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Patrick Wolf : interview in English

[As it was my first interview, my technical abilities were minimal so I recorded the whole thing with a tape recorder while using the loudspeaker of my wireless phone. I sadly discovered at that occasion that wireless phones do create electromagnetic interferences that sometimes cover the sound of the voice in the recording so there are a few sentences which I couldn’t understand. Those are marked by the […] symbols. If I understood only parts of it or if I’m unsure of some words I put those in italics .]

The first part of the interview was Patrick making a brief summary of his life so far. There are already numerous interviews of him on the Web (see the links on [his official site for instance) so I only wrote down here what was new to me.]

Could you give me a brief summary of your life so far?

PW: I was born in South London (St Thomas’s Hospital, just by Waterloo Station). My Mom is a painter (an Irish family). My dad is a jazz musician… I grew up with them. At 6, I’ve started learning the violin. I joined orchestras and choirs, playing around the world. Then puberty set it. My voice dropped so I tucked my violin and started playing with synthesizers, 4-tracks and started making noises. At 12, I used to write fanzines and I got into contact with a group called Minty. As I played the theremin [Legend says he actually built his own theremin] they asked me to join for a couple of shows. We developed a good friendship. I was really badly bullied at school and it was like having a family to look after me you know, something a bit showbiz. At 14-15, I left London to go to school in the countryside [in Hampshire], worked up in farm and stuff. When the lambs were born, we would take the placenta and make a soup with it. Typical English stuff. A very liberating experience. A little city boy in the middle of the countryside. That’s when I really worked out where I was coming from

I came back to London, left home [a mutual decision between him and his parents]. We didn’t speak to each other for one year and a half. Big falling out. […] In London I worked full time as Patrick Wolf, working on my music, recording every day, practising…

Q : And making gigs with your friend Fanny under the name of Maison Criminaux ? You give a description of those in your piece on Playlouder.com [something with gabba beats and Enya samples]? I must say it sounds like great fun, a very good night out.

PW : Not many other people got the humour. That was the problem. We were just having a laugh in the most absurd and fun way. But people are so straight in London. It was just confusing to them. So they kinda fought against it you know (deep grumpy voice) “Grmpf. It’s horrible.” We got a sort of reputaton in London. I’m very proud of that.

Q : Is there any recordings of those gigs?

PW : Fanny just lives down the road right now and she comes over every Friday….[And we think about reviving it]. The music actually was really amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever heard or listened to before.

Q : From what you said, it seems a bit similar to what Atari Teenage Riot made.

PW : Yes, but you know Atari Teenage Riot were so serious. So we tried to pick up from [what they did], that kind of absurd German [shouty bit] kind of thing and make it just fun. I’d really like to pursue that project but I need to find the time and get back to what we did at the time. You know, almost like a History project.

Q : When did you live in Paris?

PW : When I left home I had two options : to live in Paris or in London[…] I began to make frequent trips to Paris to know what it was like and if I wanted to go there. Then in Paris I met some guy who wanted to promote my music (Capitol K) so I decided to stay [in London]. [It’s during one of those stays in Paris that a clairvoyant gave him the name ‘Patrick Wolf’.]

…] At 16 I sent [Fat Cat a mini-disc of some of my songs. I was stuck in London and I really wanted for things to start happening. Fat Cat had released so much gorgeous music I was really a fan of. I wanted to maybe get them to make a 12” with a couple of my songs. Then a week later I had a phone call : “Oh, we’d love to meet you” and stuff. I was so young. I had no idea about the whole music business. My studio back then was just made of bits and broken wires. I couldn’t afford anything. Everything was just so ramshackle. There was like two wires folded together with Sellotape. I think they saw that and thought that it’d prevent me from getting better so they got me a mixing desk, an Atari. I’d never programmed a computer before.

Q : You never released anything for them though?

PW : We were maybe working toward that but then they signed Sigur Ros and really began to work on them. It was really gorgeous of them to do that.

Q : After Lycanthropy was released, you said you already had written two albums. One of ukulele pop and one “documenting dark English passion”. Wind In The Wires doesn’t seem to be either of those….

PW : Really ?

Q : Well, two or three songs could be described as ukulele pop but…

PW : It’s a darker album.

Q : So when did you write it?

PW : The idea of Wind In The Wires has been with me since I was 16 or 17. I took a train journey down to Dorset . That kind of…this love of…my broken radio radio static, those shipping broadcasts and English voices, the BBC, these long English winters where everybody feel total despair. I really tried to tap into that. More so with production than the lyrics but, you know, the lyrics followed. Teignmouth was the first song to be written from that (at 17). [In the NME he describes Teignmouth as “You know when you listen to the shipping forecast at night but you haven’t quite got the radio tuned in? I was trying to recreate that in a pop song. The idea of radio static, deep beats, piano, melancholy.] This weather came a little bit later. So each time I had a song that seemed to have the same bloodgroup as this kind of album I’d put it aside. Then one day I realized I had enough in order to make the album. Straight after Lycanhropy was released I realized I didn’t have the budget or the machinery in place to make the pop album so the best thing I could do was Wind in the wires .

Q : But there are a few songs that could be described as ukulele pop. The railway house for instance.

PW : Yeah. I suppose so. It’s very difficult to tell you the difference [because you didn’t hear the demos] but when I think about pop I think mostly about people like Burt Bacharach , really ‘technical’ kind of stuff. Because Lycanthropy had been so excentrically schizophrenic. It was just like “OK! Here’s blue, here’s red and here’s yellow” and I was leading you to every different colors of the spectrum. So here I really wanted to focus on that dark grey and black. And I wanted to make the album shorter, more concise. I mean… that wasn’t a conscious decision. It sort of came naturally.

Q : Most of the songs on Lycanthropy were written ‘for fun’ at a time when you didn’t really know if they’d be available to the public. For your second album things are obviously different. You knew the album would be available. Did that new situation influence your writing? I find Wind In The Wires to be a bit more polished, a bit less ‘in your face’, more restrained than Lycanthropy . Did that change happen at the writing or at the recording?

PW : Wind In The Wires is very much in a way a reaction to the experience of releasing Lycanthropy. There were some things I was dealing with in terms of not… I was suddenly not just a boy free-wandering around the world. I had released an album. There was now a machinery in place I had to work with. I knew it had to be mixed properly and recorded in a good studio. I was terrified of putting myself in a box, to make a Lycanthropy 2. The fact that people would be listening definitely had an influence but I was trying very hard not to let that get in the way. A kind of struggle to make some thing pure to myself . But it was really well worth the effort.

Q : Lycanthropy was really the album of a teenager having left a chaotic life. It was full of the impetuosity and the hypersensitivity of adolescence, documenting a time where everything, good or bad, is deeply felt, without any distance. Wind in the Wires shows you to be much more at ease with yourself and with the world. In fact you said said that you were now happier than at any time during your teenage years. Apparently, writing, recording and releasing Lycanthropy has enabled you to close the door on those years and to somehow start anew. It really shows on the album. Freedom is the key word. Now for instance you write songs about settling down in a house (possibly with two dogs, two cats a big kitchen and a welcome mat). Would you agree, as ridiculous as it sounds for a 21 year old, that it is a more ‘mature’ album? [Cliché question alert]

PW : Yeah. I’d definitely say it’s my coming-of-age. My voice and everything about it is a lot deeper, a lot more.. large. I was now able to answer some questions I had asked on Lycanthropy …. Actually it’s a bit more like a transition, suddenly finding myself. The Railway house came as the last song of the album that I wrote. I’m now living in a cottage very much like The Railway House. There’s a feeling of anchoring, belonging again. After being [with Lycanthropy] so unhooked, unhinged, really just….rude and teenage, not having any money to buy my dinner, I suddenly found myself able to put my feet down, calm down a little bit and take every day as it comes.

Q : When you were writing Wind In The Wires, did you already make up with your family [his sister and, I think, his father play on the album)?

PW : Yeah. It was a big part of it. It came toward the end of Lycanthropy. I moved back to my parents’. Leaving at 16, I was back in at 19, just under a year before Lycanthropy was released . I had no money. So I moved back there, set up my studio, my laptop and just really make friends with them. Wind In The Wires was sort of about coming back to that : family, belonging.

[He has no idea of how many albums he sold with Lycanthropy. It could be anything.]

Q : Lycanthropy was about cities. Wind In The Wires is very much a countryside album, even a seaside album.

PW : The inspiration for it is a chalet on the seaside of Cornwall. I’ve visited this area a few times and it gave me some songs…Penzance , the B-side to ‘The Libertine’, was written the first time I ever went there in Cornwall, at 17. Then I kept returning there again and again and being drawn back like a magnet to this area, trying to find out why I loved it so much. So I went down to sort of expeditions to find about the area : dock tales, ghost stories, just falling in love with it. For me it was the first time I ever found a place where I felt like I was at home but also free, liberated. So I went down and wrote maniacally for about seven days and the lyrics all came up and I refined some older lyrics. I came back to London with a suitcase full of news songs. I don’t think I’d ever been able to write Tristan in London for instance. You go on a walk for two hours. You’re exhausted, soaked. You come back in and this thing would just pop in your head. Really a lot of the album could never have been written in London.

Q : You said that, for you, to write a song is therapeutic and a good way to purge yourself of whatever feeling or emotion it incases. As a consequence, you sometimes feel it difficult to relate to the songs again, especially when you’re playing them live. Would I be right in saying that as a musician you’re more interested in songwriting and recording than in playing live ? I was at your gig in Brussels last year and, while it was very good as a whole, it sometimes felt like you were a bit uneasy with your being on stage as if it wasn’t really something you enjoyed. Do you really enjoy playing live ? It feels like you’re more of a songwriting and recording kind of guy.

PW : I think so. Sometimes playing live is a bit like a jukebox. You see I don’t have a set time I wake up every day and I don’t eat a meal at 7 o’clock every day. I can write three songs on one day or only one in a month. It’s emotional, a very instinctive way to let things happen. I really live my life like that and when it comes to “OK. You’ve got to sing there at 8 o’clock.” I find it really…. When I’m in the right mood in the right place it can be a really amazing experience for me or the other people. But if I’m not feeling like I want to sing [then I can’t…]. I hate those people like Mariah Carey coming out and singing really emotionally but, you know, they don’t give a shit…just like a coin-operated emotion. I try my hardest to really make a communication. Sometimes I may not be in the mood but I see one person in the front row who I can tell is listening and it would just totally change things and switch me on and totally put things back on track but it has a hell of a lot to do with the audience. I never get excited when I’m alone with my laptop. I need somebody in the front row or a grand piano [as for that gig in Brussels], something to make it extraordinary to me. I always try to make each live show different. It’s a challenge to myself. I just can’t make live shows in the same way as, you know, touring rock bands do. If I could do live shows like set up a stage then call everybody “I’m feeling really emotional. I’m going to tell you a story.” I’d much prefer it like that but that’s not how it goes really.

Q : It might be a bit difficult to sell tickets for that. …] You’re liked by many different people. It’s a bit stange to see that people working with [NME, Popjustice.com, Pitchforkmedia or The Face for instance can all like you. They are very different people with very different expectations as to what music should be. Do you feel closer to some of those people? Do you read them? It sometimes feels like you’re not very much interested into what’s happening in the musical world at the moment and to very much live in your own world.

PW : It comes back to when I was living in the countryside at 15. When I was younger I had a spell or really being involved, writing fanzines, going out and seeing bands. Then I just couldn’t really be bothered anymore. I had so much gorgeous experience, getting excited by corn fields? , shearing sheeps, growing things in the garden, listening to Stockhausen on full blast, you know things that wouldn’t be celebrated by the mass media ever. What I’m trying to do with my music is to get the things I find really beautiful in the world and try to translate them in order to give them to other people. I don’t feel connected particularly to people like the Libertines or Razorlight. I just can’t understand how these people make their music. I just find it so boring.

Q : You wrote a piece in the NME where you start by basically saying to NME readers that everthing they listen to is shit, which I find very brave in a way (“boys with guitars copying boys with guitars copying men who have had nothing to communicate but what they thought would get them laid”).

PW : Well, the thing was…you know. I’m not scared of being on my own with my opinions. I’ve been on my own with my opinions since I was about 12 or 13. Now I have gorgeous friends around me to share things or have very exciting conversations with but, as far as mass media are concerned, if I want to say one thing it doesn’t scare me at all. Ridicule is totally nothing to be scared of. I can’t lie to everybody. I can’t pretend that I enjoy the music [that NME promotes]. What I’m saying with my music, what I try is to give someting better because I’ve seen there are better stuff out there and people just buy what the media tells them to buy. I wish they’d make a little bit more research, go to the library or go through their parents’ record collection or something..

Q : But is there any kind of current music being made since, let’s say, 2000, that you like? When you’re listing your influences or your tastes, it’s always things from the past.

PW : It seems like two times a day I’m after my favourites song or make a list or something. I’m very careful with what I associate myself with. I have to see a big catalog of their work in order to see they are the real deal but I get a sensation with people like Cocorosie . I think they are very much on their own. I really like that, a kind of magical sensibility. Then there are the greater people who’ve worked for about 10 or 12 years, people like PJ Harvey who are just, you know, total geniuses. [He then talks a bit about Kate Bush and how he’ll only believe there is a new album coming out when he hears it].

Q : Some people describe your records as “claustrophobic” because the outside world seems to have no real place in it. Do you think it’s a fair assessment. How do you feel about it?

PW : I really don’t see [my music] as claustrophobic. I understand that when you put on my records you enter inside a world and are taken somewhere else. With all my favourite music I want to feel like transforming from my body to enter the music , I want to feel like my soul being ripped out. I want to FEEL something. That can’t be done with weakness, half-blooded attempts at communication. It has to be done with total full-blooded…. like you’re gonna be raped(?) or something . Maybe it’s not background music but thank God for that. I’m happy to make the communication I make. I work in a very intense way and I speak very intensely with my music. For me it’s a bit music or die . Maybe it comes across as claustrophobic but I think it’s a challenge. I challenge people. I take them into my world for a while. I give them things. There’s a lot of giving in my music.. not so much taking you know .

Q : You can’t imagine to one day write a political song, that says something about the world.

PW : My job is not to be discussing the price of oil, George Buh… or Osama Bin Laden really. It’s to give people an exit, a sanctuary, to provide people with a beautiful thing to listen to. I’m not gonna get involved in the banality of the world.

Q : You feel very strongly about the leaking of your album on the Internet and you pleaded with your fans not to download it before its proper release. Because of the money of course, which I understand completely, then because you want the “story to be told the way it was intended to be told” (more or less your own words), which I’m not sure I understand. Do you make a difference between downloading a song or hearing it on the radio for instance?

PW : Thats why we release a single. We release The Libertine . Maybe I’m old-fashioned in my way of thinking how an album should be released, how things should be given. The Libertine is my first message, the first enter way(?) into the album . I don’t know. I just come from the old-school way of hearing a song on the radio. You get really excited. You wait a month until the album comes out then you get hold of it and you put it into your CD player at home and listen to it from beginning to end. You read through the lyric book while you’re doing it. You close the door and won’t let anybody in while playing the record.[…]. You know, when you listen to the album, the way The Libertine fades into Teignmouth , the way Apparition finishes and goes into Ghost Song . That’s not done by mistake. It’s painstakingly put together during the mastering process. They flow into one another. It makes the album a finished art form. Then the art work is kinda put together with the music. It’s a finished piece of art. It [downloading] is like taking the Mona Lisa and cutting it into 12 pieces and ask the public to put it back together. I find it a shame really that people don’t want to believe in the magic of music anymore.

Q : Would you indulge me in a quick game of I like/I don’t like? You’re associated with many people and I suspect that you really don’t like many of them. Nick Cave and the bad seeds ?

PW : I like some of his songs. I don’t really know him that much.

Q : Björk ?

PW : Björk is a genius. I mean, when I was 12, she was the only one to actually say “this is shit”. There’s no need for this, to be so boring. Things with guitars really don’t have to be that banal. I find a true inspiration in that. The fact that she dares to take a string quartet on stage and work that way. I feel the same responsiblity now to get that message across to the young ones. [He makes a parallel with his NME open letter in January 2005]

Q : Pet Shop Boys ?

PW : I don’t know. I don’t really think of them.

Q : Soft Cell ?

PW : I don’t care either. When I was 17 people were saying like “It’s crazy. You sound like Marc Almond”. I don’t know maybe I did because I sang very passionately in English but I never listened to a Soft Cell record in my life.

Q : Tindersticks ?

PW : I don’t know.

Q : Scott Walker ?

PW : I prefer Jacques Brel . [I try there to get him to listen to Tilt . The NME also mentioned Tilt in their review last week (in the 12/02/2005 issue)]

Q : Radiohead ?

PW : I don’t know but my sister likes them.

Q : Nick Drake ?

PW : Yeah. I’ve got a couple of Nick Drake’s records.

Q : So no real surprises there. I find it amusing to see that while hearing your music, people make connections that have no real grounding in reality.

PW : Like Duran Duran . Like what the fuck? I’m 21 years old. My first memories come from 1992 or 1993. [gap in the recording when I had to change the tape in the recorder] For me electronic music is more people like Kompakt [probably] or the IRCAM. All that electronic music is totally surpassing(?) all human limitation . When you tell electronic music to people they think synthesizers, or The Human League . To me it’s not. Even Kraftwerk is not really electronic music. It’s rock played on synthesizers. It’s very much based around the pop structure. It’s basically synthesizers replacing guitars.

[From this point, the recording is of much lower quality and I sadly missed some pretty important parts of the answers.]

Q : Even Kraftwerk ? I’d say that Atari Teenage Riot for instance are more ‘rock’ than Kraftwerk.

PW : No, because of their way of throwing the drums, the white noise […]. They come from a very dramatic experimental school, much more than Kraftwerk [….].

Q : You’ve collaborated with Mike Paradinas (µ-Ziq ) I think.

PW : We were going to work together but it was too cheesy. [I listened to that part until my ears were buzzing and I still couldn’t decide if Patrick thought Mike’s ideas were too cheesy or if it was the other way round. There are also talks about a holiday in Greece and the sunshine somewhere.]

Q : You said once that you really liked Michael Jackson as an icon, especially for the way he “bought himself out of reality”. Now that reality seems to get back to him, what’s your view on him? Do you really think he’s to be admired?

PW : I never meant it as to be admired. Although I think he’s totally innocent. The American crazy conspiration brain is really focused on Michael Jackson [He then goes on elaborating on how Michael Jackson is a one-off character that with his power and money has been able to extract himself from the world and stay there, with his feet not touching the ground, becoming sort of immortal character]. I find it very interesting.

Q : But a bit tragic I think.

PW : Yeah. Of course tragic but… [His phone rings and interrupts the conversation for a few seconds. I didn’t bother going back to that subject].

Q : You’re doing a Valentine’s day show in London to present Wind in the wires with a string duo (a trio if we include you). Will that be the set up for the whole tour?

PW : I’m gonna try. I’m definitely bringing a wonderful drummer who’s gonna be replacing the laptop. It’s gonna be really fantastic to get that. I’m really trying to bring it down to a real folk show .

Q : Any dates for France or Belgium?

PW : We are touring from April to September so we’ll definitely come. We are doing the Domino Festival [in Brussels] again this year.

Q : May I ask you a last question? I found a mp3 file called “Patrick Wolf ft. Bishi – Free but not for long”. Is that a genuine track of yours?

PW : Yeah. I really don’t know how you found that. Bishi has been sort of like my soulmate. We met when I was 11. We’ve been romantically involved for a while. We ended up working together musically and I produced her album then we had a big falling out and we haven’t spoken to each other for a year. […] That album is not available. We had a big argument about the production. We were making really great music but unfortunately the management she was involved with was a bit “liberal” with my work so I decided to [stop it].

[I thank him and wish him good luck with the album].