music won't save you

suggestioni musicali a cura di raffaello russo

interview: PIANO MAGIC

After his critically acclaimed “Disaffected”, Glen Johnson – heart and mind of Piano Magic – tells us about the inspirations of his songs, as a man more than as a simple musician.
His kindness and his rare capacity to talk about his past and present emotions turned a simple mail exchange in a chance to know better a very sensitive and elegant artist, through the same deep feelings he puts in his music.

First of all, I think you are one of the most versatile artists now on the scene, you cross genres and definitions. Does this depends on a precise artistic choice, or is it mostly influenced by the changing feelings when you are writing music?
It’s interesting for us to hear that we cross genres. We weren’t conscious of that. It’s very simply a case of us making the music we want to make and not paying much attention to where we are on the musical map. Certainly our emotional states come into play when we write something. Usually, my lyrics will dictate the “feel” of the track and as you’ve probably noticed, my lyrics are invariably introspective, melancholy, disenchanted. (Though, as anyone who knows me will testify, this is rather deceiving, as I am quite a contented individual).

In which of your albums do you think you have expressed better your way of feeling life and music?
Well, they all capture a point in time for me and I’m happy with how all of them turned out. Certainly, I could go back through every one, weeding out tracks I’m not too sure about, in retrospect but they are what they are. I suppose “The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic” is the most definite mirror of my emotions though. A bleak, dark period. Ironically, one I’d rather forget but I have this fucking monument to it now!
I wrote about “Disaffected” (but it’s valid for nearly all your production) that you are an “out of time artist”, but non an anacronistic one.

You could’ve been writing music in the 80s as well as during all the 90s; I think the word “influence” fits very little to you, but do you think that listening to music of these years could’ve changed your musical sensibility, or would it have been the same also in the past decades?
We’re very happily “out of time,” for sure and yet, I would be lying if I said I, personally, wasn’t influenced by certain artists, certain “movements” in contemporary music – from the Velvet Underground through to Nick Drake to early 80’s synthpop to The Smiths to Factory Records and 4AD to early 90’s progressive groups like Disco Inferno. These are the records I always come back to and thus, they must be the primary influence on me as a songwriter and lyricist. I’m not ashamed of any of this. I was exchanging mails with David Tibet of Current 93 recently and he told me that his influences were ten years before mine. So, we probably live in separate bottles.

You are a truly “european artist”: now Piano Magic is composed for three quarters by French musicians and the last two albums have been edited by a little spanish label. It seems you have a close link with a meditterranean or latin sensibility, but where does your heart beat?
My heart beats everywhere, thankfully! But, yes, I feel more “alive” in Europe – that is, the Europe outside this little island of ours. I am envious as to the culture, the romanticism, the people….not all of it, of course but I’ve always had a comparative disillusionment with England. I think it lets itself down. Piano Magic absorb the most inspiration from environment and landscapes, I’d say, from Perugia to Landes to Valencia…..

In your lyrics London is very recurring (“Comets”, “I Must Leave London”, to cite the last ones): is this a true and strong link of yours with the city or is London mostly a place of your soul?
I have a love/hate relationship with London. It loves me and I hate it. Right now (and for the past nine years), it’s been necessary that I live here, for work or for the band or for relationships but I’m always looking over the fence and imagining a life elsewhere. There are so few excuses for me not moving to Paris tomorrow.

Which is your ideal mood for composing? Does it depend on your feelings at the moment or are your songs born in an incremental and more technical way?
Emotions first. The group has a unique chemistry after playing together for so long that we can literally build a song from a sheet of lyrics now. Some of our songs are written in our rehearsal studio but the lyrics first must be written by me, at home, bottle of wine at my side, photo of my dead girlfriend in front of me.

It seems that your music is always suspended between different fascinations and different aesthetics – semplifying, from soundtrack to pop, from wave to electronica – but, whatever musical “dress” it wears, it’s always truly distintive and easily recognizable. To you, is this the prove that schemes and definitions are less important than emotions, so that the listener must go further than a superficial approach to your music?
Whatever we do sounds like Piano Magic. That’s the central, important factor to all our songs. It’s subconscious that we operate in different genres and I’m being very honest about that. Somewhere, at the back of my mind is this intension to make this grand, romantic, epic, anthemic music that makes people cry – like Dead Can Dance meets Low! – but I feel we are a long way off from that. It’s terminally frustrating. We do what we can, given our limited resources.

You started playing cheap keyboards, then continued approaching electronics, and in the last years there are some electronic themes, from the impetuous drumming of “Saint Marie”, to the glacial and minimal tracks in “Open Cast Heart” Ep, ending up with the unexpected dance (tasting very 80’s) of “Disaffected” and “Deleted Scenes”, so, how is your relation with electronic instrumentation and expecially, which kind of electronics?
I should point out that only myself, Cedric and Jerome have any interest in electronic music. Al and Franck have none at all. But, yes, the three “techno-heads” in the band possess a deep, deep love for anything electronic fro Kraftwerk to Soft Cell to Depeche Mode to New Order to Aphex Twin to the new stuff coming out on Type or City Centre Offices. We’re very lucky to have a great electronic music record shop 5 minutes away (Smallfish Records) that furnishes all our needs. My own dalliances with electronica go back to the early 90’s when I was trying to emulate Cabaret Voltaire and Soft Cell with a very cheap, nasty Yamaha keyboard and I still, of course, make electronic music as Textile Ranch and more recently (with Cedric) as Future Conditional.

It seems you’re always searching for a musical form and also for a vocal one, in particular Piano Magic hosted some different female voices, from Rachel Leigh to Angele David-Gilliou; is the choice for a female voice born while writing a song or is it a decision depending on some peculiar character of the track?
In the early days of Piano Magic, we simply took whoever would do it! That was the only criteria – someone, female, who had a half-decent voice. Rachel, luckily, sounded like a Victorian porcelain doll. Still, I think Angele is the quintessential Piano Magic voice. She sounds warm and cold at the same time, romantic, timeless. She’s sung with Hubert-Felix Thiefaine recently and previously Etienne Daho, as well as in her French rock group, Ginger Ale. She also has a solo album out, under the name, Klima on Peacefrog (home to Nouvelle Vague and José González) in Spring. I think she’s going to be a star. I tend to write for her now because I know her so well as a person and as a singer.

Though you have changed many collaborators, but in the last albums Piano Magic semms to be assested as a stable band. If so, have you finally found an ideal dimension of the band? And what all the previuos changes of the line-up depended on?
To me, it feels like we’ve been stable for five years – since Jerome and Alasdair joined permanently. With me, that’s essentially been the core skeleton of the band for all this time. But certainly, Franck was enrolled because I am such a limited guitarist and he’s far more advanced (he even teaches guitar). And Cedric was very much needed too, to give more depth, on keyboards. We’ve settled down now. It’s been settled for about a year. Though we sometimes have a few leaves on the roof – like Angele and John Grant from the Czars. Essentially, these are people who we think will bring something we couldn’t otherwise provide, to these songs. Again, depth, resonance, emotion. I can’t sing, you have to understand. My voice is wind-battered, ailing.

What do you think about the definition “post-rock”? And what about all the music that is usually included under it? Do you feel yourself “post-something”?
Everyone asks us about post-rock and I always say the same thing : what is it? Doesn’t rock have to be dead for there to be post-rock? Rock certainly is alive and well. We don’t feel any part of a scene or even a similar aesthetic. We’re not kindred spirits of Mogwai, for sure.

Your way of writing often seems unquiet and feverish, your productions are frequent; to you , what’s the meaning of writing music? Can it be interpreted as a vent?
A vent or an exorcism, perhaps. I am well aware that I make my private life public but whether anyone cares about my trials and tribulations isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I’d rather they interpret the music for themselves rather than look too deeply into why I wrote this or why I wrote that. When I was a young man, I certainly didn’t envisage Morrissey standing at the cemetery gates – I imagined me standing at the cemetery gates.

Your discography spaces from haunting anf ethreal atmospheres to the more “concrete” songwriting of the last albums: is this a precise compositive evolution, so that the idea of a soundtrack as “Son De Mar” is now out of your projects, or do you think you can write again cinematic music (whether for a movie or not)?
We have been waiting, ever since we completed Son De Mar, for the call but no-one else has bothered to pick up the phone. We are totally able to record film music, probably even more so now than ever but it seems a lot of film production companies tend to licence existing tracks for synching now. One of our tracks, ‘You Can Hear The Room’ was used on an American cop show this week though, “CSI”.
There was a definite decision to “write songs” as opposed to “make noises” when it came to “Disaffected”. We wanted to sell more records as well as needing to explore whether we could write a melodic, even “catchy” pop song. I think “Jacknifed” is as close as we’ve come. Still, I think it’s taken us a long way down a road from which it will be difficult to turn back now. The next album, I’m sure, will be just as melodic, if not more. Ironically, we are listening to things like Liars at the moment – music coming from the opposite angle – angular, obtuse.

In your compositions there is often a sense of loss, or absence, as well as it was in My Bloody Valentine 15 years ago; yet sometimes the struggle from this absence seems to be choked under a “cold” surface. Does this depend on an attitude of your soul or on your way of writing?
It’s all about loss with me. I live in the past. I stand outside ex-girlfriends’ houses at 3 in the morning, crying. No, I don’t but I do dwell far too much on what’s gone and can never come back, as opposed to a bright and wonderful future. Are we cold? I don’t know. I tend to think of our nostalgia as very human, very warm.

In your lyrics, you often talk about “ghosts”, expecially in “Disaffected”; do you really believe in their existence or these ghosts are rather memories of real life and you try to get rid of them in music?
Well, the ghosts I refer to are just people who aren’t around anymore – not necessarily dead. It’s a metaphor. But do I believe in their existence? I’ve not had much evidence of it recently despite some interesting experiences when I was younger, which could be put down to my own negative energy.

“Love & Music” could be a perfect hymn for all those who live music like emotion, but to you which of this two elements (and in which way) brings more emotion to your life? And do you think you could ever be “disaffected” by either?
Love is way more powerful than music, for sure but The Beatles had already written “All You Need Is Love” so I had to go somewhere else with it! I could certainly live without playing music and making records but I’d need to listen to it. I have over 1,000 CD albums and I’m not about to throw them all away. But yes, love is right at the core of life, for sure. My girlfriend, my family, my friends. Music is on the periphery in comparison.

Finally, do you stil believe that “music can’t save from anything but silence”?
Music’s stupendously over-rated. It does what you want it to. It’s inanimate. You can consign it to do something. You are the facilitator. I’ll put on Nick Drake because I’m sad. But that music won’t make me any happier or sadder – I will make me happier or sadder. Vous comprenez?

(originally published on ondarock.it)

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Questa voce è stata pubblicata il 10 Mag 2006 da in interviste.
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