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Lene Lovich In Interview 1999

Lene Lovich always has something going on and always something to say. So we thought we’d catch her for the third interview by the Stereo Society.  Recorded in London June 2 2017.  We think it’s always interesting to read interviews from years apart conveniently together.

On the same productive afternoon, Lene recoded vocal sounds to be processed and reassembled on Thorne’s forthcoming Willful project.  More details to come.

Lene Lovich in interview

by Mike Thorne

Mike Thorne: What are your plans for making another record?  It has been ten years since you completed March.

Lene Lovich: Well, I think we’re always making another record, perhaps not physically but certainly in our heads.  There are always just too many ideas.  There are still so many ideas from the last record that never became realized so they were put in the information bank.  I have a cassette player handy by the sink (seems a good place for it to be) and, during the course of the day, I am constantly putting little ideas into it.  I have many of these cassettes just waiting to become further developed.

Chinese brush sketch by George McPherson, after a photograph by Les Chappell.Can you remember what’s on them?

Not entirely, no.  But it’s amazing how you just need to remind yourself of what you were doing in that particular period.  So, you might think, are the ideas somewhere on this tape or on that tape?  Just by playing a few seconds you can usually remember pretty much what is on the rest of the tape.

How small an idea would you record?

Very small.  It might just be a sound – (demonstrates sound )–  something like that, or something I hear while I’m listening to somebody else’s record.  Or a conversation on the radio. Something somebody said.  Any kind of small stimulus can generate something interesting.

So you don’t even store that in a musical form, it just could be from anywhere, it just could be a word?

This is the most practical way for me to register my ideas.  When I was little, I use to write da, dum, da, de, da, dum, dum, those actual words, on a piece of paper.  Then, I looked at them the next day, they didn’t make any sense at all.  So it was a great help when cassette players were invented and I’ve really just stuck to that simple method.  There isn’t any point to taking it any further because, at the time, I’ve got so many other things on I can’t develop it.  But I would always like to remember the ideas. 

Lene's cassette in kitchen sink draining basketA classic author’s routine is to wake up in the middle of the night and scribble something on the pad by side of the bed which, traditionally, is often rather strange in the morning.  Do you do that with a cassette recorder?

I haven’t got to the point where I have a cassette next to the bed, but, if I feel that strongly about it, I will come downstairs and record it on my cassette by the sink; depends on how strongly I feel about it.  If I don’t feel that strongly, I just go back to sleep.

So how many cassettes do you think you have collected in the last nine years?

Too many, because once the ideas have been used, I just recycle the tapes.   I have still a lot of tapes, though, meaning that I haven’t developed these ideas.  So there’s a lot of ideas in waiting to be developed.

Actually developing the ideas is the major part of the task?

I think it is the hardest part because, for me, the raw idea is almost enough.  I get very excited about the essence of the idea and I don’t really need all that much more for myself.  But, if I want to communicate with the rest of the world, which I do, then I have to put it in a form that makes sense to other people.

The big question, again, is that it has been ten years since March; Why has it taken so long?

Well, I have other priorities, mainly, the family.  That’s the top of the list and everything else has to make way for it.  I have two children: two girls, and it, by choice, takes up a lot of my time.

Do you find this a major conflict, or do sometimes the family and wanting to make music help each other?

It’s occasionally frustrating, when it seems that it’s been so long since I’ve been able to play with music, and I miss it.  So, it can be frustrating, but it does have an extended way of filtering through your life.  I mean it doesn’t have to be just me making music or me and Les making music, but we have fun with music all the time with the girls.  They throw the music back at me and so we have a world of music which doesn’t get further than the house.  It fills some of that need.

At one point in the last nine years, you consciously moved away from music.

At the end of our last tour, we had a release on a small jazz label called Pathfinder, and we did a tour in support of that in America.  Although not specifically due to that experience, we felt a sort of  culmination of our time in the music business up to then.  It started to be less fun and a lot of problems seemed to be overbearing.  We were beginning to lose our sense of humor.  So, really, it was a conscious decision and not.  Circumstances made us feel that way, and there were other things to do.  For the first time, I couldn’t see the usual album tour, writing the next album, recording, you know, the usual cycle.  I couldn’t see it.  There was a space in front of me.  So, I did try doing some other things, mainly writing a novel.

Graphic showing Lene and Les ChappellWhich is a tremendous investment of time.

Oh, I didn’t think it would take very long  at all.  I thought, well, if you can say anything you want to say and you don’t have to worry about how many beats in the words, all that sort of thing, it would be easy.  It ended up feeling like trying to write three hundred songs. 

Perhaps you were thinking the way a novelist might think about music?

Well, I suppose it was quite ambitious seeing as, until that time, I had never written anything longer than about six inches.  So I don’t know what made me think; possibly it was the strength, a feeling for the story that I had. I think that is what made me try to do it.  I like the story a lot, so I thought I would have a go.

Is there anything else that you tackled in the last little while? Has it been a diversion?  You used the word fun about music.  When music stopped being fun, you looked for fun in writing a novel.  Did you try any other things, a play for example?

I had a shared experience in writing a play, a collaboration between Les Chappell, and a friend of ours, Chris Judge Smith.  It was a show we put on in London about the life of Mata Hari, an alleged first World War spy.  However, apart from that we haven’t really completed any theater work.  We’ve got ideas which lend themselves to the theater situation, and we might develop them at some point.  We’ve now got a few categories of ‘atmospheres’.  When we come up with an idea which sounds a bit like it should live in that atmosphere, we put it in that box and so may end up being part of a theater experience.  The theater experience is sometimes an attractive alternative to your moving around; you get the audience to come to you! 

Graphic showing Lene's braids

Do you think this will be pure theater, or music theater, coming from you?

No doubt it will be music.  I can’t think of it in any other way.  There is a great tendency, I think, in Britain to put verbal on one side and music on the other side, and I like the merging of the two.

It didn’t always use to be that way?

Well, there was an awful lot of music in the show that we did on Mata Hari, and it was something the English critics found very difficult to deal with.  Curiously, the European critics found no problem whatsoever in dealing with it.  So, it says something about the situation as it is now, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. 

How long have you and Les been together?  He has been the silent partner in the Lene Lovich endeavor.  Who does what in this team?  It’s clearly a team to survive such a long time.

Photo showing the back of Les Chappell's head, in silhouetteWe’ve been together since our early school days, a very long time ago, which must be approaching maybe thirty years.  We grew to be more together in more ways.  We have just always been together in everything that we’ve done, and as we’ve learned new things we’ve gone into them together.  So we are together as a family, as creative people.  Les doesn’t appear so much because that is his choice; that’s the way he prefers it to be.  The music that we write comes together like an evolutionary process; one person has a reaction to a stimulus and the other person takes that on board and adds to it, and so the piece grows and becomes a song.

So you throw things backwards and forwards between you?

Yeah, yeah, and usually that happens in quite rapid succession.  There is no planned route in particular.  So, it doesn’t have to be on guitar and voice.  It can be on some synthesized medium or using a percussion idea or something.  It can be anything really; we really don’t have a traditional way of doing things. 

Did you arrive in music together?  How did you begin making music?

Les was always able to play the guitar from when I first met him when he was in his early teens.  So that was the first step forward in music.  He did try to teach me how to play the guitar.  And, I did learn a few chords.  I actually played it on stage in one of our early bands that we were a part of.  It was not our band, but we were just part of it, a sort of reggae/soul band.  I was allowed to play rhythm guitar on some tracks, but the look of concentration on my face upset the audience so much that I had to stand at the back.  I didn’t find it very comfortable playing guitar. 

What year was this?

This is late 70’s.

So when did you focus, as far as the public was concerned, on being a pure singer and performer?

After I did a few tours with hotel bands in Europe, worked in cabaret and did some soul and funk and reggae band things and had had some disco writing experience, as a lyricist.  I suppose it was really very late 70’s going into the early 80’s.  This would be when we signed with Stiff Records, the first time we did our own songs.

And this was when you and Les were well into your partnership, so you had a very clear identity established.

Yes, I suppose so.  We didn’t have anything planned.  We just took each day as it came and just tried to write a song.  It’s so natural for us, so uncontrived that I can’t even begin to say how we actually did it, but we just started.  It came out of a wealth of experience doing other people’s music.

You emerged into the public eye during the punk period, and you tended to be lumped in with them.  Although you didn’t jump up and down and spit at people, you did share the do-it-yourself ethic with the punks.

I like that period a lot.  In fact, I have to owe all my commercial success to it because there was great confusion around the major record companies at the time.  They just had to open the doors because they didn’t understand who was there.  They just had to open the door and a lot of people came in, including Les and myself.  I don’t think we would have had the opportunity had not that same feeling of  ‘anything goes’ been acceptable.  I just don’t think record companies would have been interested in us, anyway. 

Lene LovichThere is one curious seventies revival issue, which seems to have passed many people by: Cerrone’s Supernature, a curious disco piece.  The punks at the time were busy shouting ‘disco sucks’. How did you get involved with that record?

Not all that many people know I was involved with that record because, at the time, I wasn’t being credited as being the lyricist although I was, which business I am not going to go into.  But we have to live and learn.  I had done maybe two albums with Cerrone and various other artists on his label.  It all started with a vague phone call while I was in the studio with a soul band.  Somebody needed somebody to work with this foreign guy who couldn’t speak much English, but he was into disco, and, because we were doing soul/funk, they just sort of shouted in our direction.  And I, grabbing every opportunity whether I could handle it or not, said I could do that, and because I had put my hand up I ended up being on a plane to Paris and had to figure out how to do this new thing.  It was just one of those opportunities that I probably shouldn’t have been given, but I took it anyway.  Supernature was good.  I had done some regular, boring, predictable, usual type disco before then.  Cerrone was smart enough to think the world had had enough heavy breathing and could take something different.  He let me do whatever I wanted to do so I did a science fiction story.  It was just at the time when people were beginning to get a little bit more creative with synthesized sound.  So synthesizers were becoming less of just a sound effect but becoming more integral in the track itself.  It’s quite an inventive record.

Because of your unusual use of sound, whether vocal or instrumental, people often think of you as a very technological outfit.

Well, yes and no.  I love technology.  I love it, I love it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love everything else.  I love all sounds and I am not prejudiced in any way and I don’t care where they come from.  I just like interesting sounds and to make interesting sounds.  The very first synthesizer we worked with was a very complicated affair which involved sticking little pegs into a patch , getting weird sort of  Dr. Who type special effects.  We could do great explosions and things like that but not much else, and that was fun for a while and then synths became more sophisticated and we could do more things with them.  I just think that synths are as inventive as the person who operates them.

Sometimes technology can become too much in its own right.  Do you think it’s overemphasized in the press when people describe the music-making process?

That’s only because of the kind of music people have made encourages people to think in that way.  A lot of people make very boring, very predictable, very ‘put your finger on the keyboard’ and there it is.  Many people don’t make any creative decisions about things and just rehash ideas other people have created.  The whole thing becomes less interesting, less creative.  There is a real danger now because machines can do so much, especially in formatting a song; you can easily get stuck in a rut in the arrangement of a song and just let the machine do it for you.  In the old days, when you had some reason for the band to stop playing such as somebody having to go to the toilet,  something as basic as that, or some conflict or whatever that disrupted the arrangement it could make you think, ‘Oh, we should have a stop there.’  If the machine does it all for you and it’s all very easy.  There’s a danger of letting the machine take over, I think.

You always seem to tweak the machine.  You have always commanded it and taken a conventional thing in unusual directions.  This is reminiscent of the way in which you tackled photography, when you became practically a fashion icon in the seventies and eighties, creating some extraordinary photographs.  How did you and Les approach the photography?

Sketch of digital recorderI think in the same way, with the love of experimentation that’s really the exciting bit; it’s fun to do something unusual, to ‘take a step into the unknown’ and see what happens.  We were never professional enough to learn how to do it properly.  We were always breaking the rules because we didn’t know what the rules were.  So, we would just try really long exposures; we would try photographing at night.  There’s a lot of practical reasons for that because we preferred to do photography outside.  The chances of being disrupted at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of London were less than in the middle of the day, so we used to do lots of photography at night enjoying just the fun of being out there and doing wild things.

Sounds as if you were almost arrested.

Yes, we have been arrested, but not for long, not for long.  No, it’s mostly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You have the same iconoclastic approach to songwriting.  What drives your songwriting?  For example, what was the original inspiration for Natural Beauty?

Well, I suppose, at the time I was being bombarded by a lot of ecological discussions, everywhere–here, there and everywhere–on the media, on the radio and TV, about the state of the world.  I found the negative side of it so unbearable, and wanted to say something good about the world and about the people in it.  You have to counter the negative feeling, because I believe that it’s human nature to take on board what people say, almost become what people expect you to be.  And, I think that with so much negative discussion people could be depressed about the world.  I didn’t want my children to be depressed about the world.  I wanted to say that within everybody is the potential for good things, the energy is there, the possibility is there to do the things you want to do, to make things better.  It doesn’t have to be so negative.

We’re sitting in the idyllic Norfolk countryside, where you have been for the last 28 years.  Your first album was called Stateless, reflecting your cosmopolitan background.  Do you think that your music and approach to the audience has changed through living in such pleasant, settled surroundings?

Lene LovichNo, I don’t think it has changed at all, because we never know where our music comes from anyway.  It is not as though we always go down the same road.  There’s so much inside us, I think.  Certainly, thanks to all the experiences we have had being out and about in the world, it is not as if we have only been here and here is the only thing we know.  We know a lot.  I think anybody who says that they choose to live in a dangerous place or somewhere, unpleasant has probably never lived in a dangerous and unpleasant place in the first place.  I came from a dangerous and unpleasant place so I know what it’s like.  I don’t have to stay there, I know all about that kind of world.  I grew up in urban terror in Detroit, and I don’t need to stay there forever.  I am very self-contained as a person; I don’t really need so much outside stimulus, although, I welcome it when it is there.

Creative popular musicians are often placed on pedestals.  Do think this is a healthy thing?

Oh, yes.  I’m joking.  I think, if somebody comes up with a good idea and presents it in a good way, why not give them some credit?  But it shouldn’t mean that it’s an exclusive pedestal.  There really should be lots of room on the pedestal and we should take turns.

Does that mean everybody should be making music?

I don’t see why not.  I try as much as I can to encourage other people to make music.  I think there’s a lot of insecurity about art unless you’ve been lucky enough to grow up in a very encouraging atmosphere.  The way art is presented to people, from being a child to growing up, is very exclusive, and you think that you have to be a very strange and gifted person to be able to do it.  I just don’t believe that to be true.  I think everybody has the potential to do it.  In some cases some people might be naturally better at certain things than other people, but that doesn’t mean that the rest can’t do it.  I think that there is a danger if people stop being creative and allow other people to do art for them too much.  I think a certain amount of that is okay.  It’s fine.  There should be professional people doing it all the time if they feel so strongly about it.  But I think regular people, who have feelings about music or any other kind of art, should do it because it’s just part of being a complete person.

How do you think this could come about?  Why do you think the artist and the audience have become so fenced off?

Probably because it has become a profession.  When you get paid for doing something, and you go to school to learn how to do it, it starts to become more and more exclusive.  I think that  in primitive situations you probably find somebody who is naturally good at something and then they do it.  But that doesn’t stop everybody else from also doing it.  I think art is such a huge world that there has to be some way that everybody can be involved in it.  I think there is a problem in the way art is presented in schools; it is too categorized.   There are people who can be good at three-dimensional work and not so good at color, for example.  There are just so many different disciplines.  I think that of music, as well.  People try an instrument and give up because they don’t have any affinity with it and they feel alienated.  But there are so many different ways of making music: voice, blowing it, plucking it, hitting it.  There must be something in there that we can all do.  You just don’t give up until you find something you feel good about.

Unfortunately, kids often think automatically and only about making pots of money when they make music in a popular style.

Lene LovichWell, we all have to live, and I think kids are growing up too quickly.  I never thought about money until after I had been on the road for several years and realized one day that, perhaps, I could be making some money out of  this.  It didn’t enter my head for a long time.  But I think people are being forced to mature at a much earlier age, so they become aware of things like needing money.  I think the world is getting to be a harder place to be without money.  Somehow, there used to be always some kind of work to do, some way of kind of getting through the week, lots of little ways of finding food and a place to stay.  I think these maybe don’t exist the way they used to.  So I can’t really blame people for thinking about money, for it becomes just a survival thing.

Do you think there is a way out of it?  If someone is aspiring to earn a living making popular music, would you suggest they adopt your cottage industry approach, or go to a record company for funding?  What do you think is the best way to do it now?

I think the most useful thing would be to understand is how you want to be involved in music.  For me, it was always the creative side of music that was of interest.  I started off at art school because I wanted to be an artist, but I became frustrated with that particular small world of art that, unfortunately, was the case at the time.  I then gravitated to music, which seemed to be a much bigger, much more fun world to be in.  I still wanted to be an artist, so that is the reason why I am doing music, not because I thought I was going to make a lot of money out of this.  I don’t know.  Maybe you could be genius at  seeing a  gap in the market and producing something that would fill it, and all that related business approach, but I really don’t know much about it.  I think the only thing I can comment on is the creative side.  If you feel strongly about being in the world and making your mark as an individual, then you would want to maintain as much creative control as possible and probably the only way in the end is to do it yourself.

What do you think is a reasonable path for a distinctive and creative artist now?  Do you think it has changed in the last 25 years?

I think, yes, due to technology.  Looking on the positive side of technology, you see that it has become a way of being more self-contained.  Equipment is becoming cheaper, so you can find a way of recording your ideas and presenting them in a more economical way.  You don’t have to go to an expensive studio, with all the costs that used to entail.  You can do it at home, do it to a very high standard at home.  But you have to learn how to do that.

Do you hear more distinctive things around, thanks to this new mechanism?

I feel that I’m a little bit isolated, now that I don’t get as out and about as I might have done in the past, so I don’t come across too much new music.  I haven’t really heard much of what is going on, but I feel there’s a lot of people trying.  As long as their standards are high, which they should be, and if they are not easily satisfied, they will be making interesting things.  One day, people will take notice.

Do you think that the popular success of some relatively extreme art music, such as Gorecki’s Third Symphony indicates that the public is more inclined to accept ‘different’ music?

Sketch of keyboardI think that we’re becoming so bombarded with ideas, mainly through TV, that we are exposed to a much bigger world.  We get a lot of information thrown at us, which can only open our minds to other possibilities.  There might be something you see in a advert, even something you might see on the background of some travel program that might stimulate you to find out more about that particular kind of music.  I’ve always thought the general public has a big appetite.  It’s just that most people just eat what they’re given.

Do you think there is any limit to the public’s broad mind?

No, because we’re all individuals and it should be a big world.  There should be lots of different things for different people.  It’s just the commercial aspect of music business that can tend to present such a small menu.