TEARGARDEN: White Coats and Haloes Music From the Empty Quarter #9
by Leigh Neville
Edward Ka-Spel, founder of the truly Legendary Pink Dots, is a living legend in much the same way as his contemporaries Steve Stapleton or Peter Christopherson. Leading off way back in 1981, with the self-released ‘Chemical Playschool’ and ‘Kleine Krieg’ cassettes, the Pink Dots have become one of the most respected purveyors of uncompromising sound in the post-industrial areas, releasing a huge number of albums on a slew of labels. Even Edward has difficulty stating exactly how many releases LPD have been responsible for. Sandwiched amongst the LPD productions are Edward’s solo efforts (the latest, a compilation ‘Lyvv China Doll‘ comprised of out-takes and rarities, is out through Amsterdam’s Staalplaat), and the Tear Garden project with Cevin Key of Skinny Puppy.
The genius of the Tear Garden was sparked even before the formation of Skinny Puppy in 1983, Edward explained over a long distance line from his and LPD’s home in the rural region of the Netherlands border.
“Cevin was actually a penpal who’d wrote to me, interested in the band and the early albums and tapes. That was about four years before I actually met him.”
“It just happened that I fixed these solo shows in Vancouver and Seattle, and I went over. Cevin heard about them and he asked me to write some lyrics for an existing Skinny Puppy instrumental which became ‘The Centre Bullet’ (featured on Puppy’s ‘Bites’). I wrote the lyrics on the plane going over, and when I got into Vancouver we went into the studio together which worked very well,” Edward said.
“So the idea became a mini-album to see what else we could come up with, and that was recorded within three or four days. Actually, that’s not unusual since ‘Tired Eyes Slowly Burning’ was recorded in about ten days. That was a year later in ’87 because I went on tour with Skinny Puppy around America.”
By this time Nettwerk of Vancouver B.C. had signed The Tear Garden and had released both the album and EP. The Pink Dots’ current label, Play It Again Sam of Brussels, licensed the material for the European market, bringing it to both LPD and Puppy fans across the continent. The second album was a long time in coming however.
“Tear Garden was kinda on ice for a few years after that because Skinny Puppy and the Pink Dots were both very busy. But the opportunity to record another one came up in 1991 (‘The Last Man to Fly’) because the Pink Dots were doing a tour in Vancouver and with the whole of the Pink Dots coming to Vancouver and Cevin, Dwayne, Rave (David Oglivie) being there, it actually turned into an amalgamation of both bands. That’s also when we first met Ryan (Moore), who now plays with the Pink Dots, who was working with Cevin on Hilt, so it was all very incestuous!” he laughed.
“Ryan worked on ‘The Last Man to Fly’ and then flew to Vancouver to join the Pink Dots! But anyway, to cut a long story short the latest Tear Garden, the compilation ‘Bouquet of Black Orchids’ was simply Play It Again Sam wanting to put out a ‘best of’ which didn’t contain much of ‘The Last Man to Fly’ because that itself was quite a new album. I suppose I picked all my favourites, it’s really very listenable.”
‘Bouquet of Black Orchids’ brings together a wide range of the finest numbers from the Tear Garden. From the very early ‘Ophelia,’ ‘The Centre Bullet,’ ‘Oo Ee Oo’ and ‘Tear Garden’ (which includes a credit to Wilhelm Schroeder a.k.a. Bill Leeb), to tracks like ‘Sheila Likes the Rodeo’ and ‘Blobbo’; unreleased material from ‘The Last Man…’ sessions to the epic ‘You and Me and Rainbows,’ a sixteen-minute marathon. Duetting (?) with Puppy’s Ogre, it is a pure sensory experience.
“‘You and Me and Rainbows’ was basically written during the Skinny Puppy tour in America. I was very, very far away from home and I was doing solo shows in front of a thousand people which was a very disorientating experience. The thousand people hadn’t shown up to see me but Skinny Puppy I might add!”
“In some ways it hadn’t been the best tour but it was still enjoyable. ‘You and Me and Rainbows’ though is about my first LSD trip, kind of documenting… Ogre’s vocals are stunning. He came to me and Cevin and wanted to be involved so he did the hard, bad trip verse. We just went back to back and recorded it. I like him very, very much and he’s a really talented person. ‘You and Me and Rainbows’ is actually one of my favourites as well!!” he added.
Another unusual but equally brilliant track which is featured on both ‘Last Man…’ and ‘Bouquet…’ is ‘White Coats and Haloes.’ The song, like much of Tear Garden and indeed LPD is a very emotional, very vivid picture. Constructed by a wall of radio transmission-like fuzz with only the occasional sample, Edward’s unique vocals, and some beautiful acoustic guitar, it is a genuine masterpiece.
“That was myself and Rave one night recording. He was strumming these chords and I said, ‘What are those? I like them’ and suddenly there was a song there. Actually we forgot about it for quite a while until one very relaxed night in the studio, it was one of the almost one-take songs. I already had the lyrics but they fitted perfectly.”
“That month doing ‘The Last Man to Fly’ was just a very creative month. You’re in this mode that you’re writing maybe three or four sets of lyrics a day. There were many, many improvisations, I mean I think in total there was about five hours of recordings, much of it just played off hand,” Edward said.
The intensely personal lyricisms of Ka-Spel have always held mystery and strange wonder as he creates worlds with his words.
“It’s very hard to explain them properly, they come from having my antennae up and just picking up on things around me and interpreting them. They are very personal I suppose…”
Ka-Spel left his native England during the late eighties and now resides permanently in Holland, along with the rest of the band, a situation he finds very conductive.
“All the band lives here, there’s myself and Phil originally both from England, Ryan’s living down the road in another village, Martijn’s living in a caravan, we’re all in the same area. We’re very close that way, it really helps.”
Further recordings as The Tear Garden are planned and Cevin Key has just made a guest appearance on the new LPD album, but Ka-Spel has little hope for a Tear Garden tour.
“There’s a will there, we talk about it all the time but with Skinny Puppy recording up to their eyeballs and with the Pink Dots tour coming, which could easily stretch to five or six months, it’d be very hard to find the time. But Tear Garden will definitely be continuing because it’s so much fun to do. In a perfect world I’d love to tour with Skinny Puppy as the Pink Dots because I love Skinny Puppy’s music. I think ‘Last Rights’ is one of the finest albums of the last few years. They just get better and better. They’re so much further than any of the bands they’ve been classed with, they have an emotional edge which sets them apart. There’s a few too many cyborgs out there for my liking!”
A common thread between the Legendary Pink Dots, The Tear Garden, and Skinny Puppy is their collective ability to avoid simplistic categorisation.
“Skinny Puppy are way above it, not ‘industrial’; you can’t categorise a band like Puppy. People try, I mean people try to categorise the Pink Dots and usually I’m horrified! We read a review of Tear Garden in Option today and although it was reasonably positive it still made me want to vomit! It was like he wanted to hate it but found that he liked it and he didn’t want to like it, and it was all in this extremely condescending tone… If I’d had a psychic machine gun…”
“For me a successful album is a journey. It’s a lot of colours, really intense, deep moods. We don’t really consider whether people will like it, it rarely enters into it, we just try to please ourselves,” he explained.
“Music is about emotion – crying, laughing, feeling that little touch of fear, feeling elation… All of those emotions play their part in your life so if you’re going to be true to your music they should play a part in the music too. For me, that is music, it’s an emotional experience. If it doesn’t touch you in some way, be it positive, negative, or whatever, then that piece of music doesn’t work. All my favourite bands are ‘character’ bands, with someone who is larger than life. Maybe it’s someone you think that you don’t like but that doesn’t matter. It’s a strange time we live in because there’s less and less bands with strong characters around. Take Current 93 for instance, there’s such a character there which I really appreciate. But try and think of ten bands with real characters today!”
Edward Ka-Spel, though he would never admit it, is one of those few true characters left. Whether it be Tear Garden, or Legendary Pink Dots, he is unique because he, and his projects, ARE different.
(appeared in: Music From the Empty Quarter #9, March 1994)