Legendary Pink Dots
Interview with Edward Ka-SpelFor the better part of the past two decades, Edward Ka-Spel and the Legendary Pink Dots have been infamous for their massive and diverse output. With over 40 releases not including side projects, even frontman and lead visionary Ka-Spel admits that he's even lost count of everything that the Dots have done. It's not too bad coming from a band who has had more than three dozen different members, some of which have lasted less than a month with the Dots. I managed to catch up with a somewhat tired Ka-Spel while he was on a rare rest day in Detroit.
by Andrew Grypa (November 1998)
PSF: How is the tour going?
EK-S: Pretty well so far. We had a decent show last night with a decent sized crowd. Montreal was my favorite so far. We did this three hour thing. We had a crowd that really liked it there. It's very worthwhile when it all works out.
PSF: Do you prefer playing in America more than back in Holland?
EK-S: Much more actually -- there's more excitement about the band. America is quite a fascinating culture to us Europeans, which is always in the case of the grass being greener on the other side, as they say. We've slummed around Europe for many, many years and America, I think it's our sixth tour, still retains its fascination.
PSF: I heard you have trouble getting a visa a few years ago because of a lack of artistic merit. What was the case with that?
EK-S: It's more involved than that. Back in 1990, there were a lot of problems with unions. The record company we had at the time, Wax Trax, wasn't a member of the artist union over here. Of course we weren't members of the artist union over here because we're not Americans. And that was basically what it was all about. There was quite a lot of press about it at the time which mainly did the trick because the next year we had no trouble whatsoever getting our visas. Now it's history.
It was a bit strange because we actually toured America the year before. We had artistic merit in 1989, but we didn't have any in 1990. It was very peculiar.
PSF: Your cover of Neu!'s "Super" on the Homage to Neu tribute album was probably the most innovative on the album. How did that track come about?
EK-S: We decided quite a while back that we didn't want anything to do with these tribute albums. We're just not interested in that. Cleopatra Records said they were doing a tribute to Neu!, and Neu! was a bit close to our hearts. They're a wonderful band from the '70's who, in some ways, changed music. And I think most of us have got all the albums and had played them a lot. And then, we thought 'Maybe we should be more flexible on our policy here,' since Neu was very special to us.
PSF: How did you approach doing the cover?
EK-S: The challenge there was, how do you match the original? I don't think anything can match the original. What we did was play with great enthusiasm. I think it's a nice listen and I don't think Neu! would be too upset by what we did. At least I hope not.
PSF: Do you listen to a lot of German rock?
EK-S: Oh, quite a lot. It was the first music I ever got into, bands like Can. I think Can are finally getting the recognition they deserve. vEverybody name drops Can these days. That's fair enough. They are that influential. They were that good. I'm damn sure 20 years from now, there'll still be bands that still name-dropping Can. They're monumental.
PSF: Do you think the Pink Dots have influenced any bands?
EK-S: We seem to be. We've heard from a lot of different bands -- mostly slightly known ones -- that we apparently influenced. (laughs) I don't know what to say about it -- it's quite a compliment. We're not the only band in the universe. I think it's great there's other bands that like to take elements of what we do and incorporate it in their own music, and that's great.
PSF: How do you guys manage to be so damn prolific. You yourself have put out at least 40 albums including side projects, how do you manage to keep up with all of that?
EK-S: It's a full time mission in a way. We're always busy with it. We're busy almost every day of the year with something to do with the Pink Dots or related to the Pink Dots. It's what keeps us alive. We put all of these albums together, put all of these tours together and make a living from it. It's a perpetual motion, I think. Plus, I personally still love it after all these years. What else would I do now?
PSF: So you have found a way to make a living being a musician then?
EK-S: It's not easy to make a living, you can't really look too far ahead. If things go well, or go moderately well, it'll pay the bills and it'll pay the rent and not leave too much opportunity for luxuries or anything like that.
I live in a very tiny, little house and have a car that cost $200 which breaks down. (laughs) It's kind of at that level really. Technically, poverty is always around the corner, but we always manage to fend it off just by working like hell. And it suits me. There's a lot worse ways to make a living.
PSF: Do you find that you still have the same drive you did when you started making music?
E-KS: Yeah, it's pretty intense. Whether its the same kind of drive is not certain, but the passion and the will and the relentless kind of obsession doesn't go away. It's that I have to do it.
PSF: What do you do in particular to keep it going?
E-KS: You got something inside, something that I would not know how to explain why it's there or what the nature of it is. It just is there, the need to create and explore.
PSF: Have you found it hard to translate what you do in the studio into the live performance?
EK-S: It tends to be very different.
PSF: How so?
EK-S: It's rather like the difference between a Polaroid photo and a three-dimensional animation. Live takes what's in the studio and expands it and expands it massively. Some tracks like the ones on Nemesis Online mutate while we're on the road. Sometimes, it mutates it to such a degree, it's almost hard to recognize by the end of the tour. It's a little bit like what happened with the accompanying CD to Nemesis Online, the Pre-Millennial Single. On it, there are three pieces we recorded back in the beginning of the '90s and as we played them live more and more, they began to mutate completely out of the boundaries of what we set them when we recorded them. So we decided it was time to re-record them. One track had even changed its lyrics completely.
I really enjoy having these open songs where the lyrics just change from night to night, depending on what mood I'm in. It sets me free from the chains of my own words. It sets an intense challenge for me and that challenge always has to be there. To go on stage, press buttons and play like the CD would negate the reason for playing live. It has to be more than that, it has to expand essentially every time you play. I'm not saying we achieve that. You know, there are lesser shows, there are better shows, but the intent is to go further every night.
PSF: When you make albums, do you have a certain vision or concept you go into it with?
EK-S: It tends to form itself during the creation of the album. It certainly starts that way, we start off with some live informal jams and improvisations. Different members will have different ideas to build upon as well. Anybody can write and if it feels like the right thing, it will be worked upon and developed.
PSF: What was the idea behind Nemesis Online? It seems rather dark.
EK-S: It reflects the time we live in -- a pretty strange time. I always have this slightly uneasy feeling that we're right on the verge of some kind of global collapse. I'm not talking about the end of the world or anything like that, but there's a lot of signs there that maybe hint the whole structure of the world as we know it is going to change.
This millennium bug is a fascinating one for me. What could happen if the fear grows about what happens with the computers on the first of January 2000? If the fear grows, you're going to have a scenario where massive masses of people just taking all their money out of the banks and things like that. Then that collapse will surely happen next year. Then we will have a different world but everything is still going to be there. We will have to deal with it and look at it in a new way and maybe the growth or decay from this because such a scenario will mean an excess will be something the past.
PSF: How do you see yourself living in this new world?
EK-S: I don't know. I'll have to find out if and when it occurs. I like to think I'm prepared for it. I certainly spend a lot of time thinking about it, but when you wake up and face the reality of it, that's the real test.
PSF: Magic appears to play an important role in your music. Why is that?
E-KS: Magic is part of the world we live in. It has always been. I'm a great believer in the reality of infinity -- infinite time, infinite dimension, infinite number of possibilities. Magic is the center for all of this. Magic is neutral, it depends on how you choose to use it. You can use it for the wrong reasons, or for the right ones. I'm not a practicer, I'm a respecter.
PSF: Do all your albums build on a progression?
EK-S: We put it in perspective. Everything that is released, even the unrelated projects are part of this unwinding tapestry. It's hard for me to say whether it's a progression or whether itself or something else. It's just part of that tapestry. We're actually already busy with the next album now. Songs are now being written out of the air. One song we've been playing live has just come together, a couple of weeks ago we weren't intending to write a song, but it just happened. We're already looking forward.
PSF: What do you think of the current music scene?
E-KS: There's a lot of bands and artists around today that I think are wonderful. It's a great time for music. It really goes from one end of the spectrum to the other in popularity. Bands like Radiohead are wonderful. They're like The Beatles of the '90's, lots of emotion and lots care in sound and in the way they play. That excites me because I thought pop music had died a few years ago and suddenly I realized, 'Oh, no. It's just resting.' I like a lot of the experimenters like Tricky. There's quite a lot of individualists creeping back. Trend breaking, if anything. It's a healthy thing for the end of '90's, categories are just bursting out with change.
PSF: How do you see yourselves fitting into the scene?
E-KS: I think we are psychedelic in the purest sense, in that we expand. Psychedelic music indeed is to expand. It's not to be nostalgic. We're not a nostalgic band harkening for the '60's. We hardly know the '60s. We just know what we've heard.
PSF: What have the crowds been like at your shows?
EK-S: We've been getting a lot of young people at the shows.
PSF: Why do you suppose that?
EK-S: I suppose it's just the nature of things. New fans come along -- it's strange to encounter people into the band who often weren't born when the band began. And there's a lot of them. It's healthy for us. But why? I don't know. The Pink Dots is a word of mouth thing. There's not much help by radio stations or lots of press, but there's a very strong word of mouth and a very strong presence on the Internet. There's many web sites devoted to the Pink Dots.
PSF: Where on the tour are you looking forward to playing at?
E-KS: San Francisco should be exciting, but rather frightening as well. We're playing the Fillmore there. It's a very famous place and there's a great deal of anticipation about that show. But with bigger anticipation, and a larger audience there more nerve wracking it can be. In many ways, we can enjoy shows like Upstairs at Nick's [in Philadelphia]. Our New York show will be a high-pressure show, there's quite an anticipation about it this time and the crowd seems to get larger every time we go back. The more it happens, it makes me a little uneasy.
PSF: With all that anticipation, do you get stage fright?
E-KS: Yes, I deal with it in an odd way. I overcompensate sometimes. I get a bit overly direct with the audience. In a way, I think it is very much connected to stage fright.