Iain Cameron's Diary
"Click here to access the Fruitful Album" - Click here to visit Music for the Highveld Project
2011-09-19 - 8:09 p.m.
Paul Wheeler's album Red Blues is on the previous page but one. Here s an interview we did about it - God knows when:
IAIN: A first question in the area of the linkage between the 'Seachages' core image and Redblues - how much the blue is sea related - and whether there is a follow on to the strong blue theme in the earlier CD? Which songs most obviously take the themes through?
PAUL: The core images of Seachanges are the Blue Bird and the Blue Water. And the Blue cover. The notion of water as a fluent (as distinct from a fixed) element - so images of metamorphosis.
The red in redblues comes as much from earth as from fire. From the start, I wanted "Redblues" to be more down to earth, different from the floating world of 'Seachanges'. A landing. Chris Matthews, my main collaborator on both projects, commented that where 'Seachanges' was a painting, 'Redblues' is a photograph.
IAIN: Are the elements an important source for Redblues?
PAUL: I don't see 'red' as necessarily fire - it can also be red as in the desert I flew over on my way to Shanghai. We still have the notion of the Orient being one half of a taoist circle with the Occident as the other, interrelated one. When I visited China, I was conscious of the way that 'blues' represented a Western club for popular ideas about shared pain and resilience whereas Chinese red suggests resilience, but also celebration and pride.
You can download the Redblues album - see at the bottom of this page
It was a question of widening the scope of 'Blues' which seems, in the end, to be something in which to drown one's sorrows, to include the ("red") sense of 'taking one's stand' as in the lyrics of 'Western Sun'.
IAIN: So Red and Blue are large scale metaphors?
PAUL: As Chris put it:' Red is not only anger; it is also warmth, comfort, sunset, roses.' Another aspect which Chris mentioned was the notion of red blood/blue blood when we first brainstormed the project: a reference which consequently found its way into the title track.
I was aware of my own and many other white musicians growing up in the 1960s borrowing idioms from Black American culture in order to express what was coded in the 'blues' - an evasion of white middle class roots, but also I was aware of the colonisation and exploitation of black culture. Whatever one says about White Boys singing the blues, I can't get away from the fact that the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton etc. became young millionaires while the seminal blues singers mostly died in misery.
WHY does Elton John adopt a southern-American-states accent when he sings, for example?
I also wanted to increase the scope of the stereotypical blues political agenda: suffering and rebellion and acceptance all start with the notion of
enslavement. I wanted to try to include psychological and spiritual paramaters - if there is enslavement, it can also be to internal forces - passion, for example - the lover's enslavement epitomized in Shakespeare's sonnets, or enslavement to some form of god.
I wanted to use a blatantly English cultural icon to epitomise my own heritage, and Shakespeare seemed the most obvious reference point: used with respect but with a deliberate sense of presumptuousness. The sonnet has a fixed basic structure which is then open wide to interpretation, like what happens with the basic 12 bars of the blues (click here to listen to Red Blues).
IAIN: In the early 60s we mistakenly took "the blues" to be an unmediated natural category - nowadays we can see how much it had been constructed in the previous decade.
PAUL: I wanted to be able to acknowledge my own cultural heritage when dealing with condensed lyrical contemplation. I guess Nick Drake had the same notion: I'm interested that Nick has been likened to Robert Johnson, despite superficially different cultural contexts.
IAIN: So how did you start in practice?
Paul: The first song I specifically wrote for the Redblues collection was 'Rich and Strange' (click here to listen to Rich & Strange)- following on the Shakespeare quote I used for the previous collection ('...suffer a seachange into something rich and strange') into a fusion of non-standard multilayered imagery over a blues base (a form of personalised pizza!).
"Your love weaves a thread around me, a tapestry so rich and strange...like a dolphin's song swimming in and out of range" is not a line which Robert Johnson would come up with, I think.
Not that blues lyrics can't be metaphysical and witty: e.g.s 'Put your arms around me like a circle round the sun' or 'I've been down so long it looks like up to me'.
At the same time, in 'Rich and Strange' I wanted to use superficial punning which is a form of deliberately bland defence against deep emotional turmoil: a stoical, irritating way of confronting 'serious' issues -like a cartoon. So there was a whole play on words: "Your sun rose red and blew (blue) the clouds away..." - still retaining emotion, but mocking at the same time.
This is also in the Shakespearean tradition: Hamlet's speech "What a piece of work is man..." is simultaneously satirical and noble, for example.
I wanted an unholy alliance between notions of 'high' and 'low' culture: Shakespeare meets the Marx Brothers!
IAIN: Zeppo not Karl?
PAUL: Of course, there is the notion of red being associated with socialism and blue with conservatism. Terms which used to be simple to distinguish, but are now significantly blurred. When I put 'Redblues' into a search engine, I was unsurprised to find Eastern European jazz musicians who had identified with the title.
But then the internet also offered advice to carpet makers about how to separate their dyes.
Then there is the idea that you can have different shades of primary colours. My house in Cambridge was decorated with what I thought were predominantly blue colours, but my son and a friend of his, both of whom work in film and are orientated to colour, pointed out that the blues were red-based.
Joni Mitchell moved on from "Blue" to "Indigo"...Indigo tends towards purple, hence toward red... For those interested in psychological colour theories, my house in Brighton is more red based, tending towards yellow: maybe the next album will be about bananas.
Blue and red are not mutually exclusive like black and white.
IAIN: I know there's a technique for arranging music that involves colouring in. These metaphors must go through to instrumental colours - and the ones or on the CD eg synth and guitar tones are not always the one you might expect given the nature of the songs.
PAUL: To start with "Rich & Strange" again, the musical textures on this song are EXACTLY what one would expect from an acoustic blues - I think you mentioned that it was the sort of area 'Pentangle' was in. And yet there is the hint already there, in the solo instrumental, that a virtual world surrounds the acoustic one: what EXACTLY is the instrument being played?
The tone is familiar, a reassuring, folk sound of a harmonica or even kazoo, but in fact it's electronic.
IAIN: Yes I wondered exactly how that had been done, especially as the phrasing is so authentic.
PAUL: The other conventional blues tracks: 'Western Sun' (click here to listen to Western Sun)and the title track have similarly predictable instrumentation, with a leaning towards the French/Orleans Cajun (from 'Arcadian', incidentally) sound - a reference to the non-African, non-English ingredients. 'Loop the Loop' also has a deliberate square-dance, slightly scary moonshine madness, like 'Duelling Banjos'.
IAIN: Loop the Loop was always in that area even the first recorded version a long time ago. I think it comes up pretty well this time. It was a big step when you first wrote it - away from a confessional style.
PAUL: I can see why you think that, although 'Loop the Loop' (click here to listen to Loop the Loop)was based on a real experience when someone I knew took me up in a two seater airplane to lift me out of a depression, and even 'Aquarian Home' was inspired by a builder's comment on my house in Brighton that there was so much damp that the walls were made of water - something I found very appealing!
Other songs in the collection are redblues but move away from 12 bar formats: hymns/spirituals: 'Palm Sunday', 'Govinda', which refer respectively to Christian and Indian images, and gave rise to different soundscapes accordingly. Then there are more personal soul-searching songs.
IAIN: I have to say the ones out of the old confessional school of writing - say like Songs to a Seagull never fail with me. This is a guilty admission!
PAUL: 'Easy Time' with its emotional wash, and 'Far Outsider' (click here to listen to Far Outsider), although the latter is still based around a twelve bar/country feel. And then, well, quirky songs: 'Aquarian Home'and 'Recipe' where the soundscape is at its most experimental.
IAIN: Very experimental I'd say - but experimenting in ways that play with the more conventional meanings. Chris did an amazing job particularly on the Aquarian one. And Recipe is both hilarious and intermittently funky. The emotional ones are more "straight ahead".
PAUL: Working with Chris gave me the chance to paint with sound, which used to be the preserve of the few before technology became so accessible..."Aquarian Home" (click here to listen to New Age Aquarian Home) was designed around sound textures being more important than the skeletal chord structure: particularly the building of the 'walls made of water".
'Recipe' went through many colours before arriving where it did, including one version in which only voices were used - something like what Brian Wilson experiments at the time of 'Smile'.
'Rebel Heaven', for me, is the least easy to pigeon-hole, and probably represents my most personal style, and also the most intricate collaboration with Chris to evolve the sound-colours.
CHRIS: "Paul writes a song to say something rather than to make a particular sort of sound. This makes for good songs but it doesn't make my life easy.
If he said "this is a boogie-woogie shuffle in 6/8" I could dial in the appropriate sounds and off we'd go. But he says "this is a song which deals with the whole global-commerce thing in a slightly sarcastic way" so I have to approach instrumentation and production in a different way too.
IAIN: Sometimes Brian Eno comes at production from the very abstract point of view. Like you he thinks about music on lots of different levels at the same time.
CHRIS: Songwriters who use the acoustic guitar as their main compositional instrument often give clues in the way they have constructed the guitar part to demo the song. This is one of the great things about the acoustic guitar - it can, in the hands of a good player, sound like a harpsichord, an accordion, a rock band, a jazz quartet, anything. So I listen to what Paul is doing with the guitar when I first hear a new song. Almost subconsciously he'll be telling me what the backing should sound like.
IAIN: I think it always helps to watch their fingers.
CHRIS: Of course, this can only get you so far, so we have long conversations about what the song is doing and I'm always looking for keywords in the conversation; "edgy", "sharp", "silly", "pushy", "drunk", "apologetic" are the sort of words that lead to the first "sound palette" being constructed.
IAIN: That's almost like Neuro Linguistic Programming
CHRIS: Only rarely do we talk about actual instruments but if Paul has some definite sound in his head that's one fewer thing for me to worry about.
When I find what I think is the "way in" to the song I'll send Paul a real rough with a proposed set of instruments and the process becomes fairly predictable from that point.
IAIN: That's the bit I hate.
CHRIS: Emails and refined versions fly back and forth - rejecting, suggesting, rejoicing, and finally approving (time for a large beer for me!)
Paul keeps his eye on the big picture all the time. The overall balance of the project forms in his mind from quite an early stage and this can lead us to completely overhaul a previous arrangement of a song if it doesn't work in the context of the other tracks. His songs are strong enough to withstand a variety of arrangements imposed upon them.
IAIN: No question about that. And yet there are powerful governing metaphors too.
CHRIS: Red and Blue instrumentation in Red Blues? No, there is no deliberate attempt to create "red" or "blue" sounds. Red and blue are adjectives and it's what they are describing that needed instrumentation.
We talked so much about these songs before recording them (including their redness and blueness) that we became instinctively aware of what was right for each track. Interestingly though, I can assign shades of red and blue to most instruments used in the project much more easily than shades of green or yellow.
That's probably because yellow and green (in our society at least) stand for external things like grass and sun whereas red and blue are often used for internal things like anger and sadness.
I'd like to do a lime-green album next.
IAIN: I sometimes think that the structuralists are 100% right and that all meaning depends on the order in which units are arranged. I said to Paul earlier that there seems to be a caesura betweeen the first 7 and last 5 tracks.
PAUL: Yes, indeed. This was prompted by Chris who said that from a musicalpoint of view, there was an interesting joint between the end of 'Rebel Heaven and the beginning of 'Aquarian Home' - I immediately realised that from a thematic point of view, this was essential to the vision of the whole collection. The shift of the rebel from solidarity to solitude (to quote Simon Schama ) suddenly made sense of the collection.
IAIN: Which particular disenchanted revolutionaries was Simon Schama referring to?
PAUL: Mary Wollstonescraft and co. - why the Brits were not swept up in the revolutionary wave of the 18th century. There's a sense, particularly if you happen to have been a teenager in the 1960s, that 1968 had some unique momentum, which is a trite assessment of what revolution means in the bigger historical context.
IAIN: So how much of the particular class of 1968 version of counter culture is incorporated here?
PAUL: The Redbllues collection does represent my own transition from idealism via nihilism to egotism to spirituality to personal frailty: I make no apologies. The incitement to take one's stand against imperialism in the first track is a cry throughout the ages: the 'Americans' could be the 'Romans' or the 'Mongols' depending on historical context. Empires who get to the point that they think that they can make the sun rise in the West (actually, Arthur C Clarke even posited this in his sequel to 2001). I wrote the first version of that song just before the upheavals in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s; when I came to record it for Redblues, the only thing that had changed was a slight geographical reference.
Chris wrote a great song called 'The News' which he wrote around the time of the first attack on Iraq in 1991, which has the plaintive chorus 'I've heard it before', and is a brilliant indictment of the way that history repeats i tself.
IAIN: For the current generation these events seem to be a motivation to study history more deeply. My son was very absorbed in the discovery that history extended into his lifetime - he was six when the Berlin Wall came down - now he's studying non European history as part of his first degree. The way history goes on seems to be a focus for intellectual energy for those who are picking up the pieces.
PAUL: Other songs among the first 6 are more bouyant. I started out the project before 2001, and it was going to be a skiffley, rather boisterous Brighton sound. I'd just bought a vintage Hofner archtop guitar, and it wanted to play songs like 'Midnight Special' and 'Home in that Rock' - songs I played in a jug band as a teenager. Moby was reworking spirituals at the time; so was local Brighton hero Fatboy Slim in his own way, and I think the same idea struck Cassandra Wilson.
IAIN. Yes you accused me of being an old softie with my enthusiasm for her sophisticated acoustic approach to being down home! I guess Brighton is one version of the "deep south".
PAUL: Then came 2001. For a while, I shelved the whole thing, then I decided that I would continue the original resilience and reference to tradition, while being quite clear that I could not ignore references to 2001, but hopefully set them in a wider context.
IAIN: Some people think that those shiny monoliths launched Minimalism on wider culture. An absolute from outer space that triggered a new age.
PAUL: The first version of 'Rebel Heaven' (click here to listen to Rebel heaven) was written after I read Musil's 'A Man Without Qualities', which, again, was not about the 1960s, but was about the way in which war depends on identifying who are 'my brothers', regardless of the fact that this group continuously changes - like Orwell'svision of the enemy in nineteen eighty four, or Pete Townshend's comment about 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss'.
IAIN: Musil is often linked to Wittgenstein - utterly radical Viennese thinking after the First World War.
PAUL: 'Aquarian Home' and 'Recipe' (click here to listen to Recipe) represent the absurdity of the consumer shell which is enjoying such success at the moment' 'Loop the Loop' could be said to represent the similar fashion of extreme sports in this context; but by the time the collection reaches 'Govinda', there is a shift to a much wider perspective. In the context of Redblues, I think it's significant that this song started as an intensely personal song about Nick Drake's death being on the same day as my son's birth, but it seemed time to let the song grow up.
IAIN: I liked that version very much indeed especially the Lennonish bits...
PAUL: At the start of CE 2001, the greatest event in the third world was the Kum Mela - 30 million people gathering for a peaceful spiritual event: 1968 did not invent hindu cultures and beliefs; I spent a long time trying to be fair to the references to Arjuna and Govinda (click here to listen to Govinda), but I bow to those with greater insight. The fact that in the first world the violent events of the latter half of 2001 are remembered more vividly is tragically significant. The split between rich and poor is nothing new but misery is not an ephemeral fashion statement.
IAIN: The Kum Mela was brought to us in the UK by the verve and imagination of a few people on Channel 4. Thanks to their commitment, some of those powerful images have stayed with me. Lennon was certainly someone who could combine powerful global images with personal confession going right back to "There's A Place". Shakespeare too - but you never know which bits were his confession
PAUL: 'Easy Time' (click here to listen to Easy Time)is back to the confessional mode: I wrote it on hearing that I was going to be a father in 1970: this recording was made over 30 years later, as a grandfather. There is a line in the song: "give me seasons to feel it through..." many seasons have passed and many feelings, and many people. To finish with the Shakespeare reference again, it had for me the intensity of Shakespeare's sonnet 30 "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past..."