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.

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