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In Extremis

Distant Echoes: An Interview With kandodo
Joseph Burnett , July 18th, 2012 06:19

kandodo's sweeping guitar soundscapes, inspired by a childhood spent in Africa, evoke images of open space and the planet's wildest and most untamed corners. He speaks to Joseph Burnett about how his self-titled debut came together, and the predatory majesty of the hyena

kandodo is the solo project of Simon Price, guitarist for renowned and seminal UK heavy-psychers The Heads. But where his parent band are known for their raucous, high-octane take on psychedelic rock’n’roll, kandodo is a much more restrained and delicate creature, with Price’s eponymous debut consisting of a series of beautiful ambient sketches inspired by his childhood in sub-Saharan Africa, with the project’s name lifted from a chain of Malawian supermarkets and each track echoing the vast spaces of the continent’s endless savannas or the mysterious, heavy darkness of African nights. From this foundation, Price slowly builds up his tunes around elegant guitar melodies, discreet synth lines and wide-open, cinematic atmospheres, transcending concepts, borders and genre. The Quietus caught up with Simon to discuss his decision to make a solo album, his relationship with the continent he grew up in, Africa (which permeates kandodo), and the oblique and tentative emotions conjured up across the album’s nine songs.

Could you please give me a bit of background on kandodo? How long has it been going and what prompted you to release the album now?

Simon Price: I'd messed around at home, recording the odd thing for years, in between playing with The Heads. Two or three years back, I started using my laptop for recordings, before that it had been an ancient four track or walkman. Eventually I finished three tracks, burnt a couple of copies, and passed one on to Ripley [Johnson] of Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo, as he had previously given me encouragement. I thought little of it, but when we met up again 6 months later he said how much he liked it and how he'd passed it onto Bettina at Thrill Jockey. I'd mixed the rest of my tracks by then and compiled them into an album, pressed to 100 copies. I did a fancy package, with paper bags and hand stamping, and sold them to fans, a bunch of which were picked up by Rough Trade. Thrill Jockey then heard the completed album and said they'd like to release it.

How did you go about composing the tracks? Were they mostly improvised?

SP: If I was in the mood, I'd set my guitar up and play, pressing record when I thought something sounded ok. I might start with a tambourine loop and play along to that, or a guitar loop and add to that, or nothing at all. Some tracks were recorded straight to my walkman and then I added extras. Going digital was so much more convenient than the 4-track (I use the walkman to add some analogue warmth and hiss). I could record a rough track, leave it and come back to it months later, add some more and then leave it again. I could then ditch it or eventually mix it. There was a lot of improvisation - I've always valued feel over technique, so wouldn't want to get too tight (no worries there!) Mistakes also played a significant part. I'm a firm believer in first takes too.

In comparison to your work in The Heads, the music on kandodo is quite stripped down and minimal. Would you say that it was partly a reaction to The Heads' volume and energy? Or did you feel that the ideas you wanted to explore were best approached in this way?

SP: I love the noise of The Heads, but maybe after 20 years I just wanted to try something more laid back. Recording alone, you don't have the energy to feed off but you do have time and spaces, to either fill or leave empty. I had no specific ideas, just the desire to make noises that I might like to listen to. With a band there has to be some compromise. On my own, I was free to explore however I liked, coming back to tracks as the mood hit me.

Thrill Jockey's website mentions your childhood in Africa as an inspiration behind this album. Could you please give me some more detail about that, and how you approached integrating it into the album?

SP: I lived in Africa from the age of three - Zambia and Malawi - and left at 20. Africa is full of big open spaces, endless bush, rock and sands. The land, people and animals seem to take life slow, and I spent an awful lot of time staring at horizons, water, plants, insects and animals. There is a place called Lion Rock in Kasungu, Malawi, it's in a vast plain. There's an iron age kiln at the base of it, a tree on the top has scratches from some cat, trees stretch to the horizon. Epic, endless, in my dreams. I guess kandodo is a distant echo of experiences from my life.

Would you therefore consider kandodo to be more personal and intimate than The Heads, given these references to your past and the fact that it's a solo record?

SP: Yeah, completely. With a band there has to be some compromise. The Heads is a democracy, whereas I could be a benign dictator on my own, and I was free to explore however I liked.

Despite this context, the African atmospheres on the album are quite vague, more a sense of mood than stereotypical musical elements such as percussion or voices. Was this a deliberate choice, to keep things loose, in terms of concept? It feels as if this album could also have been composed with the American Far West or the Yorkshire moors in mind rather than Africa...

SP: I love going to remote places, it’s just that in England they're not every day sights or experiences due to living in the city. I've not been back to Africa for a while so get my wilderness fix wherever I can. I was up in Northumberland over Easter, on an empty beach on Holy Island. It's not the wild tropics, but the vastness of nature vibe is definitely there. In fact, the 'kandodo' video was put together with clips from that trip. Anywhere wild and wooly is good! It seems that only in places like that can the eternity of our planet be felt.        

kandodo - kandodo from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

In many ways, kandodo feels like a soundtrack, such as Neil Young's one for Dead Man. Do you consider the tracks to have a narrative strain within them, or perhaps across the album in its entirety?

SP: I consciously put 'Dawn Harmonix' first and 'Lord Hyena 3am' at the end, to bookend the album. I also tried to make the tracks flow but there was no overall concept, just a collection of work from a similar time and with similar instrumentation. The art and titles give a hint of a narrative. Because it's all instrumental, I guess that gives the listener a broader scope for interpretation, to conjure up their own images. I do love soundtracks though, setting the vibe is so important.

The main instrument on the album is the guitar, although the style is markedly different to how you play in The Heads, to these ears. Did you have to completely re-appraise how you approached playing the guitar for kandodo? Did you use similar pedals and effects to what you employ in The Heads?

SP: I guess there aren't many riffs on kandodo, that'd be the most obvious difference. Tempo, too: The Heads can be quite fast as well as slow, kandodo is just slow and slower! With The Heads, it's a bit of a psyche whirlwind, whereas with kandodo there's much more time and space for me to roam, kinda like the difference of a raging river flowing into the calmer open sea. I could touch the strings instead of wrenching them.

I used totally different rigs for kandodo. A Magnatone Typhoon and a Jaguar were the main guitars, a small Fender tube amp for that twang, a Microkorg for the keyboards, and pedals - a lot of them! - Electro Harmonix Hazarai delay, phasers, fuzz, wah, ebow and repeater. Really though, I went for anything that sounded good at a lowish volume, as I recorded it all at home in the lounge. I used a tambourine as my main rhythm. I mixed it on headphones, as I wanted to make it sound good for anyone at 30,000 feet, one of my favourite listening places.

kandodo takes the listener through a range of moods and emotion, and some of the tracks are notably darker than others, such as 'Witchdoctor' and 'Shangri Last'. Do the tracks reflect emotions you were feeling at the time of composition or, to come back to my earlier question, is it more to do with a concept you were adhering to throughout the album's creation?

SP: I guess some tracks are quite dark, or sombre, in vibe, maybe I wasn't overjoyed at the time, or had the blues. Maybe I was missing something, or pondering the past, present and future... If there’s any concept, it would be for a time and land that's lost and the slow sad demise of too many beautiful creatures.

I'm also interested in the two track titles that reference the hyena in their titles and are also two of the best (and darkest!) on the album. Could you please give me a bit of background on these tracks and the reference to hyenas? They're fascinating animals, and their inclusion in these track titles seems to add even greater potency to the latter. Would you agree?

SP: I love hyenas, they are amazing animals but seem to have a bad press, kind of like the Great White shark too, though the shark's tale is the sadder. Hyenas were always fascinating to me, especially at night in Africa when their calls can be heard rippling through the night - weird noises they make too! They are the top land predator in Africa (responsible for more kills than lions due to the declining lion numbers), and as such they play a vital role in the balance of grazers and their land. They have a very matriarchal society, because female hyenas are bigger and have external genitalia, another weird aspect to them. They live in very supportive family groups and can eat/crush most things. Hyenas will be there at the end, lumbering dog/cat creatures, triumphs of evolution. Caught a whiff of one once too, when it investigated a car I was sat in late one night: it’s ripe to say the least! They’re not to be messed with, a magnificent beast all round.

'Laud the Hyena' was the first track I recorded, I did it one evening. I played the same thing, just with different guitars and effects. Then thought it needed some drums, so recorded some bad tambourine. I messed around with the tempo, and my walkman has a handy pitch control, and decided to do another version, slowed and duplicated, and this became 'Lord Hyena 3am' (if it was good enough for Neu!), the late night wasted cousin of the original track. Some of my guitar on this track sounded very vaguely like a hyena too.

Descriptions of kandodo have often included references to ambient and drone acts such as Brian Eno and Neu!. Do you feel it is part of an ambient drone tradition, and was that something you wanted to channel and expand upon?

SP: In my dreams! I’m a big fan of Eno and Neu! and can't help but be influenced by them and many others in that vague field. I'd be happy to be a part of that tradition of psych soundscapes, music to get lost in, but might need to record a bit more though. New stuff I've been doing is a bit more up tempo, perhaps more confident, but equally repetitive and indulgent, obviously. There's always the Graceland concept album, The King... I’m not going to go all highlife.

Are you planning to tour this music? How will you go about adapting kandodo for live performances, if so?

SP: I hadn't intended to play live but I think I will, and I have vague plans to do the odd gig. Trying to replicate tracks in a live setting would be hard due to the layered guitar aspect. Too many instruments, not enough hands. I don't want to play to a backing track either, so I might get someone to help out live. It would be different though, as I can't remember all of what I played anyway. I could play the odd track and go off on one from there, but I guess I’ll have to give it some thought and time.

kandodo is out now on Thrill Jockey