Piano Magic - Aποκλειστική συνέντευξη!
This line came to my mind while listening and trying to assess your latest LP, the "Disaffected" album: "the collectivists may have given in to the band-its, but they have not given up their Artists Rifles yet.". Your cue now...
Glen Johnson: Well, the “collective” as such was never very “collected.” That is, Piano Magic was initially a very loose project – people arriving and departing as they pleased. But it became a “band” in the late 90’s and it’s stayed as such every since. There is a very solid axis of Glen Johnson, Cedric Pin, Jerome Tcherneyan, Alasdair Steer and Franck Alba. This is the host planet, if you like and the guests are mere “stars.”
In every release there is a slight concept hovering. Nothing too obvious or exact, more like an aura or a ghost (we love ghosts!). "Disaffected" as a word has two definitions, "estranged" and "discontented". Although these two meanings are quite close which of these appeals more to the album's concept?
Glen Johnson: The crux of “Disaffected,” the album, can be found in the lyrics of the song, “Disaffected” : “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing, mainly nothing. Once you know that, you’re fine. Once you know that, you can retire.” It’s a call to retreat from the battle of life – not to give up (as in, suicide) but to live life on your own terms and not the terms society imposes upon you – that you must get married, buy a house, get a good job, have 2.2 children, etc. I think we all know that this is bullshit and that the happy ones are the ones who turned their back on this rather Victorian convention. I am disaffected with the system, the rules, the expectations and from this point, I may develop a new way of living – my own way of living.
To take it a step further, I've distinguished a certain connection and strange continuance between “Disaffected”, "The Troubled Sleep" lp and the "Opencast Heart" ep, not only due to the fact that the band line-up is pretty much the same but also in terms of concept (the love-factor is screaming out loud for example), sound and artwork. Is that the case ?
Glen Johnson: Themes? Well, love has always been central to my lyrics – be it, the loss of it, the perversion of it, the absolute miracle of it, etc, etc. It could be argued that there is love in every action – even in hate.
I hope this won't sound degrading, but the level of completeness and coherence in the latest album and single are quite extraordinary. It almost makes me miss the experimentations and the charming little flaws. At the same time, one could also regard certain elements as lookback on the previous releases and a maturity in the words as well as the sounds. The confusion days are over as we grow older? Do you still have a riven heart?
How far apart do you feel at this moment in time from "Wrong French"?
Glen Johnson: Not particularly, as an artist, as I have an outlet for the more experimental side of my music – Textile Ranch and as you will see over the next few years, this outlet may actually become the main act and Piano Magic may become a mere sideshow. At least, that’s the way I feel right now. With a band, you have to take into account democracy (unless you are a dictator, which I’m not). You have to listen to the opinions of the others and make a decision based on a consensus vote. I find this quite frustrating in truth because I always know I’m right! Hence, my working more on solo pieces right now – I have no-one looking over my shoulder, second-guessing me.
There has been, unashamedly, a conscious effort to see if Piano Magic can become more melodic, more accessible to a wider audience over the past 2 years. Perhaps we tired of being this “cult,” under-the-radar group that will never have enough to pay the rent? Should we be ashamed that we are cutting off all the fat and getting to the real meat?
Angele's vocal performance on "Disaffected" totally blew me off. It felt like the utmost incarnation of the title. She has a very mature, warm voice, with a jazzy feel, contrary to the very "pink" girly voices used on previous albums. Is she the current female Piano Magic expression and should we expect even more from this cooperation?
Glen Johnson: Angele is, at this time, the ultimate Piano Magic singer. She has a glacial, yet warm texture to her voice, coupled with an intimate, exact interpretation of the lyrics. Again, for her, Piano Magic will become a sideshow in the next year or so, as she attributes more time to her solo project, Klima (an album is out on Peacefrog later this year).
And what about the male one? One can't help but notice that you take the vocal part more and more personally in the passage of time...
Glen Johnson: I’m not a confident singer but I do believe that if you can convey emotion with your voice, the technical side if irrelevant. It’s all in convincing the audience that you mean what you say. And I do. Mean. What. I. Say.
Melancholy is most prominent in your work, sounds and lyrics as well... "No good Art comes from happiness."?
Glen Johnson: Oh, it’s like a diary. You only write in it when something bad is happening. Same with music. At least, for me. I couldn’t write a happy song if I tried. That’s not to say I’m a melancholy, depressed person. Anyone who knows me will testify that I have a sparkling sense of humour and a joy for life. ;)
I would have to admit that the "post-modernist baroque" of "Artists' Rifles" has established its spot in that place of the heart where music that has touched you the most goes. It's quite weird actually, because when four different people were asked about their most loved PM release, they gave four completely different answers. This variety is inevitable I suppose... "smallbeat Kraftwerkian", "breathless, ethereal, multi-layered melancholy", "critically contentious", "opus maximus" should apply to different types of people as well. Looking back in time could you by any chance pick out your most loved track or release?
Glen Johnson: I don’t think there’s a complete Piano Magic album but at the same time, I don’t think a perfect record has been made, with the exception of Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World,’ perhaps. The “essence” of Piano Magic – the perfect vehicles of the message – can be found in “I Have Moved Into The Shadow” (from the “Incurable” EP), “”Comets” (from “The Troubled Sleep Of…”) and “Bad Patient” (from “Low Birth Weight”) but that’s only my opinion and what does my opinion count?
- While we're at this looking back thing... The quotes above are other people's thoughts on your releases. What about yourself? First thing that comes to your mind... These are mine:
"Popular Mechanics" - it begins where it ends
"Low Birth Weight" - mostly pink
"Artists' Rifles" - with weight on their shoulders
"Writers Without Homes" - a 4AD performance
"The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic" - an excellent debut
"Disaffected" - disaffected
Glen Johnson: "Popular Mechanics" - Thank god for naivety.
"Low Birth Weight" - On which I juggled the planets.
"Artists' Rifles" - A smile wouldn’t kill you.
"Writers Without Homes" - Blinded by dreams.
"The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic" - Sleep well tonight, tomorrow we fight.
"Disaffected" - Sunshine on a rainy day.
- Still going back in time... While listening to some of your work, sometimes I feel like you've been born a decade too late because of the 80s aura in your music. Also i think that maybe the albums you put out in the late 90s, would be looked upon quite differently if their release date was in the 00s, with this whole new appreciation of new wave or folk sounds or darker atmospheres. Artistry and experimentation also seem to be a tad more welcomed by the audience, perhaps due to the abundance of bands that sound pretty much the same more or less. Have you ever felt like that yourself? Did/Do you ever wish for a wider distribution and audience?
Glen Johnson: I absolutely wish for a wider audience. As I said, the “cult” tag is, well, “nice” for a while but it doesn’t pay the rent. I know why we have never reached the dizzy height of, say, Radiohead or Sigur Ros or Godspeed, for example – we were never actually particularly good! That is, I don’t think we pushed things as far as they could go and certainly, we had no budget so even if we wanted to push things, we would’ve ended up making a model, as opposed to the real building.
I think we were dismissed quite early on, possibly down to our more “leftfield” stance in the early days. We were looked upon as an experimental group and then a “post-rock” group and then, well, everyone just seemed to give up on trying to keep up with us. But it certainly took us a long time (possibly too long) to get as good as we are now. I mean, we are a really good live band, I think and we are recording the best material of our career. It just took us so long because we were so dispersed before – this “collective” idea, perhaps. If we’d started with the 5 people we have now, perhaps things would’ve followed a much more conventional path – signed by a large independent, playing bigger venues, etc, etc. But I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The ride has been a lot of fun, personally, if not always for the audience. ;)
- Let's talk about the so called music industry for a while. Through this 10 year period of the Piano Magic existence you have changed quite a few labels and did a brief stint in 4AD. From taking a look at the news updates section one could understand that you were not very happy with the distribution and the feedback you got from the media, for the latest LP. How important are the record companies, the press and promotion in general nowdays for the indie scene? Is artistic freedom too big a price for a band to pay on the longrun? And how do you feel about the whole internet situation (p2p, myspacemusic, digital downloads)? It seems that it's quite easy for an artist, nomatter where he comes from, to have his songs heard at least...
Glen Johnson: Ah, well, you’ve opened a big can of worms there. 10 years of releasing records plus 10 years of working for a record label (Rough Trade), have taught me a lot about how this big, ugly machine works and there are cogs missing all over the place; cogs that shouldn’t even be there. I certainly am very “old school,” in that I loved being so excited about a forthcoming album by an artist that I was outside the record store on the day of release and when I got it home, I pawed over every tiny detail on the sleeve. I do actually believe that the facelessness of downloadable music will, inevitably, provoke a return to elaborate packaging – something you can hold in your hand and fawn over. If I had the money, for sure, I would release wonderfully, romantic music in wonderful, romantic sleeves for wonderful, romantic people.
As for Piano Magic, it’s one thing to work with people who believe in our music and let us release whatever we want to release but unfortunately, this is an incredibly naïve and soul-destroying attitude. Primarily, you should be looking for a label that will account to you truthfully every 6 months and pay you every 6 months, that is able to distribute your records far and wide in reasonable quantities and that will do it’s utmost to promote your records. We’ve been let down a lot and I’m angry about those labels and I’m as angry about our naivety – that we trusted those labels. Our music is our baby and when it’s not looked after by the babysitter, it dies. Of course, there are labels that have helped us up onto a podium I would never have believed we could reach and to those labels, I’m indebted. I just wish that I could make this music and afford to exist just by making this music. I fear that will never happen.
The feeling one gets from Britain mostly is a never ending quench for new-comers, debutants that rock your socks off, next-big-things. Post-punk and new wave have been reincarnated and things seemed to be getting punkier and punkier... It must seem rather funny! Has any of these bands caught your attention though?
Glen Johnson: Oh, they catch your attention if you read the magazines or watch tv or listen to the radio but as for buying their records, no, I don’t. In fact, I’d say that 95% of the music I listen to comes from outside of Britain. That’s just the way it is. Hype, for anything, music, films, people, will just turn me away from them. I like the Greek band, Tilbury On Cloves. Someone should give them a chance, help them up onto a podium.
Typical question: what do you listen to nowdays? I suppose you must have quite a record collection... How much music do get the chance to listen to and obtain nowadays? Most cherised items of your collection? Most rare item?
Generally speaking, all-time favourite records and inspirational artists or bands?
Glen Johnson: I just purged my record collection of excess crap so I’m down to records-that-I-will-play-more-than-once. I don’t actually buy much music anymore, thanks to a couple of people who burn copies for me (yes, it’s shocking, I know) but, I like (what have I got in front of me?) :
The Gentlemen Losers
The Monroe Transfer
That’s my recent playlist anyway. Cherished items? Oh, my Durutti Column, Felt, Dead Can Dance, Go-Betweens collections. Favourite records? Kraftwerk : Computer World. Velvet Underground : VU. The Smiths : Meat Is Murder. A few more besides. Biggest inspirations? All of those bands I’ve mentioned here, though The Smiths probably hold the biggest place in my heart, even now.
In the studio... Piano Magic is always a fleeting, collecting band. As for the lyrics part, that has been yours with a hand full of (long gone) exceptions. With your current line-up, how do you work on the music and to what extent the other members influence and contribute to the musical result?
Glen Johnson: We generally start with a guitar line by myself or Franck these days and then we lay the lyrics over the top. All else is built around that. Essentially, a song is only a good song if it can be played with an acoustic guitar, right? Well, no, but it helps to have that foundation, I find. It’s the backbone for all the flesh of drums, keyboards, etc. As I said, Piano Magic is pretty democratic, though I tend to “conduct” the direction of a piece, as I have the loudest voice, I’m the oldest and well, I started this thing.
After "Incurable" what more is planned for the future? How soon whould we expect a new release from Piano Magic? What about those lost, still unreleased songs and versions, any chance of putting them out?
Glen Johnson: “Lost?” Are they lost? They’re just in hiding. I’m sure there’ll be a ‘Seasonally Affective Part 2” someday but it’s a far, distant horizon. We start work on a new Piano Magic album next week in fact but the plan is not to finish it until September, so it won’t be out until early 2007. In the meantime, there are albums to look forward to by Klima, Textile Ranch and Future Conditional (my project with Cedric from Piano Magic). We’re certainly not sitting here doing nothing. ;)
- I know that the latest gig that was planned for Athens got cancelled on you and that it was a bit frustrating. Still I hope and look forward to another lovely yet breathtaking live performance asap! Thank you very much.
Glen Johnson: Well, we’d love to come back to Greece any time when the promoters and bookers sort it out. We were really disappointed when the last shows fell through because the Athens show had been such fun. But, we’re patient people.
Thanks and take care.
Interview by Maria Karagkouni
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