GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
Oblivion Magazine-interview med Martin Hall, Michael Kuhlen (10. april 2007)
Q: Facsimile is being defined as the reproduction or a copy of something very precious and sometimes very expensive. Therefore I wonder where’s the relation to your latest album, its title and the single songs of the album?
A: To me all art is a reproduction of ideas and impulses, thoughts and feelings, so the notion of a facsimile is this – that the album is a reproduction of an emotional state. All art operates through this kind of displacement, a delay from the time of its origin to the time of its reception; both music and literature is a statement after the fact, and the statement is never identical with the artist.
The cover photo also indicates this notion: You see a closed door, an entrance, a portal. You can’t be observing and experiencing at the same time – you need to enter the next room to allow yourself the experience. You need to leave something behind to acquire something else. There’s almost a notion of fatality about it.
Q: Is it some kind of concept album?
A: Not as such. I don’t particularly like concept albums. Once you’ve defined the subject matter, you’re tied down. On the other hand, most albums unwillingly are concept albums – that is, something fixed and defined by the artist performing. You can’t escape your own nature.
Q: Would you agree that looking at the beauty of your songs and the intimate atmospheres they all reveal, even back to the Random Hold album, the music is overwhelming with all of your passion, heart and soul you’re putting into?
A: At heart, I am a romantic – a romantic in the classic sense: someone who seeks to secure his art through dedication. The romantic strives towards beauty, beauty at all costs, which often has fatal consequences.
To me, music has always been about longings: I don’t think there is a better media than music to express human longing, whether it’s hope, alienation or elevation. Music has an overwhelming ability to cross borders, languages and ages – to provide you with glimpses beyond your experience. Music provides you with a sense of being able to express what can’t be put in words. Music is in a continual state of becoming so to speak. I’m sorry if I sound a bit over the top, but I can’t help quoting the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze when he talks about of becoming as a state opposed to being – that being is a question of becoming.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that music, to me, has always been about elevation, about motion, about being able to change – to be moved by it or to move others through it. It’s the e-motion, the way to cut through all intellectual layers and create a room in which the receiver can act freely – a sanctuary so to speak. Music is compelling.
Q: What kind of character are you? The music gives the impression of a very quiet character, someone who’s more of a thinking man, an introvert person rather than an extrovert person. Do you tend to think in such categories, even more as there were scientific studies saying that extroverted people have a much easier life whereas the potential of introverted people often lies much deeper and can not display if not having the chance to unfold.
A: I think it’s easier for other people to define your character. As a person, you live your life and go through different phases to then, in time, arrive at some kind of recognizable being or behaviour. In many ways the sum total is to be found in your character – what kind of person you are morally, how you behave under pressure etc. I love the English phrase defining true elegance: “Grace under pressure”, the ability to stay focussed during hardship. Most people think they know themselves, but experience tells another story. You’ll get to know yourself via the resistance, not by daily life routines or some kind of general easy going.
I’ve gone though a lot of changes. In my early years, although I was seen as a fairly “intellectual” character”, I was pretty wild, did a lot of drug-taking and so on, but then an huge amount of people around me died which obviously makes you reflect upon your way of life. The death rate among the generation I grew up with in the 1980’s was very high. It did stir a certain seriousness. I think the lifestyle of this period, the “no compromise”-attitude and artistic ramifications of the post-punk movement, was a great quality.
But to return to you question: In terms of my present appearance, yes, I guess I have to be defined as a fairly introvert person. I very seldom attend receptions, and I go to a few concerts and events as possible. Actually I find it quite exhausting to be with other people for too long. But then again, I think you need to consider this kind of behaviour in relation to my general output: I’m a fairly productive person in terms of my artistic endeavours. I had a complete breakdown in 1999, due to both psychological reasons and an extreme work schedule, after which I changed my way of living. I don’t have the energy to put up with nonsense anymore, particularly not the kind of nonsense you have to put up with in the music industry. Writing has become more and more important to me.
Q: Except Nick Cave maybe I hardly know any other artist than you who’s so intense in his artistical musical work, therefore I wonder how you experience your own music? Do you feel the same or do you have some kind of distance to it when listening to the album? How much of stripping your soul do you experience when listening to your songs?
A: I once read an interview with John Malkovich where he proclaimed that he never saw his own films. Once he’d done them, that was it. I think the same goes with Jeremy Irons. To some extent I feel the same way: Not that I never listen to my own music, but when I do, it’s always for some kind of reason. I don’t find any pleasure in listening to my own music. It’s like looking in the mirror – it’s not necessarily a wonderful experience.
What I enjoy most seems to be the instrumental works such as the soundtrack Camille or other works where my own voice doesn’t appear. I get far too self-reflective when I hear my own voice. I never regarded my self as a singer as such, I’ve always viewed myself as an artist working with words and music rather than a singer, which might also explain the slightly introverted aspect of my works we talked about before.
When I recorded Facsimile, I had to record all vocals at home. As soon as I got into the studio, I couldn’t perform. I hated the sound of my own voice. It had been like that for years. That’s why I basically recorded no albums with myself as vocalist from 1999 up until Facsimile. However, having finished the book The Last Romantic which I had written on during this period – from 1999 to 2005 – I suddenly felt free to act again. After years of difficulties with writing songs for myself (actually being completely unable to do so), Facsimile really appeared out of nowhere, so I rush-recorded most of the vocals. Three takes, that was the maximum amount I could perform on each song. After that I would feel “phony”, like some one imitating myself. It had to be clean, I had to focus on the connection to the song rather than the performance. I’m such a perfectionist that my career experience almost killed my natural instinct for making music. Facsimile was a great healing. I’m very pleased with this record. I think it’s the kind of album where you’re finally able to hear who Martin Hall is. It’s a fairly fragile album.
Q: When writing in such an intimate and autobiographical style as you do and really laying your heart to bare, don’t you also see the danger of being hurt, of being vulnerable? Is this something you don’t care about? In that sense, do you consider writing lyrics and music of being some kind of therapy, of maybe getting rid of some of the problems you might have?
A: In many ways you’re much more vulnerable all the time you’re trying to play a role … since you might get “caught in the act” so to speak. In the Danish media, I’ve always received a huge amount of attention due to my fairly obscure personality, this hybrid being caught in between the underground and an almost Liberace-like appearance in the mainstream media. This lack of definition has been a great advantage to me – a cover in many ways, since people never knew what to expect from me.
When writing my music and lyrics, there isn’t any option though, there isn’t any in-between state. The only source to draw upon is yourself, and to me this is the only way to go ahead – to explore the results of the processes you’re going through and to accept the identities surrounding you, the results of the interactions between you and your surroundings. As I said before, I tend to get very self-reflective, so to me sincerity has always provided a shield – in the sense that the song or the lyrics express an endeavour or a longing, something archetypical, something beyond the sheer personal aspects of “this is how I feel and that is why you have to listen to me”. I know it might sound awfully pretentious, but by this token music becomes a matter of listening to a soul breathing, a matter of natural process. I relate to other people’s music by the same reason, not by wild gesticulations.
Q: Lyrically speaking Facsimile seems to be an album where loss, the loss of love, seems to play an important role. All the feelings that go along with it, the broken hearts, the shattered illusions and dreams. Is this the best source for emotional and intense music such as yours?
A: Well, I don’t know. I think it’s true to say that loss plays a significant role on the album, but loss in the sense of moving on, accepting the consequences of life and leaving unnecessary luggage and debris behind. The English writer T.S. Eliot compared the process of human struggle and suffering to that of an sculptor carving a sculpture from a piece of stone: For every stroke with hammer and chisel, the sculpture is one step closer to perfection. It’s a very wonderful metaphor, I think … how loss and hurt release the true character of a person. Sorrow is sterile, but becomes a profound resonance for life when applied actively to reality. The only way to make sure you won’t repeat the mistakes of your past is to actively register the danger of doing so – you need to be reminded, day in and day out. I suppose that’s why pain plays such a significant part of our lives: It’s a course correction, a pilot, a way to secure the way ahead.
Q: In our first interview you several times mentioned that you’re a very self-reflecting character, thinking and observing a lot and being very selective when writing lyrics and finding the right words. Therefore I wonder how long it might take before you’re satisfied with the lyrics or a song? Is the final decision to use a certain version of a song always a compromise to you?
A: It’s a very interesting question – with a very different answer now and here, almost ten years later, than the one I gave you last time. Earlier I would go to extreme limits to attain some kind of personal satisfaction with a song and its contents, the lyrics, but nowadays, I’m pleased if they don’t make me uncomfortable – that is, if I accept the words as they are. I’ve become incredibly allergic to my own lyrics and it’s very difficult for me to write words I’m going to perform myself. It’s self-awareness gone completely astray. I didn’t write any songs for myself from 2001 until 2005. On the EP Introducing Roseland I managed to write four lyrics, so when the material for Facsimile suddenly came together very naturally so, I was very relieved.
So to me, a lyric is good if I don’t get nausea by it. It’s come to that, really. I know it might sound terribly plain and vulgar, but this is the way it works for me now: If I can perform it without getting any allergic reactions, I’m pleased. Then it’s a 1:1 statement of how I feel, which is all I ask for. Too much invention is a terrible thing. Keeping things to the minimal has become a new way of working. That is why I probably end up only making instrumental music.
On the other hand I can write a book of 700 pages. But it’s all got to do with the purity of the contents, I think – once you need to sing it, it becomes very difficult. Writing a book is like writing from another person’s view. I managed to write all the lyrics on Facsimile in the slipstream of The Last Romantic – the book cleared the way so to speak. I emptied myself into writing this epic novel and the few words left were the ones closest to the heart … the ones most fitting for a song.
Q: Watching the videos to each single track I wonder what was the intention to use videos like these, always showing some kind of aesthetics, be it fashion and the walk over the catwalk, the cars or even the Japanese suspension bondage also being regarded as beautiful by some people?
A: I think all objects become aesthetic when out into a frame. Like I began this interview with trying to explain how all art to me, in one form or another, is a reproduction, the notion of visualizing the songs with pure “surfaces”, the “skin” of our culture i.e. fashion, city lights and glimpses of bondage, seemed very appealing to me. I don’t think you need illustrations to the music anyway, but on the other hand, I personally like the images of the videos as surroundings … as a corridor to move through while listening to the music. Listening to the record at a Danish art gallery at the time of the release, having the videos projected on an enormous wall, really gave the music a nice frame. The more personal the lyrics, the more impersonal the imagery needs to be. At least to me.
Q: Normally beauty is often related to people and human beings which is something that I’m missing in all of the videos. Was that a conscious decision to avoid humans being displayed?
A: Humans appear as part of the sceneries displayed. We (MH and the photographer hansen-hansen.com) were only interested in showing surroundings, circumstances, the interactions between things, not the subject itself. As I said, the more personal a statement becomes, the more it needs to appear in an aesthetically purified environment.
Q: All the videos were shot from an observer’s, almost a voyeur’s perspective? Someone being quiet and just watching what’s happening around him? Was that intended to be or is it some kind of coincidence? What was the idea of using that particular perspective throughout all the videos?
A: To me, the songs needed no emotional persuasion. The images had to reflect that. Like people listening to the album on their iPod while moving from point A to B, the Facsimile DVD sets the visuals for a similar journey, an almost random walk through life. I very much like Pan•American’s records, since Mark Nelson seems to revolve around has the same sense of slowed down life-experience we wanted to portray. The alienation you might experience via the images cause you to move towards a centre of gravity in yourself – that, or be completely lost in the passing visuals. To me, both effects are equally fine.
Q: You’re not just releasing albums like Facsimile, but you’re also doing more experimental works with Racing Cars and used to work with on old opera singer which is really interesting as, if I remember correctly, your musical background originally lies in the (post)punk scene. How did this musical development happen and how did you end up with creating such intimate and intense music?
A: I started playing classical guitar at the age of ten, but when punk broke through in 1976-1977 I quit that and started a band of my own. However, influences obviously remain, so I grew up listening to identical amounts of Stravinsky and Sex Pistols. A nice mix actually.
As I’ve already touched upon, music, for me, has always been about conveying reality – a matter of passing on feelings and thoughts, of providing a room of reflection for whom it might concern … as other artists have provided for me. Music, art and literature is a passage, a channel of energy, a way to communicate and sublimate matters, but music without reason is pointless. I’ve always wanted to find new and other ways of working, so once a dynamic seemed used up, I’ve had to move on. Art is like this breath of life – you don’t just do a thing once, it’s a continual process. Life without development is a sad affair, and so is artists stuck in their past. Saluting a tradition can be a great thing, you’ve just got to relocate yourself every time you do so, approach the matter anew. Habits can be a foundation, but also blindness. As an artist you’ve got to embrace challenge. There isn’t any given formula.
Q: You made a long break without performing live. What were the reasons for this long break and what did you do all the time in between? The info to Facsimile also speaks of “avoiding the role as singer and autobiographical songwriter for years” and therefore it seems as if this has been a conscious decision. What were the motives for this decision, and what did you bring you back on track and releasing Facsimile in the end? Maybe the fact that, in relation to the definition of a “facsimile” such as mentioned before, you had to find back to yourself again, to the core of what Martin Hall stands for as a muscian and human being and not just the image that people may had of you?
A: I’ve never liked performing live very much. For many reasons. Mostly because I feel quite exposed. I get very nervous, particularly if it’s the first concert for years. I don’t enjoy the sense of people watching my every move. Obviously, once you’re into the music, you’re relieved of this pressure, but the time before the concerts can be very difficult. I hate touring. I’ve only ever done one tour and that was not a very pleasant experience.
Ever since the early days with Ballet Mécanique, my first group, I viewed concerts as something similar to record releases – that it was a “work” in their own right. Even then, we played very seldom, and often the concerts consisted of entirely new material only played at that one gig. So concerts have always been more like happenings to me, musical exhibitions so to speak, not something you went on tour with or repeated endlessly. In the mid-eighties where my records were released in countries such as Germany, it was quite a problem with my attitude towards touring, and this aspect of my career is definitely one of the prime reasons for why I’m still such a cult act – why I’ve never gathered a bigger audience or had some kind of commercial breakthrough … apart from the fact that most of my records aren’t very well suited for a commercial break.
Anyway, I also get quite depressed after shows. You invest a lot of yourself and then you’re left with this empty feeling, even though the concerts went very well. I can’t explain it – it’s just how I react. Another thing is that the venue for the show has to be special. I need the occasion to be special, the sight to be spectacular. So my latest concerts have been performed on a castle (Hindsgavl Slot), at an old Danish theatre (Århus Teater) and most recently at The Glyptotek, an exhibition hall in Copenhagen with marble pillars and sculptures everywhere. All of these concerts went incredibly well, the last one receiving 6 out of 6 stars reviews, but that was it for now. I’d like to gather myself again, to reconsider everything. I need some time on my own, time to write and re-locate.
Q: Besides that you now begin working as an actor and somehow I guess you’re also painting and doing other kind of arts. Does that mean that you’re dedicating your life to arts in general?
A: As you know, I’ve released a line of books, and I feel a great urge to continue writing. I’m looking very much forward to get on with my next book. At the moment I’m writing essays and chronicles in various newspapers.
Then, on the other hand, as you mention, I was recently invited to play a minor role in a new Danish movie – actually the most expensive Danish movie ever made – an offer I just couldn’t resist. I had to play the part of a completely obscure character getting shot into pieces by the Danish resistance during WW2 … it was just too bizarre a role to turn down. I’ve just come back from shooting my scenes in Prague, and it was very a positive experience – very refreshing. So if someone asks me to play the part of a deranged English poet in the 19th century or something like that, I’ll probably say yes. But then again, I’m not going to start an acting career based on mediocre roles. If the part suits me, I’ll consider it.
Q: Besides the movie you’re shooting in Prague what are your next plans? Do you think I can ever hope for a concert in Germany? Any plans for upcoming shows in Denmark so that I might come to see you perform there?
A: In many ways, I would like to play a concert in Germany. Germany has always been one of the countries where there’s been a genuine interest for what I’m doing, so obviously it would be nice to play a concert here at some point. The only problem is that my live set-up is so difficult to travel with … I mean, the latest concert involving a chamber ensemble and 19 musicians, which does require a reasonable budget etc. Let’s see what happens. But as I’ve already stated, I’m probably not going to play in Denmark for a while.
However, I’m preparing a re-release of some of the old recordings combined with new and previously unreleased material. It’s quite a compilation project, a box consisting of several discs combining club-tracks with soundtracks and remixes. A DVD with visuals and videos will be included as well. We’re in the selecting process at the moment, so nothing is definite yet, but as I said, it will be quite an extensive release summarizing my career so far. I think it’s a very good point in time to release this kind of work now. There have been requests concerning getting the old 12”-singles on cd’s and downloads for a long time, and combined with the new stuff, it will be a fitting frame to view my musical activities through. The box will mark the end of one period and thereby the beginning of another.