Interview with Paul by German journalist Thomas Weiland recorded for Radio Brandenburg and 'TIP' magazine (both Berlin), held in England on August 10th 1994.
Q: Tell me first how you made a connection to German label Strangeways Records.
PR: When I thought it was time to return to recording after a two year lay-off I contacted Public Propaganda, the PR company who used to do a lot of promotion for me when I was with New Rose - and they had done it very well. So they were the first people I wanted to contact when I wanted to find a new German label.
They said they would be happy to do the promotion and relaunch my career, if you can call it that. I sent them an advance tape of the new album 'Sarabande' and they made presentations to various record labels and I chose to go with Strangeways, whom I'm very happy with.
Living in England I hadn't really been aware of them, so they sent me a package of their recent releases and I was very impressed. I liked the style of music they were putting out. There was a lot of varying influences within each band. They had also published a book of poetry by one of their artists and that appealed to me. It made me think that they would be into other things. They looked like they would build an artist up and not just release one record and then forget about the artist if he didn't make their fortune as New Rose seemed to do.
Q: You spoke about a two year hiatus. What happened during these years?
PR: Well, I was feeling that there was a danger of becoming stale after I had been working with the same musicians over so many years. It hadn't got to that point yet, but I was nervous of that happening and so I really just took a break and began writing my first novel 'The Magician Of Grimm', which was good discipline and gave me a different sort of satisfaction and pleasure. I knew the music was still there. I had fragments of songs which I hadn't finished when I did the last album 'Roaring Boys' and I just took an enforced break to think things over. I also moved from 'Roland Towers', my ancient family home in Kent, to Oxfordshire which took a lot out of me. So there was a lot of writing and activity, but not necessarily channelled into music. To be honest, I was also getting fed up with New Rose. The label had been sold to the FNAC chain of record stores and soon afterwards to somebody else. The man originally behind the label appeared content to be a paid employee of his own label and the distribution ground to a standstill. I even had a letter from FNAC's record buyer asking where they could buy my records and they were in the very same building as New Rose! Naturally, I felt there was little point of writing and recording if they were not going to bother to promote it and distribute it properly. People were writing to me and saying that they couldn't find my records and when that happens you tend to think, then why bother to release anything?
It took a while before I had the idea to start my own record label. For about a year I phoned Nick Saloman every few months asking his advice and help with contacts because he has had his own label for some time, but no sooner had he convinced me that it was the only solution than I thought of several good reasons why I shouldn't do it! (laughs) I repeatedly talked myself out of it. But then I had the idea to find a German label who would release the album simultaneously and act like a kind of backup. I couldn't do it without the backup of a European label and Public Propoganda to do the radio promotion in Germany. That made the difference.
Q: You've always appeared to have problems with record labels. You don't seem to have been a stable act on anyone's roster.
PR: It wasn't like that at all. I don't accept that it was so changeable. It was quite stable. I was with New Rose for a long time. I've always had complete control over my records which was very important to me and I licensed them to other labels. So I suppose that when a company in, say, Greece or Italy offered to put out one of my records and promised to do good promotion I couldn't refuse. There was a particular period - around 1989 - when I had 4 different labels all releasing the same album ('Duel'), because they all said that my records were hard to find on import in their country and that they knew the magazines and radio stations in their own country better than anyone else, so I gave it to them. Only later I discovered that having 4 labels in Greece, Germany, Italy and France didn't mean 4 times as many sales, but each would have a quarter of the market and no one was happy!
Q: You have written a book of short stories and also articles for British magazines, and now you are working on your first novel, so is a lyric for you just a piece of paper with words accompanied by tones or tunes? Where do you draw the line between the words you write for your records and the words you write for your books?
PR: I consider myself a writer of prose, poetry and music. My imagination simply expresses itself in different forms depending on the opportunities I'm given and whatever inspires me at any given moment. So I can get just as excited about writing an article about the occult or a film review, for example, as I can when writing my own music. It's all writing, it's all creative, but each is a variation on wordplay and requires a different discipline and gives a different satisfaction. To describe a character or create a little story in a three-minute song is difficult, because I have to be more concise than when writing an article or a novel in which I can develop ideas and characters and fill in more details. And yet prose is equally demanding, but in a different way, because the fantasy has to be sustained over a longer period with plot lines and characters developing and interacting. I need both. I couldn't live with only one way of expression.
As with my music my way of writing lyrics and prose is still instinctive. I'm not interested in the rules of grammar nor the theory of music. For me both are a matter of common sense and instinct, reacting emotionally to the 'feel' and 'sound' of words and music. I still haven't learnt to play the piano as I promised myself I would and I don't score the parts for the musicians I work with. My way of working with musicians remains instinctive. Like the young Orson Welles I don't know what can and can't be done so I try to recreate everything I hear in my head and don't want to hear any reasons why it can't be done! (laughs)
I am a bit like a film director or conductor, though I don't shout and wave my arms about as much as they do!
Q: For the past ten years people have put you in the same niche as artists such as Robyn Hitchcock, Andy Partridge of XTC and so on, who make great music but keep apart from the mainstream music business. Do you feel good about being put in this niche?
PR: Yes, I do really. I never contrived to be anything in particular. I just grew up in my own little world and as I read things and developed my imagination I filled in the details of this world. I coloured it in so I simply 'live' there regardless of anybody else, whether they are other artists on the same trip or critics whose opinions I'm largely unaware of because I can't read the foreign press. I don't consider myself to be working in the same area as anybody else. I don't categorise myself, I'm simply an artist. But I'm quite happy to be categorised because it makes it easier for the media to describe what I'm doing to people who might not have heard my music before. I think that's quite useful. I can't understand those artists who throw up their hands in horror at being compared with somebody else. It's so arrogant. Nobody creates in a vacuum. We're all influenced or inspired by others to one degree or another. And it's an essential part of the music press to package someone's music so that it can be more easily digested. We all know a category doesn't tell the whole story, but it puts the reader in the right direction.
I'm not going to be restricted by what anyone says about my music or indeed by my previous work. If I have the urge to write a ballet or a chamber opera or whatever, then regardless of how successful the last album was I won't make another in the same style but follow my instinct and write what excites me.
I believe that the quality of my music and lyrics will come through no matter what form I present them in. If I write a chamber opera it won't be like any other chamber opera, not a conventional classical chamber opera, but a Paul-Roland-eccentric-psych-pop-chamber-opera!
Q: You rarely deal with contemporary topics. Why is that?
PR: Well, if I can begin by saying that to be honest I believe I was wrong to completely immerse myself in fantasy at the expense of being aware of what was happening in the world. In retrospect I think I was quite immature and I now balance writing fantasy with a knowledge, an awareness, of the world I live in. However, it's equally true that preserving the transient concerns of this particular moment in time without using one's imagination is equally narrow and introverted. The thing is to strike a balance. So I have actually started to read newspapers (!) and watch the news and current affairs programmes occasionally, though they tend to leave me depressed! I hope though that I would never be so naive or pretentious as to attempt to write songs with a political or environmental theme because I think every thinking adult is aware of these issues and doesn't want to hear an artist going on about how terrible the world is and how selfish we all are. At the same time, there are aspects of human nature which are timeless and shouldn't be hidden away but could, if sensitively handled, be woven into a song or story - and which would then have more lasting value. I have in fact done this many times, albeit in 'period costume', so to speak.
I recently read an article about kids who leave their homes for the big city, are abused by the people they fall in with, and who end up sleeping rough in doorways. I was drawn by the idea that if they can't be found in four hours then they're lost for good. That gave it an urgency and a tragic quality that I could be inspired by, and I may still end up writing those kind of songs if I can find a personal angle - a character whom we can feel for - but the idea of impersonal global catastrophe or sordid 'kitchen sink' drama is just not for me. If I did it I'm sure it would sound contrived. All that 'we are the world' nonsense is so forced and full of empty earnestness. For goodness sake, if you have compassion for people or the environment do something practical to help, but please don't sing about it!
If I want to respond to an appeal I'll do that as a person, but I don't feel the urge to write about it. It doesn't inspire me to create, to preserve it, but to bring the suffering to an end by whatever means is practical.
A man who lives entirely in this world, in this moment and doesn't use his imagination, and doesn't have the foresight to see that there is more to this life than what we see in front of our eyes is also being very narrow-minded. So I'm quite happy to follow in the tradition of the storytellers who have fed the world's imagination and said something about the human condition, albeit with fictional characters. You can't criticise them for that. It's the way some artists are. Others deal exclusively with reality and do it better than we do.
Q: Fair enough. Would you say that apart from reading the newspapers and touring that you are otherwise a reclusive person?
PR: Yes, I'm a very private person, but I like to tour so that I can meet the people who listen to my music and get their reaction, although it wouldn't affect the way I write. I still feel that I need that contact. It's not enough to write and record music for my own enjoyment. It's a bit selfish not to want to share it with others. If it's of good quality it'll enrich their lives, too.
Q: How do you perceive the reaction of your fans when you tour?
PR: I was quite surprised to discover that they liked very different kinds of music. I don't know what I expected them to like, but it was odd that they came from such widely divergent areas. My Greek label told me that people who bought Sonic Youth albums from them were also ordering my records!
It was also a bit strange to learn that there were quite a lot of people who would come to the acoustic gigs, but wouldn't come to see me when I had the full band, and vice versa. I can't understand that. If you like somebody's music surely you go to see them no matter what instrumentation they are using. I can't see myself fitting into one particular category. I couldn't write a complete album in one particular style. I'd be bored no matter how good the individual songs might be. As a complete human being I'm interested in a lot of different things. I rarely play an album by somebody else all the way through, but pick tracks here and there.
Q: I've rarely seen your image on one of your records. Why is that?
PR: I never considered that it was important to put my photograph on the cover of a record. I never thought of it as a 'selling point'. It was my music that I was presenting and that is a separate entity, if you like. Whether the guy making the music is short, fat, thin, ugly, bald or whatever is completely irrelevant to me. So I never dreamt of putting myself on the cover except for 'Masque' when I had a particularly nice colour photo of a tree which just happened to have me sitting beside it! (laughs) But it was a pleasant pastoral scene which fitted with the mood of the album, and that's why I used it. Otherwise a photo of the artist on the cover of an album doesn't tell you what the music is like, so why put it on?
Q: It seems to be essential to the marketing of an artist in England.
PR: Maybe, but I don't subscribe to that. I want to convey the music that is inside the record and if people in England don't buy it because there aren't five pretty boys with nice haircuts on the cover then 'nuts' to them. I have lost a bit of my cynicism since I've become more successful abroad, but I'm still frustrated with the British music press and radio. Now that I have my own label I have to grit my teeth and send them promo copies although I know that they won't even listen to it. You would have to be a saint not to feel a little bitter by that, but when the reaction is so positive and open in Europe and Japan it just shrinks Britain into insignificance. Who needs it? I don't listen to the radio - I can't, but I've been told that BBC Radio One DJ Mark Radcliffe (the 'new John Peel') has been playing my old records, although I never sent them to him! He must have gone into a collector's shop as they tend to do, and asked what was worth listening to and they must have recommended mine.
I was on a few English labels at one time (Armageddon, Aftermath, Imaginary and Bam Caruso), and there was considerable interest from the British press and radio in my music then, but these labels were all one-man operations and either overstretched themselves or imploded and left me without any support, so I gave up and licensed everything for the next few years to New Rose. Perhaps I would have been more successful if I had been more positive - or should that be naive? - and really tried to get a record contract in the UK, but I just couldn't bring myself to put on a false face and play the party game with the men in suits. It's all so false. They majors market music as if it was fast food and the end product is just as unpalatable and indigestible.
I've thought seriously about living in Holland or Germany and that option remains open. People there seem to be in the business because they're fans - unlike over here or in America where people are in the music business because they want to make money and indulge in the trappings of success although they themselves aren't capable of creating anything.
Q: Which music or musicians led you to want to make music on your own?
PR: Initially it was people like Marc Bolan, Slade, Sweet and 50's rock. Glam rock was long dead when I began to get excited by music, in the mid-Seventies, but I was attracted by those artists because they made such perfect pop singles. Their songs were strongly melodic, with a rocky edge and impeccably crafted. They said all that had to be said in 3 minutes. I still try to do that even though if I feel I can add something by extending a piece of music beyond that point I'll give it its head and see what happens. I think I might have been a bit too rigid in that idea in the beginning. Some of my earlier songs end before they've really had a chance to develop, but generally my songs are quite short because I still believe in that philosophy. If you can't say it in 3 minutes, don't bother saying it at all.
Q: It sounds as if you have been through a huge learning process during the last couple of years. You've discovered the news (laughs) and new approaches to music...?
PR: Yes, I'd like to think I've matured in many ways, as both an artist and as a person. Perhaps that's why I included that black and white photo of myself taken outside Notre Dame in Paris in the 'Sarabande' CD booklet. Maybe I wanted to prove that I'd grown up and now looked like a serious writer and not a fresh faced would-be-pop star. But I believe it's a gradual process. A lot of young bands are pressured into turning out songs at an unhealthy rate and aren't given the chance to mature as people, so their music doesn't get the opportunity to develop either. They are forced to make records at only one stage in their life and so can only speak to others on the same level, which is OK up to a point, but it leaves the rest of us who still hungry for music with the limited options of looking backwards, going nowhere particular with Bon Jovi, or into classical music while we've still got a few brain cells left.
That's another reason I didn't pursue a major record deal with any enthusiasm. If I had been signed perhaps I, too, would have been burnt out and bled before I'd had the opportunity to grow. I would never have known what I could have made because I would never have been given the opportunity to make it.
Q: How do you explain that XTC are still with Virgin after 14 years?
PR: Because, from what I've heard, they can't get away from the label! One of Virgin's top A&R men once warned me not to sign with them. Not unless I was prepared to take them to court when I became really famous to get out of their airtight contract and negotiate better terms. Who needs that kind of stress?
I've never been tempted to give up artistic control to a man in a suit. Besides, I like the business aspect of running a label - just so long as it's my own! (laughs)