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Escape Velocity

Oskar Interviewed: A Sublime Tale Of Catatonia In Catalonia
Marc Waldburger , June 18th, 2009 13:52

OSKAR's second album is a sublime rattlebag of wonder that makes Marc Waldburger want to go mountain climbing

OSKAR is the outfit centred around Nick Powell (formerly of Strangelove fame) and former Death By Milkfloat/Collapsed Lung man Jonny Dawe. Their latest offering, LP:2, contains songs that run the artistic gamut so extensively that they skilfully move from spoken word, art rock, electronic, minimalism and folk. It's probably no coincidence that LP:2 leaves you infused with feelings of reflection and contemplation, akin to the kind achieved after the pursuit of such bucolic activities as mountain climbing or forest trekking.

One can’t help but feel envy at the fact that OSKAR are the type of band that manage to walk lines of duality with such ease that their music is simultaneously cerebral and emotional, organic and modern and make you feel uplifted and melancholic within the space of an album. With LP:2, the band that also features cellist Sarah Wilson, have managed to create something that is at times elegiac, haunting and fantastical. It incorporates a cornucopia of styles into an organic whole; skilfully charts the emotional landscape and leaves us curious as to where OSKAR will be going in the hopefully not too distant future.

On your new album, LP:2, there is a track called 'Reichenbach Falls', which includes a recording of a 'nonsense' Dadaist phonetic poem by Hugo Ball, the co-founder of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Are the philosophies of the Dadaist school, such as the 'cut-up' technique, an influence on your music?

Nick Powell: I’ve been interested in the Dadaists for a long time, both their techniques and the history around them, and Jonny’s an art school boy so, yes, I think you could say they’re an influence. We have often taken found-sound and slightly random recordings as starting points for OSKAR tracks, sometimes the music ends up being closer to collage than a ‘song’. Some of tracks evolve over time and change gradually, I suppose a bit like revisiting and layering a canvass. I also like the fact that the Dadaists were responding very seriously to perhaps the greatest disaster in human history (World War I) but did so with a vibrant sense of the absurd and playfulness. There’s a great quote from Hans Arp:

'Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts. While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages, and wrote poems with all our might. We were seeking an art based on fundamentals to cure the madness of the age, and a new order of things that would restore the balance between heaven and hell.’ This sums something up for me, something brilliant about gestures that are both heroic and pointless at the same time. The Dadaists were never going to offer a cure for the madness, but they offered an alternative vision. We may not be in the middle of World War 1, but our age is equally mad, and we still need futile artistic gestures!'

Is there any relation between the title and the final stand-off between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Moriarty?

Jonny Dawe: Often our music suggests a sense of ‘place’ or a landscape to it. I liked the idea of turning this around and giving the track a title to a significant place; Reichenbach Falls, the place where Sherlock Holmes confronts his arch nemesis for the final time. (Add your own metaphors here…. life/death/battles with your own subconscious etc.) I also like the way that lyrically and musically there are no indications towards the literary history of Reichenbach Falls, but somehow in the world of OSKAR a connection is drawn!

One of the tracks, 'Sanatorio', was built around the experience you had whilst running a workshop in a Spanish psychiatric institution where some patients began singing songs from their childhood. Did you ever discover what some of these songs were and what they were about?

NP: They were mostly playground rhymes and a few popular songs from the period that they were young. The amazing thing was that they were singing at all, because they were virtually catatonic from the medication most of the time. And the really amazing thing was that they were joining in with and applauding each other, which they never usually did.

Did any of the themes from their songs find their way into the album?

NP: Not specifically, but I guess the choice to put ‘Ha De Llegar’, which lyrically is a kind of statement of belief in Socialism to a kind of nursery rhyme tune may have been influenced by the experience.

What was it like as a musician and an individual allowed to exist freely in society, listening to the music produced by individuals considered mentally ill by society?

NP: The hospital wasn’t some sort of nineteenth century Bedlam, so it wasn’t like they were prisoners in the hospital. More they were prisoners inside their own heads, and prisoners of the cloak of medication they were under. It was very emotional to hear music breaking out and bringing them out of their isolation, albeit temporarily.

Have you ever considered following in the footsteps of The Cramps and performing at a psychiatric institution?

NP: I’d certainly consider it, and I did play piano for the patients at the workshops but, as for doing a proper gig, I’d have to work out who’s interests it was really serving.

Are you generally interested in outsider music? If so, which artists in particular?

JD: I don’t really follow outsider music as a genre, but (along with Sherlock Holmes) I loved Wesley Willis (RIP), of Rock & Roll McDonalds fame. I once went to see him and found myself behind him in the toilet cue, he was being helped, and it was quite a performance! Keeping elements of the unrefined, or a naivety is important in truly great music in my eyes, or should I say ears.

What do you think of the therapeutic potential of music?

NP: I think music can have amazing therapeutic qualities, but what interests me most about making music is not the outcome, it’s the process. Music therapists understand this. We only include music on an OSKAR album if it’s had a moment of totally committed excitement within its creation. We hope people will feel the reverberations of that moment. Whether that’s therapeutic or not is up to the listener, but our respect for them means that if we haven’t had that moment, we junk the music.

What outside artistic influences had an effect on you during the creation of this album?

JD: It always helps me during the development of tracks to give them a visual context, in building a composition, or looking how a track layers, much like an abstract landscape. Like many of my musical brethren I’m from an art school background, and it’s a language I understand helping me make up for my musical inadequacies! I think relating music to art is almost a thankless task, but in Christian Marclay’s work there are good examples of how to make a visualization of sound/music, yet still retain a credence as good art.

On the cover of the album, you are all holding various gardening implements. What was the concept behind this?

JD: There were many roads towards the cover… Rock & Roll, and what is the least R & R pursuit . . . Gardening! Being staged in a band stance with an allotment twist. I always loved the cover to TG’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats; it always upset me in its inappropriateness, but gave me satisfaction at the same time. I liked its ambiguity, humour and beyond. I hope we’ve captured some of those things in our cover.

What are you listening to at the moment?

JD: I hate this question, it makes me go into overdrive to be clever or cool, and generally end up with neither. Micachu, the new Sonic Youth, Gavin Bryars –After the Requiem/ Sinking of the Titanic. And just for some ultimate, but possible embarrassing honesty I’ll shuffle my i-pod, here are the first 5 track . . . King Crimson ‘Elephant Talk’, Donovan ‘Sunny Goodge St’, Moloko ‘Butterfly 747’, Sonic Youth ‘Tom Violence live’, (the next one was OSKAR – 'Pointy Dance', so I am allowed 1 more!) and Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham 'Moon Shot'.

What does the future hold for Oskar?

NP: This release is important to us as it took a while to finish. We love it and we’re going to start playing the songs live as soon as we can get all the busy and disparate elements of the OSKAR live band in the same rehearsal room. Meanwhile, we’re writing, doing installations, collaborations and generally doing our thing until the next album manifests itself. Then we’ll do that.

Listen to music at OSKAR's MySpace.