrey Hepburn and she’s on a mountain and she’s lost her knickers.” What ever it is, just to get yourself going, really.

What inspired you guys to cover [Olivia Newton John’s] “Physical?”

Well, I think we both feel about covers that, if you’re going to do one, you shouldn’t do your favorite tune, because it’s been done so well originally. There’re a lot of great covers, but there’re also … If I were to say, “Let’s do ‘The Look of Love’ by Burt Bacharach” – I would never do that because as far as I’m concerned, Dusty Springfield did the seminal performance of that piece, and you’d never want to mess with it. I would say that “Physical,” on the other hand …

… could do with a little sprucing up?

Well, it leaves a little bit of room for development, shall we say?

Well, that makes my next question a little awkward, because it would assume that there are songs of yours that you might think had room for improvement. Who would you like to see cover any of your songs? Do you think there’s any room for re-interpretation of the work that you’ve put down?

Oh God, yes. It must be one of the most flattering things that can happen to anybody, to have someone cover your song. I say that after, you know — if Olivia Newton John is listening … [We both break into laughter here.]

So, God no. I don’t mind. It’s like an idea, isn’t it? A song? And once it’s into the world it leaves its creator and it’s an idea that everyone shares and they can do what they like with it, as long as they pay the royalties. So I don’t think that it’s actually one’s responsibility to even think about that, in a way. But I’d like to here a cover by The Crusaders? I dunno. Something a million miles away from where we are. A dub version by King Tubby.

That reminds me of when Massive Attack had Mad Professor remix the entire Protection album, and he turned a trip-hop album into a complete Reggae / dub album. It didn’t sound anything like what it started out being.

Fantastic!

Now, you guy just released “Pilots” as a single, and I know that they had postponed it in the wake of 9/11. I was wondering what your reaction to some of that was. Did you anticipate that as being appropriate, or was it oversensitive, or …?

I suppose I think that it’s a bit nanny state-ish. Who are people that we have to decide for them how sensitive they are? I don’t know that I go along with that, really. And I’m not interested in it because we didn’t get our record out, but just as a general thing. It seems a bit patronizing to the general public to say, “Oh, we don’t think you’re ready for this. We don’t really want to think about it.” It’s like when you’re on an airplane, they don’t show pictures with planes crashing. That’s OK, You can understand that because you’re on a plane. But in the general world, I mean … we’re grown-ups, aren’t we?

I personally found most of Felt Mountain, especially “Pilots,” to be a very comforting album to listen to, regardless of what had happened on Sept. 11th. But it makes you wonder if the over-sensitivity could have an adverse effect – if people might have drawn some sort of comfort from a song that they’ve taken off the air. I know in the U.S., there was a big controversy with Clear Channel – which owns several radio stations in every major market – publishing a huge list of songs that its DJs were strongly suggested not to play. And on that list were things like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” When you look at the lyrics to a song like that, you think that people might have drawn some inspiration or consolation from hearing it. In being oversensitive, Clear Channel has taken that away.

Well, then you haven to analyze what that word “oversensitive” means. They say, “We’re being sensitive,” and I say, “You’re being censorial.” I don’t know that you should decide for everybody what their sensitivities are. As soon as you start doing that, you’re on the rocky road to censorship.

I have one last question, and it kind of gets back to some of the process – the songwriting and the thoughts that go into that. I noticed that the Independent’s review of Felt Mountain mentioned that, “There can’t be many singers who can make a song about Eugenics” – and they’re referring to “Utopia” – “feel like an idyllic lullaby.” Now, I know groups like, say, Stereolab, mesh very heavy political commentary with blindingly lush sound arrangements, and masquerades this mix as pop. I’m wondering if you guys ever approach something in such a manner that you’re being, in a sense, subversive – not in a political way, but in the sense that you have a message that is left of what the music is communicating sonically.

That’s very interesting. I mean, first of all, music by itself doesn’t communicate anything – which is what Stravinsky said. Music, in and of itself, does not mean anything. I think that’s probably true, although I think he was being a bit difficult when he said that. So it’s difficult to say that the music is fluffy and the message is hard.

I don’t mean to say that by “lush” or “fluffy” I mean that the music isn’t serious.

Well, I think that it’s interesting having counterpoint. I don’t write the lyrics, so I’m not fully qualified to talk about them. What I will say is that I think we tend to go with the emotion rather than the kind of politics. And I think that the emotion behind the idea that we are potentially in control, scientifically, of creating how we’re going to be in the future – we’re moving into a position where we can play God to a pretty extreme extent – has an emotional significance. And then you imagine some futuristic alien human being that’s been the product of all this genetic whats-it. What’s going through their mind? That can be a very torturous, sad place to be, I suppose. So that creates a certain drama straight away, even though it’s quite comical at the same time.

I think we’re both into sci-fi, particularly the more kind of depressing Blade Runner-y sort of sci-fi (where, in this case, the film isn’t nearly as bleak as the book, or as interesting).

Yes. Yes, exactly. Very true.

Unless it’s an independent film or something, where they have license to do whatever the hell they want. They’re not answering to a studio.

Yes. Well, an independent sci-fi film is something we’d both like to do a score for, because I think there’s a lot of fun you can have putting yourself into the story – you know: “The machinery isn’t quite behaving – it’s gone out of control!” I think that’s what we like when we play music.

I know that the French band Air made their mark with an album of critically acclaimed original music, and then their next step was to do a critically acclaimed film score (for The Virgin Suicides). Can you guys ever see yourselves working back around to where you started – going back and doing a full-on score?

Well, yeah. You say “back” and Alison hasn’t done that. I don’t know. I’m sure we will do it, because hopefully people will pick up on the wavelength that we’re on and come to us and we can be on their wavelength and something good can happen. I’m sure that that could happen. I think we’ve got to be a bit careful as to the timing of it, because we need to get on with another album. We need to make sure that we can still do it.

Are you guys planning to go back in the studio after you get back from this tour?

Yes. Definitely. It’s been a long time.

Are there any ideas formulating for what you’re going to do with it? Have you been writing on the road at all?

No, we don’t seem to be able to do that. But I’m sure there are ideas. Whether they’re any good or not, we’ll find out.

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Stereolab's Tim Gane

Kinda blue: Tim Gane on stage with Stereolab in Solana Beach, Calif., November 13, 2001.

I’m sitting backstage at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif. with Tim Gane, Stereolab’s founding songwriter, guitar player and main ideologue, and we’re lying to one another. Gane is pretending to give me direct, concrete answers to my questions about his band’s work methods, its history, its fondness for certain producers, and I’m pretending to believe him. We’re going along like this, happily, because approximate truths are about as close as one can get to nailing down anything about the group.

For a band whose “sound” is, at least to its fans and serious observers, instantly recognizable regardless of album or song, Stereolab is surprisingly mercurial. Listen closely to any two of their albums back to back, and the differences between them will begin to reveal themselves. The instruments are balanced differently; their owners play with rhythm like Maceo played with James Brown. They paint with a broad palette of tone and mood; they wrestle with a broad range of social issues. Try to pin them down on their much-vaunted ideological concerns, and they’ll make a quick, slithering turn out from under you, claiming, as Tim Gane did during our conversation, that they never felt the way you deduced they felt. You’ve been misled. You’re mistaken. Boom, flash, look at the monkey. Stereolab has slipped away again.

And yet, they remain recognizable, almost iconically so, because, wherever they wander, they’re sure to leave clues to their whereabouts. While perhaps not card-carrying Commies, they do — or at least, vocalist Laetitia Sadier’s lyrics do — consistently espouse a firmly left-of-center stance on everything from the efficacy of war in resolving international disputes (see: “Ping Pong” from Mars Audiac Quintet or “Les Yper Sound” from Emperor Tomato Ketchup) to the merits of socialized medicine (or rather, the lack of merit in most things commercial). Heavy shit, all of it, but rendered light as gossamer by their musical arrangements, which borrow liberally (small “l”) from Latin jazz, exotica, modern composition, avant garde electronic music and, yes, good ol’ rock ‘n’ pop. Heavy lyrics, digestible tunes. That’s the key right there: subversion is Stereoloab’s calling card.

That’s what audiences identify when the group plays live. It has to be, because Stereolab sounds different every time it plays; the last time the group made the trek from its native England (vocalist Sadier is from France) to play the Belly Up (in November of 1999), it leaned heavily on synths, laying down a smooth, slightly jazzy drone that coated the venue in rich warmth. And when it returned to town this past November, to showcase the songs from its most recent album, Sound Dust, it stripped back the Moogs and favored slightly bouncier, grittier arrangements heavier on guitar and more aggressive in their musical attack. Not punk, but not lounge. Maybe the best word would be “poignant,” since their punch and vibe and lyrical bent favor the current schizophrenic mood of the world right now: we’re desperate for hard news, but equally desperate for “comfort food” entertainment. Stereolab may be the only group in the world capable of satisfying both urges at once. Still, it remains resistant to convenient analysis, as Gane made deceptively clear to us during our little chat.

Listen to the full interview:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sean Flinn: The first questions I have deal with the new album, Sound Dust. How long did you guys spend putting it together? Did you approach it differently than previous albums – and if so, how?

Tim Gane: OK, the first part of the first question, the answer is: about four months, four-and-a-half months, something around about that. We were there [in Chicago, at Soma Electronic Music Studio] from October [2000] through to February recording and mixing. We came back [to England, where they reside] for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s about the same as what we normally do, or have done on the last three or four records – maybe two weeks longer or a week longer. But our way of working is really kind of slow, so it seems like a long time. We don’t have the songs written other than very basic stuff written on a cassette recorder, which contains a lot of the stuff that you’ll hear, but it’s never rehearsed and the other guys don’t get to hear it until we go in there. So it’s just a question of a lot of that time you’re spending thinking about what to do and how to approach it.

The second part would be: it’s very difficult to ascertain, for me, whether we approached the record in the same way, because in a technical way, a practical way, they’re always the same. I write the music kind of loosely. I just write the basic chords, melodies, sometimes bass, sometimes little instrumental things — but pretty simple — and I try to keep it open. So, in terms of how I did it, I did it the same: I did it on a cassette recorder, and so on. But in terms of, like, an idea of the sound or a concept of the sound, it’s different. Every record is different. The methodology is, I’m trying to think of new ways to approach ideas that I have and ideas that I want to come back to, I suppose, but I’m always trying to put them in a new way or a slightly different language or a slightly different environment. So, I think that the basic beginning point is always very different. It depends on how you look at it.

I know you recently told Play Louder magazine that you’d designed Sound Dust to be a little bit more approachable, as opposed to something like Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, which you had dubbed – at least in this interview – as being a little too introspective and a little too long.

Yeah, but I mean … that’s true, but in the sense that what I was trying to say was that I don’t judge [Cobra and Phases …] badly for being that. I’m just saying that that’s what it was and that’s what came out at the time, because that’s how we were, and that’s what comes out. I don’t judge records on a scale of commerciality or approachability. On this record, I just felt that a lot of what people said about the last record is that it was a bit sprawling and a bit long. It’s true. But it was OK for that record, I think. Maybe in that respect I would have changed it, but being retrospective about it is kind of pointless – you just do what you feel at the time. But I didn’t want to just do that again, so I did have an idea of – well, it wasn’t just me, it was Laetitia as well, and everyone – that we’d maybe try and keep it to around an hour or so, so people have a chance to be able to get into the music and not find it such an epic Charlton Heston movie.

That was it, really. There was no real attempt to make things more approachable in terms of the music. The music came out how it came out – and I don’t know what’s going to come out. So the idea that we’d make a record to be more commercial or sell more records is never true and certainly wasn’t true of this record, because I just don’t know what going to happen. It’s really just work from a very intuitive level, and I’m not thinking of audience or thinking of opinions or thinking of record labels or record sales. It just absolutely doesn’t enter my head.

What is it about Sean O’ Hagan that keep you guys coming back for more? I know, from what I’ve read recently at least, that you guys really kind of share a fondness for the Beach Boys – but what is it about his working style that draws you back to him as a producer?

I think he’s amazing because he’s very able to tune into ideas quite precisely and, without lots of explanation, really get to the heart or the essence of an idea just by listening to something. He’s very enthusiastic, and he’s very good at tweaking and adding some layers and levels to ideas which were already there in order to make them blossom out – and he always does it very intuitively, or in tune with the ideas that I have. So for instance on this record, he came over and played a lot of keyboards and so on – which were the chords [that Tim had written beforehand] – but he’s great with keyboards. I don’t play the keyboards, I just play the guitar, so I’m trying to say, “Well this is this, but I’m trying to have this feel from it which is not the same as this version of it.” And he understands that! He’s always trying to go with that, and it’s very good to have him say what he thinks. We have good conversations about stuff like that. He knows very much how I work, and he’s very quick in understanding things. He’s amazing. I don’t know anyone who’s as quick as him.

Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier

Vocalist / lyricist Laetitia Sadier croons at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif.

And, for instance, on this record, I had an idea of the brass — it wasn’t what the brass was playing, but I kind of wanted a statuesque column of brass coming in at one point on the first song, against kind of floaty music. And I might say that, but I don’t actually do that. He does that. But when he came back with the [arrangement], it was more than I wanted. He’s just good at progressing with the ideas as well. I think it’s a shame that, in talking with people, they get the idea that Sean and Jim O’Rourke and John MacIntyre have this one thing that they do, and you can go to them for that reason. And that’s not true. They’re able to turn their hands at any kind of stuff, really, and try to find what is the best, or most interesting way forward.

I really think that, when we are actually working with these people, it’s totally different than what people imagine. We don’t use Sean because we want a harmony / Beach Boys thing, we don’t use John because we want a Chicago sound, and we don’t want Jim because we want a late ’60s West Coast arrangement style. We use them because they have very interesting ideas, and they’re very good players and we have a good time and they’re good friends. I couldn’t think of other people more suitable for us to use, you know? And it’s not because we want to keep doing the same thing. I think all the records we’ve made with John are, sonically, very different. I don’t see that Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops and Cobra … and Sound Dust are that closely aligned, sonically. I think they’re all quite different.

Cobra … it was a real hard slog to get anything out of that record technically, because we had to record it in London and the studio we found was actually someone’s house. And when we got there, the gear was totally full of MIDI music. So we had to change absolutely everything, and buy stuff and re-boot it. And, it there were just so many technical problems to overcome. I don’t think the first week we spent with Jim anything was recorded. It was all just trying to make things work. So that album suffered a little bit, in my opinion, sonically just because it was such a struggle to overcome basic things. And when we actually got around to doing the music, it was like, “Whatever. Just get on with it. It sounds fine. It’s not right, but I want to get something done because in two weeks we’ve done a couple of drums and we need to get nervous about it.”

I imagine, too, that working with these guys, after doing a couple projects with them, just gets easier and easier, as you get more in tune with one another.

Yeah – I mean, you don’t try to do it to be easy. You try to keep the level of difficulty up, but what I do mean is that you don’t have to explain. It’s so good not to have to explain at all points what you’re trying to do. Or, “No, I don’t like that. Can you lose that please?” Because so many engineers just do that, and we have very particular tastes. And John and Jim are very in tune. It doesn’t mean that they don’t suggest things that we wouldn’t normally use. They do. But they know what seems to work given certain situation as opposed to just having one set of ideals which they always go by, like, “Vocals must always be recorded through this, music this, and drums must always be gated …” I mean, you do what’s necessary to achieve an idea that you have, and the thing is, with the ideas, they’re pretty obviously there and they understand them without us having to talk them through it. I do have a talk with them vaguely at the beginning a little bit, on and off, just vaguely what I’m thinking of. But from listening to music, and some small explanation, it all comes from that.

It seems like a good time to get into what I’ve seen at least a few reviewers peg as “Stereolab’s instantly identifiable sound.” The four albums that you mentioned before don’t bear a whole huge resemblance to one another …

Sonically, no. There’re so many ways of approaching this, but after reading so many reviews or speaking to many interviewers, I identify three areas where there is a communication problem or a misunderstanding. One is sonically. One is stylistically. And one is content. They’re three simple things. When I talk about music, I usually talk about it in terms of content, because they’re obviously ideas that sprung from me.

Most reviewers tend to talk about them stylistically: What does it sound like? Does it have guitars? Does it have electronics or Moogs? Does it have this type of vocal or that type of vocal or blah blah blah. To me, that’s just arrangements. That’s stuff that you do to bring out an idea. And whether a record has synthesizers or no synthesizers doesn’t alter the fact that I’m thinking of it in terms of content.

So some people like Dots and Loops, or think Dots and Loops is better than, say, this one or better than Cobra…, because they like it stylistically. They like the certain sound that’s on that record. To me, those songs are no better than the ones we’re doing now. And if we did the ones now in a Dots and Loops style, I’m sure they’d go over well. But to me, I’m trying to keep up a level of interest in terms of content, and how we decide to do it is on the spur of the moment. I decided I didn’t really want to use so many electronics and heavy organs and keyboards and guitars – the guitars had kind of gone away a bit anyway for a while – simply for practical reasons. I wanted to have some quite subtle arrangements and I wanted them to be heard. I didn’t want them fighting to be heard. And I wanted the music to be slightly impressionistic or blurred and not precise, exactly, because that’s the kind of ideas I was thinking of. So I thought that, to avoid all of these things that fill up a lot of space, you’d be able to hear things a little bit more. It’s not because the record is more commercial or we’re not using electronics anymore or whatever. It’s not done for those reasons. I’m not some kind of Machiavellian figure who kind of has all these ulterior motives for everything. It’s really, like, simple. It’s simple. And I think sometimes you have to think simple first, without trying to …

…overanalyze it?

Yeah. It’s our fault. We’ve kind of set it up so that people overanalyze what we do – certainly in terms of the music.

I guess the plus of that is, if the message boards on your Website are any clue, you do tend to attract a fairly intelligent fan base, if opinionated.

I don’t know. I’ve never read them. I can’t bear to read them. I did try to read them a couple of times once, years ago – we had a Website back in, like, ’93. It was not run by us, but I tried to read some [of the message board posts] and just said, “Oh, I can’t!” It’s like reading someone’s private letters or something. I find it really squeamish.

Well, you’ve talked a lot about the studio and the craft of the albums, and I’m wondering how much actual studio wizardry might go on on the albums, and whether or not that makes it difficult to bring some of the music to the live performances. I mean, I know there are certain things — like string arrangements – that you can’t bring on stage with you. Does that make it difficult to communicate the vision that you had in making the record to the stage?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think we’re trying to do the same thing. We approach it from the point of view of getting close to what’s going on with the records in terms of what the notes and chords are. But how we do it live is quite different. In a live situation, it’s much more about more direct communication of the ideas. I think we tend to err more towards kind of a groove or more simplistic presentation; not so many parts, not so many thrills and trills.

I find that the songs mostly work – not all of them – but the songs mostly work in a sort of stripped-down way, because I think that [playing] live is a different experience, and we can’t hope to match the certain number of things that are going on on a record. But when we can duplicate, for instance, the string section or the brass or whatever with another instrument, we’ll do so, and I think it works. There’s a danger of reducing everything to sort of some punk-like things, and I suppose we kind of sprung from a punk background, so live, there is more of that element than there is on the record. Some people prefer the live sound. It’s more alike the records that they prefer – there’re more guitars. It’s heavy.

And that’s fine. I don’t to be false about it. It’s what we’ve managed to come up with. To be honest, this tour was quite difficult to do. One of the main reasons is we don’t like rehearsing. And the other reason is, we can’t seem to get our act together very well to perform well. [Laughs]. But I think actually when we start playing it live in front of people, then we really kind of focus on what we need to do, and what’s missing. It gradually evolves over the tour from the first concert we did in Eindhover, Holland to this one now, it’s like 12 weeks’ difference. And I think a lot of the songs have evolved a very large amount in that time, and I think they work pretty well – as well as any of our stuff has worked. But because we mix it always old song and other songs, it’s not like were trying to do this kind of endurance test. It’s never like that. I don’t want to play like that. We’re not avant garde or anything in that sense. I just want to mix everything we’ve done up to now. And we don’t do remixed, updated versions. We pretty much just do what on the album.

Do you guys give yourselves any leeway to improvise on stage at all?

Yeah. I mean, as I said before, a lot of the songs evolved. We kind of fulminate forms of improvisation: “Oh, we’ll let this go a bit, or we’ll cut this bit.” Kind of on that level But most – maybe six gigs out of 10 – we’ll kind of actually improvise a lot, maybe 20 minutes just totally free … usually towards the end or one from the end. We kind of did it all the time for two or three years, and now I think we do it more selectively; it tends to be more often than not. It just depends on the vibe or the moment. And sometimes we play and we think, “It doesn’t need that.” It depends what’s missing. What you feel is missing.

I wanted to talk a little bit about how often you guys release albums. It seems like you put something out every year – at least a full-length album with several singles in there in between. I’m really curious to know how you guys maintain the energy and the inspiration and the stamina to write, record, release and then tour that much material. Or does it even feel like you’re doing anything frequently? Does it just feel natural?

It depends. I don’t feel it that much, personally. I mean, I think that a lot of people might feel it more than me, so you’d have to ask them, but I don’ think … we haven’t recorded anything for a year – since we recorded the LP. I mean nothing. I recorded a tour single downstairs on the computer, just messing about. But I don’t know if we do a lot. A lot of the releases are sometimes compilations of stuff that we’ve done before. Like, maybe a few months old. But it’s true that in the early days, we did knock out quite a large amount regularly. And I think it’s just a question of us really trying to just enjoy working and doing the music. I mean, why we want to do music is because we want to do music. It’s not because of all the other things that some bands fell they’re forced to do. We tour a lot because we don’t present ourselves for videos or for marketing, entertainment magazine type things. We present ourselves or promote the record – if that’s the way you want to look at it-by playing live. So it’s to do with the music. That’s why we’re doing it. It kind of sounds stupid, but –

— it makes sense. You do what you do because you like to do it.

And the rest of the stuff is pushed to the back. I don’t know if other bands do do that. But also, I write very, very quickly. Most of this LP was probably written in a four or five week period with a gap of two weeks, and then I came back and did the rest in maybe 10 days. And there was a lot more material than we actually ended up using. Once I get an idea or something, I tend to be quite quick. And, theoretically, there’s probably enough [left over from the Sound Dust demos] to do another mini album of stuff that we never ended up doing.

Do you tend to do that? Do you tend to take material that you haven’t used on the album and then try to re-use it somewhere else?

Occasionally, yeah. Occasionally we just don’t get around to something – something that I really feel is not really developed and we’re running out of time and have to come back to it. And sometimes I’ll just listen to stuff occasionally that I’ve forgotten and think, “Oh, that’s quite nice.,” or “That’s not really – but this bit here is good, so I’ll take a sample and use it.” But I don’t do it very much. I mean, generally, when we do a record, I tend to just do it at the moment, because sometimes the ideas are kind of … you know, you’re done with it. You listen to it and you go, “Well, yeah, that does sound like that record, and we’ve done that record.” If I can’t feel like I can change it, I just leave it. It has to be pretty good for me to use it again.

There has been a lot of discussion about the group’s political stance on a lot of issues. Do you think critics make too much of that?

I don’t know. There’re elements there, but the way they tend to construe it is almost totally tabloid. There are degrees of subtlety or ideas that don’t have any particular way of generalizing, and they still try to generalize. So all of those labels – the ones you know and everyone knows – I don’t agree with them because they’re not true. I don’t think that way, I’ve never thought that way, and it’s kind of a bit annoying to have people telling you how you are, and then when you say, “Well, no.” And they come back with, “Well, you must be as people say,” or “You’re trying to wiggle out of it.” I’m not wiggling out of it. That’s just the way it is.

On the other hand, there are certain elements of what we do and the way we approach doing what we do and how we conduct ourselves that are different from others, and I think can be an example of how not to do things – you know: how to succeed in the music industry bullcrap, how to decide to pick the things you find relevant. I mean, is that political? I have lots of discussions about it, but I find that we’re just people who think about things. I thought about things way before I was in the group – I’m not particularly an intellectual person, but you do think about things. It’s just normal. So I feel like I have to explain what is just being normal to me. Everyone has points of view, everyone has opinions, but they’re not set in stone. They’re evolving and changing and if someone has a counter point, we’ll say, “Yeah! Yeah.”

It seems like fluid ideas, or the ideas that somebody can have a dynamic world view is very inconvenient for a lot of the press. They want to pigeonhole you.

That’s the problem! We’re kind of self-referenced all the time because we make it difficult for them. But they still do it. But it’s not difficult for them. It’s difficult, I think, to look at things and understand what the language is they’re speaking, and if you want to get to the heart of something, you have to give up some of your preconceptions. But I think that most people who write about music just want to fill some paper. They’re not really interested in getting to the heart of something. Otherwise, they wouldn’t write what they write. I mean, some people are very perceptive and others are, unfortunately, hacks. Not yourself included – I have no idea what you’re going to write about – but in general, especially in reviews, it’s like these people aren’t very intelligent. I don’t mean that intelligence is always what you need, but I if you’re going to be a writer, you have to try and understand, to try to get to some essential quality of who you’re writing about. It’s like a photographer for instance. A magazine only accepts glamorous photos of people, even if the ones that are not glamorous are showing the people much more how they really are. And that’s the way I see it: you show the one which is closest at that point in time to what the person is. The same with writing stuff.

I guess that’s the great crux of art in general – is it supposed to be expressive, is it supposed to be entertaining, or is supposed to be anything? Should you put a “supposed” in front of “art?” It kind of defines whether people are making art or whether they’re making pop.

It makes a point of being pointless.

Orbital

With the release of their sixth full-length LP, the brothers Hartnoll have solidified their status as Britain's most successful dance music export.

Despite its multi-national impact, electronic dance music has proffered only a few widely recognizable faces from out of the great bumping masses of DJs, producers and performers – and a pair of those faces belong to the brothers Hartnoll — Paul and Phil. Actually, “faces” is probably a poor word choice there; with the exception of Moby and the model-gorgeous Sandra Collins, you could line up the world’s top deck rockers in a police station, and even the hardest of hardcore ravers would have a tough time picking out the DJ that saved their life last night. The Hartnolls are really no exception — but the name “Orbital” has just about become shorthand for a certain brand of British dance music.

Of course, that’s just about what the Hartnoll’s had in mind when they appropriated the name from the London-encircling M25 highway, along whose paved expanses the first British massives took place. This was back in the heyday of acid house, the late ’80s — early ’90s — when raves first began moving out of the warehouses and into the countryside, their promotion supported by a burgeoning pirate radio network and their future always uncertain. The Hartnolls, weaned on second wave hardcore punk and tweaked-out electronic pop music, gently lobbed their first contributions to the scene (a pair of anonymously produced electro tracks) through Full Frequency range recordings (FFrr), the British dance label that they still call home. In late 1989, they dubbed themselves Orbital and released their first proper single, the now-classic “Chime,” a home-recorded effort that sold out its initial — and all subsequent — pressings.

In the twelve years since “Chime’s” unveiling, the Hartnolls’ career has yielded 5 chart-cracking albums, countless top 20 singles, several headlining slots at the Glastonbury Festival, a main stage appearance at Tribal Gathering and the headlining gig at Woodstock 2 — making Paul and Phil, arguably, Britain’s most successful dance music export. And they’re still going strong. They released their sixth full-length album, The Altogether, in October, 2001, and have embarked on an extensive tour of the US and Europe (forging ahead with international travel despite an ongoing climate of trepidation in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington DC and the growing war in Afghanistan). Additionally, they’ve produced a full-length DVD to accompany the Altogether that features a full 5.1 digital surround sound audio mix of the album and several specially commissioned visual works set to the album’s standout tracks.

Choler caught up with one half of the dynamic duo – Phil Hartnoll — via phone to England shortly before the release of The Altogether to chat about the new album, the impending tour, and the sort of music that keeps the Hartnolls in the air despite the persistent efforts of gravity and other forces to keep the whole world hugging the dirt.

Sean Flinn: A lot of the media surrounding your new album, The Altogether, has been focused on its “lighthearted” and “playful” vibe, relative to your previous albums. What’s your take on all of that? Have people got that right?

Phil Hartnoll: Yeah, I would say so. The only criteria we set out, really, was to try and do shorter tracks – to see if we could say what we wanted to say within about five minutes. But we said that for the last album [1999’s The Middle of Nowhere] and it just didn’t work. But this album, the first set of tracks ended up coming in at that time. The albums we’ve produced do sort of reflect the vibe that we’re feeling at the time, and I would say that things were in quite a carefree sort of mood [for The Altogether’s recording]. But I think, because of the shorter tracks, we stopped going into these longer pieces, which can end up having their moody bits and going up and down. So, as we did a couple of those, it did set up the vibe of the album. And I would agree that it is quite fun. It’s not “deep,” rather than it’s “lighthearted.” I think that, because of the nature of some of the tracks – you know, we ended up putting the cover version of the Dr. Who theme song that we do on there, and things like that – all those things contributed to it being that type of album.

What motivated you guys to start doing shorter tracks?

Just as a little exercise, really. We just said, “Oh God. This time, let’s try and do something different.” And it’s not criteria that we would stick to if we found ourselves going down a path where we’d end up with a twenty-minute track or something like that — or fifteen, or even ten. A track to us just has to feel right. But we ended up doing what we set out to do, and keeping them short.

And how did you guys go about assembling the album? Where and when did this all begin? How far back do the sessions go?

Cor, blimey.

Yes, he actually said that.

[Thinks hard for a few seconds before confessing the truth.] You’ve got me there. Let me think. I can’t remember. It was probably about two year ago when we started it, and we spent a year making it. It’s been a long time coming out really.

And I know you guys did a DVD to be released in conjunction with the album. Did you guys conceive of doing that at the same time you started doing the album, or did that come later on?

It came along sort of in between. I’ve always wanted to do a DVD, just because of the surround sound aspect of it. It was the audio, really, and the DVD format allows that. Nowadays, people are much more tuned into it – it’s much more accessible than it ever was. Certainly it’s becoming more of a video format, and the people selling the machines – since you can’t record your favorite TV show on a DVD – they’re really pushing the surround sound home theater vibe. Which is perfect for us, because we’ve always loved that; we’ve always been trying to get into surround sound.

So it wasn’t really at the beginning [of The Altogether‘s recording] when we decided to do it. It went along more with the idea that we wanted to try this, if we could. When we recorded it, we went into a studio that enabled us to do the surround sound mix, just in case our record company allowed us to do the DVD release. And when we brought down the managers and directors and all that to listen to it, they were blown away by it. So they said, “Oh yeah, OK, let’s do it!” Then it escalated from there. I thought, “Oh God. I’ve got to come up with some visuals now.” Which wasn’t a problem – it was actually really, really good. It turned out about a thousand times better than I ever thought it would, because of the audio and because we’ve got a lot of directors that we know and visual people that really, really wanted to get involved with it. Also, on the visual side, you can be a lot more experimental with it, really. You can have many different angles, different cuts, you know. You can also put some dialogue in, and have audio on / audio off. It doesn’t have to be MTV-friendly. So they just jumped at the chance. And because we were on quite a conservative budget for the video side of things, it worked out really well.

Can you describe what some of the visuals are like, for those of us who haven’t had a chance to see the DVD yet?

Oh it’s a real mixture of stuff, really. A bit like the album, I suppose, in styles. A couple of tracks are videos that we generated for our live shows. And we got the guy, John Thacker, who does all of our live video stuff, to do some re-edits so it worked with the DVD. There’s a full animation, which is really good, for the track “Oi,” which this big, big company actually donated because they wanted to push their animator. I loved the idea that he came up with, and we kept going, “Oh go on, go on. Do it. Do it.” And they did, in the end, because they were so enthusiastic about it, which was really reassuring on a creative level.

So we’ve got this whole animation that was generated for it which would have cost a fortune if they hadn’t given it to us. And there’s this conceptual artist that we know who’d just gone to firework night over here and – do you know what “sparklers” are? Where you just sort of hold them in your hand and sort of turn circles? Anyway, he just went to this big fireworks display, and basically the idea is really, really simple: he just played the tune to loads of people walking past, handed them a sparkler, and got them to dance around. And the way he’s edited it, you can hardly see the people – it’s just that sparkling, tracing sort of thing. So you’ve got something as complex as animation and then something so simple. But because he’s a conceptual artist, it was more of the idea of getting just anybody, spontaneously, doing their own thing.

There’s a hidden track on there, called “Monorail” and it’s just film of all form of monorail in Tokyo. And because you’ve got the two angles [the multiple angel viewing that DVD makes possible], you’ve got that juxtaposed with some sort of American pageant – you know, those guys who wear the fezzes and drive around in little cars –

The Shriners.

Yeah. That’s it. Things like that. That’s pretty funny actually. And then there’s another track that we did [with the song] “Waving, Not Drowning” that has a sort of naïve feel about it. There’s used to be this program, when we were really small kids, called “Playschool,” and it ad a bit like a “Sesame Street” type vibe, a pre-school sort of things. And on “Playschool,” about halfway through the show, they’d go, “Oh, let’s go look at the windows!” And you had a choice of [which windows to go through], and you’d pick a window, go through the arch window, and then you’d go to like a milk bottle factory or something like that and see this little documentary of a milk bottle factory. So, because we’re doing the DVD, we thought, “OK, at that point, we can go through either window and have alternative endings.” So we really sort of messed around with it. One [ending] goes to the CD factory, one goes off on a different tangent. So there’s a lot to play around with.

But essentially it was for the audio side. In my opinion, you can watch a video maybe 10 times and you pretty much know it, whereas with your favorite tune, you can play that about 30 times. So, I do think that the important side was the audio.

So the video was something that you wanted to do, but it was really just to enhance what people were getting with the audio and the 5.1 sound.

Yeah, when DVD-A comes in, I won’t feel pressured. But trying to fill a DVD without visuals is not really in the public domain yet.

I think Bjork may have just done that with her new album, Vespertine. But she’s the first and only person I’ve seen to do that.

Well, the visuals that we’ve done are fantastic, but I didn’t want it to look like “ambient TV,” that you got many moons ago, where it was just like fractals and “Hey – this is the new thing.” This is a bit more interactive. We have had fun with the media on the visual side, but like I say, you can only truly watch something so many times, whereas with the audio side … It will be good when more artists do do that, because then it opens it up to many more bands. It becomes not much more expensive to do the 5.1 surround sound mix, whereas if you’ve got them to accompany it with some sort of visual because that’s what’s expected, it’s an added pressure that would stop some bands from doing it, really.

Yeah. It will probably take more accessible devices being able to read the format before it takes off. While we’re talking about visuals – I know that when Orbital is on tour, your work is accompanied by some pretty extravagant video presentations. That led me to wonder how visual your music is — when you go into the studio, do you ever form sort of a mental visual image of what it is that you want to put together? Is there an inner cinema that you’re crafting a soundtrack for?

>Not really, no. I mean, there are some personal things that sort of conjure up with certain tracks or when you’re making music, it can spark off your visual imagination, if you like. But when it comes to [Orbital’s] live [shows], we work closely with this guy called Giles, and we sit down together and chat about things and moods and stuff, and he goes off and ignores us and does his own thing.

[Laughs.]

No he doesn’t really. But we sit around and chat about the vibe of stuff, and the atmospheres, and things like that, which is fantastic. It’s a lovely creative extension that we really, really enjoy doing for live [performances]. The same with the lighting design. That’s all sort of mood enhancing, really. I just like taking it one step further and putting a lot behind it, even Giles coming up with some wacky screen configurations and making it more theatrical. It’s an enjoyable process, but it’s definitely a collaboration with other people – the same person all the time. He’s worked with us for ages, so he knows where we’re all coming from, and it works well.

And we can pretty much expect that from the tour that you guys are about to embark on here?

Yeah, we’re bringing all of the video projection with us.

Now – speaking of the tour and travel – you guys are basically going to be flying over here from England. Are you nervous at all about getting on a plane right now?
[Note: we conducted this interview about 2 weeks after the World Trade Center / Pentagon tragedy, which was still very fresh in everyone’s mind at the time.]

No. When the World Trade Center towers went down, I was actually in Turkey, which is, essentially, a huge Muslim country. And it [the terrorist attacks] is not a Muslim thing – that’s what everybody’s talking about now, anyway. But I was over there with my family, and even the day before, actually, some 300 hundred yards down the road, a suicide terrorist bomber let himself off in a bank – and that was just 300 yards down the road from my hotel – and killed three policemen and an Australian tourist. Also, growing up in London and having bombs go off all over the place and the threat of bombs, I’ve been brought up that way, really. And you can’t help it. I’ve been on many planes since, because we’ve been to Spain, and we’ve been to Athens. We’ve been all over the place. I’ve probably been on about 10 different plane journeys since that awful thing. What has happened, is that the security is so, so high now. It’s probably the safest time to travel, really – but then again, you can’t help just sitting there thinking. I get nervous anyway, thinking that the thing is going to crash, let alone have anything else happen to it. But it does cross your mind, obviously.

There was a sort of, “Are we going, or are we not? Are we going to America?” moment. I think some people were a bit more nervous – because there are about 12 of us in our crew – some people were a bit more nervous than others. But it never occurred to me not to come or anything like that. It’s just a matter of, “Are people up for it?” And I think in situations like that, you need to be up for it. You can sit there worrying to death. And it is good to be aware and it is good to have a handle on it and be realistic about it, but it’s also good in times like this to go out and just go mad and have a bit of a blow out – forget your troubles. And that’s what we’re providing.

Well, I know a lot of people here really appreciate the fact that most of the acts that were going on tour here haven’t cancelled their shows.

But a lot of them have, haven’t they? A few have. A lot of English bands.

Yeah, I know Nick Cave cancelled his. [Note: He has since re-scheduled the full tour.]

And I hear Coldplay as well. They cancelled. And I think the Manic Street Preachers said that they’re not going. I can understand [doing that] out of respect or something but not … you’d end up not doing anything at all [if you let it get to you too much]. It’s like I said: when I was in Turkey, that happened, and you just don’t know. Wherever you are. It can be in London. It can be anywhere.

Exactly. That kind of leads me to wonder too – a lot of people turn to music, obviously, in times like this for some sort of uplift or catharsis. What kind of music do you listen to when you need to be lifted up or when you need to get something out?

Well, in times of madness, really, it’s quite thrashy, hard music. And there’s these guys over here called Plump DJs who make dance sort of stuff, but it’s hard and chunky. That’s what I would [listen to]. I wouldn’t go off into this nihilist film soundtracky world or anything like that. I tend to have a bit more uplift to get me going and make me a bit more energetic. And I’ve been listening to them not consciously thinking that I need something like that, but it’s quite uplifting to me. They’re on a record label called “The Whole Nine Yards” that’s got a good compilation out at the moment, which is really sort of chunky beats and rhythms. So that’s what I’ve been listening to recently, over the last week.

I wanted to finish this off by asking one last question about the new album. I noticed that a lot of the material on there [the whole second disc, for starters] is stuff that you guys have been playing live for a while or different versions of songs that have appeared on previous albums. “An Fromhair” appeared on The Middle of Nowhere in a different form as Otoño, for example. All of which leads me to wonder how you guys view your body of work as a whole. Do you conceive of each album as a single entity, or are you building something that’s more of a continuum that’s moving from album to album?

I see it more like snapshots of time, really. They’re like photographs, I suppose. If you go further back, to albums like Snivilization, that was almost bordering on a concept – you know: “How crap is this world? Everybody thinks they’re so good, and they’re really crap.” Or the situation we find ourselves in now – “You call this civilized? It’s hardly civilized.” That’s the kind of angle we were going off on there. And you get In Sides, which was much more Jon Barry-esque film soundtracky, because that’s what we were listening to, and we got inspired by that. And some weird things were going on in our lives at that time as well. A couple of mates died and things like that, and so it’s all very melancholy. So that was a bit more of a “body of work,” I suppose, in itself. The Middle of Nowhere was a bit like that as well, really. This one [The Altogether] just seems like sort of snapshots. I don’t know where we’re going next – neither of us knows where we’re going next. And before any of these albums, we didn’t really know until we sat down and started going, “Oh, all right, a new album. Let’s see what we can come up with.”

But we’ve got these laptops now, and we can actually do music wherever we want. The technology has evolved so much that you can have a studio in your pocket, as it were. So it’s very exciting for us, this next period, but we haven’t got any ideas like, “Oh let’s write an album like this,” or, “Let’s write an album like that.” I think Snivilization was the only one where we sat down [and said that]. Whereas with these, I think we’re going to find a lot more similar maybe to The Altogether, but a bit more driving, really. Or a bit more dance-y. I don’t know – that’s the idea I’ve got, but you never know until you actually do it.

So you guys plan to write on the road now that you’ve got more portable technology?

Yeah. Totally. We’re really gearing up for that. Whether it will happen or not, I don’t know, but we’ve got the equipment to – and it really is just a laptop now, which is fantastic.

Buy Orbital’s music on Amazon.com

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Jim Thirlwell, FoetusHe isn’t at all the bastard you expect him to be. He’d disagree with that – he’d be the first to call himself difficult or surly, every bit the man his infamously uncompromising music has made him out to be. But for Jim G. Thirlwell, best know to the world as … well, not best know as anything in particular really – identity traits are hard to stick to. That’s what happens when you adopt a new pseudonym at seemingly every breath; your personality will forever be called into question by those wondering if you’re just putting on an act to go with the name. And what names! Scraping Foetus off the Wheel. Clint Ruin. Wiseblood. Steroid Maximus. Manorexia. 20 years of aural terrorism that began while Thirlwell was an art student growing up in Australia, soaking up the influences of that continent’s punk explosion (which produced the career of a Thirlwell friend and occasional collaborator Nick Cave). A move to England, the founding of industrial music, the legendary push to get famed noise auteurs Einsturzende Neubauten a record deal at the same time Thirlwell landed his own. A more recent past that finds him taking residence with punk priestess Lydia Lunch in New York City and plumbing the seediest elements of Brooklyn for musical inspiration.

Anyway, you review the man’s history and it becomes easy to develop a perception of Thirlwell as some sort of swaggering blank-o-phobe and classic badass who you’d rather not look in the eye. But damned if he isn’t – like every single other underground musician with that sort of reputation – a perfect gentleman.

Thirlwell, aka Foetus, has been at this game for a long time – an staggering feat given his utter unwillingness to compromise his vision for greater material success. Sure, there have been big dollar projects: remix work for everyone from Nine Inch Nails (check Fixed and Further Down the Spiral), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pantera and scads of others. His award-winning work on MTV Sports, for which he created the music and performed voiceovers. The commercials. But all of that has provided mere fuel for the fire of his personal creative output: the unrelenting aural assault you undergo when listening to his records using the Foetus moniker (and myriad variations on that theme – from You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath to Foetus Interruptus), or the ancillary projects that seem to pop up like weeds.

And after two decades, his prolific output remains undiminished; he’ll release three different records this summer alone: the new full length, Flow, a follow-up remix E.P., Blow and the first album under his newest moniker, Manorexia. That amidst appearances as DJ OTEFSU at places like the Beauty Bar in Los Angeles, or at the upcoming Fetish Ball at the Hollywood Athletic Club, and a world tour with the Foetus live band in support of Flow. It was actually on this world tour that Choler caught up with Thirlwell, to discuss his latest spate of typically frenetic activity.

Listen to the full interview:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sean Flinn: The first questions I have for you are really about the new album, Flow. When did you start working on it? How long did it take to put together?

Jim Thirlwell: Well, like all my albums, it took my entire life to put together. Some of the songs date back, from starting them, to like maybe the mid-’90s, and they sort of sat there gestating without a home until I dragged them out of retirement and reworked them. But a majority of it was done over a period of probably about a year to 18 months. And then it took about another year before it was released. Like a lot of my stuff … my projects tend to bottleneck and all come out at once. So there’re, like, 3 albums coming out this year.

I know you’ve mentioned before that a lot of your work tends to be very conceptual – from the 4-letter-word albums titles to the artwork. I’m wondering if there was any kind of guiding concept behind Flow at all.

Well, mostly that becomes apparent after the fact. Or, actually not so much after the fact, but usually when I’m about three quarters through an album, nearing the end, I kind of start to look at it, and I say, “O.K. What’s missing from this picture? What do I want to round it out? What’s missing in terms of flavor and intensity?” Not “Have I touched on every facet of the history of recorded music.” Maybe I’ve left a few stones unturned … maybe not. So, with GashGash was a really extreme ultimate statement of intent, in terms of that sort of thrilling violence and negativity and finality and stuff. I really felt like I’d finessed it and made the statement that I wanted to make — that I’d been trying to make for some time. But it’s almost redundant to keep repeating that statement. But that started to get mirrored in my life, that whole finality and that negativity physically manifested itself, and that’s kind of what I was crawling back from with Flow. The idea of Flow is … even the title connotes a kind of continuum — the flow of ideas, the flow in my life. Flow is what I kind of aspire to — it’s like balance. It’s like channeling. And I don’t pretend to have attained that yet.

Your recent bio from Thirsty Ear Records mentions that somewhere in the past couple of years, you’ve acquired this sort of newfound joie de vivre

Well, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say joie de vivre. I mean … newfound vivre! As opposed to mort. I think I have a really strong survival instinct, because there are extremely strong forces at work to kill me — mainly emanating from myself. But I guess that there’s this underlying thing that just keeps me fucking alive.

Do you think maybe – not to get too esoteric here – that the tension in there, between the forces that want to kill you and the survival instinct, sometimes produces the art that comes out of you?

Yeah. Well, it keeps me alive long enough to talk about it. Absolutely.

We talked about the bottleneck of projects a little bit. Does anything have to do with whom you’re signed to at the time? I know Gash came out on Sony, and you mentioned there that that was a really definitive personal statement for you. I’m wondering if the timing of that personal statement accorded with what Sony wanted from you at all. Did you run into any friction with them at all? Or were they behind you 100% on that project?

Well, I liked the people I worked with up there, and there was never any question about artistic control. But, you know, the powers that be at, like, Business Affairs in Japan or wherever, pulled the plug on Foetus before it even had a chance to get started. And I did tour for a while off of that, and some other things came out … and at that point, I’d toured for a while, I wasn’t writing new material and I was not really in any state to, and some things came out to give the illusion of activity. But it was a big detour in my life. A fork in the road.

O.K. We know that the follow-up to Flow, Blow, will be coming out in the Fall. And I’ve noticed that a lot of your work tends to come out in pairs, or kind of in groups. You had Null and Void [the E.P.s that bookended Gash], Hole and Nail

Well, Hole and Nail weren’t really a pair. Hole was more … that clump was like, the 12″s that came out around then, which was Finely Honed Machine, Calamity Crush, Wash / Slog. That was that clump, on Hole. And then Nail sort of existed unto itself, but out of the same sessions arose “Ramrod” and “Bedrock.” But yeah – it does sort of like come in clumps. Maybe I exhaust myself – I sort have this stuff to say, and then I’m like, “Oh – and another thing! Oh god! There’s something I forgot here!” And then I get that out of my system and I enter a new phase. There’s some threads to previous works, but I think it’s an ongoing refinement, a sophistication, and hopefully it’s a process – it’s progression. I’m progressing. Because I do see it as a body of work. I do see it as my legacy, I do see it as a docudrama of my life.

Can we talk a little bit about the live shows, since I just saw you sound check and everything here? I’ve seen you play on a couple occasions – once on the Gash tour, which seemed to have slightly higher production values (video screens and a lot of presence), whereas now, and at a show subsequent to the Gash show, you’ve gotten a little bit more stripped down. How do you bring the recorded material to the stage? Are you consciously thinking of taking the material live …

No, not when I record it. Not at all. I think that that would hinder the instrumentation that I use. And it’s interesting to reinterpret it live, because then I [can ask myself], “OK, what elements am I going to retain? What instrument is going to be playing this part? How am I going to tighten up the structure of this arrangement?” It breathes new, different life into the song.

And of course, the Foetus live band has always been a kind of revolving door, because the participants are invariably in other bands as well. But, you know, a bit of the flavor of their personalities and sounds come through. But it’s pretty much re-arranging.

How tough is it for you to communicate your vision of what you want the show to be to the musicians that you bring in, especially with the rotating lineup?

Not that difficult. I pretty much know what I want. I know the sounds that I want, I know the notes that I want them to play. I have a pretty strong vision of what I want. And I think I’m pretty good at articulating that.

Given an unlimited budget, what would your fantasy stage show look like?

I would love to have a full brass section. I mean, a much larger ensemble, I would say. It’s not inconceivable that that might happen.

I know that, on your records, you have played around with big band music and hot jazz and stuff like that …

I mean, I would love to do that live.

So you’d love to do a whole show of just big band-style stuff?

Well, big band with my regular instrumentation as well.

How does the big band stuff and the jazz stuff tie into some of the more aggressive rock-oriented stuff?

I think that stuff is aggressive. You know? And sometimes it’s just hair-raising. I come at it like … you know, I’m not an authority on big band music or jazz at all. I don’t necessarily have any knowledge about what I’m pillaging.

But it sounds good and I imagine it’s fun to play. You’ve released a pretty staggering amount of work under something like 20 different pseudonyms over the years. What drives you to adapt a new pseudonym? What outlet does, say, Wiseblood or Clint Ruin afford you that Foetus doesn’t? Especially given that there is a lot of stylistic diversity underneath the Foetus umbrella.

Well, Wiseblood is a collaboration, so it had its name unto itself. It had a definite agenda, which was like, violent macho American [music] made by non-Americans. Steroid Maximus was a kind of breakaway, a reaction against what on the Foetus albums had become about 50%b instrumental. However, there was still this perception about Foetus that was like, “Violent this that and that.” I wanted to put the emphasis on the music without putting a literal interpretation on it. It was also an opportunity to collaborate with a bunch of other people. And then there’s Manorexia, which is anew thing, which I’m just putting out through the Website, foetus.org, and selling at shows. It has a different criteria, which is: I wanted something that had a more spatial quality, something that was pretty spontaneous. It started life as ambient, but it’s really ambient, it’s more like a sort of psychotic soundtrack.

What drives you to be so prolific, to put out so much material?

I think it’s really my legacy. I think it’s because I’m a fucking egomaniac. And those are my children, you know? It’s basically – that’s so important to me, my legacy. It’s sick, I know. It’s so superficial. But that’s the way that I envision my life and that’s the way that I interface with … your world.

I guess you could look at it this way: you could be an egomaniacal, say, businessman who is just trying to accumulate things, as opposed to being an egomaniacal artist who is producing things that other people can enjoy. So there’s a little bit of redemption there.

Yeah.

So, into the final questions: From your cover art to your lyrics, which occasionally reflect a fascination with pop culture (I’ve noticed some cartoon references in there – for example, “Take it Outside, Godboy,” which is taken from a Simpsons line, and there are lyrics from cartoon theme songs in some of your lyrics), I’m lead to wonder just how much pop culture you absorb?

Well, often a lot. It rents way too much space in my head sometimes. What started as kind of a guilty pleasure turned into an unhealthy obsession. I’m pulling away from that altogether. It sort of creeps into your bones like cancer, or something.

Especially — well, you still live in Brooklyn, correct?

Yeah.

I mean, living in America in general, it’s hard to get away from it, and in New York, you’re at the center of the pop culture universe.

Oh yeah. And I think we’re all bombarded with a lot of images, and some of those things just sort of come in, whether I like it or not. They rear their heads.

What fascinates you the most? What attracts you the most? Any particular TV shows or books or movies?

I’ve kind of stopped watching TV. I’ve put a bit of an embargo on it. And I dunno. Whatever it is [that fascinates me], it changes all the time. I don’t have a “Top 10 Things That I Do.” It really changes daily, but I think that I soak up a lot of things and the things that I spew out might not necessarily be things that reflect what my personal tastes are. And what my personal tastes are – stuff that I listen to or expose myself to aren’t necessarily because I really like those things, but I want to experience those things, or understand them.

Michael Gira“Most anything Michael Gira is involved in immobilizes me with despair,” Slackjaw columnist / author Jim Knipfel said in a 1999 review of New Mother, Gira’s first album under the moniker The Angels of Light. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he concluded, summing up pretty much how any one who interacts with Gira’s music feels. Listening to anything Gira has released – either as part of the seminal post-punk / proto-goth group Swans, or his more recent work as the leader of the more personal, mostly acoustic ensemble Angels of Light – is eviscerating in the most endurable of manners. Sure, like any great singer / songwriter, his softer moments vibrate sympathetically with the frequency of an utterly wrecked heart. And yeah, occasionally he just reaches in and does the wrecking himself. He does it with such grace, though, such empathy and such reflective human-ness that you don’t mind. You invite him in. Let him stay long enough, and he will mirror you.

In 1999, following the dismissal of Swans (which had grown creatively stifling) and the dissolution of his longtime partnership with keyboardist / vocalist Jarboe, Gira began running his Young God Records enterprise in earnest, amassing a stable of forward-thinking underground bands with which to further the aesthetic Gira and Swans pioneered. He’s turned to producing now as well, turning in credits on recent albums by U.S. Maple, Calla and Flux Information Sciences. He’s also creating some of the most interesting music of his career; his “psycho-ambient” project, Body Lovers, drew rave reviews for its debut, Number One of Three, while its sonic doppleganger, Body Haters, showed flashes of Gira’s savagely noisy past. Most notably, his more formally arranged group, Angels of Light, has put out two stunningly intimate albums: 1999’s New Mother, and the just-release How I Loved You. It was the occasion of the latter’s release, and the launch of the Young God Records Web site, that found Choler’s editor Sean Flinn connecting with a gracious and newly techno-savvy Gira for an e-mail interview.

Sean Flinn: Let’s talk a bit about the new Young God Records Web site. For a few years, the only online resource available to your label and fans has been the Swans site (that I gather is run by Jarboe). It seems like you’ve resisted somewhat jumping into the online space with both feet. What finally motivated you to break away from that and establish your own online resource for your music and the bands whose work you produce and release on the Young God label?

Michael Gira: I suppose I just finally realized how self-defeating my technophobia was, that I was denying myself and the other people I work with through Young God Records access to a large amount of people that might be interested in our music. This was no easy feat, for me. I didn’t even have a credit card until a few months ago (in fact I didn’t open my first bank account until the age of 35!). I have just always had a disdain or suspicion of getting involved in systems which might ultimately lead to someone else having control over my life. But, with the options available to interesting, non-commercial music steadily shrinking, it became obvious that the net is/will be one of the most important ways to reach people around the world who might care about the music we release. As I say, now that there’s several other groups on the label aside from myself and my own work with Angels of Light, I felt a responsibility to do the best for them that I could. So I took the plunge, got the credit card, maxed it out of course, got the computer, and soon made contact with Ted Matson, who’s the Webmaster at http://www.younggodrecords.com and we’ve been working furiously together to make the site as comprehensive as possible.

Our guiding principal in terms of design has been simplicity and clarity, and to make the site as user-friendly (for fools like me) as possible. I’m also not a fan of flashy effects and gizmos and sputtering graphics etc, typical to a lot of websites. It reminds me of the first days of sampling, when everyone was so infatuated with the technology – the stuttering sampled vocal etc – like some kind of shiny new toy in the greasy hands of a giggling infant. To me, it’s just information. So we tried to make the site like a textbook might look – clear and simple …

What are your plans and hopes for the site? What sort of impact has it had on you and the label in the short time that it’s been up?

Aside from compiling as much information relevant to the music we release as possible, our links section (still not up yet) will be extensive – regardless of reciprocation, and I also want pages/sections devoted to the work of artists – visual and otherwise – I admire, with a “gallery” of their work, brief statements of intent they supply, and of course links back to them personally. I also want to have a section devoted to conversations/ dialog with people I admire – artists, writers, musicians etc. This will hopefully lead to some interesting connections and cross-references along the way. In addition, I’ll be doing special projects – limited edition CDs etc – available exclusively at the site … It’s already having a very positive effect, in that our tendrils are creeping ever outward, with the additional corollary effect of making me so busy I sometimes forget who or what I am – but that’s a good thing!

There’s a statement on the Young God site to the effect it’s the only site officially overseen and affiliated with you and your work, implying that other sites are making this claim, and doing so erroneously. What’s the back-story here?

In the interest of cooling down conflict with someone I will always hold in the deepest, highest regard, all I can say is that I have absolutely zero input or involvement with any other website claiming to represent me or my work, past or present. However, I wish that “someone” the best in all things, as always. My hope was to be mutually supportive allies, but …

Anymore, bringing a label or band’s presence to the Web begs questions about a larger online music strategy and the online music environment in general. Have you formed an opinion of file swapping technologies like Napster, Gnutella, etc.? Do you see them as threatening you and your label’s roster, or as providing a new avenue for promotion / communication with fans?

As for the “strategy” reference, the only strategy I have that I can think of is to make the music available to people that might be interested in it. I don’t want to convince or seduce anybody into an opinion, one way or another, about what we do, just make what we do available to those with similar tastes.


The act of making something … is ultimately an act of control, or will. It’s saying, ‘This is what I think, how I view things, these are my ideas or feelings,’ not ‘Here’s a bunch of vague notions, now it’s your turn.’

As for the MP3 issue, it’s generally anathema to me. What, are we all supposed to be hippies or anarchists with rich parents or something? I work extremely hard at what I do, with considerable financial and personal risk involved in the making of the music, and the same scenario applies to just about everyone else I know that’s made the disastrous decision to make music a career, so we deserve to be paid for our efforts. You wouldn’t expect a book by an author you admire to be free, nor would you expect an electrician to come into your house and rewire it for free. How are we any different? This is our work, what we do for a living (of sorts), and if you like the final results, buy it, you spoiled brat. Also, from an artistic point of view, it’s very important to me that an album be heard in its entirety, with all its juxtapositions and contrasts intact. I spend a huge amount of time and put a great deal of thought into that aspect of the final album. I don’t want some ninny, irony infected post modernist getting their fingers into it, rearranging it to suit their taste. It’s about control, I guess. The act of making something – a painting, a piece of music, a piece of fiction – is ultimately an act of control, or will. It’s saying, “This is what I think, how I view things, these are my ideas or feelings,” not, “Here’s a bunch of vague notions, now it’s your turn.” So, in addition to the potentially devastating financial consequences of the music being downloaded for free at random, there’s the issue of dissipation, aesthetically. Also, I like packaging. I like the way the visual sensibility, the images used, the general feel of the packaging, affects the perception of the music …
So, we have soundbites of all the music at the site, but never the whole song. If you like what you hear, buy it, if not, don’t. That seems quite fair to me.

However, it might be that we’ll make one entire song from each CD available as mp3 download, like a single, I guess. In the long run though, it really doesn’t matter what I have to say about this, because if people want to share mp3 files they’re going to do it anyway. I don’t know, maybe in the long run it’ll just mean we’ll be forced economically to find more lucrative careers!

Moving on to the music: let’s talk a little about the new Angels of Light album, How I Loved You. How did making this album differ from making New Mother? Was there again a process of begging, borrowing and stealing involved in getting it completed? Did it flow any easier for you?

New Mother, for the most part was built up from initial takes of just myself with an acoustic guitar, sometimes recording the vocal simultaneously, then orchestrated on top of that. How I Loved You was rehearsed as a band, then most of the songs played live in the studio, with some overdubbed orchestration added later. So the latter has more of an “organic” feel, and the sounds are less separated. I don’t really see one process as being more valid than another. In the end, it’s all just sound to me. But the songs on HILY had been played a great deal live too, so they’d expanded in many cases into the beastly and lengthy versions that exist now by the time they were recorded, which I guess makes the material more “emotional” in a certain way.

Yeah, the usual tortuous problems of financing this kind of recording apply, but in the end I think it was worth it. But it did lead me to the decision to record my music from now on at home, in protocols, just getting a friend or two over from time to time, adding ideas. My ears have been bigger than my wallet for far too long, and it’s time to get simple. That way of working will necessarily force a change in the sound of what I do, but that’s not such a bad thing in itself. I’m sure the learning curve will be monumental though …

You’ve called the album “a collection of love songs.” First off: why that particular form? What attracted you to the concept of the “love song”?

I never, never work from a concept outward. I wake up in the morning, pick up a guitar, and start writing. Whatever is occupying my mind at the time is what I write about. So really, as “love” has been pretty much my primary personal preoccupation for the last few years, that’s what ended up being the subject matter of the songs. Not to say they’re all typical love songs though. One song is an homage to Nico, with whom I was obsessed for a while. I went through a period where I listened to The Marble Index and Desert
Shore constantly, over and over, and I was just consumed, seduced, with an overwhelming need to, well, FUCK NICO, to be frank. ‘course she’s dead, so that saved her the ordeal …

Another song, “My True Body,” is based on a memory from when I was in prison in Israel as a runaway kid. I used to see (and hear) this one Arab boy raped repeatedly every night. We were in an old army barracks, so there were about 100 prisoners in one large room – Arabs at one end, American and other foreigners arrested for drugs or whatever at the other end. The lights would be out, the moonlight entering through the metal grills that covered the windows. There’d be their undulating, dim shapes at the end of the barracks, emitting a kind of muffled, distant, suction sound, along with his whimpers, of course. Then when they were finished with him I’d hear him shuffling across the concrete floor on his way to the sink, where he’d throw up for a while, then brush his teeth. Then he’d shuffle back in the dark to his end of the barracks. Anyway, since it was a pretty formative experience for me (I was 15/16 at the time), I often thought about him, wondered what happened to him, so I wrote it as an idealized or romanticized homage, where “the singer” – myself – sings in the first person, as him, or my version of him, as his memory exists in me…

Another song, “New York Girls,” is a tribute to a particular breed of young women you’ll find at pretty much any rock or rock-related show in NYC (and would have also been there at say, CBGB in 1979 when I moved to NYC) – tough, cynical, smart, but with a very desirable soft white underbelly… Other songs are very specifically love songs sung for/to particular women – very openly sentimental…

It seems like you’re really playing around with the format here (the only comparable works I can come up with are Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call and Diamanda Galas & John Paul Jones’s The Sporting Life); there are some sweet Jeff Buckley-esque moments that start off the album, but also some more raw, almost abrasive pieces that crop up as the album progresses. What are you getting at here? Is there a “medium is the message” commentary running through the album?

I have to say that I’m not “getting at” anything. Really, I just write about what interests me. I’m not trying to make some point about music or “The Song”. I don’t care at all about that kind of thing. I just do my work, then try to forget about it and move on to the next thing.

Putting pictures of your parents on the album’s cover and calling the album a “collection of love songs” suggests a sort of Freudian bent to the work; (insert thick German accent here) So, tell me about your mother. Tell me about your father. Are some (Or all? Or any?) of the songs on How I Loved You love songs to your parents? You’ve mentioned that some of the songs on New Mother were more hagiographical – do any similar songs crop up on How I Loved You?


I was just consumed, seduced, with an overwhelming need to, well, FUCK NICO, to be frank. ‘course she’s dead, so that saved her the ordeal …

My parent’s photos have been taped to the walls of the various places I’ve lived over the years, always there. I just instinctively thought their images fit with the music, in this instance. I guess you could say that since their “love relationship”, and who they were and what they became as a result of their relationship, played a large role in deciding what I would become as a person, and how I would ultimately view “love”, I thought it appropriate to use their images for this album. No, there aren’t any songs to or about them on this album, though. But they’re there, since they continue to live inside me.

It seems as though you’ve used your different post-Swans projects to pursue to a further extent, but separately, certain musical ideas that were somewhat jammed together in Swans, perhaps confined and kept from growing to their fruition by the baggage of the Swans legacy: Angels of Light presents your formal songs and lyrical ideas; Body Lovers mines the more “psycho-ambient” areas that began to crop up on Soundtracks for the Blind; and the Body Haters brought back some of the real visceral, abrasive feel of the early Swans projects. Would you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

I guess I just don’t want to mess up my songs with a bunch of artsy-fartsy ideas!

Your songwriting has become gradually more lyrical as time as gone by; the two Angels of Light albums are very strong on melody and extremely easy to listen to (which is not to say that the music has in any way been compromised) in many spots. How and why did you begin changing your songwriting style?

I just try to keep myself interested in what I’m doing. Things move along in the usual haphazard way, and I try to follow the flow … I’m really not premeditated at all in that sense, though once I discover where I’m going, I then hack away at it (and everyone around me) until the work achieves an internal logic.

How is the next Body Lovers album coming along? When and what came we expect from it?

I don’t know when it’s coming. I have some ideas, but as usual, they’re expensive. I adamantly don’t want to just generate sounds from artificial / computer sources. It’s important to me to make the initial sounds for Body Lovers with people playing instruments together, to generate a feel, first. Then that would lead to conjunctions with other sound sources, which would then be manipulated further.

What’s up next for you? More production duties? An Angels of Light tour?

I don’t have any production work lined up at the moment. An AOL tour will probably happen some time soon, but honestly, I haven’t picked up a guitar or sung a note in months, because I’ve been grappling with the label, trying to get it stabilized and moving forward. So the first step will be to just sing by myself here at home, probably for a few months, to find the connection with that part of myself again, and to get my voice back in shape. Then I’ll start to gather the musicians. So it’ll take a while. Could be I’ll do a little solo-acoustic tour though, just because the thought terrifies me! Also working presently with Dan Matz of Windsor [for the Derby, another band on the Young God roster] on an album called Ourselves: What We Did. It’s songs Dan and I have done at his house, by ourselves. In our minds, it’s a “pop” record, but whenever we play the material for someone, they always look at us kind of dumbfounded we’d say that.

Psychedelic Furs

They came from the '80s: The Psychedelic Furs, from left: Tim Butler, Richard Butler and John Ashton

“God, it sounds like a venereal disease when you say it like that!” Richard Butler, vocalist and chief songwriter for ’80s mainstays the Psychedelic Furs is cracking wise in response to my poorly phrased question, “Has Love Spit Love (Butler’s post-Furs project) gone away?”

“Yes. It’s gone into remission,” he continues, laughing.

It’s a pop-culture miracle that Butler can laugh about the collapse of his sole musical outlet throughout the ’90s. He formed Love Spit Love shortly after dissolving the Psychedelic Furs in 1991, following the tour to promote what would become their final album, World Outside. Thanks to an apparently unstoppable demand for all things ’80s, though, Butler has been able to take the Furs out of mothballs and make them fashionable again. The band is currently touring alongside fellow ’80s stalwarts the Go-Gos and the B-52s, and running through the same routine that led to their temporary breakup.

“When you’ve been in a band for 10 years or so and had a number of albums out, the audience, rightfully, expects you to play certain songs,” Butler, speaking from a Baltimore hotel room, explains of the Furs’ fragmentation. “And that list gets longer and longer so that, by the end of it, you have very little time that you can actually play new songs or all the songs from your catalog that you would like to play. And I didn’t want to go out there and be bored of playing the songs and pretending to be enjoying it when, really, I wasn’t. So I needed to take a break.”

The break turned into a nearly permanent hiatus. Butler formed Love Spit Love, which scored a modicum of ’90s alt-radio success with its two albums, a self-titled debut released in 1994, and 1997’s Trysome Eatone. His brother, Furs bassist Tim Butler, joined him, while guitarist John Ashton went on to pursue other projects. Critical and commercial indifference proved a cure for Love Spit Love, as Butler so candidly points out. The Furs, still popular after a decade in hibernation, have reconvened for the current tour and a new album.

Butler isn’t flaunting his ego when he says the band had — and still has — a lot of expectations to fulfill whenever it tours. The Furs have a long set-list of standards without which any concert would seem incomplete.

“Love My Way,” “Heaven” and “The Ghost in You” define the Furs, and over the last decade, these songs have grown into alternative rock anthems. They embody a version of post-punk and New Wave that, through its ironic blend of media friendliness and rigid integrity, serve collectively as a touchstone for the alternative pop soundscape.

The band truly vaulted into the pop culture consciousness in 1986 when they re-recorded “Pretty in Pink,” (originally released on 1981’s Talk Talk Talk) for John Hughes’s teen film classic of the same name. The performance, and the enduring popularity of the film, virtually ensured that, once the inevitable longing for ’80s memorabilia hit full steam — just as it did for the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — the Furs would find themselves called back into action. The best they or any of their loyal fans could hope for would be fair treatment from pop historians. No associations with their spandex and hair spray abusing peers, please.

And, to be accurate, the Furs hit the mousse hard for only one album, 1987’s Midnight Moves, which, despite yielding them one of their bigger hits (the vacuous “Heartbreak Beat”), the band has disavowed in every interview they’ve given since releasing it. The rest of the releases remain sterling examples of timeless pop. Butler is one of those very rare pop stars who helps define an era without being “of” it. Surely, songs like 1982’s “President Gas,” which poked fun at Ronald Reagan without ever naming him, contain some key to Bulter’s unique status. Rather than immerse himself in the trappings of the ’80s, he and the rest of the Furs focused purely on making music with lasting appeal.

So it’s without a trace of irony that Butler can claim that he doesn’t mind being associated with the ’80s — despite occupying the opening slot of a summer tour that features two other bands that hit their peaks in the Reagan era.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” he chuffs. ” I mean, I think you can’t avoid that. For a lot of people who grew up in the ’80s or who came of age in the ’80s, the Psychedelic Furs will always be a part of their lives then, as Bob Dylan was for me in the late ’60s, I suppose. As Led Zeppelin was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and David Bowie in the ’70s. You kind of associate certain people with certain decades. And although David Bowie still brings out good records that I like, and I think he remains modern and abreast of things, he will always, for me, have a real special part in my life from when I was growing up in the ’70s. And for me to play that part in someone else’s life I find quite flattering.”

Butler and the rest of the Furs may have a chance to play that role for a new generation of music fans, given that they’ve not only reunited (bringing the Butler brothers back together with Ashton for the first time in nine years), but are writing songs for a new album.

“I was doing some writing with Tim about two months ago,” Butler recounts of the Furs reunion. “And he said, ‘How many songs have you got?’ I said, ‘Oh, about 25 or something like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do whatever you’re going to do with them for your solo record, and then make a Psychedelic Furs album as well? Because you’ve got enough material.’ And I thought, Yeah, why not? That’s not a bad idea at all. So that’s how what happened, happened. That’s how we got back together.”

The reunion was further spurred by an invitation to the Furs to join the Go-Gos / B-52s tour.

“About two weeks after Tim suggested making a news Furs record, our agent called and said, ‘Hey guys, would you like to go out and do a tour? If you think about putting the Furs back together at all, Richard, give me a call. There’s a lot of interest out there.’ And I called him back and said, ‘It’s funny, but Tim just mentioned making an album at some point. So yeah, I guess we are interested.’ And then he called back and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this tour going out. It’s the B-52s and the Go-Gos. You would have the opening slot, which means you would play for about 40 minutes, so there would be no pressure and it would be a great way for you guys to find out if you like playing together again.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a perfectly good reason for doing it.’ And it was. In rehearsal, actually, we found out that we did like playing together again,” he laughs. “But the tour has been a lot of fun.”

It’ll be a while, however, before anyone will hear most of the material that the reunited band is working on. The group is only playing one new song while on tour, and Butler expects that a new album won’t hit store shelves until the summer or fall of 2001. One gets the feeling that the work has yet to take on a firm form. Butler agrees.

“You know, we haven’t decided on a direction yet, because the thing about direction, normally, for me, it’s always happened when it comes to actually recording. I mean, basically a song is a song. I can write a song with Tim on bass guitar or John on acoustic guitar or Richard Fortis on acoustic guitar, and at that point, they’re just pretty rough songs. Before, when we worked with Todd Rundgren [on 1982’s Forever Now], we decided, ‘Yeah, we want to have cellos on it, and we’d like horns on it and we’d like marimbas on it,’ and so we chose Todd as a producer because he knew how to do all those things. But before we made that choice, we didn’t know quite what it was going to sound like. We’d try some cello on stuff and we’d tried a marimba sound, but we hadn’t tried backing vocals or horn section or anything.”

Another thing the band lacks a direction on, at least for now, is an Internet strategy.

“Well,” Butler explains, “the Internet has only come to the fore since the Furs have been gone. And we’ve only been together for a couple of months, so we’ll have to get a Webmaster to do it or learn it all myself.” Fair enough. And it’s not like they’ve frozen themselves out of the online music revolution — Butler admits to having kept abreast of the recent furor over Napster and other lawsuit-inviting technologies. “I personally tend to take Metallica’s side over it. I don’t see how artists are going to make money if they can’t sell their product. It’s like, if you open a bakery shop and somebody is around the corner giving away loaves of bread, you’ve got to find another business.”

When, in response, I ask him what he thinks of Freenet developer Ian Clarke‘s maxim that “If your business model is selling water in the desert and it starts to rain, you’d better find a new business model,” Butler laughs, but remains unshaken. “Well, if it comes that musicians can’t make a living from making music, then they won’t make music. So they won’t have anything to sell. It’s always going to rain. There’s not always going to be someone making bread.”

Butler makes it clear, however, that, in the end, he takes more joy in making the bread than in selling it (which, if you’re fond of metaphors, really doesn’t sound like much of a difference). After 20 years as a Fur, he finds that the most rewarding aspect of his job is still “sitting down and writing songs, and then going into a studio and going, ‘God, that sounds great!’ And sitting down, and the feelings that you wanted it to convey, you feel again for yourself. That’s the greatest feeling about it.”

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