Horse Stories
Hearsay #14b / 1996 / Interview with Pete and Ewen


"All of the Golden Palominos records are experiments whether they sound like it or not"

Musically speaking, ANTON FIER has been an atom, a molecule and a compound. He’s the prime number of the GOLDEN PALOMINOS records, the most indivisible nucleus. But he’s also just one of a shifting structure as stars from Arto Lindsay to T-Bone Burnett to Matthew Sweet come and go under that band’s variegated umbrella. And he’s been a compound, too: combining with a panoply of geniuses (Stina Nordenstam, Lloyd Cole and Laurie Anderson among them) to combustible effect on their solo projects. Producer, drummer, composer, Feelie, generator: Pete and Ewen went along to discuss all these facets with the man himself, in the wake of the new Palominos’ record Dead Inside.

HEARSAY: How far is Dead Inside an extrapolation of the ambience of This Is How It Feels and Pure? Or is it something completely new again?
ANTON FIER: It's definitely not a development. I felt that period was over - we'd reached the end and there was nowhere to go with it. In many ways this record is a reaction to some of my frustrations about that particular working situation. This is definitely a new phase. I felt it was important to redefine - it was kind of dying.

The Golden Palominos have gone through any number of phases. Despite the frequent changes in style, is there an overriding goal which remains constant?
Ultimately, I'm trying to make a record that creates its own style, that can't be categorised. Whether I've succeeded or not I don't know; that's for someone else to say. All the Golden Palominos records are experiments, whether they sound like it or not - even the more traditional-sounding ones are experiments in energy, in putting different combinations of people together. Often the end result was not the goal; the goal was the process, it was an end in itself This current record is different: the end result was important to me, I really wanted to be happy with it. I wanted it to involve as little compromise as possible. I took the approach of 'what if this were the last record I were ever to make?' I had to feel satisfied I'd made a record that was as definitive as it could possibly be: every word had to have meaning, every sound had to have meaning. But is there a greater goal? Yes, the Golden Palominos are a really self-indulgent project for me, but in a good way. I'm very lucky to have this vehicle for making ideas and dreams real. It’s a vehicle for me to work with people I want to work with, to learn about areas of music I'd like to learn about, to learn how to use a new piece of equipment or software. It exists for that reason and that reason alone: to make things possible for myself.

What can you tell us about Nicole Black­man?
She's a New York poet and spoken-word artist The only other record she's ever appeared on is one track on the KMFDM album, kind of an industrial thing. She's not a singer, she's not a songwriter and that's why I chose to work with her. I was attracted to her by the sound of her voice, I heard a tape of her reading something, and I think she's a great writer After working with Lori Carson for two records I wanted to work with someone who wasn't a songwriter. I didn't want anyone else imposing a musical personality on this record other than myself because it was more personal.

I can't think of anyone else who makes records in the way you do - gathering up other songwriters, other performers. How do you define yourself and your role in the Golden Palominos?
I don't! Obviously I compose music, I play music, I'm a drummer and a keyboardist. But this particular record involved the fewest amount of people. Its been going in this direction: the records I did with Lori were more in this direction but Bill Laswell had a large part to play in defining the music by the quality and strength of his basslines. With this record I feel comfortable saying I created the music, I shaped the direction the lyrics took. I did not write the lyrics, but Nicole asked me what kind of record I wanted to make and I told her what kind of record I wanted to make; she asked me what she should write about, I told her what she should write about. Journalists say my approach is like a film director but I don't look at it that way. I'm using the studio to create music and there are different tools. It may sound unkind, but people and personalities are tools, a means to an end. If I did the record on my own there would be things about myself I wouldn't reveal because I'd be scared of revealing them. I live vicariously through others' writing. When I find a good collaboration like the ones with Lori or Nicole, I'm able to use their talent. I have no talent for writing words, I have to collaborate with a writer to verbalise what's important to me. I don't know if that says what I do, but that’s as good an answer as I can give.

Other musicians like Eno and Henry Cow have talked of using the studio as an instrument…
The first time I heard of using the studio as a compositional tool was reading an interview in Melody Maker with Fred Frith in the mid-70s. I wasn't sure what that meant but it kinds stuck with me. Brian Eno and Henry Cow were very important to me, in terms of defining how music is made and its possibilities. The studio is not just a place to document something - it's a place to create something. I feel that's where my talent lies. Documenting something live, well... I'm not discounting it, I've done it when I've produced other people, but for my own music it's been about the art of making records as opposed to the art of making music - very different.

Are there other people you still harbour pangs to work with?
Not at this point. I’m sure there will be. This new record was originally going to involve a few different vocalists but it didn't work - it wasn't the record I wanted to make. There are a lot of people who are making music that I like but it seems presumptuous for me to say, 'Yeah, I'd like to make a record with that person.' I don't know them, they don't know me – it’s not my place. It would be easier for me to say what other records or musicians I like than who I want to work with. I like the Lamb record a lot for example; it's the best record I've heard in a few years. I like Lisa Germano a lot and Tori Amos and a Techno guy called Jeff Mills - he's great.

What do you recall of your first job in Friction, and your 'first boss', Peter Laughner?
Peter Laughner was in the original Pere Ubu; he was a legendary Cleveland figure. There was a very small group of people who were interested in original music at that time. The popular bands in Cleveland played other people's music: they played the hit songs on the radio. There was little or no audience for original music except the musicians in the other bands. Radio didn't support us, the local print media didn't support us. We felt totally rejected by everyone except each other. Peter was a very talented guy who never got to realise his talents. He died when he was about 24… he had a big problem with substance abuse. But image was very important to him. In Cleveland, we had this romantic idea of how music was created - little did we know it was made by human beings, just like ourselves! Peter read somewhere that because certain musicians did a lot of coke or speed or whatever, that somehow it was necessary. In Peter's case it was not necessary. He was very talented but ultimately all of his music basically emulated one of his heroes: Lou Reed or Brian Wilson or Richard Thompson. He never moved beyond the emulation. The name Friction was taken from a Television song. All the music I did with Peter we'd say, 'okay, there's the Richard Thompson song, there's the Lou Reed song, there's the Tom Verlaine song.' We were kids; he was 24, I was 16 or 17. The substance abuse was the reason he was kicked out of Pere Ubu, he was very undependable. I stopped working with him a few months before he died: for me it was about playing music and not watching someone crash. I could see this guy was killing himself. He was on a mission to become what he thought was a rock and roll icon. And he did it, he achieved his goals - not musically but he achieved them in terms of dying young and all these other romantic notions.

Do you think your Cleveland experience gave you a different slant on New York?
I'm sure it did but I don't know how exactly. A lot of people are born and raised in New York, they're force-fed information, the music business is there, the recording studios are there, its all taken for granted. In Cleveland we lived for hearing a great record: it was the only thing that gave meaning to our lives. When somebody we loved was coming to town to play a concert, that was it! It was very, very special. It taught me never to take music for granted. For people in New York it was passe because its just another thing. For me, music was the only thing that made life worth living. Cleveland was an awful place to live and to want to be a musician. Even the guys in Pere Ubu were still working day jobs because Cleveland did not support anything local - they thought if it was local it couldn't be any good.

Does this account for your musical po­lygamy?
I've always been interested in all types of music. When I was listening to the Beatles and the Stones and Jimi Hendrix, I was also listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. And then I got a job in a record store which also sold classical music so I got into Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Stockhausen. For me it's just music. I'd look at it the same way now as I did then. It doesn't matter if it's played on a guitar or a computer - it either makes me feel something or it doesn't. When I moved to New York I was in the Lounge Lizards and the Feelies at the same time because playing music was a way to learn how to play music: I wasn't interested in playing one type. I didn't put any restrictions on it. It was all opportunity: opportunity to learn and to make a living.

What can you tell us about the genesis of your work with Stina Nordenstam on the soundtrack to the Photographer's Wife?
[laughs] It’s not a soundtrack! It's just someone being clever with the packaging! It came about cause I heard the Stina Nordenstam record And She Closed Her Eyes. I heard it in Japan and said, 'What the fuck is that?!' I bought every copy they had - I wanted to give it to people so they could hear it. I've done that with other records - I bought 20 or 30 copies of Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and just gave them out, saying, 'you have to hear this, there's nothing like this I've ever heard, it's a brilliant, brilliant record.' After I listened to Stina's record a million times it came time to put together another Golden Palominos record and I asked her to be involved. It took a long time going through managers but finally the CDs I sent got to her and she responded positively. So I went to Sweden, I paid for my own ticket and hotel and everything. Everything I've done I've generated - it's not going to happen any other way unless I make it happen. These three tracks on this CD were originally for a Golden Palominos album. But it wasn't the record I wanted to make, it was an experiment that failed. But I'm not going to say anything negative about Stina. I'm honoured and flattered that someone I think is great came to New York to try to work with me and give me a part of themselves. It didn't work – not everything works. I ended up selling those tracks to Warner Brothers and that's what you have.

Can you shed some light on the literary inspirations behind This Is How It Feels and Pure?
When working with Lori Carson for the first time I said 'here, read this book [Graham Greene's The End of the Affair] because it expresses a mood I would like expressed and there are themes in this book I would like explored in the lyrics.' Pure had no such literary inspiration although there was one piece on that record called No Skin where some of the lyrics are based on a couple of essays by Georges Bataille who wrote The Story of the Eye. That's why that record seems to have no centre - I'm less satisfied with it. This Is How It Feels I love, I'd never say anything bad about it. Even though there are four or five pieces on Pure that I think are great, as a whole, as a complete work it's not fully-realised, it feels half-finished. I knew it was half-finished when I turned it into the record company. It was a mistake I'll never make again, that's why I was so fucking obsessive about Dead Inside: I wouldn't turn it in until every detail on it had a reason for being there and expressed something. That's why I took a year to make it.

Literary inspiration is about my communication to a writer - verbal communication is not my forte. I gave Nicole four or five books to show her what my sensibility was, what I thought was really great writing. Before I started working with Lori Carson, I didn't care what the lyrics expressed, whether I was working with Michael Stipe or whoever. I feel that in the process of making the eight records I've made, a conscious and subconscious force is driving me to make things more and more personal. I guess it's to do with getting older - I feel my time left on the earth is limited. Experimenta­tion is fine but its important and necessary for me before I die to communicate that which is in my spirit my soul, my brain. Until this point, I feel I have no talent for writing words; maybe that will change but I still live vicariously through others and get them to figure out what's going on inside me.

A form of therapy?
Yes, you're right. These records are very self-indulgent; they're ways for me to learn about myself. I don't have a therapist. These records are my therapy. I tried therapy, maybe I never found the right one but I never had much respect for therapists or felt they understood what I was talking about whereas the collaborators I've worked with seem to understand perfectly.

The Lori Carson record is very confessional, very Catholic...
Right. Very observant! I will work with Lori again; that’s a very important relationship in my life both musically and personally. Perhaps getting involved with Lori personally made it more difficult for us to work together. We weren't involved on a personal level when we made This Is How It Feels but we were afterwards and making Pure was much more difficult. I don't know if that’s because we were involved personally or not but that's the only thing that changed. Nicole and I have no relationship outside of working together but maybe that’s why it’s so successful. The work exists on an emotional level but the way we work together is not on an emotional level. We don't fight about things, we discuss them and come to an agreement. Our personal lives are not threatened by us having a disagreement about a couple of lines in a lyric. But my work with Lori is not done. It was important for us to not work together for a while. We'd started to lose sight of the original intent. We'd do things to please the other person - I would do things with the music and she with the words – as opposed to doing what’s important for themselves. Pure is not a satisfying record - I had to accommodate Lori's musical personality on it. Hence my reaction to that was to work with someone who was absolutely not a songwriter on any level.

How did your relationship with Lori change when you went on to produce her solo album?
That to me was the ultimate goal. I was sent a demo of her early music before she made her first record. I was being considered as a producer, although I wasn't the one who was eventually chosen. When I first approached her to work with her, the goal was for me to produce a Lori Carson solo album. At the time when we started working together, there was no Lori Carson solo record to make. I suggested she try to work on some music not entirely her own and the two Golden Palominos records came out of that. I love producing the music of someone I love. When we made Where It Goes, we didn't argue about anything. That music was her music that I was helping her to realise. Our roles in the Golden Palominos are much more blurry. It’s very difficult for a lyric writer or singer to work on something and then give it over to someone else. Lori has a problem with that. To me the Golden Palominos records are my records, I will never look at them as anything but, even though other people are as important to the creation as I am. Ultimately, they have to express what I want them to express and it's of secondary importance whether it expresses something for my collaborator.

You've produced various Hearsay heroes and heroines: Victoria Williams, Joe Henry, The Grapes of Wrath… is there something fundamental to the producer's role which stays constant even when the music you're overseeing is very different?
Yes, but it's something as vague as my sensibility and my taste. Taste is a very subjective thing. When I'm producing a band like the Grapes of Wrath and they're in the studio playing a song, to say whether it was a good performance or a bad performance is very subjective. All I can use is my own taste and sensibility - obviously that's what I've been hired for, that people hear something in the records I've made that, to varying degrees, they trust my sensibility. I much prefer producing an individual artist - someone like Lori or Joe or Victoria - because I'm able to help create the way the music is realised -choosing the musicians; I have a much bigger role in determining what that record sounds like. I love the Grapes of Wrath, I've never taken a job producing someone whose music I don't love. That's why the only person I've produced since the Grapes of Wrath album, which was in 1989, is Lori, because I've not been approached with anything I cared for, that I loved. Producing bands is less interesting because it’s a less hands-on approach: they create the music. I'm there as an observer, to make them give a definitive performance. I find myself in the role of schoolteacher or music-teacher; it’s a less creative role than I'd hope for. I love producing records - I'd like to do it more, but I just haven't been approached by anyone whose music I really loved. It wouldn't be right - I cannot sit there day after day and listen to someone play something 30 times if I don't love it. It would be dishonest. Certain areas of my life have to be honest and pure, and music is the one, it’s the only one.

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