<<<This interview was conducted across several, non-consecutive months in two separate rooms which are reachable only by accessing a 7,000 mile pathway on a steady downward slope, leading to a bolted metal door at the centre of the earth (the “Core Rooms”). In the first room, asking the questions, was a sentient computer designed by Chinese gardeners working out of Beijing. In the second room, hermetically sealed from the outside world, answering the questions in a state of near-total sobriety was DRM VZR>>>
Q: Before we get into the songs themselves, I think it would be helpful for us to get a bit more insight into how you personally see the album's position within the musical landscape. Talking broadly of the album as a whole, from what tradition or traditions of song writing do you see it emerging? Your work is diverse and eclectic but it clearly fits together as one coherent piece. What were the overriding inspirations for this album and how did you balance their presence in selecting the final arrangement?
A: When I started writing what became this album about three years ago I had a big list of the types of songs and things I wanted to do. Most of them were musical ideals – things like better melodies, lots of saxophone which obviously didn’t pan out. But then I have notes that are like 'End dark' which I must've turned off of at some point and 'longer album' and 'centrepiece'. But in the end that stuff ended up being a way to critique the work you end up with and not really an influencer on anything at all. Looking back it's kind of gratifying to see the finished product reflects those things a little bit.
The main idea I had was to make an album inspired by Taxi Driver, Chinatown and The Master, but not really anything to do with those films but to kind of make an album that sounds like those films look. I had the idea that the album I would make would be a sequence of music that would play out kind of like a Californian detective story. But as someone who’s British I felt justified to do it by thinking about Chinatown, which is arguably one of the greatest American movies ever made – the filmmaker Roman Polanski is European. So you’re getting a European perspective on these quintessentially American archetypes. So it comes out a little skewed, maybe a bit darker. Only in this instance the mystery would be kind of an existential one that’s unsolvable. Like why am I alone? Where have all these people that were once in my life gone? How am I ever going to be happy? Just a kind of searching thing, sifting through the ruins of a life for clues. I think that’s ultimately what the finished product has in common with those three films – it’s from the perspective of someone who feels broken. I’m not sure I succeeded in that in the way I meant to initially. I think in some of the imagery it’s there but I don’t think it’s quite as clear in a narrative sense. Maybe it is I’m not sure yet.
I think there are a couple reasons that I wasn’t successful in that aspect:
Firstly it’s a kind of a naïve thought to have when song writing itself is kind of an unpredictable thing that you can’t really dictate. What comes out is what comes out and with all the will in the world you can’t really bend and control an unconscious action with conscious preconceived notions of what you think you should have written. You end up killing what’s special about whatever it is you’ve come out with. If there’s anything special about it at all.
The second is I wrote a lot of songs that didn’t make the album, I’d say at least a hundred or so. And in the beginning I had a lot more of that stuff specifically in the lyrics and titles, but I kind of wrote through all of my specific references and kept going. So most of the stuff that was written with any intent behind them ended up getting left behind and the album took its own natural shape.
Writing the songs started out quite consciously – I was looking for songs a lot and placing a lot of the ideas I’d collected into them – but most of them ended up being a little too constructed. Acoustic things that sounded like they were trying for On the Beach era Neil Young and keyboard songs that were trying to be Dennis Wilson or the doors or whatever. That whole 60’s California sound which was something else I was thinking about emulating. I had a version of the album pretty quickly within about 6 months and only one song is really left from that time on the album. I just kept having a little voice in my head saying “Go Deeper”. All of the songs that made it to recording and onto the album are the ones that were pretty pure and un-fucked with in terms of song writing. So they appeared each of them over the course of a couple days or hours and just sort of formed and I wasn’t really thinking about what they were going to be about they just sort were about what they were about. All of them were songs that I kind of needed. It sounds a little bit big-headed to say I would just walk around listening to these demos when I wrote them and they just expressed everything that I was feeling at the time of writing each of them. It was like someone had written the perfect song for me – it just happened to be me. I kind of disassociated myself from that because they had come so easily that it was like someone else had written them anyway.
In the end I ended up trying to arrange the songs going back to the original few ideas about someone searching for meaning and being lonely with California as a subtle backdrop. I ended up analysing a lot of what the songs were about in those same periods where I was listening to them and working it out. For the most part they all had that feeling of being lost in a mystery you haven’t really got a hope of unravelling.
I’ve heard creative people say stuff like God antenna before which as a kind of non-religious person I don’t really buy into, but it’s a good way of explaining that kind of thing. A more rational way of putting it would be your letting your reality fill up your brain with stuff and every now and then you become full and it all just pours out of you somehow. I think your brain has to enter this creative trance in order to be attuned to it. I don’t feel that way right now. Probably because I’m empty and need to nourish my brain with other things, new knowledge and ideas and life experiences so that eventually it’ll hopefully come back.
Q: Thanks. Briefly, could you expand on these cinematic aspects of the album? What musical aspects of the album do you feel sound how those three films look? I understand that lyrically it might be a lot simpler to represent an imagined version of those pictures, but what have you done with the music that you feel gets towards your vision? How far were you successful in this, and do you think that anything would have made this process easier or more effective?
A: Well I think one of the decisions that helped that was made just after the main bulk of recording, which was over three days getting the songs down as live as possible. What was really beneficial about doing the skeletons of it first was that I got to go away and listen to what I had. So everything sounded very empty when I first listened to the bare bones for what we’d done and I kind of instantly had the idea that I was going to use some field recordings I’d made. And that kind of led on to using other found sounds from stuff on YouTube or whatever. I’m a big fan of the film of the director Mike Mills, and one of the things I love so much about his three films is the kind of cultural and historical context they provide you with in asides of photographs from the past. So I decided I would try to find the sound equivalent of that, and place it in the background with sounds that would situate you in a place and time, whether you know it or not underneath the instruments - even if it was just a recording of the wind on a day in California somewhere in the past. Hopefully that kind of stuff brings a sort of intertextuality to the album with quotes from podcasts and samples from films along with that stuff. The whole mixing process of adding those things wasn't dissimilar to editing a film in some ways.
And I think that stuff was in a way an attempt to bring some of the Californian vistas of those films or in Taxi Driver’s case New York City into the album. For instance in the intro to 'A Loving Person' you get the rain and new York street sounds that I found from trawling through loads of people’s footage online from their holidays or trips or maybe just practicing their photography. I think that has a sort of taxi driver-esque quality whilst sounding nothing like Bernard Herrmann or even attempting to. You can kind of feel the city and its very lonely accentuating what the song is feeling. I included all these bits from places I’d visited when I took a trip to San Francisco a few years ago when I was starting to write this which felt pretty pivotal. Sounds from the palace of fine arts, foghorns from the bay, mission street, the golden gate bridge. There’s also New York subway noise that I took from a documentary from the seventies in the intro to the last song which is kind of like a time warp without you knowing it. At the end of the song is a recording I made one day when rehearsing for the record and I was coming up out of the tube station in the night and I passed a guy playing saxophone and so you get the sound of me coming towards him walking past him and away down the street into the night. And that’s the end of the album in a song when you start on a train in one time period and country and come out up into the night air decades later in a completely different city in the world.
I hope all of that stuff contributes to making it a cinematic experience. I think in terms of the actual music I’m not sure. There were definitely moments on other songs where I wanted a kind of panoramic sound - where you're listening and it's all normal and then you're just lifted by something - whether that's a bass line or a beat or an unexpected change - and everything just becomes widescreen as you bring other instruments into the frame. I'm not a person who experiences synaesthesia but I definitely imagine images a lot when I hear music. Even when I was recording in the studio playing the piano I set up a book of Edward hopper paintings to look at hoping that something from them would seep into the vibes. I think as an aside to that the opening track 'Early Evening at the Pavilion' is the closest thing to film score music I've ever written.
Q. From the sounds of it then, place seems to be very important on this album. You've already touched on it, but you've made music that has California at its heart, but was made in London and there's some New York in there too. How do you see the album in terms of the importance of place? What, if anything, do you feel it says about cities and lives lived within them - your own life, obviously, but more than that, do you see this album as having significance for a wider audience and, if so, what would you hope that it says about the spaces we inhabit?
A: I think you’re right place really is important to this. I started writing the album with California in mind – I had the title before anything else I don’t know why. But I think being from a country that’s full of rain and grey days it’s in many ways the kind of represents this kind of mythical paradise of sunshine and I think that’s part of it. One of the main things I’ve been interested in and it kind of got lost in the finished album but there are a lot of songs that were left off that represent this, is the 60’s and the hippie movement. People going out west searching for a new life for themselves or a new way of life. I’m really fascinated by the darker connotations of what that became in how it didn’t necessarily come crashing down – it lives on through the women’s liberation, civil and gay rights and seeped into the fabric of how we think through culture, but it definitely became co-opted and commodified to a certain degree. So I suppose in some ways California represented a kind of liminal space as an idea rather than a concrete thing I was chasing. Running away to find Shangri-La and coming up empty.
But I definitely think it's an album of being or at least feeling alone in cities to me. Little travelogues of stuff up against fragments of life. In terms of the specific cities and their influence I think of New York as a place that makes you feel small in how big it is, it's dense and you can get lost in it, that's kind of what's magical about it in a way. London is lonely in so far as you can go on a long tube journey or walk down the street and be passing hundreds or thousands of people and not make eye contact or speak to one of them. Cos that's just what we're like here. If I go to America, somewhere like New York and people start talking to me I feel weirded out. I love their confidence but I feel like I don't belong. It's like wait a minute why are you talking to me? But San Francisco is a special spectre on the album. I've been there alone as a tourist walking around on my own. But when you equate the city to the idealistic husk of itself that you could interpret it to be. When I think about that Hunter S Thompson speech from fear and loathing about the place where the wave broke, everything with the beats, the romance of that mythology, you go there now and you won't find it. You'll find remnants of it, but it's a tech hub, a bastion of commerce. When I went to San Francisco I was walking around the Haight Ashbury Neighbourhood with its tie dye t-shirts and homeless people living in the park and I just felt ‘This is what this has become’. People disenfranchised by the promise of freedom and people taking these great cultural symbols of the past and turning them into something that means the complete opposite or being failed by them. I hope all that stuff has seeped in some way. It might not be so explicitly there but hopefully the title makes it kind of implicit. I'm not sure what this stuff means to other people especially these days - I'm not sure if it's obvious to hear in this, hopefully someone sees it if they get beyond my shrill voice.
In terms of specific spaces I definitely consciously wanting setting, as in to not write songs ambiguously where you at least feel situated most of the time. So you get Launderettes, bridges, coffee shops, restaurants, pavilions, ponds, harbours, and beaches. There's quote I remember Devendra Banhart saying in an interview and it stuck with me that he was trying at the time to "only say what is". I definitely failed at that, but it's a worthy thing to pursue I think, it's kind of why a lot of the titles are like titles of paintings. It’s definitely a headphones album to listen to while you're walking through places...
Q: That's a really interesting perspective. The album deals simultaneously, perhaps, with the here and now reality of living in these big urban spaces, but also with the promise that they represented but somehow fail to deliver. I can see how this can be both personal and taken outwards on a more expansive level. The loneliness that both isolates people and, in a sense, brings them together through this shared alienation.
But if we can talk a bit about the songs for a moment - I'm interested in the songs, firstly, that haven't made it onto the album. I believe you said there were possibly hundreds - so obviously this was a very rich vein of song writing for you. Why, to start with, did you make the choices for the final track listing that you did, and why did certain songs not fit what you ultimately saw this album being - can you tell me a little bit about these unused tracks? Is there a chance that they'll be revisited and see the light of day? And, secondly, what do you think it was about this subject matter that has allowed you to be so prolific?
A: I saw originally there being 16 songs and that meant throughout the whole process, basically from as soon as I had 16 songs there was a track list. And then every time I wrote another song it would kind of be measured up against all of the others. So one would push another off and then that one would get replaced. In terms of full songs it was probably around a hundred and then there were a lot more half or quarter formed things. At the beginning I think I kind of wrong-footed myself because I was writing kind of geared towards a band situation. So there were a lot more band-y songs and by that I mean faster tempos and a lot more euphoric moments or at least trying to find them in songs that weren't really geared towards that. Ultimately what it came down to over and over again was "do these feel pure?" and "what is this trying to say?" and not trying to please anyone but myself.
I think what I mean by looking for purity relates to when I was recording the final sixteen I had this thought that's related to the film 'The Prestige' for some reason. So a few years ago I was writing a script for a couple years like it was a diary. And I wasn't going to show anybody this thing I was pretty clear on that throughout and then I finished it. And I eventually gave into temptation and showed it to some friends as a kind of exorcism. But before I did I was wrestling with the thing of "should I show this to anybody it's so personal" and I thought what's the worst that can happen? But I remember also thinking what's the best possible outcome of showing everyone else and it made me laugh because of course the best possible scenario for anyone showing anyone something you've done is that the other person turns around and says "oh my god you've written IT, this the ultimate thing that we've been searching for this whole time!". "This is going to change the world" - like you're Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments or something. So in The Prestige there's this scene where Hugh Jackman's got Nikola Tesla to build him this machine that duplicates him and he's showing a theatre owner or something the "trick" for the first time. And the guy sees it and is a bit startled and he goes "it's been a long time since I've seen... REAL magic". With this album my thing was imagining playing the songs to someone and them essentially saying that. And that kind of makes me chuckle every time I think of it, but essentially at the core of that feeling was about the fact that so much stuff is manufactured and a product and so is this album in many ways. But all of the songs that landed and ended up in contention came from something much more unconscious and pure like I said. Just something that had to come out of me, a total expression of how I was feeling, in other words... REAL magic.
Songs that didn't make the cut just had something a little more calculated about them though I didn't know that at the time when I was writing them. There was a song called Hall of Records about a detective trying to solve a crime but the problem is existential. It's the nature of the world around him that's the killer and you can't destroy what's in nature. There was a line in that that went "The city is corrupt/As soon as you've cut off the head/then you turn around/it’s grown straight back up". There was a song called Washington/Cherry which is an intersection where the zodiac killer murdered one of his victims, a taxi driver. And that song was not really about that but kind of a righteous brothers-esque thing but from the perspective of a cult leader manipulating his concubine to stay with him. A song about a missing waitress who's being missed by a regular customer. A cabbie trying to reconnect with a crush from school despite a lifetime having passed. A stranded alien waiting for his species to come back for him. And a tonne of much more oblique stuff. Sometimes me trying to use personal things but too self-consciously. Too arch. At least for what this thing needed to be - I just wanted this to be something real. I don't know if any of those examples will become anything in the future but definitely some of the more esoteric material that doesn't so strongly indicate the themes and places of this album will potentially lend itself to being adapted or rewritten.
I think in terms of practicality there was only ever a finite amount that could be recorded in a studio as I didn't really have the time to experiment with every one of them - so that was one way of whittling them down too. In some ways it would have been great to have recorded a lot more in order to have had more choice but I think in order to do what I had justice, I needed to believe that any of them could be on the album in order to finish them. When it came down to the final sixteen part of me did want to keep all of them but as a result of it really being just me who had the final say I felt the need to self-edit a little bit which was quite wrenching to come to. Friends helped with their opinions about what were the strongest ones but I didn't want the choice to be about quantifying what songs were technically superior or whether other people would like them more, it had to feel right. So I cut three songs and put two into the same track. Of those three, two: ‘Getting Through Life’ and ‘In The Beautiful Night’ have always felt kind of like twin songs to each other so imagine I’ll put them up at some point. Those two just felt like they would happily exist outside of the framework of the album and perhaps within they felt tonally a little jauntier shall we say than some of the rest of the material. And the third is a Reprise of A Loving Person and I think I decided to cut that because it started life as part of the original song and I thought if I couldn’t put it into the song then it didn’t belong on the album in the end. It’s a very painful personal lyric so that felt a little bit like backing down or chickening out. But because I’m a stickler to this for reasons I couldn’t explain if I tried if it couldn’t be sixteen tracks it had to be twelve.
In terms of being prolific I think it's not necessarily the subject matter that's driven the amount of material. That's just kind of the way I write - I come up with a lot of stuff but it's kind of a direction it goes in as it appears, it reveals itself as it goes on. It's kind of like how I imagine a novelist meditating on the world they're creating and writing lots of material just to get a paragraph out of it. It's like it's a mental environment that I was inhabiting for three years, a bit like method acting and staying in character. And the songs were a product of that environment as much as anything - me sitting around obsessing about grief, sadness, loneliness, California and god knows what else. So that becomes where you go immediately when you start to write. To that end it's been quite difficult to shake that off in the months since writing completed, cos I've still been working on it but I know that any new material I have won't be on it so it's kind of like being in limbo. You don't want to get out of that headspace cos you've still got to work on it but anything new you write needs to be something else entirely. So I've been waiting for it to be done so I can move on and be someone else essentially, to inhabit a different kind of character.
Q: Fantastic. If it's okay, for a moment, I would like to move the questioning away from the album and its craft, and onto you as a writer and musician. I think, as DRM VZR there are a lot of questions that I suspect you may not wish to answer, but I think knowing something about how you see yourself as an artist would move us forward for a nice foray into questioning the meat of the album. Obviously there is an enigmatic element to your name and the imagery that surrounds your more 'public' image, if you will, so I wondered how you might see this in the context of the music you create which has an intensely personal quality to it. Further to this, what specifically do you see the role of a writer/musician to be in the modern world, and how do you feel you adhere to this? And if I could go further still, why do you create music?
A: Not wanting to be pretentious, but I guess that's unavoidable, I just didn't want to engage with the whole idea of being seen. No Facebook no twitter no Instagram, none of that. Everyone's marketing themselves all the time these days to an almost unbearable degree. I just didn't want to cheapen this album by having anything like that around it. And that's not to say I might not have something or change how I feel about that in the future with another project. And I'm not saying other artists are cheap for using those tools but this isn't something I want as a page with one like getting closed like a mausoleum. But a lack of context is what I wanted this to appear in. There's no 'Hi World I am... and this is...' status, no real context and no guarantee that anyone will ever find it which is kind of nice and exciting. And it keeps it as a little secret, which is what it's been for me the whole time I've been writing it. It keeps it special. It won't have the hallmarks of being a failed thing as a result. To me the inherent failure of it is kind of a success because this isn't about that. And I'll just put it out there that there is no mysteriousness as a ploy for attention either because I’m obviously just a person and not some enigmatic figure in the shadows. Hopefully this interview although hidden somewhat, is the way to get around any kind of bullshit faux ambiguity with giving some context on my terms.
This isn't about me. Anything I've given on the album is all I have to offer about me. I think personal stuff is all anyone has to offer. Any artist or person who just makes stuff, that's pretty much all they have is their own worldview and experience. That's all anyone has, it's all we are. I think the role of artists in the modern world is to offer that whether they know they're doing that or not, and that's the way that it's always been. When you hear people talk about that it's usually in the context of decrying the absence of overtly political material especially in the current turbulent political climate. But the personal is political. I think if people are deliberately not being truthful then what's the point? I don't really know why I create music, it's just a compulsion now and has been for a very long time. It's something I didn't think I could do throughout my teens, like a little secret thing I wanted to pursue and I knew it was somewhere in me but I pushed deep down because at the time I didn't have any courage or self-belief, I hated myself. And then when I was 18 I realised I could do it, and got better at it, I guess I just couldn't stop, it was addictive. And I think ultimately that pursuit of truth is why I keep doing it, because when I listen to something I've done and hear my voice I still kind of can't believe that's me, but it's the real me for the most part. It's like that thing when people say "it's like someone wrote that song just for me", when I hear my own songs I have that feeling and feel completely disassociated from the fact that I wrote it or am in the process of making it. And its music that's expressing something inside that I couldn't articulate in any other way, its therapy, it's incredibly gratifying.
Q: I agree with you that the personal is political, but my interest has been piqued by this talk of "truth". What truth do you see within your work?
A: I guess the truth in these songs is presented by getting to something personal, expressing things that I really feel. You can write songs in characters but what's useful about them if there's nothing of real life and thought. One of the things I think is truthful here that I've tried to express about my life is the feeling of a lack of love. And by that I mean a lack of a reciprocal romantic love. I've obviously got lots of friends I love and have love for family and stuff, but on the whole I've never had romantic feelings of love reciprocated. And that's something I don't see very much in music. You see it in films and often there's some kind of reward to a character who feels like that or an allusion that they might get to experience that. But I think it's interesting that in a lot of music there's an object of affection that gets the attention. As opposed to "I'm here on my own and I don't know if I'm going to find someone - what's wrong with me?". I think the 'object' of affection shows up a few times in this album but it's often in more interior ways than is usual. More ruminating on why certain instances don't, didn't or can't turn into romantic love as well as a lot of feeling lost, a lot of feeling like the problem is me. I think that's pretty truthful to my experience. Someone walking around and thinking "is love even real?", "how come nobody has ever 'loved' me?", "Is all the love I've felt imaginary?". No confidence, when I think normally that stuff appears at least on the surface to be pretty assured. Obviously it's a very esoteric concept, but I think it's at the heart of everything I've written so far.
Q: I think the conceptualisation of loneliness on the album is very strong, but there was a line on "A Loving Person" which particularly stood out for me: it's a lonely life, but we're in communion with the sadness and our loss.
Maybe you can explain more about the communion you refer to and the other lyrics in that song, as to how they fit into the concepts you've been talking about. To me this line seems to acknowledge sadness while perhaps offering a positive outlook - especially through the way the line is delivered. The whole song seems, to me at least, to blur the boundaries between optimism and pessimism. There is a lot of sadness in the lyrics, but about half the time they're sung with a sort of positivity or wistfulness which seems to suggest the song is operating on more than one level lyrically.
A: Yeah, I hope so, I hope that that’s the case – I think there’s always a couple of things going on whenever you listen to a song. You’ve got wherever place I was at in my head when I wrote the song. And then further to that you’ve got the feelings or whatever I had going on in and around the performance and the recording of the thing and what I was thinking about then. Then finally, you’ve got the thoughts and surroundings and everything else going on in the life of the listener.
It’s difficult to talk about my initial intent when it comes to the lyrics with this song, I remember this one taking a long time to write and going through several different versions. I just think I knew it needed to be kind of the heavy hitter on the album and that’s why it took a few weeks to hone in on. And I think what I mean by that is that it came along quite late in the process and it was sort of lyrically dealing with the kind of thoughts and feelings I might’ve been shying away from on the songs written before that. I didn’t want it to be sanitised, not that I’d censored myself in any way on those. It’s quite complicated. I just felt like on this song I had to be a bit more explicit about my mum passing away of cancer a couple of years before. I’d had other people in my life pass away too in the years leading up to that, like my dad and grandmother, but they were both a lot older and somewhat easier to deal with which sounds bad but it's true. I felt like it was something I was avoiding for fear of exploiting it or something. All the other songs kind of dance around it a little bit – but on this one I deal with it kind of head on. And I guess my way of not exploiting it was to make it more experiential and that is to say it’s more about the me years later thinking about that and less about the person I lost and doing her memory a disservice. I can speak for me and things I felt and continue to feel but I can’t speak for people who are gone. But that's all a lot to put on a song really. I'm not sure anything could live up to having to do that.
And honestly there are so many great expansive albums and songs about grief and loss that express so many things that I never could. Carrie & Lowell, Skeleton Tree, A Crow Looked at me are all unfashionable and that's just recent ones off the top of my head I'm sure there are a thousand more I'm not thinking of.
I think the title really is a little key to the tonal duality within it. Sadness and loss are such lonely things to go through but to have people together all in communion with the same feelings is kind of hopeful. And that's what I always suspect is going on when I'm feeling like that but when you're isolated you have no proof of it. That there are other people out there feeling the same way. And you're probably too wrapped up in your own situation to know or notice when you feel like that. And that's not saying to feel that way is selfish it's just inherent in the thing that it maybe narrows your perception sometimes. But when you notice someone else's suffering or try to help someone out in any big or small way, maybe just by being there that is to be a loving person. And that brings you together with people and brings you closer toward life, just by having real empathy.
I spent so much of the time around when I wrote that particular song feeling like I wasn't capable of love, that maybe I haven't given enough of it in the past and feeling like I deserve to be alone because of that. But on the flip side of that I'm trying to talk myself out of a tough situation. Bringing myself back from those various brinks of solitude. I like to think that I'm an optimist who gets disappointed a lot. I don't know if it's true but I have a conversation with my mum in my memory that I'm not sure if it's real or imagined where I told her that in a hospital once.
I think that's how the song manages to (hopefully) walk the tightrope of bouncing from one extreme to another. I definitely think something that helps is that I was in a much better place seven or eight months later when I recorded it. I'd just got my own place and was recording an album and it was literally like living a dream. So I think in those moments where the melody is trying to take it somewhere more positive you can hear that that's where I wanna be.
Q: While you acknowledge that a song like that will mean different things in the minds of different listeners it's still inarguably a deeply personal endeavour from your point of view. Do you think it's easier, and did you find it easier, to write material like this in the dynamic of a solo artist, compared with the way you might have approached song writing and applied your own experiences to the work you have done with bands where there is more of a collaborative approach?
A: Well you don’t have to run it past anyone but yourself so that’s a big thing right off the bat that makes it freer. When you’re in a band you’re constantly looking for the approval of the other members, for some kind of validation from your peers. That’s not why you write the song in the first place but there’s that extra step before you can take it further and develop it musically. It needs to be Ok’d and vetted unanimously or at least democratically before you can work on it more. And then after that it’s got however many minds working on it with all slightly different agendas or ideas which is great when you’re in a band that’s why it’s good you get something you never could have done alone and it changes it into something that’s no longer ‘mine’ but ‘ours’. If you’re in a band to play together to write that’s a different thing - that’s what’s really special about the band approach is when you all align and lightning strikes and something comes alive in the room. But as a contributor there’s a lot of waiting around for the opinions of others and maybe you have to be prepared to defend what you've created or contributed. And I think if I were in a band and wanted to create songs like these ones they probably wouldn’t have ended up being quite so personal. And that’s because if you’re putting deeply personal experiences into that vetting process and it’s rejected that’s not only devastating but you might feel like I’ve wasted these feelings by putting them into something and not only have I appropriated them for something that isn’t very good, now they’re tainted and I can’t use them. And that’s stuff that I’ve experienced in the past and its gutting. I think it’s different if you just know it’s a really good song that the other people will like but it’s nice not to mentally live and die by every song or idea you have, everything can be looser and doesn't have to stand up to criticism right away.
The part where it becomes hard is you really have to trust yourself and be prepared to self-edit as well because at the end of the day you’re the only one who has final say. There have definitely been parts particularly during the post-production of the thing that I’ve wished I had other people around with an equally vested interest because it would’ve made decisions I was unsure about easier. And that’s usually over small things that don’t matter so much where it’s nice to be able to let go sometimes.
All that being said the actual production and editing was probably the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had because the writing was so insular I kind of knew I needed to be open to other people’s ideas to counteract that. So I worked with a producer, friends doing guitar, bass, drums, got it mastered and had various helping out with the track list and the post-production process.
Q: Do you think that your lyrical and musical styles and abilities have improved on the basis of working as a solo artist? How have things changed in this regard - what have you found difficult in having the sole creative responsibility?
A:I have literally no idea about whether I’ve improved, I feel like I’ve got worse in terms of proficiency but better in terms of my intuition when it comes to forming songs and knowing exactly how they need to go. I think that’s perhaps related to something I’ve found difficult about having sole responsibility which is being unsure about quality. I guess that’s the flip side of not having anyone else who has a stake in it, who might prevent something shockingly awful from getting through because they don’t wanna be associated with the results so they have to pipe up. You’re freed from other people’s opinions but then that can be a bad thing too. Nobody’s gonna catch you if you’re about to fall. Even at this stage - the thing is done and I’m starting to feel a bit panicky about it not being any good. I do trust the ears and opinions of everyone who’s heard it but you never know whether someone’s just being kind. I’m currently having big paranoia over that, going back and forth in my mind. Some days I think maybe this is awful, some days I’m like no this is great don’t worry. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day. I guess no one wants something they’ve done to be shit and no one's told them.
Q: I think that sense of not knowing would be unavoidable. I suppose that until a larger number of strangers have heard it and had their say that there isn't all that much you can know for certain about its success, other than on a personal level.
I want to turn for a minute to the last song on the album, 'A Sequence of Appearances’. Why did you chose to end the album with this particular track?
The lines When you last beyond the things that you lose/ In the life you’ve made, you’re getting through/ There’s a part of me that survived/ And this is what it holds onto, particularly stood out to me. Again, as with other tracks on the album, it seems to offer both sadness and hope simultaneously with both the musical and lyrical arrangements. The sense of getting through difficult times and finding something worth holding on to. I wonder what you might say about this song more generally in terms of its place at the end of the album, as well as the significance of the 'you' that appears throughout the song. Is this a real person, or are you referring more abstractly to an idea or concept?
A: I knew pretty much as soon as it was written that it would be the last song. I had a lot of problems with the track list at the end and I tried changing a lot of things around and getting friend’s opinions but that was really the constant for me in all the variants of what the album could be. I think I just wanted to end with something that was kind of uplifting, where you arrive somewhere new. A lot of the other songs are quite down on themselves and this is - to me at least, such a relief to hear after being adrift in everything that precedes it. You’re right I think it is probably about coming through difficult times and finding some kind of hope in company or memory it kind of couldn’t have been anything else at the end in a way. In some respects it might have been irresponsible to end the album with something else. A couple of my friends when producing a track list for me put Walking on Your Own at the end, which I almost look at as a real low point in some ways. In that song it’s trying to be optimistic and then halfway through that optimism kind of loses out and it isn’t really resolved. Maybe that’s the more interesting ending, maybe even truer to life but to end this thing on that note after the kind of emotional hardship of some of the songs feels wrong to me. Then someone could point to the album as a whole piece and say it’s depressing or bleak – that maybe it encourages wallowing in sadness “music to slit your wrists to” as you sometimes hear people say. But I think it’s important to give a balanced picture of grief. So you even though the positivity of that song may be ephemeral, you still get a sense that there can be highs as well as lows – it's a reward of some kind.
In terms of the addressee I guess it can be taken as completely ambiguous and normally I don’t like that sort of ambiguity where it could literally be to anyone, where it’s so broad that you lose all feeling from the thing completely. I wrote the song really quickly in an evening in august 2015 when I was alone on a Friday night watching Listen up Phillip. There’s a scene where Elizabeth moss starts to play a record which is Making Me Nervous a by a band called A Raincoat. And almost as soon as the song started I hit pause and picked up the guitar and then I just sort of suddenly had the song it was weird. I’d also been listening a lot to the song Until You came Into My Life by Ann Peebles at the time, which is one of my favourite songs. I remember feeling like I wanted to write a song for someone like that, but I haven’t really experienced that kind of reciprocal romantic love. So I kind of started from the perspective of writing everything I’d want to say to someone if I ever find that kind of thing, so it was initially to someone who doesn’t exist, or might exist but hasn’t met the narrator yet. And even though it’s not the same as those two songs you can probably see or hear the lineage. But I realised later when I’d play the song that it could literally could be to a lover, from a parent to a child, to a friend, a pet - to someone who’s deceased etc. I’d be singing the song and be thinking about my mum passing away or my mates and it could still apply and it was kind of nice to be able to shift perspectives depending on what you're thinking about. That sort of keeps it fresh, because then you're no longer bound to thinking about what the song is "about", what it's about becomes malleable and you can make new meanings for it over and over again.
Q: I believe you've mentioned this already but the titles of the tracks seem to reflect the titles you might find in artworks, paintings, that sort of thing. If we take Rotunda, with Reflection from Pond to be an example of this. The lyrics in this song, such as Imperfection lost/ in sky clear blue/ hundreds of birds/ disperse into dusk/ lost in highway air seem to have a poetic quality to them, more than say a narrative song-writing quality. Was it your intention to meld so many different artistic styles into one album, one song, even? What do you think these lines, resting heavily on their imagery, can express that couldn't have been with a different style of song writing?
A: I don’t think I intended the blending so much as maybe that’s just my taste. I’m always so excited by titles that aren’t just one word or that tell you something about the song that maybe the song doesn’t even tell you. This one was from a picture I saw on the Wikipedia page for the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco where I’d remembered walking around on a Sunday listening to loads of Sarah Vaughan songs and there were people getting married in these crevices of the place but it was really tranquil and empty.
I think that lyric you’re referring to is really situating you in a specific moment with a specific image, it’s not necessarily trying to tell you how I feel or how to feel. I wrote the song so quickly it was another of those where it was pretty much done in an evening I can’t really speak to its intent. I’d had the last part for about two years and it fit in so naturally it wasn’t even a conscious decision to include it. Again the words kind of become so interpretable you can read anything into them. But they’re really specific in terms of trying to paint a sense of place. It’s kind of what I always aspire to do which is to situate the listener or myself in a place and time that’s a mixture of details of images but that also communicate the feeling of being alive in a very specific moment somewhere. It’s probably the finest of lines to walk and I always fail at doing that by falling back on narrating some kind of inner life instead which situates you in a mind-set but not in the real world. I guess it comes back to that ‘only say what is’ goal. And they’re very simple to that effect which helps, watching birds in the sky is an easy thing to relate to or imagine. It’s hardly trying to be Bob Dylan.
Looking back and thinking about the lyrics they’re kind of bizarre in how they do something that normally I would really try to avoid (but probably end up doing a lot) which is jumping around between tenses. If you look at the first verse it’s definitely situated in the present but its exploring memory and the past tense, then the chorus becomes thought, taking the addressee through conclusions from the present. Then it situates you entirely in the present and in the external world and then the next chorus and into the outro it bleeds into the future somewhere between certain inevitabilities and the imagination. That kind of thing is normally something I’m really considered about and will often seek to stamp it out. When I come out with the melody and the words reveal themselves thereafter, I’ll usually rewrite them over a period of days and often the main thing I do is just small adjustments to the verb tenses to make sure that nothing jumps around too much for the sake of a melody. Like putting “I’m doing this” and “she said/was” next to each other.
If I’d written this song with a bit more thought behind it, it probably would’ve been a bit too arch, a bit too calculated. It’s kind of coming from a place of feeling rather than thinking, I’d probably be trying to make the scene be the main thing, trying to tell a story or something. I wrote it the same week that I wrote Woman in Launderette and Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate and I think that prevented that from happening. I can’t really remember if there was overlap but all the demos I have are pretty much unchanged in structure, lyrics and melody from their finished forms. All of them are doing kind of similar things in taking you through scenes and jumping between situations and the inner life of the speaker. I think the process of being hit with all three around the same time probably meant I was more relaxed not trying to cram ideas into something, because I had the luxury of choice. All were so easy and occurred so naturally, there was no over-complication. If there was, the simplicity of the feelings on offer would probably have been lost.
Q: That's interesting that you mention how you would normally stamp out differences in tenses, but you haven't done so on that track. Do you think that one could ascribe any meaning to this? We talked about the album's importance in terms of a sense of 'space', but what about a sense of 'time'? To follow that up, as well, you've mentioned the speed at which some of these songs came to you and have remained unchanged (more or less) - do you think that they have an improvisational quality because of this, and if so, how do you think this affects the overall 'aura' or 'feel' of the song(s)?
A: It’s weird because there wasn’t really any thought behind it, it’s just something I’ve noticed in hindsight. Looking back on it though you could certainly say that it adds to the displacement of the speaker. It’s kind of like in a film or a book where time is skipping forward, where you’re seeing all of a life really quickly from the cradle to the grave in a montage, flashing forward and backwards. I guess this song could be a good soundtrack to something like that. Only in this instance it’s kind of about personal connections and their relationship to the vastness and smallness of life. It’s like the pale blue dot picture, except instead you’re looking from outside of time at the significance of things in your own life. Sometimes the little things end up being the big things and vice versa.
I think in terms of the way time plays a role on the album, it’s kind of affected by the real time that it took to write which was probably around 2 and a half years as a whole. Obviously that doesn’t seem like a long amount of time when considering the way traditional album cycles work but it felt like fucking forever at times. And I think within the songs themselves there’s kind of an impatience at play – a waiting for life to happen, for things to change, to move on, to get better. They all feel like they take place stuck in a mental waiting room, in a holding pattern instead of going out in the world and living life. Instead of feeling like you can affect change in your own life yourself, they all have a kind of powerlessness.
One of the first things you hear on the album is the backwards sounds of the ocean - this thing that’s so vast that reduces everything over time and is eternally unknowable is temporally fucked with. And beyond that it’s such an obvious metaphor for how time washes everything away. For an album where there’s hopefully a clear processing of grief it’s a pretty big signifier for the first proper song to be about being lost and wanting to be at peace. I was initially going to put that somewhere in the middle cos I had it in my head that this song was going to come along and kind of cleanse the album. But then it was suggested to me that those were the obvious openers and I was completely wrong. It was kind of too delicious of an opening signifier to pass up.
I think in some of the songs definitely I’ve tried to retain some of their improvisational feeling, but obviously that’s quite hard when you’re recreating the song and chasing the demo in the studio. But some of them are just pure id. All it takes is one off the cuff expression and then suddenly you’ve got a song and you realise that somehow without trying you’ve articulated something that you hadn’t been able to before. ‘In a Restaurant’ is one of those – it kind of expresses the feeling of waiting around for something to happen rather than taking charge and doing something yourself. The second half of the song is pure improvisation - not on the record but just how it was written – in fact the whole song came as is in about six minutes one night just before I went to bed. I was recording before I played for some reason so I have it all. After the first half I paused it, then went back to getting into bed and then I remember stopping myself and just trying something and it completely sounds wrong musically to me but I loved it so much I never changed a thing. And the words almost make no sense, but then when you start to think about them they’re talking specifically about that powerlessness and desire for change. When you feel like the circumstances of others and external forces are making all the decisions in your life, you lose your sense of agency - that song represents for me the start of getting that back.
Q: You've mentioned before that you're a non-religious person, and god crops up a few times in the lyrics to the album, especially in his absence or ambiguity. Given what you've just said about powerlessness and 'external forces making decisions' how far does religion or spirituality figure in your thinking, both when you made this album and more generally as a creator of art and a normal person in the real, everyday world?
A: In my own everyday life I don’t really think about it much - I’m pretty much an atheist. When I was younger I was a lot more internally critical of all that spiritual stuff and probably a bit harsh when thinking about other people’s beliefs. Maybe sceptical is the right word, surely it’s hard to keep up believing in the absence of abject proof? I don't get why anyone would care about what someone else thinks - the organisation of it is pretty repugnant to me. But I’ve definitely relaxed nowadays I think that’s such a hopeful thing for most people who have it. It doesn’t make someone a hypocrite to waver or change the mind. We’re always changing, you realise I'm being just as bad as the people who recruit or indoctrinate others into a religion just by looking down on people who are part of one, as if I have all the answers as well. I think when I lost my mum and other members of my family I kind of for the first time felt like I wanted to believe but just didn’t, I could finally understand the impetus behind it. I could suddenly see why people had that, it has such potential to be such a lovely idea, at least, disregarding the darker part of what drives people to be fanatical. Death without a belief in something more can be an absolutely gutting prospect. Everything is way more meaningless. I finally saw the attraction of belief. But when it comes down to it, it’s just a thing that you have a feeling on or don’t, no one’s right and my gut just said nope. And as time goes on you make peace with that and feel better about it. You just have to make meaning out of your own life because this is it. Whether you believe otherwise or not there’s never going to be a way of knowing for sure. My way of making meaning out of my life for the last three years has been making this. Processing experiences into something productive and hopefully positive.
In terms of the references on the album I think it’s just a way of using language and that kind of iconography of religion to represent a lack. A lot of these songs are looking for salvation, waiting to be rescued by something. They’re dialogues from me to myself in the end, but some of them sound like prayers. Talking to someone who for me isn't there, or if are it never felt like they were listening. Just soul searching. Hopefully the songs work from the standpoint of a believer or non-believer and are inclusive enough to work from both viewpoints. Whether you have spiritual belief or not you can still be lost.
Q: Thanks. I wanted to quickly ask you about the first single that has been released from the album - Rotunda, with Reflection from Pond and to ask you about the nature of the songs as you see them in the context of an album and as a set of individual pieces of music. Releasing a song as a single makes it separate from the album, and places it on its own. Do you see this album as being one that rewards listening in broken up fragments, or would you prefer people to see it as one entire piece, of which Rotunda is just what you've chosen to market it? Do you think the songs stand up particularly well on their own, or do they work better when placed in the larger context? I get that people will always have their own ways of listening to music, but from the point of view of an artist creating, I wondered how you actually envision this music being heard.
A: To be honest it's not something I've thought about much. I guess they were all recorded separately and thus can stand alone - like chapters in a book of short stories or scenes in a film. I don't think it matters how anyone sees it, it's unique to each listener- Rotunda as a single wasn't really my choice - it was just recommended by the good people at rzvmrd that I have one and thus I defer to them. I hope that they stand well alone, I think that's one of the reasons why I cut some stuff is that so when compared they're hopefully all of similar quality. Personally I prefer to listen to albums as a whole at first, then you get favourite songs, maybe I'll buy it on vinyl and listen as a whole then. Sometimes I'll make playlists of loads of songs that don't technically belong together but should in different contexts. I guess it has a different life in the hands of each person who encounters it. Someone will probably click on one song by accident and click off it thirty seconds later and never return to it, then that becomes their entire experience of the album. Ultimately, I think there are two environments to listen to this music that will benefit it in some way. The first is listening out loud, alone, looking out on the ocean from a beach hut somewhere on the coast of California with a tall glass of some refreshing drink as the sun goes down. The second, is listening on headphones, whilst walking around in the rain at night in the middle of a city, walking nowhere in particular.
Q: That’s a great answer. Before we come to a close I want to ask you one last question - what is next for DRM VZR?
A: I really love it when an artist, more often than not a musician attempts to talk about what their next creative endeavour is going to be about or sound like. It's usually a complete folly because inevitably something or everything will change in terms of their project from inception to completion or they'll abandon their ideas completely. Often what you were working on bares so little resemblance to the idea you had in your head at the beginning. It evolves so much while you're working on it, and often you don't even have much control over what you come up with. The best stuff is usually when you've surprised yourself. And then eventually when they release it people are like 'why is it not this thing that you said it would be years ago'? I love the naivety of it and it's always so interesting the differences between their early musings and the finished product. Often people don't like to be caught out with that now - it seems to me that people don't even really ask anymore because I guess the interviewer doesn't want to be complicit in that. Or maybe they know that whoever they're asking is going to play coy regardless, either that or people don't care anymore. I think it's fun to try to anticipate the future, even if you’re proven wrong.
I couldn't really talk much to the sound of the next thing - only to say that I want to go somewhere completely different, whether I will or not remains to be seen. I want to double down on the found sounds and historical context stuff. Experiment with more beats and synthetic sounds. I don't think I'll disregard the piano completely - I feel the thrall of playing guitar again but who knows if that'll stick. I want more jazzier moments. I want the songs to be just as melodically rich as what's gone before, if not more so. More complex chord and song structures. Better lyrics. More instruments. Weirder. More colourful.