An Interview

Ian Masters on Poor Boy and more

This interview was conducted by email during May 2004.

1. What did you think about Nick Drake’s music before this project? What appealed to you about the song(s) you chose to cover?
2. Did your response to his music in general or to your songs change during the process of creating your version(s)? What was the thinking behind how you covered them? Were there any interesting discoveries in the studio or did things turn out more or less as planned?
3. What other songwriters are you into or would you like to cover if you had the opportunity? (Maybe we can do this again with someone else! Or how about a record of covers of various composers? (I wonder if there’d be any common ground…)
4. How does this tribute fit in with your other recent performing and recording activities? Where are you heading these days with your own music?
5. Anything else you’d like to say?

1. When I lived in England, I often sailed downstairs to the filthy Northern Line too. Nick Drake used to live in Hampstead, north of the river, where people speak like the Queen. I used to live in between Balham and Tooting Bec, where people speak a wonderful mix of languages and dialects known only to themselves. Quite different worlds. However the sentiments expressed in the song are universal.

The thing that appealed to me the most was the sense of airiness in his songs…the way his voice always danced on the music.

2.-3. Now playing is Henry Mancini. I love Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, Caetano Veloso, Baden Powell, Tim Buckley, Michel Polnareff. I deliberately chose a song I didn’t like to try and make things easier…I don’t know if I would choose to cover any of them…but I never finish anything unless I have a deadline because of a complete lack of discipline…and there is always something to be learned, or at the very least, enjoyed in any process of recording, for me. This time it was perhaps realizing how important the seemingly random noises created by my partner Kazuya Ishigami, for whom I have a lot of respect, turned out to be, providing context & colour in a way that I never really imagined. But in many ways it’s a really traditional arrangement on his part, to my way of thinking anyway.

4. It doesn’t…I don’t know where I’m heading and so consequently, I’m sure I won’t know when I get there. At least I hope I don’t.

We played the song a few times live. Maybe we’ll do it again when the disc comes out.

5. It was a very enjoyable exploration but I don’t feel I got any closer to Nick Drake through it. I don’t know him better as a result of this. (What a fucking idiot. Of course you didn’t.) It’s a shame his music isn’t heard more often in public.

A few additional questions (perhaps occasionally borderline pretentious) for the rather mysterious Ian Masters, and his answers:

TR: You used to be the shoegazer band Pale Saints’ lead singer and main writer, but you departed that group over 10 years ago. Since then it seems you’ve been mostly keeping a low profile, particularly since those mid-90s collaborations with Chris Trout (Spoonfed Hybrid) and Warren Defever (ESP Summer), which themselves as far as I know were done for the sake of exploration or fun rather than with any long-range goal in mind. You have a highly idiosyncratic website, and Google searches can unearth a few more tidbits about your activities (including performances in Britain and Japan), but I haven’t found an interview that would put those years in perspective. Are you a recluse from publicity, and/or is your current ironic, provocative, mask-like style of self-presentation part of a more radical break from the entertainment industry?

IM: I suppose I’ve never been forthcoming about self-promotion…I don’t think I’m a recluse though…for me the making and enjoyment of music is not necessarily a public thing though it has a public facet…

Before moving to Japan I started to lose interest in making music for a while…I don’t really know why that happened but I couldn’t make music in an enjoyable way…gradually that enjoyment has returned…I can’t explain why…I know some of the reasons…

I don’t miss the routine of recording-interviews-touring-recording-interviews-touring etc. I make music when & where I feel inclined to…I’m not a good self-publicist.

TR: You moved to Japan some years ago. What drew you there, and how has living there and making music with Japanese collaborators (e.g. in the Friendly Science Orchestra) affected your outlook on art, on life?

IM: I’d been studying Japanese for a while & it seemed like it would be a total waste not to go & use it. IÕve always thought it would be interesting to go & live somewhere else, not only to have the experience of being a foreigner but also to find out exactly what I think of the country I was born in…I don’t miss England at all…I do miss my friends a lot…

The street music in Osaka is also very inspiring (Tony, you really have to come here…it’s so exciting…bands playing in the street…really…I’ll tell u more about it.) It was one of the things that woke me up…

TR: I have this fantasy that you’ve been inspired to somehow combine Zen with dada…

IM: That’s funny…I think you’d be surprised how precious little Zen there is in modern Japanese life unless you go looking for it…In fact the experience has been quite psychedelic on a daily basis…struggling with a foreign language and communication is never boring. Even now after 3 years of living here, I never know if what I say will be understood…

I’ve found musical collaborators here & they’ve found me…it happens much more than it did in England…

TR: Are you concerned with meanings (including mental/emotional states) and communicating them? Or, in making art, is perception/action its own reward for the performer and open to infinite interpretation (or none) on the part of the audience?

IM: I don’t think I’ve ever really been interested in forcing my opinion about the words of a song…I don’t even know if I truly understand the question…whatever I do is completely based on my emotional reaction to melody and harmony…

TR: You have this other current music project called Sore and Steel? What’s it about?

IM: It’s not really current as the other person involved in Sore & Steel lives in London, although Sore & Steel have played in Japan with the help of a person totally unknown to us who lent us a beautiful pedal steel…an instrument rather cumbersome to bring from London without considerable expense…the payment we made was to attend a very enjoyable evening at a too authentic Country & Western club not too far from where I live in very urban inner-city Osaka… in fact we went there by bicycle I remember fondly…

TR: What else are you working on these days?

IM: The Sore & Steel album, though recorded while I still lived in England, has yet to be mixed. The time for that is nigh.

I have another project with no deadline: “Quiet Music for Gentle Aliens”…I would like to make some music for the people that I hope will come to visit us one day. I firmly believe that they already know and adore Louis & Bebe Barron’s amazing soundtrack to Forbidden Planet…how could they not know about it…

I have a very very productive musical partner in England (Nick Davidson who is ‘Pink Eye’)…he produces musical problems for me on a regular basis…

TR: Your cover of Nick Drake’s “Parasite” is a pretty spooky interpretation of one of his most self-critical songs. Your vocal delivery seems intentionally affectless, and there’s a very mechanical quality to the accompanying vamp with its repeating 4-note ascending/descending figure over those repeated chord changes, but then there are these unsettling disruptions of various treated sounds along the way. You seem to have wanted to drain the song of any hint of sentiment (much less self-pity, if indeed it’s there in Nick’s version). What have you put in its place? Does your interpretation say anything about how you see Nick’s music in general, or your response to it?

IM: I’d always been aware of Nick Drake as many of my friends are music librarians (is that the right phrase? My English sometimes gets quite distant these days…forget words often…not that I know the corresponding word in Japanese…it’s a strange state of affairs…heh heh…)

I didn’t really examine the lyrics too closely…I did feel quite an empathy for some of the lyrics … being a Londoner away from London, it was a vivid recollection for me…Kazuya (Ishigami)’s found sounds really complete the picture for me and I was really glad to do some whistling too… though I’m all too aware of the danger of evening whistling: snakes!!

TR: Any final thoughts?

IM: I used to hate being asked to contribute to “tribute” albums…they always seemed so lame…they were always so badly conceived…and the lack of imagination was always so apparent…I only have two Songlines releases but I really love them both…Chris Gestrin & the Origami one…I fucking love them both (really…I listen to them often…I’m surprised too) so I’m really looking forward to hearing this compilation…I hope the Friendly Science Orchestra track is the worst on the album!