:: One-(Week/Month) Stand

:: articles sorted by date...

:: articles sorted by name...

:: hinah diary

:: hinah RSS
hinah RSS


James Blackshaw - Interview by Holger Adam

James Blackshaw

"Interview by Holger Adam"

The young, gifted English guitarist and composer James Blackshaw, who has a talent for combining the atmospheres of John Fahey and Robbie Basho with those of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, is touring Germany for the first time. On this occasion, our friend Holger Adam interviewed him for the website of Unrock, a record store for connoisseurs located in Krefeld, where James will play on 3 December 2008.

"To Try And Do Something New And Not Recreate What's Been Done Before"

I read about four or five interviews with you published on the internet (of course) and I don't want to bother you again with all these questions about how you got to know John Fahey and Robbie Basho and then picked up the guitar to learn to play in this way/tradition and how you then got into minimal and modern composition (Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Terry Riley etc.), so if that's okay with you, then we'll skip that part and maybe we start our interview with a question about what'll happen in your near future.

You told me on the phone, that you are about to record a new album and then I read on the internet (again) that it'll be out on Michael Gira's Young God Label. So maybe we can talk about that at first. How did you connect with Gira and - if you already want to share some thought and ideas about it - what will the record sound/be like? I'm curious, of course...

Ha, thanks for not asking me about how I came to play guitar - I appreciate that, I have indeed been asked that question on countless occasions and the answer is always the same!

So, how the Young God thing came about?

I think it was around the end of 2005, that I got an e-mail out of the blue from Laurent Leclere of Mi and L'au, who at the time were touring the UK and Ireland with Josephine Foster, a friend of mine with whom I'd also toured with earlier that year and played some of my first ever shows with. At that point, Mi and L'au were still making their album for Young God Records. Laurent was incredibly complimentary about my music and wrote me a really nice e-mail about how he'd listened to my album "Lost Prayers and Motionless Dances" in Ireland and how it had moved him. We started an e-mail exchange - he sent me some demos of the record they were making, which I thought were fantastic, a drawing he'd done and we chatted about things. At some point he told me that he'd sent some of my music to Michael Gira and sometime later I got an e-mail from Michael, saying he loved it and wanted to hear more. I was pretty shocked! I sent some more CD-Rs to him, but it didn't cross my mind that he would want to sign me.

Around the same time, Tompkins Square offered me an exclusive two album deal and after some thought, I decided to take it. But no more than a week or so after I had posted the contract back to Tompkins Square, Michael e-mailed me saying he'd like to release some of my music, but it was too late.

Anyway, in December last year, just a couple of weeks before I recorded "Litany of Echoes", I was playing a festival in Den Haag, Holland, where Michael was also playing a solo show. Me, Jozef Van Wissem and some other friends went to watch him play and were blown away by his performance. After his set, I went and got ready to play in a room just downstairs from the hall Michael had just played in. I played - not one of my best sets, because I was playing all new material which I hadn't quite got to grips with yet - and when I got down off the stage, one of the first people I saw who came up to greet me was Michael Gira, who had been watching the whole time! We got along really well and went and drank and talked.

So we stayed in touch after that and after I'd finished recording "Litany", we spoke again about doing a record together and finally sealed the deal earlier this year. I am incredibly excited about it all.

About the record itself - I've been writing off and on for most of this year, but have done most of the work these last two months. I moved home from London to Hastings and it took a bit of time to readjust. I bought a piano and have been practicing a lot, developing my technique, and so there's a lot more piano. About half of the record is based around guitar and half of it are compositions I've written for piano. That said, the record will be a lot more dense in terms of instrumentation. I realised I enjoy listening to the songs on my previous albums which have arrangements for other instruments more than the solo guitar pieces, so there will be more of that. I hope Joolie Wood and John Contreras, both of whom play in Current 93, will be playing violin and cello respectively and there will also be clarinet, vibraphone, glockenspiel, wordless vocals and percussion. At least that's what I'm thinking at this point. The aim is to make a record with more dynamic variation - really quiet, sparse passages followed by totally thick waves of sound.

Sounds like you're very comfortable with your situation and possibilities right now. You prefer - as far as I can see - to address yourself more as a composer rather than a solo-guitarist. (If you want to you can go into detail on that distinction.) And the way you describe working on your new album tends in this direction, too. That's why it came to my mind, to ask you if you ever thought about doing soundtracks. Have you been asked to do so yet?

I certainly don't mean to get uptight or fussy about whether I consider myself a guitarist or a composer, ha! At the end of the day, I'm both, and really a composer is just a more fancy way of saying someone who writes songs or music.

Both those things are heavily intertwined for me - playing guitar heavily influences the way in which I write, but it is also fair to say that my main inspiration for music I write for guitar is not as heavily influenced by other guitar music as some people think.

It is totally disheartening to read stuff like "The Cloud of Unknowing sounds exactly like John Fahey" (which is one of the first reviews I ever read about "Cloud", on amazon.com!), when I think it sounds nothing like Fahey, except the fact that it's based around solo-guitar. That's not to say I don't love Fahey, because I do, but I just feel it's important to try and do something new and not recreate what's been done before, and no doubt better!

Anyway, as for soundtrack work - I'd love to do that, but I've never been asked, no! I'd actually really, really love to do a soundtrack for a horror film. I love horror films and I imagine that being so much fun to work on.

It's surprising to me that you'd like to do music for a horror-movie, because to me your music seems to evoke the opposite of horror: your music's so beautiful, very moving, warm and even sometimes ecstatic. Not the kind of music you imagine to hear whilst seeing someone hacked into pieces? But on a second thought there's a haunting otherworldly quality to your music. (Maybe you should send Werner Herzog some CD-Rs, his movies represent both: the beauty and the horror.)

So, what are your influences, musically and otherwise?

Well, I am a HUGE fan of Werner Herzog! I'm actually sitting here looking at an old Italian bill poster for "Woyzeck" I have on my living room wall! Anyway, yes, it would be a big dream come true to do a soundtrack for a Herzog film. He's an amazing director, an amazing man full-stop. It'd be tough following those great soundtracks by Popol Vuh though, and more recently people like Ernst Reijseger and Richard Thompson.

I must admit, I've loved horror films and books since I was a young teenager and I've never gotten over it, ha! But have you seen "Candyman"? See, I think Philip Glass' soundtrack for that film is incredible. I'd love to do something so eerie and gothic.

I'm influenced by all kinds of things, and strangely enough, I'm as inspired by things in art that I don't like as by the things I do. For example, I have in the past been close a number of people in the improv/experimental scene. Things about that scene very firmly encouraged me in my own mind that I didn't want to be an improviser and made me realise what I love about composition.

As you know, I'm a really greatly inspired by modern composition and minimalism, for lack of a better word: early Reich and Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Simeon ten Holt, Lubomyr Melnyk, Charlemagne Palestine, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Gavin Bryars, Alfred Schnittke... A long list!

I love a lot of solo-piano music, especially. I can't negate the influence of Robbie Basho and Fahey on my early work and how I came to play guitar in a certain way. The writing of Fernando Pessoa and Jorge Luis Borges has really started to contribute to the overall mood and concepts behind some of my recent work. I love The Kinks and The Beatles and lots of 60's pop stuff and I think that's had some strange influence on me, although I couldn't say what!

But it's funny, I think one of the biggest things that influences me is just my mood, my state of mind. It's funny that this sense of hopefulness seems to emerge, because usually my best work is not written when I'm happy. It comes from some sort of inner sadness that I can never quite shake and the sense of restlessness I have and fragility I feel, even when things appear to be right on the surface. Somehow, when I am most in touch with these feelings, I write most of my music.

Another thing that I wanted to ask you is, how your collaboration with Jozef van Wissem did start? How did you meet each other, and - as far as I know - the two of you recorded another record that is about to be released on Important records, right? So (besides the question how the new record maybe differs from the fabulous first one) I'd like to know, how playing as a duo is different from playing solo?

This kind of goes back to a compilation called "Garden of Forking Paths" I was putting together for Important Records. It was not long before I got the idea of putting that compilation together - with the loose idea of putting together songs by composers from very different musical backgrounds and nationalities who played solo string instruments - that I first heard Jozef's music. I was/am a big fan! I immediately related to what it was he was trying to do and liked his aesthetic, his minimalist tendencies. I contacted Jozef to ask if he'd like to do something for the compilation and he was excited by the idea and agreed to take part.

While I was playing a show in Amsterdam, I met Jozef for the first time. We hung out, got along great and he gave me a CD with the track for the compilation. It was his idea that we work together on some sort of project. We kept in touch and then some months later, we arranged for me to come and spend a few days in Amsterdam to work on the record with him, at his home. It was a fun time - and really the first time I've really collaborated with anybody. We spent a lot of time trying to find things we felt would work as a duo and abandoned a lot of ideas. In the end, some of our most simple concepts seemed the most effective. For example, the first and second songs on "All Things...", which were based around things we'd both written, but then stripped back and elongated into some kind of strange athletic, endurance test. The second self-titled piece in particular, is murderous to play!

We did the second record, "The Wolf Shall Also Dwell With The Lamb" in the same way this year. Having done the first record together already and played live a few times since, it seemed to develop more naturally, like we'd already found our style, discovered our strengths and weaknesses both as a duo and individually and things went well. I think it's a good record, stronger as a whole than the first. There's a particularly nice sparse piece that is written entirely for harmonics on guitar and lute that I'm very fond of.

Yeah, talkin' about murderous playing: I'd love to see you and Jozef van Wissem play "All things..." - for the worst case we could keep some first aid kit around!

Ha, yeah, have a doctor on standby!

But until then we're happy to have you in Krefeld soon, where you'll be playing an Unrock-Instore-Gig. We are pretty excited about that. So for that reason a very simple question, did you ever play in a record shop before? And whether or not: did you ever play in Germany before?

Well, I'm really looking forward to the show too! It won't be my first time playing an instore in a record shop (I've done ones for Aquarius Records in San Francisco, Sound Fix and Eat Records in Brooklyn, Fingerprints in LA and a couple of bookstores too), but it will be my first time ever in Germany. I've never been to Germany in my life at all and can't wait!

I can assure you a warm-hearted welcome! I was asking about the record shop partly because I read that you worked in one (do you still?). So, here comes the inevitable question: What's the current Top 5 music you listen to apart from your own work?

Yeah, I used to work in Reckless Records in Soho, London for about three years. I got made redundant and the shop went into liquidation - tough break! I'm living on making music at the moment - just about!

Thank you very much for your time and patience to answer all the questions, James. I enjoyed talking to you very much. Have a good time recording and touring! I'm looking forward to meet you in Krefeld at the Instore-Gig!

Thanks a lot, Holger! It was a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to seeing you soon!

The Interview took place via e-mail on 10/28/2008

James Blackshaw's Top 5 Recent Listens:
1. Maxine Funke - "Lace" CD-R (Nextbestway, "great female NZ singer-songwriter on Alastair Galbraith's label")
2. Philip Glass - "Music in 12 Parts" CD (OMM, "surprise, surprise!")
3. Jonathan Kane - "February" CD (Table of the Elements, "I remember hearing this a while back and not really liking it at all. I've been strangely drawn back to it though. Minimalism via electric, white-boy blues.")
4. Alfred Schnittke - "Symphony No.3" LP ("Russian label, the first movement - wow!")
5. The Kinks - "Something Else By..." LP ("Village Green Preservation Society" is a much better album, but I've played that to death. This is still a lovely album though!")

James Blackshaw's Top 5 Horror Movies (in no particular order):
- "A Tale of Two Sisters"
- "Don't Look Now"
- "Jacob's Ladder"
- "The Evil Dead"
- "Candyman"

XHTML | CSS | hinah RSS