TEN QUESTIONS WITH XELA
This long-overdue interview with John Twells brings us up to date on all things Xela, from recent stateside activities to the outpouring of music on Barge, Digitalis, SMTG, and, of course, Twells' own home label Type Records. The Xela sound has evolved dramatically since its earliest incarnation: compare, for example, Tangled Wool's “Drawing Pictures of Girls” to Heirs Of The Fire, a typically epic recent outing for SMTG; the soothing serenity of the former, with its delicate “I see you” vocal, seems light years removed from the haunted invocation that is the latter. And while Twells may have garnered justifiable attention for his recent Type full-length, In Bocca Al Lupo, he's hardly sitting around mulling over a follow-up. Instead, he's been touring and recording like a man possessed, a condition wholly in keeping with the macabre and horror-film-inspired music he's issued of late (by his own characterization, the music sounds like “drowning in a sea of blood and being too drunk to realize it”). We're thrilled that Twells could fit the following interview into his schedule.
1. So you're in New York at the moment, and I know that you played at Le Poisson Rouge and at a Type Records showcase in Brooklyn in February. How did all of that turn out? Were those your first concerts in the US or have you played there before?
I spend a lot of time in New York at the moment as my wife lives there, so I've kind of become a little wound into the scene there which is nice. I've played live a bunch in the US now, but the shows always feel satisfying—good attendance and people really seem to be open minded and interested, something you can find lacking in some places. I've played a lot in Chicago too, which is equally good fun for me, although playing somewhere like Monkeytown in Brooklyn with a line-up of my good friends is hard to beat.
2. What material are you playing in your live set? Is it all pre-prepared or improvised? What instruments do you play live and do you have other musicians playing with you (and if so who are they)?
The closest recorded material to my recent live shows would probably be the Heirs of the Fire recording, which was conceived as a live performance in the first place. Initially it was intended to bring to the fore my vocal manipulations—I'm fascinated by choral music and enjoy singing, so this has become a key part of my performances and recordings in the last couple of years. As soon as I began to play the material in early 2008, I asked Mike Weis, the drummer from Zelienople who I was touring with at the time, to accompany me on percussion and found that the set had a life of its own. The New York shows played on this idea and I stripped it down to almost entirely improvised and manipulated vocals and drums. In the UK and Europe I've been performing with Seasons (Pre-Din) who adds strings and field recordings to the vocals and soundscapes I create, but when a show relies heavily on improvisation it can almost go in any direction. Over time I've gone from playing entirely with a laptop, which felt incredibly restrictive coming from “bands,” to using guitar, to vocals, to simply playing with live electronics, and now I feel I have a good portable setup with a selection of pedals, generators, and a microphone. At some point this year I might try and bring the laptop back to add a more complex backdrop; I'm constantly re-evaluating how things sound, and it's nice to change things up as much as possible.
3. You mentioned that you've been doing some recording in Chicago. Can you tell us a bit about that and who, if anyone, you're recording with and where the material may end up?
I went out to Chicago for the first time a few years ago to meet up with Zelienople and Sylvain Chauveau and fell in love with the place instantly. Now I feel I have a great network of friends out there and it's a place I can go to hang out, play music, drink bourbon, and make music. In early 2008 I spent some time there recording with Zelienople and some different side-projects emerged. Hanging out with Matt Christensen we realized that we shared a love for early synthesizer music—Cluster, Popol Vuh, etc. —so we set out to make a take on that sound and recorded an album in this way—a simple setup of synthesizer, loopers, microphones, guitar, and effects recorded to 8-track, and the results will be released on Digitalis later this year under the Twells & Christensen moniker. Also, having played live multiple times with Mike Weis, we've recorded a large amount of material for vocals and drums which will also see the light of day at some point; a vinyl-only release should appear on Digitalis by the end of the year.
4. You've been incredibly prolific since The Dead Sea, as if there's been a huge outpouring that had been withheld and found eventual release. Is that the case or does it just appear that way? If it is the case, what is it that accounts for that deluge?
This is a question I've been asked a lot recently and it makes a lot of sense. I used to take a very long time over records to the point where I was almost unable to write when I'd finish a release, but the time it would take and the writer's block afterwards was mostly down to my young age and inexperience with the tools I was using. When I wrote my first three albums I felt like I was learning how to work with the software, learning a routine that suited me and the experimentation of styles was part of that. At this point, I have a much better idea of my skills and limitations and it allows me to experiment and write much, much more easily. Of course, with this confidence comes a great deal more music; instead of being tentative with something and wondering whether I should do it, I can feel a lot more positive and material comes out of that as a result.
5. Xela fans (like me) who discovered your music via the first two releases, For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights and Tangled Wool, are obviously aware that your style has undergone a radical shift. From an outsider's perspective, it's an almost Jekyll-to-Hyde transition from Tangled Wool to The Dead Sea. What prompted the change from the former's bucolic guitar-based style to the experimental-psychedelic set-pieces you've been creating recently?
At the heart of it I'm an obsessive music fanatic. Music of all kinds fascinates me and the biggest problem when I started making solo records was what to do next. My initial idea behind For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights was to make a hip-hop-soul-r&b record but using electronic sounds; in my head it was going to be Jill Scott-meets-Shuttle 358 and I suppose it didn't turn out exactly how I imagined. With the second album I wanted to create my take on Cocteau Twins-era dream pop, and again it sounded very different in my head from how it eventually came out. While writing these albums, though, I still feel I had the energy and passion to make something like The Dead Sea, which was a culmination of a childhood obsession with horror movies, horror literature, and the soundtracks that accompanied them. It was only when I made The Dead Sea, however, that I began to reach a point where it sounded exactly as it was supposed to, so I'm glad I waited. As I keep telling people, there might have been a shift but I don't make exclusively dark music; it's just the way things have fallen recently. In Bocca Al Lupo was a response to an art installation based on fear; if that hadn't been set, I might have come up with something far lighter.
6. The Dead Sea purportedly finds inspiration in the work of ‘70s horror directors such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and George Romero and their respective soundtracks, and in the label output of Fonal and The Jewelled Antler Collective. Could you comment specifically on how those artists and labels (and any others) have influenced your work?
Horror films have been and still are a constant and rabid obsession. I remember as a very young child being absolutely obsessed with anything I could get my hands on and this passion has never let up. The “imaginary horror soundtrack” idea had always been in my head and when writing The Dead Sea I was listening to a great deal of Jewelled Antler and Fonal-axis material, so I felt this might lend itself to being framed in a more frightening manner. The idea I had was to blend these string-heavy, lo-fi sounds with sounds I was hearing from noise records and also keeping a backbone of classic horror soundtracks (Goblin, Fabio Frizzi et al). I listen to a lot of music, whether it's from my job as a reviewer or from the constant influx of new music I feel compelled to buy, so I'm always being influenced by everything that comes my way.
7. Some of your recent settings (e.g., Heirs of The Fire) extend past the twenty-minute mark. How do you compose and assemble a piece of such magnitude?
In Bocca Al Lupo was possibly the longest piece I conceived as that was written and composed as a single track and split later. I had to write down beforehand exactly what I wanted to do so everything was very, very meticulously crafted and composed, even though it might not sound like that. The piece took a long time to get right and there was little improvisation, but some of the pieces— Heirs of the Fire being one is longer because it is a largely improvised set with live enjoyment in mind—take on a life of their own as they're being played so I simply have to use my intuition when it comes to timing.
8. Such pieces are more like invocations of alternate spirit-filled realms as opposed to conventional songs. A strong religious dimension also has emerged in your recent work, evidenced by the title The Dead Sea, an image of Christ on the cross at your MySpace site, and Heirs of The Fire (your sonic interpretation of a quote from the Koran) a few examples that come to mind. Even more dramatically, In Bocca Al Lupo depicts a bloodied Christ fallen from the cross on its cover, and religious details elsewhere (the Biblical quote, the song titles, the fact that the titles were “chastised and excommunicated” by you). What brought about this new-found obsession with religious-themed content?
Again, religion is a passion I've had for a long, long time. I actually studied it until I was eighteen, and for a time was certain I would study it academically at University (I later opted for art school). As to using it in my work it comes down to confidence, when working with these themes the possibility of pissing people off is high and, as an eighteen-to-nineteen-year-old writing For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights, I wasn't really sure what was and wasn't allowed. I find these themes more interesting now than ever and they have formed a great part of my private study in the last few years, which will always manifest itself in the music. Being art school-educated, I like to think there's a reason, a context if you like, behind a piece of work, and certainly religion of different kinds has formed a context for the pieces I've written. Heirs of the Fire, for instance, was written as I was reading The Koran, The Illuminated was influenced by Alastair Crowley, and In Bocca Al Lupo was a direct response to Christian dogma, art, and architecture.
9. Amazingly Type is five years old and the label has amassed an incredible body of work in that time. How has Type managed to survive in the current marketplace? Is reception to the label and its catalogue as strong in North America as it is in Europe?
Type, I think, represents my unrelenting passion for music, and as a die-hard music fan I think I have a much easier job as a label head. It's not an easy pursuit but I don't want to moan about the doom and gloom about the industry because for me, the sheer excitement of getting a new release out, hearing new music, and getting to be a part of it is always going to be utterly intoxicating. I believe that other fans can sense a bit of this passion and whether they like or dislike something on the label I hope they understand the reasoning behind it! The reception worldwide is great; wherever I go there seems to be someone with a different “favourite release” and this always make me feel happy. As a kid I would follow labels obsessively so it makes me proud to know there are people that feel the same way about Type—here's to another five years.
10. What can we expect from the label by way of releases and artist signings in the days ahead, and what can we expect from you specifically in the year to come?
As usual I am trying to mix classic Type artists with brand new signings and I think this year is a good example of that with records from Sylvain Chauveau, Svarte Greiner, and Mokira making up the first part of the year and City Center, William Fowler Collins, and Peter Broderick moving us into summer. There are also plenty of vinyl-only oddities due which keep people (me included) on their toes. As for my own work, there are the collaborative records on Digitalis I mentioned earlier, and also I've got some more limited releases planned, Transit on Static Caravan, for instance, which is all done using the Pro-One synthesizer. It's not all doom and gloom.