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Piano MagicSat slumped and cramped on an unforgiving sofa, subconciously absorbing the anonymous sounds blaring from the Notting Hill Arts Club's creaky PA, I'm losing much of what Glen Johnson is saying. But, preparing to email him the first questions of this interview I summon up two notable anecdotes. I'll ask him if he still believes Piano Magic "just made [their] best record" and, firstly, whether he really thinks "Everyone should be in a band." Surely there's a lack of quality control already...
an interview with Glen Johnson by Matt Dornan
I can't stand people who have talent and waste it," he writes. "They make me angry more than depressed. Too many people stand on the sidelines saying, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, this is how it should be done...' and then they go back to their flats and watch darts all night. Music won't move on by apathy, by not putting your ideas into practice. I believe that the best music comes from people with good imaginations first and those with an ability to play an instrument second. The best bands have been those with 4 great ideas and a 2 string guitar as their source.
Do you still stand by the judgement that Artists' Rifles is your best album and what criteria, if any, would you use to judge best and worst.
I thought we made our best record 'for the people' - the one that gelled together the irks and quirks of what Piano Magic have been about in the past 3 years. We took all the ingredients that were scattered over the 15 records or so and baked them into a cohesive, more digestible cake. But at the time of going to press, 99% of the people are disagreeing with me and telling me it isn't as good as the last album so I'm wrong and they're right.
How are they judging it? It's definitely more focused than previous records. But that would be true to say of Low Birth Weight in relation to its predecessors. Aren't they just getting nostalgic for your more 'experimental' work?
I think we change our sound and our approach quite blatantly from record to record and therefore, some people have a bit of trouble making the leap with us - the first album was 99% electronic, the second was 30% electronic, the third one was 5% electronic, etc. I know people who won't have anything to do with the guitar stuff - they prefer the retro-futurism of the electronica and we don't require them to make the shift with us if they don't want to. Artists' Rifles is definitely, as you say, 'more focused' but that can be read as 'sell-out' to some people. I think that the more 'accomplished' a band like His Name Is Alive got, the more boring they got, for instance. I'd like to think we were evolving unnaturally - that we're a chicken with a dog's head.
AR is an even more song based work than LBW. Should we expect a Glen Johnson acoustic guitar record one day?
No. I actually pine for a return to the more click-and-whirr ground of Popular Mechanics, to tell you the truth. The next record will probably reflect that.
Would you have felt the same if Artists' Rifles had been more warmly received by the people you mentioned earlier? If not to what extent, if any, are you influenced by your audience?
I'm not, honestly. I run a record label [Tugboat] and I'm constantly around bands that do pander to what they think their audiences needs are but where does that leave you at the end of the day when you've retired and you're sitting with a pile of your own albums on your knee that mean fuck all? I try not to give a fuck what any of our critics - audience or journalists - think about what we do because after all, they're one person. It's one person's opinion and that person could have woken up with a hangover that day and decided everything is shit. Things will never move on if bands give listeners the same record as the previous one. Stay mobile, evolve.
Is Artists' Rifles a concept album and, if yes, have we shaken off the stigma of all those indulgent 70s records?
There's a theme but it's a tenuous, self-indulgent one - the historical leyline between the young romantic war poets of WW1 and the young romantic unwar poets of today. I'm equating trench suffering with relationship trauma and I'm not sorry. I actually think we'd all be a lot happier if we went back to the world of theme records - 'Music To Eat Chinese Chicken To,' 'Music For Small Branch Breaking,' 'Music For The Dads Of Disco Inferno...'
When did the idea for AR come to you and did you have to adapt subsequent material you were writing to fit in with the 'concept'?
I'm incapable of writing about anything but this bottomless well of misery and heartbreak in the style of the demon of Bleak Bone House. Nothing but heartbreak and nostalgia moves me enough to write. I am absolutely incapable of writing a happy song but that's not to say I'm not happy. Artists' Rifles at it's core comes from my 3rd Year History project at school - the Rifles themselves were Wilfred Owen's regiment. I developed a sullen preoccupation with them that's lasted with me until now. I am, perhaps, Private Something-Or-Other re-incarnate. Artists' Rifles is the last muddy love note to the missus back home...
What you were saying about being incapable of writing a happy song is a recurring response from writers. It's strange how heartbreak makes people want to be creative but the last thing you want to do when you're happy is grab a guitar and tell the world about it. Probably a reflection on society in some way...
I have to debate that - tell the Boo Radleys that they don't write when they're happy. Or any chart pop sensation - it's all uplifting, optimistic, party-on stuff. It's horses for courses. I guess that when I'm happy I'm just too engrossed in that emotion to want to channel it into anything else. You heard 'Seasons In The Sun' - the Westlife version? I find it fucking amazing that they made that song sound happy; a real scarf-waver.
I haven't heard it (thankfully?). I suppose you've made me realise that I rarely listen to 'optimistic' music. Most of that stuff seems empty to me, like a mirror held up to some Utopian dreamworld which, frankly, probably wouldn't interest me even if it existed.
On the contrary, I listen to it for entertainment. It makes me laugh. Particularly R 'n' B stuff like Craig David or whatever - these paeans to the ladies who shake their stuff and let's make love all night long, etc. These are the people who, on hearing Piano Magic, would probably say that we're miserable little cunts but I get a lot from them. I actually believe R 'n' B is showcasing the most revolutionary programming of contemporary times - it's just the appalling recycled soul lyrics, voices, delivery, cliches that let it down. One step forward, three steps back. R 'n' B might move on in bounds if one of these programmers sits down and listens to some Brian Eno instead of Marvin Gaye.
And do you consider the album a 'love note' to anyone, or a tribute to the Artists' Rifles?
It's certainly a tribute to the regiment. But it's also a big 'why?' to someone. All our records are mon-uments. It's that thing of telling people you love them in case they die that day. It's also telling them that you don't love them in case they die that day.
How did your lyrical style fit with the WWI poetry theme? Was there a conscious effort to emulate that style?
I read a lot of war poetry when I was writing that album and the style may have seeped in subconsciously but I certainly wasn't taking notes. There's a 'doomed' theme running through the work of the war poets, particularly Owen - they know they're not going home - in essence, they're just effectively waiting to die. It's very, very sad stuff to read. It brings a tear to my eye to just think about it.
Which practically puts a date on the inevitable. Your line "I'm thirty two and fading fast / I started last and I finished last" hints at your own fate. Are we talking creative death or are you/we really washed up that young?
There's a theory that you're born a certain age and when you reach that age you feel completely comfortable with your being. I think I came into my own when I turned 30 and after that I entered a slide of sorts. I became resigned to fate, stopped caring about a lot of things as a means of getting through. A sort of 'what ever will be, will be' thing. Maybe I won't think like that for long, who knows? The song just pin-points what I feel now but maybe i'll look back on that when I'm 50 and think, 'How wrong was I?!'
Was it difficult to write autobiographically within the conceptual framework?
Like I said, a psycho-parallel between the romantics old and new, selfishly including myself in the later simply because I write better autobiographically than bio-graphically. I can't claim to have been through anything as severe and unjust as the Rifles but a death is a death, isn't it? Someone accused me of not understanding what's it's like to lose a person to death recently but i've loved and lost - that's a death, I think. To be totally in love with someone and then they turn heel on you leaving so many questions up in the air. No closure. A part of you dies then.
Undoubtedly,and you don't get it back. I've experienced both. To be honest death was, in some ways, easier to deal with than certain 'romantic' losses because there was that sense of 'closure' (appropriately enough) and I'm sure my brother's doing fine. I certainly felt for his girlfriend more than myself.
It's death alive. But, as you can probably testify, time deals with things - if it only eradicates your memory of the person and why you loved them. That in itself - time being the dustbinman of your emotions - is a depressing concept.
Yes and no, maybe it's more of a filter so that the truly important stuff stays with you. It certainly allows you to carry on when, at times, that's seemed an unattractive option.
This relates to the discussion above for me - 'Have I really got it so bad that i'll never love again? That i'll never want to meet a girl again?' Of course not. Once you get it into your head that you'll learn to love another day, you've won half the battle.
Does writing help answer some of those questions?
No. Only the person who left can answer the questions and even if they come back to answer them, you often find it's not enough. Writing the questions down, putting them onto record, sort of sets them in stone - a headstone to the break-up. I have my reasons for that. Complexed though they are.
My experience is that the questions fade in time. I remember being tortured by unaswered questions but they're not keeping me awake now and haven't been for a long time. I think the questions are a place for the emotions to hang out until they die.
And the questions change. Post-relationship death, you find yourself asking what you did to deserve it. Years down the line you're less self-piteous and you become philosophical about things. The more you mull anything over, the clearer it should become, in theory. When someone I know dies, I mourn for that initial period but years later I just have the good memories of them or some vague form, a haze, like a post-dream experience.
Is France, I suppose Paris in particular, a spiritual home for you? It seems to inspire you.
Yes. I only 'discovered' France last year - ridiculous as I'm only 3 hours away from Paris. I have good friends in France and, as with anywhere, the people make the place to a great extent. I go to Paris every couple of months and I see Tours (small town, an hour's train ride south of Paris) as my home-from-home in a way. I feel 'safe' there and harbour romantic delusions of uprooting and retiring there some day. No Closure is set around Tours after the huge storms just before New Years Eve last year. Whole fields were flooded, paths stopped halfway, drowned in rain. It was a very surreal landscape, like the end of the world.
I'm still awaiting that sense. I glimpse it occasionally (most of the destinations I set myself are based upon impulses that tell me I'm going 'home'), like in Tokyo or wherever. 'Safety' is the right context, definitely.
It's important to know that there are other places, other existences, that you're not anchored - you're human, you can move, you can walk out of any situation, you don't have to do ANYTHING. We're so conditioned to settle down when, in reality, we should, as a race that requires evolution, stay mobile. America wouldn't have been discovered if people hadn't gone looking for something. Same principle with music, anything. Ask questions. Is something else out there?
CWAS #5 - Summer 2000