England - Full Moon 70 - 06/24/02
- an interview with Glen Johnson
Chess, without the rules - an interview with Glen Johnson
Piano Magic are rapidly becoming a household name among slowcore-fans in Europe (and elsewhere),
especially since they signed to the respected 4AD label in 2001 and released the soundtrack to the
Spanish movie Son De Mar (a.k.a. Sound of the Sea) [directed by weird and wonderful J.J.
Bigas Luna; known for films like Jamón jamón (1992), Huevos de oro (1993)
and La teta y la luna (1994) - editor's note] as their label debut late last year. Now the band - sometimes
described as a This Mortal Coil for the new millenium - is back with the beautiful Writers
Without Homes, their sixth album that features contributions from members of bands like Life
Without Buildings, Tram or The Czars as well as folk legend Vashti Bunyan! The band's main
songwriter, Glen Johnson (who also runs the Tugboat label that brought us Low and Sodastream among
others) recently told us, where the collective is heading with the new record.
Luna Kafé: What's it like to be in Piano Magic in the spring of 2002 (and is
it any different compared to, say, 2000?)
Glen: "It's totally different. As a band, we're more relaxed, confident and 'free' than
we've ever been. I'd say that, in the Spring of 2000, we were fuelled by tension and fighting for
our life as a creative unit. Right now, having just completed a rollercoaster European tour and
with our best album about to come out, we feel like we can conquer anything. That confidence
shouldn't be mistaken for egotism, I should add." [ ;) ]
Luna Kafé: I guess the new album is yet another departure in sound and
approach. Was that sort of a masterplan from the start or did it just turn out that way over the
Glen: "There was no sitting down to discuss which radical direction we could take the new
album in; no masterplan. In fact, the opposite : we turned up at the studio with all the
instruments we could carry and said, 'Right, let's go!' 10 months later, we crawled out, slightly
rough around the edges with the beast in tow..."
Luna Kafé: Is there anything in particular that inspires these changes (events
in your life, or maybe just new records you listen to or new equipment you buy?)
Glen: "I don't know. Our sonic evolution is subconscious at best - possibly even unconscious.
Again, no flowcharts as to where to go next. We buy quite a few new toys as we go along and we meet
a lot of new people who we occasionally rope in and that all, undoubtedly, adds to the flavour at
the end. But, hmm, we're also a terrible contradiction: the band that has spent the past 4 years
playing live as a drums/bass/guitar unit, has just made it's most electronic album.....I often feel
like a chess game played by people who didn't bother with the rules..."
Luna Kafé: Would it be true to say that the "getting there", the experiments
with an everchanging sound during the songwriting and recording process interest you more than the
actual finished piece of work?
Glen: "I don't know where 'there' is. We're just wandering out into the storm, blind. Fuck
the compass, fuck the destination. The process interests us as much as the finished article, I'd
say - as with any work of art. For me personally, the pregnancy is often way more painful than
the birth but I think that will change. The more babies you have, the easier it gets apparently..."
Luna Kafé: If that is true, how does that reflect on your live shows (and
the song selection for the gigs?)
Glen: "We barely play anything from our albums, live. It's not that we don't want to -
we just can't because the people who sing on the records don't come with us on tour - they
actually have lives. We do the odd favourite - "No Closure," "Password," "Silence" but the
majority of the set is stuff that may or may not be on the future album - the one we haven't
recorded yet. Contradictions and confusion in our trail as well as being the horses that pull
the dark lords in the bone chariot..."
Luna Kafé: Do you notice a shift in the dynamics within the band with every
new record/"phase" or are the roles within the group pretty much set by now?
Glen: "Never set. I just suggested the viola player trade it in for a synth and he
expected it like you'd expect to change your socks after a hike..."
Luna Kafé: You seem to like concept records a lot - most people would probably
think it's harder to work within a conceptual framework - is that different for you or do you
just like the challenge?
Glen: "The only concept we've ever employed is the sea. Artists' Rifles wasn't a
concept record. It had a soldier on the cover and a song about soldiers - the rest was about
heartbreak and birds. We make records about the sea a lot because we're frustrated sailors. We
live so far away from it, we have to drum it up in paeans. We played on a boat in Paris last
week actually - the undulations providing a perfect metronome for some of the slower songs...."
Luna Kafé: Was is only a coincidence that the soundtrack was your debut
release for 4AD or was that a bit like "testing the waters" as well?
Glen: "It wasn't going to be the first record on 4AD for us - we were buckling down
to start Writers Without Homes but Bigas Luna called us when we were in the starting
blocks and said, please come to Barcelona and watch this film. And like housing estate children
offered sherbet dips, we could not refuse."
Luna Kafé: You've mentioned before that you don't write and record with an
audience in mind, does the move to 4AD mean your opinion slightly changed?
Glen: "No, not at all. We work on the music in exactly the same way and for exactly the
same reasons since signing to 4AD. They wouldn't want us any other way."
Luna Kafé: Do you feel a different kind of (for a lack of a better word)
"responsibility" for your band and music now that your records are widely available?
Glen: "No. We make music for ourselves primarily. Always did."
Luna Kafé: So is your approach the same regardless if it's an album on an
established label like 4AD or a limited edition of 300 vinyl only single?
Glen: "I'd be an idiot if I said that selling a million records would be crap - I'd like
to sell that many but when you start taking on responsibility (and after selling that many
records you would have responsibility to match it heaped on you like a camel), your music
invariably starts to crack under the pressure. Or you crack. Whichever comes first. We are so
involved with the making of the music that we barely look up, to tell you the truth."
Luna Kafé: I suppose both Tugboat and Piano Magic have been steadily growing
over the past few years - do you find it harder and harder to juggle the two things (or do you
have a masterplan that one doesn't get in the eway of the other?)
Glen: "I have become the juggler king though a few (free range) eggs will always break."
Luna Kafé: In an interview with "Under The Surface" magazine you said (I'm
paraphrasing) that you found it easier to run a label with your experience of being in a band
yourself because you know more about the artist's needs. Does that/How does that influence your
relationship with a label like 4AD then? You you ever feel you know what their answer's going to
be and you don't even bother?
Glen: "Ha! I always bother even if I know what the answer is going to be because the
answer is never the definitive answer. That's the first rule. A yes can always change to a no
and vice versa. You just have to compromise - not fight it out but be prepared to give a little
for everything you take. We are very happy on 4AD right now because there's simply no reason not
Luna Kafé: As I'm sure quite a few of our readers first heard about you when
the soundtrack came out, so which of your previous records would you consider a good "starting
point" for someone wanting to seek out more stuff by Piano Magic?
Glen: "Low Birth Weight gives a good indication of the 'blueprint', if you like,
even though some of the songs on there sound dated to me now. That's certainly the record I
most think is the essential Piano Magic sound - that and the new one (Writers Without
Luna Kafé: Any famous last words?
Glen: "Wisdom is for the wise. We're just passing time."
Copyright © 2002 Carsten Wohlfeld