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An interview with Edward Ka-Spel

Along the Dotted Line…

12th December 1999



The Legendary Pink Dots are a phenomenon, producing a seemingly endless stream of deeply intense records and genuinely spellbinding live shows for nearly twenty years, initially as a London-based group and for more than a decade now from their Nijmegen base in The Netherlands. While former days on mammoth independent label Play It Again Sam in Belgium produced widespread distribution for a series of classic albums, it also had all the negative aspects of association with the near-majors; the linking of sales to popularity and promotion to potential Indie chart success. For a while the band were in small-scale, own-label limbo, before the saving graces of Brainwashed‘s excellent LPD internet site and the support of first Staalplaat in Amsterdam, and then Soleilmoon in Portland, Oregon restored and replenished their status as one of the most strangely neglected of Britain and Europe’s true musical underground.

With the benefit of Soleilmoon’s re-issue and new-release schedules for not only the Pink Dots but the solo releases by co-founders Edward Ka-Spel and Phil Knight (AKA The Silverman), and audiences drawn in by the band’s ongoing collaborative work with Skinny Puppy/Download as The Tear Garden as well as tangentially from the playful dubs of bassist/drummer Ryan Moore‘s one-man old-school psychedelic Reggae sound system Twilight Circus (also with an ever-expanding back-catalogue and new album Dub Plate Selection 2), things are looking up for this most apocalyptic of bands in 1999. Freq caught up with Edward Ka-Spel at The Underworld in London, where the Dots played their second show of the year as the penultimate gig on their European tour, a significant event considering their absence from the country for six years. For this tour, the remainder of the line-up was completed by reedsman Nils van Hoornblower and guitarist Martijn de Kleer, with the crucial (but frequently overlooked) engineering skills of Frank Verschuuren on the mixing desk.

FREQ: The Dots remain underground in Britain particularly, but are perceptions different elsewhere? How does it appear to you?

Edward Ka-Spel: The thing about the Dots is that it’s an underground band everywhere, even in the countries where we do well, like America and Poland. It’s just a much bigger underground band in those kind of countries – there seems to be much more fanaticism in those countries, with people who turn up in some numbers – I don’t why that is, it’s probably something to do with the whole way that music is listened to, and exposure there. Oddly, since it’s been impossible to buy our records in Britain, our popularity has gone up! We don’t know why that is, but it seems to be a lot to do with the Internet. Things are very fragmented, but it makes not a lot of sense. To be honest, it’s much worse for us in the country we now live in, Holland. That’s the worst of all; we get one show a year, and always in the same place. A hundred people show up, the whole media ignores it, and that’s it, we go on our way. It’s kind of dry.

FREQ: Was it always that way in Holland for example?

EK-S: No, for a period we were really rather popular there. In the middle of the Eighties we played a couple of big festivals, we were on the radio a lot, and all the bigger journalists seemed to chase after us. We really thought “Wow! We’ve made it in this country” – it was one of the big reasons to move to Holland, but it was a bit like Andy Warhol’s thing where you’re famous for fifteen minutes, and then they move on.

FREQ: Would you be tempted to come back to live in England?

EK-S: I’ve got family in Holland, but in some ways I’m very dissatisfied with the place. There is something very odd about it – I don’t feel completely in my place there. But then again, I don’t think there’s anywhere on the planet I feel completely in my place.

FREQ: Is that where the Dots’ music comes from – a placeless feeling?

EK-S: Right – it’s been about not really belonging; almost not particularly relating to the human race. It’s a perspective other people do seem to connect to – there are a lot of satellites floating around on the surface of this planet, and somehow we seem to get through to those. The internet really changed the whole position of the band. You know, we used to go to a place like Sweden, and we’d have about ten people on the door, or twenty people here or there. Now we can go there and we get a couple of hundred at every show – yet everything we do is harder to get – we are more elusive than we were, and again it’s the internet – which is a very very powerful medium.

FREQ: Do you associate the problems you had with Play It Again Sam with the cause of the difficulty in getting Dots records?

EK-S: They were a lot to do with it in that there were two records which did really, really well for the Pink Dots, The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse and The Maria Dimension, which sold about 30,000 copies, but Shadow Weaver,the record after The Maria Dimension, Play It Again Sam did not like. They thought it was very uncommercial, they didn’t do anything with it – they almost buried it – and that became our fate from then on with PIAS. They never really put much effort into us at all. They’d kind of thought “Well, they have a cult following, most people will buy it anyway” – and the view from then on was that that cult following was still there but getting older and getting smaller – but this wasn’t strictly true. In America we actually had a very young crowd, and that was why it did indeed slip for us in Europe, but the emphasis simply changed – Soleilmoon just believed in us straight away, really treated us like no other band they’d ever had on the label – you know, they promote us quite heavily, all with consultation, there’s a little bit of a plan involved, and we’ve swung along with (label manager) Charles Pownes‘ ideas, and it’s proved to be really worthwhile.

FREQ: The PIAS records are going to be re-released through Soleilmoon next year – how do you feel about those reissues?

EK-S: Well, it’s very hard to get any of them – it’s really to keep them alive – I believe in those old records. Some I believe in more than others, but I think they should be there. Because the Pink Dots isn’t one of those bands where it’s just the new album, off it goes and the back catalogue is dead. It’s all part of an ongoing present, really – that stuff is still relevant.

FREQ: Word of mouth on those records and on the very existence of the Dots seem to have been a major factor in keeping you going – it’s not like bands who are popular because the media say they should be.

EK-S: No, in some ways we’ve been one of the most ignored bands of these times. Considering what we’ve done and where we’ve been, it’s an odd staus that we have. Why have The Wire magazine always completely ignored the band? I get the feeling they hate us; they wouldn’t be the first magazine of that type to literally hate us – I don’t know why. We seem to garner that kind of response, that people either love or hate us, and nothing in between.

FREQ: One listing for this show at the Underworld described the Dots as “surviving members of Eighties Industrialists…”

EK-S: I mean, it’s completely off the rails – it’s obvious they have no idea what they’re talking about

FREQ: If you had to put yourself into any category, what would your preferred one be?

EK-S: There just is none. I’m glad – I think people are too quick to pigeonhole, which is in a way some magazine’s whole trip: if you can’t pigeonhole it, they don’t want to know about it. We don’t move in this boy’s club of chin-stroking, which is actually an area I’m really very allergic to – it’s not a trainspotter’s band.

FREQ: It does seem to be a very British attitude to take a band and analyse it to death

EK-S: No, it’s quite global!

FREQ: On the actual process of the music-making, how do arrive at a song? Do you have any particular process that you’ve fallen into over the years, or is there a more conscious design?

EK-S: It comes from all angles really. A lot of the basic ideas either come from myself or Ryan, and we would tend to improvise over these ideas, and develop it from there. If I’ve got really incredibly firm ideas about a piece then normally I would claim it for a solo record.

FREQ: There’s definitel a different feel to your solo records that is identifiable once you get beyond the sound of your voice, which is obviously essential to both; but do you feel that your position within the Dots is over-emphasised as being “your” band…?

EK-S:Yeah, I’d say it was. It’s a very commited bunch of people really. In some ways, like I know Ryan sometimes gets sad that he’s been in the band for ten years and doesn’t get the recognition that he absolutely really deserves. He does deserve more, a lot more. Phil, he’s been there since the start, he’s written a lot of the really classic tunes for the Pink Dots. It’s not really fair – OK, I’m the face of the Pink Dots and the lyricist of the Pink Dots, so there’s an acceptance that that’s also part of it…

FREQ: That seems to be a general thing with most bands that have lyrics, that you get the person who sings them seen as the spokesman – but it’s also interesting to ssee that the solo recordings are very different to the Dots’, but also you can feel the same atmosphere coming from them, from The Silverman recordings, and from the Twilight Circus records too.

EK-S: Sure, they’re very individual projects, and I really like them both, I mean they’re great. There’s a new solo album of mine on the way, a very dark record, it’s an uncomfortable record. Very musical, very beautiful, but it’s actually a lot darker than The Blue Room.

FREQ: There’s still a lot of optimism underpinning your lyrics.

EK-S: Yeah, I don’t know why, well, I do know why, it’s to do with maybe a year I had, it’s all tended to find it’s way into this new project.

FREQ: The source of the lyrics seems very personal, and encoded as well, in layers and layers and layers, which is part of the fascination as you listen to a Dots song or one of your solo songs, and maybe five years later finally get some perspective on it which is different to what might have been there the first time you hear it.

EK-S: You need a heavy drill! It’s usually straight, I don’t think about it – it’s like automatic writing. You can read it later and you think “Oh my god, did I write that!” I know exactly what I mean, and sometimes it’s like “Ooh, my god!” somebody else who’s involved in this song is reading this – I’ve had that; ex-girlfriends who’ve said “I really have to listen to that song!”

FREQ: Has that caused you any personal problems?

EK-S: Yes, it’s not without them…

FREQ: It’s very exposed and raw

EK-S: It’s painful, it can be painful.

FREQ: Is it a form of catharsis?

EK-S: Yeah, it’s the only way to let it go, to let everything which gets bottled up out. If there wasn’t that escape route, that valve to let all that kind of thing out, I don’t know where I’d be.

FREQ: The persona that you project on stage and on record, it’s quite an intense one; was one that you arrived at consciously?

EK-S: It’s just part of me. It’s caused me a lot of trouble in my life really. Often relationships begin, and your better half wants you to be like you are on stage all the time, which you can’t be yet it’s undoubtedly part of you. I don’t even know how to talk about it really, it’s part of my personality, something that needs to scream. It can can make you laugh as wll, but it’s wiser just to preserve itself to the stage, or intense moments offstage. I don’t know, I’m English, I have the traditional British reserve. It upsets a lot of people, that stage persona – I’ve had more than one reviewer describe me as the most arrogant person ever to walk on a stage.

FREQ: It doesn’t really come across as arrogant, it’s more revelatory, showing an aspect of the human condition which is quite often hidden or for that matter restricted…

EK-S: Yeah, it’s letting it out. It’s absolutely serious what I’m doing – I don’t want to push anyone over the edge, but I’d certainly like to see them stand on that edge, becoming aware of that edge, and looking down over that precipice and seing what’s going on down there. I would hope that it’s life-changing.

FREQ: How do you deal with that role? Do you think it was something that just comes to you?

EK-S: It was never thought out, it was never planned, I don’t even know if if it’s for positive reasons or negative reasons. I suppose it’s like getting every part of me out there, showing it all. You know, almost like standing naked. I believe that evry answer to everything lives within one human being and it’s just a case of looking, of searching and searching through all the dark parts. If that’s what I can inspire, if that’s what I’m doing, and it’s very much something for myself as well, then I’m successful. As I said earlier, we’re not a trainspotter’s band, we’re not the sort of band where it’s a matter of that cassette came out then, and collecting everything – every band has that, the collector. What is nice with the Pink Dots is that we seem to have a really very mixed audience. A mix of the type of people who come, agewise, appearancewise, very split between male and female. in America I’d say we even had a larger percentage of female rather than males, which pleases me as females tend to be more sensitive people.

FREQ: Where do you see the Dots going? Is there a master plan?

EK-S: There never has been really… it just is. it’s as intense as it’s ever been, and that’s why it’s a shock to be described as “surviving members” of The Dots , it’s a ridiculously absurd thing to say. I mean he whole core of this band has been there ten years, Martijn has been there almost ten years, though he was out for a little time, that’s twice as long as most bands last.

FREQ: Is Martijn back as a permanent member of the Dots now?

EK-S: We’re not sure yet, Edwin had a very bad time and we’re giving him the space to see how it goes, what he wants.

FREQ: Wiil you be doing anything specific to mark or acknowledge the existence of the Millennium?

EK-S: Probably not. There was a vague plan to play at this nuclear power plant in Germany which never opened. The building cost of zillions of Deutschmarks and never operated and there was originally a little plan to play a show there, but it’s faded into nothing. Bit of a shame. There was also a vague plan to play Jerusalem, but it didn’t work out. Israel is a place we must go back to. We got a lot of people from Israel asking us back. They were fantastic, which was a shock. It’s the only place where there have been people waiting at the airport for us to arrive! Great people, they really liked us.

FREQ: You do inspire fanaticism.

EK-S: Yeah, sure. Sometimes a little over the top. There was one show where someone was arrested carrying a gun in LA, where else? About three shows ago at The Roxy. I love The Roxy, they treat us great, but it could only happen in LA! I’ve had strange people in Texas following me around saying “You have the key to The Tower.” We get some dangers – I’ve had people jumping onto the stage and pushing me too, and yelling the words of “The Fool” at me.

FREQ: What do you think about when that happens?

EK-S: Part of me expects it. You can’t do what you do without having that element there. It’s not an act, it’s not really a show. you know it’s for real, and so you’re gonna get very real reactions in your turn. You can’t be shocked or appalled when that happens. I don’t feel comfortable with it always, but you know, that’s the path I chose. It’s how it’s got to be – at least I know that it’s getting through. It’s the only way

FREQ: It’s often been said that there’s a cultish aspect beyond that of being a cult band to the Dots, as when you used the name The Prophet Qa’spel in previous years – if you weren’t doing this would you be a cult leader leading people through to a Millennial apocalypse?

EK-S: That’s quite a hard one! No, no, these sort of people interest me for sure, but usually i’m someone who reallly dislikes anyhting that’s that organised, you know, I mean the whole message is really look inside yourself, see what you find. I want the world to be a better place, not a worse place. Not being another nutcase leading a flock up a mountain – I don’t think anything’s particularly going to change anyway. you know it’s not really heading into anything worthwhile for this world that we live in.

FREQ: Your efforts seem to make a difference for some people.

EK-S: Sure, I mean this is my own way. The planet is changing absolutely, and I think if you take a holistic view of recent events, more and more I abolutely believe in this hand that basically pulls everything along, and shapes it. We have to go, no matter what happens, along with this. Call it destiny; and I believe it happens very much at a personal level as much as on the global level. I think it’s immovable, but I don’t think it’s negative. It is positive; how the planet is now is how it has to be now. It’ll be a completely different place within ten years, but now it has to be trauma before it’s solace. We need this chaos now – we need it to learn. I believe in self-awareness, but I also believe in destiny. Sometimes it’s easier than other times, but at this time I’m in personal chaos at the moment. Sometimes you want things to be clear, to have some kind of order, but that’s impossible right now. I tend to treat myself a little bit like a leaf on the wind…

FREQ: Just being part of the programme?

EK-S: Yes, we’re players on the board.

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