INTERVIEW: Tim Smith Harmonie Magazine. (Jean-Luc Putaux) France May 2000
1) Where does this amazing taste for chord modulation and unusual chord progressions come from ?
Musical background? I can’t think of any musician, whichever the style, who uses them so much. To this extent, it is nearly pathological, don’t you think? I don’t know what pathological means, Chord changes = goose bumps
2) Most of mainstream pop/rock music is based on the assumption that the listener can guess what the next chord will be. It’s generally not the case for Cardiacs songs. How do you compose? It’s as if you decided which chord not to use.
No, it’s not that. We wouldn’t deliberately not do anything. The chords and tunes we use sound pretty to us, certain key changes make your tummy go funny, the ones we use make our tummies go funny.
3) Did you have a formal music education or are you self-taught?
4) I was wondering if Cardiacs music was scored as the song structure and arrangements are often complex. How much are the songs mapped out in your head and formally arranged in the recording studio?
The songs that I come up with are thought up first in my head. I used to score it all out on reams and reams of paper like a twat, but nowadays I limit myself to one bit of paper just as reminders (as my memory is crap). Although one song on the ‘Guns’ album had me doing the ‘reams and reams of paper’ thing, it had to be done, there was no other way. I sat there for 36 hours solid and didn’t stop until it sort of brought itself to its end and when I looked back at it I wondered where the fuck it had come from because I couldn’t remember doing it. (in case you’re wondering which bit I’m on about its the long sort of dreamy bit at the end of ‘Jitterbug’ off ‘Guns’)
5) For me, you are an amazing progressive rock band but it seems that nobody knew that, especially prog fans and prog fanzines (with the exception of The Organ in England). Why?
Because we are not a progressive rock band, progressive rock bands usually tend to have a particular stile to them, however individual the bands sound is, there is usually a flavour there which is the prog flavour. We are a pop group.
6) In some songs, while the general feel is more pop, there is an intensity, a sense of bigness that recalls some big 70s prog rock names. Even though some listeners might be primarily sensitive to your punkish/pop attitude, I can’t help thinking that you listened to and liked bands like Yes or Gentle Giant. Which particular bands did you (or any other member of the band) like at the time? How did they influence you?
I’ve listened to bands like Gentle Giant and Yes as much as I’ve listened to music by just about anyone. If this interview were for a Country and Western magazine they would be asking me if I was influenced by Johnny Cash or whoever. As I have already said, we are a ‘pop’ group. We play pop music. We have a drum set and electric guitars and play very loud. It is however a kind of pop music that, apparently , is not very easily definable. Maybe the progressive flavour raises its strange head in the moments when we use great big church organs, or an occasional lump of Melotron or something, we use these instruments because they sound beautiful, not because ‘progressive’ bands have used them in the past, and as for ‘punky’, we play sometimes at stupidly fast speeds if the tune sounds better that way. We are as punky as nothing. God forbid if anyone thought that we were a crazy ‘fusion’ of punk and prog. If a word is needed then I would use “psychedelic” if anything.
7) Some artists are known to compress some objects to create sculptures (César was one of the famous french ones). It sometimes seems to me that a Cardiacs song is a big prog epic compressed into 3 minutes. Everything a band could put into 20 minutes is here but played fast and wild. Don’t you want to relax and let the music breath a little more?
I think it breathes at it’s own rate.
8) Cardiacs is certainly not known for writing ballads. Why is that? Too much caffeine?
If by ballad you mean a slow song, then there are some in there somewhere I think. Coffee gives me a tummy ache anyway.
9) I will list some influences that I detect in your songs. I’d like you to acknowledge (or deny) them and comment on them: circus / fairground music church music / boy choirs nursery rhymes musicals sailor songs mediaeval / traditional / chamber music The Beatles …
circus / fairground music…..we have used the sound of a kind of fairgroundy organ from time to time because the sound of it is so incredible if you get it to play a tune of your own liking. Within the visuals of the music it’s ridiculous if all of a sudden one of those mechanical things raises its ugly head and takes over for a moment… But I personally can’t stand the fucking circus and all its imagery. …church music / boy choirs….It’s some bloody instrument a church organ. Look at the size of the stone box they have to keep them in! I Love church organs. Any instrument is beautiful if it plays a tune that you like. …don’t get what you mean about boy choirs though…….boy choirs? …nursery rhymes……. can’t think of a nursery rhyme right now that I actually like myself… but I suppose that quite a few of our songs could be considered as being closer to fairy tales as anything else. …musicals……..apart from having a soft spot for the sound of many voices singing together in triumphant chorus, I cant think of one musical that I really like on a spiritual level. …sailor songs…….sailor songs? dunno really. However, anything that reminds me of the sea, however abstract (usually very abstract) is fine by me and when I say ‘the sea’ I’m not talking about the sea as we usually know and love, I’m talking of the feeling of the murky depths, all green… all spirits. …mediaeval / traditional / chamber music……I’m not really into any countries traditional music yet but I do find the sound of some mediaeval stuff to be very pretty, I like the squarky Krumhorns and buzzy recorders. ..cant see any relation to Cardiacs sound though. Probably in there somewhere…hiding. …The Beatles…….I’ve only ever in my whole life met one person who said he didn’t like The Beatles but I think he was just showing off.
10) Several fans admit to be addicted to Cardiacs music. Which elements would you say are responsible for that?
I think you’d have to ask them that.
11) The music is great fun but it is also very complex. Is it important for you that people might also see you as a “serious” composer?
I am a serious composer.
12) Are you the one playing the guitar solos? They are not so numerous but always very inspired. While you are all very skilled musicians, I would say that the production is more band oriented without much space for individual showing off.
The noise we make is for the greater good and the end result, we are not adept enough to show off successfully and it is because of this that psychological fines are placed on any members of Cardiacs, band or crew, if they are caught exhibiting any signs of vanity. Jon and myself are responsible for the ‘solos’ if you can call them that. Jon does the ones that sound like a thousand tiny birds pecking and pecking at an eye, while I am responsible for the ones that sound like a worm that can’t be stretched any longer.
13) For me, it is clear that Cardiacs is a band that either you love or you hate. For instance, on your official web site, many fans testified how they literally fell in love with the music. Would you mind citing some vicious criticisms the press might have invented?
The press in this country do not like us at all. This country is generally very paranoid about what music they think they should like, this is mainly to do with the music press ridiculing anything they think might put their jobs on the line if they admit to liking it themselves. It is safer for them to do this I guess, but it keeps the mainstream of music sounding very much like it is not the year 2000.
14) I can’t help but think that when you write a song, you already picture in your head people singing them during the concerts. The chorus are often very “sing-along”. How much do you anticipate the fans reaction?
We never anticipate any reaction from anyone.
15) The term “cult” might have been invented for Cardiacs. That means that whatever the commercial success, there will exist a very special relationship between the band and the fans. Anything to say about your fan?
From the stage they look like a pool of baby frogs.
16) We all know that one of the major impacts of punk and new wave music was to euthanize (?) prog rock dinosaurs. For about 10 years, the music was quite different, sometimes at the expense of musicianship and sophistication. However, in the early 80’s, some bands started to emerged in England such as Marillion, Twelfth Night, Pallas or Dagaband. At that time, did you feel you were closer to these so-called “neo” prog bands or to punk / new wave acts?
I think our music is twenty three billion miles away from the bands that you mention. I do not mean that with any disrespect to these bands whatsoever but as I said before, I do not see us as being a progressive rock band, we often use ‘odd’ structures and ‘time signatures’ in order to make the sound that we want, in my opinion, this doesn’t mean that we are instantly going to sound like a progressive rock band. In the early days of this sort of music emerging I don’t think it even had a name, bands were just known by their name and each band were unique in their own right. Gentle Giant certainly didn’t sound anything like Genesis who didn’t sound anything like Henry Cow who definitely didn’t sound anything like ELP etc etc. Each of these bands had their own totally new sound which was plucked out of the air from their own creativity, and each had their moments of genius (…and dodgeyness…but it was the fashion then, and anyone who has their moment of trendy-ness will pay for it later in life unless they enslave themselves to the ‘trend mongers’ for all eternity…) I suppose the term ‘progressive’ came about because the music was ‘progressing’ from what rock bands had been doing up until then, but these days when I hear the term ‘prog’, instead of it summoning up the image of something like Bowie’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’ era or whatever, instead it summonses up the image of a band doing long drawn-out corny chord progressions with some bloke singing about Lord of the fucking rings or whatever. “Progressive rock” has become a pigeon hole for a lot of bands that don’t necessarily belong there.
17) I read that you opened for Marillion in the mid-80’s. What was the reaction of the audience?
What do you think?…they totally despised us, Marrillion were a lovely bunch of boys though. We were taken off the tour for the last two dates by their tour manager because Marillion were getting so upset by the way their fans were treating us. They were going on stage as miserable as sin apparently. Poor sods.
18) Considering the success enjoyed by The Cure or XTC, I don’t understand why “In This Life” or “Manhoo” did not enjoy a huge success. They have everything to be big hits, just as “Signs” on the last album.
It’s the price we pay for our independence. Anyway, having a ‘hit’ rarely has anything to do with how good a song is.
19) Did you ever try to approach a major company to get a deal? What was the reaction?
We like our independence, it means we can do what we want….Sort of.
20) Is the fact that you had to struggle to keep the band alive responsible for the special raw energy of your playing style? If the band had been signed on a major label, would it change anything in the music? Would you record more albums?
A major company would not allow us to play the stuff we do, and if anything the ‘struggle’ drains our ‘raw energy’.
21) In the early 80’s Fish admitted that he painted is face to have Marillion make the cover of music journals (which they did with Sounds). In the early days, Cardiacs used to have a very trashy/childish/ghoulish image. Was it to attract attention? Don’t you think it might have had the opposite effect? all we do is try to look our best.
22) I feel that I’ll need many years to have a slight idea about what your strange lyrics mean! For a newcomer, they seem very surrealistic, a bit like automatic writing. Where do you find your inspiration?
up my arse hole
23) How do you feel onstage? How important are the concerts in the band’s life?
Touring is our holiday time
24) The context of the band is certainly a lot different nowadays than 15 years ago? What’s the main driving force to keep on creating music with Cardiacs? Do you believe there is any chance for a bigger success? Any project for a new album?
A new album is on the way, not sure yet when it will be finished, no idea how successful it will be, our success isn’t measured by how many ‘units’ we sell, its by how well we think the record has turned out and if the people who buy it like it or not. We obviously never set out to be commercially successful, in truth we are more successful than I thought we would ever be, and who doesn’t change over the course of so many years. Main driving force…? apart from the absolute love of all music and its attachments, it is without doubt the total complete and utter love for the people I have had the pleasure of doing all of this with. I shit you not. Bye xxx
Harmonie Magazine France May 2000