“A lot of people like to keep the Dots as their secret …”
Which has become quite a feat, considering the band is now in their 24th year and have enough material to keep a radio station on-air for a week without playing the same song twice. That is, if any radio station would dare to play the Pink Dots. Yet it was KRCL that gave me my introduction to the magical world of Edward Ka-Spel via a late-night spinning of the Tear Garden’s “Romulus & Venus.” It was an awkward pop tune that I couldn’t quite make out the meaning of, but couldn’t shake from my mind. Last Man to Fly has subsequently become one of my favorite albums.
Which makes for beautiful nostalgia, but the Dot’s don’t find the past nearly as interesting as the future that waits before them, and 2004 finds the band back on familiar ground, tripping across America on a 35-date tour promoting not one, but two new releases. A notion that has left more than a few fans confused while standing at the merchandise table.
“They ask what [Poppy Variations] is and I tell them it’s the new album. Then they ask what The Whispering Wall is and I tell them that’s the new album too,” says Edward.
Recording for both albums started around Christmas and, although recorded at the same time, there was never any question of which album the songs were to appear on. The process took the band to various locations as they moved their studio around to find the proper venues to record each song. An example of the independent and experimental approach that, though often full of chaos, is the heart of the Pink Dots.
The Whispering Wall, their third release on ROIR following the acclaimed Under Triple Moons and All The King’s Men, is mostly made up of ideas that Phil Knight (a.k.a. Silverman, Phil Harmonix, etc.) brought to the recordings and Poppy Variations, released on their house label Terminal Kaleidoscope, is more focused on ideas Edward had. Although the genesis of Poppy Variations was based on a piece reminiscent of “Poppy Day” from the Dot’s 1984 release, The Tower, that Phil brought Edward.
The result is beautiful chaos with a mix of jazz, electronics, space rock, Kafka’s paranoia and the indefinable; a natural result of the diversity of the band’s influences from the various players over the years.
“Music you love finds its way into what you create … I try to keep up [with current music]. I want to hear new things that excite me,” he says, but he confesses that many of his old favorites from the 70s still occupy the turntable, more so than recent trends.
The early 90s saw the Dots at their peak commercially in America, over 10 years into their existence. A decade later, everything has changed. They’ve suffered from downloading and many of the shops that used to carry their records don’t, or have closed down. It is hard for a band to survive without going out on the road. A change evident in the amount of touring the band does now when compared to the sporadic touring in the early days.
“You can’t combat it; it is the way it is,” says Edward.
Determined not to take part in the “vulgar court cases” the music industry has engaged in, Edward presents his alternative: “The only real way to combat [downloading] is to make something so beautiful that the people will want to own a solid copy of it.”
The Dots are used to changes, having already become adept chameleons, for in many senses, the 80s belonged to Western Europe, the 1990s were for America and the start of the twenty-first century seems destined for new ground as Eastern Europe has become a bed for experimental art. Having already welcomed Coil enthusiastically, and revitalized the career of Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Eastern Europe has likewise embraced The Legendary Pink Dots.
“We were shocked at the response we received in Russia,” says Edward. “We didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know if they even knew the songs, but a lot of people showed up. In the East, there is a different mentality; they are open to new music, whereas in the West, they say, ‘We’ve heard this, show us something new.'”
Edward speaks warmly of the live experience as a welcomed communion between the band and their fans and promises surprises behind every door.
“Every show is different. There is a great amount of improvisation. [Playing live] gives the songs a chance to sprout wings. All the experimentation is part of the tapestry.”
Edward acknowledges that over the years, there have been many lineup changes, but stresses that there haven’t been as many goings as there have been comings, goings and coming back. Of the current lineup, Phil Knight on keyboards formed LPD with Edward in 1980, multi-instrumentalist Niels Van Hoorn (a.k.a. Niels Van Hoornblower) has collaborated with the band since 1990’s The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse, Raymond Steeg (aka X-Ray Alley) was in the band from 1992 through 1995 and rejoined in 2001. Only guitarist Erik Drost could be considered a newcomer.
“The Pink Dots are like a family, we’re all still in touch,” says Edward.
Unprompted, Edward speaks kindly of former member and fan favorite Ryan Moore, who’s in current band The Twilight Circus Dub Sound System, and hints towards possible collaborations in the future.
For the Dots are an unwritten book, not tied up in worries about when their fame and glory will come (“If I wanted to make a lot of money, I would do something else,” says Edward), or where the inspiration for the next song will come from, who will be playing the instruments (although Edward agrees that without Phil, it could never be an LPD album), or how many people they will touch with their music … as long as they touch someone.
I had imagined that this could be a difficult interview, anticipating, foolishly perhaps, that Edward’s answers might reflect his lyrics; tied in tiny little packages waiting to be opened and interpreted, with the answers somewhat hidden and vague. It makes for lovely poetry, but challenging interviews. It is here, as the interview starts to close and the band members try and tempt Edward back onto the bus, that I realize how approachable he has been.
I’m inclined to thank him for “Love Notes and Carnations,” a song that didn’t catch me until an old girlfriend called to say she heard it and had thought of me.
“Sounds like you had a similar experience as I did,” says Edward.
Just a random track on an album I picked up because of a song I couldn’t get out of my head years later has become personally significant, and I realize that had the song never been written, I could have slipped completely from an old friend’s mind and a moment that I hold dear would never have existed.
Art, in whatever form, can be silly like that. Life, however, would never be as full without it.
With a 25th anniversary looming, I wonder what awaits the Dots behind the 8 ball. Edward, true to form, doesn’t know the details, but he knows this:
“The Legendary Pink Dots will always exist. I will be making Pink Dots albums until I die,” says Edward.
Perhaps then another few decades remain for reveling in the process of creation while searching for that indefinable greatness called perfection.
Says Edward, “It is impossible to get there, which is the joy of it as well.”
Join in on the experiment as The Legendary Pink Dots play Salt Lake City on July 1 at In the Venue. You’d be foolish not to be there.