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Interview with Nick Saloman for TERRASCOPE (UK), 1990

Attempting The Resurrection of Phil Shoenfelt

If we got this magazine properly typset, or if even we bought ourselves a decent typewriter, we wouldn't be in the embarrassing position of having to consistently mis-spell the artist's name in the following article. For the record then, Phil Shoenfelt's name has an umlaut above the letter 'o' and wherever you see the word 'Shoenfelt' hereafter you'll have to imagine the two microdots. And I have a feeling you'll be seeing quite a lot of his name in the future, for Shoenfelt has a rare talent; a passionate, impassioned, emotive and evocative feel for a song and for the images it can create, an uncanny knack for knocking out a melody that lingers and a way with words that never fails to chill to the pips. We've managed to secure an exclusive song for our EP this issue, so you'll be able to judge for yourselves and hopefully leap out and purchase Phil's excellent debut album, 'Backwoods Crucifixion' (Paperhouse Records) to further convince yourselves that there is a Man with a Future. But, what of his past? Well, the young Shoenfelt first started playing at around 11 years old, teaching himself the chords to "old" Beatles and Stones records and then rediscovering their own influences in the shape of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson recordings. Like so many other though, the bands that really inspired him to write his own music were the Doors and the Velvet Underground. "They had such wild sounds, but also really good words. I used to write a lot of poetry and short stories - still do, only now I set them to music" says Phil.

Asking Phil who he would cite his influences to be brings forth a more unexpected crop of musicians. "I suppose my main writing influences are songwriters such as Tim Buckley, David Ackles, Tim Rose - they all write really strong songs with words that reach inside. But I'm also into SOUND and extending its possibilities. People like Sonic Youth, who use really loud volume and repetition to create overtones and harmonics, so that your ear is hearing melodies within the noise which aren't actually being played."

Phil's connection with New York 'noise' bands such as Sonic Youth is actually a little more direct than simply enjoying their music. He lived in New York for five years, having gone on holiday there in 1979 for what was intended to be one week and "ending up falling in lust/love with a burlesque dancer!". He was in several bands while over there, including Disturbed Furniture who released "a crap single on a crap label". In 1981 he formed Khmer Rouge with Barry Myers, Claus Castenskiold and Marcia Schofield - who now plays keyboards with The Fall. Phil: "I guess we would be classed as 'post-punk' and were like some weird cross between Joy Division, Gang of Four and a noise band. The only recorded song was "Mountain of Skulls" on the cassette of the 1981 White Columns Noise Festival which was put out by Zeitgeist magazine and also featured Sonic Youth, Ut and many other downtown New York 'noise bands'".

Tired of life in New York, tired of the threatening lifestyle (Phil lived on the Lower East Side, "right in the middle of the busiest drug-dealing corner in the Western World. It resembled Beirut - a war-zone - but at least the rents were cheap!"), Phil decided to move operations back to his homeland, eventually coming to England on 1st April 1984 - the day Marvin Gaye was shot by his father. Khmer Rouge did two tours with The Fall before disbanding, Marcia Schofield going on to play keyboards with them and Claus Castenskiold since being responsible for some of The Fall's best album-sleeve designs. Phil himself went on to put a solo 12" single on Mark E. Smith's Cog Sinister label - a record entitled 'Charlotte's Room'. Since the record was only intended to be a limited-edition one-off, Phil armed himself with demo tapes and went in search of a label.

It was, almost inevitably, Dave Barker (then of Glass Records) who picked up the ball and ran with it. Phil went on tour in Europe with the Walkingseeds and started work on his album as soon as he returned. 'Backwoods Crucifixion' was released earlier this year, the second album to come out on Barker's new 'Paperhouse' label. Some of the earlier songs in the collection are actually the most telling, 'Garden of Eden' in particular being a bonafide classic with a catchy melody sung high above a tortured wah-wah guitar, closely followed (in my eyes at least) by the less urgent but just as incisive 'Marianne, I'm Falling' which is underpinned by some gorgeous keyboard work. Phil claims to be really happy with the album, which is hardly surprising given the quality it exudes. "It was done on a really small budget, on 8-track, but doesn't sound like that at all. It has a really big, spacious feel to it; not in an overblown way, just lots of light and shade and cavernous spaces. Phil Ames, who produced it, did an incredible job. We did most of the drum programming at home, then overdubbed the instruments and voices onto tape in the studio. So it sounds like there's a band, though we played most of the instruments between us with a bit of help from Marcia on keyboards."

For live dates, which Phil has been performing across London during July (with date planned supporting Nick Cave in Glasgow during August, as we go to press), Phil uses an electric guitarist and a keyboard player. "It sounds really different without a rhythm section; the songs have a looser, spacier feel to them, but are still pretty rhythmic - it's quite an interesting approach and I think it works, although we may add drums or percussion later on."

So, there we are. Only a quick article, but I hope that this, in conjunction with the song on our EP this issue, has whetted your appetite hear more by this excellent artist with the unprintable name.

(Phil - with thanks to Nick for setting up the interview and one of the other Phil's for his patience.)

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