Exclusive interview with Tim Elsenburg, remixer, songwriter and frontman of Sweet Billy Pilgrim.
An interview with the serial laptop/banjo abusers Tim Elsenburg, ironic frontman, enlightened songwriter, dazzling producer of Sweet Billy Pilgrim and author of David Sylvian and Steve Jansens intense remixes. His incisive and delicate Twice Born Men, released on Samadhisound label, is a good antidote to some music mediocrity. You can order at: www.sweetbillypilgrim.com
This publication was made possible by MariaCristina Buttignoni (Freccia) and impossible without the friendly co-operation of Tim Elsenburg.
Whos Tim Elsenburg?
He’s 6′ 3″, with a fear of low doorways and of silence (I have tinnitus, aka ringing ears). He doesn’t like masks, worries far too much about everything and loves a fishfinger sandwich. He lives in fear of missing out on beautiful music and films, thinks Audrey Tatou’s nose is pretty and wishes that the day was a little longer so that he might feel like there was time for everything.
How and where the Sweet Billy Pilgrim are born?
Sweet Billy Pilgrim grew out of a band called Cordisto, who played a kind of loud, complex rock music. Through age, or potential deafness (not sure which), I decided that I’d had enough of hollering over a drumkit, and so I purchased 2 things: a laptop based recording set-up and a banjo. I’d been listening to Adem’s ‘Homesongs’, and Sufjan Steven’s ‘Seven Swans’ album, and those records spoke so directly to my heart in their intimacy and emotional immediacy that all I knew about my future musical endeavours was that I wanted to reach for a similar openness of spirit. That was pretty much the only plan I had, and so I just started recording. The first record was the result of that.
Can you tell us about the other members of the group, Anthony Bishop and Alistair Hamer?
I‘ve known Alistair (rhythm) and Anthony for many years. We grew up very close to one another, and we’ve been in various (often appalling) bands together since we first learned to play. After all that time we’ve got our roles down; Alistair will try to stop me spending weeks on a hi-hat sound, and Anthony referees the battle that will arise when I’m unwilling to be stopped.
The Sweet Billy Pilgrim are categorized in a lot of way: folktronic , elegant-pop, alternative-pop, folk, ambient, indie, progressive rock, country , art rock, and they are compared to an infinite numbers of artists. Well, but what do you think about ? How would you describe your music and which are the artists do you feel nearest?
Oh, this is impossible to answer without sounding ridiculous. Atmospheric pop music? Acoustically enhanced electronica ? Electronically enhanced acoustica? Pop enhanced atmospherica? See?
Twice Born Men is really a wonderful album. A process of sounds distillation, with structures crossed by a dazzling and melancholic charm. As David Sylvian had given dark and defined nuances to the atmosphere and had blown a kind of inevitable spleen into your music. Can you explain us the album?
Twice Born Men was an organisation set up by Vietnam veterans, drawing attention to the plight of ex- soldiers who were struggling to adjust to the demands of civilian life. I saw the germ of an idea in the fact that Vietnam had taken these men, with their lives and their needs and their dreams and changed them entirely, to the point that life after a war like that could be a considered a rebirth: nothing that had gone before could prepare you for, or help you cope with, how things would be afterwards. Coming home would be like starting again and probably not in a good way. It struck me that love could have similar – albeit less overtly traumatic – consequences. No one is the same after falling in love. If it lasts and blossoms, or if it burns out and turns to poison, you are sort-of born again as you adjust to a life with or without that someone else. I also like the idea that a seemingly trivial decision can completely change the course of things, not in a romantic or sentimental way necessarily, because it would be just as likely to make life worse, but – again – it comes back to this idea of certain points in our journey representing a sort of rebirth. The songs on the album are supposed to be a reflection of the various possibilities emanating from these points… the good, the bad and the just plain ugly.
What equipment and software do you use in studio? And on stage?
In the shed that I call a studio, I use an Apple Mac laptop running the music program Logic, one cheap condenser microphone and lots of musical junk sourced from rubbish dumps, Ebay and people’s attics. It’s terrifyingly un-hi-tech and if I ever get to produce someone else’s music (which I’d love to), they’ll be deeply unimpressed at my lack of anything even approaching a professional set-up.
Can you describe the process of creating a remix?
A massive, gradually decreasing – until about halfway through when it increases dramatically again – wall of panic would pretty much sum it up. I tend to start with just a tempo and the vocal. Then I jam over the top with something the artist was unlikely to have used (in David’s case, a ukulele and my father playing bass clarinet), and then edit and edit and edit. I try really hard not to listen to the original version of the song too, otherwise I’ll subconsciously drift towards that arrangement, and I’d rather take it somewhere unexpected. The best metaphor would be that old cliche of starting a sculpture with a large lump of rock and then gradually chipping away at it until it starts to resemble something. With remixing though, it sometimes feels like I’m chipping away with a small plastic spoon.
What do you like more and what do you like less of being in tour? Why?
I love being on tour. Especially abroad, in places I’ve never been to before. The only downside is missing family, but I try to never forget how lucky I am to (even occasionally) be doing something I love, with people I love, playing to lovely people in interesting places I’ll probably end up loving. What could be better?!
Which are your favorite group/artist now?
At the moment I’m listening to lots of doom / drone metal. It’s probably some kind of early mid-life crisis, but all that aggression reduced to a crawl and detuned to chest-melting depths fills me with great joy. The new Sunn O))) record is amazing (and strangely beautiful), as is a Sunn spin-off project, Ascend. More generally though, I’m enjoying pop music again in the form of Field Music and Everything Everything. The Bon Iver album was stunning, and nice to hear something from a fellow shed owner. Then there’s Deerhoof and Volcano! who play deranged rock music but make it curiously hummable. My Brightest Diamond’s ‘Bring Me the Workhorse’, was a masterpiece too. Perhaps strangely, I’m a massive hip-hop fan, and El-P and Aesop Rock have also released great albums in the last few years. Jaga Jazzist are tremendous too.
Any of your best songs ever?
The greatest song ever is Dennis Wilson’s ‘River Song. I think it was the first time I can remember a song swallowing me up and giving me that feeling of a balloon inflating in my chest. The bit where he sings ‘It breaks my heart to see the city…’ can still make me cry. There’s an album by 80’s industrialists Slab! called ‘Descension’ that I never seem to grow out of, John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’… Bark Psychosis’ ‘Hex’… Vaughan William’s ‘Fantasia on theme by Thomas Tallis’… NWA’s ‘Straight Out of Compton’… Sonic Youth’s ‘Sister’ album… Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit of Eden’… Swans’ ‘Children of God’… Dr Octagon’s ‘Octogynaecologist’… Blue Nile’s ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’… Nomeansno’s ‘Wrong’… Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony… Got another week ?
Any new (young?) group/artist are you interesting in?
There’s so much good music out there at the moment! I can never understand people who say there’s nothing interesting happening musically these days. That usually means that they’ve just given up looking. Bands everyone should check out would be (and they’re not all people I know): Anathallo (a rockier Sufjan Stevens ?), Jo Hamilton (singer / songwriter with the most beautiful voice), Catherine AD (dark, dark torch songs), Down I Go (a UK math / metal band… Zappa meets Slayer), Uniform Motion (an alt. folk band who do a killer version of Talk Talk’s ‘Such a Shame’), Canon Blue (smart, layered pop music… free EP available too), Lasse Passage (delicate Norwegian acoustic pop songs), Splashgirl (very lovely Norwegian chamber jazz), Lotte Kestner (Anna-Lynne from Trespassers William’s solo thing… Bon Iver-esque and sooo lovely). I could go on and on.
What about your relation with computer and internet?
It’s a chance to connect with people who are interested in what we do. Simple as that. If I like someone’s music, I’d like to know what music they’re influenced by, what music they like currently, what films they’re into, find out the guitars they use; to basically see what makes them tick. The internet is an opportunity to provide that sort of thing to anyone who might be interested. After all, if someone has made room in their lives for what we do, then I’d like in some way to make that relationship a little more reciprocal. Plus, I get some excellent musical recommendations from people.
A lot of David Sylvians fans knew you because of your magnificent remix of The Heart Knows Better for The Good Son vs. the Only Daughter – The Blemish Remixes project. How did you get involved?
People who knew people who knew people, plus some good old-fashioned luck. David was looking for people to rework his material and thanks to his open-mindedness I got the chance to have a go at remixing the song. Obviously, if he hadn’t have liked what I did, then it wouldn’t have made it onto the record, but thankfully he did and – in the process – opened many doors for us.
What do you like of David’s work?
I‘ve followed David’s work ever since music became more than a background noise. ‘Tin Drum’ sounded like nothing on Earth when I first heard it. All I knew was the Beatles, so the sparseness and the synchopations and all those weird keyboard noises was a bit scary, but endlessly fascinating to me. I learned to employ more than my ears listening to his records; to bring heart and head into the equation.
Which of his album do you prefer? Any favorite track?
They’re all great, but I love Gone to Earth… The combination of atmosphere and emotion is just stunning, and Laughter and Forgetting / Before the Bullfight are the perfect distillation of so much that I love in music.
What do you think about his path and his constant music research?
He doesn’t waste one second looking back, or resting on past glories. His commitment to moving forward and innovating in areas traditionally considered more challenging / avant-garde, when he could just make another ‘Secrets of the Beehive’, is very inspiring. I should add that I think Blemish and Manafon are still beautiful records, though in an entirely different way. Beauty and prettiness can be very different things.
Whats the most memorable thing happened between David and you?
The one that springs to mind – though, oddly it didn’t actually involve a meeting – is a show I did in Tokyo with Steve Jansen. I was singing ‘Ballad of a Deadman’ and ‘Get the Hell Out’ (both David vocals on the recordings) and as we walked off stage, Steve said under his breath, whilst sniggering, ‘I wonder what David made of that ?’ Well, if I’d have been drinking coffee, I’d have sprayed it up the wall. David had bravely sat through my rendition of two of his vocals without loud heckling or rugby tackling me. It still makes me wince when I think about it.
Is anything changed in your way of making and thinking music after meeting David Sylvian?
Just to trust my instincts about what works musically, rather than allowing my tendency to over-think things to interfere.
What do you have absorbed via osmosis from David?
Creating an atmosphere within a song which might best emphasise the emotion you’re trying to communicate; that’s probably the most obvious thing. He’s also turned me on to some great music. How did I miss Morton Feldman’s music before ?
Will you ask David again for future projects?
Yes. There are a couple of things upcoming we’ll be collaborating on.
You are involved with Steve Jansen (meddling Conversation Over and contributing vocals and lyrics for the song Sleepyard from the magnificent Slope album, appearing in the DVD The Occurrence of Slope, in Colloquium Terminat from 4 Remixes From Slope) and with Nine Horses too (playing a childs plastic guitar) in When Monday Comes Around from The Wonderful World. Can you tell us about these collaborations?
Steve heard some of my songs via David while he was putting the album together, and thought that my voice and my melodies might work well with some of the material he was preparing for Slope. I loved what he sent me, in particular the irregular meter of the song, and the title – which I’d had in mind for a while – just seemed to fit the mood perfectly. I think it’s the fastest I’ve ever written a lyric. Actually, that’s not true. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a lyric and then still liked it the next morning. The ‘Conversation Over’ remix was something I wanted to do because I had an idea for strings I thought might work with the piece. My contribution to the Nine Horses project was to turn up to the studio with a van full of musical junk which I then hit / dropped / bowed or otherwise abused, and then Steve and David edited into the songs.
You’re a multi-instrumentalist. The last one did you get? The one you love more? And what about the childs plastic guitar? And the other childs instruments?
I‘ve just bought a tenor ukulele, and I’m teaching myself the arrangement for ‘God Only Knows’. It’s very complicated. I had no idea that the uke was capable of such complex chords. Then I’m going to learn ‘Take on Me’ by A-Ha. My favourite instrument is still the banjo. So percussive and resonant, but still capable of chordal loveliness. As for the children’s plastic guitar; it’s got a plastic neck, bridge and frets, steel strings, is about the half the size of a proper one and stays in tune for about four seconds at a time. I used it on a song from our first album called ‘God in the Details’, and vowed never to bother again, such are the practical difficulties with it. The problem is, it has a sound like nothing else, which is simultaneously a really good thing and a really bad thing. It’s like some kind of drunken electric, over-compressed ukulele.
What do you think about your collaborations with folktronica luminary Adem, Norwegian electronicists Punkt and your friend Steve Adey?
Adem’s album, as I’ve said, was a massive influence, so to get the chance to work with him was amazing. It was also interesting to work on something via email; the first time we met being the day we mixed the piece. It was for a BBC Radio 3 session, and they asked us to provide about 15 mins of music, so we decided to create one long piece with lots of ‘movements’. It was absolutely painless to do, and he’s very inspiring to work with, so we’re hoping to find some time to come up with more stuff and release it commercially some time next year. Punkt is more of a live thing; we’ve been invited to play as part of their festivals in which, as well as your own set, you have to perform a live ‘remix’ of another artist’s performance, starting the moment they leave the stage, so that the audience walk directly into another hall where you are re-working what they’ve just heard. At the last one, we got to remix Arve Henriksen’s, so that was quite an honour, and we’re looking forward to a trip to Kristiansand in September to perform there again. Steve Adey just has the most amazing voice, and for a remixer, that’s the most exciting thing to work with. Fans of the Blue Nile should check him him out.
Who’s Alphonse Elsenburg, clarinet in your remix of The heart knows Better, bass clarinet in Truth Only Smiles and in There Will It End from your new album?
That’s my Dad, who later in life has discovered the joys of being in a band. He’s in a jazz band and various choirs, and is the busiest man I know, considering he’s retired.
Your current work and releases?
We’re trying to make the best of all the attention that the album has received. There has been so much goodwill directed at the album, and all of it seems to be just because people like it. No politics or label pressure. No PR people or pluggers… Just eloquent people who still get excited by new music. It’s restored my faith. Then we’re going to play some of the festivals, plus some shows in Italy, Spain and (hopefully) Germany before the end of the year.
Any remix are you working on?
I‘ve just finished a remix for Catherine AD who sings very dark, poetic torch songs with this big dramatic voice. I’ve also submitted a remix of the title song from Steven Wilson’s solo album, for a remix project he has in mind. I guess most of your readers would know him from his work with Porcupine Tree. I would describe that one as an explosion in a My Bloody Valentine factory.
Which are the Sweet Billy Pilgrims future projects ?
Well, there’s the previously mentioned Adem thing, some more remixing, and then I’m hoping to spend some time writing. I’d like the next album to involve more people playing in a room together, and less of one man and his shed; perhaps carry some of the things we are capable of live into what we do on record.
And what about Tims future project? Would you consider to collaborate to other David’s tracks? Manafon remixes?
We’ll have to see! Time is a little short at the moment (I still have a day job), so I sometimes have to think about what I can actually fit in. One thing I would really like to do is collaborate with a good MC and record a really innovative hip hop album.
You play very well with words. An acute and ironic mind. You know. It could be a book in your future? *smilingwrote not read*
Thank you!! I love words. Indeed, that’s part of the reason that I like good hip hop so much; the love of language. I’m not sure about a book, for two reasons: 1. I haven’t the time for another project currently. I do write occasionally for blogs and websites, usually about music, and last year I wrote an article for Sunday Times about the band Slab!, who I mentioned earlier in the interview. 2. Writing the lyrics for five minutes of music takes me weeks, sometimes months. A book would involve my wife walking in on a white haired, long-bearded man slumped over his laptop, halfway through the fifth chapter.
What does Tim believe in?
That great art can change things! It’s easy to become numb to a world moving as quickly as it does and relying so much on immediate gratification, so if a song or a film or a painting can make you feel anything at all, then that’s a good thing. If it can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your heart feel like it’s going to burst out of your chest, then that’s an amazing thing, and a reminder that while there’s beauty there’s the hope of better things. Easy to say when I have food to eat and a roof over my head, but we have to start somewhere.
Which question do you ever wanted to answer in an interview and none have made?
My favourite drink is the whiskey mac (1 measure of whiskey, 2 measures of ginger wine).
What is the ultimate goal of your work?
It sounds overly grand, but to connect to my human-ness. To find the pure and emotional part and communicate it honestly. Somehow. There’s a long way to go, but I hope to get there one day.
20.07.09 Festival di Villa Arconati
21.07.09 Verucchio Festival
25.07.09 The Wickerman Festival, East Kirkcarswell UK.
26.07.09 Redfest 2009, Redhill UK.
07.08.09 The Big Chill 2009