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Piano Magic
an interview with Glen Johnson by Martin Williams / pictures by Andy Willsher

Piano Magic by Andy Willsher"Music won't save you from anything but silence," Glen Johnson intones on the song of the same name, the opening gambit of Piano Magic's new album, 'Writers Without Homes'. It's an unresolved pronouncement perhaps, one that's potentially as difficult to pin down as Piano Magic themselves, with their ever-shifting membership and large-scale vision. As if to reinforce his claim, the song switches abruptly into an extended, liberating 'rock out', visceral enough to act as self-validation and underscore the redundancy of ascribing responsibilities to something so subjective. Although partially defined by an effete poeticism, a sound that's delicate without seeming precious or fussy, Piano Magic aren't afraid of unbuttoning their heavier side. When I asked Glen how he responds to the Piano Magic fan's desire for the band to play his/her favourite songs live, he said, "by diplomatically launching into a song they've never heard before. Loudly." It's just such an interest in exploring their limits, an almost obstreperous obliviousness to both propriety and their own precedents that makes Piano Magic so compelling.

Piano Magic records can be beautifully unpredictable, resembling something like a various artists sampler, while still retaining an identity, an aesthetic. Is this unpredictability something you crave?
Not 'crave', no. None of it is by design or need. It just happens and I like it. The identity, aesthetic or whatever you'd like to call it - theme? - is most likely down to the fact that I 'oversee' everything so things will sound 'like me'. That's the only explanation I can come up with for things sounding diverse and yet somehow related.

Since there are tracks on which you don't feature at all, what actually constitutes Piano Magic?
Piano Magic constitutes music I oversee in some form. Invariably, my stamp is on it, be it in the form of lyrics or a single handclap, but true to say, I don't need to play or sing on the track for it to be 'Piano Magic'. It's a net in which everything gets caught. I'm just the fisherman.

What is your earliest musical memory?
Having records bought for me. I think the first record my parents bought me was You'll Never Walk Alone by Liverpool Football Club. In retrospect, I've tried ever since to make a record as good as that one. We'll skip the Gary Glitter obsession when I was four.

You seem to be a fan of the 7" single. What are the virtues of this format? Do they present an opportunity to be more devil-may-care than the pieces that make up the longer, connected works like 'Son de Mar' or 'Artists Rifles'?
I think they do, yes. You certainly have a certain mind-frame when you know something is for a 7" and it's not going to have any major impact on the chart. You have to keep things short and, in our case, it's the pallet on which the weird shit gets done, invariably. I have a lot more fun on the shorter formats - the B-side is the domain of the artist's true intent.

Why do you make music?
I make music to, above all, get out what I've got in. I'm clearing out the attic. If I don't empty it regularly, the ceiling will cave in.

Why music, specifically, as opposed to, say, sculpture or letter writing? An unanswerable question maybe, but I was hoping to segue into addressing what seems to be a modern compulsion for everybody to be publicly 'creative'. Almost every person I know is cooking up something, be it a novel, film, music, photography. Valid endeavours, of course. But participating in these activities is one thing. They seem always to be accompanied by a desire to foist the results on the public and be recognised, to whatever extent, for them. I'm interested in people's motives. Can we all really have something genuinely vital to articulate?
Ok, I see what you mean. I started making music to fill a gap in my record collection, I think. I did it for me. In the early '90s, there was this whole wave of bands that were trying to take music somewhere else and I was so excited by this 'what's round the corner?' feeling. Bands like Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Insides, Papa Sprain, Seefeel, His Name Is Alive were throwing away the rock rulebook and yet, it wasn't what most people seemed to want so these bands sold nothing and split. There was a big gap then. I felt like bad pop had won. So Piano Magic formed at the funeral and picked up the torch. I wanted to see what could've happened. Whether we've succeeded in moving things on at all, I don't know. It's not for me to measure. Still, once you start getting people telling you you're good (our first review was a single of the week in Melody Maker and Peel started playing us immediately), vanity or narcissism or ego or whatever starts to take a hand. You can start to make records to become more and more famous and, of course, to make more money and you can lose touch with why you're doing all this. I've filled the gap in my record collection so why do I go on? It's certainly not to be rich or famous. I have a job that pays me enough - I don't need more money. I work with 'famous' people in my job and I've seen how it often eats their lives and I certainly don't want that. I am, as I said, just clearing out what I have in the attic/in my head and I'm playing live to reach new levels of... I don't know what to call it... just new levels. I can't stop. I think I would have the "gap" back if I stopped now. Like a wound that can't heal. But why music over anything else? I don't know. It's like finding an old machine and you clean it up a bit and suddenly you get it working and it starts making all these beautiful things and you discover that the 'OFF' button doesn't work so it goes on and on and on and on and there's nothing you can do about it. I want to write a book. But you'd have to hide all the instruments in the world first.

Do you feel that music, or art in general, is somehow illogical, and needs a leap of faith to survive analysis like, 'why do you make music?' Or can such questioning itself be a fruitful part of the process?
I think the questioning of motives is a distraction at best and, depending on who you are, is either a pleasant or unpleasant one. For me, the 'reasoning' behind my making music is a tiny detail tucked away in a corner, dusted down about every four years. You think a cow ever wonders why it needs to be milked? It just wants the fucking stuff out of it.

There's a literary quality to many Piano Magic songs. Do you take any conscious direct influence from literature? Or films, painting...?
I'd like to deny 'conscious', but the words certainly seem to come out of something that I've had an emotive response to, be it a girlfriend leaving me or Picasso's Guernica. I'm going through a heavy Tarkovsky period, freeze-framing the videos at the most beautiful scenes of ennui. The closing shot of 'Andrei Rublev' is of three horses eating grass in rain and it destroys all art before and after it...

What was your process of writing for the screen with 'Son de Mar'? Did this differ from your usual manner of composition?
Writing music for films is like trying to get your dick to fill a hole in a dam wall but the hole keeps getting bigger (or smaller). A frustrating experience that, the more it goes on, bears less and less resemblance to art. Whatever you may think the director wants, you're likely to find that your sights are always slightly crooked. Writing and recording with the band is a much more organic process. If we like it, it goes on. There's no second-guessing from outside forces. Oh, wait a minute, there's the label...

Has your role at Tugboat/Rough Trade informed Piano Magic's dealings with record labels?
Totally. I have a certain way of doing things as the label manager for Tugboat/Rough Trade and I obviously think it's the right way of doing things. But as an artist, I'm working with labels that have their own way and their own agenda, so we often clash. And then we compromise. Because you have to or it's stalemate. I think my day job has been invaluable to the band. We're not naive and 4AD/whoever, knows that. We can't be pushed around. Future labels turn away now.

In addition to those influences you name-checked, I hear a connection to some of the '60s and '70s experimental music from people like Gavin Bryars or Steve Reich. Is this an area you have any interest in?
Only recently in those two artists, I have to say. I tend to check artists out only after people have said, 'Piano Magic sound like this band or that band' and not before. I'm much more educated in the 'now', than the pioneers and classics. I mean, I'm down the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden every Saturday buying whatever they recommend, the stuff on the counter, whatever's out that week.

What was the last record you bought?
'Endless Summer' by Fennesz.

You referred to several bands that inspired you in the early '90s, and a concurrent feeling that "bad pop" had won. What are your feelings about music ten years on, and the music of the future?
I blame The Beatles... though they knew not what they were doing... There's this inherent view that a song is, essentially, played on a bass, guitar, drums; is sung melodically, has a verse, chorus and a middle eight. For some reason, the vast majority of songwriters and bands stick as closely to that blueprint as possible. It's the easy option. But what it leaves us with is a tortoise-paced evolution in terms of music. I'm not saying that Piano Magic are some form of sonic anarchists but we do believe in moving things on, even if it's an inch forward for every inch Starsailor take us backwards. But there is advancement in pop music, of course - something like [Kylie Minogue's] Can't Get You Out Of My Head is probably the most modern, shining example of where pop should be going next and that video too - it's like Fritz Lang's vision of the future. That song was obviously written on a keyboard or a guitar or whatever but it's presented with so much more panache and invention than something like Starsailor or Stereophonics or whatever. I'd like to think people will take something from that and push the next thing a little bit further - like, say, Timbaland does...

In CwaS last year you said, "the best bands have been those with four great ideas and a two-string guitar as their source". Where does that leave Piano Magic these days, when (I imagine) certain limitations would now be an affectation, in that you no longer have to make do with four-track or eight-track machines. How has the change in recording circumstances altered the music that's produced?
We still work with four-tracks and eight-tracks by choice but you're right, we don't have to. Recording at home has a totally different, more personal atmosphere to it - you can often 'feel' the room. In that respect, it's a great document of the time and place you recorded it. Studios tend to lend the sound a timeless quality - the sound is "clean" and intended for maximum consumption. But certainly they open up a vast palette of sonic possibilities too. I do believe you can make a great album with just a tape machine - check out Jeffrey Lewis' 'The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane...' - it's the ideas that count. Same for literature, same for photography, same for any art. We 'advanced' to the studio for one or two tracks on the new album because, on those one or two tracks, we wanted to recreate our live sound as best we could, but the other eight or so tracks on the album were recorded on an eight-track at home, Pro Tools at home or in a demo studio using Cubase. You use what you have. I certainly don't have much affection for the Spiritualized approach. How can you justify it?

Where does playing live fit into the whole scheme of things for Piano Magic? You've spoken about stage fright in the past - is this still a factor?
It started out as a home recording project, and it was the plan to keep it indoors. I was very into the idea behind This Mortal Coil, which was essentially a guy with ideas and limited musical ability plus an engineer/producer with a little more musical ability holed up in a studio trying things out. They didn't play live - probably couldn't if they wanted to. But, once we'd put a record out, we felt guilty about not going out there and promoting it. So we cobbled together a version of the band that could tread the boards and, what do you know, we came to actually enjoy it. The live thing is the 'fun part' now. We really look forward to playing - the stage fright tends to dissipate the more gigs you do.

How do you reconcile presenting the more musique concrete aspects of Piano Magic in a live setting? Not just the recreation of certain sounds, but in terms of avoiding presenting what you're doing as some form of 'audio art' and instead shaping it to fit a more inclusive scenario.
We rarely play anything from the records live! That's how! We're unashamedly more of a 'rock powerhouse' live these days. Ha! In our formative years onstage, we were fiddling around with short-wave radio frequencies through all kinds of guitar pedals but we were just getting further and further up our own arses - art for art's sake. The agenda now is to actually 'move' ourselves and the audience, live. Despite all the crap Mogwai get written about them, live, they deliver on a scale we can only aspire to. You actually enter a frame you hadn't known existed before - same with Godspeed, Sigur Ros, etc. - bands that aren't just good, they emotionally move you, once the domain of only classical music. I've almost levitated onstage with the sheer 'something' of it all. Something unnamable.

You're very much a 4AD band, which makes it even more fitting when you say that [4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell's band] This Mortal Coil were an inspiration. Did you start out with objectives or ideals in terms of labels, or other activities that Piano Magic would or wouldn't participate in?
Yes, well as much as in knowing which labels I liked and thinking, 'I wouldn't mind being a part of that.' There was no great plot though - we don't stepping-stone here to a major label. Or maybe we do. I'll have to check the diagram again...

What's the significance of the title 'Writers Without Homes'?
I saw the title on posters at a drop-in centre in London - basically a creative writing class for people who didn't have anywhere to live. They'd just turn up there one wet Wednesday afternoon and write a short story or so. There's hope in that.

What guides your choice of collaborators - is it simply down to caprice and how suitable they are to the song?
We have the notion of the collaborator before we have the track invariably. We 'tailor-make' the track to the collaborator, so to speak so, our choices are purely based on whether we like what that person does/did. We were criticised in The Wire for collaborating with 'indie no-hopers' which I found incredibly pompous. We don't work with people because of the band they're in - we work with people for their own individual talent. The Wire's attitude is like that of the cool gang in the playground - "You're not cool so you can't hang around with us...." Fuck that.

Have there been any potential collaborators who declined?
Hmmm, not declined, but haven't been able to commit due to their own schedules. We wanted Yann Tiersen and Fran├žoiz Breut on 'Writers Without Homes' but one thing or another got in the way. It all worked out in their absence.

Does 4AD mean a bigger budget and more scope where collaborators are concerned?
No, we don't work with people who want a load of money. You have to be in it for the music. Most of the people on the new album did their bit for nothing. The others asked for a bit because they didn't have a steady income. There were certainly no money-grabbers. That'd disqualify them immediately. We only make enough from Piano Magic to get by so there's no argument for huge payouts.

Is there no-one that you'd (hypothetically) pay relatively big bucks to work with?
If I could pay someone in some currency that wasn't money, Bill Callahan from Smog. That's my list.

The first track on 'Writers Without Homes' is called (Music Won't Save You From Anything But) Silence. Is this something you genuinely believe, or just an idea you're positing? It seems to negate the very real feelings some people hold about music (isn't the 'something'-ness you mentioned a saviour from 'nothing'-ness?) But at the same time it - and the five minutes of adrenalised rock that follows - suggests music is a self-validating thing with no obligations or responsibilities...
Music can't speak for itself. It has no mouth. Any importance it has is what we attribute to it and I think those who have these 'Greatest Albums Of All Time,' etc. polls and get all worked up about it are just deluding themselves. Likewise those people who say that music has saved their lives. You save your life - music doesn't. It's inanimate. You bring it to life. Music is fucking great. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry but you have to have that trigger inside you that wants to be flicked for it to do that. It won't save you from getting your head kicked in. It won't save you from heartbreak. I'm not soap boxing that it's bad, just that it's not some almighty saviour.

Isn't that reductive enough to be able to be applied to anything - you have to possess the capacity to be changed by something to actually be changed by it. A claim that music saved someone's life is hyperbole, surely. Maybe it didn't 'save' their life, but it could have changed their life, for better or worse.
I've not suggested the contrary of anything you've just said. My line is: it is not a saviour. People attach an importance to it that I don't subscribe to (though I understand why they do it). I'm not arguing anything beyond that. I'll stay in my corner. Coming out only attaches more pseudo-importance to a chronic cause. Perhaps you'll get back to me when you have the casebook of its miracles?

CWAS #10 - Spring 2002