Interview: Piano Magic
"What I’ve always tried to do with Piano Magic is to hit people in the heart; not really in the feet, or in the head necessarily, but in the heart." Glen Johnson, leader of the Anglo-French ghost rock group Piano Magic, tells me this when I meet up with him in a pub close to the main legal district of London primarily to chat about his band's new album, Life Has Not Finished With Me Yet. It is an album that has a coherence and uniformity of sound which reminds me of their great early albums Low Birth Weight and Artists Rifles, whilst also incorporating some fresh elements.
I have been a fan of Piano Magic’s music for a long time, but because of their low profile and reluctance to play many shows, I expected Glen to be a reclusive and perhaps reticent interviewee. In truth, we end up chatting for a couple of hours, talking about the history of the band, animal rights, politics and the music industry. One thing I want to clear up straight away is my concern about the title track of the new album, which paints a picture of someone contemplating suicide, set against a seemingly positive phrase: "Life has not finished with me yet." Johnson is adamant that the message shouldn't be misinterpreted.
"It is a positive title. It is positive," he repeats, as if to underline the fact. "Although it is about a suicidal person, the song has a sort of English dark humour to it. I've never been suicidal, but I've always wondered how you would end your life, which is where the song comes from. I reckon there will be a lot of reviews where people have missed that completely. This is why I always liked the Smiths; people thought they were depressing, but they had a good sense of humour. I think that we have a very good sense of humour in that same lineage. I probably could write happy songs, but when I'm happy I just want to be happy. There's a dark side to everyone, there's a time when you sit alone and think bad dark thoughts, but people don't like to admit that life is not all roses, because people point fingers and say, 'You're depressing.' They're killing children in Syria or whatever, should I really be making happy music? It’s a bit of a cliché, but songwriting is an exorcism. I do have a history of depression, and this record has been a sort of document or monument to me actually coming out of that, hence the title. I started off at the lowest point. There are some songs that people would definitely recognise as me in trouble; something like 'Chemical (20mgs)' is the anti-depressants that I’ve taken and the title track is definitely a reflection that I'm pulling through."
'Chemical' is actually almost a purely electronic song, although throughout the album the instrumentation is varied. It isn't simply a matter of experimenting with electronic sounds. There are a lot of folk instruments and textures on the album. "We own a vast armoury of instruments, we've always collected them over time, particularly electronic instruments, synthesisers and drum machines from the '80s, and we've always really liked the sounds of those things," Johnson says. “We don’t use them in a post-ironic way. We've incorporated Eastern European and Spanish percussion, which we’ve done for a long time. We're obviously influenced by a lot of Turkish music, Spanish music and a lot of Mediterranean sounds, as well as what I call northern European cold-wave and dark-wave. Some people say those two things shouldn’t be together, but I think they work on our records."
"We started in the mid-'90s as an electronic home-based band," he explains. "My obsessions are basically the guitar and electronics. When I was younger I was into Kraftwerk as much as I was into the Smiths, and the two things sort of stayed with me. We had become more guitar-based though, until very recently, and I personally wanted to go more back to our electronic roots. We had made quite a few records where the solution to everything was pressing a distortion pedal for dynamics. I wanted to see if we could find a different dynamic with electronic instruments--particularly with the emotion of the voice and with the lyrics playing a more prominent role-- because I wanted the words to be at the forefront again and not lost in a sea of noisy guitars. So the big change was shedding some of those guitar layers."
I am curious how the band's influences have changed and developed over the years. They have often been compared to Joy Division and acts on the bleaker side of indie rock. A major influence on their early work was Disco Inferno, and Glen is still vocal about his huge love for them. He tells me he "literally started Piano Magic because Disco Inferno split up. You could almost time it to the day." I wonder what inspires him nowadays.
"As a musician, I’m very critical of other people’s music and how their records sound," he says. "I am cynical and jaded about things that are popular, but I do hear a lot of good music. I don't like a lot of indie rock or pop music these days; there are very few people who are doing anything new. I tend to escape into early music, and this week I’ve been listening to Latin American baroque music. I don't like orchestral music. I like things that are more minimal, just voices. I love music like Arvo Part because of its purity; sometimes it can be just an organ and some voices. In a way, I’m influenced by that because on this record I wanted to strip back layers and get to the heart, which is what someone like him did so superbly."
Piano Magic began as a collective with a lot of members going through the ranks over the years, and they have settled on a steady lineup for the past eight years. Glen's girlfriend Angèle David-Guillou, formerly of Klima, is now a more permanent member. Two of the band are English, and three are French. They meet and socialise outside the band, and they all live in the same part of London. So has this helped the band's longevity?
He nods emphatically. "I think so. We've done 11 albums in 15 years, and many more singles. We've stayed together through chemistry. We like each other. I mean, we argue, but we aren't like the Gallaghers or something. We don't have the pressure of, "This record should sell a million or you're fucked." I don't really care what the reviews say. I usually read them and have a laugh at them because they can be so wrong, but sometimes very right, very astute. Ultimately, I care more about the guy who writes to me from the Israeli army who has been conscripted and who tells me, 'Your music is what gets me by.' And regardless of what I think politically about Israel, hearing something like that is really why I make music."
Unusually for Piano Magic, the new album does not feature any guest vocalists apart from their friend Josh Hight (from the band Irons) on perfectly placed backing vocals. Glen explains, "As much as I find it incredible to work with my 'heroes' and these have been really great experiences, I probably prefer the idea of keeping everything under an umbrella of friends. It feels homely."
Despite this, Piano Magic have not been shy at asking people they admire, such as Alan Sparhawk from Low and Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance, to add their voices over the years, and they have had a hand in reviving the musical careers of Vashti Bunyan and John Grant. He explains that the Vashti connection came about because the band's publisher at the time, Paul Lambert, let them hear her lost 1967 debut album Just Another Diamond Day, which he was about to reissue and suggested that they write something for her. Glen recalls, “I got drunk one night and wrote a song for her, and I just posted a demo of it straight in the post box, with a little note saying, 'Would you like to sing this?' She phoned me about three or four days later. It was a really amazing moment to hear her on the phone, and when she came to London she sang behind a curtain because she hadn't sung in so many years. We didn't know what she was going to sound like, and we had to keep turning the faders up; she's very quiet. The most amazing thing was that she sounded exactly as she did 30 years before. Nothing had changed. Her voice is like glass, it's like crystal. We did a couple more tracks with her. We're still in touch with her. She is a lovely woman.”
He is similarly positive about Piano Magic's experiences with John Grant and Brendan Perry. "Simon Raymonde (Bella Union boss and former Cocteau Twin) had played on the Vashti track, and I was looking for a male guest singer, so he suggested John Grant. He's one of the nicest fellas I’ve ever met, with a great sense of humour, but his voice just blows your head off. In a studio environment, at that point where you are waiting for the voice to come out, you just know you will never be able to sing that way. And Brendan Perry is probably the only singer that just kills me. We call people singers these days, but they don't have much real emotion or technical ability and he has it in spades. He destroys 'indie' singers. He destroys most pop singers."
Both the Vashti and John Grant collaborations date from Piano Magic's period on 4AD. A lot of their albums have been released on different labels. I wonder why. "The music industry is an endless disappointment," he says. "You begin with people giving you opportunities to release a record on their label, and you are so honoured and flattered that you do it. Then you realise they don't know what they are doing, or your records sell and they don't pay you anything, or they end up going on holiday on your royalties. This happens a lot, and the independent sector is worse than the major sectors. At least the majors attempt to promote your record; the independent sector is one guy in his bedroom who doesn't know what he is doing. And it's all done in good faith, but if I make a record I need money to be able to make another record. I need money to reinvest into the project, and often that just gets squandered away."
As our conversation develops, it emerges that Glen knows quite a lot about the music industry as he has worked within it for years. For a long time he worked at Rough Trade, where he was an A&R man, label manager, product manager, press officer and director, and found himself working with the likes of the Strokes, the Libertines and Belle and Sebastian. He currently works for a label as well as running his own record company, Second Language, with the music writer David Sheppard and a Danish friend, Martin Holm.
He tells me more about it. "I had a project called Future Conditional, which was electro- pop, and another called Textile Ranch. From that I started Second Language. Everyone was saying the future was digital and we weren’t so sure, because we like things like packaging, so we went against the grain. It has been quite successful for a small independent. It's quite easy for us to sell 500 records in three weeks, which a lot of labels are struggling to do. We know our audience and, as with Piano Magic, that audience has stayed with us. If you think about classic labels like 4AD, Rough Trade, Creation and to extent current labels like Domino and Bella Union, if you like them, it’s likely you are going to like their next release. Having worked at Rough Trade, I think I have a good angle on what made those labels special."
A quick glance at the Second Language roster reveals a set of varied and interesting releases. They have a series of compilations called Music and Migration, which has featured artists as varied as Hauschka and Darren Hayman and focuses on the plight of migratory birds. This led us on to talking about a song on the new album, 'The Way We Treat the Animals.'
"We are keen ornithologists, we're big animal lovers, and 'The Way We Treat the Animals' is something I feel very strongly about. It's the one thing that makes me violent. We are such an ignorant race, we just don't get the relationship with animals, we chop them up and make them into clothes. We don't try to understand enough. There are very few subjects that make me as angry. I just think we have no right to treat the animals the way we do. The rest of the band don't feel the same way, but I have the luxury of writing about what I like. They all know how I feel as they are eating a steak next to me on tour. The meat industry is very clever. How many people would eat a burger if they had been shown around an abattoir?"
I make the observation that people making music today aren't into making statements, particularly where politics is concerned. Glen agrees: "I think we are old fashioned in a good way. 'Judas' on this record is about Nick Clegg. We have to be political these days. tThe whole economy is crumbling because of the cream at the top, and the repercussions just make you angry. In the '80s, bands were political and they wore their hearts on their sleeve. It was the norm for big pop bands to at least touch on politics, but people aren't saying much these days. I think they're scared. They want to sell records, they don't want to alienate people. When you're in a position where you don't care about sales you can do whatever you want, which is the position we are in. Most people want to sell records. They want to be famous, to be celebrities, and I can think of nothing worse. I've worked with some really famous and talented people--Jarvis Cocker, Pete Doherty--and it's a curse. I think those people are great artists, but it's a shame that the more you are seen the less you mean, in a way."