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Interview with Christos Peltekis for MIC.GR
and STRAW DOGS MAGAZINE (GR), 02/2015
Click here to download the scanned interview from "Straw Dogs" magazine (pdf-file).|
The interview was conducted and written by Christos Peltekis, and translated into Greek by Sofia Mihelaki (final editing in Greek language by Christos). The poems were translated by Yota Panagiotou with final editing in Greek language by Christos Peltekis.
Phil, it’s a long story through the years. Let’s take things from the start! Would you tell us a few words about your childhood in Bradford?
Actually, I don’t remember much about it. I was born there in December 1952, but when I was three or four years old my family moved to Larne in Northern Ireland. I remember the big old drafty house that my parents used to rent at the bottom of a steep cobbled hill called Garibaldi Street. This was in the Laisterdyke neighbourhood of Bradford. It had a large garden with a huge spreading tree, from which my father once fell and broke his leg while he was cutting off a dead branch. The sky was always grey and there was always the smell of soot in the air from the local factories and mills – the “dark satanic mills” of William Blake, when the west riding of Yorkshire was still a heavily industrialized area. Oh, and there was a girl who lived next door, a mischievous little minx called Jackeline Knowles. She was a year or two older than me, and was always torturing me in small, childish ways. I remember I had a terrible crush on her, and couldn’t understand why she was always so cruel!
Do you remember your first music hearings and readings? Which were they?
I remember dancing every time I heard “The Yellow Rose Of Texas” on the radio. I guess it was the Mitch Miller Orchestra version, because I was four or five years old at the time, and we’d already moved to Larne. There was a café in town that my dad used to frequent while my mum was doing the Saturday morning shopping, and he’d take me along with him for a biscuit and a glass of pop. This café had a jukebox in the corner and my dad would put coins in the slot and always select this particular song. He probably got a kick out of seeing me jump around the room as soon as I heard the opening bars. I used to get terribly excited as soon as I heard those fifes and drums kick in at the beginning – I found them very stirring, though in hindsight they are a bit militaristic! As for readings – well my mum always used to read me bedtime stories to put me to sleep - Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Greek and Norse mythology. I used to have these really vivid pictures going through my head as she read the words, almost visionary in their intensity. She gave me an interest in and love of literature and story-telling that has stayed with me to this day.
When was it that you first held a guitar and when did you write your first poem or song? Did you do any music studies?
I remember the day of my first guitar lesson very clearly. My family had moved back to England and we were living in Worcester in the English midlands. It was November 22nd 1963. An older boy who was the lead guitarist in a popular local rock and roll band - the Early Birds - had agreed to teach me the rudiments of guitar. I was just practicing “Shazam” by Duane Eddy, the first song I ever learned, when my teacher’s mother came into the room and announced some terrible news – President John F. Kennedy had been shot and was feared to be dead. So it’s very easy to date this first lesson of mine, as it coincided with a world-shaking and tragic event. After a few further lessons I began to teach myself to play by listening to records and working out the songs by ear: The Beatles, The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers – later The Pretty Things, The Small Faces, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge. I did music as a school subject and learned to read the notes, but basically I approached rock music on an instinctive level and learned everything by ear. The first song I wrote was when I was 12 years old, and it was terrible: “When we used to walk and play/Down country lanes far, far away/You said you loved me and true love would stay/But it never, never goes this way.” C/Am/F/G. Totally hokey! I also had a couple of bands between the ages of 12 and 14 – The Feendz (we were allowed to play to our school class on Friday afternoons), and The Nova Sound, which was a real mod band. We even supported British soul legend Geno Washington when he played in Worcester. Then I got interested in cycling as a sport and didn’t play music again until I was about 17.
As far as I know, you left both home and England at a young age. Tell us the story hiding behind this decision. What did you do for living? Do you want to share with us a good story from that period? Isn’t it seriocomic that in our modern world which preaches freedom day and night, for someone to be able to wander about in such a way becomes more and more difficult?
I actually wasn’t so young. I’d already finished my secondary education at Worcester Royal Grammar School, when a friend and I took off to travel around the world. The object was to reach India by travelling the so-called “Hippy Trail”, and we were both 18 at the time. We attempted to save money during the summer by working as fruit pickers, but we were extremely lazy, and in September we left England with about 70 pounds each. This was worth a bit more in 1971 than it is today, but still not a very realistic amount to set off and travel the world with! We were dreamers, and anyway I expected to get “discovered” as a folk singer along the way. I’d been playing the folk and blues clubs around Worcester, and found it was a great way to meet girls. I was sure that “out on the road” somebody would notice me and give the chance to make a record. The closest I got to this was when a van driver from Radio Monte Carlo picked us up as we were hitch-hiking to the south of France. I busked on the sea front in Nice and San Remo, which helped the money go a bit further, but finally we were penniless and took to thieving from grocery stores to support ourselves. Then we got some part-time jobs washing dishes in restaurants and took off again. We failed abysmally in our attempt to get to India. Somehow we ended up in the south of Spain instead, then crossed over to Morocco. We were away about 6 months before we got sick of living like dogs and returned to England. But I had many interesting and valuable experiences along the way. As you can probably guess, I was very much into my Kerouac, Orwell and Genet. But really, I was a hopeless dreamer with no sense of reality at all. But the early 70s was a different time. There wasn’t the pressure to succeed and establish yourself in a career that there is today. Then, you could bum around without worrying if you’d left things “too late”, drinking red wine on the beach and playing guitar with other “drop-outs” from society. It was a far more liberal time, and it was still considered a good thing to get out on one’s own and learn about life from the bottom up.
A stop in London, which at the time is “burning” from Punk explosion and then we reach New York. What do you remember from those days and what in your opinion did Punk leave behind to be blowing in the wind of time?
This was much later, in 1976, after I returned from another extended trip to Morocco. I’d been living in Manchester at the start of the year, and when I left town everybody was wearing flared Levis and cowboy shirts, and listening to Jackson Browne, Pure Prairie League and The Eagles. When I came back in October there was this new phenomenon called Punk, and everything had changed. Nobody was talking about California anymore, the subject matter had changed to UK dole queues, class war and “no future”. I already knew about American punk music, because I’d been into The Stooges and The Velvet Underground for ages. But the UK phenomenon was new to me, though I’d seen its precursors in bands like Dr. Feelgood and Kilburn and the Highroads. I’d also been playing with a Manchester band called The Bicycle Thieves, who were like a punky version of Steely Dan. Anyway, I arrived back from Morocco wearing love beads and sandals, and hitch-hiked up to Newcastle where my girlfriend and daughter were living. It was a rude awakening. It was impossible to get any work, England seemed to be in permanent economic recession, and after four or five months tramping the streets of Newcastle I hitch-hiked down to London and got a job in a Soho bookshop. But not before I’d seen The Stranglers and The Clash in Newcastle. I think I was still wearing flared blue jeans at The Stranglers gig! But I’d already chopped off my hair in Morocco, so with my spiky top and leather jacket I quite fitted in. By the time I saw The Clash on the White Riot tour I’d read J.G. Ballard’s nihilistic book “Crash” and had totally reorientated and reinvented myself. Like most punks I was a hippy at heart, but a hippy who hadn’t got rich, and from whose eyes the scales had fallen. During the next year in London I saw just about every punk band that was going, as well as having several unsuccessful attempts to form my own group.
Is heroin entering your life at that point, or before? Having put hard drugs behind you for many years now, how do you see that era when you look back with the experience of maturity?
Ah, the big question! As far as I can remember the first time I took heroin was when I was working in the Soho bookshop, in 1977. I’d been out on a heavy drinking binge the night before and had a terrible hangover. I went to a neighbouring bookshop, where a Scottish friend of mine was working, and asked him if he had any aspirin. He said he didn’t, but that he had something much better which would take my headache away immediately. Well, it certainly did that, and much more! He gave me a line to sniff that was less than a half centimeter long, and within five minutes I was throwing my guts up. But my headache was gone, and when the vomiting had subsided I felt absolutely wonderful: euphoric, floating, unified, at peace with myself. I thought “Wow, the answer to life and all of its problems!” Of course I’d read William Burroughs and I knew it wasn’t so simple, that there was a heavy price to pay for getting into smack. But I also knew it took several weeks or even months of regular use to get a habit, and I was sure I would never allow myself to get into it to this extent. I considered myself a reasonably intelligent person with a mind of my own, so why would I do such a thing when I would be able to see the problem coming? I stuck to this resolution for two or three years, and just dabbled occasionally, but by the time I reached New York at the end of the 70s I was using it regularly. I mean in New York at that time it seemed that just about everyone on the downtown music and arts scene was using heroin. It had become very fashionable, in fact. People would romanticize it too. It was all filtered through Cocteau, Burroughs, Baudelaire, de Quincy, and of course the whole Keith Richards/Johnny Thunders street-glamour-rebel thing. So I was hanging out with film-makers, musicians and writers (some of whom were, or have since, become international names), and this whole peer group of mine seemed to using heroin to one extent or another. It was regarded very much as an aid to creativity, something that enabled you to disappear into this nebulous dimension of dreams and come back carrying artistic gold. The early 80s film “Liquid Sky” gives a very good impression of this, even though it’s ostensibly a film about an alien invasion of New York. Well, after a few years of this type of dabbling I split up with my striptease- dancing girlfriend and went into an emotional tailspin. That’s when I started using heroin every day, as a crutch, as a means to numb the pain. We’re talking now about 1981, and by the time I formed Khmer Rouge later that year I was already strung out. And from that point on it was another seven years of daily use before I eventually kicked the habit. I can’t say I regret the experience, because it’s so much a part of me. If you survive addiction and all that it entails, you get an education you won’t get anywhere else – except maybe in a war situation. It certainly shows you what is what, and it gives you a level of self-knowledge and knowledge about the more hidden aspects of human psychology that you wouldn’t get in any university.
From what I know your first recording “appearance” is with Disturbed Furniture in 1981 while you are already 29 years old. Were there any other bands you joined that simply never made it to the studio?
Yes, I’ve already mentioned some of them above. I was certainly a late starter as far as recording goes. But I was in two bands in New York before I joined Disturbed Furniture: The DC10s (we did one concert at Max’s Kansas City and self-destructed, taking the punk idea of “no future” to its logical conclusion), and The Nothing. The Nothing was an interesting band, led by a fellow English exile called Trixie Sly. They were a kind of a punky “No Wave” band, and Trixie also dabbled in acting – in fact he played the part of the band’s manager in the early Abel Ferrara movie “Driller Killer” (a real classic, by the way). Trixie had played with the London SS (or so he said) and knew Keith Levene and Tony James – but it was hard to tell with him, he was always a great bull-shitter. Sadly he’s no longer with us, after dying of liver failure in 2008. Anyway, The Nothing did one 7 inch single: “Uniformz”/”Scream an’ Cry”. I didn’t actually play on the record, it had been cut just before I joined. But I played bass guitar with The Nothing for about six months in late 1979-1980. There is some live concert footage floating around the net, I believe.
How was the rise and fall of Khmer Rouge? Is that the period where you decide that playing and composing music is what you want to do in your life or did you make that decision a longer time ago?
I’d been writing songs for years, ever since I was a teenager, and I’d written material for both DC10s and Disturbed Furniture. Then, in the summer of 1981 I formed Khmer Rouge, with Phillipe Von Hagen on bass, Claus Castenskiold on drums and Kenny Sitz on second guitar. Phillipe also played in the Del Byzanteens, the downtown art-rock band that had Jim Jarmusch as keyboard player. In fact I remember jamming with Jim a few times in Phillipe’s loft on the Bowery, half a block from CBGBs. Claus Castenskiold, as you know, is a fantastic artist, who went on to do album covers for The Fall, The Gun Club and Kid Congo Powers (and also for Southern Cross’s most recent CD “Paranoia.com). Kenny Sitz was a music journalist who wrote for Trouser Press magazine. This line-up didn’t last very long. We played one concert at the first White Columns Noise Festival, a three day festival of Noise and No Wave bands curated by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, then split up. Then I met Barry “Scratchy” Myers, a bass player and DJ who at the time was working at Bleeker Bob’s record store in the West Village. Scratchy had been the tour DJ on The Clash’s first three American tours, and had a small part in the film “Rude Boy”. He was a real reggae aficionado at the time (he still is, but has extended into World Music, as well as still burning a torch for roots rock and roll). Joe Strummer had asked him along on the tours to spin some reggae in between the support bands and The Clash. At the time I met him he’d moved to NYC on a permanent basis and had been playing with the west coast ”cowpunk” band Rank and File. He’d recently quit that band, and so, impressed with his deep, dub reggae style of bass playing, I invited him to help me form Khmer Rouge Mark II. The most notable of our later drummers was Paul Garisto, who went on to play with The Psychedelic Furs and Iggy Pop. Khmer Rouge almost got signed to CBS Records, by the way, after Joe Strummer recommended us. But when they found out about my smack problem they lost interest pretty quickly. Then there was Marty Thau of Red Star Records, the guy who signed the New York Dolls and Suicide. He offered us a deal with his new label, but he wanted us to change our name – he thought it was too controversial. I guess he didn’t want to deal with any more fucked up, drugged out, nihilistic bands!
Return to England. Why do you decide it and what do you do there?
If I hadn’t left NYC when I did, in April 1984, I’d have left in a box. I was by this time totally strung out on speedballs (heroin and cocaine cocktails) and was looking like a skeleton covered in translucent skin. The genius photographer Nat Finkelstein (“The Factory Years”; “Edie”) had been managing us, but most of the money just disappeared into my arm. My first wife Marcia was also in the band by now, playing keyboards (she went on to play in The Fall, mid to late 80s), and together with her and Scratchy I moved back to London, where I attempted to get off heroin. It actually took me another four years to do that. But the dope was better quality in London, and I didn’t have to risk my neck out on the New York streets, which were indeed extremely mean at that time. Claus followed us a few months later, and in London we recorded with legendary producer John Leckie. We also did two UK tours supporting The Fall. As I mentioned, when Khmer Rouge split up in 1986, Marcia went on to play keyboards with them. So I was left with no band, no money and no wife, still strung out and living in this filthy squat in Camden Town, which I wrote about in my first novel “Junkie Love”.
Somewhere here in 1988, you release your first EP, Charlotte’s Room/ The Long Goodbye, in the next 5 years two “fateful” albums, Backwoods Crucifixion and God Is the Other Face Of The Devil, and as far as your creative side you seem to be in your best period, but soon after that you pack and leave England once again… Could it be that these two albums - masterpieces in my humble opinion - are simply the birth of another tough quinquennium for you, personally and emotionally?
Around 1988 the situation I was in became very clear to me. No more kidding, no more bullshit, no more illusions. I’d blown all my chances in New York, I was back in London without a penny to my name, I was on my own, I didn’t even have a proper place to live in. I could see that with the trajectory I was on it was a case of dying accidentally through bad dope or an overdose, or a slow downward spiral into sickness, disease and premature death. So did I want to live or die? The choice was pleasingly black and white, and once I’d made that big decision (to quote Lou Reed in the opposite direction) it was relatively easy to go through withdrawal, the weeks of bodily and psychic pain that you have to suffer after years of addiction and bad living. Addiction not only to smack and coke, but methadone too, which is even harder to kick. But suddenly I had an almost religious fervor about being drug-free, whereas before I’d been equally religious in getting as many of them into my body as I could! So yes, I decided to live. But in order to do that I had to find a way back into society. When you’re strung out you lie, you cheat, you become totally undependable, you lose all your friends, you only have “drug friends” who are just as bad and unreliable as you. How was I going to support myself? Who would believe me enough to give me a chance? In the end I drove a London taxi for four years and re-educated myself, taught myself how to live in society again, how to be dependable and reliable – because if I wasn’t at the pick-up point right on time, man those cockneys would be screaming down the radio “Where the fuck are you, you’re five minutes late!” Very good rehabilitation, very good training, but not something I’d want to do forever. “Backwoods Crucifixion” especially, and most of “God Is The Other Face Of The Devil” are very much exorcism albums, maybe William Friedkin should have produced them! Many of the songs were written in the Camden Town squat in the last year or two of my addiction – I think that’s pretty clear if you check out the lyrics of songs like “Devil’s Hole” or “The Gambler”. I had to get all that spiritual poison out, to transcend the evil, to turn the base metal into gold in an alchemical process similar to the one Rimbaud speaks about in his poetry. This is on the poetic-spiritual level, of course. But Backwoods Crucifixion sold a couple of thousand copies, I could see that being a minor cult-figure on the UK indie scene wasn’t going to pay the rent. And I didn’t want to drive a taxi for the rest of my life. So I decided to do the sensible thing for once in my life, and enrolled on a college course to become a teacher. Fuck music, I’m gonna be a dedicated teacher and help deprived inner city kids get through their GCSEs in English. Three months after I enrolled, Humbug Records contacted me, said they loved Backwoods Crucifixion and did I want to do an album for them? There was a good budget, and I knew a guy in Camden town who’d just bought the Helios mixing desk from Strawberry Studios in Stockport, Manchester – the very desk that Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” and Buzzcocks’ “A Different Kind Of Tension” had been mixed on. So as I went into my teaching course, I was simultaneously being dragged, kicking and screaming, back into the seedy world of rock and roll. “God Is The Other Face Of The Devil” was the result. This CD became popular in two countries – Greece and Czech Republic. So in 1994 I did a tour of Czech Republic with a local band backing me, and it was a great success – not only in terms of music, but also because I met my present wife Jolana at the last Prague gig on this tour. She was a waitress in a pub we played called “The Man With The Shot Out Eye”. I was totally drunk and high on strong Czech pot, and I just saw this tall blond girl in a long white dress carrying four foaming beer mugs in each hand. The image was incredibly erotic – I just remember thing, “Ah, Aphrodite on waves of foam and beer”. I was too far gone to speak to her, but the next day I met her again on the Charles Bridge, and so destiny stepped in, gave me a kick up the backside and said “Hey, boy, get moving”. So to cut a long, beautiful and romantic story short, we fell in love. I went back to the UK and saved money teaching for a year, then in the summer of 1995 I came over to Prague and moved in with Jolana. And twenty years later we’re still together. So you can see why I believe in alchemy and magic.
And all the rambling, roaming and wandering stop in Prague. How do you arrive there and what makes you stay there for good?
Well, the prime reason is that I met Jolana. But I also love living in Prague, my life here suits me much better than the life I had in London did. Maybe there are too many painful memories for me there, or maybe it’s to do with “psycho-geography”. I enjoyed living in both Manchester and London in the 70s, during the punk years, there was a special kind of energy in the UK at that time. By the time I returned to the UK in 1984 Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and the whole atmosphere of England had changed. I didn’t recognize it as my own country anymore, I felt like some kind of exile. The situation there since has become even worse. It seems like a very sad place to me now, there is a very poisonous atmosphere, especially between the social classes. The whole culture has been debased by a restrictive and stupidly materialstic world view, people only respect what succeeds financially. This extends into the artistic dimension too. A lot of this poisonous atmosphere is to do with the resurgence of the traditional English class system. For a short time in the 1960s and 1970s it seemed like the “Thousand Year Reich” of the British ruling class was coming to an end. Working class writers and artists were being recognized, and there was a huge explosion of popular culture embodied in the emergence of bands like The Beatles and The Stones, and pop artists such as David Hockney and Alan Jones. London, for a short time, became the cultural capital of the world, what with “Swinging London”, Beatlemania, David Bailey, Joe Orton, rock singers and debutantes, the whole so-called “classless society”. To some extent it was an illusion, and by the mid 70s the dream was over. Margaret Thatcher hammered the last nail into the coffin lid with her war on the coal miners and other trades unions, and since the 1980s there has been a continuous process of retrenchment on the part of the British establishment. Today the old elites are firmly back in power. It’s a great place to live if you are a rich investment banker, but the majority of the population are much worse off today than they were ten or twenty years ago. But the power of the mass media, especially the Murdoch media empire, is so all-encompassing, so pervasive, that they have brainwashed the majority of the population into passively accepting government cuts and restructuring, things that a generation ago would have brought people out into the streets. I find it an extremely depressing place to visit these days, there just seems to be a horrible cold dead weight of history there that is impossible to shake off. I much prefer Scotland, actually, I love Edinburgh. And I love living in Prague – partly, I suspect, because it is a republic and not a monarchy. There is no hereditary class system here, and there isn’t this twisted English desire to condemn and punish, which is an unfortunate inheritance from the Victorian era with all its hypocrisy, imperialism and cruelty. I just feel more relaxed here and much freer. People don’t immediately classify you according to your accent and which old school tie you are wearing, as they do in England.
Is a city like Prague able to preserve something from its mystery even after the million of tourists’ invasion?
I definitely think there is some kind of magic here, in spite of the attempts to turn it into a Bohemian Disneyland. Again, it could be a kind of psycho-geographic thing – the accumulated layers of history, the characters who have lived here or passed through… For centuries Bohemia and Moravia were a crossroads where every European country that had imperial designs would send its armies – Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, Spain, Russia. If the Czechs sometimes seem a little xenophobic, a little suspicious of foreigners, it’s with very good reason. During the Thirty Years War the country was raped, pillaged and decimated, then under Austrian domination until the end of World War 1. A short period of democracy under Masaryk, followed by seven years of Nazi occupation, and another fifty years under the Russians. The present “Disneyfication” of Prague is peanuts by comparison of previous invasions and occupations. But I think this dark and violent history has definitely left its mark – magic and myth, blood and betrayal, revolt and dominion. Beneath the cobbled streets, invisible vibrations continue to work.
Beginning with the name of the “godfather” of Southern Cross, introduce us the band that accompanies you nearly from your first days in Prague till today.
Well, we went through several line-up changes in the early days. I first played with Jarda Kvasnicka (drums) and Pavel Krtous (bass) on the first tour I did in Czech Republic in August 1995. They were part of a local band, who were actually quite famous here, called Ticha Dohoda. This band, together with their lead guitarist Daniel Sustr, can be heard on the “Live In Prague” CD, which was released in 1995. After I moved here in 1996 I had a different band for a while, with Vladimir Pecha on drums, Michal Koval on bass and Josef Pavlovsky on lead guitar. This was the line-up that I played with the first time I came to Greece in February 1996. We played at the Rodon Club in Athens that first time, and we hadn’t practiced the song Only You, because I wasn’t aware that it had become something of a “hit” on Greek radio. Emilios Katsouris from our record company Hitch Hyke was horrified! “But you have to play Only You,” he remonstrated. “The audience will kill you if you don’t!” So I ended up doing a solo acoustic version without the band to stop myself getting lynched. But it was a fantastic experience, that first time at the Rodon club, and I kind of fell in love with Greece. It was my first time there. Later in 1996 I started playing with Jarda and Pavel again, and Pavel Cingl joined in 1997 on violin, just after the Blue Highway CD came out. This line-up remained stable until March this year, when Southern Cross and Pavel Cingl parted ways. Now we have a fantastic new guitarist called David Babka, who is absolutely amazing. He plays electric guitar, slide guitar and pedal steel guitar, and has added a whole new dimension to the band’s sound. It’s a lot more hard-edged now, a lot more rock and roll, and I’m having more fun playing live than I have done for years.
5 years since the death of Bruno Adams and the final closure of this (great and beloved for many people I know out here) chapter called Fatal Shore. What are your thoughts and feelings for Bruno and this thunderously underrated band?
Bruno Adams was a major talent, an amazing live performer who never got the recognition he deserved. He was a great songwriter with an incredible blues voice, a voice that was completely natural, a gift from the gods. I learned a lot from Bruno, both in terms of guitar playing and onstage demeanour. He had an incredible sense of rhythm, tone and timing on the guitar, which was based on chord inversions and playing a micro second behind the beat. A totally individual style. And onstage he was larger than life – once you had seen him perform you could never forget him, whether it was with his first band Once Upon A Time or with Fatal Shore. Fatal Shore was, as you say, a seriously underrated band. I think we had a highly individual sound and approach, and each of our four CDs shows a different facet of the band. Maybe this individuality was part of the reason we never got to be so well known. We didn’t fit into any pre-existing style. Was the music “psychedelic-industrial-blues” or “indie-singer-songwriter” or “mutant-country-noir” or “lizard-lounge-lo-fi-trance”? There were elements of all these styles in our music, but we didn’t fit neatly into any one box. So to a certain extent we were victims of marketing, we couldn’t be easily categorized for critical and popular consumption. But we were also wild and erratic and to some extent fated. Incredible mishaps and misfortunes would befall us out on the road – endless problems with broken cars, lost passports, hassles with police, violence with skinheads, crazy American record producers, endless day-to-day mishaps and misunderstandings, all of it filtered through an alcohol and drug-induced haze that didn’t exactly endear us to record companies! But we had an incredibly great time as well, and I miss Bruno terribly. He was a larger than life character, the kind of guy whose shoes are impossible to fill. That’s why we finished with Fatal Shore after his death from colon cancer in 2009 – it would have been futile to try and somehow “replace” him. Instead, Chris Hughes and I, still wanting to play together, formed Dim Locator with Dave Allen. Dim Locator is to some extent an outgrowth of Fatal Shore, but is going in a very different direction musically.
While talking about big losses tell us two words about another big absent and friend of yours, Nikki Sudden.
Yes, Nikki was another original, another one-off type of guy. Very different to Bruno, but with his own unique sound and approach that was his and his alone. He never quite broke through into the big-time, but he did come close on several occasions, and everywhere you go there are people who were inspired to take up music by his example. Especially in Germany, where he seems to have launched a whole movement of “bedroom troubadours”. He had a big influence on other musicians too, especially with his early work with Swell Maps. People like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth quote him as an influence, and Peter Buck of REM and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream were fans too. I did two European tours with him, in 1997 and 1998, and one CD Golden Vanity. Touring with Nikki was crazy too, but in a different way to Fatal Shore. He was very popular with the ladies, was Nikki, especially in Germany. Carl Picot, the Jacobites bass player, used to call this reaction “Mad Frau Disease”, and it was something like an indie version of Beatlemania. I remember the time Southern Cross played the AN Club in Athens with Nikki as special guest. Nikki was totally out of his head on one thing or another, and got himself dolled up like a Regency prince, complete with gold frock coat and pancake make-up. He was so out of it he could hardly hold a guitar, but the crowd loved the spectacle and went crazy. Like I say, wild times, but a very different type of chaos to the one I experienced with Fatal Shore.
Speaking from personal experience also, death of beloved ones makes this “Shadow-Line”, which according to Joseph Conrad appears at that point where early youth falls behind, to seem even more dark and melancholic, leaving this bitter taste of absence, yet at the same time the sweetness of gratitude that we have lived and met this time and those people…isn’t that so?
Yes, I agree with this sentiment one hundred per cent. And once you hit fifty, time speeds up incredibly. It’s a truism that the days of childhood seem to last forever, that the summers are longer and hotter, the winters colder and more intense. But my subjective experience reinforces this observation, and with each passing season, with each beloved person who disappears beyond the horizon, I feel it that more keenly. My wife was seriously ill earlier this year. I was really worried about her, I mean really worried, and it made me think deeply about what is truly precious to me. Thankfully she is much better now, almost fully recovered, but for a while it looked really bad. It’s one thing to lose friends and collaborators, but as painful as this might be it’s not the same thing as losing your life-partner. I don’t know if I could withstand such a loss. But neither am I the suicidal type, at least not so far. Thankfully it’s something that I didn’t have to face. But loss is a condition of life – both my parents have passed on, as well as many family members and close friends, and of course it comes to everyone in the end. As Jim Morrison said, “No one here gets out alive”. And it all makes you realize how precious and fragile our time on this planet is, that it’s just a blink of an eye in cosmic time, yet the most important and valuable thing while it lasts. So take it and savour it and be thankful you have it, feel it and live it to the max, because it won’t last forever…
Did the generation of Dim Locator with old buddy Chris Hughes from the days of Fatal Shore, operate somehow as a conjuration? Why did you choose the first discographic presentation of Dim Locator to be the EP Immortalised, containing three cover songs of Rowland S.Howard?
As I mentioned above, Chris and I still wanted to play together after the demise of Fatal Shore – he’s the most creative and original drummer I know, incredibly inspired and inspiring. The Immortalised EP came about by chance, really. Chris and I had been invited to play a Rowland S. Howard tribute concert in Prague in 2010, with Lydia Lunch, who actually never made it – her flight from London was cancelled because of the Icelandic volcano! So we went to a friend’s studio in Prague and practised the three songs that are on the EP. I asked Dan Satra, our friend and the owner of the studio, to record the proceedings purely for reference. This was even before Dave Allen had joined the band, so it was just me and Chris doing a run through. We did three songs: “Undone”, “I Ate The Knife” and “Dead Radio” and they sounded really good, very spontaneous and fresh, so when Fuego Music of Bremen suggested an on-line EP I gave them these three songs for the “Immortalised” EP. Later, the Viennese label “Cover Recordings” asked me if I had any interesting cover versions that they could release as a 7 inch single and I gave them the first two songs. I used to know Rowland back in the days of the Camden Town squat that I wrote about in “Junkie Love”. And by the way, in October Dim Locator will be doing a short tour of Germany, Czech Republic and Austria with Harry Howard and Near Death Experience (Harry is Rowland’s younger brother), so everything comes full circle, everything connects.
The so far classic Junkie Love, the Green Hotel collection, the first book of the New York trilogy Stripped (unfortunately only in Czech language up till now), the collection of poems and the cooperation with Katerina Pinosová, Magdalena and Magdalena II… it seems clear now that you are sharing yourself between music and writing. Which inward needs does each one of them cover?
It’s all about confronting the demons within, fears, desires, the “forbidden”, and expressing these tendencies and feelings in convincing language and musical modes, that can convey to other people something of one’s own internal dilemmas and narratives. I think my literary activities and my music feed off and complement each other. I hope that when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, I will leave behind a body of work that is inter-connected in all kinds of arcane ways. And then, if there should happen to be anyone out there who has the time, interest and inclination to cross-reference and make connections between the characters and situations in my songs and in my novels and poems, they will be richly rewarded!
Many of your songs are referred to faces and myths from the Bible, you have set to music lyrics of the poet Andrew Marvel and in a previous interview you mentioned that Ballad of Elijah Cain is a Burroughsian cut up. Drugs, fateful loves, ghosts of dead lovers, gamblers, they are all parading in your lyrics and books… What else does inspire you to write or to compose music?
I think the one dominant theme, or tone, of my work is that of the inevitability of loss. Because I read so much of the great world literature in my younger years, especially during the 60s and 70s when ordinary people still had time to study and reflect (unlike today where for different socio-economic and historical reasons most people are struggling to make ends meet), I do tend to refer to the themes contained in books like The Bible and The Oddysey, and the great Romantic and Metaphysical poets, and the main philospohers of our age. This theme of beauty and loss, the fleeting nature of life itself, the fact that we can’t hold onto it, no matter how beautiful it is, or how much we want Time to stand still – this great eternal theme of magic and loss is what inspires me most, and it leads me to create songs (especially) which are balanced on a razor’s edge between happiness and melancholy, between celebration and mourning for what we are doomed to lose.
Tell us some of your favorite albums and books or any of them that has inspired you.
There are too many! But I’m sure you can guess. Here are a few pointers: Anything by The Stooges, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones in the 60s and 70s, Leonard Cohen in the 60s and 70s, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, The Birthday Party, Nick & The Bad Seeds, Joy Division, The Clash, The Cure, Rowland S. Howard, Captain Beefheart, The Fall, Can, Amon Düül II, T.S. Eliot, P.B. Shelly, William Wordswoth, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and the Beat Generation of writers in general, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed”, “The Idiot” and “Crime and Punishment”, H.P. Lovecraft and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Homer’s The Oddysey and The Illiad, Aesop’s Fables, “The Way Of Zen” by Alan Watts, Herclitus, Dickens’s “Great Expectations”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nikos Kazantzakis, Isidore Ducasse (The Comte de Lautréamont), Arthur Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” and “A Season in Hell”, Huysmans’s “Against Nature”, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad… as you can see, I have quite catholic tastes.
Do you pick out any special album or song of yours?
“Paranoia.com” is the closest to my current view and feeling, especially the last song on that CD, “Shrine”. This song is purposely mixed quieter than the rest of the tracks on the album – it’s like the quiet after the storm, when the innocent child looks at the beauty of the natural world and cries tears of regret for everything his older and supposedly wiser forbears have done to fuck up and destroy the planet. A small voice almost lost in the sturm und drang of other songs like “Undertow” and the title track. But I also like the CDs “God Is The Other Face Of The Devil” and “Dead Flowers For Alice”- they are both very moody and atmospheric albums. “Backwoods Crucifixion” I like too – but emotionally I’m a long way from that space now, as I mentioned earlier it was very much to do with an exorcism of personal demons that I was going through at the time it was written and recorded.
From what you’ve told us you are an English teacher. Is it so hard for a musician to make his living only through music or is it your choice not to exclusively depend on it? How do you see the music industry nowadays? Do you find a big difference from the time you started playing music?
Yes, I teach English four days a week at a civil engineering company in Prague, which is a subsidiary of the French multi-national VINCI (the same company that built the long bridge from mainland Greece to the Peloponnese). Most of the time I enjoy it – my students are intelligent and motivated, mostly Czech managers who have to learn English for their work. And it keeps my feet on the ground. I mean, I could probably live from music if I limited myself to bread and water and lived in a tent in a field. But I’m 61 years old and married, and I don’t want to be supported by, or dependent on, my poor long-suffering wife. It’s one thing when you’re a young and penniless musician, saying to girls “Oh, come and save me, I’m so fucked up, I need a place to crash until I become a rock and roll legend, feed me, fuck me and get high off my reflected glamour.” I lived like this in New York for many years, as did so many of the downtown musicians of the 70s and 80s. Everybody on the scene had these striptease dancing, or even prostitute, girlfriends – Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Jerry Nolan, everybody – and these girls would pay the rent and the bills, and keep their rock and roll boyfriends supplied with heroin and cocaine. Like I say, I lived this life myself, and it was mostly “take” on my side and mostly “give” on the girls’ side – even though it can be “justified” in terms of the “doomed poet” syndrome, the blood of a poet being worth all manner of material sacrifices and suffering. And it’s true that these doomed rock and roll poets did give of their poetic and musical essence, and changed the way we look at things. But it was incredibly destructive for the girls, too, many of them succumbed to addiction, disease and suicide. Well, I’ve been through my own season in hell, and I didn’t want this karma on my head, and when I came out of heroin at the end of the 80s I found I didn’t want to live that way. I’d had my shot at the “big-time” in New York with Khmer Rouge, after which everything went pretty much downhill. So I totally recreated myself and tried to keep doing music from the heart, while at the same time fulfilling my “obligations” as a regular citizen – pay the rent, don’t be a drain or a parasite on other people – which I think up to this point I’ve managed to do. And anyway, just in terms of personal dignity it wouldn’t be very cool to be scrounging off my wife or girlfriend at my age – kind of pathetic, in fact. I didn’t get rich through music, and I survived heroin and several overdoses, including one time when my heart stopped for a couple of minutes and I turned blue. So yes, I chose to live, finally – something I hadn’t expected to do when I was twenty six years old. But in order to live creatively I had to find a way to keep doing music (which is my life, not a hobby), while at the same time recognizing that I had to be self-sufficient in other ways. Regarding your question about the music business – the music biz is now, as it always has been, a nest of vipers and rats. A few people get rich, but most don’t, and the more sensitive ones end up addicted, crazy or simply dysfunctional. So many people get fucked over and fucked up by it. I love my life as it has turned out – I work with nice civilized people who aren’t out to kill me or rip me off, who are very indulgent and understanding of my artistic side and activities, and give me time and space for these. If I can give back to them some of my knowledge of the English language, and my cultural knowledge in general, then I think that’s a good trade-off. I consider myself a very lucky guy – not only to still be alive and more or less sane after everything I’ve been through, but to have this life where I can balance work and art and still come up smiling.
While listening to your songs, a lot of people make the same mistake as they did for example with Neil Young’s songs. They pay attention – fairly- much more to the voice, lyrics and the whole melody and leave in second place- unjustly- your guitar sound, which especially in your latest works with Southern Cross and Dim Locator does a really good job. What is the trade name of the guitar you are playing? Has the electric guitar been Pan’s instrument for the last century?
I play an Eastwood “Airline” guitar with Van Zandt Humbucker pickups, and an Epiphone ES 335 type with original 70’s Humbuckers. I don’t consider myself a technically accomplished guitar player. I can’t do these fancy fretboard gymnastics like Eddie Van Halen, for example. But it’s pertinent you mention Neil Young. He is my big inspiration as a guitar player – him and Ron Asheton of The Stooges – and also to some extent he’s inspired me lyrically – especially in terms of subject matter and expression. But I love his raunchy, apparently primitive guitar playing. I say “apparently” because it’s not as simple as it seems – he’s often playing two or three notes together, or in alternation, the root note with the third and the fifth usually, and he often plays completely across the rhythm. It’s halfway between rhythm guitar and lead guitar, and comes very much from an American folk tradition, and before that Country and Hillbilly music. Or you could probably trace it even further back to Russian, Greek and Arabic modal styles, that somewhere along the line cross-fertilsed with English, Irish and Scottish folk music, way back in the mists of history. Anyway, yes, Neil Young is my biggest inspiration as a guitar player. I think you can hear it on tracks like “Only You”, and also on the recent Dim Locator mini album “Wormhole”. I try to set up this resonating drone of superimposed guitars, which opens some corresponding area of the brain, what Iggy Pop once called (in relation to The Stooges) the “O Mind”. In other words the part of the unconscious brain that responds to deep, trancy resonating drones, the same kind of frequencies employed in Raga and other types of Indian music. And, as I mentioned, in certain types of European folk music. Pan’s instrument of the last century? Well, yes, it opens the unconscious brain, and the emotions associated with it, and it definitely has magical powers that can be harnessed for Good or Evil – we saw the latter effect at Altamont, and with the Manson Family in the late 60s. But guitar music has healing, therapeutic powers too, and I would like to think that my own music it is more concerned with these. Rather than with the dark, destructive side of human nature, though I do delve into that too, on tracks like “The Killer Inside”..
What are your plans for the present and the future? The second part of Stripped trilogy, a new member in Southern Cross, new bands, Dim Locator/ Bruce Wellie Band…what can we expect in the near future from all of these projects?
Well, as I mentioned Dim Locator is just about to do a short tour with Harry Howard and Near Death Experience. I was mainly busy with Southern Cross over the summer, we played several festivals in Czech Republic. Plus we had our twentieth anniversary gig back in August, which we recorded for a projected Live CD. I’m just selecting tracks and doing the editing right now, as a matter of fact. David Babka is fantastic on guitar and pedal steel, he clicked with our music immediately. As for my satirical rock and roll project the Bruce Wellie Band – that’s on hold at the moment as our guitar player Gez Donnelly had some health problems and returned to the UK to get treatment. Who knows if Bruce will ever perform again? At the moment he’s having a whale of a time on his uncle’s sheep farm in the Northern Territories of Australia.
What memories do you have from Greece that you have visited many times not only for concerts but also as a traveler?
I love Greece! I visited it so many times in the second half of the nineties and in the early 2000s – both for concerts and with my wife on holiday. We went “island hopping” several times in the Cyclades, and that was just wonderful. The last time I visited was in 2010, when we stayed in Thessaloniki and explored Meteora and the Chalkidiki peninsula by motorbike. I love the Greek food and the Greek way of life – or the way of life as it was a few years ago. I know that in recent years, because of the economic situation, life for ordinary Greek people, especially youngsters, has got a lot tougher. And I hate to read about this neo-fascist organization, Golden Dawn, it sounds absolutely grotesque. It’s like all the tensions and contradictions simmering underneath Greek society, the poisonous feelings have been sleeping to some extent since 1974, and maybe even before that, from the civil war following World War Two – all these poisons have risen to the surface like a dark, inky cloud. But I hope the Greek sensibility, I mean the cultured one that created poetry, democracy, philosophy and the Parthenon, isn’t permanently corrupted by these reactionary forces of jealousy and resentment. People are too easily manipulated in times of economic hardship – it was the same with the Germans under Weimar, and of course Hitler took full advantage and finally led the German nation into the abyss.
Your last album with Southern Cross is titled Paranoia.com and I think since its release in 2010, every day that passes by its title is becoming more and more up to date and to the point with all these things happening around us…Are you some kind of mad prophet or what?
Well, I don’t think it takes a genius to see the way things are going. I read just today that if our carbon emissions aren’t cut to zero by about 2045, an irreversible set of climatic events will be set in motion, from which it won’t be possible to recover. I can’t see such a radical cut-back happening, quite honestly, can you? Not with all the banking, big business and financial interests involved. Then there are the growing and increasingly out-of-control movements of population, the over-crowded and poisoned cities, the aggrieved minorities and religious fanatics, who believe more in death than in life – it isn’t a very optimistic picture. Of course the world has been through many dark and pessimistic times before, and to a certain extent the never-ending flood of problems and feeling of foreboding is a result of massive and obsessive 24-hour news coverage. A hundred and fifty years ago, if one African tribe slaughtered another, or thousands died from malaria or Ebola, or if a brigade of British troops was decimated while on an imperialistic excursion in the Crimea or Afghanistan, the news would filter through more slowly, it wouldn’t be immediately in your face the way it is now with the internet and social media. Everything seems a lot closer and more threatening these days, and I think it leads to a kind of “evil eye” effect, whereby everyone feels in his or her bones that something awful is about to happen, but nobody knows exactly what it will be or when it will happen. Having said that, I think with the climate change thing we have a real problem on our hands. All these little wars all over the place, all these referendums on independence and devolution, won’t mean a hell of a lot once Mother Nature really starts to let rip with 30 metre tsunamis and wild, destructive variations in temperature, wind speed and rainfall. I think we are definitely set on a path of self-destruction. But the insane greed-heads who spend their time lobbying politicians to make sure nothing substantial changes are convinced that they will be able to survive the coming catastrophe with their private islands and private armies and unlimited financial hegemony. More fools them! If we don’t wake up really quickly, all of us, and I mean really, really quickly, we are all going to go the way of the dinosaur – just another failed experiment in God’s Great Game…
For the end and on the occasion of this conversation that took you a long way back in time, the horizon lies always there ahead of us and deep, but it seems that many times we are not able to see it or better feel its depth, driven by the stress of everyday life. In such moments your music is something that personally helps us feel it… what helps you feel it?
I just try to keep my loved ones close, concentrate on living my own life, and try not to cause more suffering and sadness than there already is in the world. To paraphrase William Burroughs: “Everyone who thinks he is a part of the solution is a part of the problem.” If my music helps put people in touch with their deeper, human feelings, and if it can bring some perspective that will allow people to focus on what is REALLY important in their lives – not all the shallow, materialistic, paraphernalia of modern living – then I will consider that I’ve achieved something. Just to show people how to be quiet, how to listen to their inner voices – that would be enough. That’s what making music does for me, and I hope it does the same for as many people as get to hear it.
Thank you very much for this long conversation. We hope to see you soon in Greece and especially in Thessaloniki, wherefrom we can start together that trip we have been talking about …
I hope I will be back there too, and in the not-too-distant future. I feel Greece in my heart and soul, I miss it a lot, I feel I have a special relationship with the place and the people, as you know… I even have a Greek name! I think the Greeks understand my music and my lyrics more than anyone else, and that’s the truth.