Eye to Eye #15 ROBERT ROTIFER

RobROtRobert Rotifer. A man of many talents. Freelance Pop and Culture Correspondent, Painter, Radio broadcaster. Oh and a pretty fine songwriter. He has released 5 albums since 2001 on small labels and his latest ‘The Cavalry Never Showed up’ is out on Gare Du Nord Records

We wish more interviewees waxed as poetically as Robert did and to be honest whatever we could have written as an intro he pretty much covered in his answers. So without much further ado, we give you Mr Robert Rotifer.

TLE: What are you listening to at the moment?

RR: A pre-release of the new Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks album. It’s brilliant. Sadly, people seem to be a bit blasé about his solo work while they got all excited about the Pavement reunion a few years ago. Credit to Malkmus for not letting that bother him at all. Speaking of skewed perceptions of an artist’s work, I’m just finishing the new Ray Davies book “Americana”, which made me listen to some of the later Kinks albums that I’d previously ignored. “Sleepwalker”, which was overshadowed by punk, is actually a great album.

TLE: What’s the most Rock and Roll situation you’ve found yourself in?

RR: I don’t know if you know this, but as well as making my own music, in the last 20-odd years I’ve made my living as a music journalist and radio DJ. I moved to this country in 1997 but continued to work for Austrian and German magazines and radio stations, so I’m leading a kind of double life. Over the years I’ve met so many musicians, which should be rock’n’roll but really wasn’t. When I’m with friends and we talk about music, I get on everybody’s nerves by constantly saying “Yes, I interviewed him once” whenever names like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, John Cale, Kevin Ayers or Robert Wyatt are mentioned. On the upside my day job has made me less susceptible to hero worship. Saying that, Darren Hayman playing in my band meant a lot to me because I loved Hefner and Darren’s solo work, still do. Being on Edwyn Collins’ label AED and having him play at my record launch in London a couple of years ago was a huge honour. With AED you ended up in these situations like bumping into Roddy Frame at the office and him asking me how the record is doing, when I’d only interviewed him for my radio show a few years before. I can’t deny that was a big thrill for me. But often it’s the less famous people that are the most rewarding to meet. Sitting with Brian Godding from my psychedelic heroes The Blossom Toes on the floor of his council flat in London and rummaging through his archives might not be rock’n’roll, but it was a really special moment. Or talking to Bill Fay who seemed genuinely touched to learn that people loved his music for decades without his being aware of it. I’ll better stop the namedropping now, but I guess you can see what I mean about being a bore.

TLE: What’s been your favourite gig so far and why?

RR: I really can’t think of any single one, it all becomes a blur after a while, but the most surreal one must have been the time I was booked to play at a week-long guerilla festival in South-West Sardinia a few years ago. There was a lot of stoner rock on empty beaches and garage punk in actual garages complete with disoriented bats. The bands and the audience had travelled to the island from all over Europe for the occasion. To appease the local population, the organisers decided to put on a special gig as part of the annual festival in honour of Saint Anthony. So I ended up playing on a town square on a stage in front of a church. It was a warm evening in late spring, the procession of the statue of San Antonio had just passed by, and the scent of the flowers that the people had thrown at the wooden saint was heavy in the air. And there I was in front of hundreds of Sardinians, singing songs in English that they didn’t know or understand. It was absurd, daunting and magical all at the same time. The next day we went back to London and I supported Darren Hayman at the 100 Club. It was great as well, but it couldn’t have been more different.

TLE: How do you describe your sound?

RR: It is song-centred guitar music with the lyrics playing an equal role to the sound. It often appears more straight-forward than it really is. My guitar playing mostly comes from that Wilko Johnson/early Pete Townshend idea of being the sole guitarist in a band, mixing chords, riffs and fills and going of on a tangent in the coda. But I also have a tendency towards jazz chords and waltz time, it’s never purely rock.

TLE: How has your music evolved since you started playing?

RR: I started out in a complete hotchpotch of a band in mid-eighties Vienna, where the bass player wanted to do funk, I wanted to go in a punk and sixties direction, and the drummer was into metal. I then joined a mod-soul band, while also playing what we thought were psychedelic suites in a rehearsal room band that never made the stage. The drummer was always too stoned to remember the changes. Then I played solo for a while until I formed a guitar pop trio called the Electric Eels. This was the time before you could google band names to find out if someone else had got there before. We were fairly successful in Austria, but never liked the sound of our album. Trying to produce a second one, I ended up doing a four-song-double-seven-inch single produced by a Viennese group called Sofa Surfers. We combined cut-up beats and samples with my slightly unusual chord changes, which was quite a challenge pre-time-stretching and pre-pitch-correction. Moving to London in 1997, I realised that my English lyrics weren’t up to scratch, so I kept writing just for myself until I had found the right language. My first solo album “A Different Cup of Fish” in 2001 was a confused mishmash of styles. Part of that was actually recorded in Liverpool at LIPA, where a friend of mine, who studied to become a sound man, used my songs as his guinea pigs. Since then I’ve had bands with various line-ups, but Ian Button aka Papernut Cambridge has been my drummer and one of my best friends for a few years now, and Mike Stone from Television Personalities became the permanent bass player after Darren Hayman left because he simply had too many other commitments. I then discovered finger-picking on “Before the Water Wars” in 2006 after moving to Canterbury. That album was recorded almost completely live in the studio, which has since become my favoured way of working. Over the last few albums I’ve become gradually more confident as a songwriter. I’ve got into writing songs on the piano as well. I’m a hopeless player so this has made me less afraid of being simple rather than overcomplicating things.

TLE: What are your rehearsals generally like?

RR: Minimal. We don’t rehearse very often at all, maybe once before a run of gigs to try out something new. If you rehearse too much you end up not really making music onstage, you’re just playing it. I like to watch a band who surprise themselves with what they are doing, even if it might sometimes go wrong.

TLE: What’s the ultimate direction for you?

RR: There isn’t any. I can’t predict what I will want to do in a year’s time. Right now I’m working on a b-side with a disco beat and some bare-knuckled guitar on top.

TLE: How do you write your songs?

RR: Again, it varies. Sometimes I dream them or they just come out complete, like “November” on the new album. I wrote that while I was cycling home one night and had to find the chords on the guitar afterwards, the way you learn someone else’s song that already exists. Sometimes I have a phrase that I want to turn into a tune, like “I Just Couldn’t Eat as Much (As I’d Like to Throw up)”, or I play around on the guitar or the piano until something emerges, like “From Now On There’s Only Love” and “Wear and Tear”. And then at other times there will be something that I feel needs to be said and I’ll purpose-build a song around that idea, like “The New Fares” or “Last Century”.

TLE: What do you think the music reflects about you, or is it pure escapism?

RR: Both. I guess the kind of escapism you choose says a lot about you. I don’t feel like a very Viennese person, for example, but there’s probably a reason why I always put a waltz or two on my records. I put a lot of my politics in my songs too, because music is a great way to channel my anger. And sometimes when I write a rock song like “Optimist out on the Open Sea” or “Aberdeen Marine Lab” it’s just excuse to enjoy the pure childish fun of being in a band.

TLE: What’s the hardest aspect of being a solo artist/in a band?

RR: Not getting paid. Putting lots of money and effort in for far too little return. I say this without the hint of a moan and in the knowledge that, conversely, recording has become cheaper than it’s ever been, which also means that there are too many people releasing new records onto an ever shrinking market. I’m one of them, I’m part of that problem, no one has asked me to do this. And yet that’s how you got to hear my music, so it’s already justified by more than just my narcissism. But when people tell me how great a free gig has been and then can’t find a fiver to spend on a CD because they need to buy another beer for £4.50 (London trendy place prices), it can be disheartening. There are, however, much bigger injustices in the world. People having to stack shelves at Poundland just to keep their little bit of dole money. That thought quickly makes me shut up about the hardships of being in a band.

TLE: What do the next 12 months hold for you?

RR: We want to play gigs in other parts of the country rather than just the south-east, hopefully come up to Liverpool as well. And we’re going to go to Austria and Germany again. We will put out a single edit of “Black Bag” with a new b-side, and I’m already starting to write songs for the next album. I’m supposed to work on a tune for an interesting project of Darren Hayman’s, which is exciting, but I haven’t got round to doing that yet. On November 27 I’ll play in London at Servant Jazz Quarters as part of the backing band of rediscovered seventies songwriter John Howard, who has been making music again for ten years now and has just put out a fantastic new album called “Storeys”. This gig will be co-headlined by my friend Ralegh Long who will put out a new record on our Gare du Nord label in the spring. Now that I’ve mentioned the label, that will doubtless make up a big part of what I will do this year. “Cambridge Nutflake”, the debut by Papernut Cambridge is about to be released or maybe already out by the time this goes online. We’ve put together a label compilation called “Ebbsfleet International”, which is all exclusive tracks by John Howard, 30lbs of Bone, Darren Hayman, Picturebox, Arthur in Colour, Fairewell and ourselves and will get a commercial release at the end of the month. We’ll also keep putting on our own label revue nights. In the summer I will get involved in Popfest Vienna again, which I co-founded four years ago as a platform to showcase the local scene over there. It got bigger than we ever expected. Also I was working on a bilingual German/English album with Pete Astor earlier in the year until everything else got in the way, and I’d love to get that going again.

TLE: Who’s your favourite artist music or otherwise?

RR: I’ve already mentioned some of my musical influences, and apart from that I guess I’m very predictable: I’ve always loved Truffaut films. Last weekend I visited the collection of Flemish School paintings in the Royal Museum of Art in Brussels for a second time. If I could afford to, I’d go there every week. Apart from that, I’ve recently been blown away by Isherwood’s writing about pre-war Berlin. I really should have got into that much earlier in life, but I used to be quite a lazy reader.

TLE: Robert Rotifer in 5 words?

RR: Just can’t stop droning on.

TLE: What takes up most of your time/attention, music, painting, your radio work?

RR: At the moment it’s my journalism and translation work. I’ve just co-edited, translated and co-written a musical travel guide to Austria, that was a lot of work. So I’m out of those woods and I’m writing music again.

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