music won't save you

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interview: PIANO MAGIC

Three years later, we find back Glen Johnson just when he’s releasing the first album under his own name, “Details Not Recorded”. Meanwhile, his constant passion for writing music kept him busy not only with Piano Magic, but with many other different projects.
Still, his creativity is focusing on new goals and new musical directions.

We last talked just after “Disaffected”: it seems that many people suddenly discovered Piano Magic only with that wonderful album – at least in Italy – probably because of its dark atmospheres and the eighties-like taste of some of its tracks. How does it feel being identified mostly with that record, while you have a longer and multifaceted career?
Are we mostly identified with that record? Perhaps in Italy. I think it depends on who you talk to. Undoubtedly, Disaffected was something of a breakthrough in some countries but if you talk to a Spaniard, for instance, they would mostly likely cite “Artists’ Rifles” as the definitive Piano Magic album. Or “Low Birth Weight”. But from my perspective, there seems to be a greater understanding of dark, romantic, 80’s influenced music in Italy and Greece than anywhere else. “Disaffected” certainly ticks those three boxes.

Some of those who discovered Piano Magic olnly listening to “Disaffected” have then been a bit disappointed by “Part-Monster” having a quite different kind of sound. What made you choose a more immediate guitar sound for the album and completely rework songs like “Incurable” and “The Last Engineer”?
I think, at that point, we were simply enjoying “rocking out” and playing bigger stages than we were used to, so we were writing songs of greater volume and dynamic. Even so, half of “Part-Monster” is fairly sedate!
As for disappointment, we primarily make music that sounds good to us. We can’t tailor-make music for fans without jeopardising our integrity.

Is the overall more immediate feeling of “Part-Monster” and “Dark Horses” Ep something you were really looking for while writing the songs? Does it depend on a different approach in playing music or also by a different source of inspiration of your songwriting?
I think it’s been an evolutionary process. What began as a fairly experimental band is now a band attempting to combine that experimentation with “real” song writing – with songs that will stay with you longer. On the one hand, we’re in an enviable position of being this “cult” band with a small but devoted following but on the other hand, I don’t think we’ve ever entirely fulfilled our potential, which is persistently frustrating but it’s this that drives us on – to get better and better and to make better and better music. “Part-Monster” and “Dark Horses” belong to a drawer in the vast cabinet that is Piano Magic. But we’re not going to add to that drawer. The next album, the one we’re writing right now, is very different to those two records.

Your lyrics keep on being very deep and full of symbolic meanings: through some of “Part-Monster”’s songs it can be read something like human nature is one of the main reasons for suffering and disease; while in “Dark Horses” I’ve been really impressed by “Stations” becasuse it made me think of what you said about you “living in the past”. So, what is now the point of your steady reflection on human nature and feelings? And how is it affecting your lyrics and the mood of your music?
I hate humans! Honestly, I would be so happy if the whole human race was wiped out tomorrow so that we could, once again, let the plants and animals get on with it. We have absolutely destroyed this planet and we’ve absolutely destroyed ourselves. We are scum!
I’ve been thinking about time machines a lot recently. The older you get, the more you wonder : “Is this going to get any better? Or is it going to get worse? Are we going to stop going to war eventually? Are we going to stop slaughtering animals? Are our teenagers going to stop sticking knives in each other? Is fascism going to be completely wiped out? Is Amanda Knox going to be free?” These questions keep me awake at night. Though particularly about Amanda Knox, I’ll admit.

“Dark Horses” has been your first release on Make Mine Music, a wonderful label, yet a “cult” one, while Piano Magic is now so popular that one could even expect a signing for a major. I read it’s been a choice of artistic freedom and independency, something that nowadays has to be further appreciated. Can you tell us something more about your choice and the way you got in touch with the label?
Piano Magic could not and would not be on a major label. Several things here: we do not sell enough records, we are too old, we are unfashionable, we do not compromise. I have many years experience of the conventional music industry and it’s left a very bad taste in my mouth. Most independent labels are as bad as the majors but at least the majors know what they’re doing. The majority of indies are run by one or two once-enthusiastic kids who say to themselves, “I love music so why don’t I start a record label?”. But when it comes down to putting in hard work, promoting the records, paying the band on time, speculating to accumulate, it becomes a different story. I was, quite simply, tired of working with inept labels who were all talk and no action.
At least on Make Mine Music, we have 100% control over everything we do. We release whatever we want to, when we want to, we have worldwide distribution through Cargo, we have great relationships with mail order companies like Norman and Boomkat and we are paid automatically for our sales. This last thing is very important. If a record label doesn’t account to you, doesn’t pay you every 6 months, as it says in your contract, how do you continue to exist? With Make Mine Music I don’t have to worry about that.
On a less formal note, I’ve known MMM’s co-founder, Scott Sinfield (aka Portal) for many years and through him, I started to learn more about MMM’s unique system of operation and it became more and more attractive to me, as an alternative to the dire situation we were in. I’m also a big fan of bands like July Skies, Epic45 and Portal on the label.

On MMM you’re now releasing your first album as Glen Johnson: what does tell it apart from a Piano Magic record? Would you also explain something about its title and beautiful cover art?
I’m a very prolific songwriter. I spend several hours a day at the computer filling my hard drive with music for either Piano Magic, Textile Ranch, Future Conditional or several other projects without names. Piano Magic was in hibernation and quite simply, I just thought, “I’ll make a solo record until the others wake up.” It’s more experimental than Piano Magic are right now and it takes its inspiration from much further back in time. There are waltzes and Baroque influences plus a bit of Leonard Cohen, Bjork, Disco Inferno.
The artwork came from me looking around MySpace. I found this great work by an American oil painter called Julia Haw, who happened to be a Piano Magic fan, so I asked her if she’d paint something for the cover of my solo album. Which she did, “The Headless Surgeon”. And the wonderful 12 page lyric booklet was designed by Gerald Tournier of the French group, For The Chosen Few. I try to make the artwork as impressive as the music or even more impressive! I have no time for downloads. I’m old school – I want something you can hold in your hand and cherish for the rest of your life. Not something that will be wiped from your iTunes library when your computer dies. Think of all these groups whose legacy will be mp3s! They’ll be on their deathbeds mumbling, “I wish I’d done vinyl!” Ha!

Piano Magic, Textile Ranch, Future Conditional, Glen Johnson: different denominations for a different music that still shows your personal imprint. But where are you going now in music? And what can we expect from your future releases?
I honestly can’t stop! But we’re working hard on a new Piano Magic album right now, for release before September. There’s also a new Future Conditional album starting to take shape and well, I enjoyed doing the solo album so I’ll be releasing a four track Ep on cassette for the new Italian label that’s partly run by Jukka from Giardini Di Mirò, Secret Furry Hole.

You know about the growing popularity and the good feedback your music is having in Italy: are you planning to come back and play here soon?
Is it growing? Can we come back? Well, yes, we’re planning Italian shows this year. Perhaps even this Summer.

(originally published

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Questa voce è stata pubblicata il 23 marzo 2009 da in interviste.
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