Absence Makes The Art Go Further: Thighpaulsandra Interviewed

In a rare interview, Thighpaulsandra talks to Russell Cuzner about how prog rock, synthesisers, and being part of Coil have culminated in his first solo album in nine years

The Golden Communion‘s two-hours of nested multi-genres, formed from a conglomeration of vintage synthesisers, keys and harpsichords, bound by guitars, drums and voice and encrusted with the rare tones of singing bowls and an ancient flute, is a cup very much brimming over. Polyrhythms and complex harmonic structures elegantly disentangle to let passionate pop and pompous prog flavours flow, only for their confluence to confuse and divert as soon as it quenches. Contrarily, however, this generous and exuberant banquet of sound cloaks a range of absences that are informed and possibly compensated for through Thighpaulsandra’s consistently maximal music.

The album was mainly composed and recorded in isolated surroundings, in a particularly remote part of West Wales, in a commercial studio he built on the farm where he lives. It is a place so difficult to reach that visitors are scarce: “I’m a mile off the nearest road and I can only get here in a 4×4, just to go to the supermarket is a 28 mile round trip. It’s quite tough living here, I’m used to it now but I don’t get any post, I have to go and collect. Nobody will come here.”

Isolation from popular, contemporary culture arguably informed his formative years. Growing up without a television, its instant stimulation replaced by a focus on piano playing and listening to classical music, afforded deep insights into the underlying rules of music. Meanwhile, the family home’s ban on pop music made the less academic sounds of The Beatles and Motown all the more alluring.

For the past decade, the most immediately notable absence has been that of his own work: The Golden Communion is his first solo album in nine years – a dramatic change of gear compared to the prolificacy that followed his debut in 2000. Back then he had recently joined Coil and already had over 14 years’ experience as studio engineer/producer that had lead to long working relationships with Julian Cope and Spiritualized. While this collaborative work intensified, including working on Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down and Amazing Grace albums along with several Cope releases and extensively touring as a key part of Coil’s new live phase, he managed to record and release four of his own albums in as many years. But with the tragic death of Coil’s John Balance at the end of 2004 his extraordinary solo output started to slow, and seemed to have come to a halt by the time Coil’s other founder, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, sadly passed in 2010. Unsurprisingly, it is their absence that looms largest over The Golden Communion, which was started as far back as 2003 with both playing an active part in its development. Indeed, Balance’s voice is a central, if fragmented, presence to its epic closing collage, while "rhythmic interference" is intriguingly credited to Sleazy on the electro-glam stomp of ‘Did He Fall?’.

However, despite the potent clout of his collaborations, Thighpaulsandra’s solo work bears a distinct, singular style. Although arguably containing traces of Cope’s rock, Spiritualized’s psyche and Coil’s cosmic journeying, a Thighpaulsandra record is immediately recognisable as such, as though all his sonic experiences – from the classical concerts he attended in his youth, through the extensive studio experience, to his legion of live performances – are being channeled into a gloriously idiosyncratic and marvelously complicated, yet somehow cohesive, musical feast.

Whenever anyone reviews your albums, <a href=” http://thequietus.com/articles/18688-thighpaulsandra-the-golden-communion-review” target=”out”>myself included, there’s always a bit of stumbling around the switching of genres. We’ve heard about your classical musical upbringing with you being banned from listening to pop music, but I wondered, after that initial interest in pop, what lead to an interest in progressive rock and the power of synthesisers?

Thighpaulsandra: The progressive rock thing came from boarding school which was really strange for me because my parents were very working class. I grew up in the South Wales valleys, but I think my parents realised from quite an early age that if they hadn’t sent me to boarding school I would have probably gone to prison [laughs]. And it cost them absolutely everything. My dad owned a tiny little shop and we never had any family holidays or anything like that, so I was sent to boarding school as a means of control more than anything I think.

Going to public school is like living in bubble, you have no concept of what other people do. I listened to chart pop music [but] all the kids around me were listening to the first King Crimson album and jazz and I’d never really heard this stuff; because my parents were into classical music there was something about it that I found interesting. In a way it was a kind of rebellion against pop music, this kind of weird music that nobody else really liked, an excuse for me to like it. It wasn’t so much the big progressive acts, I wasn’t that interested in Genesis, it was people like Curved Air that got me interested. Their use of synthesisers was quite experimental, on the third album, Phantasmagoria, there are some pieces that sound like academic outré music. So I kind of got drawn into it and I always wanted to own a synthesiser. I remember buying a catalogue for an EMS Synthi AKS and looking at the price – it was £345 and I thought, “How would I ever get £345?” In those days it may as well have been £30,000, it was just totally out of reach. So it was quite a few years later that I actually managed to buy a synthesiser.

While your parents didn’t allow pop music at home, you were still exposed to avant garde, contemporary classical music. Were they happy to go to these performances?

TPS: They actually hated that stuff, they used to go out of a sense of duty. Because they were very keen on classical music they felt they ought to go to any concert that was going on just to make up the numbers otherwise the whole thing would die! Consequently, I used to go. Mostly it was Mozart and Brahms [but] as most concerts were in Cardiff at the University and, at the time, one of the heads of music there was Alun Hoddinott, the composer, I think I must have seen quite a few first performances of his works. And I remember going to see Berio and Stockhausen and Ligeti and lots of other lesser known composers as well, and they used to sit through it and absolutely loathe it. I remember my father saying, “Oh no, we’re going to have to go and listen to,” what he called, “creaky gate music."

I don’t know if I liked it just to piss them off but I definitely got something out of it, probably as a rebellion initially and then it grew on me and I got completely hooked. By the time I left school my vinyl collection of contemporary classical was huge – I had as much Stockhausen as I could get my hands on, I had Varèse, Berio, Pierre Schaeffer.

Were these your first experiences of electronic music?

TPS: Yeah, absolutely, although I had no real concept of how some of these things were made. At that age I wasn’t really aware of what musique concrète was for example, it was the weird factor that attracted me really, I didn’t know why I liked it. Like why did I like Messiaen in those days? I didn’t understand the mathematics behind it or the structures, but there was something about the sound of it that very much appealed to me. I think a lot of the things with contemporary classical and academic electronic music was that it had a link to pop music, you’d heard sounds that you only heard otherwise in pop music, that was what was attractive about it.

From there you’ve gone on to build what seems like an unparalleled arsenal of synthesisers.

TPS: I think I bought my first synth in 1979 and I still have it, a Roland SH5 and it cost me £721 and I’ve still got the receipt! I was working in Basingstoke at the time training to be a psychiatric nurse, and I remember going to London to a place in Charring Cross called Chase Musicians, a synthesiser shop, and I bought this thing. I managed to carry it home, even though it was really heavy and I’m only a little guy. That was the start really. After that I just kept buying synthesisers, I spent all my money, I got into terrible trouble with credit card companies because I’d max out a credit card straight away. And I’m a bit of a hoarder, so I did tend to buy things and just hang on to them.

With so many options, when you’re composing how do you choose what to use?

TPS: Well, the thing I’ve learned is it’s good to restrict your palette somewhat. I will try and, say, use two or three instruments on one track. You learn, after a while, they’re all good at certain things and other things fall outside of the natural areas they work well in, so I tend to stick with what they do best. But, occasionally, if you force yourself into doing things with them you really learn things, and that’s the problem with having so much stuff. There’s a lot of people I know who have a lot of synthesisers and they don’t really know anything about them, they know the specifications and everything, but they don’t really get to know them. Whereas when I only had one or two synthesisers you learn how to do everything on those things and you know them inside out. I think that’s the best way to be with them, any sound that I can think of I can pretty much make, but I know that I’ll be able to do it easier on synth A than synth C for example.

Is that the way you compose, then – do you have a notion of what you want to achieve before you plug in?

TPS: Yeah, usually. I’m not saying I don’t ever improvise because I do that quite a lot, especially with other people, but generally I’ve got an idea in my head and then I’ll pursue it ‘til I get there.

In an interview you did with Brainwashed back in 2005, you described how you create your music with having a similar kind of focus as you imagine people do when developing a Disney cartoon.

TPS: Oh, absolutely, as a person who has a pretty short attention span I think of music like that, completely. That’s why I can quite happily change genres mid-song. If you saw my musical collection it’s absolutely horrendous, I’ve got everything from Stockhausen to The Beach Boys to Gina G, all sorts of terrible things and other people come here and look at my record collection and go, “Ah, you can’t possibly like that – how embarrassing!” So it might be embarrassing to you but it’s just canon fodder to me. I don’t really worry about whether things fit into a genre or not, it’s whether I like it and whether the two things sit well together, that’s my main criteria when I write.

So how does it start out? Is it score-based or written down somehow? Or is there jamming involved?

TPS: I work in a few different ways. I’m not the fastest reader or writer but occasionally I’ll write things down just so I don’t forget them. But I’ve also got a kind of rule where if I don’t write it down and I can still remember it it’s worth remembering! I tend to work in the mornings, then take a few hours off in the afternoon to walk the dog, and then come back and work in the evening. So, if I can remember my pre-dog walking music when I get back then that’s fine, I’ll kind of commit to those bits, but if I can’t remember them I’ll just move on to something else.

Sometimes I just experiment quite a lot. I’ve always got my computer set up to record so I’ll just record a sort of library of ideas [that] I’ll either come back to or use as they stand. Other times, with my group, we’ll play together and something will come out of that, or even just a couple of people, so a few different methods really.

Balance and Sleazy from Coil first persuaded you to release your own recordings, and you have said how they changed your approach to music. How did this affect your solo work?

TPS: Sleazy particularly. He wasn’t a musician but his whole concept of art was just something I’d never encountered before, he had a sort of microscopic view of everything. Whereas I saw things in terms of notes and melodies and structure, his way of looking at things was to break it down and focus on a very small detail and amplify that – perhaps one or two seconds of sound which he would slow down or analyse or modify in some way, or make a loop out of it, and that would be the basis [for a track]. Quite a lot of pieces for Coil were done like that and I’d never worked like that before, [it] was a total revelation to me. [In] Coil, rules didn’t really apply, there were no musical rules because he didn’t know them!

I hadn’t worked with anybody before who was completely a non-musician but made music – and they made great music – but the end result gave you no clue as to how they actually got there. The processes they used were fascinating and really exciting to work with, so I learnt a lot from Sleazy, and Geff [John Balance] too, to a certain extent, because he was very good at directing Sleazy. A lot of people think that Geff didn’t really do very much – and there was a lot of time when he wasn’t present – but when he was in the room he would direct Sleazy in ways which were quite unusual and he would direct the exploration so that a lot of these little details were magnified. A really great way of working and I’ve never worked with anyone else who considers music in that way.

It sounds like you had a really symbiotic relationship with your wider view of those rules that are involved in that side of composition, you’ve then got the micro to your macro with what Sleazy did, and then the independent creative direction of Balance coming in on another angle.

TPS: Yeah, it was fantastic, ‘cause for them they’d not really worked with many people who could play stuff and make up harmony. Sleazy would play me something and say, “Can you play something that sounds like this?” And I’d say, “Oh yeah, certainly, it goes like this.” And he wasn’t used to that, and I wasn’t used to his surgical detail. Yeah, we both fed off that. It was an immensely creative time, we’d spend hours just mucking about and recording stuff. It was a very exciting time.

Moving on to your new album, but also seeing as we’re talking about Coil, when reviewing the album I chose not to cover the lyrics to ’Did He Fall?’ because, although I could tell it was referring to Balance and Sleazy, I couldn’t work out well enough what you were trying to say, and I wondered if you wanted to keep it ambiguous?

TPS: I’d rather keep it ambiguous. What I will tell you – the whole thing is a cut-up, so it’s fragments of conversations I had with them, but it’s also about them, so that’s pretty much all I can tell you about that.

You’ve described your approach to lyrics as ‘self-induced literary psychosis’, which I liked the sound of.

TPS: I write all the time, I’ve got a big, thick, old ledger book that I write stuff down in. I used to watch TV and write things that people would say and now I tend to get it more out of books and from conversations with people I meet. It’s like the way I make music, I will take two ideas and smash them together and if they sit well together for me then that’s fine, and it’s the same with the lyrics – if I see a couple of lines and I like the way they look on the page then I’ll use them. I find they take on a meaning of their own, it’s very difficult to explain how I actually go about all that. I still use a lot of cut-ups, I physically cut-up pieces of paper and stick them all together on another piece of paper then I’ll think, “Ah, that looks good,” or shuffle them around a bit and then I’ll photocopy it and then that’s my lyrics.

That was William Burroughs’ method for anticipating future events or finding a truth better than he felt words could otherwise afford.

TPS: Yes, and it’s amazing what it reveals sometimes, you think, “Ah god, I would never have thought of that." And there are subtleties, admittedly unintended subtleties, which you can stumble upon and are very revealing.

I first heard mention of The Golden Communion on an interview you did for ResonanceFM in 2008. I think you said it had already gone to print.

TPS: Well, it was ready to go, I thought I’d finished the record, then I scrapped a huge section of it and I was left with a big hole and I reworked a lot of it and then I added a huge section. So, it went from being a single album to a double album, or a triple vinyl as it is now, and it kind of grew because I was just so dissatisfied with the 2008 version of the album, it never really sat well with me for some reason.

Obviously a lot happened [around] that time, both Geff and Sleazy died and my mum died in that period as well. I started this record in 2003, even though I’d made several other records since – as I say, I get distracted very easily. I had a plan for The Golden Communion from back then and I did start making various parts of it, that’s why there’s a few tracks that Geff and Sleazy contributed to.

We used to record not with any great sense of what would happen to the stuff we were recording. We weren’t deliberately making Coil, I suppose it depended on who wrote the lyrics or who steered the thing. Sometimes Geff would push it somewhere and it would be very obviously Coil, and other times we’d do something and it was more like one of my tracks, and then other things became Sleazy’s own things. If we weren’t all wildly enthusiastic for an idea it wouldn’t get thrown away but would surface somewhere else. And there was a couple of things that were probably on the 2008 version of The Golden Communion that I took out because I felt they were too close to Coil. I’m always very aware that I’m not trying to be the new Coil or anything. Coil was something I was very pleased to be a part of, but you can’t really replicate that way of working and so I don’t think it would be proper of me to recreate tracks that we’d started and say “this is a Coil track that was never released” because that’s not the case.

I understand and I find your solo releases bear such a distinct style, which, has got this rare placement of pop music within surroundings that are just the opposite almost.

TPS: Well, I still love pop music, I still have a huge pop music collection, and I like that juxtaposition of styles. There’s a few reviews I’ve read where people obviously just don’t understand that and they think the bits that aren’t pop music are rambling or wishy-washy or whatever, but it’s all completely intentional. Every note of the nebulous parts is as constructed as the notes in the pop music sections; I don’t favour one over the other and I don’t put [more] effort into one over the other.

In terms of reactions I can also imagine the inverse to be true where other people would be appreciating the more avant garde aspects and not the pop tunes.

TPS: Oh yeah, I get this from Coil fans a lot, you know, “That’s so sad that you use drums and electric guitars!” Well, I love drums and electric guitars! I still find rock bands really exciting and, when I’m not doing this I spend a lot of time engineering for young groups, and I still find it really exciting watching a load of kids on a stage with electric guitars, it’s great.

Well, speaking of guitars and drums, once again your new album features Martin Schellard on guitars and Sion Orgon on drums. Martin’s on all your solo releases and Sion is on all but the first one. How did you meet?

TPS: I met Martin back in the eighties, we were playing for some awful person I won’t even mention, a kind of dance artist, I was playing keyboards and Martin was drafted in to play guitar. We got on with each other and then I realised Martin could play virtually anything I could think of and we shared the same sense of humour. We just work well together – he likes doing my stuff and I like working with him.

Sion I met in around 2000, he came as a client to studio I was working at [on a job] for the BBC recording sessions of local bands, and he was in a band called Rocketgoldstar. I got on with him, I liked the way he played drums, we got talking about electronic music and he expressed an interest in that and I think I said, “Do you fancy coming and having a play sometime?” and it just went on from there. I really like working with drummers, I like being able to bounce ideas off drummers, especially somebody like Sion. Then he got more interested in electronics, so we had a bit of a trade going on there, I teach him about electronics and he’ll hit what I tell him to!

You worked at Loco Studios in Gwent, Wales from 1986 – how was it?

TPS: Well that’s where I got my first job working at a recording studio, so that’s how I got hooked up with people like Julian Cope. But we had lots of clients, we had Oasis before they even recorded their first album. In fact, I was asked to produce Oasis and I turned them down. This is my terrible story: Marcus Russell from Ignition Management said "Would you come and work with Oasis?” And I said, “Marcus, I’ve heard the demos and I don’t think they’re very good… and anyway I’ve been asked to do this band, The Tansads." And he said, “Oh, I know them, they’re rubbish, they’ll never go anywhere, Oasis are going to be huge.” And I said, “Marcus, I don’t think so!"

Yeah, at that studio we did a few things with Oasis. They came back after that to do a couple of singles there. We did the second Verve album there, and Ash used to record there, lots of bands from that period, it was a good studio.

You’ve recently been working with Elizabeth Fraser on her first new music in such a long time.

TPS: Yeah, that’s still ongoing. She’s so lovely, such a fantastic person, but she’s very fussy – all the best artists are. But her material is great. The record is absolutely stunning, I’m just hoping it will get finished because progress is painfully slow, but she’s such a fantastic writer.

It’s a bit like the Coil situation, because again Elizabeth isn’t a conventional musician, she does what she does and she has her own little set of rules that she operates by and I just try and do what I do around what she does. I think she likes the fact that I do harmony and I’ll come up with some odd ideas that support the way she sings, the way she writes, but she is absolutely wonderful to work for and I really hope we finish this record.

You’re playing on 19 October in Cologne as part of Edition Mego’s anniversary celebrations. I noted that it’s a solo performance – what material are you able to perform by yourself?

TPS: It’s largely improvised electronics and improvised vocal stuff as well. There are a few things I could probably do but I’m not a great fan of people who suddenly manage to pull out the whole track sounding perfect from a laptop. That doesn’t feel like any kind of show to me. Unless somebody’s actually creating something and doing something spontaneous I wouldn’t find it at all interesting, to watch or to create, so, I’m trying to make my solo shows something different altogether. Obviously I can’t rely on my group, but I don’t want to rely on a laptop just to play back some backing tracks, that’s not the way I do things really.

What are you able to, travel with synth-wise?

TPS: I just take as many things as I can. I do take a computer to do some processing live and I might use a couple of plug-in synthesisers, ‘cause obviously you can take quite a lot of power in terms of sound generation on a computer that I can trigger from a couple of keyboards. And it means I don’t have to take some of my vintage stuff and have it trashed by various airlines which has happened in the past. But I still take some vintage stuff with me, I’ll take that risk because I like using all that stuff.

I’ve got another [solo show] in Milan in November/December and we’ve got a few group shows coming up as well – we’ll be doing a show in Lithuania, and we’ve just agreed to do a show in Moscow but that’s not ‘til next year.

In the past when you’ve played with the full band you’ve put on quite a show with elaborate costumes. Will you be aiming for a similar effect?

TPS: I expect so, much to the disappointment of my group who have to wear all this stuff. They always say, “Why do we have to wear all this?” And I say, “Because it makes it more exciting.” And they say, “But do you realise how hot it is?” And I say, “Yes, I do, yes.” It’s all part of the process!

You compiled two monographs that were published last year collecting Balance’s paintings and Sleazy’s photography and I was taken by the introduction you’d written for the Peter Christopherson Photography book and particularly the reference you made to the The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway sleeve. [Genesis’ 1974 album whose sleeve was designed by Hipgnosis, where Sleazy worked at the time.]

TPS: Yeah, he’s on the cover of that. That’s the other reason my record took such a long time – ‘cause I had to scan every single one of Sleazy’s entire collection of negatives and prints and there’s just thousands, there’s so many. What ended up in the book is a tiny percentage of what there is, and to actually go through all of those took me over nine months, and pretty much in that period my record went on hold. But I’m really pleased with them and I’m sure both Peter and John would be thrilled that we’d done this.

The Golden Communion is out now on <a href=” http://editionsmego.com/release/EMEGO-207” target+”out”>Editions Mego. Bright Lights And Cats With No Mouths – The Art of John Balance Collected and Peter Christopherson Photography are both out now, published by Timeless. Thighpaulsandra performs at the ReihM: MEGO 20 Showcase in Cologne on October 19

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