An Interview with Edward Ka-Spel of the Legendary Pink Dots
Posted: Sunday, June 25, 2006
By: Matthew Johnson, Assistant Editor, ReGen Magazine
While their music incorporates everything from early experimental electronics to industrial, the Legendary Pink Dots have often been lumped in with the psychedelic scene. The simple fact of the matter, though, is that the Dots’ music doesn’t require mind-altering drugs, it replaces them. Even the soberest of individuals will have a hard time staying grounded after exposure to front man Edward Ka-Spel’s hypnotic rhyming chants, synth wizard Phil “The Silverman” Knight’s ambient soundscapes, and saxophonist Niels Van Hoorn’s experimental playing style. Even the band’s most traditionally structured songs are otherworldly enough to render hallucinogens unnecessary, while their more freestyle jams are some of the most eccentric sounds ever recorded, yet somehow remain eminently listenable. A distinct mythology featuring such concepts as the Terminal Kaleidoscope, a metaphor for the world’s increasing acceleration towards cataclysm, adds to the band’s mystique.
Unlike most bands, whose sound follows a more or less straightforward progression, the Dots skip effortlessly back and forth between clever songwriting and freaked out acid industrial jam sessions. To reconcile these two seemingly divergent elements, the band often releases multiple albums at once. The subtly beautiful ballads of 2002’s All the King’s Horses, for example, were released alongside the enthusiastically chaotic album All the King’s Men, while 2004’s The Poppy Variations served as an avant-garde alter ego to the comparatively accessible The Whispering Wall. The Dots’ latest collection of songs, the evocatively titled Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves, is preceded by Alchemical Playschool, a series of extended musical meditations built from field recordings of urban India. As if this weren’t enough, individual Dots are constantly working on various solo and side projects and have participated in a number of fairly high profile collaborations. The Tear Garden, a collaboration with Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key, has actually produced several club hits, for instance, while the ambient project Mimir, featuring Christoph Heeman of H.N.A.S., among others, is a cult favorite of ambient aficionados. In an interview with ReGen, Dots co-founder and lead vocalist Edward Ka-Spel reflects on the band’s history.
It’s been 25 years, and you’re on your anniversary tour. Looking back at when you started the band, did you ever expect that it would become such an underground sensation?
Ka-Spel: In a way. I always thought we would go the course. When we began, we were very serious about it. It was never exactly a hobby. There was always a sort of belief in what we did. We had our own little vision, and we thought it was worthwhile, and we thought that there would be enough people out there to listen and share it with us. Whether we could’ve seen 25 years into the future is another thing; you don’t think of that at the time, but I’ve never actually envisioned a time when I’d want to stop, either.
Has your perspective on the music industry in general changed since you started?
Ka-Spel: I think I’ve mellowed a little bit towards the music industry. There certainly are plenty of crooks and sharks around, and we’ve encountered a few of them throughout the 25 years, but in some ways we’ve also been quite lucky. We haven’t really ever been too much a part of the business. We’ve always gone our own way, and we’ve never been tied to long-term contracts. I think we’ve been quite lucky in not being bruised too badly by the whole thing. I think that no label ever had particularly high ambitions where we concerned, and why should they? We are far too independent and far too wayward.
What can you tell us about your latest albums, starting with Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves? How does the music compare with some of your other recent albums?
Ka-Spel: It’s a very melancholy record, very much like the feeling of the moment, the feeling of the band and the feeling of the times, rather confused and a little frightening. It’s a little bit forward-looking; in another 20 or 25 years, what will the planet look like? Will we be here? How are we going to explain this to the children? Will there even be any children? It feels like we’re sitting on a time bomb.
Do you think your metaphor of the Terminal Kaleidoscope for the condition of the world today is still an accurate one?
Ka-Spel: Sadly, too accurate. I see nothing to discount the idea behind it.
You’ve also released a more experimental album, Alchemical Playschool, that was based around field recordings from India. Have you been to India?
Ka-Spel: I’ve never been; none of us have, actually. It very much came from talking with Charles Powne [owner of the Soleilmoon Recordings label], who walked around with a mini-disc player trying to catch the sounds that he encountered. Actually the travelogue CD that he released is an extremely evocative listen. You can taste the spices and smell the air. It’s a really interesting listen, but he wanted to take it further. He really wanted to turn it into a musical journey, and that’s where we came in. It’s odd doing something about a place you’ve never been to, but it’s the sort of place where you do have pictures in your head, and there was a lot of research done as well.
It’s not one of your more structured releases, and in general it seems like you skip back and forth between comparatively straightforward songwriting and really experimental free-form material. On your experimental works, like the Chemical Playschool series, how much of the material is planned ahead of time, and how much is improvised on the spot in the studio?
Ka-Spel: I think it’s about half and half, nearly. It’s very rare that we make decisions like, ‘This must be for Chemical Playschool, and this must be for the other record,” or whatever. Everything we do is composed really as an album, and the stuff that is spontaneous—the improvisations—they are developed, and they are molded and honed away into something that is more than just improvisation.
Some of your solo albums, like the trilogy that ended with Pieces of Infinity, are very minimal and experimental, but at the same time they seem like they have very definite ideas behind them. For somebody that’s never been exposed to your music before, what would be the perfect way to hear it?
Ka-Spel: In some ways I think that the perfect way is when the lyrics sink into you without you even realizing, so you’re not even listening to the words, you’re experiencing a totality, a perfect mix of sound, not just the lyrics themselves. My idea was never to have the lyrics printed inside the covers, because I think it takes away from the totality of the experience. I’ve been persuaded over the years to include them, but I’m still really reluctant. To me it should be a perfect blend, and it should be something overwhelming. It should never be something just there in the background. It should be something that you experience completely. There should be no dividing in your head into words, sound, music, melody. It should not be reduced to, ‘This is a nice track or that is a nice track.’ It should be a totality from beginning to end. That was very much the idea behind the Chemical Playschool box. It was designed to be a three and a half hour experience which you enter at your own peril, but you’re meant to listen to it from the beginning to the very end. It’s not an easy journey, but I think the best things never are.
While we’re on the topic of lyrics, one thing that sets the Dots apart from other bands is that your grasp of rhyme and rhythm has a definite literary feel that’s not present in a lot of music. Who are some of your favorite authors?
Ka-Spel: A lot of sci-fi. I don’t read as much as I would like to, but I read authors like Harlan Ellison and Robert Sheckley. These guys have often fired my imagination. Just recently I’ve been discovering a lot of Ray Bradbury. I love his ideas; I love the pictures he paints with his words. This all certainly plays its part, but the actual way of writing—the internal rhythms and rhymes and so on—I think is sort of mine, really.
You definitely have a distinct style, but it’s very clever than a lot of your contemporaries in whatever scenes you touch upon. That brings up another question; the Dots touch on a lot of scenes, like the psychedelic scene, the industrial scene, and the noise scene. Do you consider yourselves part of any of these scenes?
Ka-Spel: We tend to operate in our own little universe, but having said that I do certainly love psychedelic music, for instance. A lot of the good stuff is the wild stuff, the old German stuff and things like that. The best noise bands, too, like Pere Ubu. These are bands I still listen to a lot.
In other interviews you’ve mentioned everyone from Acid Mothers Temple to Morrissey. Do you have any guilty musical pleasures?
Ka-Spel: Guilty musical pleasures? Italian prog. I really like Italian prog rock, like P.F.M., and that’s quite a guilty pleasure, I think. A lot of it’s on very much on the pompous end of prog, but I just have a real soft spot for it, I must say. I usually listen to it alone, because I daren’t put it on when somebody else is in the room.
What about undiscovered pleasures? What bands do you love that you think more people deserve to hear?
Ka-Spel: I can think of one band that comes to mind, but they only ever released one album. Out of California there was a band called Science Fiction. They made an album called Terrible Lizards, a very obscure but wonderful record. Trying to find someone who’s actually heard it is quite difficult. Somebody needs to reissue it.
Speaking of reissues, have you ever thought of reissuing the Mimir albums, maybe as a boxed set?
Ka-Spel:That was talked about not so long ago. I don’t know if it will happen. The first Mimir is reappearing quite soon, but completely remixed, and actually little bits of it were even re-recorded. It’s actually a much better CD than it was the first time around.
Do you have any more solo projects in the works? What’s next after this tour is over?
Ka-Spel: There’s a little bit of work going on with the new Tear Garden. There are a lot of ideas that are not quite finished at the moment, the start of new recordings, experiments, and things like that. Where these will go and how they will emerge at the end of it all, I don’t know yet, but certainly a lot of seeds have been planted into the ground.
Is there any chance of a Tear Garden tour this time?
Ka-Spel: I still hope for it. We still talk about it. I don’t want to promise anything; too many promises have been made in the past. I’m seeing cEvin in a couple of weeks, and we’ll probably talk about it again. I’d love to do it. I think it’s time.