by Stacey Sanner
For LPDs lead singer/songwriter Edward Ka-Spel, there’s a personal irony in the growing popularity in his band.
“It’s weird because I spent so much of my youth as a social outcast,” says Ka-Spel. Because of an IQ of 160 and precocious abilities, Ka-Spel was studied by psychiatrists in the first ten years as “Some kind of phenomenon.”
“I began speaking when I was six months old and it was as if I was able to read when I was eighteen months. But I wasn’t actually reading. I was memorizing things I saw on TV. I have a photographic memory.”
As Ka-Spel talks, he smokes. He holds the cigarette rather delicately between his fingers displaying his black nail polish. Lines remaining from his trademark black grease paint performance make-up scrawl across his neck and face. Outside New York City’s club, the Limelight, a former church that now serves as a popular concert club, the mercury stretches past 90 degrees on this summer day. Inside it’s not much cooler. Even so, Ka-Spel is wearing jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt wrapped in a full-length, black jacket that, except for the hood drooping off the back, resembles a terry cloth bathrobe.
As an only child whose father walked out when he was eighteen months old, he was raised by his mother. She thought his unusual progress was normal. It wasn’t until he started having nightmares at age two that she became concerned. “That’s when the psychiatrists came in,” says Ka-Spel. They hospitalized him, gave him doses of phenobarbital to calm him down and showed him “little pictures” to analyze.
“This made me a complete outcast all through my school years”, he says. “I had some mental breakdowns when I was about 16. It was horrible. I don’t think I had a psychiatric problem. I was just curious. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t like the other kids. I wanted to be accepted. Unfortunately it shaped my entire life. The Pink Dots have been in large part an exorcism of those years.”
This exorcism via the Pink Dots began in 1980 in London’s East End when Ka-Spel and former group members Phil Harmonix and April Lliff created the band. Since then, the band has gone through more than a dozen different members, some of whom stayed for less than three weeks. The group nearly disintegrated completely in 1985 just before the album Asylum was made due to the tensions created when their money was stolen by a manager who left them stranded in Amsterdam following a tour– a real problem for a group who until four or five years ago, barely made enough money to live on. “It’s been a pitiful existence,” says Ka-Spel. I could have made more on social security.”
The group, which now consists of Phil Knight (The Silver Man) on keyboards, Neils van Hoornblower on saxes and woodwinds, and Martjin de Kleer on guitars, recently released The Maria Dimension, the band’s 10th album, which is another incarnation of the eerie, atmospheric vibes the band creates with “anything that will make a sound.” With it they are enjoying this welcome but puzzling success.
“America is getting scary because there are so many people who seem like they almost want to have a part of us. I’ve never experienced this before,” says Ka-Spel. “There have been much bigger crowds than ever and they all want to meet us. It sometimes makes me want to run away. I get quite frightened by it. They’re good people, but when it’s a mass coming towards you at once it gets very confusing.”
There’s a sad irony overshadowing their recent American tour. Legendary Pink Dots guitarist Bob Pistoor, who had desperately wanted to come to the States, died earlier this year from cancer. “His greatest wish was to come to America and they wouldn’t let him in,” Ka-Spel says, referring to the band’s visa application rejection (due to a lack of “artistic merit”) a year ago.
“We got in two years ago, but Bob had joined the band too late to fill out a visa application in time. Last year we were turned down for our visas. This year we must be of artistic merit because they let us in. I can just see them all in the immigration department bopping away under their headphones going, “Ah, those Pink Dots, they’ve redeemed themselves,” Ka-Spel snickers at the idea. “But it’s sad because this was the year Bob would have gotten in.” To help fill his void, the band is travelling with Bob’s widow Sabina, as tour manager. “It just feels right,” says Ka-Spel. Sabina’s given us a lot of strength.”
All this talk of Bob leads to a discussion of death and reincarnation, not surprising coming from Ka-Spel who seems to gravitate to things metaphysical. He’s been known to use tarot cards to come up with song and album titles and often talks about astral projection.
“I’m utterly convinced of survival after death. If you don’t think there’s a quarter of the world’s population that believes in reincarnation, you can’t just write off these people’s beliefs,” he says as he tries to formulate his own thoughts about Bob. “I’m not talking spooky. It’s a warming presence. It’s an unexplanable thing.
“I believe in a purpose to everything, that in some strange way there is a kind of guiding hand. The planet and the human race aren’t here for no reason. What would be the point unless God is truly a totally surreal artist. I don’t think he is. Yet there’s so little that is explained. We haven’t even successfully explained the flight of the bumble bee. It just shows how ignorant we actually are.
“‘A Space Between’ [from The Maria Dimension] is a song that says anything is possible. I believe the world is as likely to come to its conclusion through some great ecological catastrophie within the next few years as it is to turn into a cornflake within the next few seconds. That’s how unstable the fabric of existence actually is. We’re just sort of existing and trying to comprehend something that is way beyond our comprehension.
“I don’t want to be misinterpreted as being religious. Religion is one of these things I detest. I think it’s a way of formulating spirituality and putting it in a box, giving it convenient little man-made rules so that basically all it does is divide people.”
The final irony then is the LPDs’ performance that night in a church. Ka-Spel emerges in his robe and hovers over his keyboards like a high priest over an altar. His backdrop is an enormous three-story stained glass window of Jesus Christ. With lighted candles dotting the stage, it is as if Ka-Spel is conducting his own service.
While ironic, the setting seems appropriate. The LPDs’ music can be almost spritual in the way that qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis, is spiritual. Qawwali is intended to elevate the sprit and bring both performer and listener into a heightened experience, a trance, through repetition of a sentence or phrase. The LPDs’ music, while it is most often categorized as psychadelic, conveys that same sort of emotional frenzy that builds on itself and is more heightening than any drug.
Of course, most listeners and critics of the LPDs have attributed this quality to drugs. Ka-Spel for one is tired of his music being described as “acid-influenced.”
I’ve heard so many times about how much acid I’ve done. It’s bullshit. I’ve done it twice in my life and not for years. I don’t know why people make up these stories about me. I’m supposed to have committed suicide three times now. Once we tried to book a show in Austria and the guy in the club thought it was a hoax because I had committed suicide and the band split up.”
Ka-Spel likes the qawwali comparison because it’s close to how he feels about his music. “There certainly is an exorcism going on especially when we perform live. I have sometimes come off the stage in sort of a trance. That’s when it’s really successful.”