Pop Levi Interview Full Transcript
A version of this interview appears in the september issue of Beat Happening.
Pop Levi, raconteur, philanderer and explorer. Resembling a sonic Dorian Gray in the process of administering Purple Rain era Prince a Droogesque kicking the ex Ladytron man has been busying himself around the mansions and streets of LA concocting material for the follow up to his 2006 solo debut ‘The Return To Form Black Magick Party’. Recorded in the studio Quincy Jones used to walk Jacko through ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ Levi has returned with a shimmering, groove addled, pure pop dirty bomb, tracks ‘Wannamamma’ (surely a noodle advert waiting to happen) and ‘Semi-babe’ providing perfect sun dried pop intelligencia. Here he offers a little insight into the mechanics of the Levi mind.
Ok to get things started can you set the scene by telling us how this new album came into being? How did recording ‘Never Never Love’ differ to ‘ The Return to Form Black Magick Party’? From writing to recording? Was it a more arduous process or did you find this album easier/more organic?
I made ‘The Return To Form Black Magick Party’ entirely on my laptop whilst I was traveling in America and Europe. Recording was done on trains, in planes, in warehouses, on the top of Cathedrals, at the beach, in bathrooms, hotel rooms and tombs. I made sure to capture the first take of everything I recorded and then took the tracks to Sacramento to be mixed. Then I wanted to make a record in a very different way and so ‘Never Never Love’ was recorded at Westlake in Hollywood, where Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson laid down Thriller. I wanted this record to sound like Japanese toys falling in and out of love with each other so I spent four months making sure to comb almost any human element out of the music until I ended up with some kind of automatic, artificial soul.
When you approach the recording do you go into the studio with the material 100% finished or is there a lot of studio evolution?
The songs are always finished. I write the music and lyrics for my songs in my head, with no accompaniment. Years ago I thought about the idea of using the memory as a quality filter – I figured that if I could remember a song six months later then there must be, by definition, something memorable about it. And that’s what I’m looking for in a song. Once in the studio, I have a very clear idea of how I want to produce the song, what sounds I want to create, how I want it to feel and how I’d like people to feel when they hear it. But, of course, there are always surprises that happen along the way and I like to keep these, too. Surprises make intention more real.
You’re quoted as saying, “It had blue skies, palm trees, and they’ve made some serious records here”, about LA when you visited with Ladytron and realised you wanted to live there. Did that inform your choice of studios for this record and did you feel a sense of that tradition and legacy when you were working there? There are definite Jackson and Prince-esque inflections to this record production and sound, alongside the Brian Wilsonisms.
I love Los Angeles. It’s a truly weird place. And in so many ways. You’d have to spend a great deal of time here to really get to what’s good about it. But ever since I was a kid it was a dream of mine to make a record in a famed Hollywood studio, and this time I did it. I don’t think that any particular way of recording is better than any other – it’s just makes for a different approach and therefore a different outcome. Never Never Love was made with the same microphones, the same mixing desk, the same speakers, the same piano and in the same room where they made the most successful record so far in history and that made a marked impact on how I put the record together.
The video for Semi-Babe, where you worked with Aaron Willmer & Martin Dobson, is something a little different. Can you talk me through how that came to be and what you try and achieve with videos for your songs. It reminded me of the Flaming Lips Album where you have 4 discs you are supposed to play simultaneously!
l’ve known Martin Dobson for a while now and when he and his cousin Aaron Willmer approached me with the idea of shooting a dual-screen video for YouTube I jumped at the chance. I love ideas like this and was sad I didn’t come up with it myself! I flew to London from LA to shoot this and we completed it in an hour. I always like my videos to have a very simple premise – this way the spotlight is on the performance, the clothes, the look.
On the video note, you have always been very hands on with your YouTube site, updating regularly and you’ve talked about a desire to make films before, is that something thats still very much alive and could you see yourself moving from music into film in the future..and in what capacity? Directing? Writing? Acting?
I moved to Los Angeles to make film as well as music. I like the idea of becoming a cult film director out of a singer and music producer. It’s not a move many have achieved before. I’ve been making short films for years now and have maybe 100 in my catalogue right now. I’ve been developing cinematic techniques that incorporate a DIY mentality – I’m in love with the fact that with a laptop and a point-and-shoot camera you can make cinema that people all over the world can view in their own homes with-in the time it takes to upload. That is the future of artistic freedom right there.
You once penned that blogging and the boxing career of Miles Davis were all you thought about… but what’s preoccupying the Pop mind currently?
The boxing career of Miles Davis, I told you already.
How are the songs translating live? I know you’ve been playing a few solo acoustic sets how have they been. What’s the scene like in LA right now?
You’ve picked up some pretty eclectic celebrity fans and plaudits along the way.. do you get starstruck?
Not yet. If Bob Dylan gave me a kiss I might be for second, though.
Was there any particular music flying around or albums that soundtracked the recording process? I was listening to a Ninja Tune podcast from 2007 where you selected tracks and you were pulling out a lot of old records, old Bo Diddley, congas.
Bo Diddley, congas. These are just two of my favourite things, she said. When I was recoding ‘Never Never Love’ I was listening to a load of Missy Elliott and Timbaland tracks. ‘Let It Bump’ is a serious jam, for sure. There’s a bit at the end where Timothy thinks it’s ok to start rapping about how long his engineer has been mixing for and how they’re sitting on something that’s black on black. Get to it – crucial shit.
Outside of music what’s geting you fired up right now? What was the last movie you saw? Book you read?
‘The Holy Mountain’ by Alexandro Jodorowsky. If you haven’t seen this film, get your ass to YouTube and watch the trailer as soon as is humanly possible. I was made in Mexico in ’73 by Jodorowsky and features some truly on-it scenes. There is a moment where Christ, having been drugged by an obese transvestite, wakes up in a vast room full of life-size statues of himself nailed to the crucifixes. And another where an army of toads are dressed in full Aztec warrior uniform.
Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future or who you would particularly like to remix your work?
I want to sing with Bob Dylan in a cave on Lanzarote.
What’s the next 6 months hold in the Pop Levi universe?
Writing, playing, recording, meeting, flying, lying, feeding, listening, filming, counting and praying. Same as the last six months.
If you were to take a Pop fan record shopping this afternoon what 5 records would you not let them leave without?
1/ Sun Ra – Night Of The Purple Moon (1970)
This is one of my favourite albums of all time. No matter where I am or what I am doing, if I put this record on I am instantly a new man and in a mood that no other record can induce. It’s mainly a quartet performance, which is a small ensemble for Ra, and the pieces are recorded in a very intimate production that sounds deeper and deeper with each listen. Truly music for soul dance!
2/ Herbie Hancock – Future Shock (1983)
I was turned onto the track ‘Rough’ the last time I was in New York City. My friend Anahit has the Future Shock vinyl in her apartment and I must have played the record for days on end. Check out the sounds on this – produced by Bill Laswell – drums and bass by Sly and Robbie and it all sounds computerised, yet so alive.
3/ R Kelly – Double Up (2007)
R Kelly has quickly become my favourite singer of the moment. I love this record more than any other record I heard in 2007. He’s created his own world where he writes and produces everything himself and makes these songs about hyper-real life. Songs about ringtones, about the internet, about drinking to much Patron at the club, about being a flirt – I love all this stuff – he’s like a modern Marvin Gaye, a modern Smokey Robinson.
4/ Prince – The Jewel Box
For every prince fan that has all the official albums, check this out if you get the chance. I bought this bootleg in England when I was 15 and have loved it with a passion ever since. It’s a compilation of unreleased tunes from 1980-1992, but the early tunes, the first disc, is the best. Check out ‘Lisa’, ‘Extra Loveable’ and ‘Purple Music’ – these are classics that will have you writing to Warner Bros. to release the full quality versions.
5/ Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger (1963)
And this is as serious a pop record as you ever gonna hear! I mean, it’s all here – girls, sadness, madness, cars, guns. The guitar sounds that Bo gets on here are some of the best of his career – and to think that The Beatles’ first album hadn’t even come out yet! Check out ‘Doing The Crawdaddy’ for some kind of African R&B groove-out and ‘Googlia Moo’ for the best song about being in love with an invalid.