suggestioni musicali a cura di raffaello russo
The release of “Closure” marks the end of the incredible artistic experience of Piano Magic, exactly 20 years after their first London show, back in 1997. No celebration time for Glen Johnson and his band, but just a very important page of a very personal journey into music, life and feelings.
That’s why the following is not a “proper” interview, but just a short series of “traces” Glen Johnson has been given to talk – in his unmistakeable style – not only about the end of Piano Magic, not only about music.
Trace no. 1: the difference between writing “an album” and making an album already set like the final one of a band experience.
After our last album, “Life has Not Finished With Me Yet”, in 2013, although I was proud of the record and we’d played some really beautiful concerts, (not least in the caverns of Castellana), I was feeling quite frustrated within the band – every movement was like lifting a huge rock. And so, I suggested that we have a hiatus of indeterminable length. Since then, not only did my father die but the longest relationship of my life came to an end. Grief requires catharsis and the best way I know to achieve catharsis is through writing songs and recording them. Even so,
I didn’t want to move more heavy rocks – I hoped we could make a final record quickly and without complication. Generally, I work pretty fast. We booked five days in Soup Studio in East London, where the engineers are quick but actually, we had the skeleton of the album recorded within two days. I took these bones away, added some flesh (backing vocals by my friend Josh Hight, a few synths and noises, piano and organ by my old friend Paul Tornbohm, who was the first live drummer of Piano Magic and played on our first album, “Popular Mechanics”, cello by Audrey Riley) and finally mixed it with Asa Bennett (live guitarist with Heaven 17).
From the beginning, the theme of closure/finality was at the head of the procession like a standard, a flag. I needed to make a very firm declaration to the band, to our fans and most importantly, to myself, that this would be the last album and that our story would come to an end by January 2017, 20 years after Piano Magic had played its first concert. I need to move on, personally and creatively. For all the good things about Piano Magic, it has been something of an anchor for the past 20 years in that we’re expected to make a certain kind of music, I’m expected to lead the way and that it shall consume a large portion of my life. I needed to let that anchor go.
Trace no. 2: a look back to 20 years of music, the changing of the scenes, of the music market, of your way of relating to writing and playing.
When we started, although we weren’t so much part of a “scene” as such, we did find ourselves sharing labels, concerts and fans with other bands so there was a sort of friendly cross-pollination. In those early days, we were playing on bills and sharing labels with Mogwai, ISAN, Plone, Third Eye Foundation, Amp, Broadcast, Fuxa and many more. Early on, there was a great emphasis on electronics, post-rock and what you might call “space-rock” but we’d moved away from that by around 2000. I had a lot of love for labels like Lissy’s, Wurlitzer Jukebox, Piao!, Bad Jazz, Liquefaction Empire, etc – all of them supporting “the little guy,” even though they couldn’t been making much, if any money because these releases were on vinyl – really expensive to master, cut and manufacture.
Our second period if you like, 2000 – 2013, was increasingly focused on playing on bigger stages because we fell in love with the Continental touring experience – particularly Spain and Germany at first and then France and Italy. The bigger the stage, the louder and more dynamic you need to be so we left the electronica behind – confining it just to our records. The result of that was that we lost the early fans but gained a lot more appreciation for our live shows and our more “mature” songwriting.
Our dalliance with 4AD was problematic. We did coax Vashti Bunyan out of retirement, collaborated twice with John Grant (now very popular in the UK) and made a film soundtrack for Bigas Luna but there was a lot of internal arguing at that point. We really wanted to be on the 4AD of 1987 and not the 4AD of 2001. When we left 4AD, ironically, we started making much better records. “The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic” has some lovely moments and better still, ‘Disaffected’ really opened us up to new audiences, particularly in Italy.
Along the way though, behind the scenes, we had some deep problems with record labels – unscrupulous types who ripped us off. That left a bitter taste in my mouth which I still have today. The fans don’t see any of that and they don’t need to but there’s always drama behind every band – fights with labels, internal arguments, creative differences, the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. What’s kept Piano Magic going has been the sheer enjoyment of playing live and touring and that stubborness which prevails in every band: you think, just around the corner, that you’re going to make your masterwork. Of course, you never really do.
In many ways, the pressures on Piano Magic eased when I put us on my own label, Second Language because we had no-one to please but ourselves and any money went in and out of our own pockets. Yes, we didn’t have much money to spend on promotion and marketing but the music got better, the band “grew up” and the culmination of that is “Closure” – for me, our best record.
Trace no. 3: any difference of affinity between words, sounds and feelings of “Closure” and the ones of other Piano Magic albums (personally, I’m finding in it everything Piano Magic has been from time to time).
My lyrics increasingly became more and more autobiographical as time went by and yes, there are many recurrent themes – relationships breaking up, heartbreak, nostalgia for better times, loss, isolation. ‘Closure’ isn’t any different. Lots of ghosts! Songwriters tend to discuss this a lot, that when you’re happy, you tend to be distracted by happiness, you don’t pick up a guitar and write a song. But when you’re sad, you’re invariably sitting there on your own and there may happen to be a guitar in the same room so what do you do? I don’t make any apologies for writing these dark, even bleak songs because, as you know, in times of trouble, sad songs are the ones people turn to for comfort. Nick Drake, The Smiths, Jacques Brel, Sybille Baier, Scott Walker, whoever – these are the singers you find solace in.
Trace no. 4: nostalgy has always been one of the keys of Piano Magic poetry, now Piano Magic is going to become nostalgy itself, yet the album tone sounds no sad at all, just self-conscious.
Well, the album theme isn’t about the end of a band, it’s about the end of relationships. So there’s a sense of nostalgia and loss and regret but at the same time, hope – this idea that you never completely ever stop loving the people you once loved. How can that flame ever be extinguished? If you’re in a relationship with someone for 10 years and you live until you’re 70, that’s a 7th of your life. Can you really dismiss a 7th of your life?
As I get older, I become more philosophical, particularly in the light of being so close to death as I was last year when my father died. When you’re in a room with a corpse, you can’t leave that room and not challenge yourself. These age old questions of “What am I doing with my life?” and “Why do I give valuable time to people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?”* crop up. I’ve recently started to ponder on this fact that we all seem to live mainly to support other people – our children, our partners, our families, our bosses, our friends. When do we start living for ourselves? In ‘Living For Other People,’ you’ll hear me standing on a street corner in East London with a cigarette and a tea on Styrofoam cup, watching the world go by. It’s moments like that which justify my existence more than anything, when I’m doing exactly what I want to do without having to consider what someone else wants me to do at that given moment. It’s a small thing but it’s deadly important to everyone’s existence.
Trace no. 5: something you loved in particular from Piano Magic experience and/or something you regret about it.
I regret a few contracts I signed when I was younger. At the time, I didn’t think the band would last and so I felt I had nothing to lose but some of the deals we’ve done haven’t been in our interest. Our early work is tied to a big American publisher who have done absolutely nothing to support our work. Some of the labels we’ve worked with have abused the agreements we’ve signed with them. Sadly, in my experience, the independent sector is more corrupt than the major sector.
Those things aside, after twenty years of making records, I still get a kick from taking one of our albums out of the box for the first time. In essence, that precise moment is the culmination of all the blood, sweat and tears you put into being in a band. That’s the pay-off and the gigs are an added bonus. The chemistry of the band onstage and in rehearsal has often elated me – the moments at which emotion and dynamic meet in a blissful catharsis. It sometimes feels like you could be levitated off the floor. It is a special magic, so to speak.
Trace no. 6: a frame form the video of “Exile” shows a grafitti of the words “our century isn’t moving toward bad or good, it’s moving towards medocrity”, sounding somehow as a message or a consideration on nowdays life.
Well, that grafitti wasn’t ours but I thought it was interesting and debatable. On some levels, yes, we’re obviously moving towards mediocity. Society is constantly dumbing down. TV has almost no educational value, libraries are being closed down all the time, people would rather stare into their smartphones hitting a “like” icon on Facebook than actually observing the world around them. It’s rare to see a book on my daily commute now. Isn’t that sad? Even so, politics has become a circus, hasn’t it? The majority seems to prefer a character above good policies. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage – all fucking clowns appealling to tv-obsessed masses. Kanye West could seriously run for US president now and people would take him seriously. Anything is possible after Trump. Donald Duck could be running the world, Mickey Mouse, a piece of rotting wood.
Trace no. 7: much inevitably, a look forward to the way you’ll keep living music, your label and the memory of what Piano Magic will keep meaning for you.
I’ve been asked a few times what our legacy will be and it will be interesting to see if we leave one. Most people on this planet have never heard of us and that will continue. We will always be a “cult band,” loved by a very small amount of people but loved very hard. Our sales have always pretty much stayed the same since 2002 or so. There was never a noticable spike in our sales because we never had a breakthrough “hit” or album. I’d hope, like most of my favourite bands (The Go-Betweens, Disco Inferno, Felt, etc) that we’ll be more appreciated after we’ve called it a day. Will there ever be a surge of interest in us? I doubt it. But I do think that more and more people will gradually discover us. Let’s just hope Adele does it soon and covers “Incurable” ;)
My memories will keep me warm, for sure. I’ve had the fortune to work with some incredible musicians and singers, most notably Jerome Tcherneyan, a fantastic drummer, Franck Alba, a fantastic guitarist and Alasdair Steer, a fantastic bass player. I also must mention Angele David-Guillou, who I consider not only to be the supreme voice of Piano Magic but also, on many occasions, the band’s muse and driving force. I’m often supposed to be the guiding light behind the band but it was the combination of the aforementioned people that made Piano Magic what it was.