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A Quietus Interview

The Mother Of Warm Invention - A Hope Sandoval Interview
David Gavan , December 29th, 2009 10:28

In an age of talent show karaoke singers, Hope Sandoval cuts an understated figure. Notably shy, on and off stage, she is hardly a rabid self-promoter. Soon after surfacing with Mazzy Star in 1990, Sandoval earned the reputation as a tough interview proposition. Early encounters were conducted in shades, as questions were fielded with Warholian, single-word replies. Over the years, Sandoval has maintained a certain reticence. Consequently, little is known of the singer, except that she was born in Los Angeles in 1966, and comes from a large, Mexican-American family.

After the stratospheric success of Mazzy Star's 1994 single, 'Fade Into You', Capitol Records began nudging the band towards big name producers: Sandoval responded by begging to be released from their contract - a wish that was regretfully granted. Since then, there's been one more Mazzy Star album, Among My Swan in 1996, while 2001 saw the release of Bavarian Fruit Bread with My Bloody Valentine's drummer, Colm O Ciosoig, under the name the Warm Inventions. Given their leisurely working pace, feeding rock's corporate behemoth is clearly not on these people's agenda.

I begin by asking her about the time she hooked up with LA rock veteran, David Roback, whose early eighties band, Rain Parade (part of the city's dubiously- named 'Paisley Underground' scene), she had so admired as a teenager. How did it feel to be working with such a talented musician?

"I felt I was the luckiest person ever", she says with genuine wonder in her voice. She’s talking about the day when Roback phoned her to talk about the demo tape that she and high- school friend, Sylvia Gomez, had sent him under the name Going Home. "I could not believe that he wanted to join our band. He called me and said: ‘I really love your music, and I want to play guitar for you guys.' A fairly good reception, then. Sandoval subsequently joined Roback’s band, the unfeasibly overlooked Opal, which then mutated into the much esteemed Mazzy Star.

"David definitely knew more about music and equipment than me", continues a surprisingly upbeat Sandoval in her mellow Californian drawl. "He knew more about the Velvet Underground; I didn’t really know their music. Sylvia was really into them and I was always saying: ‘Turn that off: it’s too noisy’. But when I started working with David, he turned me on to them. I liked modern stuff like Soul II Soul, along with Syd Barrett and the Rolling Stones. So it worked, even though we were coming from different places."

Despite having been given her first guitar at age thirteen, she laughingly admits that she gets other people to tune up for her nowadays. Sandoval may have an ear for a vaporously addictive tune, but musical vanity is apparently not part of her emotional repertoire. And she is quite happy to name-check her musical influences, even to her own detriment: she still vividly remembers the time when she and her Warm Inventions bandmate, Colm O Ciosoig, worked with her all-time guitar hero, Bert Jansch, on their first album, 'Bavarian Fruit Bread'.

"Bert and I did play some guitar together because he was under the impression that that would be part of the recording process. I just thought he was going to play on his own. So when he got to the recording studio, he wanted me to play guitar with him, which was really scary for me. In the end, we just took my guitar parts out and kept his in!"

In Britain, many people first heard Mazzy Star when they appeared on Jools Holland’s Later show alongside Johnny Cash in ‘94. As well as counting as some endorsement, being invited to play on the same bill as the Man in Black must have been pretty mind-blowing.

"Yeah, it was amazing. Jill Emery (then Mazzy Star’s bass player) and I went to look for him. He had his own floor - a whole area blocked off at the BBC. We managed to get in somehow, but he was gone. We ran down to the parking lot just in time to see this big limo pulling away, so we just ran after it, waving and shouting ‘STOP!’ And they stopped, opened the door and there he was. He shook our hands, said he loved our songs, and told us to take the right path in life. It was incredible. We went back to our dressing room and told the rest of the band ‘You won’t believe what just happened!’ They were really jealous." The story is recounted with jovial pride, and the incongruity of Sandoval as celebrity stalker is not lost on the singer.

It turns out that the ever-reticent Sandoval - who insists on playing concerts in darkness and prefers audiences to remain silent and still - was asked to get up and sing with Cash, but was too nervous to accept the offer. "It was hard enough to sing Mazzy Star’s songs live", she admits in such rueful tones it's hard not to smile.

This is the kind of interview terrain Sandoval feels most comfortable in - where she’s talking about music or fellow musicians. Any attempt to understand her work through the lens of biographical detail is pretty much a lost cause. Although some may suspect Sandoval of upping the enigma quotient by keeping her counsel, it’s clear from speaking with her that interviews and celebrity status are a low priority for her. This is one singer who is unlikely to be photographed lurching through some nightclub door. And, as for film premier photo calls. Forget it. Away from her preferred topics, she is guardedly polite, and not overly keen to make an impression. Leaving no trace being a more pressing concern.

"Colm is much more interesting than me and really likes to talk", she tells me, sounding like she thinks I should be talking to him rather than her. Instead, I wonder if, in the early days, being interviewed gratified Sandoval’s ego. "Well, people like attention; that’s a given", she concedes. "But now it can be awkward, especially if you’re really private."

Now Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions - which mainly consists of Colm O Ciosoig, a man who can seemingly play anything that stays still long enough - are having to talk to journalists again. They have hooked up with crack Dublin band, Dirt Blue Gene, and recorded Through the Devil Softly, a collection of gorgeously-crafted gothic country-rock songs that people like to call "cinematic" (the director would, of course, be David Lynch). It sounds like Exile On Main St - era Stones jamming with the Velvets during their mellow Loaded period. After a psychedelic-folk music listening spree. The feel is more American, I suggest, than the more European-accented Bavarian Fruit Bread.

But despite her evocative songs, Sandoval has little belief in music's ability to transport the listener: "I absolutely don't understand how you can listen to a record and think it's European or American." Then she changes tack: "It sounds Irish! Everybody in the band comes from Ireland except me, so the record really is half Irish. But I don't feel left out.

She adds: "I just feel happy and lucky to have the opportunity to play with these amazing musicians." Sandoval, who met Dirt Blue Gene through their bass player, Al Browne, assures me their meeting was "meant to be: we all feel that way". It's that mixture of the down to earth and the dreamily fatalistic that intrigues.

Whether or not it’s down to their new backing band is unclear, but Sandoval and O Ciosoig’s songwriting has never seemed richer. Here the abstracted melancholy of Sandoval’s gauzy voice sounds more emotionally earthed, and the lyrics have a more intimate feel. I ask their author if she finds it hard to balance self-revelation and the maintenance of privacy.

"Well, if you were writing a novel and hid the personal stuff away, it wouldn’t be a very good book", she says with unexpected vehemence, "because you just have to be able to express yourself. You know… you can’t put a limit on self-expression." Sandoval never discusses her lyrics - which is understandable for a singer wishing to avoid media dissection - and doesn't like singers making a big deal of their lyrics. When I tell her that her lyrics have a poetic feel, and ask her if she likes reading poetry, she’s unequivocal. Well, sort of.

"No, I don’t like poetry… unless it’s Dylan Thomas. He’s the only poet. I have no idea why. That’s the way it’s always been."

A little later, I mention legendary LA punk band, X, and Sandoval’s defences lower slightly.

"I love X", she says warmly, "and I love Exene [Cervenka, vocals]. She’s a feisty little devil!"

Despite - or because of - her knottily likeable character, Sandoval’s reputation for being "difficult" remains. During the recent Warm Inventions tour of the States and Europe, there have been reports of her ticking off soundmen in New York, then quitting the stage in frustration, or pointedly asking audiences to be quiet. But given how musically driven she seems, one suspects this stems more from high standards than from ‘rampant ego syndrome’. Interestingly, the internet postings of Warm Inventions fans portray the band's kindness towards their audience. But what does she see as a successful show?

"Just one that sounds good and, because it's live, it should have other dimensions. If I go and see a band, it's got to feel like I'm in the music. And that would be a successful show for us. But it's difficult for me to get there - really difficult - because I'm the one at the front, and also I'm the one who's singing the words. Sometimes it's awkward singing live in front of 500 people."

This admission is in keeping with her tendency to avoid head shots on album sleeves, and then there are those blurred promo videos. Paradoxically, such an allergy to limelight probably intensifies public scrutiny of a singer who seems more girl next door than dissociative diva. I ask Sandoval, who has previously made no secret of her belief that autographs are a silly transaction, if musicians would be happier without all the media hoopla.

"That would definitely be better", she reflects, "but that's never going to happen. There are certain bands that just do it for some people. And people like to look up to something. To idolise. That's in our nature. But I do sign autographs now: I just think that it's not really necessary. I spent a long time not doing it, and I felt really bad afterwards because it hurt people's feelings, so eventually I just gave in. People are sensitive."

Indeed they are, but reports of Sandoval being a whispering waif are overstated. A canny individual who has spent the last nineteen years working with minimum fuss seems nearer the mark. Since the Warm Inventions' first album in 2001, Sandoval has made cameo appearances on albums by Air, Death in Vegas, and Bert Jansch. She will also feature on Massive Attack's new offering, which is released in the New Year. Then there's a new Mazzy Star album ready for release in 2010, and the long-awaited availability of those early Going Home songs to look forward to.

My enquiry about how the first Mazzy Star record in thirteen years sounds is dispatched in the singer's classic style.

"It's almost finished... It's there and that's all. You know, it's us playing our songs."

She may have lost the shades, but the answer is pure Warhol. Her trading of fifteen minutes' fame for nineteen years of creative obscurity is beginning to look like a good deal.

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