Think of your literature teacher at the high school. Do you rememberhim (or her), with his face in the class register searching foran unlucky student to be tested? Well, now let’s think about him in a completely different place, maybean abandoned factory, or in his own house, with a friend, while both arescreaming like wild animals, surrounded by metal plates, hammers,semi-dismantled guitars and amplifiers in total saturation. Hard, it isn’t?My literature teacher was a surly woman that gave bad marks to those whoforgot to bring the homework. Perhaps, if she was grown up listening to TheStooges or if she could find illumination in Einstuerzende Neubauten’s“Kollaps”, she could vent her frustrations on a mixer and me and myclassmates would have been better off.
Paul Lemos is a former member ofControlled Bleeding, a group that since the early eighties released aplethora of albums of differing quality, but always with a pureexperimental spirit and artistic nature.Beside his two trusted collaborators (Chris Moriarty and Joe Papa),Lemos shocked the eardrums with the brutal power electronics of“Knees and Bones”, to pass through the bitter, but more composedexperimentations of “Body Samples” or “Curd”, going deeper into thegentle ambient in “Songs from the Vault”, or the near isolationismo “Golgotha”, sometimes mixing all together in uncategorizable recordslike “Can You Smell the Rain Between”.I discovered Controlled Bleeding in ’94 with “The Drowning”, im my opinion, one of thebest CDs they ever did, being nailed to the wall by the industrialfury of C.U.M. and being touched by the bittersweet title-track, while otherpeople, in the same years, shook their asses on the Detroit dance floorsto the beat of “Penetration”. Hard rockers might have thought theywere in the death metal field if they listened to the records releasedunder the alias of Skin Chamber…Well, I don’t think that my high school teacher could appreciate all ofthis, and to be sincere, Paul Lemos himself disowns most of this in thename of free jazz, the last of the rifts that this genial trio made.Now only Joe Papa and other temporary collaborators are working withhim, as the long time friend Chris Moriarty, who left CB years ago, diedduring the time this interview was conducted. So, let’s go back in time and try to discuss with the gentle professor Lemos about the details of his long and still unfinished musical career.
Chain D.L.K.: One of the features I love in your production is the extreme variety,even if in my opinion there is something in common to all the releases Iknow; which is something like a strange balance between instinct andrationality, rage and sweetness, rant and planning…
Paul Lemos: It is so hard to be objective when it comes to my own music. I havealways had a low boredom threshold, and I find inspiration in thevarious genres that I enjoy… So, I have developed music that pleasesme. The fact that it has been made available to others always seemsincidental. I never have really thought much about whether fans willlike or dislike the various recordings. So, it does not surprise me thata lot of people, who may have at one time enjoyed our work, haveabandoned us. Personally, I would probably have given up on a band likeours after the first two records. Generally, I lose interest in groupsthat make radical shifts in their sound and approach. But, no question,I would have given up on music long ago if I had to keep remaking thesame sort of musical statements that started with “Knees And Bones”.That was a necessary step and reflected life at the time, as do each ofthe records we have made, no matter how shitty some of them might be.Looking back, I don’t know if there is a common link among them…
Chain D.L.K.: So, how are your songs born?
Paul Lemos: The songs are born in different ways: some from a loop or sample aroundwhich the rest of the parts are constructed; some songs develop fromjamming and finding bass lines of rhythms that we want to furtherexplore; others are just balls to the wall improvisations, as heard on“The Breastfed Yak”. Occasionally, we will have a very clear idea of amelody that we want to develop, but most of the time things start with ageneral sense of the tone that we are looking to actualize… how best torepresent the feelings within us at that moment.
Chain D.L.K.: Where do you find your inspiration, and what sometimes block thisinspiration?
Paul Lemos: I find a lot of inspiration from music and film, from images and art.But generally, I have become ever more lazy. I think about creating newmusic but rarely have the time or patience to actually try to reproducethe images of the sound that exist so clearly within my brain. Lazinessis my worst foe. Early on, everything was so spontaneous, and we issueda lot of half formed junk that embarrasses me today. These days, I amtoo meticulous, so it becomes a tremendous work effort to create newmusic. I find if I don’t complete a piece of music in one sitting, Iwill not go back to it, so I need big blocks of time that are rarelyavailable. And when time presents itself, I’d rather play basketball orsleep! So, I have failed to deliver many projects and have felt likedisappearing much of the time…
Chain D.L.K.: You are an expert of the past, of literature, but when I read yourwords you always look like someone who’s really focused on the present.You say you dislike or disown some of your old records, and get bored easily. So in your music do you try to detach yourself from the subjects of yourdaily job? Is it old literature vs. new frontiers of music?
Paul Lemos: Yeah, I’ve been a teacher for 27 years: literature, grammar, writing…I am not really driven by literature though. I like the job and ampretty good at it, but in my free time I rarely read novels. I muchprefer astronomy, physics, psychology, philosophy, stuff that willenrich me somehow and make me think.I have no attachment to the past, and rarely live in past experience, soit is true that I am usually focused on the music/projects of themoment. But music and work are totally separate. One has no influence onthe other at all. Work has taught me lessons about love, compassion,patience, and perhaps has allowed the music to become more positive,spiritual and hopeful in some subconscious way.
Chain D.L.K.: Did you ever have problems in this relation between music and job? Ifone of your students Googles your name, he/ she may find records whereyou scream like an animal, titles like “Phlegm Dive”, photos like theones of the Skin Chamber metal period…
Paul Lemos: I have, at points, had difficulty with kids becoming curious anddistracted by the fact that I do music. And they are always eager to askquestions, or want to hear it. But they lose interest pretty fast once theypull something up on iTunes, since it makes little sense to most of them!
Chain D.L.K.: Have you ever tried to mix those two lives? Do you have kids? Do theyknow/like your music?
Paul Lemos: I don’t have kids. I guess doing a job like teaching high schoolfulfills my desire to interact with kids. If I had to go home to morekids, I might well lose my mind. But my family is well aware of themusic we have done through the years and they critique me regularly. Ican’t say that they enjoy much of it… My father, in particular, has beenbaffled by our music since the beginning. He tells me today that my bestwork is behind me… I think the “Breastfed Yak” CD sent him right overthe edge, so I knew I was on to something! He reacted so negatively, Iknew the record was exactly what I wanted it to be! If he had liked it,I would have been very worried that the music was shit!
Chain D.L.K.: I also think this is quite a funny quote from a review of PhlegmDive: “Other moments, particularly ‘Ham Slammer’ or most of‘Excremental’, seem like an excuse for Lemos to scream and make hideousnoise in his basement after having a bad day with his real job, whichaccording to legend, is a high school teaching position.”
Paul Lemos: That quote from the review is funny! Thanks for passing it on… The guymight not be too far off. Sometimes the need to vent is very real… Ijust do it in different ways today: no more need for the primal scream.
Chain D.L.K.: Well, it’s now clear that there is no conscious relation between yourmusic and your daily job, but in some of the Controlled Bleeding lyrics,album titles and songs, there are recurring themes: The theme of the body (“Body Samples”, “Knees and Bones”, “Phlegm”, “Penetration”…);The theme of the elements (“Scourging Ground”, “Ashes”, “The Rain Between”…);and Spirituality (“Tides of Heaven”, the way Joe usually sings,”Golgotha”)…
Paul Lemos: Words are always quite difficult for me, and always come last. I usuallythink in terms of atmosphere, the feel of what I want to create. If,when we are done with the music, words are needed, then we write.I suppose the systems of the body, the birth and death experiences, andthe spiritual epiphanies along the way are the basic elements that havebeen metaphors for our personal struggles in living day to day. Decayand renewal have always fascinated me; the nature of existence,everything created moving toward its final collapse, and then atomsreconfiguring and spawning something new again, just repeating the cycleuntil the ultimate end…
Chain D.L.K.: Along these themes, there is a subtle lifelong focus on suffering,which is quite common in certain fields of music, if not in music ingeneral.
Paul Lemos: When I was younger, music was a way to sublimate and get rid of a lot ofupset, so it was sometimes an outgrowth of my personal problems. But itwas also a way of remaining in the world, giving the world, life, somedeeper purpose or fulfillment, so… sure there were various metaphorsused to indicate the feelings that birthed the songs. Today I think I’mtoo content to create a lot of music. I have to be thrust into confusionand personal agony once more!
Chain D.L.K.: Are you inspired by any writer or artist in particular, or does everythingcomes from the inside?
Paul Lemos: I have been inspired by many musicians, bands etc… I find I amregularly inspired by new music that excites me.Probably seeing “Eraserhead” when it first came out, many years ago,most powerfully influenced me, as I was living a hellish, lonely life inBoston in a tiny house with no heat. The film spoke deeply to me at thattime. Directors like Peter Greenaway have certainly influenced me, ashave recent bands like Hellnation, The Locust, Hella, and of courseolder music like Captain Beefheart, This Heat, Barry Guy/London JazzComposers, The Godz, Cecil Taylor, Ruins, Henry Cow, Stooges, early PereUbu (“Dub Housing”), early Neubaten (“Kollaps” and “Zeichnungen desPatient O.T.”), early King Crimson (“Larks Tongues”), Mahavishnu, BrianEno, early Swans (“Cop”), Schnittke etc…It’s a load of influences, but really, our music is rubbish whencompared to any of them!
Chain D.L.K.: [At this point of the interview I received a very sad note from Paul:Strangely, while I wrote to you last time, during Easter, my formerbandmate Chris Moriarty died out in Phoenix Arizona. I only receivednews of his death a couple of days ago and was deeply saddened. It is astrange feeling to know that I will never see him again, that all ourcollaborations have come to an end.So, from this point my interview takes a strange new course, and it’sstrange and crazy this coincidence of asking him about Chris and Joeexactly at this moment.]
Your music seems usually very serious, but sometimes I see also a lotof irony, for instance in the legendary “Knee and Bones” lyrics, “I have a testtomorrow… there’s no place to study in the whole house! I don’t wannago library!” which made me laugh a lot the first time I listened to it.Where does this song come from? And which role doesirony play in your life and art? While you were recording, did you laughwith Chris?
Paul Lemos: That classic little piece of shouting on “Knees and Bones” was recordedwhen my younger sister, Leslie, walked into the room just when we wereset to record. After hours of preparation, wiring everything up, withamps ready to scream, machines ready to grind, and all hell ready tobreak loose, she appears! I guess she heard our test run, which wasextremely loud, for we would record live to cassette in those days… Tosay the least, she was not happy, since she had to prepare for herphysics test. We included it because it was funny, as was the coverimage of “Knees and Bones”. Despite the serious, often violent music, there was a sense of humor that would surface, no question.
Chain D.L.K.: About religion: this is a more serious aspect of life. Do you believein a God? Are you Christian, atheist…?
Paul Lemos: Religion is a tough area to discuss. I firmly believe that there areforces in the universe far beyond our comprehension and our basicunderstanding of time and space is so very limited. How do we come togrips with the temporary and perhaps totally meaningless nature of ourlives, which are basically here and gone in a millisecond within thespan of time? Religion has always served as a way of explaining theunexplainable and ordering society, ideally to keep us from acting onour animalistic impulses. I possess a sense of faith, but I do notsubscribe to any formal religion. I guess my own personal philosophy iscloser to Buddhism than anything else…
Chain D.L.K.: This prompts another topic: what do you think of other groupsthat are usually related to Controlled Bleeding, like the whole PowerElectronic scene or the early industrial?Sometimes the themes of their songs are really violent/nihilistic oranti-Christian, or based on sexual perversion, or serial killers and soon… all things that seem quite far from your music, from what I saw.I detected a nod to W. Bennet for instance on “Knee and Bones”, but in mymind your approach is very different from the Whitehouse one… Do youhave friends in this area, maybe Brian “Lustmord” Williams, or whoever?
Paul Lemos: I feel no bond with other groups. Originally, in the early 80’s therewas a sense of community among some of the people working in this area.I have long been friends with Gary Mundy who runs Broken Flag. We stayin touch fairly often, and for a long time Masami Akita and I maintaineda friendship… I often interacted with people like Steve Stapleton,Dave Tibet, Graham Revell, Nigel Ayers, the guys in Coil, David Jackman,R. Rupenus, William Bennett, Mike Gira… But over time, everyone sortof went their own ways, as the music mutated. Before too long, I foundmyself in a very different musical place than where we had begun.Brian Williams (Lustmord) is brilliant, and I am still a fan of hiswork. He’s a very nice guy, but again, none of us have maintainedcorrespondence.
Chain D.L.K.: I see that none of the early industrial heroes (SPK, Cabaret Voltaire,Throbbing Gristle) are mentioned beneath your influences, and I know youdon’t like to see CB labeled as ‘industrial’…
Paul Lemos: My most powerful influences have always been from the world of rock andprogressive music, not electronic/academic music. So, the early Stooges,MC5, Velvets provided massive inspiration when I was young. I took“Funhouse” to school in 6th grade to play for the class, along with thefirst Doors album. I guess this was around 1970 when I was 11 years old…Then bands like Roxy Music, King Crimson, Henry Cow, Eno, Cale, Nico,Magma etc. became essential… After that, the whole NYC punk thing withgroups like Dictators, Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, Ramones andlater, Birthday Party, Pop Group, This Heat… while checking out HarryPartch, Cage, Crumb, Penderecki etc… For me, our hard industrialperiod was very brief and directly influenced by Neubauten. They showedme a very different musical outlet that I badly needed at the time, butof course, as a guitar player at heart, I would soon retreat to what Iknew best.
Chain D.L.K.: It seems that the person you’ve worked with for the longest time isJoe Papa. He’s more than just a strange singer: scat, opera-like style… Inever understood if he’s also one of the screamers on some of the middleperiod records (“Trudge”, for instance). He seems really unique.
Paul Lemos: Joe Papa is a singularly odd person, and a singer like no other I haveheard. He never did any screaming, that’s Chris or me. Joe has abeautiful, rich voice, but he is also an incredible scat singer. I metJoe in 1982 or there about, after putting an ad in a local paper,looking for a singer. He came down, looking like a 300-pound infant in asnorkel jacket and did a 20-minute solo vocal piece with a tape delaythat was killer… The other guys I was working with left the group, butI went with Joey!
Chain D.L.K.: For quite a long time you collaborated also with the painter ArthurPotter. Why did you stop this collaboration? If I’m not wrong, yourfriendship ended too.
Paul Lemos: Arthur Potter was my close friend for a long time. He was initially afan of the group who lived in the area. We were both teachers, so asocial interaction developed over time. Arthur and his twin brother wereboth incredibly talented artists, but at the time they had no outlet fortheir work, so it seemed good for us both that Arthur would become ourdesigner. Ironically, our friendship ended because of a vacation we tookin Italy. We, along with our wives, spent two weeks in a car, doing aroad trip through your beautiful country. What a huge mistake that was!
Chain D.L.K.: I think that old noisy things have a new market today, maybe thanks toartists like Wolf Eyes, Yellow Swans, Prurient… what do you thinkabout them and/or about the fact that new generations are somehowdiscovering noise so that we can say that it’s getting ‘trendy’ in theunderground?
Paul Lemos: There is a very potent noise scene in the US these days. I’m goodfriends with Dominck (Prurient) and I think Wolf Eyes has really comeinto their own over time. The last record was very strong, but I preferthe more chaotic/free experimenters like Fat Worm of Error, LightningBolt, Hair Police, Air Conditioning, groups that combine full bandinstrumentation with total fucking overload. Straight up noise doesn’texcite me much anymore as, generally, I find it kind of boring and one-dimensional… and that goes for the noise stuff I have made as well.Years ago Merzbow and Masonna did it as well as it’s going to be done.Still, I think it’s great that a whole new generation of kids is justnow becoming aware of the genre.
Chain D.L.K.: You keep on going your way, producing something new again. Why did you move to free / improv / experimental jazz now? Is it just to jump toa new extreme or a new challenge for you?
Paul Lemos: I was so bored making music that I was ready to quit a couple of yearsafter we made “The Poisoner” and “Gilded Shadows”, the two records thatI feel were the best we had to offer. I was just creatively tapped out.At the time I was discovering a deep love for free music that I hadn’tlistened to for a very long time, stuff like The Godz, Fugs, CecilTaylor… Soon Joe and I started to meet and jam for hours, him on drumsand me playing guitar, with no intention of recording…Over time we became fairly obsessed with improvisation and startedrecording for the sheer fun of it; there was no intention of issuing anyof the stuff until we spoke to David Katznelson at Birdman who was a bigControlled Bleeding fan back in the day and wanted to do a record…thus “The Breastfed Yak” was born. I really love that record, but itseems no one else much cared for it! I suppose this stuff was asliberating for us as the early noise was. At times no holds barredchaos… music without rules that could become as extreme possible. Andit was great fun, which has been a rare experience for me.
Chain D.L.K.: You played a lot of different genres, covering almost all the potentialrange of music, except maybe acoustic. I don’t see yousinging alone or with Joe sitting on a chair in a theatre and holdingjust an acoustic guitar, but… have you ever thought about doing it?
Paul Lemos: You know, I love a lot of English folk, but I don’t really know how toplay an acoustic guitar, except to tear it up, 100 miles per hour up anddown the fret board. I have no subtlety, so folk music is out of thequestion. We just delve into the music that we feel at any given point.It has never consciously been about covering different genres, eventhough we have explored a few with limited success. I still feel theneed to get back to some deep dub, so I am hoping that before we finallybow out, we will make our definitive dub statement.
Visit Paul Lemos on the web at:
Read the Italian version with a in depth discography at:
[interviewed by Matteo Uggeri] [proofreading by Steve Mecca]