“That’s my passion outside of music — postcards of soldiers leaving loved ones behind; songs about love and loss.”The first time I heard of Piano Magic was in an article about heterogeneous examples of experimental music in the Italian magazine Blow Up; on those pages our heroes were set side by side with Von Neumann, Dntel, Alog, Velma and other bizarre monsters of the international musical panorama on the edge of rock. Today I can find very few things in common among these artists, except for a strong tendency to an idea of experimentation considered mainly as a spontaneous attempt to transcend the musical genres.The only common figure on every Piano Magic record released since the early years (1996) is Glen Johnson, who (in addition to the answers you’re going to read hereunder) would object to being defined as a leader. We therefore authorize ourselves to define him as the pivot around whom every different face of Piano Magic rotated in all these years, up to the latest record — perhaps one of the band’s most rock-style and less adventuresome — Part Monster. But the early deviations, albums such as “Popoular Mechanics” are not forgotten: the EPs (especially the rare and beautiful “Never It Will Be the Same Again” of 2006) and also Johnson’s side projects, mainly ’80s electronic (Future Conditional — with PM member Cedric Pin) or field recordings and digital experimentation (Textile Ranch) may bear witness to this. Moreover, we must consider the entrepreneurship of the female side of the group, Angèle David-Guillou, given that her solo project Klima gave us one of the best records of 2007.It is all a complex personal and artistic landscape, inside which we could hardly try to orient ourselves without the guidance of Glen and Angèle, — very different types of musicians, but maybe because of this also so compatible and creative.
Chain D.L.K.: From my perspective it seems that you’re finally having some success and good response from the people. Ok, you’re not Depeche Mode or Madonna, but is this changing your life?
Piano Magic: There are times when I can’t keep Piano Magic out of my head. This is usually just before a tour or before we record a new album. I don’t go to a 9-to-5 job so Piano Magic is the closest I get to “work,” as such. But there are long periods when Piano Magic does nothing — no rehearsals, no writing, not even meeting. It’s like a monster, really — one that comes in when it needs to feed.On many levels, I’m glad we’re not Depeche Mode or Madonna. That is, I’m glad we’re not so successful that we can’t walk down the street; that a record label isn’t breathing down our necks for a “hit”; that we’re not surrounded by yes men and people pretending to love us; that we don’t lose sleep over the fact that once we were selling millions and now we’re just selling thousands or less. I’d like to have sold more records than we have and I’d like to have made more money than we have and I’d like to have played bigger concerts than we have, but the bottom line is: I’m happy making music and going on tour and meeting people who like what we do. That’s always been at least enough to keep us going.
Chain D.L.K.: For what I saw in your live gigs, it seems that you really enjoy yourself playing live. Has it always been like that? You seem to love being the front man, full of energy. Sincerely, listening to your introspective lyrics, I didn’t expect it.
Piano Magic: I don’t love being the front man. I would play in the shadows or behind a curtain if I could. I’ve been gradually forced more and more to the front of the stage by the rest of the band (they claim we need a focus). You see, I don’t have any great desire to be recognised. I absolutely shun photographs and [video] of us. I get really frustrated with people who watch our shows through the eye of a camera lens, just so they can post it on YouTube or Flickr the next day. They might as well not be at the concert. They should just send a robot next time.?Some people were born to be adored; to have flowers thrown at their feet. I’m not one of them. It’s a necessary evil that I have to stand at the front and sing my lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it — I love playing but I don’t have this desire to be watched. I can barely look in the mirror when I shave.
Chain D.L.K.: I noticed you don’t like to be photographed, but sincerely on the stage you have a strong presence, for sure stronger than the one that you have when you shave in front of the mirror under the morning light. Do you think you are somehow transformed while you play music?
Piano Magic: Everyone is a different person when they go on stage. Generally, you either come out of your shell or you try to hide behind anything at hand. The drummer, in some respects, gets a raw deal because he’s at the back and therefore probably won’t get recognized in the street but in truth, that’s where I’d feel more comfortable.It’s something that I have to deal with though. I write the lyrics and I sing them so rock ‘n’ roll convention dictates that I stand centre-front. But in my life, I don’t stand centre-front. I’m somewhere at the back.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s talk about lyrics. The first time I had the idea and desire to interview you was after listening to “Incurable.” Your words really struck me, so I somehow felt worried for you. Is it related to something that really happened to you or to someone you love?
Piano Magic: “Incurable” is half-me, half the Elephant Man! I can’t really say much more than that. A lot of people seem to see themselves in that song. It’s our “Creep.”
Chain D.L.K.: In spite of the melancholic music and sometimes ‘blue’ lyrics, you really look like a cool and very ironic person…
Piano Magic: When I’m happy, I concentrate on being happy. When I’m sad, I channel it into songs, etc. I don’t think I’m physically capable of writing a happy song. That would sound ironic. But everybody has a dark side and yes, I tend to describe mine in music and lyrics. Arguably, I’ve not much to be miserable about but I had, what I consider to be, something of a lonely childhood. At least, I seemed to be alone a lot of the time and I gradually started wanting to be alone over time. If I’m writing from any specific perspective, it’s that one: the person I am when I’m on my own.
Chain D.L.K.: How do you create your songs? Is it always coming from you from the very first musical input, or (for instance) is it when Alisdair sometimes comes to rehearsals with a bass line and then you all play on it?
Piano Magic: We write in rehearsal but, yes, I usually instigate things. The lyrics have to come first with us generally though. They’re the skeleton. After that, it’s quite democratic: everyone adding their own bits. This process takes many, many rehearsals and many months. Many songs are discarded along the way. Our set changes very, very slowly because we’re weeding out what we consider to be inferior songs. People say, “Why don’t you play ‘Snowfall Soon?’ Why don’t you play this or that?” Simply because they don’t sound all that good, live.
Chain D.L.K.: When you create a new song, do you already know “where” it will go, whether it’ll be for Piano Magic or for Future Conditional? How do you choose whether it will be you or Angèle to sing it (or someone else…)?
Piano Magic: Piano Magic songs are invariably written in rehearsal. Textile Ranch songs are written when I’m feeling playful. In fact, they’re not written — they’re more “played with.” Future Conditional songs are written when I feel in the mood for technology. But from one day to the next, I wear one of these heads. The choice of singer comes later. I originally intended all of my songs and lyrics to be sung by me but every now and then I think maybe Angèle would sound better. The urge to collaborate with anyone else gets less and less as time goes by. We’re becoming more insular as a unit, I’d say, whereas when we started it was an open field.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you sometimes recover old, forgotten songs/recordings to give them new life? For instance the Textile Ranch tunes are more similar to early Piano Magic albums, and it seems there’s something from your past in them….
Piano Magic: Oh, Textile Ranch is definitely harking back to when it was just me in my bedroom playing with an old analogue synth. The only thing that’s really changed is that I used to record on a Tascam cassette 4-track and now I record on a laptop.?Sometimes I think about digging out the old, very early Piano Magic recordings and mixing them (there’s quite a bit of stuff that was never released) but I’m more attracted to new songs and the possibility of tomorrow.
Chain D.L.K.: Which kind of relationship do you have with the other members of Piano Magic?
Piano Magic: There is some social connection outside of the band, though that’s become harder recently, as Cedric has moved back to the south of France and there are babies around now and those bonds you get with being a certain age — jobs, etc. Two of us live in south London and two in North East London and as it’s a big city, you can’t just pop round for tea.
Chain D.L.K.: Often today musicians are forced to spend a big amount of their time with emails, MySpace and telephone calls to promote their music, find labels, find venues for the tours, replying to boring interview questions… is it like that for you?
Piano Magic: I try to limit that stuff to as little time as possible. Right now, much of my time is spent on buying First World War postcards on eBay! That’s my passion outside of music — postcards of soldiers leaving loved ones behind; songs about love and loss, 1914 to 1918.
Chain D.L.K.: Everybody knows of your soundtrack for the Bigas Luna film and of the nice story about it… Are you planning something in this direction again?
Piano Magic: You can’t really plan this. The director or the film company comes to you. Yes, we’d like to do it again but we aren’t holding our collective breath.
Chain D.L.K.: There is any director or actor that you would like to work with?
Piano Magic: Directors? Actors? I couldn’t be that specific. My favourite directors are dead and even if they were alive, I’d be terrified of spoiling their masterpieces!?
Chain D.L.K.: How are your tastes in films? You mentioned The Elephant Man…
Piano Magic: The Elephant Man, yes. I love anything by [Krzysztof] Kieslowski also. I watch a lot of European films and a lot of American tat too. I really like The Bourne Ultimatum and that trilogy but I’m sure it’s unfashionable/not cool to say that!
Chain D.L.K.: Do you have special plans or desires for the future? Some new collaboration to come? Have you ever thought to play with some of the artists you were inspired by, for instance with someone in the 4AD/This Mortal Coil area? I heard your great cover of a Dead Can Dance song… and sometimes I dream of a duet of Piano Magic and Breathless…
Piano Magic: I only heard Breathless a couple of months ago, even though I knew of Dominic Appleton through his singing with This Mortal Coil. He has a really unique voice. I don’t hang outside the doors of former 4AD artists though, hoping that they’ll submit to a collaboration. In fact, we have no plans for more collaborations at the moment.No, the next thing is to tour Spain and beyond that, play more shows where we’re wanted this year. We’ll start recording a new Piano Magic album soon and there’s a Textile Ranch album to finish off. And we’re halfway through a new Future Conditional album so there’s plenty on the horizon.We’re also looking into ways of presenting our next records in a more “substantial” format. The download, along with conventional packaging formats (jewel cases, digipaks, etc.) has diluted a lot of the art out of music. From here on in, I think music should be presented more as art than as a disposable commodity. If people want a disposable commodity, fine, download it. But there are plenty of people out there who want something more special. We’re hoping to give them that.
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In collaboration with: www.sands-zine.com
[interviewed by Matteo Uggeri] [proofreading by Benjamin Pike]