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|Interview with Tranzistor magazine, Greece, 2008|
Well Phil, from what I know youâ€™ve just arrived from a series of concerts in New York. How did the shows go, and how was your return there after all this time? Is there something still alive from the spirit of the CBGBâ€™s days?
I just played five concerts in New York with Pavel Cingl, the violin player from Southern Cross. We had a wonderful time there, and the concerts and audiences were great. If you want to, you can see excerpts from three of the shows on You Tube. I hadnâ€™t played in NYC since 1989, when I did a solo show at CBGBs. Some of the people who showed up at the gigs - well I hadnâ€™t seen them since 1984, when I left NYC and returned to London with Khmer Rouge. So all-in-all it was quite an intense and emotional time for me. I also linked up with my ex manager Nat Finkelstein, author of The Factory Years and the book on Edie Sedgewick. Heâ€™s living up in Woodstock now (quite a lot of New York musicians have relocated to that part of the world â€“ Michael Gira of Angels Of Light, for example), so my wife and I went up there to visit him for a few days. Nat used to manage Khmer Rouge, and is a kind of guru to me in many ways. The guy has had such a wild life, his work with Warhol and the Velvet Underground is just a part of itâ€¦ As for CBGBs, there is now a high-end clothing and CD store where the old place used to stand. Not even a plaque outside to notify people that this is the site of one of the great cultural institutions of American Pop Culture! Well, maybe such recognition wouldnâ€™t be so fitting for a place that was always well outside the mainstream music biz. It started out as a Hellâ€™s Angelsâ€™ hang-out, after all. Hardly the sort of place that the arbiters of artistic taste would choose to beatify!
In your myspace page, you use as a headline the phrase â€śa rock nâ€™ roll nomadâ€ť. Taken out from the very old mythology of rock nâ€™ roll - and not only rock nâ€™roll, since the chain can go way back to the beatniks, Woody Guthrie, Thoreau and all drifters throughout centuries - how much does this phrase express you and how much romantically nomad can someone remain in 2008?
Well, itâ€™s as much a description of a psychological state as it is of non-stop world travel. I mean, I have travelled a lot in my life, and lived in a lot of different places. But itâ€™s also about the way I feel about myself, the way I always seem quite restless and dissatisfied with things. I suppose I have settled down somewhat in Prague, and mostly I feel very happy living here. But I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll ever really feel part of any society, there are too many things going on that piss me off. I think if you are any kind of artist â€“ singer, painter, writer, poet, whatever â€“ then being an â€śoutsiderâ€ť is part of the price you pay. You have to be, really, by the very nature of the way you perceive things. I also feel like an outsider in terms of my music. Iâ€™ve never been part of any mass musical movement, though of course Iâ€™ve crossed paths with Punk and Post-Punk, and have been influenced to some extent by them. But I think Iâ€™ve always gone my own way, and my music has never been taken up and championed by music critics on any large scale (though I do have my supporters and Iâ€™m grateful for them!). So in this sense I feel a bit of a nomad too, travelling through the world of music but never becoming part of any particular movement or fashion.
Whose story is â€śThe Gamblerâ€ť? Could it be the story of every one of us, since we are all trapped â€śin this prison of timeâ€ť, playing from time to time â€śa little Russian roulette with our livesâ€ť one way or another?
I wrote The Gambler in 1987 or 1988, when I was at one of the truly low points in my life. Most of the songs on â€śBackwoods Crucifixionâ€ť, my first solo CD, were written at this time. As were some of the songs, like The Gambler, from my second CD â€śGod Is The Other Face Of The Devilâ€ť. My marriage had broken up, Khmer Rouge had split, and I was living in this dirty squat in Camden Town, London, with a huge heroin habit that I had no means of supporting. Itâ€™s the scene that is written about in my novel â€śJunkie Loveâ€ť, if you happen to have read it. At that time in my life, I really couldnâ€™t see any way out, other than to kill myself - either by overdose or by some other means. Things really were that bad. It wasnâ€™t a romantic flirtation with drugs, death and suicide, it was the end of a ten year cycle of self-abuse that started in London, continued in New York, and continued again in London after I returned. So The Gambler is a kind of cold, dispassionate look at the state Iâ€™d got myself into, an existential quandary that took me a couple more years to break out of (I finally â€ścleaned upâ€ť from hard drugs in 1988). But it could apply to other existential situations too, not just the state of terminal addicition. As you say, all of us are trapped in our own individual â€śprisons of time.â€ť
Who is Elijah Cain? And what is your relationship with the watery element, given that the waves of seas and the streams of rivers pass through your songs often.
â€śElijah Cainâ€ť is a composite name, taken from Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, and Cain from the Cain & Abel story in Genesis. Again, it goes back to the mythology of the Outsider, the person who transgresses, the character who is always at odds with himself and with those around him. The song â€śThe Ballad Of Elijah Cainâ€ť from the CD â€śDead Flowers For Aliceâ€ť is a kind of Burroughsian cut-up. The narrative is fractured and jumps around through different historical and mythological vignettes. Originally, there were something like fourteen verses which I edited down to six â€“ otherwise it would have been ridiculously long! The use of sea and river imagery is quite well established in symbolic literature, in poetry and in folk music such as the Blues. It can be a metaphor for all kinds of things â€“ continuity, separation, natural and supernatural forces, escape â€“ and in this song I use it as a symbol of distance and loss. And movement, of course â€“ the music has a kind of rolling rhythm to it that is evocative of a ship rising and falling in dark, turbulent seas.
As old buddy Death passes often though, and as a last example we have your choice to cover â€śDeath Is Hanging Over Meâ€ť, for a tribute to Nikki Sudden, in an emotional performance. Would you like to tell us a few words about it and about Nikki?
That was always one of my favourite Nikki songs. It has a really beautiful but disturbing lyric, and when Sunthunder Records approached me to do a cover of one of Nikkiâ€™s songs for their tribute CD, that was the obvious choice. I wanted to make it really ghostly, as if the song were being played and sung in some ethereal realm, a world just the other side of what is visible. Nikki was another of my teachers, or gurus, at least as far as the independent music scene goes. It was an education for me to play in his band â€“ as I did in 1997 and again in 1998 â€“ and I really learned a lot from him. His death affected me deeply (as it did many others, family, friends and collaborators, who knew and loved him). I still feel his presence hovering behind me at the oddest times.
Is there any chance the record you did together - Golden Vanity - would ever come out in the market?
Funny you should mention that! I thought Iâ€™d lost one of the four discs that contained the mixes of the album, but then I found all of them when I was cleaning out my attic a few months ago. Nikki had sent them to me years ago, right after we recorded the CD in March 1998 in Berlin. I remembered that one of the discs skipped, and as he never got around to sending me a replacement, I put them all away and forgot about them. I figured weâ€™d deal with all that technical stuff later. There was always vague talk about working on the mixes some more, but by then Nikki had moved on to new projects â€“ specifically, working with Kevin Junior and Secretly Canadian Records in Chicago. So when I found the discs earlier this year, I was really excited. Not only did I find them but the dodgy disc now played without any drop-outs. Some kind of miracle, or what? Anyway, I played the entire recording to a friend of mine in Budapest, a guy called Laszlo Panczer who is a huge Nikki fan and has a cool record shop there. He reckoned it was the best thing heâ€™d heard by Nikki since Robespierreâ€™s Velvet basement, and it does have a similar rough, live quality to it reminiscent of that great record. So I went into a studio in Prague and mastered the CD in April of this year. I sent it to Carlton Sandercock at Easy Action Records in London (Carlton is another Jacobites/Nikki fanatic), and he will release it on Easy Action early next year. This is in addition to the Nikki box set which Easy Action will release later in 2009.
What music do you listen to when you are at home?
Actually, not a hell of a lot. I listen to more music when Iâ€™m in the car or in the van, driving to gigs. At home I usually work on my own stuff, new songs Iâ€™ve written, or on my New York trilogy, â€śStrippedâ€ť. This is like a prequel to â€śJunkie Loveâ€ť, and Iâ€™ve been writing it for about seven years now. Having said that, I have been listening to a lot of Woven Hand lately, and the Devastations from Melbourne. And thereâ€™s a great US/Norwegian singer/songwriter called Mark Steiner. Pavel and I played with him in Oslo, and more recently in New York. He appears on the Rowland S. Howard tribute CD that the French label Stagger Records released a couple of years back, and has a wonderful collection of dark ballads.
The changes that have happened in the music industry and scene, mainly because of the Internet, seem at first glance quite good for both musicians and audienceâ€¦ Could it be, though, that this high offer in music and information works contrariwise at the end, making us simply passive listeners - consumers, weakening our personal â€śfilterâ€ť in distinguishing false from authentic? How do you see rock nâ€™roll in the year 2008?
Yes, in many ways the internet (including My Space, FaceBook and all the rest), have helped musicians, especially in the Independent sphere, make new contacts and keep in touch with each other. In this sense, there is a kind of on-line community that has sprung up in recent years, and this can be very effective when promoting gigs and new releases. The downside of all this technology and music-sharing is that we are inundated with millions of songs that might work on My Space, but which would rarely, if ever, be played to a live audience. With modern recording techniques such as Pro Tools, Q-Base etc, itâ€™s possible for just about anyone to make a passable recording. You just edit, copy and paste, and if you sit at your PC long enough youâ€™re almost bound to come up with something that sounds quite impressive. So in this sense itâ€™s very democratic. But as I say, the downside is that the net is now inundated with so much music that people donâ€™t know what is authentic anymore. I mean, there is a world of difference between working away on the PC in your bedroom, and writing songs that affect people emotionally when you play them in a live context. But I think that sooner or later people will become much more selective in what they listen to, and will seek out for themselves music that does more than scratch the surface with gimmickry and fads.
May I assume that apart from music you read a lot tooâ€¦What have you been reading lately?
Yes, I do, though not as much as I used to. I simply donâ€™t have the leisure time anymore. At the moment Iâ€™m reading â€śLowlifeâ€ť by Luc Sante â€“ itâ€™s a well written social history of New York, which concentrates on the seamier side of things. I believe that parts of it were used as source material for the recent film â€śGangs Of New Yorkâ€ť. Though having seen that film, Iâ€™d say the book tells a much more realistic and gritty story. Before that, I read â€śPoison Heart â€“ Surviving The Ramonesâ€ť by Dee Dee Ramone. The impression I got was that Dee Dee was a very wise man. Quite fucked up, but very, very wise. And before that I read â€śDandy In The Underworldâ€ť by the wonderful Sebastian Horsley. I bought Cormack McCarthyâ€™s â€śThe Roadâ€ť while I was in New York, so that will probably be next on my list.
You havenâ€™t been approached by any other editor from Greece, offering to pay you without publishing your book, have you? Leaving the jokes aside, Junkie Love, yet even by its title, brings up one of the most open minds of the past century, W.S. Burroughsâ€¦
No, I havenâ€™t! There have been three prospective publishers to date, including Livanis, but none of them have taken up the options. They keep paying me advances, but then donâ€™t get around to publishing. Itâ€™s a strange situation. In Italy they translated and published the book within four months, the same here in Czech Republic. But in Greece itâ€™s been about ten years, and still nothing. I guess that most of the people in Greece who would want to read the book are young and well educated, and they can get the English version through Amazon. I mean, what would some contented grandmother up in the Greek mountains do with a book like â€śJunkie Loveâ€ť? She doesnâ€™t need to read a book like that. Itâ€™s a real minority subject anyway, mainly of interest to young people who know something about drugs, casual sex, underground rock culture and errant psychology.
Are you writing anything this time?
Yeah, as I mentioned before Iâ€™m working on a trilogy of books with the overall title of â€śStrippedâ€ť. This focuses on the period when I was living in New York, from 1979 to 1984 â€“ the good times, when New York was more like Sodom & Gomorrah than it is now, post 9/11 and post Giuliani! It covers similar themes to â€śJunkie Loveâ€ť, but is much longer and structurally more complex. Social reality morphs into dream states, the movie of the streets turns into the movie that is going on in the narratorâ€™s head, and altogether itâ€™s a much more challenging book. Definitely to write, and probably to read as well. Finally, after seven years, Iâ€™m getting it into some kind of shape. Nat Finkelstein, who I mentioned earlier, introduced me to his literary agent while I was in New York. She really liked â€śJunkie Loveâ€ť and now wants to read â€śStrippedâ€ť with a view to getting a US publisher interested.
In the record Dead Flowers for Alice, you have set to music lyrics of the poet Andrew Marvell. (A dialogue between the soul and body). How did this come up? Have you thought about trying something similar again?
That was one of my favourite poems when I was at school. That, and â€śTo His Coy Mistressâ€ť, also by Marvell. I seem to have a weak spot for the seventeenth century English Metaphysical poets. John Dunne is another favourite. They were worldly and spiritual at the same time, philosophical and sensual, something that isnâ€™t so easy to accomplish convincingly. Maybe only TS Eliot managed to write comparable poetry in recent times. I donâ€™t have any plans at the moment to repeat such an experiment in adapting a poem to music, but you never know. I might well discover something new that inspires me...
Your last works are Real World with Fatal Shore and Live at the House of Sin with Pavel Cingl. Real World takes an equivalent place between your other two previous records, while the acoustic performances of your songs with a guitar and a violin in Live at the House of Sin, instead of making them â€śpoorâ€ť, they give them a different, simple and charming aura. Tell us a little bit about them.
â€śReal Worldâ€ť was recorded over a period of almost two years, with Fatal Shoreâ€™s ex bass player, Yoyo RĂ¶hm, wearing the producerâ€™s hat. Seeing as Bruno Adams and Chris Hughes both live in Berlin, and I live here in Prague, it means we donâ€™t get a lot of time to practice or write together. With this CD it was a matter of me driving up to Berlin every couple of months, laying down tracks, then listening and editing at home before going back to Berlin to work on them some more. Most of my songs on â€śReal Worldâ€ť were, in fact, written in the studio â€“ something Iâ€™d never attempted to do before. â€śLive At The House Of Sinâ€ť, on the other hand, was recorded over two nights at an art gallery in Prague called NovĂˇ SĂn. This means â€śNew Sceneâ€ť in Czech, but I played with the words a bit. A â€śhouse of sinâ€ť is a Victorian euphemism for a brothel, a bordello, and as the gallery is a former convent for nuns, the title has a nice frisson to it! Pavel did most of the mixing and post production work on the CD, and I must say he did a great job. The songs have this wide-screen atmosphere to them, and although there are only the two of us playing on the CD, the sound is enormous.
By result, there seems to be a perfect chemistry between you and Southern Cross, as it seems with the figure of Bruno Adams. Introduce to us your fellow workers - musicians â€¦
Well, in Southern Cross I play with Pavel Cingl (violin/mandolin/guitar); Pavel KrtouĹˇ (bass); and Jarda KvasniÄŤka (drums). I started playing with these guys back in 1996, and by now we are really close, both musically and personally. In terms of musical technique, they are probably more accomplished than my friends in Fatal Shore, but they are also more conservative in their approach. With Bruno and Chris (who also plays with Hugo Race & The True Spirit) I feel much freer to experiment and go out on an improvistory limb. Some of the Fatal Shore shows we have done were really wild! And Bruno is a real showman, something like a Mike Spencer type of extrovert, climbing onto the bar while heâ€™s playing, and going walkabout through the crowd! Iâ€™m lucky to be playing with both sets of musicians â€“ two great bands that have their own unique styles and influences.
In Real World, you chose once again to cover a song of Jacques Brel. As you did in your first record album along with other covers of Howlinâ€™ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Dylan, Wild Is The Wind, Townes van Zandt, up to the traditional gipsy song Black Venusâ€¦ What do you say about all these influences?
Sometimes I like to look back at the music and singers that have influenced me over the years. Iâ€™ve been playing guitar since I was eleven years old, so thatâ€™s quite a lot of musical territory to cover! And sometimes youâ€™re listening to a song that youâ€™ve heard a hundred times before, and you think â€śWow, that would sound cool with a different rhythm, or string arrangement, or a burst of feedback guitarâ€ť, often in the most unlikely places. Black Venus was originally a traditional Ukranian gipsy song called Khamoro, which means â€śLittle Sunshineâ€ť. It has a beautiful melody and was arranged by the Russian composer Yevgeny Doga for a 1978 film called â€śGypsies Go To Heavenâ€ť. Everybody in the Czech Republic knows this song â€“ Doga gave it a big orchestral arrangement, and people know his version from the film. I took the basic chord prgressions and vocal melody and simplified it for a rock band â€“ in this case, Fatal Shore. Then I added English lyrics, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the lyrics of the original. Itâ€™s a little like the version of the Andrew Marvell poem I was talking about before â€“ I tend to experiment more in this way, rather than in extended improvisatory passages such as you get in musical genres like Jazz.
If you want my opinion, I think that van Zandtâ€™s â€śNothinâ€™â€ť would really suit you...
Okay, Iâ€™ll think about it!
One more question about a song of yours â€¦ â€śFree Fallâ€ť of Fatal Shore, one of my all time favoritesâ€¦ Can you tell us something about the conditions under which it was written?
It was conceived, written and recorded in Covington, Kentucky, just over the Ohio River from Cincinatti. Cincinatti has to be the most boring city in the world, everything downtown closes after 6pm! There arenâ€™t even any bars or restaurants open after all the business people leave the tower blocks for the suburbs. Anyway, we got this offer to record there from a guy called Daniel May, a record producer who has a studio in a converted nineteenth century church in Covington. This came about because of Nico Mansy, ex keyboard player with Hugo Race & True Spirit, who had married an American girl heâ€™d met in Prague and moved to Cincinatti with her. He was working in Danâ€™s studio and happened to play him the first Fatal Shore CD. Dan liked it so much that he offered to fly us over, give us free studio time, and basically produce the CD. It seemed like a dream come true, but of course things werenâ€™t quite so simple. Dan and his mates were great guys, hospitable and friendly as long as you didnâ€™t talk about race, politics or religion. But as those topics kept coming up in a variety of contexts, it was difficult to avoid certain issues. Dan was an intelligent guy, he knew all about modern history and politics. Yet he insisted on propagating what were, to us, extremely offensive views about certain racial and ethnic groups. So a lot of time was spent arguing when we should have been recording. Bruno in particular saw it as his mission to convert these â€średnecks in business suitsâ€ť to liberal politcs. The atmosphere wasnâ€™t improved by all the SS uniforms and memorabila scattered around the place, nor by the Uzzi automatic weapons that Dan showed us on one occasion. My own view was that I was there to make a CD, not convert these guys to my way of thinking â€“ which wasnâ€™t going to happen anyway. I just tried to keep my head down and my attention focused on making the CD. So all in all, it wasnâ€™t such an easy four weeks. It all blew up a couple of days before we flew back to Berlin, when we had a big argument with Dan and he locked us out of the studio!
How much does the atmosphere of the two cities you live in the last years, Berlin and Prague, influence your music? Why did you choose north-central Europe? Donâ€™t you miss â€śEnglish - speakingâ€ť people?
I like the â€śmittel Europeâ€ť vibe of Prague and Berlin and find it very inspiring. Berlin has a much more cosmopolitan music scene than Prague does. Here itâ€™s a little provincial and inward looking. Or rather they do look out, but seemingly misinterpret a lot of the new music coming from America and the UK. Having said that, this misunderstanding does give rise to some interesting digressions! Plus, there is still a strong â€śundergroundâ€ť scene here based on ex dissident bands like Plastic People Of The Universe. Thereâ€™s much less of an information overload in this part of the world than there is, say, in London. Whenever I go there, I feel totally confused after a couple of days, there is just too much to take in. It seems like every one of the 56 million people who live in that country is clamouring for your attention, saying, â€śLook at me, look at me! Look at the fantastic music/painting/novel/play/sculpture Iâ€™ve just produced!â€ť Or rather, they have media consultants and lifestyle commentators to do that for them. The net result is this constant buzzing in your brain that seems to short-circuit normal thought processes. At least it does with me. I can hardly hear myself think whenever I spend time over there. Prague isnâ€™t as exciting and stimulating as London, but for me itâ€™s a more practical place to live. And I love the dark, gothic atmosphere of the city. Thereâ€™s a place called â€śThe Bone Churchâ€ť about 50 KMs from Prague, near a town called Kutna Hora. Kutna Hora was a centre of Alchemy in the 16th century, you can visit these ancient silver mines there, a labyrinth of tunnels deep underground. Afterwards, you can go to the Bone Church, where all the fixtures and fittings are made from human relics, the remains of people who died during the great plagues of medieval Europe. Chandeliers, pulpit, chairs â€“ everything is made from ancient human bones! For me, this is something like a concrete equivalent of that song you mentioned earlier, â€śA Dialogue Beween The Soul And Bodyâ€ť.
This summer I saw you performing in a literally underground bar, Blues Sklep, â€śburiedâ€ť somewhere in Pragueâ€™s old town. Besides the fact that in my opinion such small places suit you better, do you mind being far from the large â€śmainstreamâ€ť audience?
Yeah, I think youâ€™re probably right, these small venues do suit me better. I canâ€™t make myself believe in those â€śgrand gesturesâ€ť that are necessary if you are to become successful in arenas and stadiums. This kind of showmanship doesnâ€™t come naturally to me. To become successful on that level, you have to make a clichĂ© of yourself, you have to go for the broad gestures that suck in as many people as possible. It all seems a little absurd and redundant to me, though of course it works admirably for some bands and singers. And why not? Some people want these big shows (I enjoy them myself myself occasionally), but I canâ€™t see myself ever â€śbreaking throughâ€ť on a commercial level. Or even on a so-called â€ścommercial undergroundâ€ť level. Iâ€™m thinking of bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and NIN here. I just think my lyrics are too obtuse, and donâ€™t pander to expectations â€“ whether those expectations are of sweet sugary love songs, a la MTV, or the equally clichĂ©d â€śblood and goreâ€ť lyrics of bands such as Slipknot. My songs succeed or fail on a far more intimate level, where I can look the audience in the eye and speak to their hearts directly in a voice of poetic realism.
For the end, do you have something to say to the many, as you are very well aware of, Greek friends of yours?
Well, not so many fans and friends that Iâ€™m in danger of becoming a stadium rocker in Greece! But yes, Greece definitely is a special place for me. This isnâ€™t bullshit, Iâ€™m not just saying it to pander. Each time I play there, itâ€™s a very magical atmosphere. It seems to me that Greek audiences as a whole â€śgetâ€ť what Iâ€™m doing more than any other audience in any of the countries I have played before. Maybe itâ€™s because Greeks have this incredible history and culture that is, to some extent, ingrained in the collective imagination. The poetic sense is still very much alive there, itâ€™s possible to touch peopleâ€™s hearts in a way that has become very difficult to do in big cities like London and New York. Nobody has any time in such places to think of these more subtle feelings â€“ theyâ€™re all too busy making money and looking for the next scam. Okay, I know Athens is a pretty frenetic place too. Youâ€™ve only got to walk down the street to see that! But somehow, in the midst of the activity, there is still a heart and a sensibility, a warmth that I feel is lacking in the big centres of commerce and globalised culture. I love playing in Greece and I hope to be back there soon.