MOUTHY ISSUE TWO
interview by Mitch Friedman
At age 52, Peter Blegvad (rhymes with egg bad) has seemingly done it all. Between stints as a member of Slapp Happy, Faust, The Golden Palominos and The Lodge, he’s released several solo albums, illustrated books and magazines, drew the sometimes-surreal comic strip Leviathon, which ran for seven years in London's the Independent and still found time to devote a portion of his life to collecting information about milk. This spring sees the release of Orpheus - The Lowdown, a collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge, their third since 1983. Haunting, funny, unusual, original, and almost eleven years in the making, it tells the tale of a modern-day Orpheus in vignettes of Blegvad’s words adorned with Partridge’s audio illustrations. He recently won a silver Sony Award for his Eartoon Static in the Attic. Let’s meet the 6'7" unmasked man behind this impressively tall body of work .
Your newest release, Orpheus - The Lowdown is the third album you’ve collaborated on with Andy Partridge. What keeps you two interested in working together?
We share several interests, e.g. toys, graphics, game boards, myths, tales and lore in general, the history of animation, humor, horror, hubris, etc. Anthropology and archaeology of the now, as if it were already ancient. We have similar tastes. In songwriting, we both dig the traditional stuff, of course, but we like to escape the tyranny of our own taste occasionally. And that’s what Orpheus - The Lowdown allowed us to do.
What is it about you and milk?
In my youth I sensed it had a message for me to decipher. So I began to interrogate it. By collecting quotes and pictures about the stuff. I’ve used this material in songs, comic strips, cartoons, lectures, etc. over the years. Obsessions can be useful for an artist. See my pages on the Milk Museum in the Ganzfeld, No. 3, a superb full-color art book - magazine available from www.theganzfeld.com. Or read my article in “Sight And Sound,” April 1993. Or visit amateur.org.uk. I’m just finishing another visual essay about milk. This one for the Wellcome Trust, London. I hope it will be published next year in a book to be called the Phantom Museum.
Your musical career has spanned a similar spectrum of highly sophisticated art-rock, experimental spoken word exercises set to music, all the way to the catchiest little pop ditties with funny lyrics. Who would you say influenced you most as a songwriter or musical artist in your youth and who are your current favorites?
As a kid, I had Woody Guthrie records and my mother sang us songs like “The Golden Vanity” to relieve the tedium of long car journeys. I absorbed musicals, novelty records, the hit parade. But I wasn’t interested in writing songs until the 60s. Early influences, all the usual suspects - Bob Dylan, the entire British Invasion, Motown, Stax, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Robert Wyatt, Anthony Moore, Syd Barret, Leonard Cohen, The Band, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Richard Thompson, the Incredible String Band, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, etc. etc. These days I listen mainly to Billie Holliday. Two favorites are “I Must Have that Man,” recorded in her prime, and “For All We Know,” from Lady in Satin, when she had duende, a quality of holy dread. Also Louis Armstrong’s early stuff, the Hot Five and Hot Seven sides and “Up The Lazy River” from a bit later on. I love the Harry Smith anthologies. I had a ball on holiday a few years ago. While the rest of the family went skiing, I stayed in bed, reading Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic, with the anthology of American folk music and Dylan and the Band’s basement tapes at the ready. Bob Dylan still thrills me as much as he used to. I play his new stuff more than his old. One could chart a line of development from "when you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose" (youth) to "just when you thought you’d lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more"(maturity). I think Robin Holcomb is brilliant, and Lucinda Williams. Nick Lowe is a genius. And friends like Robyn Hithcock, Andy Partridge and Jody Harris continue to blow my tiny mind with their songs.
If you could collaborate with any humans that have lived at any time in history, who would you choose and what would you work on?
Compatibility is mysterious, the chemistry has to be just right, all sorts of other factors too. I’m lucky to have found friends I can work with unselfconsciously. Recording Orpheus with Andy, for instance, all the decisions were mutual, it was as if we both had the same goal in mind, though neither of us knew what it was until we heard it. Collaborate... on what? I’d like to get drunk with Rimbaud and Verlaine. I’d like to go to bed with all sorts of people. I’d like to be able to travel back to ancient Greece, speaking fluent Greek of course, in order to listen in on some Socratic dialogues. To walk among the peripatetics listening to Aristotle spout pearls. Plato too. And I’d like to experience the Eleusian Mysteries first hand.
How do you go about writing a song and how do you know when it's finished?
Nothing’s finished, only abandoned. Every artist and writer knows that feeling. After a certain point, tinkering further with a song begins to detract from its aura. Is it just you getting bored with it, or are you actually “gilding the lily,” being self-indulgent, futzing with it neurotically, rather than moving on? It’s a tough call. It seems natural to me to re-record my own songs several times over years, because songs, like identity, are so elastic. Less product than process. But then again, I’m also desperately dependent on my back catalogue for a sense of who I am.
Do you think that living life as a very tall person has affected your view of the world?
Undoubtedly. My kids will be tall too, so I try to reassure them that it’s not all bad. Though air travel is all bad. Tall people are less pushy, ambitious and aggressive as a rule, so we tend to prefer the shadows to the limelight. It’s hard for us to hide, so we appreciate anonymity more than short people. We tend to be more introvert, I think.
What do you intend to do in the future?
Regress back into the primeval soup.
How would you like to be remembered?
What are you most proud of?
The hair on my palms.
See John Relph’s complete Peter Blegvad discography at www.idiot-dog.com/music/blegvad.peter/
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