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.
After his critically acclaimed "Disaffected", Glen Johnson - heart and mind of Piano Magic - tells us about the inspirations of his songs, as a man more than as a simple musician.
His kindness and his rare capacity to talk about his past and present emotions turned a simple mail exchange in a chance to know better a very sensitive and elegant artist, through the same deep feelings he puts in his music.
First of all, I think you are one of the most versatile artists now on the scene, you cross genres and definitions. Does this depends on a precise artistic choice, or is it mostly influenced by the changing feelings when you are writing music?
It’s interesting for us to hear that we cross genres. We weren’t conscious of that. It’s very simply a case of us making the music we want to make and not paying much attention to where we are on the musical map. Certainly our emotional states come into play when we write something. Usually, my lyrics will dictate the “feel” of the track and as you’ve probably noticed, my lyrics are invariably introspective, melancholy, disenchanted. (Though, as anyone who knows me will testify, this is rather deceiving, as I am quite a contented individual).
In which of your albums do you think you have expressed better your way of feeling life and music?
Well, they all capture a point in time for me and I’m happy with how all of them turned out. Certainly, I could go back through every one, weeding out tracks I’m not too sure about, in retrospect but they are what they are. I suppose “The Troubled Sleep Of Piano Magic” is the most definite mirror of my emotions though. A bleak, dark period. Ironically, one I’d rather forget but I have this fucking monument to it now!
I wrote about “Disaffected” (but it’s valid for nearly all your production) that you are an “out of time artist”, but non an anacronistic one.
You could’ve been writing music in the 80s as well as during all the 90s; I think the word “influence” fits very little to you, but do you think that listening to music of these years could’ve changed your musical sensibility, or would it have been the same also in the past decades?
We’re very happily “out of time,” for sure and yet, I would be lying if I said I, personally, wasn’t influenced by certain artists, certain “movements” in contemporary music – from the Velvet Underground through to Nick Drake to early 80’s synthpop to The Smiths to Factory Records and 4AD to early 90’s progressive groups like Disco Inferno. These are the records I always come back to and thus, they must be the primary influence on me as a songwriter and lyricist. I’m not ashamed of any of this. I was exchanging mails with David Tibet of Current 93 recently and he told me that his influences were ten years before mine. So, we probably live in separate bottles.
You are a truly “european artist”: now Piano Magic is composed for three quarters by French musicians and the last two albums have been edited by a little spanish label. It seems you have a close link with a meditterranean or latin sensibility, but where does your heart beat?
My heart beats everywhere, thankfully! But, yes, I feel more “alive” in Europe – that is, the Europe outside this little island of ours. I am envious as to the culture, the romanticism, the people….not all of it, of course but I’ve always had a comparative disillusionment with England. I think it lets itself down. Piano Magic absorb the most inspiration from environment and landscapes, I’d say, from Perugia to Landes to Valencia…..
In your lyrics London is very recurring (“Comets”, “I Must Leave London”, to cite the last ones): is this a true and strong link of yours with the city or is London mostly a place of your soul?
I have a love/hate relationship with London. It loves me and I hate it. Right now (and for the past nine years), it’s been necessary that I live here, for work or for the band or for relationships but I’m always looking over the fence and imagining a life elsewhere. There are so few excuses for me not moving to Paris tomorrow.
Which is your ideal mood for composing? Does it depend on your feelings at the moment or are your songs born in an incremental and more technical way?
Emotions first. The group has a unique chemistry after playing together for so long that we can literally build a song from a sheet of lyrics now. Some of our songs are written in our rehearsal studio but the lyrics first must be written by me, at home, bottle of wine at my side, photo of my dead girlfriend in front of me.
It seems that your music is always suspended between different fascinations and different aesthetics – semplifying, from soundtrack to pop, from wave to electronica – but, whatever musical “dress” it wears, it’s always truly distintive and easily recognizable. To you, is this the prove that schemes and definitions are less important than emotions, so that the listener must go further than a superficial approach to your music?
Whatever we do sounds like Piano Magic. That’s the central, important factor to all our songs. It’s subconscious that we operate in different genres and I’m being very honest about that. Somewhere, at the back of my mind is this intension to make this grand, romantic, epic, anthemic music that makes people cry – like Dead Can Dance meets Low! – but I feel we are a long way off from that. It’s terminally frustrating. We do what we can, given our limited resources.
You started playing cheap keyboards, then continued approaching electronics, and in the last years there are some electronic themes, from the impetuous drumming of “Saint Marie”, to the glacial and minimal tracks in “Open Cast Heart” Ep, ending up with the unexpected dance (tasting very 80’s) of “Disaffected” and “Deleted Scenes”, so, how is your relation with electronic instrumentation and expecially, which kind of electronics?
I should point out that only myself, Cedric and Jerome have any interest in electronic music. Al and Franck have none at all. But, yes, the three “techno-heads” in the band possess a deep, deep love for anything electronic fro Kraftwerk to Soft Cell to Depeche Mode to New Order to Aphex Twin to the new stuff coming out on Type or City Centre Offices. We’re very lucky to have a great electronic music record shop 5 minutes away (Smallfish Records) that furnishes all our needs. My own dalliances with electronica go back to the early 90’s when I was trying to emulate Cabaret Voltaire and Soft Cell with a very cheap, nasty Yamaha keyboard and I still, of course, make electronic music as Textile Ranch and more recently (with Cedric) as Future Conditional.
It seems you’re always searching for a musical form and also for a vocal one, in particular Piano Magic hosted some different female voices, from Rachel Leigh to Angele David-Gilliou; is the choice for a female voice born while writing a song or is it a decision depending on some peculiar character of the track?
In the early days of Piano Magic, we simply took whoever would do it! That was the only criteria – someone, female, who had a half-decent voice. Rachel, luckily, sounded like a Victorian porcelain doll. Still, I think Angele is the quintessential Piano Magic voice. She sounds warm and cold at the same time, romantic, timeless. She’s sung with Hubert-Felix Thiefaine recently and previously Etienne Daho, as well as in her French rock group, Ginger Ale. She also has a solo album out, under the name, Klima on Peacefrog (home to Nouvelle Vague and José González) in Spring. I think she’s going to be a star. I tend to write for her now because I know her so well as a person and as a singer.
Though you have changed many collaborators, but in the last albums Piano Magic semms to be assested as a stable band. If so, have you finally found an ideal dimension of the band? And what all the previuos changes of the line-up depended on?
To me, it feels like we’ve been stable for five years – since Jerome and Alasdair joined permanently. With me, that’s essentially been the core skeleton of the band for all this time. But certainly, Franck was enrolled because I am such a limited guitarist and he’s far more advanced (he even teaches guitar). And Cedric was very much needed too, to give more depth, on keyboards. We’ve settled down now. It’s been settled for about a year. Though we sometimes have a few leaves on the roof – like Angele and John Grant from the Czars. Essentially, these are people who we think will bring something we couldn’t otherwise provide, to these songs. Again, depth, resonance, emotion. I can’t sing, you have to understand. My voice is wind-battered, ailing.
What do you think about the definition “post-rock”? And what about all the music that is usually included under it? Do you feel yourself “post-something”?
Everyone asks us about post-rock and I always say the same thing : what is it? Doesn’t rock have to be dead for there to be post-rock? Rock certainly is alive and well. We don’t feel any part of a scene or even a similar aesthetic. We’re not kindred spirits of Mogwai, for sure.
Your way of writing often seems unquiet and feverish, your productions are frequent; to you , what’s the meaning of writing music? Can it be interpreted as a vent?
A vent or an exorcism, perhaps. I am well aware that I make my private life public but whether anyone cares about my trials and tribulations isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I’d rather they interpret the music for themselves rather than look too deeply into why I wrote this or why I wrote that. When I was a young man, I certainly didn’t envisage Morrissey standing at the cemetery gates – I imagined me standing at the cemetery gates.
Your discography spaces from haunting anf ethreal atmospheres to the more “concrete” songwriting of the last albums: is this a precise compositive evolution, so that the idea of a soundtrack as “Son De Mar” is now out of your projects, or do you think you can write again cinematic music (whether for a movie or not)?
We have been waiting, ever since we completed Son De Mar, for the call but no-one else has bothered to pick up the phone. We are totally able to record film music, probably even more so now than ever but it seems a lot of film production companies tend to licence existing tracks for synching now. One of our tracks, ‘You Can Hear The Room’ was used on an American cop show this week though, “CSI”.
There was a definite decision to “write songs” as opposed to “make noises” when it came to “Disaffected”. We wanted to sell more records as well as needing to explore whether we could write a melodic, even “catchy” pop song. I think “Jacknifed” is as close as we’ve come. Still, I think it’s taken us a long way down a road from which it will be difficult to turn back now. The next album, I’m sure, will be just as melodic, if not more. Ironically, we are listening to things like Liars at the moment – music coming from the opposite angle – angular, obtuse.
In your compositions there is often a sense of loss, or absence, as well as it was in My Bloody Valentine 15 years ago; yet sometimes the struggle from this absence seems to be choked under a “cold” surface. Does this depend on an attitude of your soul or on your way of writing?
It’s all about loss with me. I live in the past. I stand outside ex-girlfriends’ houses at 3 in the morning, crying. No, I don’t but I do dwell far too much on what’s gone and can never come back, as opposed to a bright and wonderful future. Are we cold? I don’t know. I tend to think of our nostalgia as very human, very warm.
In your lyrics, you often talk about “ghosts”, expecially in “Disaffected”; do you really believe in their existence or these ghosts are rather memories of real life and you try to get rid of them in music?
Well, the ghosts I refer to are just people who aren’t around anymore – not necessarily dead. It’s a metaphor. But do I believe in their existence? I’ve not had much evidence of it recently despite some interesting experiences when I was younger, which could be put down to my own negative energy.
“Love & Music” could be a perfect hymn for all those who live music like emotion, but to you which of this two elements (and in which way) brings more emotion to your life? And do you think you could ever be “disaffected” by either?
Love is way more powerful than music, for sure but The Beatles had already written “All You Need Is Love” so I had to go somewhere else with it! I could certainly live without playing music and making records but I’d need to listen to it. I have over 1,000 CD albums and I’m not about to throw them all away. But yes, love is right at the core of life, for sure. My girlfriend, my family, my friends. Music is on the periphery in comparison.
Finally, do you stil believe that “music can’t save from anything but silence”?
Music’s stupendously over-rated. It does what you want it to. It’s inanimate. You can consign it to do something. You are the facilitator. I’ll put on Nick Drake because I’m sad. But that music won’t make me any happier or sadder – I will make me happier or sadder. Vous comprenez?