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Jackie Leven - The Triste Interview
|For more than 30 years Jackie Leven has been making passionate, intelligent music - most notably with the band Doll By Doll at the turn of the 70's and then as a solo act over the last decade. His live shows are usually a virtuoso mix of fine singing, precise playing, brooding attitude and a gift for telling a tall tale: but he's also not one for suffering fools gladly. Triste caught up with him before a gig at the famous Jim's Cafe in Colne, Lancashire, in the autumn of 2001, as he toured in support of his latest album, "Creatures of Light and Darkness".
Triste: You recorded Creatures of Light and Darkness in Bryn Derwen. Was it in some isolated remote place in the wilds or was it near a village?
Jackie Leven: It's both. When you walk outside, there's a huge, stunning vista of mountains of western Snowdonia, but in actual fact it's only about 7 minutes drive from Bangor. So it's a moderately big town, but it feels isolated.
Triste: Is that on the coast road round to the north, or is it going south into the heart of the hills?
Jackie Leven: It's just going into the very beginning of Snowdonia by a town called Bethesda.
Triste: Did the location influence the recordings in any way, or was that incidental to the whole process?
Jackie Leven: I never record in places that don't appeal to me. So, yes, it did. For me it was very like Scotland, it has that real Celtic kind of feel. I felt very at home there: it was a very 'west coast of Scotland' feeling. The people at Bryn Derwen especially the engineer, David Wrench, are really lovely and talented people, so I felt very at home, and very romantic.
Triste: I believe the album recording took about four weeks? Was it an easy album to make, in that case? It sounds as if you went in and out of the studio quite easily?
Jackie Leven: Well, it's only in and out quickly because I do so much pre-production. I record my songs and send them to all the musicians, then I go and re-record them with the rhythm section and send them back to everyone. Then I re-record them with the keyboard player. So by the time we get to the studio, all the musicians have had three developments of the songs, plus loads and loads of notes from me. So a lot of time that people spend, frankly, fucking around in the studio, I just don't do. By the time we get there, it's very, very clear, and it's like a military operation. But we drink as well!
Triste: How much do the guys get to do their own parts, for example, the arrangements? How much of it's already in your head by the time you come down? Is it a case of telling them to do this, that or the other?
Jackie Leven: Well I always create a fail-safe position, so that if they can't come up with anything better, what I ask them to come up with will certainly work. And sometimes that happens. People say, 'No, what you want is pretty well what I think we should do.' But, if you're playing with people who are good enough, what you're paying for is for them to have ideas that you could possibly never have thought of yourself.
Triste: The album has just been released. Do you listen back to your albums after you've made them, or is it a case of, once you're finished, they're literally released to the general public? If so, are you happy with what you've done?
Jackie Leven: As it comes up to review time, I go through a frenzy of listening to them all the time, on lots and lots of different systems, very loud and very quiet, and drive everyone mad. But then I go through a period, for instance when I'm touring, when I don't listen at all for quite some time. And it changes every time you go back and have a big 're-listen'.
Triste: I believe some of the songs were tried out live before being recorded, but obviously some of the more involved ones weren't, I presume?
Jackie Leven: Yes, some of them are try-outs. But generally I try not to, because songs, for me, have a danger of becoming a live song, and then I can't make it work in the studio. It's happened to me a lot in the past. You can develop a song once you've recorded it, and develop it 'live-wise'. In fact people often say to me, "You've developed this song in ways in which I wish were on the record," but that's why I make live albums as well, so they can have that development.
Triste: If you've got a very complex song in the studio, with drum beats, synth washes and answering vocal phrases how do you go back to playing it live solo? Or can you not in some cases?
Jackie Leven: Some of them you just can't. Some of them just don't sound quite right, so I tend not to play them. However, I was in Philadelphia doing a radio show last year, and this guy got quite serious with me, and he said, "You should be able to play everything you record, one way or another, regardless of what you think about the short comings." I really thought about it long and hard. I haven't done it, but I did think about it very hard when he said it: it was a good point.
Triste: Do you not think a record is, almost by definition, something separate to a live performance?
Jackie Leven: I do, I do. But there must be something to be said. If you were a poet, and you said, 'I never do that poem,' people would have a right to be askance. So I'm thinking about this thing of being to be able to play everything, and just forcing myself to do it.
Triste: Going back to the whole production of the album, you've got quite a lot of linking material and sound samples, where the songs become some part of some kind of collage. It's a style which seemed to be have been in fashion for quite a long time, almost from the mid-70s, really. Is it because you see the songs and an album as a whole, a collection with a theme? There doesn't seem to be a clear thread linking the songs. It's not a concept album, is it? But there's a certain common feel, or a kind of of coherence about it?
Jackie Leven: Do you mean this record, or them all?
Triste: Well most of them? To be honest, they all seem to be of a type, they never seem to be just ten songs stuck together on the one album, for the sake of recording ten singles.
Jackie Leven: Well, I just think 'landscape'. And if the song, if there's something in the song that requires a bit of what I would call 'landscaping' at the beginning or at the end, or even in the middle, then I will add that 'landscape'. That's really worth doing, I think. It can sound terrible: you've got to know when it's not working, but if you're really confident with that landscaping, then it tends to work.
I once made an album with a producer called John Sinclair, who no-one's heard of these days, but he actually taught Trevor Horne. And I was really impressed by him. If you had, a basic idea, then he would say, 'Well let's just try it?' That might sound incredibly simplistic, but in fact, having the guts to just try things quickly, very quickly in the studio, is the way to get that landscaping done. Not sit and think about it for the rest of your life.
Triste: What inspired you to use the sacked shipworkers' comments at the start of "The Sexual Loneliness Of Jesus Christ"? Was that something you had already or did you stumble across it?
Jackie Leven: Well it's one of those funny things. My keyboard player, Michael Cosgrave, was up recording, and we were going for a drink in Bethesda, and he said, 'I've heard this great programme that you might like about Glaswegian ship builders getting the sack.' He said some of the things they said were amazing, so then he quoted a couple, and I thought that does sound interesting. So we had it on mini-disc, and this was a great instance of what I was just saying. The next day we just said, "That one and that one, just stick them on the front," and that worked really well. It was just a chance conversation.
Triste: The subject matter of your songs varies a heck of a lot. They're not the standard 'I love you, you don't love me' kind of songs? There are some songs where you think, "What's this all about?" There are songs based on poems; there's the song based on an Algernon Blackwood short story ["The Willows"]. "Billy Ate My Pocket" is not the most promising of song titles, but tells quite a neat little story with a twist in it. What inspires you to come up with these kind of 'left-field' topics.
Jackie Leven: Well I think those songs are how you experience life. For instance, I was up at the stables with my girlfriend, and Billy the horse did bite my pocket off, and I did have a piece of paper, and Debbie did pick it up and ask, 'Who's Jane?' It did happen, and our friends did say, 'Oh fuck…' thinking that the worst might happen. It was all completely innocent, but it immediately gave me the idea for the song. So once again, it's just this thing of having the confidence to write spontaneously. Same with the original Blackwood thing. And I was just watching a woman on a bridge, in the German city of Regensberg. Something about the way she was watching the Danube in full spate just reminded me of that great story; it had the same creepiness. And then she just turned to look at me, and I turned away, but I knew that she knew that I'd been watching her. That was very eerie. So I just wanted to capture that atmosphere. I do also write songs about what a shitty thing life and love is, but you've got to take chances, I think.
Triste: And going back to the Algernon Blackwood story, you mentioned on the album it was a feminine entity, or something? I read the story a long time ago and from what I can remember it was some kind of other-worldly, cross-dimensional, timeless sprit thing?
Jackie Leven: Well I just thought, how am I going to end this? Well I'll say that was a female entity. But I've just completely made that up, so if people read this story, they'll say, 'I can't see what's female about it at all!'
Triste: I had a flick through the story again and was hoping to find some kind of feminine angle, but I couldn't.
Jackie Leven: Well my friend, David Thomas, I've just done a huge rock opera with him, called "Mirror Man", and he said he based it all on the stories of a guy called Edgar Lee Masters. It's a book called "Spoon River Anthology". I was there while he was being interviewed by the Times about this, and the guy from the Times said, 'I've read "Spoon River Anthology", and I can't see how in any way it relates to your opera?' So David said, 'Well I didn't mean the writing, I meant the cover, the illustration on the cover.' So it's the same kind of thing, what they're saying with this female presence, it's just good fun.
Triste: It's a launching point for your own ideas basically?
Jackie Leven: Yes, that's it.
Triste: It's funny how you can get side-tracked, but I did a bit of research and found that Algernon Blackwood was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn and that his motto was Umbram Fugat Veritas ('Truth flees from shadows')which I thought was the related to the title of the album, but it's not, is it? It's just a coincidence.
Jackie Leven: It is, yes.
Triste: But why did you settle on that album title Creatures of Light and Darkness? I believe, that there were a couple of alternative titles floating around before?
Jackie Leven: Yeah, I always like to have a couple of 'stalking horse' titles, so energy accrues and attaches around them, so I can see what it feels like. I always freak my record company right outt. The last album I made, Defending Ancient Springs, I said I was going to call The Total Poetry of Industrial Language, and they all went, 'Fucking Hell, no!' I don't know what it is: a) It gives me pleasure to see people squirm, because the titles are so over the top. But b) it also gives me a point in the landscape to work out what it really is I'm actually on about. Because contrary to what people think, the titles come second, not first, with my stuff. I never do concept stuff at all. It's just that the songs acquire a family identity, once they're recorded, and so the songs kind of speak about how they want to be identified in public.
Triste: I was going to ask you how the title ties in with a theme?
Jackie Leven: Themes emerge once you've recorded. You see what the 'thematic glue' is. It's not that you have a theme, and then do the songs around it. I would never do that, because that is concept. The difference between concept and imagination is that concept is essentially masculine, and imagination is essentially feminine. I try to work in that feminine principle of imagination, I think it's more interesting. Because the rest of my life, like all other men, I'm deeply conceptual.
Triste: Another abstract point, but, is there not a danger that once you attach a name to something, that the name becomes an integral part of the thing it's describing eventually. You're writing a song, you put dummy lyrics in it, and after a while the dummy lyrics become so 'part' of a song that it's hard to kick them out and put something else in that sounds right? Is there not a danger that suddenly what you intended as a stalking horse becomes the album title? Has that ever happened?
Jackie Leven: This can happen, and you've got to be really careful. You can have tricksterish fun with this stuff, as long as you stay true to a kind of more deadly intent, and also have respect. Because what you're saying, actually, is a very serious and important thing. This kind of energy is dangerous stuff, and you don't want to fuck with it, it can kill you, easily. I see people all the time: a great example is that idiot Kevin What's-his-name, who made that album in suspenders, and stuff.
Triste: Kevin Rowland?
Jackie Leven: Yeah, now there's a man who got totally caught up in one aspect of an idea about what would be interesting. He could have layered all of that, very interestingly, into a really interesting album. But, somehow, the idea took him over, and he had to do it that way. So you've got to be careful, you know, it's dangerous stuff.
Triste: Was he honest about his ideas of, 'I'm just a man wearing a dress', or was the whole thing a shameless publicity scam?
Jackie Leven: Well, I don't know, because I haven't bothered to analyse it, but what I can see clearly has happened is that he's destroyed a huge part of his ability, to walk down the street with a coherent idea of who he is, ever again, and possibly ever record again. And that's the danger he's created for himself.
Triste: 'The Sexual Loneliness Of Jesus Christ": Was that anything to do with the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, or the later Scorsese version of "The Last Temptation Of Christ" which portray a more human Jesus, or was that just coincidental? A case of parallel evolution?
Jackie Leven: No, no, that was completely coincidental. I haven't seen that film. I just like the idea of the inarticulate Jesus, and people coming in the room and saying, 'Jesus, what are we doing?' and he says, 'I fucking don't know!' Because in the Bible, he always know exactly what to say. I said this to someone recently, and they looked at me and said, 'That is the point of the Bible, Jackie.' And I thought, yeah, but there must be a kind of 'shadow Bible' in which Jesus was interested in pornography, which they had in those days, and he must have had things that he wanked about, and stuff like that, like the rest of us. I wonder what all of that was. And the loneliness that attaches to that kind of private masculine, and feminine world, as well, you know? There's a kind of solitary form in which we all live. So I think I was just saying, that's true of him, too.
Triste: It's funny you should mention that because there are many apocryphal gospels. I think it was The Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus, as a young child, was using his divine powers in sometimes a malevolent fashion, and obviously you could say that these aspects of his character were later suppressed in the approved canon.
Jackie Leven: Well that's very interesting, because I don't know anything about this, but that's really interesting, what you're saying.
Triste: Some time, probably in the second or third century AD I suppose, the Early Church decided to sort out the canon of texts which were acceptable to their view of Christianity, so some writings, which didn't conform, were chopped out. At least that's my personal reading of the situation.
Jackie Leven: Yes, that's very interesting.
Triste: Let's change topics again. Sometimes your writing is autobiographical, in some aspects, like your father's death appears at least a couple of times on the album. How did you put your true feelings into the song without exploiting your feelings Do you understand what I'm trying to say?
Jackie Leven: I do, I do. Well the main thing is not to be caught in a pre-determined reaction. That's the main thing. One of the songs is very honorific of just, lovely, magical little moments of his life, in "My Spanish Dad". But one of them was actually more serious, because in "Rainy Day Bergen Women", there's a bit of that, although it's very muted, is, in that my dad was told that he was a hypochondriac. We were told for years and years and years, he said, "I really don't feel basically well," and then suddenly of course, he was right. So he was really angry about all of this. Any anger that you've got around that, I think it's really quite important to express some way, because otherwise that anger just starts living in you, as the next generation. That's really difficult stuff. So I don't think that the songs are at all exploitative, I think they're really careful, and properly imaged. I was reading a review today of U2 in Manchester, in which Bono said that these were the last living days of his father, who was also dying, then he sang a song. And the guy was saying he was very, very, very deeply caught in between finding it genuinely moving, and thinking, "Can you do that, can you say that?" It's tricky stuff. And the other thing is, you're always going to offend someone, whatever you do, so you might as well make bold brush strokes, and hope for the best.
Triste: How old was your dad when he died?
Jackie Leven: He must have been early seventies.
Triste: It was sudden, was it?
Jackie Leven: Well, no, not really. He took a year to die from when he was diagnosed. I'm sure it was sudden from his point of view, but it was slow and agonising from our point of view.
Triste: My dad died a couple of years ago. He was going out to the gym one Saturday morning, he bought some cigarettes for my mum first and then never came back.
Jackie Leven: Well that must be tougher in some ways, because my dad was very, very beautiful for the year in which he was dying, in as much as he was very giving and very courageous, but also very honest about how scared he was. But he really 'healed' a lot of stuff with me and my brother and sister, so that was great. It must be really tough.
Triste: I see Michael Weston King sings on the album. Was he involved through you meeting him on the joint tours you did with him beforehand?
Jackie Leven: Yeah, I think Michael's got a really lovely voice, and I also think he's under-rated. I might be producing his next album in Bryn Derwen in January 2002, so I thought he had the right voice for the places where he sang. But also, I just wanted him to have experience of someone else's recording process. Just so it might add to his ideas about how he might want to record himself.
Triste: I think, to some extent, this 'alt country' thing he's often labelled with is very restricting and inaccurate. His vocal style and the songs on his last couple of albums have been very European, actually.
Jackie Leven: No, I think all of that's got him a certain way along the way, but he's got to make a move now.
Triste: Okay, silly things now. Why did you put a reference to Royston Vasey on your album sleeve?
Jackie Leven: I always put a couple of 'not real' bars in my list bars. There's also Rib Carnage, which isn't a true one, either, in St. Louis airport, or Pittsburgh airport, I can't remember which one.
Triste: But I know the Joiner's Bar in Morecambe is certainly real.
Jackie Leven: Oh yeah, yeah, that's a great little bar! It's a really lively, little, sort of 'community' bar.
Triste: This is just trivia, really, but The Ladybank Auctions you mention in song were very famous. Not for selling old masters, but for selling the normal range of lawn mowers, washing machines, wardrobes etc. I take it your Dad went there a lot?
Jackie Leven: Oh yes, that was just a great thoroughfare sort of auction room. Yeah, my dad loved it there. His idea of great fun was to get in his old Cortina and trundle over Falkland Hill, go there, have a sniff around, buy nothing, have a couple of drinks and come home.
Triste: In the Cooking Vinyl newsletter, you mention the phasing effect you created on "Rainy Day Bergen Women" and refer to the band "The Small Faeces"[sic] as oppose to The Small Faces as one of the pioneers of this effect. Was this a typo or was it deliberate?
Jackie Leven: Joerg, who does the news letter, was German, and I just thought, "He's never going to spot this." So I just stuck it in. Because I did it on the computer, he sent me the questions and I just sent them back.
Triste: I suppose the spell checker would never have found them?
Jackie Leven: No, that's right, I just knew it would get through.
Triste: That's brilliant. One final question. You put on an intense show, do you find it difficult to come straight down from a performing high to a situation where you're having to deal with a lot of people selling CDs, autographing old albums and having your photo taken?
Jackie Leven: When I get off stage, I'm genuinely engaged with people. In the old days, you could have 20 minutes in the dressing room in which to come down from the show, because I do a very intense show, and kind of re-orientate yourself. Now because you've got to go out and sell records, that just doesn't happen any more, and the show's still juddering right through me. So I'm genuinely meeting people and I haven't got a fucking clue what they're called, and it's a problem, because afterwards, people expect to be remembered, in terms of the warmth that was apparently there between you.
Triste: Is that a big thing, then? Is the merchandise something you have to do?
Jackie Leven: Well, people expect it, and it's incredibly important. In Germany, where I sell a lot of records these days, compared to here, it's really, really important. You know, you can make £1000 a night in merchandising, and over 20 dates, that really matters. So, I hate it, in a way, between you and me, I find it really, sort of, 'cringey', but you've got to do it, it's as simple as that. I'm not at a level in this country where I can get someone else to do it for me. I'd just be throwing the money straight away by giving it to someone.
Triste: I was talking it over with a friend of mine and he was and he was quite surprised you were playing a place so small. But if it's economic to play a place this size, it's better for the audience, it's half the price of Manchester, and I'm sure it's a lot more intimate.
Jackie Leven: It's very, very important to get out into places, in my opinion, and I've changed my agent twice in the last three years, three times, in fact, because I want an agent who will accept this philosophy, which my new agent does, which is of getting in places like this, and not just being on the same goddam circuit, going round and round like some fucking headless chicken. So I love coming to places like this, where it's a bit different, and I think the fans like it, as well. People travel, and they say, 'Ooh, this is new, this is different…'
Triste: Colne is a bit out in the sticks. You come out here into East Lancashire where the motorway finally runs out and it is different.
Jackie Leven: I did a gig in Belper a couple of years ago, and this guy said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'Playing a gig.' He said, 'Why Belper?', and I said, 'Why not?' He just said nothing for a minute, and then he said, 'Round here, we make nails.' That's all he said.