Jan 12 2007

Peter Blegvad: Taking Pride in the Craft

Published by at 9:23 am under Interview,Music

by Sander R Wolff
The Long Beach Union
(This interview was published sometime in the early 1990’s)

Next Saturday, March 28, McCabe’s (3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica) will be presenting Peter Blegvad and Peter Holsapple. I spoke with Blegvad by phone as he was wrapping up concert dates on the East Coast. Holsapple is recently departed from the pop band REM and previously of the db’s.

“He’s a multi-instrumentalist of rare talent,” Blegvad said. “He’ll be playing guitar, mandolin, piano and also accordion. He’s just a fantastic accompanist, not to mention he’s also a song writer of the highest caliber himself. We’re doing some of his songs too.”

Blegvad will be playing songs from his current release, King Strut and Other Stories, currently available as an import from England. Although described by critics as a stylistic departure from his previous releases, Blegvad takes exception to such analysis.

“That’s sort of critic language, isn’t it? I see it as the inevitable next step. King Strut is stripped right back. Although there is a band on some of the tracks, some of them are just me with an acoustic guitar. I think… I decided that really the strength was in communicating the stories, the lyrics, and in order to further that cause I’ve really cut back on the musical decoration.

“For me, it’s the real challenge,” continued Blegvad. “Can you make it, can you make a song that will hold the audience’s interest when it’s stripped down like that. I also like the fact that the songs would lend themselves to other people interpreting them, in the nature of folk songs. A lot of rock music, the composition is, in fact, an arrangement. It’s not like a song. It doesn’t have this object-like quality where somebody with an acoustic guitar could sing it in a coffee house. That’s always been, in a strange way, something I’ve always aimed for. The songs, interpreted by other people, would outlast my interpretation of them. That’s the aim.”

His previous release, Downtime, was recorded as a demo but wound up being released on the ReR label.

“We recorded it very fast and very cheap,” said Blegvad, “but it has friends like John Greaves and Chris Cutler and lots of other people. It was fun to make and has a fresh feel, but it’s very raw in places. King Strut was recorded with a proper budget, with Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple and a lot of other great musicians on it. It’s not a demo. It’s definitely a notch up. It’s a finished record and I think the songs are the best I ever wrote. I don’t get worse playing guitar and singing, you know. If you stick with it, you get better. That’s why I don’t say it’s a departure. It’s just the next step, but it’s better. Maybe that’s the departure.”

Blegvad began his musical career while attending college in England. School chum Anthony Moore was in Germany, recording soundtracks to underground films.

“Somehow he had convinced a very maverick producer for Polygram that it was, financially, a good idea for him to make records of these very far out, modern, systems oriented compositions. I mean, Anthony dropping sticks onto surfaces of different materials for a half an hour so some clicked, some clanged, some bonked… you know, this is one of the records they actually put out.”

Realizing that the records probably would not sell, the producer suggested making a pop album. Blegvad quit school and joined Moore in Germany where they and singer Dagmar Krause recorded the first Slapp Happy albums, Sort Of and Acnalbasac Noom.

“It was done as a kind of an affectionate satire on what we thought, in a kind of snobby way, was imbecile music. Although we loved it, we couldn’t really play it and we liked to think of ourselves as artists at the time, but we were kids, so what did we know. By the time you lay the first couple of tracks down you realize this is quite difficult. We just got sucked into it and found that it was really exciting writing songs. There seemed to be an awful lot of scope for extending what, at that time, you could do or get away with.”

After three albums and three and a half years, Moore and Blegvad wanted tighter control over their records, so in 1973, instead of hiring studio musicians to play for them, they hired the entire contingent of Henry Cow. The result, Desperate Straights, was so pleasing to both bands that they joined forces.

“It didn’t last long. I think Henry Cow had explored purely instrumental music about as far as they wanted to and they were very taken with Dagmar, and they felt they couldn’t just take Dagmar, they had to also take Anthony and me, even though we could not play 17/11 time, Fred Frith’s chords and we couldn’t read music.


“They were very, very stringent. They were committed radical Marxist Leninists and I just couldn’t tow the line. I wasn’t buying it. At that time they were slightly besmirched by the taint of zealotry.

“So it didn’t take too long, really, for them to be looking for an excuse, I think, to get rid of me and Anthony. Anthony quit on his own. I stuck in there saying ‘if I can’t play your music, you should have me on stage, under a tent, wired up to contact microphones, eating soup!’ That would be my contribution, and they said, ‘you’re flippant! Get out of here!’ They were right! I rest my case.”

After that, Blegvad contributed his talents to various and sundry projects. In ‘86 he was recruited by composer and sax player John Zorn.

“That was a double album called Locus Solus, each side of which was John with a different trio of improvisators [sic]. I was on the first side with Christian Marclay. John would give us a signal and I would begin spouting or reciting language, responding to what Christian was doing with his turntables and John, with his duck calls and saxophone. It was an extraordinary experience.”

Blegvad then pulled a stint in the sub-pop/progressive/punk/all star super group The Golden Palominos. The following year he did an album with John Greaves (from Henry Cow) under the group name, The Lodge. Released on a major label, it received critical attention. The album, Smell of a Friend, is a strange blend of pop styles and progressive weirdness tied together with lyrics that, to me, seemed to skirt around some indefinable central theme.

“That, no doubt, goes down to [Stephane] Mallarme’s influence, the great French symbolist who believed in evoking rather than describing the actual subject of his poems, and completely inadvertently we’ve done the same on that record [laughing.] I’m intrigued by what you say and that Mallarme thing was kind of in jest, but I’m at a loss to know what that central subject might be. There was a song or two about milk, right, where the songs took great pains never to actually mention milk, where every word in the lyric was culled from quotes by other writers about milk, but that’s not what you mean, is it?”

Blegvad is known for his strange and intriguing use of language. In addition to his songwriting, he is a published cartoonist.

“I think, really, I’m a frustrated writer. In the 70’s I hung out with a lot of American poets who I sort of looked up to as mentors, and the standards they advertently or inadvertently inculcated in me were so high that I always felt intimidated about actually appearing in naked print. The great thing about cartooning and song writing is you can hide the language in a context that can keep the listeners’ attention, you know what I mean? So I can say what’s on my mind without this terrible timidity.

Still, despite his timidity, Blegvad continues to work toward perfecting his skills, ignoring popular trends.

“Outside of fashion there’s this river of song and to add to that is more exciting than having a hit record and being on TV. It’s something that probably happens after you turn 40, you know. ‘Fuck the kids! I’m going to go for posterity!’ It’s not to do with getting rich quick, it’s not to do with quick rewards. It’s its’ own reward. I don’t want to sound too much like an old fogey. It’s taking pride in the craft, and it’s a lonely, exacting business, but somebody’s got to do it.”


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