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Interview with music magazine POP & ROCK (GR), 02/2005
Most of your songs talk about a variety of characters. Are you trying to express all of your faces or do you like to describe people you meet in your everyday life?
The characters in my songs tend to be composites, or maybe archetypes. Sometimes they are actual people I have known, but more often they are evocative of moods and situations. The song Marianne, I’m Falling, for example, is about a real girl – in my novel Junkie Love she is known as “Cissy”. Whereas Magdalena from the CD Ecstatic is a composite, she has the attributes of several different girls rolled into one. I suppose the type of girl that intrigues me most is the classic femme fatale – the type of girl that you can never truly possess, the type that can lead you to the edge of despair at the same time as she inspires. So I’d say that while my songs are taken from experience, they try to extract the essence by a process of synthesis and transference. Maybe it says something about my own inner life that the feelings evoked often tend towards the darker end of the emotional spectrum.
Why did you start writing books? Were there any things that could not be told through your songs?
I started writing books mainly to understand the experiences I’d been through in the first part of my life. I needed to come to terms with myself and instil some order into the chaos, even if it was after the fact. While the song is a perfect form in which to express an atmosphere, or a brief psychological insight, there are certain more complex emotional states that can’t be expressed in a lyric. Sitting down and being forced to confront yourself for several hours each day is cathartic and good for the soul.
What is more difficult? Being a songwriter or being an author?
A song is like a photograph, a moment frozen in time. A novel is like a full-length movie with themes and sub-plots that recur in different configurations. For me, songwriting comes relatively easy – I sit down with an acoustic guitar and wait for the melody and lyrics to arrive. If that doesn’t happen immediately, I stick the fragments I’ve written onto a cassette and come back to them at a later date. I’ve got dozens of these cassettes littering my flat, and sometimes when I listen to them a couple of years later they’re like pieces written by somebody else. So for me the whole process of songwriting is quite spontaneous – either it happens or it doesn’t, and I don’t hit myself over the head with a hammer if it doesn’t. Writing books is something else. The biographies I’ve read of writers such as Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence reveal that they had this incredible self-discipline – they’d sit down at the typewriter each day and force themselves to write 2000, 3000 or 5000 words, no matter what. I don’t know if I have that kind of strength, you have to put yourself into a totally different state of mind to the one you’re in when writing songs. It’s closer to masochism than Rock & Roll, especially if it’s the kind of self-confrontational writing that I do.
What fascinates you more on these two attributes?
The satisfaction of encapsulating a feeling in four or five minutes of rock music is difficult to beat. If the song works, if it strikes the right emotional key, you know it instinctively and it’s a wonderful, euphoric sensation. For hours after finishing a song that I’m happy with, I feel like I’m flying, like I’m on drugs or something. It’s like holding a jewel in your hand, something precious that’s fallen from the sky. The thing that fascinates me about books is the possibility to explore. You can go right inside a characters’s head, get down and dirty with his psychology and motivations, really delve inside. It’s like a long, ever-mutating trip that can take you to all kinds of unexpected places.
What made you love Prague that much and move there on a permanent basis?
Well, I got married here for a start. But the city itself still entrances me, even after living here for more than nine years. Sometimes it’s horrible, a dark pit of poison, especially during the winter months when the fog and rain descend and every face looks like a gargoyle. But then the sunshine returns and the Golden City lights up, and the syphilitic Old Whore turns into a smiling young girl. I find it a lot more “authentic” than London or New York, and while it’s big enough to be cosmopolitan it’s small enough to have a heart. I always breathe a sigh of relief when returning here from Germany, the USA or England, as if I’ve somehow escaped the “Global Cultural Imperative”.
Have you ever felt that you have not gained everything you wished for, when starting playing music?
Well, I certainly haven’t got rich! Not in material terms, anyway. But that was never the reason I started with music in the first place, I was always more interested in the hedonistic side of things. Through doing music I’ve travelled to all kinds of different places, spiritually as well as geographically, and I’ve met a hell of a lot of interesting people. I’m not talking about pop stars and celebrities here, but real, idiosyncratic people. It’s wonderful when someone comes up to you and tells you that a particular song you wrote touched them in some way, actually made them feel something. Maybe I’d be happy if more people got to hear my stuff, but I wouldn’t want to turn into the usual music biz cartoon just in order to achieve this.
It seems as if your faith has helped you overcome your heroin troubles. Is that true? Is religion a crutch?
Actually, heroin helped me to overcome religion. Religion today looks more like a gun than a crutch, and I think it would be an excellent idea if mankind forgot about this ridiculous idea altogether (I’m talking about organised religion here, the god.com of every denomination…). If anything got me out of heroin it was sheer bloody-mindedness, the refusal to conform to people’s expectations. I felt like I had something to do, and while I was on heroin the chances of my doing it seemed extremely slim.
Most times a compilation with an artist’s greatest hits means that a chapter has come to an end. Does something alike happen to you? Why did you release Deep Horizon?
The chance to do a "Best Of…" CD was given to me by the German label Phantasmagoria. I liked the idea of bringing together some of the disparate material I’ve done over the years – solo stuff from England, songs recorded with Southern Cross here in Prague, and also a few songs from my second band Fatal Shore that were recorded in Slovakia and the USA. Usually this type of compilation CD is a disconnected affair, and the challenge was to allow the music to flow smoothly, even though it was recorded at different times under a variety of extremely different conditions. I spent a couple of weeks agonising over the song selection and running order, but finally I’m quite happy with the result. Starting with Electric Garden (a re-recorded version of Garden Of Eden with electronic loops and samples), the album goes backwards in time to 1990, the year of my first solo CD. It doesn’t include material from my New York band Khmer Rouge, though – the Khmer Rouge CD came out last September on the UK label Voiceprint and itself marks some kind of closure point with that late 70’s early 80’s New York period. So I’d say that musically Deep Horizon does mark the end of a chapter, just as the Khmer Rouge CD marks the end of an earlier period.
Can you name your five most favorite albums?
This is difficult, I have so many. Do you mean current faves, or all time greats? It’s really impossible to say, but I’ll try…
Funhouse The Stooges
Plus: Nikki Sudden, The Modern Lovers, Robert Johnson, Television, P.J. Harvey, The Velvet Underground, 13th Floor Elevators, Richard Hell And The Voidoids, The Seeds, Sunshine, Iggy Pop, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Moimir Papalescu & The Nihilists, Big Sleep, The Stones, Suicide, The Chameleons, Can, Arthur Lee, Patti Smith, Joy Division, Madrugada, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Swans, Bessie Smith, Tim Buckley, John Lee Hooker, Angels Of Light and many many more…..