Category Archive: Miscellaneous
  1. Leos Carax: “Films become alive when you spill your doubts and fears into them”

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    Annette is a Leos Carax-directed musical, written and composed by the legendary Sparks brothers, involving a Bill Hicks-like comedian’s love affair with an acclaimed and much-loved opera singer. And it also has a baby puppet at its arc… Still with me? John Waters recently described this as his movie of the year, affirming that you need to see it for yourself so that ‘no one you know can possibly ruin this nutcase masterpiece’. These terms go hand in glove when it comes to talking about either Leo Carax (Holy Motors admirers will abide) or the music of Ron and Russell Mael. Both Carax and the Sparks were awarded for Annette at this years’ Cannes Film Festival, with Carax winning Best Director in what was an extremely competitive year (Please watch Titane after this). In a lengthy Q+A with the writer-director, Carax went into great detail about the making of his English language debut feature, what it was like to collaborate and work with the likes of Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard (as well as the importance of a baby puppet), and the relationship between one’s artistry and decency. There was also room for discussion on pet monkeys.

     

     

     

    When did you first encounter the music of Sparks?

     

    When I was 13 or 14, a few years after I discovered Bowie. The first album of theirs I got (stole, actually) was ‘Propaganda.’ And then, ‘Indiscreet.’ Those are still two of my favorite pop albums today. But later, for years, I wasn’t really aware of what Sparks was doing, because by the age of 16, I started to focus on cinema.

     

    And when and how did you meet Ron and Russell Mael and tell me about how you all became involved in ‘Annette’?

     

    A year or two after my previous film, Holy Motors, came out. There’s a scene in which Denis Lavant plays a song from ‘Indiscreet’ in his car: ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ So they knew I liked their work, and contacted me about a musical project. A fantasy about Ingmar Bergman, trapped in Hollywood and unable to escape the city. But that wasn’t for me: I could never do something that is set in the past, and I wouldn’t make a film with a character called Ingmar Bergman. A few months later they sent me about 20 demos and the idea for Annette.

     

    What has been your relationship to musical films? Is the idea of
    making a musical something you’ve been thinking about for a long time?

     

    Ever since I began making films. I had imagined my third film, Lovers on the Bridge, as a musical. The big problem, my big regret, is that I can’t compose music myself. And how do you choose, work with, a composer? That worried me. I didn’t watch many musicals when I was young. I remember seeing Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, around the same time I discovered Sparks. I eventually saw American, Russian, and Indian musicals later. And of course, Jacques Demy’s films. Musicals give cinema another dimension —almost literally: you have time, space, and music. And they bring an amazing freedom. You can direct a scene by following the music’s lead, or by going against the music. You can mix all sorts of contradictory emotions, in a way that is impossible in films where people don’t sing or dance. You can be grotesque and profound at the same time. And silence, silence becomes something new: not just silence in contrast with spoken words and the sounds of the world, but a deeper one.

    Sparks

    Ron and Russell Mael

     

    Was Annette always meant to take on a sort of rock opera musical form?

     

    There was always the operatic, some rock but not much, and Sparks’ unique mix. I have always been struck by how you take formal and experimental risks, but you’re also not afraid to make visual gags with these very physical actors. Annette is about two performers. 

     

    How did you conceive of how to show their performance domains?

     

    I first wondered: why is she an opera singer, why is he a stand-up comedian? Sparks’ world is pop fantasy, with multilayered irony. But I had to take it all seriously at first. And I knew nothing about opera, and just a little about stand-up comedy. I quickly became very interested. These two forms, so far apart, do share a few things. The nakedness, vulnerability, of opera singers and comedians on stage. The game with death: opera is basically women dying on stage, in every possible way, while singing their most beautiful, poignant song, called the aria; and great comedians, like Andy Kaufman, are the ones who flirt with death on stage. Grotesque is essential to comedy, while serious opera avoids it, but is often mocked as grotesque anyway. And singing and laughing are both very organic: they rely on a complex anatomic system, the same vital system for how we breathe. I started to see the whole film as a metaphor for breathing: life and death of course, and laughing, singing, giving birth, holding your breath, … Also, breathing as a musical rhythm. In the prologue, we can hear your voice asking the audience to stay focused and to hold their breath!

     

    Which now takes on a new meaning, since Annette came out during COVID, when
    you’re not supposed to breathe too much in the company of others. Life and death, again.
    Backstage musicals, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the films of Vincente Minelli
    and Busby Berkeley, sometimes make profound comments about the essence of
    performance and connecting to the audience. Was that on your mind when you were
    making Annette?

     

    When Sparks gave me their first songs and a treatment, I had one big concern: the guy was a stand-up comedian, but there was no sense of what his act was like. I had seen some stand-up in France, as a kid and later. And through my parents, I’ve always loved Tom Lehrer. He was a math teacher who started doing stand-up in the 1950s, singing and playing piano. His songs are very tongue in cheek — a little like Sparks’ actually. In my first film, I had stolen this line from him: “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” And I used a bit of one of his songs in Annette — bu this time with his permission.

    I also knew Lenny Bruce’s and Andy Kaufman’s work. I started reading biographies about them and others —Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, … Some comedians vomit out of panic before their act. To enter the stage knowing that you have to make people laugh… Must be terrifying. Like if I were forced to go on stage at Cannes… and to go naked. So there was a dual theme: opera, the woman who dies on stage, with music and grace; and stand-up, which involves grotesque —and provocation, to the point where it can become self-destructive, as you can see if you watch any great comedian perform. The story of Annette is so archetypal and contemporary at the same time.

     

    Do you remember your first emotional response to the story when Sparks presented it to you?

     

    I loved the songs right away. I felt fortunate, and grateful. But at first I told them I couldn’t do the film. I had personal worries. I have a young daughter —she was 9 at the time. And although the brothers knew nothing of my life (I think), there were some things in the
    storyline that could upset her. And did I really want to —could I— make a film about such a “bad father,” at this time in my life? But as I was listening to the songs over and over again, she started to love them too and asked me what they were. I told her and realized she already understood a lot; and that by the time the film would get made (if it ever did), she would understand how a film project comes to life. So I said “Yes.”

     

    At the time, did you have to find strategies to make the film your own, so you could make
    it?

     

    Music is so intimate. I couldn’t see myself doing a musical if I didn’t feel for every note in every song. I was worried about that, especially since we were trying to have the whole film in songs. Musicals usually have 10 or 20 songs — with often half of them boring. But we had to create 40 songs: 40 songs I could see, then film. And how do you work with music when you’re not yourself a musician? But the process with Sparks was miraculously simple: they’re very inventive and humble and fast, with that unique sense of melody and rhythm, melancholy and joy. And I’d known their music for so long; it felt like going back to my childhood house decades later — but a house with no ghosts. There’s a risk, when you have so many songs, however great they are, that the film will become a cloying cake. Or a jukebox playing too loud too long. Which would have killed the experience. So you have to be very careful with the total score, the same way you have to be with the totality of your film when you edit a sequence. It’s a matter of finding the film’s natural breath. Another concern was: how to create Henry? A Henry I could relate to. And what true father-daughter relationship could I imagine, in this context of “exploitation?”

     

    Can you talk a bit about the opening sequence, with the ‘So May We Start’ song? Is it
    meant to be an introduction to the film?

     

    Not really to the film, more to the film’s specific form. It owes a lot to Sondheim’s great ‘Invocation And Instructions To The Audience.’ And also, to the tradition of the opera prologue, especially the beautiful one from Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle.’ As with the first scene of Holy Motors, you’re in it. Yes, and again with my daughter. I had imagined it for me, her, and our dogs (but we couldn’t bring the dogs to LA.) For Holy Motors, it was important to be there with her at the very beginning of the film. Probably to reassure myself, after all these years of not making films, that we were just doing a small experimental home movie. In my mind, these last two films are experimental films. Annette is a big one; Holy Motors was a small one. I think of them as “films I have made since becoming a father.” It’s interesting to compare both films: Holy Motors was so experimental, and you’re right Annette is as well, but it has much more of a traditional story arc. Much more than any of my other films I would say. That comes from Sparks. They came with this dark fairytale, which I think respected. 

     

    And with Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue of course brings things towards a ‘musical’

     

    Toward the end of Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue sings a song that mentions having a child… Losing a child, actually. It was the first time I wrote lyrics for a film. Neil Hannon, from The Divine Comedy, wrote the song’s music. A very good experience, and a step closer to making a musical. I had always worried about what would happen if I asked someone to write music, and then didn’t like it. But we got to a song I liked a lot, and filming Kylie was beautiful. So it gave me confidence.

     

    Did you have the desire to make a film in America (or in the English language) before this?

     

    To make a film in English, for sure. English was my native language. But no, shooting in America was never a strong desire. About 20 years ago, I had a project called Scars, a tale set in Russia and America —New York, and on the road to the West Coast. And in the 1990s, an adaptation of Peter Ibbetson, set in France and America. In those years, after Lovers on the Bridge, it was impossible for me to make films in France. So I considered making films in the US. It seemed possible, or less impossible. Annette also started as an American project, with producers in L.A. I kept getting emails from them, with the word “hyperexcited” written all over them — but nothing was really happening. So I brought the project back to Europe.

     

    Can you talk about shooting in L.A?

     

    The film was imagined for L.A. The Mael brothers live there, were born there. In all these years of pre-production, I was asked again and again to move the film out of L.A, because shooting there is so expensive. I tried to imagine other cities but they didn’t work as well. I wanted Henry to travel on his motorbike like a cowboy, between his world and Ann’s world, and that wouldn’t have worked in New York, Paris or Toronto. So we had to reinvent LA, mostly in Belgium and Germany (which are not very Californian countries.) A fantasy version of a fantasy city. We only shot in LA for a week: the prologue, the motorbike shots, the forest amid the canyons and hills.

     

    Annette is a return to the boy-meets-girl theme of your past films. There are shades of Alex
    [Denis Lavant’s characters in the first three features] and Pierre [Guillaume Depardieu in
    Pola X] in Henry. They meet someone that they have this intense spiritual attraction to,
    but because they can’t live up to their own high expectations of either the relationship
    or themselves, they submit to this death drive of destroying themselves and the
    relationship. Do you see a connection between those male characters?

     

    I see a connection between the actors: Denis, Guillaume, Adam. First of all, they’re interesting people, and not all actors are. I had only seen Adam in the TV series Girls, and I thought, like Prince Myshkin when he sees Nastasya Filippovna for the first time: “What an extraordinary face.” And also, an extraordinary body. He reminded me a little of Denis, although Denis is short —my size— and has a face people call strange. Adam is tall, with a beautiful face that some people would also call strange. Guillaume and Adam share a similar physicality: they’re strong, feline, very handsome young men, with something both feminine and masculine.

    In Henry’s performances, he talks a lot about laughter, but it’s not a joyful laughter that’s in the film. He uses very personal aspects of his life as fodder to make people laugh, and then later on he uses laughter as a menacing weapon against his wife. Laughter becomes a question of life and death. We needed to invent two very different shows that would fit into the narrative. That was a big challenge, hard work. I forgot how many versions we tried, all very different. And since at first we wanted everything to be sung, it meant writing the entire shows into lyrics —and it had to be funny in a way no other comedian has ever been funny. I couldn’t find a way to do that. Then one day I thought: maybe Henry doesn’t always have to sing; he could go from singing to talking to mime. I felt liberated. I was consulting an American friend, Lauren Sedovsky, on the project. She knows a lot, about everything: art, literature, philosophy, … She told me about this old mime play by Paul Margueritte, called ‘Pierrot assassin de sa femme’, in which Pierrot searches for the best way to kill his wife, and finally decides to tickle her to death. It was the perfect inspiration for our laughter, breath and death theme.

     

    Did Adam Driver have any input into Henry’s monologues on stage?

     

    Not in terms of writing but in terms of acting, very much so. I usually don’t rehearse, ever, I hate it. But I did rehearse the two shows with him, each one for a day, at the beginning of the shoot. To reassure Adam. And myself, too. We knew each other so little. I also needed to check the rhythm of these two long sequences, and how Henry should move on stage. How he would play with his mike, etc. And Adam proposed many things. So the shows were really a collaborative creation between Sparks, Adam and I.

     

    Tell me how you came to work with Marion Cotillard?

     

    Marion Cotillard

    I first met with American actresses (Ann was supposed to be an American). But I couldn’t find Ann. Then I thought of singers who could maybe act, but still couldn’t find her. I was getting worried: apart from money and reputation, the other main reason I have made so few films is what people call “casting”. I see casting as a totally unnatural and absurd practice. And each time I had imagined a project without an actor and actress in mind, I had to abandon it — could never find the right actors. So I felt doomed. What would happen if I never found Ann? Could I, for the first time, force myself to work with an actress I didn’t really want to film? A few years before we finally shot Annette, I met with Marion. Without much hope since, for some reason, I thought we wouldn’t get along. So I was surprised to actually like her very much, and believe in her for Ann. But there was, of course, a problem: Marion was pregnant so couldn’t shoot when we were supposed to. But the film kept getting delayed anyway because, as always, financing and production were a mess: I had to change producers three times, etc. So two years later, I offered the part to Marion again, and Adam and I were very glad when she said “Yes.”

     

    You said that you don’t like rehearsing with your actors. I was wondering if you do any of
    the traditional things when you direct them? How do you know when it’s right?

     

    These questions are always hard for me to answer. Cinema is something I’ve done so sporadically, just a few films in 40 years, and when I’m not in the action, I tend to completely forget how it’s done, or how I do it. I can’t see myself doing it. But I think it always involves an obscure mix of extreme precision and extreme chaos. Directing has a lot to do with choreography, all the more so for a film like Annette. Although it’s a musical without any dancing, the music and singing force everything to move differently. And if you do it right, bodies, cars, trees appear to be dancing. Working with actors is, again, all about precision and chaos. Marion is at ease with both, but more on the precision side. Adam, at different times, needs one more than the other. So for some scenes, he would feel lost, get mad. I was asking for too much precision, or leaving him in too deep a chaos. Those scenes are of course the ones in which he delivers his most inventive and inspired work. Maybe we’re a bit the same in this way. I loved filming Adam. I shoot many takes. Less now than I used to — since I’ve turned to digital, I don’t watch dailies anymore, so I don’t feel the need to retake every shot like I used to. Sometimes, you want another take because you’re looking for something specific. But more often, it’s the opposite: you need to get lost, to reach a point that is, to me, like a déjà vu illusion: where it seems like you’re in the middle of a dream… or that you have seen or dreamt this before… “I’ve been here before,” but I never knew it.

     

    In Annette, the songs replace regular, naturalistic dialogue. You get used to characters
    singing to each other. How did you decide for the songs to take on a very casual
    conversational quality and how did you communicate that to the actors?

     

    The first decision was to have the actors sing live. An evident choice for me, but not easy for the people involved —sound people, camera people, money people, and the actors of course. It implies not going for the performance. Singing becomes more natural, like breathing. It’s something that’s quite moving to do, and to watch. It was easier for Adam than for Marion I think. Marion always felt her voice could be better; Adam didn’t have this concern so much. Once we started shooting, he was an actor, not a singer. I like how both of them sing in the film, each in a very personal way.

     

    I remember you saying that a lot of films start as a single image for you. Was there one
    for Annette that triggered the rest of the film?

     

    Since it was not my original project but Sparks’, Annette really started with the music, their music. The vertigo of music. And although I didn’t write any of it obviously, I often felt more like a composer than a filmmaker. Which I guess has sometimes been the case on my other projects anyway. I didn’t have any actors in mind, and especially had no idea how to show a baby, from age zero to six… a baby who could sing… The film seemed impossible to make. But I’m used to that, and every film should be impossible to make. The first image that came to me was more of a feeling or an intuition: a tiny star, alone and lost in the dark infinite — the smallness of Annette in the face of the world. And then I thought of Masha, a little Ukrainian girl. Years ago, I had lived with her young mother and her, in Ukraine. She was two years old then, and a wonderful child. At times, she almost looked like an old lady; but she was beautiful, in a very particular way that moved me. Masha would be the inspiration for Annette.

     

    You once mentioned that animation wasn’t really your wheelhouse. Do you still feel that
    way?

     

    Yes. I can enjoy it for a few minutes. If my daughter really insists, I watch a Miyazaki with her for example, but I’m not interested in it. I like real movement. And my love for cinema starts with: a person looking at another person. A man filming a woman of his choice, a
    woman filming a man of her choice. I like filming nature, cities, a gun, engines, fireworks and explosions, … But I need above all a face, a human body. Skin, eyes — and the emotions reflected in them. Annette herself is at first this puppet figure.

     

    How did you come to that decision?

     

    Like most decisions, by first saying “No, no, no” too many things. “No” to a digital baby; “No” to 3D imagery. By personal taste or distaste, and because of what they call “the uncanny valley.” Which would’ve been even uncannier in the case of a small child. And because if you do it digitally, it’s all post-production, which is anti-emotional. I couldn’t see myself shooting the film without Annette among us on the set, by herself or in the arms of the actors. Then I said “No” to using robotics or animatronics: Annette had to be someone, something I could understand, not a computer. Something simple, hand-crafted. So I thought of a puppet. I knew nothing about puppetry — but at least, hopefully, someone could create an emotional puppet.

     

    A concept suggesting that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human
    beings provoke uncanny feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers
    It’s a big risk that you took.

     

    An exciting one. But did I have a choice? And, maybe for the first time, I had to really think of a future audience: were people going to accept a film in which a puppet suddenly appears, and nobody ever mentions she’s a puppet? A film in which none of the other characters, played by real people, ever see her as a puppet (except Henry, maybe). But the film is a musical, and I don’t make naturalistic films anyway, so the reality of the film was already out of this world. I imagined the scene in which Ann gives birth to Annette as a way to introduce the baby puppet to the audience. In the world of the film, she’s a real baby, but we can see right away that she’s not a baby of flesh and blood.

     

    With the Showbiz News bits, does the film try to get at the notion of celebrity and how it
    can be such a destructive force?

     

    That has more to do with the roman-photo aspect of the film’s first part. The couple is “rich and famous.” I find it very difficult to film rich people. Again, this irony problem. The two films of mine that do portray rich people, Pola X and Annette, are the only ones based on
    stories I didn’t imagine myself. Sadly, I am not Douglas Sirk, and the times have changed since the 50s, when the rich & famous could still be seen as substitutes for vain and vulnerable gods in a Greek tragedy. But success is very interesting —I also used the theme in Pola X. Whether one wants it or not, and then achieves it or not, and then whether success is personally successful: whether it makes you grow or shrink. I had decided that Henry would come from a poor and violent childhood, while Ann would come from a boring but safe childhood. There’s also the fact that opera is seen as high, refined, art; whereas stand-up is considered a popular or even vulgar art. So there’s almost a class war there. Of course, like in many love stories, this discrepancy is one of the reasons they fall in love in the first place — the press calls them “Beauty and the Bastard”. But then, Henry becomes like these guys who see a stripper in a club, fall in love with her, marry her, and then beat her up because she’s a stripper.

     

    I was struck by one of the lines in Henry’s performance: “Comedy is the only way to tell
    the truth without getting killed.”
     

     

    Oscar Wilde said something like that. But we all have to go through this. We all have to find our way of telling the truth without getting killed. I mean the truth about ourselves.

     

    And what about the motif of monkeys in the film?

     

    When I was small, my father had a female chimpanzee, Zouzou. She was very jealous. He kept her in the bathroom next to the parents’ bedroom, on a long chain, and at night she would jump on the bed and attack my mother. A few years later, I had two monkeys of my own, Saï and Miri, small ones with long tails. It was a very sad, very morbid experience. They got sick, dehydrated. I put them in a small drawer in my desk with some cotton, and each time I opened the drawer I would see them trembling. We finally had to euthanize them. Monkeys represent both dangerous wildness and martyrdom. I love them.


    How did monkeys get into Annette? 

     

    I think it was the result, as it often is, of a few coincidences. I was looking for a title for Henry’s show, and remembered that some ancient theologist had called Satan “Le singe de Dieu.” So I called the show, “The Ape of God,” which sounds like a wrestler’s ring name. Then the puppeteers suggested that baby Annette could have her own toy, a teddy bear, and I liked the image of a puppet puppeteering another, smaller creature. But I chose a monkey, not a bear. And then I saw that one of the young puppeteers had created, for one of her own shows, a big Kink Kong puppet, and I absolutely wanted to use it in some way in the film. So gradually, monkeys invaded the film, and became a link between father and daughter, savagery and childhood.

     

    The scene with the six women coming forward feels like a dream sequence, removed
    from the reality of the film. Ann is in the back of the car, falling asleep…

     

    I had a hard time imagining Henry’s fall from grace. In the original treatment, he just became less successful over time. But I wanted it to be sudden. So I started imagining things that could go very wrong with one of his shows. It had happened to a few real-life comedians. Michael Richards became famous with the sitcom Seinfeld, but one night, as he was doing his stand-up show, he suddenly went into a wild racist rant, and then had to retire from stand-up. Dieudonné was a very successful French stand-up comedian, politicized on the left, who for some reason moved to the far right, and whose anti-Semitic provocations kind of killed his career. And Bill Cosby ended up being convicted and imprisoned for raping women. But these cases, involving violence, sex or racism, were too real for our film; they would make Henry too obvious a villain, too early in the film. So I thought: first, he won’t do anything terrible, he’ll fantasize about something terrible, and people will hate him for
    that —because comedy’s truth does have its limits. And then Ann too should fantasize about something terrible, in relation to him. He has visions of her, dying again and again on stage, and plays with the idea of killing her. And she dreams of him being accused of having abused women.

     

    Were you thinking of bad male behavior and how it’s connected or not connected to
    artistic output in the creation of Henry’s character?

     

    Yes, but it’s something I’ve always thought about. Bad men, bad fathers, and those male artists who were terrible people but inspired me so much. Starting, when I was young, with the great French novelist Céline, who became mostly known for his anti-Semitic lampoons during the Nazi occupation of France.

     

    Do you think it’s too much to expect from artists to also be good people?

     

    Not too much, but it’s not the right expectation. There are of course great artists who seem to have been beautiful human beings, like Beckett, or Bram van Velde. As far as we know, they suffered, but didn’t make others suffer. And their beauty imbues their work. But I’m not sure there are many such artists. Was Chaplin a good person? Or Patricia Highsmith, whom I like a lot? The two most gifted comedians of our time, in my mind, are Dieudonné and Louis C.K. One is a fascist lunatic, and the other apparently forced women to watch him masturbate. Annette only turns into a real girl in the end, when she’s totally alone. That’s the Pinocchio side of the film —and the reason why I added that last scene in prison.
    And it’s often the truth: it’s when kids get rid of the adults that truth comes out. That’s what I experienced. And that’s why I changed my name when I was 13. I don’t want my daughter to ever push me away, but that’s how it happens. Annette appears and says to her father: “Yes, I have changed, and it’s over. Now you have no one to love.”

     

    That’s a very shocking scene because she’s this innocent little girl, and although she’s
    been through a lot, you don’t expect that she has necessarily processed all of it. And yet,
    she’s so determined to break her bond with her father who is her last relative. That must
    have been very difficult to write and to shoot.

     

    Very. But films with certainties are not interesting. Films become alive when you spill your doubts and fears into them. When you confront what seems impossible, unimaginable to you. Like your daughter turning against you. I wanted to ask about this motif of the orphan, which you’ve talked about before. This sort of childhood wish fulfillment: a dream of waking up in a world where you’re all by yourself, a sort of scary but also totally freeing dream, which you have compared to the experience of being in a film theater. Annette literally becomes an orphan at the end. I feel very close to her. It’s like in The Night of the Hunter, but she has no big brother and no Lillian Gish to protect her. She’s really left all alone with that man-father. Cinema is for the orphan in us. I remember the experience, when I first came to Paris, of discovering films, alone in the dark, especially silent films. It had these same elements of freedom and dread.

     


    I heard you were alone when you were quite young. 

     

    Fassbinder once said “I was left alone to grow like a flower,” because was also raised without much oversight from his parents. I think it’s a blessing, for certain children, to be left alone when there is too much chaos around. They benefit from tragedy, family tragedies, by being left alone. The chaos allows them to invent or reinvent themselves.

  2. Rebecca Lucy Taylor: “I had no fucking self-esteem at all and that was what was wrong in my life.”

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    Felten Ink recently had the pleasure, the privilege of speaking with Rebecca Lucy Taylor, the former Slow Club musician and now ‘front’ for her own solo project, Self Esteem. Her first record as Self Esteem, ‘Compliments, Please’, was released in 2018 and now Taylor is back and gaining more huge and rightly deserved applause for ‘I Do This All The Time’, as well as her latest single, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’. Both tracks are a tremendous affirmation and example of Taylor’s own attitude to her own self-esteem and her rampant individuality. The former is also an uplifting ode to spoken word pop (and self-help analysis). But please, do keep your Baz Lurhman comparisons to yourself.

    In our conversation we discuss her attitudes and career as a solo artist so far, multi-tasking to the extreme,  dealing with the world online, Self Esteem as an art as well as therapeutic project, and how one deals with their own sexual desires for a muppet.

     

    Rebecca, forgive me. When I first heard your solo material as Self Esteem I had no idea you used to be in the wonderful Slow Club? 

     

    Yeah, remember that slag from Slow Club? That’s the year’s tagline. A lot of people don’t realize that. 

     

    How is it for you, in terms of going from being part of a band to now working and thriving on your own solo project?

     

    Self Esteem is a direct sort of solution to things I was unhappy about in a band. Obviously, I’m really proud of what we did, it’s 10 years of my life, I toured the world, really learned a lot, you know? I didn’t go to university, I went straight out of school into a band and had a really weird but amazing time. But I think creatively I found it very difficult to compromise. So that’s why Self Esteem is quite like… there’s the music but then also I’m hyper-focused on the aesthetic and the look and the direction of everything. And the show and just all these other parts that it, that is the art of making. Whereas in a band you’re having to sort of compromise and there are other people’s tastes and things like that. I don’t think I faired very well, mentally. Like I find it really difficult to not be, as a creative, ‘totally seen’. So Self Esteem is all about that really and that’s why I look like I’m having just the fucking time of my life all the time. I loved the band and I love the people I made music with but, fitting into someone else’s idea is, was pretty bad for me (laughs).

     

    I tend to be more drawn towards artists who are perhaps egocentric but definitely like to have control. How do you feel about that in relation to being an artist? 

     

    Well, you see that’s the thing, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think like you’re almost told your whole life, especially as a woman, to be like ‘stay in your lane, don’t show off, don’t think your idea is the best one’. Whereas actually, it’s like sometimes it was and is, do you know what I mean? And it’s society’s structure that made me go, ‘Oh sorry, excuse me, do you mind if I…’ etc. And it stifled me creatively. And I’m not saying what I’m doing now is better, I feel much more realized. Yeah, I guess it’s egocentric but I don’t believe that’s as bad as we’ve been made to believe it is. I think if we all put ourselves first a bit more everyone would be a bit (laughs) happier. 

     

    Now it feels like you really own your own output. Does that make sense and how have you evolved?

     

    I think like just the natural way, like when you’re like 16 and you love bands and you want to just copy it. It’s very different, like learning what your actual  ‘art practice’ is and what’s important to you. I mean, it was very much when I started making music I wanted to be like Tilly and the Wall or Bright Eyes or things like that. And over time I’ve learned what I like to do is fucking sing, rather than just being sweet. I like to perform. I like to move an audience, I like things that feel a little bit like there’s so much music. To my mind, if you’re going to bother making any more, it needs to either say or be something completely new or say something new, or at least take you on a journey. That’s what I’m into. A lot of people like to hear the same kind of thing over and over again and that’s fine as well. To keep myself entertained is the thing I focus on really.

     

    I guess being in a band so young helps you learn these things?

     

    What I learned from being in a band as well is like, you write all these songs and you make all these records and then you’re touring them for like two years and the tour is not as cool and fun as it sounds. It’s really boring and hard and uncomfortable, and you make piss all money for how much time it takes out of your life and how much it disrupts your life. For me, Self Esteem has been about making sure that when I’m doing all this work of touring, and as we all know making not much money, it’s got to be fulfilling. And all this is a bit more interesting for an audience, I believe. 

     

    Prior to this interview, my wife saw me on my laptop watching you get intimate with Kermit. Can you clear this up?

     

    (laughs) And she was like, “Not again. Not with the frog porn again!”

    That was quite a while ago now I shot that. When I was a kid,  when people asked me who I fancied, I would say a frog. I’m bisexual. It was obviously a way of me kind of hiding what I was feeling. But all the way through my life, all the greatest loves of my life have had long arms and legs. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence but yeah the idea was that I can’t put a label on what I am, I’m just attracted to Kermit (laughs). That’s the first thing I took my own initiative and wrote and directed something myself. And it’s weird as fuck, but I love it. 

     

     

    I’ve always had a thing for Miss Piggy so I totally identify. 

    I’ve been following you on social media for a while and you’re admirably very vocal about the amount of crap you get sent to you and call it out often. What’s it like having to put up with all the stupidity and garbage the internet (especially some men) can throw? 

     

    Well, the internet is just a faceless version of what life is like for me as a woman who performs I guess.  I remember turning 14 and the world got weirder and scarier because men started looking at me in that way.  It was a real shift, but I was still a child. So what I get, what gets said to me on the internet is often…. I actually don’t fare too badly. Like, it happens but I think it’s probably way worse if you’re Rita Ora or whatever. I’m not very famous so I think I get away with a lot but men love to sort of comment on my appearance.

    My life has just been people commenting on my appearance. I don’t let it affect me because it sort of proves my point and what I’m trying to say all the time. I don’t hate men at all, I really love loads of them. But that is in the zeitgeist now, isn’t it? The way that I think a lot of men don’t understand the fear that you live in every single fucking day as a woman. You’ve got to make allowances for the fact that some people are just fucking sad. And this gets them really going, and I just think, ‘honey if you need to tell me I look like a slag on the internet, then go for it’. If that’s gonna make you feel better, go for it, because I want to be kind (laughs).

     

    You do still seem to remain positive regardless when it would wear other people down. 

     

    I sometimes get angry and I try not to because you’ve just got to wait for these people to learn themselves and I do think like, you know, with my best mate’s kid, a little girl, I think the world will be a bit different by the time she hits a certain age. The conversations we’re having now and the kind of move, there’s a shift, you know, feminists, or just even fucking awareness of the inequality that’s been happening, you know shit that happens in the news… at least these things are finally being spoken about.

    You only get so far with positivity on the internet, and you give so much of it and what you get back just makes you, or it makes many vindictive and hateful. But it also depends on where I’m at, like if I’m feeling a bit shit anyway or whatever like it sometimes can hit me a bit worse. It’ll be interesting because obviously with the new songs there’s a bit more buzz going on for me than usual. And you know, I’m getting a lot more followers, things are happening more than usual so I’m just gonna see how it goes. My mental health is something that I’ve absolutely devoted my life sorting out.

     

     

     

    I’m no analyst or psychologist but the name in itself, Self Esteem, it does appear you’ve made a very conscious decision to focus on positivity, ’empowerment’, call it what you will,  with this project?

     

    Oh no. You’re totally right. When I was in Slow Club, we used to tour a lot and we spent a lot of time in LA. And I was friends with this band who were these like, real sort of authentic fucking psychedelic punks that made music for making music’s sake. Everyone had these cool names for their projects and I remember being like really wanted to do one myself and I was either gonna call it Sex Appeal or Self Esteem. So, I’ve carried that with me for like, nine years. I needed an outlet so I started just making art under the name Self Esteem and then it just carried on.

    But yeah to answer your question, I had no fucking self-esteem at all and that was what was wrong in my life. But I called it that because I thought it was a cool project name. And it’s actually become really self-fulfilling. In the sort of beautiful way that will be great, you know, in the documentary. I would say three years ago I sort of started with a new therapist who was like, ‘you have no self-esteem, you really don’t love yourself’. And I was like, ‘oh, okay. I don’t know how I deal with that, but let’s try’. I have figured quite a lot of that out and it’s really revolutionized my life personally and also my work.  So it’s hilarious, but yeah, it’s self-fulfilling. But I will still make some music under the name Sex Appeal and see what happens with that. In some format.

     

    Along with the music for Self Esteem I understand you’re also in charge of the choreography and shooting in the videos? How do you manage to juggle all of those (‘I Do This All The Time’ and ‘Prioritize Pleasure’)? 

     

    I lose my shit, I find it very difficult. I do a lot of prep, I’ve sort of learned over the years. It’s often for very fucking little budget. I’m really used to sort of making something good out of not a lot but learned that if you’ve got no money, you need the prep and the time. But if you’ve got loads of money you can whip something together and it’ll have the same result. I pulled all the money that I got from the label to make videos into one and I shot three videos on that one day. So there’s two more videos to come that I shot that day. But I did just a ton of prep. I did not stop thinking about it. I planned it within an inch of its life. I’ve done a few videos that I directed for other people and really enjoyed that experience because I’d had fuck all to do with me on camera and I could like focus. But it’s another one of those things, I think Self Esteem is unfortunately this … I’ve worked with other people, I’ve tried to do other things, I tried to collaborate but think it all just has to come from me and have that really concentrated vision being communicated, really on the nose. And it makes you know, job a bit harder but I’m, I’m also like work’s more fun than fun. I don’t really like relaxing so I’m fine with it. 

     

     

     

     

    You sound like you have a million things you want to do at once and it must be tough?

     

    I’ve always been like this. When I was in Slow Club, it was like I had to wait. My life was waiting to be in the studio, waiting to record, waiting to rehearse, waiting to tour. So all that downtime, I was misplaced in a way and became me just fucking about my twenties, basically. I like to structure my time, I like to have projects. Genuinely, there’s nothing more fun. Like, going to the pub and getting pissed up and coming home, eating a takeaway and falling asleep and feeling shit the next day is like, don’t get me wrong, something I do a lot of. But I don’t love that as much as I love working on something I’ll record or, or create. I guess I’m kind of lucky that at the moment everything I create has a small audience. I could just be shouting into the void and I don’t know what. I think I would still always do it though, do you know what I mean? I think that’s just my lot. And it’s frustrating, I can’t hold a relationship down and I’m a bad friend. I’m really shit, I’ll not remember your kid’s christening. But I can’t help it.

     

    I’m fascinated by artists who treat their work like a normal job, like a discipline. Like I’ve heard Nick Cave say he goes to his office in the morning and just writes till whenever. Whatever works I suppose. I don’t suspect that’s how the process works for you?

     

    I’ve worked with people that treat it like a day job. Sit with the guitar all day. I used to try and be like that, I think I thought that meant you were a real musician or whatever. But again, it’s just another thing, I am 34 now, it’s like I know what works, what doesn’t. I am open to trying new things, but for the most part, I get how I am. And Self Esteem, as a, I think of it as more than the music, it’s an art practice and that is what I hope you get as an audience member or a consumer. It’s like performance art. I think that constant sort of stream of consciousness, to me is interesting and helps you have a fully realized idea of me. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with making sure everyone sees me, but that’s what this is. I don’t sit and go write. But, you know, if, some company said I need a song like this, we’ll pay you this much, can you write it? I’d be like, “Yeah, fuck yeah I love that.” I am still just finding it all out.

     

    You would appear to speak to the outsider, which I love, but is that a fair comment?

     

    As soon as I hit like eight or something I was louder, weirder or my imagination got stranger. There are all these things, especially as a woman, that you’re like ‘oh’. I never had boyfriends. I’ve just felt like an alien the whole time but the difference now is I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I really, really celebrate that. I think there’s a fuck ton more people than you realize that feel like that. But, many go through the system, and especially as a woman if you’re sort of polite, quiet, pretty, clever, but not too clever, like all these things. I just can’t be asked to conform when it just doesn’t naturally happen. But if it does, nice one. After me trying to reform the system. (laughs)

     

    Rebecca Lucy Taylor, thank you!

     

    The new album by Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ will be available later this year. 

    Self Esteem are also playing live. Find tour dates and venues here

     

     

  3. Blixa Bargeld: “If everything is possible, then you don’t get very far…”

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    “Yeah, I like Billie Eilish. I can see why she is successful and why people are into it.” – Blixa Bargeld.

    I did not approach my interview with Einstürzende Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld expecting to find common ground when it came to the subject of Billie Eilish, nor that she would even come up. The former Bad Seed guitarist, industrial music (and Patreon) pioneer, and straight-faced straight-talking German didn’t seem like the type who’d go for that kind of thing, but there you go.

    Last year, in the midst of a pandemic, Neubauten released their 12th studio album, the brilliant and eerily listenable Alles in Allem (All in All), the band’s first since 2014’s ‘Lament’. Around that time, Blixa and his family left their home in Berlin and upped ‘temporary’ sticks to Portugal, as ‘Corona-refugees’, as he puts it.

    In another lengthy exclusive interview for Felten Ink (what else do you expect?), Blixa discussed his current life in the Algarve, cooking with a live online audience, his innovative methods of creating new material with Neubauten, his long-time relationship with crowdfunding, and his fears about more traditional forms of writing and working in general. The small matter of Blixa’s time with, and indeed departure from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds was another topic I couldn’t resist but broach.

     

     

    The current worldly situation with regards to tiresome viruses has obviously been hard on performing artists (no touring etc) but has it had any positives for you, in terms of being able to create new music?

     

    Create music? With what? With the swimming pool?

     

    (This is from a guy who started his career making music with drills and concrete – but my courage to point  out, so early in this interview, deserted me)

    Yes, but surely you have some means of musical instruments to work with?

     

    I rented a piano. So I have a grand piano standing in the main room and I have my microphone with me for if there’s anything that just requires some vocal work. I do work remotely with my engineer in Berlin. There are technical means, which is complicated, but possible. And I think since I came in August [to Portugal], I think I’ve done three or four recordings for other artists who wanted my vocal services. Some of them require that I actually write, and some of them just want me to read some texts or sing some texts that they supply for various different projects around the world. 

    One person actually asked me to arrange the pieces of music to record things. But I have to tell them, “Look, I am in the Algarve, I have no instruments here, I have nothing… I can’t do anything like that.”

     

     

    What about new writing projects… is there an autobiography in the works?

     

    It’s not necessarily new. I had a contract with a German publisher about 10 years ago to write an autobiography and I skipped out of that a couple of years later because I simply didn’t do it. Since I have no real possibility to play music or to have any interaction with other musicians or other artists I decided, okay, what is a solitary activity that I can do? And I write but don’t necessarily write with a focus on one book or one output. I write in parallel, and I’ve been compiling all the lyrics that I have written since the last book of lyrics that I released. I’m compiling all the notes of my times between 1993 and now. 

    But it’s a pastime. I find the process of writing, as in literal literature, in writing and sitting down, kind of frightening. It’s not really a place that I want to go to. It’s because I know the last time I had writing a book, it took me a long time to get into it, and then once I was in there, I was so involved in it that it wasn’t necessarily much fun to be around me. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily a place I want to go to.

    It’s like, ‘I don’t know where this is leading me, I don’t even know what to do with this’. I don’t know if I have much more interest in actually releasing something on an international level than rather just having a German publisher. If you release something in German, it rarely gets translated into other languages, simply, that’s how the literature world is built, it’s very Anglo-Americancentric. So, I’d rather have an international publisher, and see that there is a German edition of it too, rather than having a German publisher that has absolutely no experience in exporting their products. So, I might end up doing the whole thing myself.

     

    I was very surprised to find you on social media and you broadcasting online. I don’t know why – as it does make sense given you’ve been a pioneer in terms of things like crowdfunding, Patreon, etc.

     

    Oh, yeah, I know, but my wife is running all that for me. I have never seen my Facebook page.  She’s the one filming me, she’s also the one taking care that it gets out there. She was, you know, an internet pioneer of the first hour. She invented crowdfunding. It wasn’t called crowdfunding back then. We just called it a supporter model, but she did all that. Obviously, she’s good with these things.

    Like, when was that, the late 90’s or 2000s – with Napster, when the whole digital world suddenly shook people up from their sleep. At that point, I think in 2001, we did our last record for which we had a recording contract; a classical, old-style recording contract. And after that, no record company, even for an established band, would offer you the same conditions any longer. It was all uncertain and we thought, “Well, how do we do this kind of, like, a supporter model.” You know? You start working and we film, we offer something that the porn industry offered already on the internet, fake intimacy. As for a ‘paid model’, we were all very skeptical about that, but once we had the first 500 people signing up, we realised, “Hey, this is actually working”.

    Back then, I think, if you’d say the word ‘streaming’, nobody would know what you were talking about. So, we did web shows and everything and we didn’t do streaming back then. We had USB cables running, so soon you’d end up with a wrong cable running over the courtyard because there was no internet in the backyard where our studio was. And that’s the first thing we did with all this money that came in from the people, we actually bought equipment to build a studio.

    We bought a mixing desk from German television and we brought microphones, stands, we bought all these essential things that we didn’t have before because Neubauten was very much a band that never spent any of their money on anything. We built a studio, we made a ton of records and we did Patreon. Patreon was enormously happy that we were working with them because we were the biggest selling musical act on the whole platform. So, obviously what we did back then had and does have a resonance to people nowadays, and people (laughs) in, in this, like, confinement situation, even more so.

     

    Do you think that in, say, 10 years or so time, there’ll almost be a lack of need for a record company or a studio? Everybody now is doing it themselves… 

     

    I can very much live without a record company and I could actually very much live without making a record but, I can’t really live without playing. I can’t really live without playing live. I miss that more than being able to go to a studio. But certainly of these three elements: concerts, studio, record company, I can without the last one. Studios, I mean, the way technology has influenced the output of music is obvious. The general format nowadays is a duo that sits in front of two computers, because that’s accessible to everybody. I don’t try to value that, but it’s just accessible and possible to everybody.

    You have your music program in that, you work with a computer, you produce electronic music and when you’re finished you send it out and it’s gonna be a record or it’s gonna be on Bandcamp or you actually press CDs or vinyl with it. But that’s not a way that I like to work. For me, it is necessary to work with a band in one room, playing instruments that are mainly acoustic or electroacoustic, even singing automatically makes it necessary to have a room.

     

    Indeed. So no matter what evolves in the future, the need for a group, a band setting, together, will always be a necessity… 

     

    I remember when I first worked with Alva Noto who is of course a big, big number in electronics and electronic music. It was almost a shock for him to realise that once you have a singer, that you actually need a room, that you actually need to have a microphone, that you have to have a recording studio, and that you can just sit on a headphone with a microphone and sing into a computer. That’s not working for me and for the whole process of composing for me, it is necessary to work with a band. The band is my tool to compose. I don’t come with a fixed thing, I come with ideas and I am unable to sing them to their final stage without the input of other people.

    That’s usually in the way we play together, I’d rather feel like I’m directing a play than being responsible for the whole music… I direct something.

     

    Am I right in thinking you don’t put in too much preparation before entering a studio?

     

    Since I bought my first laptop in late ’93, I made it a habit and a duty to write something everyday. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I write lyrics for songs. I write or I collect ideas, I make notes. So, I do come [to the studio] with something and I always have particular things that interested me in that I would like to try out.

     

    And this will have been the case with the latest album, ‘Alles in Allem’?

     

    With ‘Alles in Allem’ – the whole album is very, very dear to my heart. I have, with that album, deeper satisfaction with anything else I’ve done before. And I think that goes for everybody in the band. It just feels really like we’ve done the most uncompromising, beautiful thing that we haven’t done for a very long time.

     

    Tell me about your card system, a way of working with Neubauten? 

     

    Yeah, we have this one way that we like to work with which is called Dave. It’s a card system that I devised that is specific to Neubauten, specific to the people in Neubauten and it’s specific to our instruments and strategies. And usually, there are no rules, but we usually play it like everybody’s taking a couple of cards and he keeps them for himself and trying to make sense out of them, you know? Then everybody is building their station, mise en scene so to speak, and then we play and we’re all completely surprised by what everybody else is doing.

    There was one particular afternoon that we webcast where we drew the cards and started playing. And it took a very unfortunate direction, the direction was very much into, you know, ‘Music for Airports’ kind of ambiance.  And I said, “This is ridiculous, we can’t make a three and a half minute seven-inch single ambient piece!”

    That’s just contrary to the whole idea of ambient, you know, a double album, a whole CD. But what do you want? These three and a half minutes of wobbling, nice sounds? It justifies itself in, in a different format, but not in a three and a half for a single. So, I couldn’t sleep. I went home and I was really embarrassed and angry about that. So, the next morning, when I went to the studio, there was only Alex and I said, “Look, uh, I thought about this. We can’t – I, with your permission, I will try something else of that.” And then I sat down and played ‘Alles in Allem’.

     

    Video for Alles in Allem

     

    ‘Alles in Allem’ was the one song I heard which really stood out for me, quite profound. And I’ve read you saying it took some madness to compete?

     

    Yeah, that took madness to write that (laughs). 

     

    So how did you set about getting it to a place where you wanted it to be?

     

    I kept the key. I didn’t wanna go completely rogue, sort of overboard. I thought maybe this can work as an intro. As I said, I wasn’t sleeping, I was kind of, like, hypersensitive and I really came with an idea, and when I recorded, it suddenly, it was necessary for the sound engineer to readjust my headphones. So, I went out into the courtyard, outside of the studio because of my mental state. Pictures were breaking in on me, basically.

    I looked at the wall and I looked at the floor and the pictures just threw in and I stood there, writing, and I think I had it within 15 minutes. In that time I had written about 10 verses, just from the floor and the wall and what I’d seen. And then I went back in and just sorted them out and I left in the six best ones and that’s it… that’s why you have in the video also they show the floor, because that’s the lyrics. Yeah, it took a certain amount of madness to actually write that. 

     

    One thing I was really interested in about your approach in the studio is the restrictions that you place upon yourself (we’ve touched on the card system approach) – not rules as you say, but parameters to help the process? 

     

    If everything is possible, then you don’t get very far… or at least you don’t get very far quickly. I remember a very good example was, ‘Die Befindlichkeit des Landes’, a wonderful song, a great song that we rehearsed before we actually recorded. But in the rehearsal, Alex said, “No sixteenths..”.

     I don’t know why he said it, but no sixteenths. You know, whenever you sing, you, now you go, ‘da, da, da, da, no, no sixteenths’. Okay, so we kept the no sixteenths rule, and it’s a rule. But that rule actually got us through and to a point much quicker than if we would have allowed everything to happen that is possible. I don’t think I’m telling any news here, other people have found out that before me.

    But I think I have a general rule for anything connected with creativity. It’s that you first make up rules, then you follow these rules, and at some point, you break rules. You make some rules and you’re gonna be quicker. Even if you break them at some point, it doesn’t matter, you’re gonna be quicker.

    There’s a funny story that I can tell you from working with Teho [Teardo]. Teho, as a film music composer, he had lunch with Ennio Morricone. And he [Morricone] told him, “You know, you know what the trick is? The chord following. The cadence basically, doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. It’s the arranger. So, you just give a chord following and they arrange it.” And that’s great, I like that. You just make up whatever stupid chord following. If you go, “that, that’s an odd one”, and then you give it to an arranger who has to make sense out of it.

    Because a chord following itself is… everybody thinks that’s where the idea is, the idea is not in that. The idea is in what you make out of it. So, if I say, “Look, we write something in C-sharp, it’s gonna go C-sharp, D-sharp, F, F, G, C-sharp,”… anything goes, and then you give that to an arranger, you give it to other people and say, “This is it,” and, uh, then they put their teeth into it and suddenly you find out, “oh, yeah, something can be done with that stupid cadenza I just wrote”.

     

    I’ve heard you say in the past that art has to come from when you have to do something. 

     

    No, that’s not me, that’s Arnold Schoenberg who said that. Arnold Schoenberg said it in German. It’s translatable: art doesn’t come from ability, art comes from necessity. You don’t do it because you can, you do it because you have to.

     

    And has there been any period in your life when you went without ‘having to do something’? Perhaps when you felt you couldn’t or maybe it wasn’t right?

     

    Oh, yeah, I did not do a record since, well, since we did ‘Lament’ in 2014. Of course, the rest of the band kept asking me if we should continue working and do something else, and I didn’t feel like it. At the time I didn’t know if I had another record in me, I didn’t know if I wanted to do another record. In all the time we were playing, we were playing greatest hits, we were playing ‘Lament’, we were playing shows, but I didn’t feel like it. So that, it came to me one morning, in jet lag, coming back from Hong Kong and being in Berlin in bed and I just realised, I have to make another record, and I started making another record. Every now and then, I feel very much that I don’t have to do anything.

     

    Did you feel the need for a break as such?

     

    I don’t call it taking a break. I can’t really work if I don’t have the feeling that I have to. And not because of money, no. If I have to, it’s because there’s something that I need to do.

     

    Back to the latest record. I love ‘Ten Grand Goldie’, the video’s very funny. Your daughter makes a great cameo…

     

    Oh, in the video? Yeah, that’s my daughter.

     

    Does she have any opinion on your music or give you feedback?

     

    Yes, there are some things that she likes better than other things. She loves ‘Nargony Karabach’ and there are some other things that she likes, but she is like everybody that age, more into Billie Eilish than she is Neubauten.

     

    I like Billie Eilish…

     

    Yeah, I like Billie Eilish too. I can see why she is successful and why people are into it. And it’s extremely well made and extremely well produced.

     

    My wife has been playing the last Taylor Swift album nonstop to the point where I think I know most of the lyrics and it’s driving me absolutely crazy.

     

    Oh, my daughter can sing them all too. That’s fine. I would prefer her if she would do that, but unfortunately, she sings also a lot of really stupid songs that are really annoying. I remember that I asked my daughter, five or six years ago, that on one particular song that I was writing for Teho, I asked her, “So, what should I do?” And she said, “A tiger is approaching.” 

     

    Well put. You’ve said, and it seems, that on the latest album you dropped your defences a little bit, ‘becoming non-hermetic’? 

     

    Well, yeah, it’s a bit of a strategy in writing, and in terms of the, ‘to rather be cryptic and hermetic’,  I just kind of realised that I’m untouchable anyway, so… I am in a position where it really doesn’t matter anymore.

     

    Does that come with age or just experience?

     

    It comes with age, with age and resonance. People in my profession, a lot of 62-year-old working musicians would rather behave like they’re 30.

     

    I’m also keen to know more about ‘Google Monster’.

     

    Oh, in the first lockdown, I did a lot of private shows for the supporters and to one of them, I explained my technique called ‘Google monster’ which is basically Google-supported writing. So, I would write, in that case, what I explained is, I describe a creature, head to toe, with very generic, open sentences. And then I Google using these, um, roots. And, out come like, four, five solutions and then I end up with… five different monsters that from head to two are very well described. But that would be just making Google monsters.

     

     

    Werner Herzog once said that he was convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking. Do you agree? I love the fact that you’re a long-time active chef and actually do ‘shows’ for your website subscribers? 

     

    Erm, no. I think I came up with the idea of a synchronised cook, because that’s the difference to a normal cooking show. In 2002, we had one event for the supporters where we cooked together, the band and all the supporters. We made a recipe from The River Café in London which is a vegetarian pasta with tomato ginger sauce, which contains enormous amounts of ginger. But really delicious, really good. Neubauten have all worked in the kitchen and some of the supporters did the same thing and then we ate like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper style on a long thing with the cameras in front of us so that they can eat with us.

    I cook something in real-time including the cutting and the whole preparation, and whoever wants to do it with me can do it with me. And, yeah, some people do. So, then I make a caldo verde, the basic national dish of Portugal, basically kale and potato soup. I do it in real-time and in the end, we can eat the soup together. And then of course the other element is whatever else I talk about, because I have the iPad in front of me, I see the comments, I see the questions and I play music at the same time.

     

    I’ll try and join next time.

     

    Yeah, well, you have to join my website. It’s cheap, it’s only 10 euros, so (laughs).

     

    I am a fully paid-up member now! 

    Do you have any beliefs in vegetarianism, a diet that you seem to still follow but gave up when living in China?

     

    I’m mostly vegetarian, yep. But I eat fish. But, no, people would ask, “Why are you vegetarian?” and I’d reply “Because I hate animals.” But I had no ethical background in that. I basically became vegetarian because I didn’t want to eat with my parents anymore. But it’s not that easy to go back. When I was living in China I started eating meat again because I didn’t want to deprive my wife of all the wonders of Chinese cooking. Chinese don’t eat in a way that you say, ‘okay, I order this and you order that’. You order for the whole table and then you all eat together. So, surprisingly, especially living in Beijing, it was surprisingly difficult sometimes getting things that are really vegetarian, things that are made without soup stock or made without ham, or things like that. So, well, I ate Chinese while I was in China but my body didn’t like it. So, I scrapped it again. I had developed some kind of nephritis that was gone once I stopped eating meat again.

     

    Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld circa 1985

     

    The last time I saw you on film was a documentary, you were sitting in a car with Nick Cave. Did you like the result of 20,000 Days On Earth? 

     

    I never saw that film. There are about, like, three films that I appear in every year and I never watch them.

     

    I’m a huge admirer of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and came to know you through your time in that band. How do you look back on the experience in the group? 

     

    Oh, it’s a very long ago part of my life, but the strange thing is that since I came here, I systematically went through all my daily notes – 68 volumes of notes. And I played with Nick Cave for 20 or so years and knew him before but I played with him for 20 years and so The Bad Seeds appears surprisingly little in all these notes. It almost seems to me like I was still leading a parallel life, one when I was playing with The Bad Seeds and the other one. But it was a big part of my life, that’s for sure. I’m sure it has left its scars and its traces. 

     

    And you leaving the band was unfortunate, but I suppose you had your reasons? 

     

    When I joined The Bad Seeds, I was 23 and I left the year after I got married. I had no personal difficulties with anyone in the band and artistically, I would say it was becoming more and more important to me. But I had the very clear feeling that I would be unable to balance The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten and my marriage. There are a lot of rock star wives, they’re always the unnecessary fifth wheel in the band bus. I was in London recording ‘Nocturama’ and my wife was in an apartment that we rented in London, but she had nothing to do and I knew that  I wouldn’t be able to balance two tours, and records a year, together with my marriage.

    I was very, very unhappy with the management. After the death of that so-called manager, everybody realised that he was ripping us off, for years. Now, I can say so. But, you know, back then, I didn’t give any, explanation, I just said, “I can’t balance these things…” which is true, the management thing was very, very unsatisfactory. In the end, they found money everywhere hidden in his office, in plastic bags, so I was not paranoid, he was ripping us off.

     

    Do you still keep in touch with Nick or anyone else in the band (living, obviously)?

     

    Nick contacts me. Well, I’m meant to get a parcel today of records from Australia which I’m meant to sign and then they’re gonna get picked up by DHL again, they’re gonna be auctioned for supporting The Bad Seeds crew. But, I am still… we didn’t leave on bad terms. I didn’t leave on bad terms, it’s all fine. I still think it was the right decision for me because.. it would have been really bad for my marriage mainly. And giving up Neubauten was not an option for me.

     

    Blixa Bargeld, thank you. 

     

    Interview by Henry Jackson.

     

    If you want to join Blixa’s official ‘cook’, you can sign up via his website 

  4. Ed O’Brien: “I’m trying to demystify things”

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    The following is an account of slightly cut excerpts and interview with the guitarist from the popular rock and roll band Radiohead. Felten Ink had the honour of catching up with Ed O’Brien to discuss lockdown feelings, his solo record ‘Brasil’, the passing of time, and of course, the future of the one and only Radiohead. Please enjoy responsibly. 

    How have you been coping with another lockdown thrust upon us – how do you find your own routine being affected for better or worse?

     

    I can’t say that life has changed enormously from how it’s been the last four months, really. I’m quite lucky because I’ve had to implement more. Since, I think in 2001, things came to its point and I knew I had to change. So I knew I had to do something. I’ve had to do things like keeping fit, trying to get stronger, or eating the right things, and meditation have all been part of my routine for a long time now. So, with lockdown, actually, things became easier in a way for me in that regard, because suddenly there was a bit more time. Pre-lockdown, I would get up at 6.45 am and meditate for 20 minutes before the kids needed attending to school and stuff like that. With lockdown, things changed and suddenly I was like, “Oh, there’s half an hour for meditation.” And during the day I found myself being like, “Oh I can do such and such”. Rather than trying to squeeze in a run or train for an hour, I’ve got an hour, an hour and a half extra… So it’s been brilliant health-wise for me and being able to do all those other things.

     

    What about as a musician and the structure? 

     

    Musicians, well… unless you’re on tour or you’re in the studio, there is no structure to your day and you’re not always on tour, and you’re not always in the studio, so you learn how to be structured quite young. You can spend all day on the PlayStation, but it doesn’t really work… I learned that one 25 years ago, there’s something very unsatisfactory about it… it makes me feel like wasting my time away, so I’m pretty disciplined and on time with things.

     

    Although you must have to still keep fit – in terms of mentally and even just through music… 

     

    Yeah, you have to. But what I think happens is, certainly for me the way that I’m trying to, or the way that the rhythm of life works for me and music and creativity and all of that, is that I don’t do it every day, 365 days a year. I don’t do it every day, because for me it’s often the gaps in between, it’s the space. I’ve got a young family, it’s important to be a father and I’ve got a wife. So, what I find is that I’m very much, I’m very intuitive, so when I feel a creative phase I can get to it. I have to say the thing about the first lockdown was I thought, “Yippee. This is going to be great. I’m going to have all this time to … No, I’m not going to tour this record, I’m going to do some writing experimentation.” And I didn’t feel like it. And it was really weird. And I just didn’t want to. 

     

    You’ve been through this with actually having Coronavirus. That must have affected your creative muscles (forgive the term)?

     

    I think looking back on it, getting the coronavirus back in March, there was a very long tail on it. And I thought I was better by about mid-April, end of April, but actually, the way that it affected my energy and my health, it hung on there for a long time, probably until about six weeks ago. So, I haven’t felt it, but now I’ve felt it and you’re right, and what it is it’s like a muscle. I don’t know what is ahead of me, but I feel like I’ve got this big creative phase that I’m about to step into. And that will be probably, I don’t know, a year, two years, whatever it is, and now I’ve got to … I want to start picking up the guitar, start making sounds, new bits of equipment, to find new sounds, to find something new … And I’m working with the things for me as I said, the time away from music is as important. I feel like I’m still figuring this out. I think you’re always figuring it out, and I’m just trying to follow a thread and the thread is really the intuition that goes, “This feels right, or that, yeah I’m not sure about that, that’s not right, but this feels right. I’m not sure, yeah, yeah, this is good.” I’m sort of like Ariadne’s thread in the dark, sort of, “Oh yeah, okay.” Pulling on it.

     

    I’m late to the party in many ways, I only just recently started to listen to your solo record, Brasil. It must have been a bummer, as a musician, to be unable to share your own solo stuff on a more widespread audience?

     

     

    Ultimately it’s what we are, musicians, if you get down to what is it about, it’s about making some sounds that connect emotion with other people. I’ve been touring a lot over the last 25 years or whatever, 28 years, it’s a time when you grow and you evolve hugely as well. You’re playing in this band. I’ve got a band together, a fantastic group of players, and we just started, we’d done gig six, the last gig was at the Roundhouse, and we were just rather than it being ‘oh, rabbits in the headlights’ because it’s all new and you’re bedding down, and we were just starting to feel, just starting to relax, just starting to flow. So, that’s a shame. Having said that, it does allow me to move on from that record in a sense, so that next we go back out there’ll be those songs, but there’ll be some news songs as well. So, it gives you a broader palette. My whole philosophy in life is if you’re presented with something there’s rather an, “Oh shit, we’re fucked.” It’s kind of like, “Okay, here’s a challenge. How can I grow here? How can this be of some kind of benefit? What’s the advantage of this? What’s the opportunity really?”

     

    Your own record ‘Brasil’ has a ton of really important and interesting musicians on it – how did you go about choosing people to work on it? I’ve heard you say you were apprehensive about it, which is weird to me as you’re in Radiohead  – one of if the not greatest band of all time. Like, who the fuck is anyone to say no to you… 

     

    I literally was like, “Who are my favorite musicians?” Laura Marling is somebody whose work I’d followed since her first album, and then there’s David Okumu and Omar Hakim, and Nathan East.  It’s a funny thing because my initial impulse wasn’t to ask these people because I don’t know if this sounds absurd or this sounds strange, but I don’t think of myself, I think the perception of Radiohead from the outside is a lot greater than the perception of Radiohead within. It’s really nice when you say those words about the band, but I don’t feel it. I know that we’ve done some really good stuff, and I know that it’s a great story and I know that we’ve been doing it a long time, but I don’t go round thinking, and I don’t think the others do, thinking, “Oh, we’re one of the best bands in the world.”

     

    How did those decisions come about?

     

    I was out on tour, we were out on tour in America in 2016 and…. And this is the thing that happens, that when you go out on tour it’s a funny thing that happens, Radiohead, you suddenly step out and especially in America, you’re kind of like, “Oh, there’s a lot of people who really like this and there’s a lot of people who really rate us.” And so it gives you a bit of, you go, “Oh okay, all right.” So, that’s when you make those phone calls, you’re on tour and you’re saying, “Listen I know you live in New York, Omar, we’re rolling into town. Or Nathan East, would you fancy coming? Come to the gig and I’ve got this idea I want to talk to you about.”

     

    I suppose you’re right because in a way there’s no way you could continue to make such important work if you did go about thinking how good you were…

     

    I think so, yeah, and I think I mean it’s not like creativity is not something, I don’t feel like I’m responsible for it, if you see what I mean. I think for me I’ve never felt really comfortable with that thing of I’ve done this or we’ve done this, I think I have a different feeling to it, and it mirrors a lot of what my heroes and heroines have always said: “We’re conduits”. And that thing that when something of beauty, or something happens, it feels like it’s always been there, and I just think that we’re dialing in the frequencies and our job as conduits, as musicians, is to be the best shape that we can to download this information, this stuff.

     

    I would argue that you and your band, Radiohead, are indeed so perfect, so unique… so I guess I don’t but the whole channeling thing…

     

    Well, like when you hear Paul McCartney talk about ‘Yesterday’, it was a dream of his. He woke up and he called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’. It’s like, “Did I write this?” And that for me is the mystery and the magic of it all, and I really believe that in order for … Because I’ve seen it in my own kind a little way and in the band’s way, and I’ve seen it with other people. If you start thinking that you’re the dog’s bollocks, that thing stops, it’s like you get kicked up the arse. So, I’m very aware that I’m very reliant on feeling inspired and having that connection. Because I can’t really do it otherwise, I’m not a session musician, I can’t go okay, “G sharp minor, let’s go into this.” I’m not one of those guys.

     

    “Coming out of the darkness into the light.” And I guess that’s to do a lot with your break with depression. Although that was a long time, it was interesting to me, and then I started to think about some of the practices you indulge in to keep yourself healthy and mentally healthy, and with the fasting and meditation. Are you a spiritual person much? Are you religious?

    I’m not religious because religion for me is control, it’s organizing people, I don’t like that. But at the heart of all religions, as Aldous Huxley writes in The Perennial Philosophy, is the same thing, so I’ve taken a real interest in that. And I’ve read a lot, but also more than so reading it’s experience and feeling it. So, yeah and as I said to … I’ve said to people before I’ve worked fucking hard to be happy. I’ve been incredibly blessed. I had a very melancholic disposition, my childhood was really happy and there were very happy moments, but if you were to describe it I think it would be sad. I felt a lot of sadness, and I don’t want any self-pity for that, or anything, that’s just a fact and an acceptance. I always had a low-level of depression and problems with energy and it reached a point where it was, I just … It was very, very, reached a point in 2001 I’d had enough, and I was doing all the wrong things then.

     

    Why?

     

    Because I was doing all the wrong things like alcohol, drugs, all of that stuff, and that obviously, even if you’re in good health that brings you down and that was bringing me down in poor health and depression. There’s a whole six hours on the journey that I went on. I knew I had to change, it was like, I’ve got to do something. And I’d just gone on this journey that, and I wasn’t going to rule out anything. I was just like, “You know what? I’m going to experience, I’m going to do these things, I’m going to experience it, see how it resonates.” And of course, not everything resonates, and everybody’s different.

    You have things along the way that really make a massive difference, and the massive one for me in the last … I’ve been doing it for about a month and a half now, and the fasting has been a big thing. I don’t want to bore you with my medical history or anything, but that’s been a big issue. But the Wim Hof thing, that book, and I’ve been doing the breathing and the cold showers, it’s unbelievable, and I’m on probably the fourth or fifth week of that. And it’s had a huge effect on me, profound effect. I work really hard to be happy, and I’m not happy all the time. But I know that good health, my spirituality, and being present, that’s what makes me happy and that connection. That’s what makes me happy, and there’s a simplicity to it, that I’m very lucky I live a very blessed life, but I don’t need to have lots of things. Shopping doesn’t make me happy, in fact, it does the opposite.

     

    Shopping does make me ill unless it’s online. What does make you happy?

     

    The things that make me happy are very simple things, watching the sunrise, having a great cup of tea, I really appreciate those things. And I don’t know why, but that’s just how I do it.

     

    I’ve been watching a lot of your Instagram live isolation broadcasts. It’s fascinating to have someone like yourself, someone from an utterly life-changing band (in my view), be so available – excuse the term…

     

    It’s like one of those things where it started at something and it’s become something else altogether. I mean, I’m perennially with it, going every Thursday, thinking, “God, do they want to hear me? And that universal thing, I put it out there, I put it, “Do you want me to do it?” everybody’s just like, “We do…”. I think it’s about connection. It’s always, for me, it’s always about connection. And taking something like social media is such a, can be such a destructive force, but there is something absolutely unbelievable that, and we take it for granted now, but 20 years ago we wouldn’t have it.

     

    It makes me contemplate the world – in yours, it’s been 5 years since ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ which really brings reality home.

     

    One of the things that I’ve been part of in Radiohead is that we constructed quite a big … After Pablo Honey and then we just started constructing the world as how we wanted to be perceived and that means a lot of the time you don’t have any contact, you have minimal contact you just place a few things and those are the things that do the work. And you understand what I’m saying, you let the work be done in the imagination, and it’s very cool, it’s a really good thing to do. But I felt intuitively on this record that I wanted to, my … Because it’s five people and it’s a collective thing, but I just wanted to tear that wall down, I wanted to … I’m kind of trying to demystify things.

     

    And you’re doing that…

     

    I think we live in an age of authenticity. I think a lot of those things that were relevant 20, 25 years ago … You think about, bands and stuff like that 25 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, you think of bands like The Clash and Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Smiths, and they create through photography, photos, through music, through videos, they create this world. And most of the time that world is these people are demi-gods. They’re the coolest people on the planet and all the bands do that, you create it. And it’s completely disingenuous. Because all these people are human beings with problems and I’ve met a lot of these people and some of them are stellar human beings and some of them are complete dicks, and I think what’s amazing at this time, and I know there are a lot of people in my generation who go, “Oh, Ed Sheeran, oh. Bla bla bla.”

    I think what we’re living in, and it really struck me about three years ago roughly was Glastonbury, when Adele headlined that Saturday night and she’s just almost doing this girl from next door with an incredible voice and Ed Sheeran’s the boy from next door with … And I’m like, this is brilliant, this is fucking brilliant, this is like looking behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz, it’s like it’s taking it all down. And that’s something I feel comfortable about, and that’s why I kind of wanted to start the in isolation pieces because again social media is being used. I say it’s an age of authenticity, but there’s also a huge age of inauthenticity, we’ve got the extremes, you’ve got the way people construct the way they live this perfect life on social media, and I’m like, ‘I’m not interested’.

     

    Adele and Ed Sheehan are one thing but: What does interest you in terms of making your own music?

     

    I’m interested in searching for the truth, the authenticity of whatever it is. And what I’m hoping is that when we start working in the studio I’ll be able to drop bits of music live. And let people in a little bit into the world of me and creativity and something doesn’t come out and it’s fully formed. I’ve always been interested in how you get there, and I think that’s really important. Because if you explain how you get there, I think that’s empowering to other people because they go: ”Well actually maybe I could do that as well.” And I think that’s so important, That whole thing of demystifying to me is part of bringing down hierarchies. There are so many hierarchies that have existed and creative hierarchies, hierarchies within bands, who’s the best songwriter, who’s the … Hierarchies of who’s the best musician, who’s the greatest artist, and I’ve got no time for that.

     

    Why?

     

    Because everybody has a part to play and partly our job on this planet, I think one of the things I feel is to find out what it is that you as a human being, what is your role? What is the thing that you’re meant to do on this planet? And I honestly, I don’t, just because I’ve been blessed with what I do, I don’t feel any superiority to anybody, and equally, anybody who might feel superior to me, fuck that, I’m not interested. It’s like there are bigger things here, there’s a bigger picture. We’re all here, so it’s all part of that, it’s all part of that whole thing.

     

    I’d be criminal to interview you and not ask anything about what’s happening with Radiohead. Time to me seems like a small vacuum – on that, it’s been almost 5 years since ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’? What’s next for the band?

     

    I know, time has concertinaed, hasn’t it? I don’t know. I’ve got no idea. People ask this a lot because obviously, they’re interested. I think my answer’s the same as it’s always been, I think in order to make a record, and a Radiohead record, one of the strengths of us is we’ve always made records when we’re inspired to make a record. It’s not been about fulfilling a contract or making money, it’s always been about are we ready to go, “This feels good.” And I don’t think we’ve got that impulse at the moment, and it’s again it’s not a mental thing, it’s not something you say, it’s something you feel. And I think that’s always been our strength is to feel it, but I do think that what happened at the end of ‘Moon Shaped Pool’, it’s the end of another chapter. When we started touring ‘In Rainbows’, that was the first time we’d really loved touring and we got it. ‘In Rainbows’ was more about, ‘fuck me, this is amazing, aren’t we lucky touring?’ And I think that has continued, and I think it feels like it’s the end of another chapter. And we just have to figure out. Also, I think, I’m speaking personally and I think it’s the same for Phillip and I think it’s the same for Thom and Johnny, that everybody’s kind of really into doing their own music at the moment. Everybody’s growing, everybody’s continually growing. The problem is with bands, when bands … kind of the level of success, say, that we have, and have made the amount of records and stuff like that, what often happens is you see the band lose their mojo. Do you know what I mean?

     

    I guess. But Radiohead never lost their mojo? 

     

    My understanding of that is the mojo being lost is directly linked to the band that starts making, that has always made creative decisions, that starts making financial decisions. And goes, “You know what? We’re going to do it because we’ve got a contract to fulfill and we get lovely advances.” I’ll never, ever, ever, ever be part of that. And I’m sure the other guys wouldn’t either. I’m not interested in that. I’d much rather walk away now and it’s got to be in the right spirit, it’s got to be because you’ve got a love for it, it’s got to be because you’re inspired, it’s got to be. And it’s because that’s where it’s always going to be, and I think also the thing is if we made a record that wasn’t that way, then it’d be like the Wizard of Oz, the truth would be revealed that actually … I think it’s that intention and that spirit that elevates what you do because it makes it more powerful. When you remove that and it becomes about status, power, money you can fill out every stadium, you can fill out every arena, but you lose that. But I will never, ever go down that route. I would much rather, literally, honestly, I have no qualms, I would much rather walk away and dedicate myself to working in my garden. There’s people who recognize that there’s a purity to it. And it’s real, and there’s honesty. And if we were to lose that it’s like a bond that’s broken. I think that underpins everything. You might not like our music, but there’s an integrity, that’s at the heart of it.

     

    Ed O’Brien, thank you. 

  5. Understanding a musical obsession: The Grateful Dead

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    By Ashwin Tharoor

    Lovers of rock music will very likely have heard of the Grateful Dead, but their reaction often veers from musical obsession to scorn. Some consider them the greatest band to have walked the earth. Others dismiss it as long, noodle-y and aimless in its form; just Jerry Garcia running scales up and down the guitar. However, there was undoubtedly something special about this band. They consistently created a beautiful, transcendent quality in their music I rarely seem to find anywhere except jazz. The band were highly indebted to that genre as well as countless other forms of American music.

    I discovered the Grateful Dead, funnily enough, through an episode of the cult sitcom Freaks and Geeks. When the protagonist Lindsay is feeling down, her guidance counsellor gives her an LP of their classic album American Beauty. Listening to it alone in her room, her spirits are almost immediately lifted. Despite being fictional, this scene really resonated with my experience and probably countless others. If I’m feeling sad, the music of the Grateful Dead is almost always the perfect antidote. It’s partly this emotional reaction within people, including myself, that has consistently created fanatics of their music for almost fifty years.

    The band had their roots in the San Francisco sound and counterculture of the late 1960s, but unlike many of their contemporaries they transformed their sound rapidly, going into the ‘70s. Trying to categorise their innumerable influences is tough, but in their first ten years they deftly incorporated psychedelic rock, blues, country, folk and jazz into one cohesive sound. Succinct and sweet melodies of Americana are clear on the studio album American Beauty, but it was their live shows where they really shined. In their early years they could easily exceed three hours, leading to a common saying amongst fans that ‘there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert’.

    It’s a listening experience that is often genuinely exciting, surprising and emotionally powerful. Their shorter songs display some incredible songwriting, in terms of both music and lyrics. Robert Hunter, a non-performing member of the band, wrote the lyrics to most of the band’s original songs. I would rank him up there with Bob Dylan in the evocative power of his writing. He had a great ability to tell stories that reach into the distant past but still touch on an ever-present human condition. He also conjured up many mystical lyrical abstractions that perfectly complemented the band’s early psychedelic forays.

    The longer, improvised pieces the Grateful Dead are well known for also evoke a kind of fleeting beauty for me. Like many jazz groups they would extend solos over chord progressions to slowly tease out new musical ideas in the moment. In their early years they also became incredibly adept at improvising together without a specific form or structure. Each band member effectively playing a ‘lead’ instrument and responding to each other’s changes almost instantaneously to create magnificent, intense peaks and introspective, exploratory troughs. To paraphrase bassist Phil Lesh, they became fingers on a hand; moving separately, but always in relation to the others.

    Their concerts became places where the barrier between audience and band was broken down, with every person in the room collectively experiencing the same transcendent and entirely unplanned moment. Intertwined with this experience, and the very existence of the band itself, was LSD. The band solidified their direction through performing at Ken Kesey’s famous Acid Tests in 1966. It was a drug that epitomised feelings of transcendence, breaking down barriers between the self and the external world, and being completely in the present moment.

    Despite never having seen them or their music performed live, I’ve found myself increasingly obsessed with no end in sight. Almost all of their live performances are available to listen in high quality, for free, on archive.org. There’s virtually an endless amount of music to listen to, and since the band evolved their sound so frequently, it’s easy to understand how one gets hooked. They were well known for never performing a song exactly the same way twice.

    The fans of this band are overwhelmingly white, American, and somewhere between the age of 40 and 70. I’ve noticed I fail to fall into any of these categories, yet I think the fact that I have become such a fervent listener speaks volumes about the music itself. I often find the massive subculture surrounding the band quite cheesy and typically American, but still, I can’t deny the brilliance I so often find in the music itself. My passion for this band far eclipses any of the musical phases I had in the past, and I can definitely see it continuing many years to come. I hope my rantings and ravings have inspired some to give them a closer listen, because getting sucked down the rabbit hole is well worth it.

    Recommendations:

    American Beauty (1970)

    Europe ‘72

    Cornell ‘77

    The Grateful Dead Movie (1977)

    Photo by Richard Pechner