Ostia interview with Martyn Bates
by Amadeo Spahi (Ostia, March 2001)
I. Can you please recount your musical route until today ?
My musical route may appear as quite a strange path to some people; I believe that my first musical interest was folk music, combined with certain aspects of pop music … . But it wasn’t until punk happened and the subsequent movement towards so-called “industrial music” that I became seriously interested in creating music myself. It was the whole scene around industrial music that galvanized me – I got seriously interested in that whole world of ideas, philosophy etc … . It intrigued me both intellectually and emotionally. And suddenly I felt inspired, and determined to find a way to have a platform, to make my own music; it seemed perfectly viable within all this staggering eclecticism encapsulated within this medium. I decided that I wanted to work in a small unit as opposed to a full-blown group; the autonomy and focus of a concentrated unit. Initially I had wanted to work in a trio format, but having met Peter Becker I discovered a wonderful synchronicity within the principle of two; we had all the colours we needed for our explorations – more to the point we had the vital factor of control contained within a compact symbiosis. Another major factor about this decision, and it’s something that has continued to be an interest and an area that we’ve explored in lots of atypical ways – a shared interest in minimalist music. When I say “minimalist music”, I’m not thinking of the so-called “modern classical music” such as Reich or Glass – that doesn’t particularly interest me … (in fact I wonder if that’s not merely a blind alley). In a personal sense minimalism simply means something that delves right into the tone of the music, into the heart of that music … to explore it and yet not “do something” with it … . It’s a way of leaving a skeletal picture that lets a lot of other spaces come into the music … And also it allows the listener to become more active in their involvement as a listener, within the experience of listening to the music that’s been created; it invites more participation somehow. We wanted to make a music that people could get involved with, themselves; active rather than passive. We wanted to make a music that inspired, that promoted investigation of one’s own spirit and creativity; a kind of emancipation via music … via the impetus of example, as opposed to patronising and proselytising. We’ve always thought of what we were doing as “art” (with a small “a” – a kind of “folk-art”) as opposed to pop music … which sounds quite a precious statement to make. However, we always had a conciousness about songs, melodies, and the value of that discipline; what we wanted to do was to combine ALL of our interests, above all we always want to communicate ; and so ! We had the duo, the perfect medium for our conflicting aims … .
II. How does Eyeless In Gaza behave on stage ? Do you often have opportunities to make concerts ? And how does the audience react to your music ?
Nowadays, Eyeless is very much a studio animal … I can’t see a time in the future when we’ll perform – essentially, it’s all to do with the fact that Peter Becker sees himself as “retired” from the live performance arena… Peter still sees Eyeless In Gaza as being as much a living breathing animal as it has always been … but, not in the live arena, not in the “live performance” medium. I must say that this is the one area where Pete and I differ – I think that it’s a valuable medium in its own right, that it has many strong attractions as a vehicle. However, with Eyeless, we operate strictly under the aegis of consensus opinion – we both have to be totally up for whatever the issue under discussion is … And unfortunately, Peter feels that this is a redundant medium for his particular artistic needs. I can see the validity of his perspective, and I respect it – I respect it because I love the guy dearly.
III. Looking back, with hindsight, what’s your opinion on Eyeless In Gaza’s evolution ?
From this vantage point – Feb. 1999 – I can see how we initially began very directed, very strong … only to loose our way sometime around 1985/6, after which we had a 5 year hiatus. We lost our way somehow although we still did some good work despite all that. What happened around that period was simply that we directed our energies in one direction instead the polyglot approach that we’d previously embraced and cherished. Back in 1984/5 we thought we’d focus solely on pop songs, and then revert back to our initial blueprint once we’d made some kind of “commercial” breakthru … crazy fools ! The polyglot approach that we forsook back then of course had a lot more light and shade … And the whole point about Eyeless was that it would provide a vehicle for ALL our different interests … . Therefore it follows that when we decided to point all our efforts into a three minute pop song direction we quickly became bored – it obviously didn’t feed our artistic thirst – there was no way that it could. Around that period a lot of our peers were having popular successes, commercial successes … and we felt quite rightly that we deserved it too … Really it was an act of frustration that I put down to changes in our personal lives – namely the bereavement of my father. I kind of went a bit mad and started to “accentuate the positive”, as if I was a character that was only one-dimensional … . It was unhealthy … Just to focus on the one aspect of being – and that kind of unhealthiness surely always results in stagnation, which was what happened … . So it’s not my favorite Eyeless, although we DID do some good work in that period … . In my defense I’ve got to say that all of the bands from that era … Coil, Chris and Cosey, Spk, Psychic Tv … they all had a kind of “pop” episode around that time – it was definitely something in the air, with all the bands experienced a reaction to an unintelligent aping of our initial work – the audience dressing the same as the bands … slavishly researching Manson, Magick, serial killers etc … all wearing black, y’know the whole cliché … I think the bands all looked out into the audience and didn’t feel that cycle of re-generation that is vital to creativity … . There were huge factions of the audience not being intelligent in their response to the source material. Anyway, Feb. 1987 found Eyeless In Gaza stagnating – we really needed a hiatus. Five years later, we started working together again, continuing an evolution that relates directly back to the spirit of the first three years of Eyeless, yet extending and further examining the blueprint.
IV. In what circumstances have your collaboration to the Last of England and The Garden soundtracks occurred ? What’s your favourite Saint Derek Jarman film and why ? What does Simon Fisher Turner’s last album sound like ?
I met Derek when I went out to Tokyo with Simon Turner in 1987, just after Eyeless split – I was performing with Simon as part of an ad-hoc band for Simon’s alter-ego, “The King of Luxemburg”. In fact Derek filmed us performing (not that I’ve seen the film !). Derek Jarman, yes – a fantastic ideas person, some kind of personification of creative energy. His films are all a feast for the eye, although I feel that his film-making was somehow hijacked … well, the larger scale works like The Last of England and The Garden. As regards the written word, Derek is fantastic, very stimulating, and as a philosopher he’s a great focus and energizer. Essentially, I contributed to these soundtracks at the specific request of Simon … It was very exciting work – I learned a lot. I think my favourite film is Glitterbug because it’s autobiographical in a direct and overt way. Usually it’s the short films that are my favourites … Marianne Faithfull’s “Witches’ Song” … The Tempest was excellent as well, and showed that he could successfully aim his work towards a wider audience. Aspects of Jubilee I enjoyed, especially the Elizabethan sequences. In the Shadow of the Sun was good too – that was an incredible period when he just utilized whatever was to hand ; I love that kind of resourceful creativity … .
V. Will your collaboration with Deidre Rutowsky finally see the light of day ? You’ve also worked with Anne Clark and Elizabeth S. ; is this a necessary counterpart to your androgynous voice ?
Interestingly, I’ve never considered my voice as androgynous – perhaps it is – maybe that’s an example of the artistic process can be so revealing, so mysterious to the artist … It might be interesting to frame my work in terms of Jungian analysis ! I don’t think that I would not like to go down that road though … . And try to get to understand the whys and wherefores and motivations of the various aspects of what I do. I think that once you start to over-analyse yourself you find either a) a wrong road or b) you find you’ve rendered yourself invisible – you’ve got nowhere for the mysterious process of creativity to go. You become too self aware, in an unhealthy way … . Ultimately, it’s inhibitive.
VI. In what state of mind have you recorded the Murder Ballads with M.J. Harris ?
Interestingly, the particular state of mind that is necessary to sing those songs in the way that I did is one of a complete detachment … These long involved, trance like pieces with the same melodic verse-form often repeated 17/18 times over throughout a twelve min piece … . It’s necessary to become totally uninvolved with the mechanism of singing, in a self-conscious way that is … . What you need to do is let the music, tune and words act as a medium so that all this rich layered impact of the folk process can access you ; as if you’re a vessel, as if it’s singing you … .
To me it was, and is, very special material, not everyday … . There’s quite a mystery to this stuff … . In fact the whole folk process holds a special interest for me – this compacting of experience into the oral tradition, or rather into the “sung” word is potent, directed … concentrated … . The imagination is completely fired, and can be tripped into areas of heightened experience … .
VII. Your song settings of Joyce’s Chamber Music poems are quite minimalist. His words are in a quaint gallant English, which fits you well and you can thereof do what you want of them, bring them whatever shape you will. Can one say you play with syllables and rhymes like this in order to create a new language ?
Nay – that would be too self-conscious … Again, recording these pieces was like heightened experience. They were all done “live” – all done in one take … . So they are all performance pieces. It was such an intense thing to undertake; sheer pleasure ! I was always aware of the tempting musicality of these pieces, the way they sung upon the printed page … . I was very aware of this when I set the poems to music … . And I was thinking about Joyce’s Celtic background, his experiences as a singer, his intimate knowledge and love of music … and also the fact that Joyce is a writer beloved by academics. Joyce writings are worked half to death by so many earnest academics that analyse the fuck out of what he does. Obviously, he set his work up to be like this – there are many layers to his work; therefore in a way it’s the perfect vehicle for that dry analytical approach. I felt it was important to utilize the polar opposite with respect to how I should approach the material, I wanted to intuit. I worked within a very approximately Celtic area of melody – that was my only guideline. It seemed really important that I should make my statement about Joyce viewed through an intuitive, not an intellectual prism. Joyce is not a “private club” – that is a total misnomer and is fundamentally detrimental to that spirit of what he was about.
VIII. Innit frustrating to see that such an influential band as Eyeless (with the band Pale Saints taking the title of a song as a moniker, the French “touching pop”, a few Sarah Records bands …) only has a “success d’estime” ? Why do you so rarely appear in the medias ?
The main reason why we have not had the critical success, or success in terms of sales to date is that principally we’re very difficult to market … . We’re not gothic, we don’t focus on arcane subjects … we’re not straight rock, or pop, and we’re not hung up on “Magick”, and we’re not doing opera either come to think of it – so how do you sell Eyeless ? We straddle several camps … . I personally think that this is a strength artistically speaking … . I mean, you can’t even say we’re “independent music”, anymore, whatever that is !
IX. Are you satisfied with World Serpent’s distribution work ?
What’s happening at the moment is that Eyeless are negotiating a new outlet for our material. It was great for a while there with World Serpent – it was wonderful to belong with our peers, like Legendary Pink Dots, Current 93, Death In June etc … . However it’s now time to move on.
X. What does your book Imagination Feels Like Poison deal with ? The title evokes a certain bitterness, doesn’t it ? By the way, it seems to me that you’re sort of concerned about the difficulties people have to communicate. In some (many, I’d rather say) of your songs it appears that the “guy” who sings is so desperate – even exasperated – to talk to brick walls that he gets ready to shut himself up in a somber mutism, due to such incompatibilities … Can you elaborate on this ?
You have correctly identified/pinpointed a major area of interest of my concerns as a writer ; Imagination Feels Like Poison again deals with that particular topic … . In a way it’s an obsession. What I’m concerned with as a writer is merely trying to intuit areas where the sleepwalker is rendered awake … . My concerns are the concerns of the transcendentalists, the imagists … . I seek the illumination that is in the everyday, in the commonplace. I personally don’t believe in the value of elaborate ritual in religion, or in everyday concerns or in society as such … . I think that this is something that happens all the time. Life is incredibly complex – every nuance is packed full of resonance and meaning – it’s almost as if the human psyche/anatomy/mind is over-satiated … . What I’m seeking to do with my work is to connect, to short-circuit … to access the Divine … and as a writer I feel privileged to do this, secure in the knowledge that I write as everyman and that everyman is me.
XI. Finally, what could be your creed ?
In a nutshell, my creed must ultimately be I MUST CREATE – to not do so would be a kind of death that would be TOO MUCH to countenance.