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The Real Tuesday Weld
an interview with Stephen Coates by LD Begthol
Close Your Eyes When You Read This: Mr Stephen Coates types up an e-storm from his quaint Clerkenwell digs in answer to various burning questions about psychological necessity, defeating technology, Cupid & Psyche, the death of (the) soul, the triumph of the innocents and that crazy little thing called love. So how are you, Stephen? Busy being a rising young pop star?
I wish. I Love the Rain has been on the radio over here which is very appropriate because precipitation levels have been high. And Asteroids over there. I got something from Kindercore saying we were the '5th most-added on college radio in the US. Whatever that means. That means album sales.
Here's hoping! Yes, sir! So, the boring question first: How do you write songs?
I usually hear something on a record, in the dead of night or remember something and find a bit of music and start add-libbing. Over loops, or at the keyboard or computer?
All three, but I am moving toward the piano more and more I'm even taking lessons. But I am not sure if I have anything left to say about love. Is there anything left to say about love? I'm no good at love, myself.
Me, neither. That's why we write about it, I suppose. Probably. But I don't really write much that's autobiographical. Do you?
No. But even in writing about something or someone else it's you that gets communicated. The autobiography is in there somewhere but its more like an archetypal image...Like romantic clichés? They're fun to mangle and reinvent.
Love is a cliché. Only when you are in it or falling from it or it from you does it seem unique and original. You hear some cheesy song and break down. When you're in love, the critical faculties and objectivity go and you are swimming or drowning in subjectivity Do you spend lots of time being over-analytical?
I am trying to give it up but its an old, old habit. In the blood?
In the bruises! Bruises is my favorite song on your new album! Are you currently in love? Have any crushes? I know this is sounding a bit 'chickfactor'-ish!
No. Oh, I don't know. I never know until afterwards. Your songs are very heart-on-the-sleeve and fervent. That seems to go against the reticent English stereotype.
I can't do anything else although I have tried. I know it sounds terrible, but I suppose writing has become a psychological necessity. In a therapeutic way?
Yes, although unpremeditated. It helps make things meaningful. At the end of the day, if you're lucky you have a song.
You know, if I don't do it, I feel terrible. But there is an immense joy in working and somehow it makes me better to be around. I'm not happy when I don't do it. What're you like when you're bad to be around?
Glum and moody. Not cool moody, just grumpy. How did you get started in music?
I was always going to be a visual artist but I couldn't get away from 'style' so I came to music. What's wrong with style?
There's nothing wrong with style but it was always someone else's. Ah, the facility trap. But your music isn't really like anyone else's.
Thank you! Oh, I've been meaning to ask you, was your song The Way We Live Now [featured on CWAS 7] autobiographical at all? Not autobiographical in the sense that the incidents actually happened to me, but they're things that could have happened and probably do happen every day. But yes, I really do not like the way we live now. I think it's demoralizing.
I know what you mean. I am terrified the soul will go out of things. I moved house because of that! What!?!?
I lived in Notting Hill. When I moved there it seemed a wonderful bohemian place this mix of cultures, incomes, etc. A bit like the Lower East Side, perhaps. But now it's almost Chelsea. So I found an apartment above the Fleet River here in Clerkenwell, the oldest part of town. When I was in London this past January doing the Magnetic Fields shows, I was aghast at how bland and mall-ish central London had become. So American.
It's sad. Particularly because the people who used to live there - who made it what it was - can no longer afford it. It's mainly bankers now, I think. Just like the Lower East Side these days, affluent and boring. That's why I moved to Brooklyn - cheap rent, no hipsters, no hideous yuppies.
The bit where I am is still rather strange. It's a very interesting place to live. Do you know that song White Horses from the 60s? How I wish I'd written that. No what is it?
White Horses was the name of a kids' TV series and it had this terrible dubbing but the theme tune was by a woman called Jackie a one hit wonder. And a wonder it is ripe for a cover version. It has the only guitar solo I ever liked: four notes! The guitar is strictly a rhythm instrument in my book. What made you think of White Horses just now? What're your favorite lyrics from it?
I have been thinking of doing an EP of covers - White Horses, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?, Terrapin, Teddy Bears' Picnic. The lyrics run "Come, white horses, let's ride away / White horses in the sky away." It's not Gershwin! No, but it's very 'Brazil', which your music always reminds me of technology that's meant to be progressive and happy-making, and yet it's always breaking down.
Funny you should mention 'Brazil' we were talking of it last night. There is something wonderful in that combination of the romantic and the sinister. I always thought the ending was a happy one a triumph of the imagination over oppression. I like the fact that your music isn't nearly so hi-tech as it could be. Like there's just enough juice to run your little sampler and no more.
Yes, and it breaks down a lot. My studio is tiny. That's so great - defeating technology, I mean. And not looking for perfection. It's so boring.
The only way to defeat technology is to not bother with it too much. Everyone can make 'CD quality' recordings now. Have you always been into 30s music? How'd you get interested in it?
When I was a kid, my Great Uncle George...For whom you wrote a song?
Yes. Who was totally locked in the past, used to play that stuff all the time and my father played 'easy listening.' Somehow it kind of sunk in and remains very evocative - those years sandwiched between two global disasters, romance in the face of doom! There's something about that that gets me still. The English stuff is more uptight, I think, than the American and I like that. It's totally fantastical, naive, innocent - the beginnings of people declaring themselves. Again that archetypal quality. Like Cupid and Psyche. You can read it from the point of view of either one of them - getting burnt and running or betraying and trying to catch up. Have your read lots of mythology?
I am very interested in mythology. With the tale of Cupid and Psyche, for instance, you can read your own story against it and it somehow makes it more meaningful So tell us about your song, Goodbye, Stephen.
I wanted to imagine my funeral. It's a kind of valediction song to say goodbye first to me and to all the others in case I didn't get chance to beforehand. It's a happy song to me. It makes me a smile and is kind of a counterpoint to Bruises.I think it's very sweet and funny. You wrote Bruises with my hero, Martyn Jacques [of The Tiger Lillies]?
Yes, we were working on the soundtrack for a cartoon called 'Hubert's Brain' and it came from that. That's Martyn on backing vocals. He is a hero - the devil with the angel's voice. How do you know them?
I met Martyn and Sophie, his wife/manager, at an evening class What was the class?
Meditation, jazz things. Naturally. So tell me more about your new album. Or should I say albums? Why the different versions, two titles, different tracks? It's like there's no definitive version.
They're different because of the different record companies [Dreamy (UK) and Kindercore (US)], and wanting to have songs on each that weren't otherwise available in the respective countries. And I like to keep it all ambiguous. I'm thinking of only doing EPs from now on. Me, too. Albums are too long.
Yes. There is something lovely about short things and how they are somehow more complete in themselves. But I know the commercial realities. Most Beatles albums are right around forty minutes. It was the 70s and prog rock that got everyone onto long albums. Then CDs made it worse...
But really those albums are only twenty minutes; there was that all-important break while you changed sides!
LD Beghtol who lives in the hideously unfashionable Bushwick sector of Brooklyn heads the largely bearded acoustic string ensemble, Flare, and is one-half of the bicoastal experimental pop duo, Moth Wranglers. His checkbook remains unbalanced.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002