Interview with Phideaux Xavier For KOID’9 61
Published on April 30, 2007 .
Could you please sum up a little bit your musical career BEFORE doing this project that wears your (first) name. (Among other things, there’s an album which you released 12 years ago, according to what I’ve read ?).
I’ve played in many various bands over the years, on a local level. I grew up in a creative town and during our high school years we were writing songs and playing music. Therefore, I have many old friends with whom I share a musical upbringing. It is with most of these people that I now make my music. Although my favourite style is the art rock, psychedelic music of the 60s, 70s and 80s, I have played in folk rock bands as well as punk rock projects.
– There’s been a variety of guest performers on your albums since the beginning. Could you introduce briefly each of us, and maybe insist a bit on those like Gabriel Moffat – who’s often credited with unusual tasks, like sound effects and is above all your sound engineer –, or multi-instrumentalist Mark Sherkus ?
My first band was called Sally Dick & Jane (named after a book to teach children how to read). That was Molly and Linda Ruttan, Valerie Gracious and me. Our music was a bit punk and a bit like Jefferson Airplane. Later I played in an acoustic folk progressive rock band called The SunMachine. Ariel Farber was in that band with me. Now, those four women contribute vocal textures and various ideas to our albums. Ariel plays violin and Valerie plays piano on the new album.
Gabriel and Mark are two kids who lived on the same block and I knew them growing up but never played music until recently. Gabe and Molly are married – two childhood sweethearts.
Rich and I met in 1996 while playing in a band called Satyricon (not the metal band). That band owed more to Joy Division than Jethro Tull and I loved the heavy guitar based music we played.
This core of people are basically the band “Phideaux”.
– How did you meet them ? How did they collaborate with you ? Did you rehearse with them all or did some contributions were made through the Internet ?
Usually, a Phideaux album begins as a writing session with Rich Hutchins. We create the songs and rehearse them in NYC for a couple months before we bring in the other folks and record the basic tracks. The one album that was different was 313 where everybody gathered together in a studio with the purpose of making an album in one day.
– Your albums are always very well recorded and mixed, although there’s often a variety of instruments and vocals on them. what’s your secret ?
I consider Phideaux first and foremost a recording project. I love albums. From the time I was a kid and heard The Beatles psychedelic stuff, the recorded medium has held a special place in my heart. Records live forever.
– You worked on several albums with Mark Sherkus, who plays both keyboards and guitars but on the last album, there’s a new keyboard player called Arlan Shierbaum. Why did you change ?
When we made The Great Leap Mark was newly married and involved in many other projects which precluded his collaboration with us. Gabe had seen Arlan perform and knew his style was just what we were looking for, so a few phone calls later and we were in the studio with Arlan for two weeks adding keyboards to the songs.
– Each of your five albums seems to have a kind of specific musical flavour although there are similarities that makes them recognizable as your music. On chupacabras you clearly explained that some songs were old, or had earlier versions. I sort of assumed that some of the songs on the other albums had been written some time ago as well, and that you assembled them to make some coherent albums but certain songs have probably been composed or arranged/rearranged during the recording processes over the last 4 years. Could you please tell us a bit more about each album, the way you assembled them and give some examples ?
Rich Hutchins and I met in 1996. This was after I had recorded and released my first album Friction. Friction, though it contains many of the people who would later grace Phideaux albums, was not so well recorded and suffered from a poor mix. Richard and I set about rehearsing a new set of songs that I’d written which formed the basis of Ghost Story. During that time we recorded a version of that album, but it amounted to not much and the project was shelved. I was without direction and going through artistic ennui for several years until 2001. I was in NYC in October of 2001 volunteering in a supply tent across the street from the World Trade Center towers wreckage. It must have reminded me that life is an ephemeral thing and that I must do the things I love. Music has always lived in my soul and so in 2002 I conceived of a project called Fiendish. It was to be an exorcism of some of the “demons” and insecurities that had lived with me for awhile.
I enlisted Kramer as the producer. I was familiar with his label Shimmy Disc and his work with Daevid Allen and Hugh Hopper as well as his involvement in a lot of post punk music, like Galaxie 500. There were several songs that I’d never recorded and thought it would be good to get them down on tape. However, once I started preparing for Fiendish several new songs came to me in a flash of inspiration. It seemed I was just getting song ideas every day. One of those songs that I developed was “Chupacabras” but I decided to hold off on recording that and concentrated on shorter and more concise pieces for Fiendish.
After I finished Fiendish, I dusted off the Ghost Story tapes and set about re-recording sections and remixing and generally tweaking them until they sounded the way I’d heard them in my head. Gabe Moffat had a large hand in realising that vision. He is not only an excellent producer but technically quite proficient with the enginnering and sonic side of things.
As you mentioned, the album Chupacabras was composed of songs that were left off the other two albums owing to time constraints and questions of flow. With Chupacabras, I decided to allow us to make an album in which we threw out all the rules. There were songs that bordered on Punk Rock (Ruffian On The Stairs), ambient pieces (Fortress Of Sand) and a slice of extended progressive rock (Chupacabras – the song).
Later, in order to flex our creative muscles, we concocted a plan to converge in one studio for the full day on March 13, 2004. On that day we wrote and recorded a sequence of 13 songs. Unfortunately, the finished product, though it hinted at something great, was too raw to release. And so we continued to develop these pieces and finally released the album as 313.
From here, most of the backlog of songs was used up and Rich and I began to develop a new pool of songs. We quickly realized that we had two distinct albums – a yin and yang. One was an album of shorter and heavier rock songs. This became The Great Leap, which is part one of a trilogy. The second part, Doomsday Afternoon, is essentially one distinct song cycle. The third part of the trilogy is called Infernal, but we’ve not recorded it yet. There are about six or seven pieces in line for that album, including a long track called “Let Us Be Faithful” and the medium length track “Infernal”. The other songs are within the 4-6 minute range. Infernal will be a bit of both of the previous albums.
That brings us up to date with the recorded work of Phideaux.
– You use the not-so-usual word “fiend” a few times, noticeably on “Fiendish” of course. Which meaning did you give to this word ? The atrocious person meaning or the “fanatic/complex/bizarre” meaning ?
Well, I leave that for you to decide, but I will say that there are some disturbing things in the world, and many emanate from the so-called “free world”. Fiendish is subtitled “an exorcism” and it is an attempt for me to deal with all the fiends and fiendish aspects of the world as I recognize it.
You mention very different bands and artists, among them it’s quite surprising so see side by side David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, some late seventies/early eighties punk/new wave bands, some Italian progressive rock bands from different eras, Ayreon which you love, the first album by Pink Floyd, the Jefferson Airplane … But nowhere there is mention of Simon & Garfunkel or other late 60’s folky artists like Donovan or, in a very different style, the famous “space-rock” band Hawkwind that might well have influenced you a little bit. Do you like them ?
I have such a gigantic record collection which spans from Abba and Boney M to Zappa and Xmal Deutschland. I love so much music and have recently rekindled my love for gentle folk style music. I’ve been listening to some Donovan, Buffy Saint-Marie and definitely have been influenced by Simon & Garfunkel’s first few albums. Not so much Dylan as a performer. I’m still waiting to get bitten, although I like his last few albums a lot. I was very inspired when I discovered through the internet that there were new “progressive rock” bands. This was in 1998 and I learned about Matthew Parmenter and his sublime band Discipline, Steve Wilson and Porcupine Tree, Marillion (who I’d never heard before), Arena, Ayreon and everything Arjen Lucassen. There is so much wonderful music. I also listen to music like Super Furry Animals, Supergrass, Decemberists.
About “313” :
– “313” means it’s your third album and it features 13 songs, that is right ?
313 was recorded on March 13 and in USA we write our dates with the month followed by the day, hence 3/13. And so we cheated having 13 songs by combining two of them into one! This, incidentally is our fourth album after “Fiendish” “Ghost Story” and “Chupacabras”
– On some songs there’s often a very short set of lyrics, and sometimes, on the booklet, you just included some bits of the lyrics from the song, not the whole lyrics. Why’s this ?
For this album, I wanted a playful type of cover artwork because the music was so much more immediate and “lightweight” from our normal fare. Therefore I contacted the wonderful artist Margie Schnibbe and commissioned the booklet. It was up to her to include snippets of the lyrics. She uses phrases and words out of context in her artwork, so it was natural for her to select certain lines from the songs. Because her artwork was so strong, I didn’t want to interrupt the flow with a set of complete lyrics.
– On the booklet, there’s a page where there’s mention of a track called “Coda 99” that apparently doesn’t appear on the album, except if it is the little section at the end of “Sick of me” ?
It is the small section after Sick Of Me. On Fiendish we have a song called 100 Mg and it is followed by a coda called 100 Coda. Because Sick Of Me followed the same format, we were being cheeky when we called it Coda 99. I have just recorded a song for a solo album of guitar pieces called Coda 27.
– There’s also a song called “Cats 2”, where there’s a quote of one theme from the 3rd track “Storm of cats” (and quotes from other tracks, like “Orangutan”, I’d say) but it’s called “Body to space” on the insert, in the end … what happened ? You changed your mind about the title after the booklet had been designed ?
Actually that is the song that is really two songs combined, so we put one title on the booklet and one title on the spine. Just a bit of frivolity, but it caused problems with BMI, the publishing and royalty collectors in the USA.
– The booklet design seems a hint to Gong’s “Flying Teapot” album… Is it right ? Could be Gong another of your influences ?
I never did think about it resembling Gong’s Teapot album, but you are right. It also has that “fanzine” style which is something Daevid Allen has done in the past. However, the artist is not familiar with Gong I would venture to say. However, the bright and vibrant colours are certainly akin to that Gong album. I quite liked that album and especially was enamoured of Steve Hillage and his Fish Rising album.
The Great Leap, Doomsday Afternoon, etc :
– I followed what you wrote about your recording processes and it seems that the next album that you are preparing, “Doomsday Afternoon”, is more or less connected to the last one – although it should be softer and more keyboard-based, a sort of very long song in several part, that is right ? Plus you said it’s a trilogy and there should be a third album, after “Doomsday Afternoon”…
Doomsday Afternoon was written at the same time as The Great Leap and they could have been a double album, but then it would have taken two years instead of one year apiece. So, The Great Leap is the shorter songs and Doomsday Afternoon is one long suite that is interconnected. Doomsday Afternoon will also be our first album with orchestration. We have gotten a group of players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to perform on four of the sections.
– The story seems to be connected to a kind of mind domination topic, maybe controlling people… That is not easy to guess while reading the lyrics of “The Great Leap” or looking at the weird illustrations on the booklets. Could you please tell us a bit more about the concept ?
The concept is about life in under fascism, totalitarianism. It takes into account what life was like in China during the Cultural Revolution, what life was like in Germany in the late 1930s. It is about what life might be like in the USA in forty years. It is about choosing to become aware of life and not living with one’s head buried in the sand. Doomsday is more of one story and mixes the environmental state of the world with the metaphor of the Garden of Eden as well as certain Stanislaw Lem science fiction stories. I don’t want to be too specific because although I have a clear idea of what it deals with, I’d like people to take what they like and see if the meanings come through in the same way.
– The paintings on The Great Leap are inspired by Salvador Dali, but what do they mean ?
The paintings are inspired by events in the songs. It is the cover image that is inspired by Dali. He has painted those figures in different settings. We chose those characters for their madness and ferocity and feral looking teeth. The booklet paintings are scenes from the songs. Those songs are “Wake Up”, “Rainboy”, “Long And Lonely Way” and “Tannis Root”. The images are allegorical and not neccesarily literal interpretations of the lyrics. The same artist and the same style will adorn Doomsday Afternoon’s booklet and libretto.
– Could you please tell us more about that next album, the guests that you had planned to make feature on it, etc. And when it’s likely to be released ?
We have Mathew Kennedy playing bass on Doomsday Afternoon and he is currently the bass player from Eyestrings and was also in Discipline. He is a great talent and knew the songs better than we did when he came out to play his parts. All we had to do was press “record” and it was done. He will be joining us in some live performances in the summer of 2007 when we hope to come to France for a festival gig. Also there is a great flute contribution from Stephen Dundon who is the singer and flautist for the fantastic Molly Bloom. He also played recently with Guy Manning. There are a few other guests, but since their parts have not been settled yet, I’d rather not hint.
– Have you got an idea already about the musical colour of the third and last album of the trilogy at the moment ?
The last album is written and it is just a question of when to record it. There is, as I said, one long track of about 25 minutes length. Infernal is approximately 16 minutes and then there are four or five other songs which are contenders. Of course, there are always new songs and new ideas that supplant existing plans.
– You probably know that prog rock fans seems to enjoy concept-albums. What do you think about the concept itself – the concept of doing concept-albums ?
I loved as a kid listening to “Thick As A Brick” “A Passion Play” and “Tales From Topographic Oceans”. There was a unity about the albums which made for a satisfied sensation at the end of listening. I also appreciated the “story” concept albums of “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and “Tommy”. Nowadays, it would be the Ayreon albums which really lead the way, perhaps Marillion “Brave” is a good example (although that is a bit old now).
– How much are the lyrics important compared to the music for you ?
Very important. I never listen to lyrics, but I notice when they are bad or ill thought out. As much as I love Deep Purple, some of the words are a bit clunky.
– When you compose, what comes first, by the way ? Music or lyrics – or maybe there’s no rule ?
Music comes first nowadays. When I was a kid and starting to write, I would start with the words.
– Which concept-albums do you like, apart from “Thick As A Brick” ?
All mentioned above, plus: Arena The Visitor; Dream Theatre Scenes From A Memory; Wakeman King Arthur; Le Orme Felona E Sorona; Banco Darwin; Ayreon Electric Castle; Kiss Music From The Elder; Camel Snow Goose
– You play a certain number of instruments, mainly guitars, bass and piano/keyboards. Which ones are you the most comfortable with ?
I’m most comfortable on acoustic rhythm guitar, but I enjoy playing keyboards if the parts are very simple.
– We could say that most of your music is song orientated, with tricky parts though, but you also proved you could write some pieces with a lot of room for instrumental parts, like on the album “Chupacabras”. How do you choose how much room there will be for vocals and instrumental sections in a track ?
Usually the songs dictate this. On the new album, we had to try to find places to put words in. The album might have ended up 75% instrumental
– Is there still a lot of music from the past that is unreleased ?
Yes, there are two albums that we want to produce in the future. These will be a series of archival releases and will be “collaborations” with the past. I’d like to revisit certain tapes and upgrade and update them. They wouldn’t be “unreleased” tracks per se, but songs derived from unreleased tracks. Basically, this would be the way I’d like to finish the songs based on my current mind set.
– Have you ever played some concerts during the last years ?
I have performed many concerts with previous bands, but undertook the Phideaux project as an outlet for recordings and as a way to make dense albums that would have deep layers and hidden suprises for many listens.
Do you intend to perform some ?
We are now at the point where we want to perform and are just signing a contract to perform at a festival in France in August. Things are not set yet so I don’t want to make any announcements. Ideally, we’d like to play in Germany and Netherlands and Italy.
A few ones about the Internet :
– You obviously used the Internet a lot to promote your music. We have been able to download some large parts of your abums for a while… And you even wrote on your CD’s to burn them for friends – which is quite unusual ! with the insight of 5 albums now, do you think your efforts and this freedom openly given to people to copy your music was rewarding ?
I don’t think it helped us to give our first album away for free. That resulted in many people who wanted free things to take the album and sell it used. However, I do want people to burn copies to interest their friends. I would like to think that if someone likes something they might buy it on their own the next time. I made many tapes of my friends’ albums when I was younger. If I liked something, I had to have my own copy of it. If I didn’t care that much, I wouldn’t have minded if the tape jammed, so it wasn’t like I was bootlegging. I believe it is the same thing with burning a disc for someone today. If they really like it and have any sense of fair play, they will buy a copy or buy the next one.
– You seem to use MySpace quite a bit but your website itself is still under construction as for now, the lyrics section is stil not open, I guess the person doing it has got maybe a lack of time to work on it ? How much do you think the MySpace phenomena has been useful to make people aware of your music ?
Well as someone else pointed out recently, Myspace is a place where everyone wants you to hear their music. It has been a great place to meet some great friends and find some collaborators, however we haven’t found that much translation to purchasing of albums.
– Could you tell me roughly how many copies of each album did you sell until now ?
I don’t know but it is not many!
– Are you happy with the distribution of CDBABY ?
CDBaby is a great racket. I’m pleased with their set up, but they make a handome profit. It is an easy place to have discs for people to purchase, however.
– You had said in an interview to our collegues of the Belgian fanzine Prog-Resiste that you wanted to release yourself 5 albums before searching seriously for a record label. Any news as regards that ?
We would love to work with a bigger label (than our own). Because we are now releasing our sixth album, “Doomsday Afternoon”, I would like to think we have a proven track record as a band that is prolific and dedicated to making music and pushing our own boundaries. I would like to see the fruits of our labours sampled by a wider group of listeners.
– I suppose you don’t earn a living from the PHIDEAUX albums. What do you do beside this activity ?
I work in television production in order to fund our projects.
– There’s often a lot of strange graphics on your albums. How do you choose your designs – which are all very different one from each other ?
I leave that up to the artists, who usually have their own ideas. From their ideas I may make a suggestion or request a certain change, but for the most part they have the music and can interpret it for themselves.
Will the design of Doomsday afternoon be similar to the one of The Great Leap then ?
It will be an identical design with more paintings from the wonderful Molly Ruttan.
– And now a little question about a detail that probably makes people wonder a bit : There’s a video where you sing an acoustic piece transvestite as a girl with long blonde hair on the website, a little bit like on the booklet of “Ghost Stories”. Why is this ?!
An interesting question indeed. The video is from a show I took part in which was curated by a friend of mine. It was a benefit concert for a woman artist who had been badly burned. My friend Kat wanted me to play and challenged me that I would have to wear a wig and a dress. I think I explain that in the video, but it was a good rendition of the song so I put it up. However, that would not be my normal stagewear. I think I would prefer something like the dress and foxhead that Peter Gabriel wore during Supper’s Ready. As for the booklet, there is a festival in NYC called Wigstock where everyone dresses up in wigs and dresses. The picture in Ghost Story is from me when I was attending Wigstock. The “dress” I’m wearing is actually some curtains from my windows! However, having said that, I think I make a pretty good lady! And I have great legs in fishnet stockings!
Thank you for your questions Marc and let me know if I can be of any further assistance.