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Brighter Now? Edward Ka-Spel has his doubts about the state of the world but never stops searching for a chink of light out there

Brighter Now?

Edward Ka-Spel has his doubts about the state of the world but never stops searching for a chink of light out there

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: February, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

"I'm not a pessimist. I can't be a pessimist. I have to believe in something. At the moment I'm struggling hard to find that chink of light, but I will find it." Edward Ka-Spel

Since the Legendary Pink Dots formed way back in the summer of 1980, Edward Ka-Spel (and his alter egos Che Banana, D'Archangel, and Mustapha Nuthawun) has been producing music at a truly prolific rate. From early cassette collections such as the Chemical Playschool series, through albums like Brighter Now, The Tower, The Lovers, The Maria Dimension, The Museum of Human Happiness, and many, many, many, others, as composer, singer, lyricist and inspiration for the Legendary Pink Dots (named after a piano with dots painted on the keys found in an early rehearsal room), and through his many solo outings and collaborations, he has hardly paused for breath since he started. Projects often run in parallel, collaborations like The Tear Garden (with Kevin Key from Skinny Puppy), Mimir, and with Amanda Palmer, Steve Stapleton and others, as well as his solo albums and countless LPD recordings and tours all spin round each other in a confusing melange. LPD completists will attempt to collect together his entire output, but trust me, that’s a rabbit hole you will never emerge from. It’s impossible to tie him down, but the common thread is his distinctive child like intonation and love of arpeggios. With (one of) his latest album(s), Tales from the Trenches, part of a trilogy of releases expressing the dark emotions conjured up by the Ukraine invasion and the growing spectre of a new Cold War or worse, Ed has hit another high spot and we said so in no uncertain terms in our review in Outsideleft…

EDWARD KA-SPEL: That was really a very sensitive review. I'm gonna say I really had a big smile about that.

OUTSIDELEFT: Thank you. That album seems even more relevant now than when it was recorded back at the start of the invasion of Ukraine, as we now have more conflicts breaking out than we could ever have imagined then.
E K-S: It was actually the second of a trio of albums that I did at that time. Right after the [Ukraine] war began I recorded that, ‘The Concrete Diaries’, and ‘100 Seconds To Midnight’ but ‘Tales from the Trenches’ is probably the darkest of all three. Those three formed a kind of trilogy. I’m not a political person, I've never been a part of any political party, I never would, and I know I'm not going to change anything by writing about it, but I'll reflect what I think in my art and the music I make. I will say though I am against all wars, period. I respect no politician, they all suck to me. It's in their power to make things better, but they don’t. You know, the older I get, the more of an anarchist I've become! I'm an optimist though. I'm someone who believes in the future. I have to believe in the future, I have children! But, you know, the future seems to get a little bit darker every day right now, and I want that chink of light.

OL: It’s almost like the title of one of your early album releases as LPD, ‘Brighter Now’, was prophetic.
E K-S: Do you know how that title came about? It was basically a poster I had on my wall of a couple holding hands at the top of a mountain. The proportions were completely wrong as the mountain was too small, but it didn’t matter. I thought, that's what I want, that's brighter now! I suppose it is something that I have in me, I carry with me. I'm not a pessimist. I can't be a pessimist. I have to believe in something. At the moment I'm struggling hard to find that chink of light, but I will find it.

OL: You recorded ’Tales from the Trenches’ back in early 2022. It must be hard for you, actually, because you record stuff and it often takes a while to come out, with all the delays with vinyl pressings and so on, but as you're so prolific, you've done half a dozen different albums since then. So going back to listen to these things again must seem like old history really.
E-KS: My wife, Alena, always wants to listen to the stuff that I've done, when I'm always wanting to listen to Faust or Can, so I have no choice! I do find that I rediscover things that way that I had completely forgotten. You know, like The Residents Theory of Obscurity put into practice, except the fact that these things were actually released.

OL: Do you ever listen to your stuff and think “Who is this? Oh yes, it’s me!”? Do you also listen thinking that you would change things if you recorded them again now, or would have done a better or different job of this and that?
E K-S: I think that all the time. It really can be really quite shocking sometimes. I'm horribly self critical. There are always things that sometimes you really regret.

OL: Maybe you shouldn't listen to your own stuff at all then. Just record it and never listen to it again.
E K-S: Maybe. Nobody else notices these things, but I’m a perfectionist, listening for every little glitch. I will always spend some time, like at the moment, writing songs, so there's always a new Dots album bubbling under. I usually disappear somewhere with my iPad, and start composing because I find the iPad a really good compositional tool. I work on maybe three or four songs over the course of a couple of weeks, developing them in parallel with each other. It needs to be done every day so I'll usually fence off a couple of hours every day for recording, and maybe a couple of hours a week for pure improvisation. I have to spend time making the CDRs and stuff like that too, so you know, it's an absolutely full time job, but it's all fun to me.

OL: You have produced so many different releases that way too.
E K-S: I don’t even know how many there are. There is one lovely friend in France who basically buys anything connected with The Legendary Pink Dots. He wants to collect the most obscure things like, say one of us went in to say hi to a band recording in the neighbouring studio or something, he’d have to get that recording. He does it with such good humour though. He knows it’s an obsession, but is able to laugh about it. 

OL: Who puts all this stuff out?
E K-S: We got all our back catalogue back from Play It Again Sam in 2000 so that is available. Soleil Moon has a lot of the old stuff, there is Klanggalerie, Metropolis have been good to us as well, and there are lots of smaller labels. To be honest, all the labels we deal with have been great and we have worked with some of the same labels for quite a few years now, but we don't tie ourselves down to just one label.

OL: So how do the economics work out for you on that?
E K-S: Some of them pay us in copies and Metropolis normally give us an advance before we make them a new album, which will cover the initial expenses of an American tour. Most are small labels though and I still approach it very much on a personal basis. It would never work on a corporate level. That was never a good fit for us. Even in the early ‘90s when we did get a couple of approaches from major labels, it just felt wrong. It just wouldn’t be us because we would be too prolific for them. When you make something, you do want it to be out there, but I could not bear the thought of some label executive with a list saying this needs to be changed and that needs to go. I wouldn't want an outside person deciding stuff like that. No. That’s the beauty of Bandcamp. Its only small scale, you know, a cottage industry putting out CDRs, but that does keep you alive more than anything. The days where you'd have just one label that would pay you an advance and royalties and so on, those days have gone, you will not live from that. You have to really do it yourself. That's why I like CDRs. because you can be so personal with it. I find it's really so much closer to the original cassette culture than even a cassette. I put a lot of love and care into each one, signing it for people and packing it up. CDRs are very much tailored to the number of people who want to buy and listen to it, therefore there's no waste. I hate waste and landfill, you know.

OL: Talking of cassettes, and vinyl too, there is a nostalgia for those formats that is driving a resurgence. You’ve recently put out a two volume cassette only set, The Quarantine Tapes. Are cassettes really a practical format these days, or is it just nostalgia?
E K-S: I tend to think it probably is nostalgia driven. The Quarantine Tapes were made as I really had to fill my time during that strange period. They were all like standalone albums and they could easily have become the next solo album, but it was suggested to me by a label to make a little box of cassettes and they did them in two different sets which are both beautiful. I must admit, I haven't looked into releasing cassettes much. Usually someone comes to me and says they’d really like to put this out on cassette, and I go “Yeah, sure, just send us some copies”. I'm happy with that.

OL: What about touring? That must be quite expensive to do, I guess. Do you get income coming in from that to keep you going?
E K-S: It's not a fortune or anything, but it's just four of us on the road in Europe, and five of us on the road when we tour America. America tends to do a lot better than Europe and it makes us enough to, you know, keep the rain out. You could say it's not amazing, but I'm not looking for anything to be amazing, I just want to be able to live from it, however modestly that might be, and I'm lucky enough to be able to do that.

OL: Would you ever conceive of stopping doing this and retiring?
E K-S: I’m never going to stop! If you look at someone like Marshall Allen from Sun Ra, he is 99 and he's still doing it. I don't think I will last as long as Marshall necessarily, but why would he still be doing this at age 99? Because he loves it. And I do it because I love it. I need to do this. There are no alternatives. What else would I do? Sit around and watch TV? I'm not gonna do that!

OL: Well some people branch out, don't they? I know a lot of musicians who have moved into film and soundtrack work.
E K-S: Yes, but it’s not entirely your own vision is it? It’s working to a brief and I can’t really do that. Collaborations are different as they are a meeting of minds, that’s something different. I’m not against making soundtracks, but you are very much interpreting someone else's vision. I'd be happy to do the odd thing in that direction, but I wouldn't let it take over what I do, it would have to be little interesting side projects here and there. A lot of people have also asked me about writing a book but it’s finding the time to do that. You know, if I wanted to write a novel, it would have to be a really good one. I would need to take about a year off to do that. That'd be something I just couldn’t do.

OL: Some people have compared your vocal style to Syd Barrett and have the impression that your work and that of the Dots are kind of a drug fuelled hippy fantasy world. However, you've never, in my experience of you, been remotely druggy.
E K-S: No, no, not at all. A glass of Prosecco at the weekend is about as far as I go in that direction. Otherwise, it's just blueberries and tumeric! In a way, it's all very personal. I suppose it dwells on certain sorts of fantasies but what comes to me, I feel I need to write. I just let the whole thing flow. I don't even tend to proof read my stuff, really. I write it, and I move on. I don't try and interpret what I'm saying a lot of the time. It comes straight from the heart and sometimes, indeed, it laments the world that I live in, because I do live in the world even if, sometimes, I prefer to float above it. But you know, that's how it is. When the inspiration stops, it means you're bored with the world. I'm not bored with the world. I might be a little appalled at the world right now, and over the years I've been very sad about it, but I'm not bored with it. That inspiration will only stop when I become bored, and I'm not a person who ever gets bored.

OL: Talking of people getting bored, attention spans are very short now and things seem much more ephemeral and dispersed than when you started out. People dip in and out of things quite rapidly and music has become as much of a background distraction or entertainment for a night out than a listening experience. For someone like you, producing albums that are coherent and beg to be listened to as a whole, not in isolation, that must be a real frustration.
E K-S: Music has become just a commodity to a lot of people, that’s true. All music to me is pretty much holy, but in the world of Spotify, and so on, it obviously means a lot less to other people. Most people don't listen to albums much anymore, they listen to playlists and you have to accept that. That's the way the world has developed, you can't change it. Even if it’s not what I would have chosen the path to be, that's where the path lies now. I do think that people who follow the Dots and the stuff I do and other bands like us are exceptions to the Spotify playlist mentality. I don't think our audiences is so young anymore. We have young people in there, but you know, mostly I'd say they're in their 40s and 50s. These people are like friends, it feels such a personal connection. You know you're not giving them an easy pill to swallow, especially as there is so much material out, but it has to be that way, because I am very driven person. I have to make it, I have to do it, I have no choice. You can say “well, you don't have to release everything”, but I do want to put it out there so people can hear it. I want to share it. It's a little bit of an obsession. That's how I've always been.

OL: As music technology moves on, AI has come to the fore. It won’t be long before I can ask an AI Bot to write a song in the style of Ed Ka-Spel and it would do it.
E K-S: It's already been done! Someone tried it and shared the results in a post on Facebook. If you looked at it, you'd say there is nothing wrong with this set of lyrics. It was articulate, everything rhymed, but it lacked a certain essence. That essence was the unpredictability that I can put into something. It would have made a great gothic type song, but here was no humour in it, and you have to have that to get by. That spark was definitely missing. I'm interested in all the developments in technology, but I tried out artificial intelligence mastering on a couple of things and I hated it. I found the results were just unlistenable. You have to retain control of processes like that. Let it be the assistant rather than the professor.

OL: So you don’t fancy doing a collaboration album with an AI musician then?
E K-S: It just doesn't interest me. It would just be an exercise that will take up time, and time is valuable.

OL: Looks like are not going to be able to digitize Ed Ka-Spel as an AI plug in anytime soon then, and amen to that! 

Thanks for your time today and I look forward to the next batch of releases coming our way soon!

Essential information:
Order the ‘Tales from the Trenches’ album from Fourth Dimension here
Buy other releases from Ed Ka-Spel and the Legendary Pink Dots here, with the latest solo material being ‘Tease, Seize, Apply’.
Image Credit: Alena Boykova
Edward Ka-Spel at Outsideleft here→

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.

about Alan Rider »»

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