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Interview with Ashlee Elfman for SWAMPLAND (USA), 07/2007
If you don’t know who Phil Shoenfelt is, it’s time that you do. Hailing originally from England, Phil Shoenfelt has been involved in the music world since the punk scene exploded in the late ’70’s. Having lived in England and New York, Phil has found a home for himself in Prague. His settlement in Prague makes complete sense once you listen to the ornate, dark, and distinctive music that Phil Shoenfelt produces. His songs call on a wide range of influences (music, literature, the Bible). He manages to forge on through the annals of both worldly and personal history, adding a rich texture of intellectualism to a rock music foundation. His lyrics allow the listener insight into the artist’s humanity, while maintaining a mystical and imaginative storytelling quality. His musical compositions call on both the rock world and the old world, which seem to blend seamlessly into something that is completely of Shoenfelt’s creation. His music is often heartrending, sometimes difficult and always compelling.
I’m curious why you moved to
Prague to begin with. You are originally from England, and you also lived in New York for
I first came here in 1991 as a tourist, with a Czech girl I’d met in London, and immediately fell in love with the place. I guess it was the energy, or the vibe of the city, that first attracted me. It was a year and a half after the Velvet Revolution, everything was still very seedy and run down, but there was this chaotic wildness in the air that seemed to promise a lot. People were very excited about western music and were starting bands, clubs and radio stations, free at last of the need to be “approved” by the communist authorities. I dropped off one of my CDs at the local independent radio station, Radio 1, and it began to get quite a lot of airplay. This radio station had originally been started in the basement of the old Stalin monument, and although it was an illegal squat, an informal interview with President Havel had given it some kind of legitimacy. Afterwards it was relocated to more convenient premises near the center, next to the old Bunkr Klub in Namesti Republic. What impressed me, though, was the fact that the president of the country, an internationally respected figure, had visited a pirate radio station and had given it his blessing. I couldn’t imagine any leader from the UK or USA doing such a thing! I also liked the fact that there was a burgeoning live music scene, based very much on the previous underground culture. Everything seemed to work by a system of jungle telegraph, with little in the way of official advertising and promotion. Yet word quickly got around if there was an interesting gig, art exhibition or theatre piece happening. Then you might happen to meet some fucked up alcoholic in a pub, the type of person you’d probably want to avoid in London or New York. Often it would turn out that the guy was a respected philosopher or poet with several books to his name, that he’d been imprisoned as a dissident and was known by everyone on the scene. I liked that feeling of unpredictability, the sense that all my cultural signposts and reference points had been taken away. I was able to organize a tour of Czech Republic in 1994, when a local Prague band learned my songs and backed me. During the course of that tour I met the woman who is now my wife. I decided to move here on a permanent basis in 1995, after I had done the Live In Prague CD, and I’ve been here ever since. Even though Prague is a lot different these days, I still feel like it offers me a space to live and work which is away from muzic biz centers like New York, LA or London. There is too much hype and hassle in those places, always the pressure to conform to the latest trends. As my music doesn’t fit into this commercial framework, I reckon that I’m much better off here. It’s like a sanctuary for me, a little island right in the heart of Europe. A place that is within easy reach of the cultural centers, but one which offers me the chance to develop my writing and music without the distractions of the market place.
It seems that your life as a musician all began with your band Khmer Rouge in the early ‘80’s. Can you tell us a bit about this period in your life?
I actually started playing guitar and writing songs long before Khmer Rouge. During my teens I used to play the folk and blues clubs around my hometown of Worcester in the English Midlands. After I left school I hit the road, busking and thieving my way around Europe and North Africa. Returning to the UK from Morocco at the end of 1976, I found myself in the middle of the London punk rock explosion and reinvented myself as a punk. I moved to NYC in 1979, and after playing in several downtown bands I formed the post-punk group Khmer Rouge with former Clash DJ Barry “Scratchy” Myers. Scratchy had come over to the States with The Clash, had his own radio show on WHBI-FM, and when we met he had just left the band Rank And File. He was working in Bleeker Bob’s record shop in the Village, then, and was open to suggestions. I already had a set of songs more or less written, and Scratchy, with his dub reggae-influenced style of bass playing, helped me get them into some kind of shape. We had several drummers, the most notable of whom was Paul Garisto, who later went on to play with the Psychedelic Furs, Iggy Pop, and more recently with Jesse Malin. Another drummer was the artist Claus Castenskiold, who designed several LP sleeves for The Fall during the mid 1980’s. We played a lot at CBGB’s between 1982 and 1984, as well as at Danceteria, the Ritz and the Peppermint Lounge. We also supported The Clash at an ice-hockey stadium in Albany, and played east coast tour dates with Nico, Billy Idol, Alan Vega and Tom Verlaine. The Beastie Boys once supported us, before they got famous and were still a young punk band from Brooklyn! For a couple of years, Khmer Rouge was very popular on the downtown club scene. Our first recorded appearance was on the 1981 White Columns Noise Festival Tape, a three day festival of New York noise bands organized by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Later, we were offered the chance to record for Marty Thau’s Red Star label, but we turned the offer down. Marty wanted us to change the name of the band to something less controversial before he signed us. I couldn’t believe that the guy who had managed the New York Dolls and Suicide wanted us to tone down our act! He thought we wouldn’t get radio play with such an obnoxious name, so for him it was probably a case of twice bitten, three times shy. CBS were also interested, and for a time it seemed we would get signed by them. However, by this time I had a raging heroin habit, and as soon as CBS heard about this they stopped returning our phone calls. Everything fell apart, and we returned to the UK in 1984. We did two UK tours supporting The Fall, but soon the drugs took hold again and eventually the band split up. Our keyboard player, Marcia, went on to play with The Fall, while I descended into heroin hell in a squat in Camden Town. For anyone interested, there is a full biography of Khmer Rouge on our webpage: www.geocities.com/thekhmerrouge
In ’86 Khmer Rouge split up, and you began cutting solo albums. What approach did you decide to take with your solo career that you couldn’t take with Khmer Rouge?
For a couple of years, I didn’t do much in the way of live music at all. I was too busy being a full-time junkie, with everything that entails. I did manage to write some songs, though, which later ended up on my first solo CD/LP Backwoods Crucifixion. In 1988, Mark E. Smith of The Fall visited me in the Camden Town squat, and I played him some demos I’d made with Tony Cohen (producer of The Birthday Party and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). Mark liked them enough to release a 12 inch single of two of the songs (Charlotte’s Room b/w The Long Goodbye) on his new label Cog Sinister. It was a lifeline of sorts, it gave me the confidence and hope to come off heroin one last time and stay off it. I’ve been “clean” now since 1988, and have no desire to ever repeat the junkie experience. I took a very different tack in my solo songwriting to the one I’d chosen with Khmer Rouge. The new songs weren’t political at all, they were far darker and much more personal than the stuff I’d written for the band. Maybe this was a reflection of what I’d been through over the previous ten years, but basically it just felt like the right direction to take at that time.
You’ve opened up for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Crime and the City Solution. You’ve also worked with Kid Congo Powers, Simon Bonney and Nikki Sudden. What was it like both meeting and working with all of these people? Do you feel that this is a community of musicians that you belong to? What is the tie that binds?
I met Nick Cave in New York in 1981, the first time The Birthday Party played there. A friend of mine was their tour manager, and that first show was one of the most apocalyptic I’ve ever seen. Over the years I ran into Nick many more times, in various dubious places, and though I wouldn’t say he’s a really close friend, we do stay in touch. He helped me out in the early 1990’s by giving me support slots on a couple of UK tours with the Bad Seeds, and he also wrote a nice, succinct byline for my autobiographical novel, Junkie Love. I met Kid Congo Powers in London in about 1986, he was a good friend of my ex-wife Marcia, the keyboard player of Khmer Rouge. She and Kid did an E.P. together in 1989, and she asked me to contribute some guitar parts to the project. Kid is probably the coolest guy I know, the man emanates style in everything he does. I saw him in Berlin a couple of years back, with his band The Pink Monkeys, and it was great to catch up with him again after all these years. I first met Simon Bonney in London during the mid 1980’s, when I was still in drug purgatory, and I supported Crime & The City Solution at Dingwalls a few years later. I knew his girlfriend Bronwyn Adams when she was living in London in 1988-89, so the relationship developed further through that. Crime & The City Solution are one of my all-time favourite bands, and I think Simon is a fantastic singer, performer and lyricist. When Crime split up in the early 1990’s, Simon asked me to help him arrange a set of country-flavoured songs he’d written, and we spent a couple of weeks in London working on them. Several of these songs eventually ended up on the Forever LP/CD, a record Simon hoped would establish him as a country singer in Nashville. Unfortunately, what sounded like pure country to Simon’s ears didn’t sound much like the country music they make in Nashville, and the album didn’t do too well at all. Nevertheless, it’s a great collection of songs, and I’m proud to have contributed to it. I met Nikki Sudden in London in 1978, around the time of the first Swell Maps single, Read About Seymour. We didn’t become close friends, though, until the mid-1990’s, when he played a show in Prague with a Czech pick-up band and we started hanging out. We wrote a whole bunch of songs together for a projected album called Golden Vanity (an album that was recorded and mixed, but never released. It probably never will be now…). He played several festivals in the Czech Republic as special guest of Southern Cross, and I ended up playing guitar in his band on two European tours. That was in autumn 1997 and spring 1998. At the end of the first tour his brother Epic Soundtracks died in mysterious circumstances in London, so understandably he was pretty fucked up and depressed during the second tour. For me, Nikki was like some kind of guru. I love his music, and I was also impressed by his working methods, which were unconventional to say the least. He was the sort of guy who’d disappear to the bathroom with his guitar and come back five minutes later with a fully completed song! He was always looking forward to the next album, toured constantly, yet also found the time to write record reviews, act in films, write books, compile albums, whatever. His brain seemed to work at twice the normal speed, and I was constantly amazed that he managed to keep track of all the projects he was involved with. When he died in NYC last year I couldn’t believe it, it was if I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. He seemed to be indestructible, like he’d go on forever, and I think it was just a stupid, tragic accident that should never have happened. I miss him a hell of a lot, I can still hear his voice in my head, and sometimes I feel like he’s standing just behind my shoulder, watching me as I work. So yeah, I’d say there are pretty strong ties, both musical and personal, that bind together people working in this area of underground culture.
You’re a published author, and your book Junkie Love has been well reviewed. Do you consider yourself a writer foremost, or a musician?
The jury is still out on that one! I kind of go through phases. Sometimes I’m totally focused on my music, at other times I leave the songs alone for a couple of months and just concentrate on the book-writing. The beautiful thing with songs is that you can pick them up and work on them at any time, it’s a much more spontaneous process. At least it is for me. If the inspiration isn’t there, I just put down what I’ve written on tape and come back to it later. Quite often I can’t even remember writing the first part of the song at all. It’s as though it were written by another person, so I get to see the song from a whole new perspective, which is interesting. With books, it’s a totally different creative process. I’ve been working on the follow-up to Junkie Love for about six years now, a book with the provisional title of Stripped. It’s set in downtown NYC between the years 1979 and 1984, and is a fictionalized autobiography, the prequel to Junkie Love. It’s much longer, though, about 450 pages as it stands at the moment, and this is only part one! With books, you can’t just abandon the writing when it isn’t going well, then come back to it two or three months later and hope to pick up the threads. Sometimes you have to literally force yourself to write, even when you don’t feel inspired, so it takes a certain amount of self-discipline. Otherwise the book simply never gets written.
You have two bands right now, Phil Shoenfelt and Southern Cross and Fatal Shore. What are the differences between the two projects?
Both are rock bands working within the framework of what could loosely be described as “independent music”. I’d say that the stuff I do with Southern Cross is a little more rock-orientated, but still song-based and melodic. Helpful reference points might include Iggy Pop, The Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Lee Hazelwood, Crime & The City Solution. Fatal Shore has similar influences, but is probably a little more experimental, more left-field. Our drummer, Chris Hughes, who also plays with Hugo Race & The True Spirit, is an incredibly original musician, and our sound is very much based on his individualistic style of playing. While still being song-based, there are electronic and noise elements which take the music into different areas, and it also has this “Melbourne-Berlin” swamp-sound that locates it within a certain tradition. I’m thinking here of bands and artists like Beasts Of Bourbon, Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey, Tex Perkins, Charlie Owen etc. By the way, the other singer/guitarist in Fatal Shore, Bruno Adams, is the younger brother of Bronwyn Adams, the violin player of Crime & The City Solution. I guess this goes back to your earlier question about the ties that bind…
Something that I find very admirable about you is that you aren’t afraid to state your influences, and you have many. Do you feel that it is important for an artist to keep their inspiration close?
No, I’m not coy about quoting my musical influences at all. Ever since my teenage years, when I was listening to old Delta Blues recordings by Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton, I’ve always tried to keep my original influences in sight. Not in any kind of academic way, not in the sense of making a pastiche, more in terms of seeing them as guiding lights, as shining beacons in an ocean of conformity and mediocrity. There is a certain aesthetic that connects Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams to Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Leonard Cohen to Nick Cave, and I see myself as working very much within this aesthetic. I might veer away at times, just to try something different, but I always come back to this tradition if I feel like I’m losing my musical compass.
Are there any current musical acts that have grabbed your attention?
My favourite CDs at the moment are the I Knew Jeffrey Lee tribute CD by the Italian band Circo Fantasma, and the Tribute To Rowland S. Howard CD by various artists on the French label Stagger Records. I also like the music of Woven Hand, the NYC band Sour Jazz, and the recent CD by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Baby 81. I thought the Grinderman CD was pretty cool, though I’m not so impressed with the new Stooges album. They were absolutely fantastic when I saw them live in Berlin a couple of years back, but the new record doesn’t do justice to what is one of the best bands of all time. There are so many great new groups out there, though, working away in the darkness, far from the media spotlight. Bands that you and I have never even heard of, and probably never will. I’ve been producing a young Prague group recently, Secret 9 Beat, and they are really fantastic. Their ideas are still in advance of their technical ability, but their musicianship is catching up fast. It’s bands like this that inspire me, not the latest release by dinosaur acts like U2 or Coldplay! Secret 9 Beat sound like Richard Hell & The Voidoids at CBGB’s circa 1978, quite chaotic but full of genius ideas. And there are exciting young bands like them all over the place, sifting the sands for buried treasure, taking their inspiration from cool music that was recorded before they were even born.
Your music appears to be a well kept secret in America, yet it seems that you are always touring Europe. I’ve heard from various musicians that Europeans are more enthusiastic about music in general, would you say that this is a fair assertion?
Well, this “secrecy” is the downside of living and working in an obscure central European country! My first few solo CDs did get released in the USA, but they were all on small UK indie labels. Labels that either went out of business, or didn’t bother to re-press when the original two or three thousand copies had been sold. Since I moved to Prague, it’s been quite difficult to get any kind of worldwide release for my stuff. A Chicago-based label called Idiot Savant released Blue Highway in 1998, but then the owner had an argument with his partner, flipped out, and set fire to all the remaining stock. Blue Highway included. So yes, I continue to be a well kept secret as far as the USA is concerned, even though I’ve released eleven CDs to date. As for comparing live music in Europe and America, I’d say it really depends on which cities you play. It’s all about whether you can reach that small, elusive audience that is hip to the type of music you are making. Fatal Shore played in Cincinnati a few years back, when we were making the Free Fall album, but it wasn’t a very satisfying experience. I’m sure if we’d played in New York or Boston we’d have got a much more positive reaction. The scene isn’t so different here in Europe. With the type of music we make – which by definition doesn’t have mass appeal – you tend to fall through the cracks and fissures in the mainstream media. I’m sure it would be much the same kettle of fish in the USA. That being the case, you have to do a hell of a lot of your own promotional work to reach any potential audience. I remember playing a concert at some hick town in northern Germany to an audience of three people, but at least we got paid. The club was subsidized by the state, which is something you don’t find too often in the USA! Whenever we play in Berlin the venue is nearly always packed, but Berlin isn’t really Germany in the same way that New York or L.A. aren’t really America. I think there are people all over the world who make a point of searching out the music they love, and sooner or later this elite, but limited, audience will track you down. It’s certainly not a way to get rich quick, though!
Where can we buy your albums and your novel?
As I mentioned, some of my early CDs made it into US shops, but you’d probably have to do a fair amount of searching to find them. Other CDs can be bought via the mail order catalogue of the German label Glitterhouse, and others you can probably find through amazon.com or on e-bay. Or you can just write to our homepage at www.philshoenfelt.de and order them via Paypal. We just made a new Fatal Shore CD, Real World, which in my opinion is that band’s best recorded effort to date. We recorded it in Berlin, and it was produced by Yoyo Röhm, our former bass-player who also works with Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten. This CD can be ordered direct from the Hamburg label, Amboss Recordings, at kontakt[at]ambossfilm.de I’ve also got a lot of songs on i-Tunes and Napster now, so this is probably the easiest way of buying my music over the internet. Junkie Love can definitely be bought on amazon.com, or at independent bookshops in the USA. Ebury Press/Random House just bought the licensing rights for the UK and Commonwealth, and this new edition of Junkie Love will be released in July 2007. It will also be available through amazon.com, so if you want to read this scandalous tome it’s just a click away.
What do you have to say to those artists out there that feel like they are struggling in a world that doesn’t understand their convictions?
Well, if you’re really possessed by the spirit there is no choice, you just have to keep plugging away. All you can do is concentrate on your own musical or literary vision, hone it to perfection, and just hope you pick up an audience along the way. You also have to define what is important to you, why you are doing this insane thing in the first place. Is it to get rich and famous in the shortest possible time? Or is it to make something unique and wonderful, a magic baby that will take everyone’s breath away? Sometimes you can achieve both things, but I’d say it’s very very rare. And if you do happen to become a hot commercial commodity, then you have to deal with all the bullshit that goes with it. For me, music and writing are a lifetime commitment, a discipline to follow like learning to be a Samurai swordsman, or a Zen Buddhist monk. I don’t expect to get fabulously wealthy, but for me that isn’t the point. As long as I can keep writing books and albums that touch people’s souls, and as long as I can sell enough of them to keep going, that’s enough for me.