Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Interview: The Legendary Pink Dots

In the summer of 2004, I took a road trip to DC to catch The Legendary Pink Dots, and interview their frontman and songwriter, Edward Ka-Spel.  The interview appeared in the Canadian magazine Comatose Rose.  The magazine's long since gone under, so I don't think they'll mind if I share it here.

On a side note, 2004 was the year of the Great Eastern Brood periodical cicadas.  All summer, from New York to North Carolina, the air was choked with the sound of trillions of insects chirping in unison, creating a ceaseless wall of feedback cranked to eleven.  It was like a Jesus and Mary Chain show that never ended.  Anyway, halfway through the Pink Dots' set, Ka-Spel told us, "We've been enjoying your plague of locusts."

Ask any band about the genre to which their music belongs, and nine times out of ten their response will be something along the lines of, “We can’t be classified. We’re totally original.” With Holland’s The Legendary Pink Dots, that particular cliché actually holds water. Over the course of two decades, they’ve released a ridiculously long line of records, including such landmark albums as Any Day Now, The Maria Dimension, and Hallway of the Gods. What you might hear on one of their records is anyone’s guess—folk-strings drifting over ambient soundscape or psychedelic wind instruments swirling around funereal keyboard or experimental noise morphing into what makes your worst trip look like a walk on the moon. In the same piece, they’ll take you from the most sublime ethereal plain to the darkest depths of distorted guitar hell.

This particular dream has been brought to you by Edward Ka-Spel, known to his fans as The Prophet Qa’Spell. Through a thick English accent, he gives voice to heartfelt ballads, spoken-word narratives, and sing-songy waltzes. These are the vehicles for Ka-Spel’s vision of fantasy, spirituality, speculation, silliness, and humanist commentary. It all makes for a well-balanced diet.

Summer 2004 brings with it the release of yet another Dots album, The Whispering Wall. Following on the strength of last year’s All the King’s Horses, the boys are remaining in a song-structured frame of mind. The album marks the introduction of Erik Drost, guitarist from Nijmegen, Holland. Neils Van Hoornblower, who has been with the Dots since 1990’s The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse, once again provides jazzy sax and clarineta. The Silverman, electronic programmer since the beginning, is there, as always. Ka-Spel’s vocals have been pushed to the front, and remain for the most part undistorted. While the record contains no shortage of bizarre imagery or goofy sing-a-long, its main focus is on the comfortable lifestyle by which mankind is quickly being smothered.

Thanks to the lovely Lisa Amend, I was able to meet with Ka-Spel at the bottom of the Whispering Wall support tour. Following their show in Washington DC, we stepped outside to chat for a bit.

Let’s start out by talking about “The Whispering Wall.” Musically, it seems to have kind of a jazzy, lounge-lizard feel to it at times.
Yeah, we all enjoy a lot of good jazz. It’s inspired what we do.

The guitar at the beginning of “Soft Toy” is a lot heavier than I’m used to hearing from you guys.
Yeah, that’s Erik! Erik Drost just joined the band, and he’s really bringing a completely new dimension to the Dots. He spent some time with a band called Girlfriends—they were kind of like King Crimson, somewhat or other. I love what he does.

Tell me about the character in “The Divide.”
To me, in a way, he’s the concept of modern man. He’s the nature of where we are going. We are uncommitted. We are separated from the natural world. Sadly, humanity takes a little bit of a back seat.

Are you preoccupied with nursery rhymes? The lyrics to “Peek-A-Boo” seem to resemble such, not to mention the albums ‘All the King’s Horses’ and ‘All the King’s Men.’
Probably a lot of childhood horrors finding their way back. Things that scared me as a little boy just kind of come back.

You have another album, ‘Poppy Variations,’ coming out soon. [sic] Do you think you could start releasing your albums a little bit faster?
[clearly hurt] We’re trying.

Exactly what will the album count be at that point?
I have no idea. I’m not really someone who keeps records or archives. I believe it may be something around 40ish, but maybe it’s something more. I don’t know.

Are you able to explain your approach to songwriting?
Not very easily… At the beginning of this year I was a little concerned—I thought I had a block. It sort of found its way in at the beginning of the “Whispering Wall” recording. I was traveling back and forth on the train, and suddenly the block seemed to disappear and I was writing about four or five songs a day. That’s why there’s “Poppy Variations.” There’s actually quite a lot of material that didn’t make it on to the albums.

Is it likely that the collaboration between you and David Tibet will ever take place?
I can’t say….I hope so. We’re good friends; we’ve always been good friends. We’ve got to get together in a studio, but time and circumstances…

I’ve always wondered how you guys have managed to survive, being on the road all the time. I was speaking with Lisa, and she told me that the lifestyle is addictive.
It is very addictive, but it is a matter of survival as well. This is how we make ends meet. We really depend on being on the road. I wish there wasn’t quite so much imbalance, but that’s the way it is.

Do people you meet on tour ever become characters in your songs?
Oh, sure. Quite often.

What would you say to someone who thinks that fantasy is merely a form of escapism?
I think escapism has a strange way of bringing forward, especially in a very claustrophobic world. In an increasingly frightening world, there’s nothing wrong with the desire to escape. You go there if you want to go there. But escape through yourself, no chemicals involved. (laughs)

So you’re a chemical-free person now?
For quite a while, yeah.

Do you still believe that humanity is on the edge of a cataclysm?
I think we might be in the middle of it.

What is the origin of the motto Sing While You May?
It’s a positive declaration. In a frightening world where everything is basically speeding up, and possibly approaching cataclysm and saturation, what I say is enjoy it and be glad you live now.

I was recently listening to “The Golden Age” which contains the refrain The more it changes, the more it stays the same. Would you say that that phrase applies to the Dots’ sound, with all the different directions it’s taken over the years?
Kind of. We’re still very much the Pink Dots. We’re striking out in new territories, new landscapes, but I will say that it does always come out sounding like the Pink Dots, no matter what we do.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Top 13 Songs by The Legendary Pink Dots

There was a time when I was rabidly obsessed with the experimental Dutch band The Legendary Pink Dots.  At the right hour and in the right state of mind, I still am.

Whenever I try to explain the Pink Dots to the uninitiated, I find myself at a loss.  The easiest comparison is to Syd Barret era Pink Floyd, but if that doesn't mean anything to you, let's just say they sound like a Martian folk band.  Calling them psychedelic would be the understatement of the century.  Their songs venture into completely unexplored sonic territory.  The narration provided by frontman Edward Ka-spel, which rarely contains a chorus or a refrain, explores some of the most beautiful and horrific aspects of inner space.  The hippies might have taken trips to the other side, but the Dots have a fucking house there.

Now comes the eternal question amongst music geeks: What album should I start with (or if I'm just going to get one, what should it be?)  It's certainly a good question with this band, as they've released well over fifty records.  In fact when I interviewed Ka-Spel in 2004 I asked him what the total count was, and he said he honestly couldn't remember.  

I have seven LPD albums, and I like them all for different reasons, but the monolith that towers above them all is The Maria Dimension.  That one is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish.  It sounds like a religious opera played on children's instruments in outer space.  Hypnotic.  Surreal.  Sublime.  If you're only going to get one Dots album, for the love of God, make it that.

No musical love letter is complete without a mixtape, so on that note, I'll leave you with my 13 Favorite LPD tracks (in no particular order):

I Love You In Your Tragic Beauty

Third Secret

The Ocean Cried Blue Murder


A Space Between


Harvest Babies

Lucifer Landed

Casting the Runes

Waiting for the Cloud

The More It Changes

Madame Guillotine

On Another Shore

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Shelley's Bloody Valentine

Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his ship sunk during a tempest.  By the time he washed up on shore, the fish had eaten most of his body.  His heart, however, remained.  The organ was taken before he was cremated, and eventually ended up in the hands of Mary, who kept it in a box for the rest of her life.

Right now you're probably wondering how the woman who wrote Frankenstein could do something so morbid.  I actually give her props.  For all the corny lovebirds dropping lines about how "I gave him my heart" or "she stole my heart," Mary actually put her money where her mouth was.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Something I Found Reading 'The Old Man and the Sea'

The bird looked at him when he spoke.  He was too tired even to examine the line and he teetered on it as his delicate feet gripped it fast.

'It's steady,' the old man told him.  'It's too steady.  You shouldn't be that tired after a windless night.  What are birds coming to?'

The hawks, he thought, that come out to sea to meet them.  But he said nothing of this to the bird who could not understand him anyway and would learn about the hawks soon enough.
                                                                                                    ~ Ernest Hemingway

Then it was quiet again.  My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process.  "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses.  "Never mind," I said.  "It's your turn to drive."  I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway.  No point mentioning those bats, I thought.  The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
                                                                                                    ~ Hunter S. Thompson