Earlier this month, the experimental artist and song writer Alien Skin released his brand new album European Electronic Cinema. We reviewed the collection in depth, but were eager to find out a little more about how it all came to be. Here’s our exclusive interview with the artist in full.
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Congratulations on the release of the new album. I know the writing and recording process can take up a significant amount of time and focus – do you remember there being a sort of eureka moment when you finally realised you had it all there and ready to go? Or, was it more of a constant state of checking, re-checking, editing, asking for advice, then nervously putting it out, because – I guess there comes a time when it really is just now or never?
Firstly, thank you for your earlier kind review of European Electronic Cinema. I began conceptualising and writing the album around Christmas of 2015 even before releasing my new album to be, Winter on Mars, in March 2016. A eureka moment occurred when I realised that my hurriedly created song sketches, measuring to about 12 tracks and committed at the time to pre-production midi arrangements, had a very definite theme to them, atmospherically, emotionally and sound wise. This gave me the confidence that this collection of songs, or most of them, will translate well into an album without too much pain and double guessing.
Usually I write one song at a time over a protracted period and hope each eventually fits snugly on the same album with the others. This time round because I intentionally wrote them in a short period of time I felt a fluency existed right from the beginning. Of course once the subsequent labourious task of seriously arranging and doing final production began I did check, re-check and edit.
When I am creating an Alien Skin album I enter a self imposed impenetrable vault. I never ask other’s advice or opinion as I know this will most likely derail the entire creative process I have in motion. If I was working with collaborators that would be a different issue, but working alone I have learnt that the only way I can sound the way I choose, the only way I can be Alien Skin is to make all the choices myself and stick by them, for better or worse, like a marriage vow 🙂
There’s a strange meeting of the melancholy and the peaceful in your music. As a listener, there’s a tendency to go from feeling very content and happy, to feeling a little sad, and ultimately quite reflective. It’s a powerful effect to have on your audience. June Is The Coldest Time would be a good example of this. Do you remember what you were thinking about prior to writing this track, and how you felt as you were putting it together? Was it a planned piece, or more of a free flowing expression of emotions through the sounds? And how do you feel when you listen back to it now?
All art I believe is to some degree a window, a peek into the artist – the person, and what is going on contemporaneously inside his/her head and emotional core at the time of creating a piece of work. There was no master plan behind the song. At the time of writing I was in the general frame of mind and emotion that the song and indeed the album reveals. I’ve always had a more melancholic state of being than an overtly jubilant one so it reflects in my compositions and June is the Coldest Time is a good example of this.
It also contains a bit of ambiguity: in the northern hemisphere, where most of my Alien Skin listeners are, the month of June is of course summer and the idea of ‘the coldest time’ is far more emotive than here in Australia where it’s winter and therefore…believe it or not it really IS going to be the coldest time of the year…that ambiguity was a bit of fun for me, mixed into the melancholic atmosphere. Yes, when listening back I’m still proud of the song, I think it’s one of my better efforts and it does reconjure the state of mind I was in when I conceived it during the 2015 Christmas period. I’m also one of those people who feels a little saddened around this traditional and celebratory time of year, that added to the mood of the composition.
You kindly refer to the ‘meeting of the melancholic and peaceful in my music’ and I just wish to highlight the track All Tomorrow’s Cares which was written a day after the death of David Bowie. His passing had a profound affect on me as it did with many people, and it sparked the first lyric line ‘today it’s you tomorrow I die’. A couple of weeks later I wrote the last track on the album My Polaroid Friend (Thin White Duke) which was my proper, if somewhat abstract, tribute to the man and his breathtaking music legacy. These two songs, to me, symbolise that meeting of peace and melancholia that you cite.
I suppose we hope, as musicians, that people will discover and enjoy what we create. Not necessarily in vast and unmanageable numbers, but enough so to feel like there is value in what’s been made; that people appreciate it. Is there anyone in particular that you tend to have in mind when you release something new; someone for whom you stop to consider how they might receive it? Do you think it’s more intense making the reveal to friends and family than it is to strangers or potential fans? And in either case, I’d have to ask – why do you think this is so?
I’ve been writing, producing and performing music for a long time and when younger I was far more competitive and far more easily upset by people not liking, dismissing or ignoring the music I was involved with. Those days are gone for me, they were the 1970s – 1990s and certainly it was the case when I was working in bands like Real Life that had major international success. I now produce music as Alien Skin in the way I want it done, with no compromise, and creatively I’ve never been happier.
I never write for a target audience, I don’t really know who my best target audience is to be frank and I don’t have the resources to find and be connected to this demographic; one can make some dreadful errors in judgement if trying to target a specific listener group. No, I produce music I feel, music that appeals to me, the creative me and the fan me. I often say to musician friends, the biggest Alien Skin fan is me, it can only be me, no one else can understand or appreciate the inner workings of my compositions as I do. In the same vein, the biggest fan of any of my friends’ music can only be themselves – same reasoning.
I know it’s easier to present music to strangers rather than friends & family. The former have no personal history or real world, face to face emotional connection with me so they know me solely from my music, my work; it’s a far more objective and healthy situation and that’s the way I prefer it to be.
Your music is everything the album title promises and more. It’s atmospheric, the sound is big, the variation is immense. If you were to play a live show, solo, in a small, intimate setting – would the set up be as extravagant as the songs required on the recording, or would you feel comfortable performing them via a somewhat more minimal medium? Does the level of instrumentation hugely affect the atmosphere and feeling presented by the songs? Are there any songs you could sit and perform with a single instrument and still feel it had served it’s purpose?
I’ve been an obsessed fan and exponent of electronic music since the early 1980s, the band that did it for me back in the day was Depeche Mode – a more accessible development of Kraftwerk live. I immersed myself totally into everything they did and how they did it. The years have passed, everything has become ever so passe now and no one blinks an eyelid at anything as it has all become commonplace. But to me I still derive pleasure from being able to bring much of what I recorded to the stage, I did that with my previous band, Real Life. The totality of all things that made a song work, the atmosphere, the sounds, all these things I would want to have with me to present to the audience. We have the technology to do that, even in a small intimate live setting (my favourite).
Growing up and going to concerts and local gigs I always felt reassured when a band was able to reproduce, to a reasonable extent, what I cherished in their recordings. It is still true for me today. Within my genre, to many people, the sounds, the atmospheres underpinning a song can be just as important as the song itself. Having said that, I do have a number of songs in my back catalogue that I can perform minimally. On my previous album, Winter on Mars, I make use of acoustic guitar on every track (albeit through effects) and certainly some of these songs can translate well as minimal, single instrument, live renditions – the title song being one obvious choice to me.
In terms of learning and progressing in life; personally, I find it inspiring to watch and read about people who succeed in extreme sports. I’m particularly interested in listening to professional rock climbers describe their daily grind; the mindset, dealing with fear, staying focused, building strength, continuing at all costs – because you have to, because it’s survival. Have there been any hobbies or experiences for you, in work, education or otherwise, separately from music, that have contributed to your outlook and your skill set for being an artist?
That’s a good question, but honestly for me music itself has been at the core of who and what I am since the age of 12 or 13 in the early 1970s – both as a fan and songwriter. Everything I was forced to do, like day jobs and school were something I did not derive much pleasure from and even hated, especially the jobs. I just always wanted to escape and surround myself with the/my creative world of music. As an artist nothing really has inspired me more than the success of other music artists and their work. I have eaten up the life stories of entities like The Beatles, David Bowie, Depeche Mode and others. Their achievements, their brilliant and innovative music continues to inspire me more than anything else I have experienced. I continue to learn and apply this broad education to my own works. I think I’ll be like this till my last day. I just LOVE with a passion the music AND the artists I love.
What’s the longest time frame within which you’ve not written a song or a piece of music? Was it an intentional break, or writers block – maybe even just a matter of circumstance – and how did it make you feel? How did you feel when you finally went back to it?
I am always anxious to write new music or continue working on arrangements and production of existing songs with the view of some of them winning the right to be on a forthcoming album. The only time I am far away from being musically active is if I’m on holiday or unwell. A few years ago I underwent 3 major surgeries and was physically and mentally unable to do much and there was no motivation within me to consider any musical activity. That lasted months. But as soon as I began feeling stronger the urge was quite overwhelming. And when I did switch my gear on and started recapping on things I had left undone months before, it felt so much like returning to the security, comfort and love of home after being shipwrecked for months alone on a dour island.
How do you intend to spend the next few months of the year, now that the album is out? Any live performances or side projects coming up?
I will continue to do whatever I can to make as many people aware of European Electronic Cinema. Making people aware and hopefully increasing one’s fan base is an ongoing struggle for most of us independents. Simultaneously, I am working on the next album release, I have already sketched out about 15 new songs and need to begin vocal recording and production, this will keep me busy for the next few months.
As for live work, I haven’t performed live since the end of my involvement with the band Real Life in 2005. We had just finished an American tour promoting an album at the time and called it a day soon after that. With Alien Skin the cost of setting up and running a live performing unit, especially considering most of my audience is in the northern hemisphere and I live in Australia, is extremely prohibitive. I can never sell enough of anything to make it a financial and logistic reality so I’m quite happy to continue as a ‘studio artist’. My younger self would never have accepted this situation but there you go, sometimes you do accept things as you age as long as they are not overly compromising.
A huge thank you to Alien Skin for taking the time out to talk to us. Read our in depth review of the new album European Electronic Cinema, and follow Alien Skin on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest. Grab the album and find out more over on his Website.