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David E. Williams: An Interview

David E. Williams

David E. Williams

I discovered David E. Williams’ music by accident. It was when we were having a remembrance night for Rozz Williams, watching a variety of rare performances, films and listening to different releases, a friend played me a disc called Accept the Gift of Sin.

This was collaboration with a man called David E. Williams. The project had mostly Rozz singing, David also singing and playing synth and Jerome Deppe played guitar, Kenneth Brune played saxophone and Lou Pepe played accordion. The disc contained renditions of both Rozz’s and David’s songs, it was totally unlike anything Rozz had made before.

I searched the web and found David was still making his own music and ordered a couple of discs Pseudo Erotica and Hope Springs a Turtle from his website. I was instantly grabbed by the darkly humorous stories coupled with a form of well structured piano/keyboard led instrumentation that had some musical backing from various musicians (a key figure in Williams’ backing throughout his career is Jerome Deppe). Within a period of six months I ordered every disc by David E. Williams. Using an entirely different musical language he managed to make music with intensity comparable to Cop-era SWANS.

David’s music is often mentioned in regards to the Neo-folk genre, but I find that label too narrow and confining a description of his work. This interview took place by e-mail over several months spanning the start of his career up to the forthcoming tribute CD to be released on the Old Europa Café label.

What were you doing musically prior to recording and releasing Pseudo Erotica?

The nightmare of ecstasy began when I was ten years old and started taking piano lessons. The annual recitals were a source of great stress, much more nerve-wracking than anything I experienced in my later days as a gothic rock superstar. You were all alone on stage with everyone’s parents listening. I still remember the sweaty hands. The highlight of the epoch was my 1982 rendition of Chariots of Fire by Vangelis; my grandmother was very proud. Ugly adolescence dawned with the discovery of rock music and the obvious need to become a superstar of the genre.

In college, I played in what you might so charmingly call a “pub band”; one of my duties was the Moog solo on Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Lucky Man. But I was the true “lucky man”, as the transcription had recently appeared in Keyboard magazine.

On the side, I was involved with a basement band called Lemon Schubert. We were influenced by Black Sabbath, Tangerine Dream and something that used to be called “jazz fusion”. There were also solo recordings before Pseudo Erotica. One of them included a toy that made animal noises.

To me Pseudo Erotica is the strongest “story telling” record, the stories are far more prominent than the music (I think the music is great as with all the other records, but your piano skills come through more on A House for…). On A House for the Dead and A Porch for the Dying there’s more of a balance between the music and the stories that continues from there on. This made me think are the stories written as stories before, or are they written on the piano?

Let me make some broad commentaries about my songwriting, and hopefully the answer to your actual question will arise from the mire like some gleaming silver turd.

A couple things about Pseudo Erotica… first, it DOES in fact contain David E. Williams’ favourite David E. Williams’ story, which is Bad Day Anyway. I think that song has a kind of completeness that eluded later tales of degenerate horror such as Seizure Dream Believer. Of course, it also includes an anachronistic reference to porno magazines that used to have photos and addresses in the back. I haven’t been to the porn shop in several years, but I believe the internet has rendered these sections obsolete.

Also, except for novelty tunes like My God and My Dog, my songs from the Pseudo Erotica-era followed a somewhat strict design: I wanted to tell nasty stories set to very repetitive music. The repetition was supposed to symbolize an uncaring world—alas!—trudging relentlessly over a growing pile of corpses. I guess that was supposed to be social commentary which found its perigee in the “song” known as Stillborn.

Of course, many of my admirers—a party of two or three dozen that may or may not include myself—will argue that my natural musical skills broke through and created this bizarre hybrid so lovingly referred to as “beautiful songs with sick lyrics”. As the team and I moved toward A House for the Dead, I Have Forgotten How to Love You etc., you are correct in noting that things became more and more traditionally musical. First of all, as I became more and more of an adult, it was more enjoyable to make real music than to just be an annoyingly nihilistic asshole. Second of all, I actually thought I could score a major record deal and become (if not a rock star) than at least a self-sustaining working musician from this stuff.

OK, so here’s how I wrote songs in later years: generally, the lyrical idea of the day (or month) is matched up with whatever random musical idea I also happen to be working on simultaneously. So there. That’s the secret behind the “disturbing” incongruity that all of you find so fucking wonderful.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and on occasion, I have that Paul-McCartney-Yesterday moment where I wake up in the morning with tune and lyrics in head. A lot of that goes on during times of deep emotional stress.

I was aware of twisted references to pop music in your work, but it was listening to an early Scott Walker album that something became apparent to me about your work… in that there are consistently very high production values in your work and very old fashioned pop instrumentation and methods going on. All the instrumentation is actually doing something within the song rather than just add an effect, there’s hardly any recognizable modern points of reference musically. What or who in your opinion were the greatest musical influences on your music?

Well, first, I thank you for the compliment on my high production values (I try my best, mate, but even I don’t necessarily agree that I’m successful all the time!) It’s very nice of you to say. You know, when an arrangement’s done right, then all the instrumentation should actually do something! The goal is economy, musically saying just enough but not too much (although I’m personally a sucker for a lot of things that many people denigrate as being “overproduced”—all hail Alan Parsons and Bob Ezrin!) I’ve obviously enjoyed many artists who are generally considered “cool”—from Syd Barrett to Joy Division, from Scott Walker to Lou Reed. But in thinking about your question, some credit needs to be given to a few people WELL on the other side of hip. And these would be the melodramatic 70s pop stars that my mother and sister exposed me to as a little boy: the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Eric Carmen and one-hit wonder morbidities like Michael Murphy’s Wildfire, Terry Jacks’ Seasons in the Sun and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again Naturally. I didn’t rediscover much of this music until the 1990s, but I really think these songs made a subconscious impact (even if not all of them are mentioned on my Myspace profile!)

It’s odd, though, for someone to say that a guy known primarily as an “electronic musician” has “no modern points of reference”! I’m certainly not offended, but in all fairness, I’ve done things like put distortion effects on tone clusters (tone cluster defined here as all of the adjacent keyboard notes that fit under both palms of my hand laid side to side), I recreated Rozz’s noisy Mindfuck for live performance, and I was even the principal synth player on a Deathpile power electronics album where I had to follow all kinds of rules about not sounding “gay” (“gay” defined here as rhythmic, melodic or harmonic).

The soundtrack you made for the film The Strike Zone is for me an essential David E. Williams release in that its being instrumental allows for the instrumentation to communicate more on it’s own. I am reminded of a lot of older film soundtrack throughout. How did this collaboration come about?

It’s very simple. Norman Macera was a friend of my girlfriend and Williams works cheap. Actually, in retrospect, he approached me at a time when I was really doing nothing in terms of straightforward songwriting, so I certainly had time for him. I know of no official place to purchase the DVD, but Norman and his troupe have also completed another film, Murder Below the Line, to which I contribute a portion of the soundtrack (Personal crises invaded my life midway through the production). This film is premiering in Philadelphia on October 19 at the Terror Filmfest.

Ten years later, how do you feel about the Accept the Gift of Sin project with Rozz Williams? I feel it to be a strong addition to his later work and your own work. Personally wish that it had turned into a studio project as “less is more” works best for both of you in terms of backing.

That record was a LOT of work I must tell you: from the original arrangements for the gig through the whole posthumous semi reconstruction of the recording to the whole business ordeal of trying to do the right thing and release it on “Rozz’s label”. I think it’s a good record: good songs, decent arrangements, a fine singer whom I’m sure most forgive for the occasional drunken slurring and forgetting of lyrics… It’s a shame it didn’t get more promotion. There’s a lot of crossover appeal to something like I’m Not in Love. I’m not saying it could compete commercially with the vulgarities of contemporary pop, but surely it has reach beyond Rozz’s little corner of the Goth ghetto. But I guess that comment could be made about his entire career. It’s a shame really. Not as big a shame as the more obvious personal tragedy that is Rozz Williams, but a shame nonetheless.

This brings me to my next question in that after Accept the Gift of Sin, album-wise you went away for a while, the Strike Zone soundtrack and Hello Columbus single being the only output in this time. You had done a series of great records in Pseudo Erotica, A House for the Dead, I have Forgotten How to Love You, Triumph of the Williams. But to me Hope Springs a Turtle really pushes your ideas best; to me it’s your Children of God or Funhouse in that there is a more subtle humour, greater intensity and maturity to the work. It takes a while to get. What pushed the boat out, what happened, did making Accept the Gift of Sin affect you creatively or was it the rest from recording that refreshed your output?

Well, actually Hello Columbus came out 4 years BEFORE Accept the Gift of Sin. As you know, it was an EP. I spent a lot of money on three songs recorded with real strings and a real drummer in two separate 48 track analog studios. You can believe it or not, but the idea was to use this heavily produced EP as essentially a demo to attract some corporate type looking for the next Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson (they were both very popular at the time, 1997-1999, as was Rammstein!). I say this with no embarrassment, as no compromise was made on songwriting and frankly, I admire top notch production values (as I may have noted in an earlier answer).

Anyway, when this latest plan to become a rock star didn’t work (at a point so close to birthday 40); I kind of stopped playing music. I had a real girlfriend, a fairly lucrative “day job” and she and I both went about living our Addams Family version of the American yuppie dream—lots of shopping and trips to gun shows, a house, then another house, a bunch of cats.

The Rozz project was something I always wanted to work on in spite of all of the above. I understood the historical necessity.

With regard to your comments on Hope Springs a Turtle, you know, I don’t really work like a “career musician”. I don’t go on tour, then write material for a record in a never-ending cycle.

The songs on that CD were basically “the greatest hits” of everything written between 1996 and 2002 (excluding the Hello Columbus stuff). If you find it better than the earlier CD’s, that’s good! Then you can argue on my behalf that my skills are aging like fine wine. Better than the alternative of has-been comeback flop, right?

It’s also interesting to note that except for track one, Hope Springs a Turtle was recorded entirely at home on a relatively inexpensive Roland digital 8-track studio. I had lots of time to twiddle knobs on my own.

The forthcoming tribute album The Appeal of Discarded Orthodoxy - A Tribute to David E. Williams looks exciting, there are some great names there covering your work. How did this come about?

Well, on a strictly pragmatic level, it’s a great way for the label to raise my “public profile” (well, at least in certain circles) and hopefully generate sales of my back catalog and any NEWER David E. Williams releases.

Beyond that, yes, my goodness, what an honor to have all those people on there! Rodolfo contacted some of them and I contacted the others. I consider, uh, “Love Axis” (wink, wink), Naevus, Andrew King, Shining Vril, and Ernte to be personal friends of mine, so it was obviously my job to procure those artists with varying degrees of ease and difficulty. (That list was off the cuff and intentionally short, so PLEASE don’t be offended, temporarily forgotten friends, if you’re not on it!).

The thing was literally and almost exactly two years in the making from conception to mastering. I predict it comes out closer to November.

But for you, I debut the official comment that will appear on the David E. Williams press release: “Some versions are so superior to the originals that they simultaneously fill me with pride as a songwriter and humility as a performer.” And I really feel that way. I dare not stride upon the foothills of Olympus, but in some instances I now know how Dylan felt when Hendrix covered All Along the Watchtower. That’s a comment for all you baby boomers.

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