interview: PIANO MAGIC

The new Piano Magic album, “Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet” is going to be released in June on Second Language. Glen Johnson introduce it, also talking about how his feeling about music has evolved in the last few years, from the times of “Part-Monster” and “Ovations“.

In fifteen years, Piano Magic crossed many changes in its sounds. Did it happen because of conscious choices or only depending on your inspirations?
Curiously, I’ve always thought that there is a basic “Piano Magic sound” at the core of everything we do. Even if we made a techno track, I think our fans would recognise that track as by Piano Magic because we encapsulate a certain mood or evoke certain emotions with our music. Or at least, I’m told we do. Obviously, our music is very lyrical – words play a big part so, no matter what kind of music we make, at the core there’s this prose and these themes that are quite specific to us.

Anyway, is there an album that you feel like representative of yourself more than others?
No but some day I’d like to compile what I personally think are the songs that I see as the real heart of Piano Magic. There are songs here and there, one or two on every album that touch me, even though I wrote them. I think these are that rare, rare thing – a song that somehow touches the heart, the soul and you don’t quite know why.

For about the first half of your career, Piano Magic has been something similar to an individual project with different collaborators each time, while afterwards it has become a proper band with a regular line-up. Did you find the ideal way to express yourself in the people playing with you now?
Without any disrespect to the people I play with – all of them very close friends – I don’t much like democracy! If I was left alone to my own devices, I know my music would in some ways be like Piano Magic in theme but sonically, much more minimal and less, let’s say, “rock ‘n’ roll.” I’m not saying Piano Magic is a conventional group but we do use the standard issue tools of drums, bass, guitars, etc which would limit anyone.

Some years ago, in an interview, you told that you write your lyrics alone at home, with a bottle of wine and in front of the picture of your dead girlfriend. I found this really touching: does it still happen this way? And, generally speaking, how do Piano Magic tracks get born today?
I don’t actually have a dead girlfriend. But I do like wine. Particularly Italian wine. Our most recent songs have come “sober” though. Less and less are we writing together as a band; more and more I’m recording electronic sketches at home and then asking the band to fill them in when we go to a studio. Really, I just supply the skeleton. The others supply the flesh and the muscle.

Nostalgia, absence and ghosts are often recurring in your lyrics: what do they mean for you? Writing them down helps you to keep memories alive or to exorcise them?
Well, this is the experiment isn’t it? You wonder to yourself what will happen if I capture these feelings in a song? Will they be preserved in amber for all time or will they wither and die like flowers? A few years ago, I spent many months being rather too preoccupied with my past and not at all interested in my present. I think we all go through this – if you look on Youtube, in the comments, there’s a long line of people saying how great such-and-such song was “back in the day” but songs never die so, surely they’re as good now as they were 20 years ago? Only people change.

Even if the title of the new album, “Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet”, sounds quite ironic, it seems looking forward to a future instead of drowning in nostalgia. Does it mean some change in your approach to music…or to life?
I think it’s a very positive message! Obviously there are a lot of references to suicide in this song but the narrator is saying, “I tried pills, a gun, a knife but you know, my time hasn’t come yet! I’m not ready to die!”. There’s a lot of that dark (English) humour in the new album, a lot of “Yes, we live in an awful world but I’m not giving up! I’ll be a martyr!”

Has the role of music in your life changed over the years? Do you still believe that it “can’t save you from anything but silence” or you have greater expectations from it?
I have less and less expectations from it so I’ve learnt to enjoy it more. I certainly don’t think it can save you from anything but silence but it can help to convince yourself that things are better…or worse than they really are and that’s quite powerful.
On another note, I work in the music industry and within this industry, there’s much concentration placed on music as a product instead of music as an art form so I only really “enjoy” music when I go home, take off my shoes, lie on the couch and take an hour to actually “listen” to something without thinking, “This needs to sell 10,000 copies or we’re fucked.”

Just before the new album you often went acoustic, in releases (“Home Recordings”) or live (the wonderful one at Castellana). How do you feel writing acoustic stuff? And which impression did you got from listening to the acoustic versions of some of your old tracks?
There was a period where I, in particular, got tired of walking onstage and making as much noise as possible. I think around “Part-Monster” and “Ovations” we became too interested in making music that could be played on big stages.  It seemed that hitting the distortion pedal was the answer to almost every song and that may be a fun solution but it’s an easy one and frankly, a boring one when you’ve done it 1000 times. When we started “Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet”, I went back to listening to quiet, graceful records – Talk Talk’s “Spirit Of Eden”, David Sylvian, Virginia Astley, Thirteen Moons, This Mortal Coil, etc because I was thinking, “I want people to listen to us now, to every detail.” So, the first experiment around this time was to go back and play some of our earlier songs much quieter with more space and to see if this could possibly be the way forward through the noise. And I think it worked.

Piano Magic records, the one under your own name and projects such as Future Conditional and Textile Ranch have quite different sounds from one to another. When composing a song, do you already know if it will be featured as a Piano Magic track or as something else? a second “solo” album or something new from Future Conditional and Textile Ranch is coming soon?
Sometimes I start a song and I try to keep it for my next solo album but I can’t hep but wonder, “What if Franck puts a bit or guitar on this?” or “What if Jerome plays some toms here and there?” and before I know it, it has become ‘Piano Magic.’ You see, like a moth, I’m attracted to Piano Magic – it is a big, bright sun. Some would say it’s more of a Deathstar but no….

You seem to be a very reserved person; you often stand aside even in the press photos of the band. Is this really your way of being? Do you think it could have affected your exposition as an artist?
I think any of my closest friends will tell you that I’m not exactly a shrinking violet. I am shy and I’m not interested in fame or being in photographs, etc but I have a sense of humour and I have fun – even if it’s my own kind of fun. I certainly don’t walk around all day, hiding in the shadows, being miserable. I talk a lot (as you can probably tell from this interview) because I like to communicate and I’m really interested in other people and well, the whole tapestry of life generally. But am I a “frontman?” No.

“Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet” is the first Piano Magic album released on your own Second Language. Apart the complete freedom, do you think that Second Language policy could limit a bit its circulation?
Whereas it’s true that most Second Language releases are limited editions, the Piano Magic album won’t be. Ultimately, we’ll try to provide enough copies for as many people as want to own them so there won’t be a case of the album being deleted within a month or two – something that happens with most Second Language releases.
This label is still something of an experiment. Initially, we were curious as to whether there could be a successful alternative to the conventional record label model. At least, to test whether there are people out there who still want to own a tangible, “physical” format as opposed to an mp3 which barely resembles the song that was recorded in the studio because it’s been compressed so much. It’s like a microwaved meal. It will stop you getting hungry but it tastes of nothing and is instantly forgettable.

How did you get the idea of creating a label on your own? And why did you choose to build something so peculiar?
When I was a teenager, I put an advertisement in Melody Maker magazine asking for people to send me their demos because I wanted to start a tape label. I wasn’t sure at the time why I wanted to start a label not least how I’d run it but I figured there must be so much wonderful music out there that no-one gets to hear. And then all these amazing tapes started to arrive, mostly of stuff people had made in their bedrooms on cheap recording equipment; minimal instruments; real lo-fi, budget stuff. For one reason or another – inexperience mostly – I couldn’t get it together to get this tape label off the ground but I think that was the seed and ever since it’s been growing inside me. I’m instinctively attracted to artists who have the odds stacked against them, that don’t have a big machine behind them. So, Second Language provides them with a little machine – it’s not powerful but it works.

One of the many Second Language releases distinctive features is the wide use of recycled material, as the paper and cardboard boxes of the cd’s. Moreover, a track like “The Way We Treat The Animals” has a strong environmentalist message: do you think that music can be an important medium for spreading such messages?
Music is the perfect podium for spreading all kinds of messages, of course. You’ve just got to hope that people are listening. Otherwise, you’re preaching to an empty church.

(full original version of the interview published on italian magazine Rockerilla, May 2012 issue)

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