Interview: PAUL WALLFISCH / Intervju s Paulom Wallfischem

foto: Philip Lethen There is a quote on the Vs Truth Fish CD by Miltom Mayer: »The questions that can be answered are not worth asking«. Is this interview possible at all?
Milton Mayer, yes. A partially self-taught philosopher. He was a friend of my father's. He wrote several books and also sued the United States government several times on issues that I don't quite remember, but in any case he was a larger-than-life figure from my childhood. Regarding this or any interview, I'd say the shopping list approach is valid. Sometimes you just gotta ask if there're eggs in the fridge and bread in the box. communication, you know. The basic facts and a bit of nourishment. Not questions in an elemental sense, maybe, but definitely helpful for survival nonetheless. Coincidentally, we were in Frankfurt last week and I saw a huge poster with the following quote: "A good question should avoid an answer at all costs." This was credited to someone named Dora Garcia and the "Golden Sentence series, 2001-2007" Now In all probability dora never saw the Mayer quote or even heard of him - let alone "Botanica vs the Truth Fish." On the other never know. In any case, I find it outrageous to take personal credit for this line - such a basic statement as to be really a philosophical given - a building block.

Your main instrumet is keyboard. Guitar players and drummers usually learn to play themselves, while piano players should go to the school? Am I right?
Yeah, my main instrument is keyboard - piano really - and I did take piano lessons for years when I was a child. And learned how to read and some theory.
But in Botanica the 2 guys who are actually by far the most trained "musicians" are John, our guitarist and Keith, our drummer. Both of them can read and have done a lot of different kinds of music - classical, jazz etc. Keith was the timpanist and percussionist of the Porto, (Portugal), Symphony Orchestra when he was 21.
I know lots of keyboard players - especially in electronic music - who are untrained. And I know lots of highly trained drummers and guitarists. Of coursed there was also Jim Osterberg, (Iggy Pop), who definitely didn't go to school to learn drums. I think the more you know about the instrument you play, the better. Then again, it depends what you want to do. Most pop and rock music is at a relatively primitive harmonic, melodic and rhythmic level. We're talking literally decades if not centuries behind modern "classical" music. And some of this music is great - you don't have to reinvent the wheel to make amazing music. But if you DO want to reinvent the wheel, you gotta learn how the wheel was made in the first place. Now me - and a lot of the people I admire - come from the punk, (for lack of a better word), side of things and I'm always sympathetic to the raw and dangerous; to anything more provocative and gritty. I think you have to kick people in the ass - first just to make them pay attention and 2nd, because everyone's so fucking conservative and scared. Now certainly a lot of formal musical education can instill a certain conservativeness that breeds boring and bad music, but the people who fall for such corruption would probably create crappy music with or without an education.

Do you remember the moment when you realized you'd be dedicated to music?
I come from a family of musicians and I've always been surrounded by music, I started playing piano around the same time I learned how to read. That said, however, I stopped for a while when I was around 12 and got into photography and sports. But a bit later I discovered the Sex Pistols and it was the whole punk and then New Wave thing and I was the guy who could play some keyboards, so I got asked to be in the band...I stole a Fender Rhodes keyboard from my high school and brought it back the day my band played for a dance. Kept it for 2 years. I don't think anybody noticed. The first "electric" concert I ever went to was Tom Waits and it was unforgettable. Then soon after that I saw The Kinks and watching Ray Davies sing "Oh Demon Alcohol" and "Celluloid Heros" made me cry and that was really the moment when I thought: "That's exactly what I want to do - I want to be him." To me, the Kinks were making chamber music - just like what I was used to hearing growing up. Only the volume was a lot louder! Seeing Rick Nielson's control over the audience at a Cheap Trick show around the same time also left a big impression on me. Those 3 concerts are still probably the most important live shows ever for me. With 4th place going to Suicide. I got to scream in Alan Vega's mic in 1980! And thenn 21 years later we played with them at the Cooler in New York.

You have always been involved in other's people groups, you still is (Little Annie), but since you established your own band, is Botanica your main concern?
Yes. But I'm glad you mention Little Annie - she's an incredibly special performer and the duo we have together is unique. In October Durtro/Jnana Records is putting out an album of 9 covers and one original with "Little Annie featuring Paul Wallfisch". The title is "When Good Things Happen to Bad Pianos''. Great stuff... I'm also planning a solo album with some special guests as well...
But Botanica is the world's greatest band! I like Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Grinderman, Neko Case, Calexico - lots of bands I admire a lot. But I don't think any one of those has the musical or lyrical depth or freshness that we have. Not all at once...not to mention that they can't touch us live. It's a real privilege for me to play and sing in Botanica. I do think that even though it's my baby, it's become bigger and better than me. It is a real struggle, though, on a a commercial level, so we all have to do other things to try and survive as musicians.

foto: Reinhard Naekel I guess you would like to offer the whole »package«, that Botanica concert is more than just presentation of your music live.
Absolutely. The shows have really evolved and it really is a show now. We really try to share the space with the audience and make it as interactive as possible. So many people are good - make good music with good bands, but everything is so fucking timid. I saw Feist recently - who I like - but it was so boring. (Christian, our bass player, absolutely loves her). Also with Botanica it's not just about me at all - it's 4 people creating something together. John contributes a lot to the writing of the music. Sometimes I'd love the freedom again to do exactly what I want, but more often than not, I'm aware that Botanica is a more powerful entity working together.

It's interesting that most bands from New York (and America in general) get better response in Europe than home. Could you explain this?
Well, not most bands, but probably most good bands! Nope - no explanation. What would you say? Maybe we're just a bunch of fucking idiots across the ocean!

On the new Botanica record, The Magnetic Waltz, there is a lot of European influences, not just jewish music as always has been, but also cabaret, la valse… When did you become interested in European music, back in New York as it has always been the melting pot of different cultues, or lately as you tour a lot across Europe.
Actually to me there was never any question of there being a "Jewish" influence or anything like that. Cabaret - yes maybe - or some form of more elegant and provocative sound and style from another era. One of the main reasons I started playing with Tod was that in our first phone conversation he said that his favorite song was "Is That All There Is" (Peggy Lee - written by Lieber & Stoller) - and I couldn't agree more! I was introduced to Jacques Brel, (and Damia and Mistinguette and Jacques Dutronc etc) when I lived in Paris - and the cabaret/bordello vibe has always attracted me. But there was never the conscious effort that I think for instance Tod put into making music that sounded Balkan or gypsy. It's just part of who I am. The Mediterranean - as a world unto it's own - as in the old empires from Persia to Rome is where I come from. (And where I still feel at home). I'm a European.

The title song is sung in excellent French!?
Yes - the best French song of the decade - HA! I lived in Paris for 6 years. My french is pretty good. The language really lends itself to wordplay. I didn't want to make it French and our label said there was no way we could have a french album title - (so it's english for the album), but John, who wrote the music, brought it into rehearsal and said that I absolutely had to write words in french. About 1990, Boris Bergman, who writes all of Bashung's lyrics and has collaborated a lot with Roman Polanski, was put together with me by some major record label to try to adapt some of my songs and make French hits. I hated the whole thing! He's a wonderfully charming and clever man, but it didn't work at all and I never tried writing in french again. Until now. I'm surprisingly happty with the result! John was right.

New York becomes more and more expansive. We know some clubs are closing down, musicians are moving out because they can't pay the rent, but now the same is happening to Brooklyn I heard. If it's true, where's the next destination for the creative musicians?
A raft in the river! Berlin?
Brooklyn - or let's say the Williamsburg section - a very tiny part of Brooklyn, has been the "hip" place to be for 8 years now. And as I write, things are already moving back to Manhattan a bit, because 90% of the "new" Williamsburg is 18 year old rich-kid students, trendy poseurs and wannabe hipsters without a clue. Everybody is "too cool for school." I don't want to say Williamsburg sucks, because that's too easy as well. Of course there are a few good clubs and bars and galleries there, and some wonderfully creative people, but basically, I don't like going there and you couldn't pay me to live there. Christian just moved back to Manhattan after 7 years in Williamsburg. I live in Harlem on a street with a Methodist, African church; a catholic church and the Russian orthodox church from the 19th century. There's a beautiful, huge cemetary across the street. It's quiet at night. Certainly the neighborhood is changing here - getting a bit richer - maybe less drugs being sold - but it's still 80% Dominican. I love it up here. Around the corner from me is the Dance Theater of Harlem. The other corner is the Hispanic History museum where they have the 2nd largest collection of Goya's in North America! And nobody ever goes there!

In New York there have always been small, but influencial scenes, CBGB, no wave, noise, hip-hop, down-town jazz. Is there on the outskirt of town any sings of the new thing that is coming?
Omaha, Nebraska! Saddle Creek records...Ha! That's over too. I think the most vibrant scene in North America now is in Canada. Especially Montreal. The whole scene around Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene is quite impressive. Well, at least relative to other things. I just saw Owen Pallet solo at a festival in Germany where we also played and it was brilliant! (The Arcade Fire violinist). And every minute it seems somebody is coming out of Canada. I also love the Dresden Dolls and they've certainly spawned a lot of imitators. But to say there's a scene in New York is just bullshit. I think it's the nature of the ease of modern technology. Everyone's in their own little bubble doing their thing. And everybody is in competition with everybody else. There is a certain vestige of a quieter, but still very intense more mature music - with punk roots - but made by people wise enough to know they can't STILL be The Sex Pistols. That would be Botanica, Edison Woods, Bee & Flower (who moved to Berlin), Morex Optimo, World Inferno/Freindship Society, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, Nervous Cabaret, Elysian Fields, Joan As Policewoman, (who I love!) etc...but it's not a scene. But there is a certian nostalgia for the decadence, danger AND sweetness so hard to find nowadays.

It seems every Botanica record have a loose concept behind, if it is so, what's the idea behind The Magnetic Waltz? Some lyrics are pretty nostalgic, you deal with leaving and memory a lot.
Over the course of time it takes write and record an album, a certain coherence develops - or so one would hope. It's not necessarily a concept worked out in advance, but there are the happy synergies of creation that lead all in a certain direction. Even if that be chaos - it'll be the chaos of that moment! For Berlin Hi-Fi, I hung a picture of Hedy Lamarr up in the studio for the entire recording. She was our muse. That album is something of a travelogue - and maybe even more of an L.A. album than a German one. Takes a while to digest places and things. It's also quite a romantic album. For The Magnetic Waltz, I wanted very specifically to put forward an atheist point of view - and to do so in a particularly spiritual way. I firmly believe the survival of the human race, (not that it's maybe that important), but our survival depends on the absolute rejection of the monotheistic, creator driven religions of "the book" that are still driving the behavior of much of humanity. It is a tragically limiting and dangerous situation that we have to overcome. An independent awareness of beauty; a sense of self-responsibility, direction; and a reduction on fear - (fear of everything, particularly your neighbor...), is essential to our survival. I realize it ain't gonna be easy, but I want to do my part. It's not enough to say - "oh, I respect all religions", or "I'm an agnostic" etc...That's just dangerous bullshit. I wear a faith ring. I have faith in myself and what I'm doing. I have faith in my band and my friends. I look out the window and see a magnificent tree and the way the sunlight filters through the leaves, and I have faith in that beauty to sustain me. It's as simple as that. I also wear a ring that says "A victory a day keeps suicide away." Could be anything...maybe finding a good parking place for our van! religion teaches you that the here and now - the moments we live - are not important, but existence itself - and of course "the afterlife" - is VERY important. This is completely backwards! Our existence is of absolutely no importance whatsoever, but each and every second of our lives is of the utmost importance! To this end, an awareness of time - sometimes expressed nostalgically - after all, we are humans - is something to be dealt with. I am something of a sentimental person. I try to keep it in check. All of this is in these songs. Have I answered the question at all?!

Botanica Vs Truth Fish I think that Vs Truth Fish was the most directly political record by Botanica. Is this consequence of the event on September the 11th? There are also some religious issues running through your records. Again Neon Jesus is the most direct, but now here is Matter Of Taste and Faith… What bothers you in that sense? Do you personally feel the pressure of certain religion?
Yes. (How about that for a short answer!) "The Truth Fish" and "The Flag" are as directly political songs as you will ever see me write. I was in New York for 9/11. My wife was almost killed - she was across the street and saw the 2nd plane hit. (I'm inclined to think, by the way, it was at least partly allowed to happen by our "government', but that's not really the point.) Those fundamentalist Muslim fuckers are just as bad as our fundamentalist Christian fuckers over here - and more dangerous, because they're about 700 years behind in social development - in other words they're still SINCERE about their idiotic beliefs! (Bush and co. are all a bunch of hypcrites - though, of course, we have a large share of midieval believers here as well...) By the way, "Faith" on the new album is about how Bush and Bin Laden are the same person.
There was a huge, neon billboard of Jesus off Wilshire Bvd. when I lived in L.A. Yes, I feel the danger, pressure, stupidity, tyranny of "religion". (As shouold the whole world). Nobody is gonna judge us except ourselves! I highly recommend reading "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.

Some songs on the new records evoke the sound of the seventies, With You brings to mind ELO, Age Of Irony even Chris Rea. Are those the echoes of music you listened to as a teenager?
NO! (Although ELO is ok - I kinda like it more now! Roy Wood's band The Move, before ELO was a little more fun, actually) Chris rea, I'm only vaguely aware of who that is and I think I hate it. As a teenager I passed through a 5 minute phase of stadium/prog rock and then I heard The Ramones and The Real Kids and it was all over. My favorite bands then were XTC, Talking Heads, Television, The Slits, Costello, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, Clash, David Johansen, The Kinks (as I mentioned above), Lou Reed, and always Dylan, who is the only genius in the whole history of electric "pop" music and the greatest American poet of the 20th century.

For many years you play in the club circuit, your status I guess is still »underground«. Are you satisfied with that position or do you think you deserve better exposure? Or let me ask differently, would you sign to major label and do the things they want you to do?
I'm not satisfied at all. The underground thing is a lot of horseshit. Indie jail. I couldn't give a fuck about any of that. I want as many people as possible to hear our music. Of course I'd sign to a major label. Then again, in a couple years, there probably won't be CDs any more and the "label" will be a totally different thing. Very few artists can afford the money and time to promote themselves. Whatever you call that thing that helps you - you need it. With Firewater, for example, the major label experience sucked, but there were still advantages as well. No situation is perfect. bottom line is, of course I'll do this til I drop dead whether anybody listens or not - but I think anybody tells you they don't care how many people listen, they're being totally dishonest. And besides that, it's a job. It's an incredible job! An amazingly privileged job! I'm always so grateful to be able to go to a town and have people come and listen to our music. It's the most wonderful thing and such a precious and rare opportunity. I'm well aware of that. But it's still just a job and I have to make a living. However I can.

(interview was done for the slovenian magazine Muska, published in the september-oktober 2007 issue)

Janez Golič