Feature #19 – Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (Dean & Britta)

Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips started creating and performing music together in the NYC band Luna (1992-2005), which Britta joined in 2000. Prior to Luna, Dean fronted Galaxie 500, the highly influential three piece “dream pop” band (influenced by The Velvet Underground, among others) and Britta played in a few different bands (notably The Belltower and as bassist for Ben Lee’s live shows) in addition to doing film and television work.  As a duo, they’ve crafted three distinctly different albums over the course of the last eight years: “L’Avventura,” (2003) a stunning album of covers and duets produced by Tony Visconti, “Back Numbers,” (2007) a collection of original pop songs (also produced by Visconti) written in the tradition of American singer-songwriters like Lee Hazlewood and Tim Hardin, and, most recently, “13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a project commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Screen Tests are silent film portraits that Andy Warhol shot at the Factory between 1964 and 1966, featuring a wide range of artists, collaborators and hangers-on (including Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg, among others), and Dean and Britta wrote and recorded 13 songs to accompany a selection of the footage in order to create a unique performance: Dean and Britta perform the songs onstage with their band (including Anthony Lamarca and Matt Sumrow), while the Warhol films are projected overhead.  We’re grateful they took the time to answer our questions and provide us with some excellent lists.

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks: Looking back, when Luna broke up, among the items listed in the announcement were, “Rock and Roll is killing my life,” “There are too many bands out there,” and, “Too much time spent in fifteen-passenger vans.” As a big Galaxie 500/Luna/Dean and Britta fan, I was a little worried that the action would come to a stop.  Clearly the action has done anything but come to a stop, fortunately.  Have you both surrendered to dealing with the downsides of touring/performing/rock and roll, or just found a better way to do things?

Britta: Well, we try not to carry really heavy things anymore, and we don’t spend as much time in fifteen-passenger vans. We’ve been spending more time in airports, though… It’s great to be able to travel the world… go to Paris, Brazil, Japan, Sweden, Spain etc., but everything great has a downside… there will always be itineraries to plan, hotels and flights to book, and musicians to heard through the gates.

Dean & Britta – “Night Nurse” from the album L’Avventura

Listgeeks: The “13 Most Beautiful” project seems to have been very well received internationally, and your work feels like it’s ideally suited to this type of performance/project.  Can you imagine future collaborations along these lines, perhaps involving another artist or performing in a film-oriented environment?

Britta: Yes, if it’s something inspiring and beautiful like these screen tests, we would love to do another project like this. A music project that is more of the art world than the “music biz” world. Working within set parameters can be very refreshing.

Dean and Britta performing “13 Most . . .” photographed by Julienne Schaer

Dean: It has been eye-opening to play in venues that don’t need to sell beer in order to pay you at the end of the night, arts festivals and museums, to realize there are other ways to do it. We just came back from performing the Warhol show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and I am quite sure I never anticipated playing there.

Listgeeks: I came across a few articles online that were critical of your performing Galaxie 500 songs on “your own” during the recent “Dean Wareham performs Galaxie 500” shows, typically suggesting that the original line up should have been involved.  While it’s clearly documented why you decided to move on from Galaxie 500 (in “Black Postcards,” the memoir you wrote which came out in 2008), I wonder what the decision making process was like behind deciding to perform those songs again.  Was it simply a matter of people loving that material, and wanting to hear you play it, or did you feel a personal/artistic urge to bring those songs to a live setting again?

Dean: People will sit at their desks and opine on what artists should be doing but I figure I am the one actually riding round in a van and I can sing my old songs however I want. I’d like to see the 1978 New York Yankees get back together but that’s not happening either.

As to why now: We were asked to play a set of Galaxie 500 songs at the Tanned Tin festival in Spain, and I enjoyed singing and playing the songs again, it was like slipping into another (younger) voice, and seeing how excited people were to hear the songs live, people who never had a chance to see Galaxie 500 back in the day.  We came home from that show and then Belle & Sebastian asked me to do it for the ATP festival they curated and we decided to add a few U.S. dates and that turned into more dates.

Listgeeks: One of my absolute favorite Dean and Britta tracks is “Ginger Snaps,” from L’Avventura – perhaps your most dance-oriented track to date.  Can the two of you imagine making an album or EP of songs with more of a dance/electronic atmosphere at some point?

Britta: Dean wrote that song, but yes, yes, yes, I would like to do more songs like that, if not an entire album.

Dean: Our other rather dance-oriented track was “Singer Sing” (the remix by Scott Hardkiss who brought the dance elements to the song). Maybe we will pursue the dance EP idea. . .

Listgeeks: Finally, are future Dean and Britta releases in the works?  Do the two of you spend much time working on music, when you’re not touring?

Britta: We released a limited edition single CD version of “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” on October 11th – all in the original order of the DVD.

Dean: We have some half-cooked songs sitting around; December will be the first month in about 3 years where we haven’t had live shows going on, so it will be time to get cooking again.

Dean and Britta Homepage
Dean and Britta Twitter
Dean and Britta on Listgeeks
Dean and Britta Facebook

Feature #15 – Christopher Owens (Girls)

Christopher Owens, half of the critically acclaimed San Francisco-based band Girls (Chet “JR” White, the other half, has handled bass playing and production since 2007) is a remarkably gifted songwriter.  His disarmingly heartfelt songs, which evoke comparison to such great American songwriters as Brian Wilson, Elliot Smith, Daniel Johnston and Cole Porter, gained the band immediate widespread recognition with the release of their first album, Album, in 2009.  The band’s new full-length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost ranges sonically from shoegaze and noise pop to the sounds of the girl groups of the 1950s/60s, channeling a heavy dose of classic rock moves along the way.  Tethered by the emotional core of Christopher’s meditations on love, loneliness, and family, the songs on Father, Son, Holy Ghost resonate with a beauty and sincerity uncommon in today’s pop landscape.  We’re grateful Christopher took the time to answer a few questions and send us what is undeniably one of the most inspiring lists we’ve received from an interviewee on Listgeeks so far: “A current to do list copied and pasted from my phone

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks
:  I’m curious about the kinds of relationships you have with Girls fans – it feels like people would really feel that they can intensely identify with you, as a person, because of the amount of heart you put into your songs.  Do you find people who love your music want to turn to you for advice, or – conversely – want to offer you their own thoughts/advice when you meet them?

Christopher Owens: I haven’t had anyone offer any advice, thankfully. People sometimes ask for advice and if it’s on something I think I can help with then I will, but even that is rare. I do get a lot of sincere thanks and gratitude from people for not being afraid to address the things that I do, or admit the things that I do, and I hear often from people that the songs “really helped” them in different ways. It’s always genuine and it’s one of the gauges that make me feel like maybe this is working.

LG:  It seems like people are really enjoying the current configuration of the band (as an eight piece, including three back-up singers) – how does it feel different for you from the previous Girls tours?

CO: The backup singers aren’t able to tour full time right now, they have children and lives and we’re lucky to have the money to fly them in for shows in big cities or filmed performances, etc… I wish that we were an 8 piece touring band but that’s not really the case. I will say that within the band, Matt Kallman and Evan Weiss and Darren Weiss are the strongest positive force and it’s wonderful to know they’re a part of this.

Girls, live in Vancouver 10/5/11 by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

LG: My favorite song on the new album is “My Ma,” a profound and beautiful track.  It reminds me a little of the breathtaking Smog song, “Rock Bottom Riser” – I think because the sentiments are so straightforward and honest.  Do you work towards simplicity when you write songs?  What I mean is, do the songs sometimes start more complex, lyrically, and then transform into something more direct/honest over time?

CO: Never. When I find a song I take it or leave it. Lucky for me I’m not smart enough to write anything complicated.


Links: Christopher on Listgeeks
Girls on Facebook (Tour dates, videos, etc.)
Some Beautiful Portraits of Christopher by Hedi Slimane

Listgeeks Feature #12 – Rick McPhail (Tocotronic, Glacier)

Rick McPhail is a Hamburg-based American musician best know for his contributions as a member of the acclaimed German band Tocotronic.  Having joined the band in 2005, Rick (playing guitar and keyboard) has helped to push Tocotronic’s music sonically, and adds a dynamic, compelling presence to their live performances.  When he’s not busy touring and recording with Tocotronic, Rick runs his own studio and releases albums (accompanied by a host of talented friends) as Glacier (of Maine).  His new album, “Above and Beside Me,” which is his second full-length, is an expansive, stylistically wide-ranging collection of beautifully constructed songs played and captured on analog equipment.  A seriously eclectic range of influences, ranging from Genesis and My Bloody Valentine to 70s space rock and Elliott Smith, are evident in Rick’s unique, evolving sound.  We’re grateful he took the time to talk with us about Tocotronic and Glacier.  Be sure to check out his Listgeeks lists after you’ve read the below interview.

Listgeeks: How and when did joining Tocotronic come about? Were you a fan of the band’s earlier work?

Rick McPhail: My girlfriend grew up with Dirk, our singer.  In ’99 she got me a job selling t-shirts for them on their k.o.o.k. tour.  I had heard them before but wasn’t really a fan until having to hear them every night on tour.  At that time I was still listening to a lot of noisy stuff and didn’t feel the need to hear what I considered to be the German version of Pavement.  But on tour, the music really grew on me and I started to really respect and appreciate what they were doing for German music, which sucked pretty much at the time and continues to until this day.  Anyways, because the record had a lot of synths on it (and I was quite the synth freak at the time), they eventually asked me to play keyboards for the festival dates in 2000.  Then I ended up playing 2nd guitar and keys for the tour of the next record (the white one).  Because a lot of the keyboards on that record were too difficult for me to pull off (with my limited ability and the fact that they wanted the songs to rock a bit more live), I ended up playing guitar about 50% of the time.  I think this gave the band, and Dirk especially as singer/guitarist, a greater sense of security on stage – having a second guitar – and I guess they decided there’s no turning back, so they asked me to become a permanent member in 2005.

LG: It seems like you guys fairly consistently release an album every couple of years . . . is there a pre-defined pattern to how you work, or is it mostly about getting the right songs together, whenever that happens?

RM:  Dirk usually writes the songs quite quickly, often in between tour dates of the record before.  He records demos with acoustic and vocals and sends them round.  Then, after touring, we usually take a short break and then get cracking on the next one.  All three last records were recorded pretty much live with hardly any overdubs, so everything really has to sit before going in the studio.  We practice in my studio at home so we can always do quick demos and hear if the songs work and practice to them alone.  After about 3-6 months of practicing and arranging we go into the studio and record.  We usually book 14 days, but every record has gone faster than the one before it, 10 days the first, I think 7 the second and the last one took maybe 5 days.  The last 3 records have gone very quickly, and we’ve hardly taken any breaks (there are always summer festivals and benefit concerts, etc.) so this year we finally decided to take a sabbath and not play at all.  We have met, though, a few times already to talk about the next one and to look at a studio as well.  We start practicing again in December.

LG: Up until now, Tocotronic has largely made guitar-based records, though the various side projects have taken other directions – can you imagine that changing with future releases?

RM:  I don’t think so.  I think the band did a lot of its experimenting with electronic music 10 years ago with k.o.o.k., the remix album and the white album – plus the side projects from the others are all quite electronic as well.  I think we all feel quite comfortable in our skin as an independent rock band.  First of all, it’s quite a wide genre, and luckily Tocotronic never really stuck themselves to one sound or influence.  A Tocotronic song may have many influences but I believe we have a distinct sound that people always recognize.  Second of all, I think that after almost 40 years of indie/post punk it’s shown that it has held up to the test of time – especially after everybody in the 90’s was shouting how guitar music was dead etc. – I don’t see it dying anytime soon, and if it does, Tocotronic has always completely ignored the trends so we’ll probably keep on even when noone wants to hear it anymore.

LG: As an American in a band best known in Germany/Europe (even though you’ve been in Hamburg/Germany for a long time), you’re sort of between two worlds.  Do you think this “between-ness” influences your approach to making music, either with Tocotronic or your own project, Glacier?

RM:  I think the main difference between the American and German approach is that Germans like to talk about things much more and Americans just do it.  I can imagine, before I joined the band, that the guys probably talked 75% of the time and only played 25%.  I think now it’s probably the other way around.  In interviews it’s still difficult to talk about the music because journalists focus very heavily on the lyrics – because they’re in german – and one often has the feeling that they wish for you to explain every detail.  This is often quite tiring because, first of all, I didn’t write the lyrics and, second of all, there’s no cliff note version of the lyrics.  I often have the feeling they’re afraid that they might misinterpret them, but that’s the point – they should have the guts to build their own opinion.  I mean, you would think that’s why they became music journalists, right? As far as being between two worlds, it doesn’t phase me too much.  I was always an outsider, and now I’m outside two worlds instead of just the one.  It’s something that obviously bothered me a lot in my youth, but at some point in life you grow up and accept who you are.  I tried to fit in and become a number but I always stuck out and voiced my opinions openly.  I’m just really lucky now to have the perfect occupation for it.

Glacier (of Maine) – “This is Not About Love (Act II)” from the album “A Sunny Place for Shady People”

LG:  You recently released your second Glacier full-length, “Above and Beside Me,” which has a more expansive feel, both production-wise and thematically, than “A Sunny Place for Shady People,” your first album. How was the process of making this record different from the first album?  Will you be touring to support the release?

RM:  I guess you could say “A Sunny Place” was the first time in my life that wrote “serious” music and lyrics and I had to get a lot out of my system. Lyrically, it’s all very personal and self-reflective, and actually has a lot to do with my having to deal with being a nerd in my youth and my obsession with fantasy/sci-fi as a way of escapism.  It had actually started out as sci-fi rock opera or concept album, but at some point I got stuck in a rut with the story and thought, “Wait this is all ridiculous anyways, this is – or really should be – about me” – so at some point I turned it aound.  Musically, I felt the need to try out a lot as well and quite possibly overdid it throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.  After having to record everything live with Tocotronic on the last few records, I really started to appreciate the dynamic and the limits or dogmas that we set for ourselves that way.  So I decided to incorporate more of that in the new Glacier record – finding a lot of inspiration in limiting the band instrumentally (especiallly the keyboards).  It’s not all the original backing tracks, but playing the backing tracks live as a band does a lot for the dynamics, especially the drums.  Thematically, it’s definitely more open as well, when writing lyrics I often start with a few words and see where they take me.  It’s much more fun – whereas concepts can be a real pain most of the time.

Glacier (of Maine) – “Athens to Roam” from the album “Above and Beside Me”

LG: The track “Flanders Revisited” references the WWI poem, “In Flanders Fields.”  The lines “The ones who sent you there/they’re far away, their sons don’t bear/the weight you hold” – for you, does this sentiment especially resonate in the context of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Listen to the album “Above and Beside Me” on Myspace

RM:  I’m so glad you recognized it! I came real close to changing the title, because I was afraid that everyone here would think I wrote a song about Ned Flanders, from The Simpsons.  This was the only song I sat down and wrote with a concept in mind.  After seeing the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young film Déjà Vu, and especially after the scene where Neil Young gets interviewed and asked why he wrote “Living with War” when he already had “his” war with Vietnam (and why we wouldn’t leave this one for the younger generation), he answers that he did at first but no one said anything.  This really compelled me to write something, because even though there are German troops in Afghanistan, nobody really cares about the war here.  Because of Germany’s history, most Germans have a healthy, extremely anti-military point of view, but that also includes not caring about the soldiers over there –  because they volunteered for it.  You could say this in theory about the Americans over there as well, but it’s not so simple black and white.  Most of the troops there are reservists or National Guard because, after the Cold War ended, the active military cut back so extensively.  I feel for those people because I don’t think when they signed up that they expected to have to go to war.  In any case, after I decided I would like to write something about the wars, it was hard to come up with something that didn’t seem cheesy.  I was actually watching a Peanuts episode with my son where they ended up in Normandy, and then in Flanders, where Linus then recited the poem “In Flander’s Fields,”  I cried, and immediately knew that was it.  I then sat down and wrote the lyrics like a mantra so that they repeated over and over again in the song.  It was important for me to have this repetition because of the déjà vu of “history repeating itself” or what you could even call “neverending story.”

Rick’s Listgeeks lists
Glacier Store

Listgeeks Feature #8 – Ezekiel Honig

Ezekiel Honig, an NYC-based musician and label manager (for Microcosm and Anticipate Recordings) has developed a unique and compelling brand of electronic/acoustic music over the past few years. Oscillating between muted, downtempo techno and warm, organic-sounding experimental ambient, Ezekiel’s music has evolved over the course of the six albums (in addition to numerous EPs and singles) he’s released to date.  His most recent release – and also his most accomplished – “Folding In On Itself,” just came out on the prestigious Type Records label.

Honig draws from a rich palette of field recording samples, acoustic instruments (including piano, horns and guitars), Rhodes pianos, and subtle percussion to keep his deeply textured sound moving forward. Sparse, heartbeat-like rhythms, mixed with washed out and decayed micro-melodies and drones, evoke a sense of intimacy crafted for late nights or early mornings.

Ezekiel Honig – “Between Bridges”We’re happy Ezekiel took the time to answer a few questions about his work for Listgeeks.  After you’ve read the interview, be sure to check out his lists.

Listgeeks: Listening to your albums makes me wonder about your recording process. Not so much from a technical perspective, but more in terms of the question: Where do you start? It seems that the field recording elements have increasingly become a major part of your music and of your signature sound. Would you say they are also a key component when getting started on crafting a track, or is it rather that you start off with more of a “musical” idea and then add those elements later?

Ezekiel Honig: I don’t have a standard way of beginning necessarily, but one thing which is standard for me is that all the elements need to be working together for most of the process. The rhythm that feels a little off suddenly makes sense once there is a melodic tone added to it. The melody line which sounds close, but not quite there, can suddenly make perfect sense once some texture is added, etc. It all begins with a sound, or a handful of sounds, and wanting to turn that into something that feels like a complete thought, but that beginning point can be anything.

LG: As for your field-recordings, do you actively go out hunting for specific sounds, or do you just draw inspiration from whatever surrounds you at a given time?

EH: I never go out looking for something specific. For me it’s about finding the gem in the middle of a recording, searching for that series of moments that I didn’t know I was wanting until I found them. I choose where I go to record, but that is almost incidental. Finding what happens in the middle of the recording is the thing which excites me and drives the process. The accidental nature of it is where I focus.

LG: Not unlike photographs, field recordings generally capture a fleeting moment in time, inevitably hinting at past events and evoking a feeling of nostalgia. Is that something you would say you consciously play with, that feeling of nostalgia?

EH: What I like about recordings in relation to photographs is that the frame is much bigger. Anything within the range of the microphone is there, as opposed to a photo, where you know that so much was happening just a foot away from what is seen.  I’ve been thinking a lot, especially with this album, about how much is not intended in an overt way, yet comes out and is threaded together after the fact. What I’m conscious of is the sound itself and how it makes me feel while working on it. Instinct plays a large role in these decisions and other things come out of that naturally. For example, I wasn’t aiming to play with a sense of nostalgia, but inevitably with recordings of places, that feeling is on the verge of being evoked. After finishing the record I was a bit more aware that I was exploring past experiences, including some that involved the recordings themselves, as well as using certain sounds to touch on those ideas, those memories, reframing them and re-editing them. My hope is that it’s more about how a sense of the past relates to the present and the future. How we remember is important for right now because it steers our behavior in the day-to-day.

LG: A lot of the street scene noises and other atmospheric sounds you are using seem to capture an auditory experience that we rarely take notice of on a daily basis. Our brains ignore the background hiss. Interestingly enough, once these sounds are played back to you on a recording, they instantly evoke an emotional response, transferring the listener to a different place and time, yet there aren’t many artists using these types of sounds in a compelling, creative context. Do you feel like the art of field recording is neglected, if there is such a thing?

EH: My hope is that there’s an emotional response. I think it’s important to listen to the world around you in general –  to take note of your surroundings – if for no other reason than to train yourself to pay attention. It can translate in a lot of ways that are helpful, if not meaningful. I’m actually less interested in field recording itself than in manipulating those recordings. The recordings are fodder to be edited. So, for me, field recording is just a step, and not the end in itself. I’m making something with it to inject some of that real-world incidentalness into structured musical pieces, to have that element which I want to hear, to tell a story of sorts, without actually telling it.

There is a sharp, perceived division between music, sound art, meditation, environmental sounds…but these are all the same thing. We have fallen into a trap of thinking they need to be different categories but they’re on a fluid continuum.

LG: On your earlier recordings, your approach seemed to be more deeply rooted in minimal techno/dance music. Is club culture still something that you draw inspiration from?

Ezekiel Honig – “Past Tense Kitchen Movement”

EH: Absolutely, but increasingly the inspiration comes more from past experiences getting funneled and filtered forward to the present. Once something becomes part of your language it is just part of your language and you begin to make it your own. It is meaningful to know where it originated but it can move out of that context and begins to be used differently, to become part of a new system. Sometimes I hear a new techno/house track that gets me excited to play with that structure again, but it inevitably turns into something else, getting buried and muted in the mix because that’s just what I want to hear. I have always been more interested in things that hint at something which they aren’t, that nod towards an interest without wanting to completely be that thing. Yes, dance music of various kinds is a big influence, translated through my distance from it.

LG: Is the album format something you consider important in regard to your musical output?

EH: I have thought about this so much, and in fact, with almost every album I’ve made there has been a moment in the process when I thought I would just do an EP or a mini-album, and then reconsidered and pushed forward. It’s funny because I do it every time and I never remember that it’s part of my process.

I wrote a post about this question a year ago or so on my site, thinking about the importance of and need for the album, especially in light of the changes of the music industry landscape, the way things are contained and sold. At the end, I think the album format is essential for me because it allows a more developed statement to be communicated, a more nuanced story to be told. If I made tracks that were club hits or ‘singles’ in some sense then the album would be unnecessary, but that isn’t the case. An album (or something longer) gives me the room to write pieces that are meant to specifically not stand alone, but to add a touch to the whole. As examples, the final track on this album and on my previous one – both make more sense in context and in the sequence in which I laid them out. They are scenes within a broader work, and that is one of my favorite aspects of producing an album, that means of communicating differently.

LG: Finally, are there any future projects or releases (whether your own or music you release through your labels) you want to point out?

EH: I’m working on a handful of projects which I’m not quite ready to talk about because they’re in such an early stage. On the label side, Anticipate is going to release a 12” with a track by a duo from Philadelphia, Bunnies + Bats, with remixes by myself, David Last, and Nicholas Sauser, followed by a massive CD/DVD by Offthesky, entitled Geometry of Echoes. Those will both be out later in 2011, probably late summer and fall.


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Listgeeks Feature #4 – Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is an award winning, Berlin-based artist/illustrator with a plethora of high-profile covers and editorial pieces (including for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly) to his credit.  Conveying his ongoing fascination with the sights and sounds of New York City (Niemann lived and worked in NYC from 1997 to 2009) through his Abstract City Blog (which recently became Abstract Sunday), Christoph has delighted and enlightened New York Times readers with his remarkable insight, singular wit and superior illustrating skills on a regular basis since 2008.  His most recently released books include “The Pet Dragon”, a book created to acquaint kids with Chinese characters, and the NYC-centric “I LEGO N.Y.” and “Subway.” His latest children’s book, “That’s How!,” comes out next month.  Christoph’s Web site is the best place to keep up-to-date on his latest projects, and you can also follow him on Twitter.  After you read the interview, check out Christoph’s “Vanilla to Pomegranate” list.

Listgeeks: You’ve recently worked with a very wide range of materials – paint, pencil/paper, legos, fabric, coffee, computers, tile on the NYTimes blog . . .  Is it hard to decide which projects are destined for which materials? Does the material you’re working with frequently lead you into new or unexpected concepts?

Christoph Niemann: Usually I start with the concepts and then think of the appropriate way to execute the ideas. With the 3D objects I have been doing for my blog, there are obviously a few unexpected things that happen, mostly due to my impatience and clumsiness. But since I usually develop the concepts with pencil and paper and only start building the items once the whole project is figured out, there are relatively few surprises.

LG: Your kids seem to have a big impact on your personal work – especially the projects featured on the Abstract City Blog.  Has being a dad changed your approach to illustrating?

CN: Not really. Obviously life with the kids is a pretty rich source for strange mementos that can be abused for my visual essays, but I am very wary of focusing on my kids too much. As a reader, the last thing I want to read about is how interesting or peculiar the life of the author is. I am keen on finding stories that a reader can relate to by finding experiences we all share. As for the Lego series, the kids are less of an inspiration but rather an excuse for me to spend hours each weekend playing with what is still my favorite toy.

LG: How did the Abstract City Blog come about? You started that with the NYTimes in the summer of 2008, right?

CN: Yes, at that point I had been working as an editorial illustrator for about 12 years, which I still consider the most important part of what I do. But I also felt that in order to stay fresh, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and try out projects that were scary and that would involve a greater amount of mistakes and dead ends. It’s not that I don’t mess things up in my editorial work, but after a while one becomes rather smart in avoiding disasters by (more or less consciously) avoiding risk. Coming up with my own stories and relying on handmade art goes so absolutely against my instinct that it seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.

LG: I’m curious about the differences between projects for which you’re required to generate a concept of your own/on your own vs. projects for which there’s a more clearly defined, explicit goal (or something very specific to illustrate).  Do you find one way of working easier than another? Is it sometimes helpful to have restrictions in place?

CN: I am infinitely more comfortable with the restrictions of a normal assignment. Part of it may have to do that I have much more routine with these kind of assignments, but a tight framework gives you a lot of good angles to start. If there are rules you can think about how to break them (or at least get close to breaking them). The self-generated work is much harder, because instead of just creating a solution, you have to create a problem first. And things don’t work out, I am never sure if I didn’t try hard enough with the drawings and the copy, or whether the overall concept is so wrongheaded that failure is inevitable.

LG: Finally, you have a well-documented bond with NYC.  After a few years of being in Berlin, how has your perspective on New York changed? Do you see yourself moving back at some point?

CN: I can absolutely imagine moving back there at some point (probably not before the kids are out of school though). I still go to New York five times a year and enjoy every minute of it. In a perfect world I would split my time 50/50, enjoying the possibilities and creative freedom of Berlin AND taking advantage of the energy, speed and determination that come from living in NY.

Christoph Niemann on Listgeeks
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Listgeeks Feature #2: Russell Leetch from Editors (www.editorsofficial.com)

Editors formed in Birmingham, England, in 2002, and have seen their profile increase dramatically with each of their three successive album releases.  Their most recent album, “In This Light and on This Evening,” (2009) topped the UK album chart (as did its predecessor, “An End Has A Start”), even as the band transformed its sound from layered, guitar-driven indie rock to a more synth-based/industrial sound.  Listgeeks caught up with the band’s principle listgeek, bassist Russell Leetch, as the band head back into the studio with Mark “Flood” Ellis to start working on the material for their fourth album.  After you check out the below interview, be sure to have a look at Russell’s lists: Favourite 80s Bands, Favourite 90s Bands, and Favourite Meals of 2010.

Listgeeks: Sonically, it seems like the band made a pretty big transition from “An End Has a Start” to “In This Light and on This Evening.” Is a similar kind of revisiting the sound of the band happening with the fourth album?

Russell Leetch: Whenever listening back to our previous albums there are always annoyances or things that we may have not liked or wanted to have improved on. It is only with hindsight that you can look at these and move forward. Once we have completed a record we usually tour for an extensive period of time and the songs change again . . . so it is after this period when we start thinking of making a new record that suggestions of who we are going to use and what we may want it to sound like come into play. When we were making “An End Has A Start” we were going for a more polished, fuller sound, which we achieved but maybe pushed a bit too far for a second record. With the third we really wanted to move away from having 30 guitar tracks on a song and for people to hear the band playing in a room again. With the latest record we are rehearsing the songs so they are ready to record when we go into the studio. Studio time can be expensive and it is usually best to have the songs fully rehearsed and ready to go before getting into the studio and changing them in there. At the moment  things are sounding heavier than ever. When the band plays in a room there is always a dynamic to having strong individual parts and usually at volume – this is really prominent at the moment. We are pushing all elements that Editors consist of and that’s the best way of making a record.

LG: Has working with Flood (Depeche Mode, U2, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nine Inch Nails), both on the current project and the third album, pushed the band to develop new ways of incorporating synthetic sounds or different types of technology into the making of the music?

RL: Absolutely. Flood is well known for his work with bands incorporating synthesizers, and is very good at triggering the mode of a song by using a synth to create a rhythmical force or something as a drone for building a song around. When we made the first record it was a straight forward “rock” set up – guitars, bass drums and a micro korg! Now we use Logic running a variety of different things, whether it’s a drum pattern to free up Ed or having a synth keep the chords. We all have individual keyboard set ups and Ed tends to play the majority of his parts using an electronic kit – this really can shape the songs in different directions, especially when rehearsing. Modern bands have so many opportunities now to create such great music for not many pennies!

LG: Do you think an awareness of your audience plays a role in how you approach making albums? When you’re working on new material, is there a sense of what might work better sonically in larger venues and festival environments?

RL: I think to an extent you know what’s going to really work when you rehearse it, you feel the energy as a band first and this is what will be passed on to the audience. I don’t think we are ever far off what’s going to really excite the audience. Whenever you’re recording you try and make what’s best for a record but there is always going to be a thought about what happens live.

LG: Finally, the bass plays a prominent role in the sound of Editors, with songs often reliant on what you do with the bass as a melodic force.  Is it difficult to know when to bring a more melodic/upfront approach to your playing on a track, rather than approaching things in a slightly more traditional/supportive way? Does it just sort of come intuitively? Peter Hook (former New Order) and Carlos D (former Interpol) both come to mind as players who have also straddled this divide with style in the past . . . whose work do you admire when it comes to the bass guitar these days?

RL: I think myself and Chris take turns in supplying extra melodies to a lot of our songs. Prior to the start of the band I wasn’t a bass player and more of a piano player/guitarist. I think this has often led to there being more melody rather than root notes and basic rhythm from the bass guitar. Bass can play such a vital part to some songs without people even noticing it, and it’s taken me ages to realize this. I really enjoy Hooky’s bass playing – he really carries a lot of Joy Division’s work.  Pretty much all the riffs come from him and I like that. I have always liked Carlos from Interpol as there are lots of intricacies in his playing – more than I would ever play but I do admire how strong personalities approach their instruments, it’s what makes great bands. My favorite contemporary rhythm sections are Radiohead, The National and Elbow.