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The Wisdom of Harry
an interview with Peter Astor by Matt Dornan / pictures by Midori Ogata
Wisdom: Capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgement in the choice of means and ends; sometimes, less strictly, sound sense, esp. in practical affairs: opp. to folly.
Anyone introduced to the music of Pete Astor within the last two years, under the guise of The Wisdom of Harry (or the now-obligatory side-projects Ellis Island Sound, Atari Priest and the soon-to-surface And...) may find the evolutionary curve that links his eighties incarnation as leader of The Weather Prophets and The Loft a perplexing and less-than predictable one. Last year's Japan-only compilation Providence spanned Astor's career from 1984-1991 and, placed alongside 99s debut Wisdom of Harry album Stars of Super 8, vividly emphasised the changing musical climate and Astor's own shift into new musical territories.
"I just got tired of working in the same way, basically, which was 'album, record a lot of songs, album,'" he explains over a Notting Hill latte. "I'd pretty much done an album a year until 91, 92. And it was getting some new equipment and learning to use that and confronting that stuff. Because I grew up with a punk rock idea in my head about mistrusting too much equipment and mistrusting gizmos of any description I avoided learning how anything worked, indeed learning how to play the guitar. The less I learned the better, I thought. But then I realised I could get to the music I wanted to make far better by learning how some of the newer technology worked. I wasn't answering the sounds in my head, the things I wanted to hear. I got completely focused on the songwriting end of what Velvet Underground did and not the sonic end. All the electronic stuff linked it back to that.
"It's funny because I [was] in Germany recently and someone brought along an interview I'd done in the late eighties. And in it I'm talking about Sly & Robbie and things like that, dub and this stuff and I thought 'I talked a very good record in those days.' Because I thought I would have been saying, 'Oh I love The Stones, and Creedence' and all that sort of stuff. My tastes have always been really, really wide but they became narrowed down, in a sense, to the point where I bought Jesse Winchester records. And if you buy Jesse Winchester records you know you're in a weird place! Nothing wrong with Jesse Winchester as such but he's a bit like an echo of an echo of an echo. It's like Dylan's a genius and you go too far into one particular thing. And that's true of the electronic stuff as well, when you listen to the sub-sub-Autechre band you know you've been buying too much electronic music as well. It was like I ended up in an aesthetic cul-de-sac."
Given that Wisdom of Harry is, essentially, Pete Astor, did you give the project a name to separate it from your previous solo work?
"I like the mythic element of a band, whether you're a band or not, I think it's a bit more thrilling. And, having been guilty of it myself, the solo singer-songwriter implies a certain self-indulgence, which I was really sick of. And a certain lack of generosity, like 'me and my pain, me and my terrible pain and my bedsit.' I find that very self-indulgent and not that helpful."
So were you looking to create something you hadn't heard before, or an amalgamation of all the things you enjoyed?
"It's always a rather implausible vanity when artists go 'I try to create music that has never, ever been made before.' Speaking just for myself, but I actually think it's true for everybody, you like stuff and you think 'oh, I wanna do some of that' and you kind of do it and, in between your own particular take on it and in all the ways you get it wrong, you maybe end up with something which, conceivably, ends up being quite original. And it can result in some appalling music and I think the reasons people make dull records are probably the same reasons people make really great records."
It's also knowing when to take the spirit of something and make it your own as opposed to recreating it. You're quoted as saying a similar thing regarding Ronnie Lane circa 1972 - people trying to emulate a specific time and sound to the point of buying the same equipment.
"Absolutely. And I think if you do that you lose the spirit of what made it good. I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard a song - the one good song that Ronnie Wood ever wrote. I was listening to it with my partner and we're both going 'this is one of them bloody Ocean Colour Scene type bands but this is actually pretty good.' And, sure enough, it's off Ronnie Wood's solo album from the 70s. It's a great throwaway, sub-Ronnie Lane song. And I love Ronnie Lane, there's nothing wrong with that. But it sounded great and it had a certain energy because actually, you know he'd been immersing himself in late Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones records, blah blah blah, but because it was 1976 it just had a bit of energy to it, it felt different. It was ironic really because it was a real blind test. I found myself begrudgingly saying 'well if this is Ocean Colour Scene, I have to say it's good.' There's something a little bit atrophied and moribund if you actually hear an Ocean Colour Scene record. It's like all that stuff but not as good. It smells different when it's 25 years old. It staggers me the number of people working in music and trying to make it a tourist trip into the past. There's an awful lot of music being made that owes a huge debt to electro but it's not like some horrible retro-electro. Like the new Two Lone Swordsmen album I think is brilliant, there's a huge debt to electro in it but it doesn't sound like any electro record that was ever made. That's what you should be doing. I'm not doing it because I thought, 'Hmm, if I grow the right sideburns and I've got just this cut of boot-cut jeans' and all that nonsense - that's death. If that's the only music that's around, I wouldn't be making music now. I'd be playing ice-hockey."
Do you pre-plan the ratio of vocal to instrumental tracks?
"I try to judge the tracks not on whether they've got vocals or not, so I didn't want to get into the pitfall of vocal-instrumental-vocal. I'm very much in two minds about the music that I like. It'll go from something that's very minimal and very instrumental and anti-narrative to something that's really lyrical and wordy. And that's where my tastes go so, in a sense, that's where my music goes. I think maybe people respond a little more to the vocal tracks because there is something quite primal about the human voice. It's interesting that a lot of very left-field electronic people are incorporating the human voice in their stuff a lot more because there is something in the voice that really touches people. I've got a little boy who's eight months now and if I sing he's like 'what the fuck's happened to Dad? What's coming out of his mouth?' We sing him Shiny Shiny Pimpmobile! Hope that won't have a bad effect when he's older."
Stars of Super 8 fits together really well, despite it being technically a compilation. It wasn't troughs and peaks like 'here's and a-side and here's the b'
"Yeah, I spent a long time trying to get the programming right for that, same with House of Binary. I do actually put a lot of time into making cassettes of the order of the thing and try to listen to it non self-consciously. Stars of Super 8 was perhaps more difficult because I had a limited amount of things I could choose from. I'd think 'I'd like one of these here, but I didn't release one of these so I'm going to have to have one of them.' It gives things more of a 'grain' and, in that respect, Stars of Super 8 and House of Binary are quite similar. Trying to get it right with what was at my disposal."
When you are writing for a record now, do you reject things for sounding unoriginal? Is there any fear of repetition?
"I think because I record it in my own enviroment, making a record is a very different experience than it used to be. You can have much more of a DJ or curatorly approach to what you do. You can, in a sense, look at all the DATs and go 'maybe I'll put this on it, maybe I'll put that on it' and, if you're going to do that properly, you can't function on self-conscious notions of what's cool or what's smart. When I was getting House of Binary together, I was thinking 'in some ways what I'd really like to do know is a full-on singer-songwriter record, guitar and voice.' Because it would really piss people off. In a sense that was the critic in me thinking. In the end I thought 'this is what I do this is what I'll make' and that's the answer to the self-conscious. The self-conscious record would have said 'ah fuck it, I'll make an acoustic record' because it would have been a very funny thing for me to do in a sense. I may still do that but you have to feel the emotional truth of what you're doing. It sounds pompous but it's true, and if you don't find that truth you make crap."
CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000