DiS met up with The Chap and had a chat with Johannes von Weizsäcker (guitar, vocals, cello, computer, keyboards) & Keith Duncan (drums, vocals, keys))
DiS: Well hello. First up, I’ve never seen you guys in the flesh before but have read that the live shows differ quite a bit from the records and guess that some of it must be hard to reproduce on stage. So what’s the gig experience like for the uninitiated?
Keith: It’s a lot more… energetic certainly in the way we come across. The records are all done in a very relaxed environment at home but you can’t really get away with that on stage.
Johannes: It usually takes us quite a while to work out how to do it. The way we write music is the reverse process of what many bands do. Most go to a rehearsal room, try stuff out, go on tour for a bit, change it and so on and then record it after a year or so. Whereas we record everything at home, produce everything at home in the home studio and then spend a week or ten days in the rehearsal rooms scratching our heads wondering ‘How are we going to recreate that then?’ We do use an iPod for the odd backing track as without it the live experience would be very difficult, and even more different from the record.
DiS: So you don’t have any studio time at all?
J: No, there’s never been any money! We started with a really lo-fi set up at home, gradually got used to it, developing a song out of it. It’s partly being used to it and partly a funding thing.
DiS: That must be hard. I get the feeling that the band must be something you do for the love of it and not the money?
K: Oh no, we do it for the money!
DiS: Yeah… but you have such a distinct and polarising style that you know that you’d never be a mainstream band and possibly one that people loved or hated?
K: Well we’re not generally exposed to the people who listen to it at home and might come up and say “That’s shit, I fucking hate it!” but when we play, anyone that’s a neutral or a stranger seem to get it. Or maybe the people that don’t like it just don’t talk to us?
J: Er… Yeah?
K: But I think most people find it different and exciting. And that’s very satisfying for us.
J: And we enjoy playing live a lot, so that’s why we spend a lot of time doing it. Compared to some bands we maybe don’t tour as much as we’re a little older and have other responsibilities but considering our age, we sacrifice a lot in life to spend time on the road and that’s because we enjoy it and it’s where we get our feedback.
DiS: I’ve noticed you tour a lot actually, and in particular around Europe? Do you get more success on the continent
J: It’s different. It’s more varied but everyone is always very welcoming and nice to us in general. There’s all these weird state funded venues in France and Netherlands and it’s very different to the UK. They look after you really nicely and pay you quite nicely and it’s fun travelling around Europe with your friends, eating nice food and having generally receptive audiences. Particularly in France I find; people turn up and listen. While you’re playing, they don’t talk to each other.
DiS: Whereas in London you’d just get people talking over you…
J: Well London audiences have a reputation and I don’t think they’re that bad. We’ve had some pretty good shows here.
K: And it’s not as bad as Rome!
J: Haha, yeah… I think we’re ready for the full UK tour again for the real punk rock experience; having no sleep, promoters running off with all the money, getting given half a can of warm beer each every night, most venues being horrible…
DiS: Is it hard being a British based band? Lots of my favourite acts of recent years have been but many seem to struggle and have told me that they have much more joy overseas?
K: Well the press can be quite difficult here and if you’re a British band and go to the continent then you’re immediately quite special. You’re British, you sing in English, you’re not from Belgium and these things are seemingly pretty… cool? So straight away you get given a slightly ‘special’ status. Whereas if you’re a journalist in the UK there’s a very, very, very long list of bands you could write about.
J: That’s true. On the continent people still see British bands as being from the home of pop music; that attitude still exists, which is quite weird? But they’re pretty good to their own bands too though.
K: Yeah. And it’s still a lot easier being a British band playing in the UK than being, say, a French band playing in the UK.
J: Yeah. You don’t wanna try that!
K: And a French band playing in America? Oh my, they’re the worst conditions; the size of the job, the venues, the distances involved… In France, they have such nice venues. And their sound guys are members of a union.
J: Yeah, if you get stuck in a traffic jam and turn up a bit late at a venue they’ll sometimes say ‘Sorry guys, union rules that we can’t work after 5. So you’ll have to go straight into it live without a mic check’. But you really don’t tend to mind as they’re so good at what they’re doing and the equipment is so good. You know it’ll fine.
K: Plus there’s all the nice food…
J: Food is very important to us.
K: We’ve had many breakfasts together, that’s for sure. It is the most important meal of the day...
DiS: So does your love of touring around Europe and it’s cuisine have anything to do with the title of the new record, Well done Europe?
K: Well, hang on. Are we talking more about our general European project or the actual E.U.?
J: Well either way… No! The way it came around was because we had that single ‘Well done you’, a song that consists of someone in the corporate environment congratulating someone else on their achievement. And Keith had this amazing idea that we should translate this song - this hearty message - into a wide selection of European languages so that whenever we were in that country we could perform the song in their native language and then record all the versions as an album. And call it ‘Well done Europe’. But then we thought about it and said, ‘yeah, well we’re not going to do that’ and just called the record that instead!
DiS: That is a whole lot easier…
K: Since we’ve called it that though, it seems really funny to see how relevant it seems. Greece, the general financial woes, the Eurovision song contest…
J: Well done Europe! We didn’t anticipate this when we titled it 9 months ago - quite obviously, as we couldn’t see into the future and the whole crisis unfolding. But given the title we’re very happy with that fact!
DiS: And the album cover with the huge bomb blast on it didn’t get changed last minute to reflect current affairs?
K: No, it was all done a few months ago by a design agency (who have done all of our covers); Non Format. They listened to the record before designing it…
They did it. We liked it. And that’s about it?
J: I don’t think we, or they, work in a direct referencing style? A lot of that is similar to the ways in which we write lyrics or devise components for songs. Sometimes it’s just by association; we never sit down and say ‘let’s devise a concept album about Europe and the cover has to reflect that’.
DiS: They’re an interesting design agency. I bought Ham purely on the strength of this weird, stark tiger wearing an eye mask!
K: It’s the best cover ever.
J: And they had to follow it up with 2 more covers. They did very well and we’re very happy with them.
DiS: Too right. Well, back to this record, it seems a bit more straightforward than some of your previous ones? Almost an out and out party pop record?
K: We did try and reign ourselves in a little bit. We wanted to make a record that didn’t have any tracks on it that were totally alienating.
J: On previous records we always thought that was fun to do! We’d play a poppy song and then follow it up with something quite abrasive or structurally quite weird and think to ourselves “Yeahhh… let’s see what they think of THAT!”
The original plan was to actually make two albums. We collected a lot of ideas and some of them were pretty far out there whereas others were more fully formed pop songs. So we decided to make the poppy record first and then there’ll be… soonish… another record which is a lot weirder. Which I’m looking forward to as we spent a lot of time writing a pop song and refining the structure for this one and sometimes it’s more fun to just do something a bit weirder. It’s also a lot easier to be honest.
K: Plus reading reviews of that will be easier. When you write something that you really want people to like and they go ‘Ahhh…’
But if you make something for yourself and then they all get it too you feel more like: ‘Yeahh! Success!’
J: Though all of our favourite reviews of our albums have been the really bad ones. On our first album we had the classic, which was from a music technology magazine. It wrote the review around the hiccupping levels, dreadful distortion…
K: “These guys should leave experimentation to The White Stripes”
J: Haha, yeah. All in all, it made very little sense and got a 1/10.
DiS: So will the more fucked up, sister record be out later this year then?
J: Well… maybe later this year. Or early next?
K: We do still have to write it first!
DiS: So it’s not sitting at home ready to go then?
K: No. It’s ok, we’ll knock it out soon enough…
DiS: Does the more pop angle to the record reflect your listening trends or tastes of recent months?
J: It’s always been there I reckon. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but you may be right, to a certain extent, as we did cut out the indie, free jazz, weird noise stuff and end up listening to lots more pop classics and hit records after the last LP; we went on tour and sat in the van listening to Steely Dan a lot and Toto. I don’t think our record sounds like either of those but it probably came out of us realising we’re a bit old to be cool now and like all this indie, underground stuff. So either we’ve been listening to really weird music or proper, mainstream high end produced pop music; which is a fascinating world and good to investigate. So yeah, maybe the sound of this record is something to do with that.
DiS: Well the pop slant makes for an interesting marriage of personalities with the droll sense of the humour the music has and sense of ‘coldness’? Like on ‘Nevertheless The Chap’, where you have this glorious steel drum outro and a bunch of lyrics about death. Is this a conscious juxtaposition?
J: I think the chorus for that one about watching ‘girls go by’ was originally from another song, and then we just thought one day ‘Let’s try this in here’. It felt really wrong, but just worked? We often do this composition wise.
K: But not with regard to the emotionless negativity. It’s very… impossible… to be authentic about everything ever and we don’t want to be dishonest! None of us feel like we can come to any conclusion about absolutely anything so therefore there’s nothing we can offer the audience in terms of ‘this is how you should do x and y’. I know how to make a good cup of tea but I don’t think that would make a great song?
J: I guess that’s what drives us to make quite confusing combinations but they end up working best like that. We work on them for a long time actually, a lot of songs take a long time to get where we want them.
DiS: That’s the part that interested me really; the way that your songs are simultaneously cold, clinical and self aware at times but also incredibly humorous, adventurous and fun?
K: Well usually it just has to make us chuckle. And we spend a long amount of time trying to make each other chuckle. We have quite a narrow collective group sense of humour… it’s NOT a comedy record.
I’m NOT trying to say it’s a comedy record! But it’s got to be ‘fun and interesting’ [to quote the song title].
Some people may not unfortunately appreciate that …
J: Or say it’s pretentious bullshit. To which we’d say if we were able to answer them: “Well… yeah, it is?” The fact that someone gets on a stage and sings a song to a room about their girlfriend is very pretentious. Anything you do in terms of performing is pretence, or pretentious. Without pretension there’d be no pop music or theatre or performance of any kind so it’s a good thing.
We roll with that rather than try to be down to earth and authentic all the time on stage, which is more pretentious in a way than what people might see us as being.
DiS: Talking of theatre and film, you’ve done some interesting things in your spare time regarding those areas haven’t you, or so I read on your Wikipedia page?
K: Is that on our Wikipedia page?
J: Oh God. I wrote the basis for that one summer. Every year, I try and start writing something better and then usually give up soon after hoping that SOMEONE would come along and write it for us. You’re not supposed to write your own pages anyway. I’d just hoped someone had come along and updated it!
But it’s true yeah. Panos and I write music for TV, theatre and commercials sometimes; corporate videos also. Which is odd. We’ve all been in these corporate environments at some point; Keith used to work as a programmer for some bank in Canary Wharf.
K: When I used to be rich…
J: And then you met us
K: …and happy…
J: So yeah. We do that amongst other things.
K: But after this, there’ll be just lots more touring. A French tour for a week, a few European festivals and then we do a German tour in September with a load of UK and French dates to come in October. A bit of Switzerland and Copenhagen too.
J: And this special film collaboration with Vincent Moon? It’s going to be premiered at a Copenhagen film festival along with a gig of ours. Well that’s the idea.
K: With another single, ‘Even your friend’, sometime in July probably. And it’s really nice Spanish love song B-side.
J: Oh yeah. That was another film thing. Some of our music was used in a German film called ‘The Robber’ and we all went along to the premier and play at the party. They wanted to use some more of our music and use a Robert Wyatt track he did of a traditional Cuban love song. But they couldn’t get the rights for it, and Panos and I got asked to come up with something similar. So I wrote these Spanish love song lyrics using various translation engines like Babelfish and had to cross-reference and change words around all the time to get the syntax right. But at the end I had a Spanish-speaking friend check and it was all right rather luckily. And yeah, that’s the B-side.
DiS: I guess you’re not playing it tonight?
K: No. This is our first London show for 6 months or so and it’s going to be quite busy I think. We have a lot of friends coming down and it’s going to be quite stressful. Not only do we have to play a show, we’ll probably have to talk to some of them as well…
Well Done Europe is out now.
Many thanks to Sam (for organising), the guys from the band (for their time) and the ladies (for letting us use their dressing room).