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Interview with MUSIC 3 (GR), 03/2008
First of all Phil thank you very much for accepting our invitation to share your thoughts with music3 and the Greek audience. It’s been exactly 4 years since your last visit in Greece, and though you have more than a few friends here, we wanted to ask you a few biographical questions for those who haven’t been introduced to your music yet. Reaching back into your memories, which would you recall as your first musical memory? When did you feel for the first time that music will be your way of expressing yourself?
I spent most of my formative years in Worcester, a county town in the English Midlands. It’s a beautiful part of the country, with rolling hills, forests and orchards, and is quite close to Stratford-upon-Avon where William Shakespeare was born. I remember very clearly the day of my first guitar lesson. It was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 22nd November 1963. This means it was shortly before my eleventh birthday, and an older boy I knew was teaching me the riff to “Shazam” by Duane Eddy. I remember it so vividly because in the middle of the lesson my friend’s mother came into the room where we were sitting and announced this momentous event, which she’d just heard about on the news. So that was the date of my first guitar lesson, though of course my musical memories go back much further. I remember that I would always get carried away whenever I heard “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”, a traditional song that was famously re-recorded in 1955 by Mitch Miller. I must have been about three years old at the time, and my dad would get a kick out of putting it on the jukebox in some coffee bar and watching me dance up and down. He was more into swing music than Rock and Roll or Country, and his favourite band was The Glenn Miller Orchestra. My mother, meanwhile, loved classical music, so in between the big band sound of Glenn Miller, I’d be hearing Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Chopin. Later, when I was eleven, I formed my own rock and roll band called The Feendz. We played cover versions of The Beatles, The Stones, and The Dave Clark Five, as well as all those Merseybeat bands like Freddie And The Dreamers and Gerry And The Pacemakers. The teacher I had in the final year of primary school was quite liberal, and would allow us to play to the class last thing on Friday afternoons. Soon, we had lots of screaming eleven year old girls following us around (it was the time of Beatlemania!), and I learned quite quickly that music was an excellent route to the female heart! From that time on music and romance have been inextricably linked in my heart and mind.
A Greek poet said that happy moments are for living, tragedies and destructions are for drawing inspiration and expressing them in words. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It’s true that happy songs are much more difficult to write convincingly than sad, tragic ones. Somehow, those happy songs always seem trite and superficial later, though there is no implicit reason why that should be. Deep happiness is, after all, a very profound state, and one which very few people ever manage to attain. Maybe only mystics and those old, wise people you sometimes encounter living in the mountainous regions of certain countries, far away from the day-to-day neuroses of modern civilisation. I think when you are truly happy, you don’t need to write songs. Or anything else, for that matter. Such a state of bliss would be better expressed with pure music, as words would only corrupt the feeling and make it impure. For myself, I definitely have a tragic muse. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been inspired by the darker side of human experience. The first heartbroken song I wrote at the age of twelve can still bring tears to my eyes. Really! When I’m writing a song, I fool around on the guitar until I hit a chord sequence or melody that affects me inside. It’s almost like a chemical reaction, I can feel the emotion start to flow. The words then seem to follow naturally, and even though they might not have any logic to them at first, and are just pure atmosphere, I go with the feeling and don’t worry about them making sense. The sense seems to come through later, of its own accord. If you try to force it, or if you have a pre-exisitng idea of what the song should be about, it usually ends up sounding shallow and artificial. That’s my experience anyway. There’s only one happy song that I’ve ever written that I still like. It’s called “Love Makes Her Shine” and was recorded in Berlin in 1998. It’s on an album that I wrote and recorded with the late Nikki Sudden, called Golden Vanity. I don’t know if this album will ever see the light of day, though I think it’s a really interesting piece of work, both in terms of my own musical output and of Nikki’s. Hopefully, some label will be interested enough to release it one day…
In your writings (songs and literature) do you find yourself confessing truths in order to better understand yourself, others or both?
Probably in literature more than in song. As I said before, the songwriting is more spontaneous, and more concerned with expressing nebulous feelings and atmospheres than with psychological dissections of character and motivation. I have written some songs like this, such as “The Killer Inside” and “Marianne, I’m Falling”. But the heavier psychological stuff is more appropriate to the novel, I think. And then, yes, I like to get down to the nitty-gritty and delve into the dark underworld of human motivation! Certainly, I wrote Junkie Love as a kind of exorcism of my own personal demons. I’m working on a new book called Stripped at the moment, a trilogy set in New York between the years 1979 and 1984. It’s like a prequel to Junkie Love and follows a similar descending trajectory into a personal hell of drug addiction, breakdown and loss…
If you weren’t a musician and a writer what would you imagine yourself doing? A travelling preacher maybe? (question asked by George from Athens)
Well, if I hadn’t cleaned up from heroin, I’d probably be dead. And if I hadn’t got into music and writing, I’d probably be a tramp or a bum! I never really felt like I fitted into the grand social scheme, and was always looking for a way to escape. When I was in my late teens, I set off to travel the world with about 50 quid in my pocket. Okay, that was worth a bit more in those days than it is now, but even then it wasn’t too much. The thing is, I was impatient to leave England and was too lazy to work and save money. I was reading Jean Genet’s “The Thief’s Journal” at the time, and I reckoned that I’d do just fine if I followed his lead. So I was this long-haired hippy kid bumming and nicking his way around Europe and North Africa at the beginning of the 1970’s, living on next-to-nothing and not giving a fuck about anything. It was a nice, carefree time, and I have very fond memories of that period of my life...
Life of a Rock Star, sex, drugs and Rock n Roll, is it a myth? Is living on the edge the only way for some people to compose / create? (Nikos 30 Athens)
I don’t consider myself a Rock Star, so I don’t really know! I did have about two years, in New York in the 1980’s, where it seemed that my post-punk band Khmer Rouge was gonna get signed by CBS, and we were gonna go big-time. Thankfully it never happened, but I did get enough of a taste of that world to know that it wasn’t for me. Once you get into that trip of believing your own press, and believing all the bullshit that scenemakers and groupies of both sexes are telling you, it’s really damaging to your state of mental and spiritual health. You see it all the time – in extreme cases like with Britney Spears, but really on all levels of the music business, whether mainstream or indie, Michael Jackson or Pete Doherty. It’s really a legacy of the 1960’s, that whole Rock and Roll mythology trip where people actually started to believe that Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix were superhuman, god-like figures. Well okay, in some respects they were, at least in the effect they had on millions of young people. But at the end of the day they were all too human, and they paid the price for living out other peoples’ fantasies for them. It’s an interesting question, though, the one posed by Neil Young in “Out Of The Blue”… Is it better to burn out than fade away? I don’t know, really. In one respect, yes it is. You live fast, die young, and leave behind you a legacy of genius work, spinning in a trail of stardust. Just like James Dean did, like Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin did, like the great 19th century French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud did. If it’s this way of living opposed to stagnation and becoming a couch potato at the age of forty, then I’d definitely choose the live fast, die young alternative. But on the other hand, if you see life as a chance to develop and grow constantly, and don’t close down emotionally when you hit the age of thirty five, then to throw away all those future years for a few moments of youthful glory seems a terrible waste. Especially if you believe in the possibility of human growth and development, and see this as a kind of poetic duty to the soul. It’s true that I have lived this fast lifestyle myself, and took things about as close to the edge as anyone can without actually killing himself. Though I have to say that it was all done on a shoe-string budget, without limousines or penthouse suites! These days, I’m a little more contemplative about everything, though occasionally the wild beast does still roar inside me. But yes, the mythology of the doomed romantic hero still exercises a powerful gravitational pull on the modern imagination. It’s just a pity that it is so easily taken up and used by multi-national corporations to sell pieces of plastic and make lots of money for the shareholders…
A lot of people see mass media, modern politics and organised religion as another way of drugging and controlling people. According to your point of view which is the most dangerous/ addictive drug ? And what is your message of resistance to younger people today? (question asked by Maria Dimitriou 22 Athens)
I think if you’re aware of this, it’s a pretty good starting point. But of course, the impulse to control comes in many different shapes and forms. It seems to be built into us all, whether we’re aware of it or not. Politics, the mass media, organised religion – these are just the externalised forms of control impulses which are implanted in us as a species. A baby is trying to exercise control over its mother when it bawls and cries for attention. A lover tries to exercise control over his or her partner by various psychological games and ploys. It’s part of the basic survival mechanism, and if we didn’t exercise a certain amount of control over our environment the human race wouldn’t have survived as long as it has. But at some point in the history of all civilisations, institutions grow up which are concerned with control for control’s sake. They are not about survival, but are about accumulating power and wealth for a small number of individuals who cast themselves as the “chosen”, or the “elite”. Communist or capitalist, Christian, Jew or Moslem, it doesn’t really matter. These people are merely the most skilful in techniques of manipulation, deception and double-dealing. The institutions they create and use become manifestations of the death instinct, the impulse to strangle by excessive control which is, unfortunately, another part of human psychology. Or at least it is according to Freud. These institutions then begin to accumulate like cancerous cells, endlessly replicating and causing harm to the wider social body. This is what we are seeing on a world-wide scale right now, as so-called elite groups selfishly pursue ever-greater concentrations of political, military and financial power. To the detriment of the human race as a whole, and even of the planet itself. How to escape from this cul-de-sac, when advertising and the mass media in general keep pushing the “Consume!” button? I don’t know… Personally, I just try to keep my head down and out of the line of fire as the world goes crazy and psychopaths on all sides take pot-shots at each other. I’d say a strategy of creative sabotage is the best means of survival. Plus a viral approach to information sharing, the formation of virtual communities via the internet, and the gradual undermining on a vast scale of all nationalist, corporate, political and religious ideologies. While we’re on the topic, notice the interface between addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine, and organised terror, of the state variety or otherwise. The way that since the 1960’s, and even earlier, the profits from the sale of these drugs have been used to sponsor illicit wars and terrorist activities… There’s a geat book by Alfred McCoy on this subject called The Politics Of Heroin. It examines the links between the CIA and heroin smugglers in south east Asia during the Vietnam war. But it could equally apply to opium growers and the Taliban in Afghanistan today. I think the whole situation has gone beyond the point of overt resistance, it’s way too big and too profitable for that line to succeed. All the groups that have tried to resist by armed struggle have merely made the problem worse. They become corrupted by power themselves, and just end up raising the level of brutality, violence and hatred even more. If you think of the Book Of Revelations, the biblical Apocalypse, I’d say that the first couple of seals from the seven have already been opened. And I can’t see any sure way of turning back the evil tide. Sorry to sound so pessimistic in response to your question, but…
Many independent artists these last few years have met worldwide success without having signed to a major label. What do you think will be the future for bands/ artists and record labels, having in mind the new technologies and especially Internet, which gives the opportunity to independent artists to promote their work worldwide for a relative low cost?
I think the internet is fantastic, it’s such a wonderful tool of communication. The creative energy it has liberated in the past few years is incredible, and it amuses me no end to see the big, fat-cat record company executives sweating and worrying about where the next stretch-limo is coming from! I think the future lies with internet sales, even though I do regret the passing of the old 12 inch album with gatefold sleeve that was like a work of art in itself. But you can still buy these wonderful artefacts at specialist record shops, and on Ebay, if you are prone to this particular addiction. Things like My Space are great forums for truly independent artists, for organising gigs and for selling music, and for cutting out the middle man. You can now be your own booking agent, record company and promotion team without having to invest fantastic amounts of capital.
What do you listen to when you’re home relaxing or in front of your computer or typewriter writing?
At the moment I’m obsessed with a new Czech band called Please The Trees. In the past couple of years a whole new scene has started to develop here in the Czech Republic, where I’ve been living since 1995. For the first time I’m seeing bands emerge that could compete on an international level, rather than being a homegrown curiosity that makes no sense in the wider world. The old underground bands like Plastic People Of The Universe, Psi Vojaci and Už Jsme Doma are great, but their music doesn’t really travel too well. Now you’re hearing bands like Please The Trees and Sunshine who are on the same level as indie bands from the UK, the USA, Iceland, Denmark, Germany, France, Greece, wherever. I’ve just produced a great young punk band from Prague called Secret 9 Beat, who sound like Richard Hell & The Voidoids playing CBGBs in 1978! Fantastic stuff!
Will we be able to read your works in Greek sometime in the near future?
Well, I’ve kind of given up on that front. Livanis Books of Athens bought the rights to Junkie Love about ten years ago but never took up the option. They paid me an advance, but never translated or published the damn thing! Then the publisher of a magazine called Apple Of The Eye was interested, but that deal didn’t work out either. Finally, Electra Books of Athens bought the rights about three years ago, and Alex of Greek band The Last Drive was supposed to translate it. Again, Electra paid me the advance but never took up the option, and I guess Alex never got the go-ahead to translate. So I don’t know what to make of all this. Other than to think that Greek publishers have a lot of money to give away for nothing! I guess such a book is a real minority interest kind of thing anyway. It’s not like Frederick Forsyth or anything, it’s not an airport book. So the potential audience is gonna be pretty small, certainly not in the Harry Potter league at any rate. And I think most Greek people who would want to read it would be capable of reading it in English. I mean young, well-educated people, who would be the natural (if minority) audience for the book in any language or country. It was licensed to Ebury Press/Random House last year for the UK and Commonwealth, and this is a huge publishing house. Junkie Love is right in there with David Beckham’s biography, Robbie Williams’s memoirs, several New Age cookery books, and god knows how many teenage popular novels! So anyone who is interested can easily buy it in English via Amazon.com – either in the original Twisted Spoon edition, or in the new Random House edition.
And last question before thanking you again for this interview, what are your plans for the near future? Would you consider coming to Greece again for a concert?
Of course I would! I love playing in Greece, and if some promoter were willing to put up the money to fly me and the band down there I’d be on the next plane out of Prague. It was easier back in the mid 1990’s after God Is The Other Face Of The Devil came out. Songs like “Only You”, “Alchemy” and “Charlotte’s Room” became quite popular on Greek radio (they still are, I believe…), so it was easier to get promoters interested. All my subsequent records have been released in Greece, as well as the latest by my second Berlin-based band Fatal Shore, but they haven’t sold as well as God Is… So I’m just waiting for my next big Greek radio hit, and I’ll be down there like a shot!