Monday, July 28, 2008

David Turpin: My Favourite Things

I meet David Turpin in a bar that doubles as a sort of library. Books surround us. Some cackling ladies are apparently over for a hen party. The strange mixture of literature and let-your-hair-down fun could seem incongruous, but here it feels oddly appropriate. It is the perfect place to ask the bookish, thoughtful, Sandymount based grave-digger (i.e. he “digs” graves, ho ho!) about his new album, his favourite records, books and films, and about the relationship between sex and death. And, of course! The politics of dancing – on graves.

David’s debut LP, “The Sweet Used-To Be”, is this year’s most strikingly original Irish album. Gentle electronics and the occasional sample provide the backdrop for a lyrical world populated by ghosts and wild animals and the atmosphere is just a little bit spooky. It is redolent of 4AD’s more wistful, ethereal output: This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins and even Frazier Chorus. Momus and Pet Shop Boys also spring to mind. One of the sprightliest things on the record is called “Dancing On My Grave”. Turpin is, it seems, enamoured with the supernatural. I enquire if he is interested in Romantic Poetry. “The Romantic Poets were always praising nature, talking about how wonderful it is and feeling in awe of it. I’m more interested in the idea that nature can be cruel too, and even evil. Besides I’m not just interested in the natural world, I’m interested in the world of the fairies.”

Later, he tells me that his dog died recently. “The difference between being alive one minute and being dead the next is so small but still so huge. I know it’s only a dog and I’m not comparing it to a human dying, but I looked around the house and all the dog’s baskets were there. We buried him in the garden. Really it was the last act of kindness I could show him. You don’t have to be particularly religious to feel that sense of the sanctity of a grave. My song ‘Dancing On My Grave’ is an invitation to somebody to dance on my grave when I’m dead.” I ask him what he thinks of the idea of people who plan to dance on Margaret Thatcher’s grave when she passes on. “Whether you’re an atheist of not, to do that is such a profoundly disrespectful thing to do, to make light of somebody’s death like that. You know that feeling when you’re in a graveyard and you accidentally step on someone’s grave…? But to actually invite someone to dance on your grave after you’re dead is either an act of incredible masochism, or it’s a very empowering thing to do”.

A brief discussion of the history of masochism in pop ensues. “That Antony and the Johnsons song “Fistful of Love” is so great because he freely and openly admits to being a masochist. He says he likes being slapped around. Some people pretend to be into masochism but feel the need to let you know that they don’t approve of that sort of thing really. That’s what that song by The Crystals, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)’ was all about. There’s a real honesty about that song. People don’t want to hear a woman say those things, but The Crystals are obviously singing in character there. Immediately everyone is looking for the man pulling the strings who is making her sing this. Little Eva (of “The Locomotion” fame – Ed) told Carol King that her boyfriend had hit her because he heard she’d cheated but she was pleased in a way because it meant he loved her, so Carol wrote a song about it. It’s a representation of something that isn’t nice but we’re still entitled to sing about it. It’s a taboo – we can’t talk about the impulse to be the victim.” Ah yes, pop’s dark side. It’s not all “I Should Be So Lucky” and “Touch My Bum” you know.

He tells me he’d love to work with Kylie, and I have to applaud the ambition that is latent in this statement. So many Dublin musicians seem to think that having your demo get a spin on Phantom FM is as good as it gets. So who else would you like to record with, David? “Grace Jones. Have you heard her new song? It’s alright, it sounds like a Massive Attack song, but it opens with the line ‘Pleased to eat you, pleased to have you on my plate’ which is brilliant, very Grace Jones. I saw her live once and she was two hours late coming on stage. All these people around me were booing – you could tell they didn’t know Grace Jones. When she did arrive you knew immediately that she was doing you a favour by just being there. Liza Minelli, especially since Cabaret, always has this…grip on herself. She’s always seeking attention, always asking to be loved in one way or another. But with Grace Jones you believe it.” Maybe that’s the difference between growing up in Hollywood and growing up in the riot-strewn Jamaica of the late 60s and early 70s? “Maybe, yeah. If I made a record with Grace Jones and she didn’t treat me like shit throughout the recording process, I’d be disappointed.” Spoken like a true masochist. So, David Turpin, tell us about some of your favourite things…

Kate Bush “The Hounds of Love” (1985)
“It’s a record that has its own sealed world. You can like it or dislike it but you can’t really say it’s deficient, you know, because it is what it is what it is. There’s a real sense of joy about it. You have to look past the big 80s drums, but it’s still a masterpiece. ‘Hounds of Love’ is really where Kate Bush ceases to just be a singles artist and becomes an albums artist. All the little girlishness of her earlier records falls away at this point. You know that line “is there so much hate for the ones we love?” It’s the sound of the record too. Her voice is obviously very evocative and the lyrics are very good… blah blah blah…but all the sounds that are going on in this record are great too. She shamelessly writes about topics that some people might think of as being incredibly boring, but she manages to extrapolate something form them that justifies the reference. ‘Cloudbusting’ is about Wilhelm Reich who I don’t know that much about, and the whole second side is about Tennyson! So it might be intellectual but it could, you know, go on Top of the Pops, and it did in fact. I love the almost onomatopoeia of “Running Up That Hill”, the drums sound like someone running and so on, I like that attention to detail. There are sounds on the record where you’re not sure if you actually heard it or dreamed it or imagined it. Those voices on ‘Waking The Witch’ for example, and that song that follows it (’Watching You Without Me’ – Ed), where a voice appears as a ghostly thing. Her last album was good too, and she came back with dignity, which is…admirable. I always think of her as being this sort of ancient being, but she’s not – she’s probably only something like fifty years old…”

Jimmy Scott “Heaven” (1996)
“He made records as Little Jimmy Scott and he had a sort of alto female voice, so it was kind of separated from gender. He then went away for a bit and came back and made a record with Ray Charles, which didn’t get released. After that he went off into obscurity for a long time until he was sort of rediscovered by Lou Reed in the early 90s. He released this record called “Heaven” which a collection of spirituals. One of them is called “There’s No Disappointment In Heaven”. He sings it like a ninety-year-old man that has the innocence of a child. It’s jazz, but it’s a very spacious sort of jazz sound, it’s not a cocktail jazz sound. It’s kind of hard to say what’s so great about it. He had a bad family history, it sounds like he’s singing the story of his life. It’s weird to hear him since that song “Heaven” (a Talking Heads cover – Ed), because the song is maybe atheist or agnostic at best, but he makes into a sort of spiritual song and brings out the ambiguity of it. It’s a cynical song drained of cynicism and there’s still something there. Even though it’s very anti-God because he’s very religious he manages to find the faith in it. When I grew up were weren’t raised religious, I thought that was fairly normal but then years later I realized it wasn’t so normal at all. So I don’t really have a background in religious music, it’s something I discovered much later - maybe as a teenager. I’m interested in that notion of wanting to pray even though you don’t know who or what you’re praying to. I don’t dance but I would never dance on somebody’s grave, no.”

Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliot “Supa-Dupa Fly” (1997)
“I’ve just been getting into hip-hop recently. Journalists tend to ask me who I think I sound like and I’m often tempted to mention The Sugarhill Gang and things like that, but they’re not really an influence on my record, though they could be on the next one. My friend who plays keyboards with me and writes with me is really into block parties – with a ‘k’ mind you. And so I’ve started to sort of plunge into that a bit. “Supa-Dupa Fly” is sort of like “The Hounds of Love” in that it just takes this pleasure in invention. I find some of the sounds on it really funny. I don’t know why but anytime you hear all the sounds fit in to place it makes you laugh. When I record something with my friend and it just sounds right, we laugh. Missy Elliot is also a very underrated singer, a soul singer. I’m not saying she’s the best singer there is, but she is good, and she’s a good rapper too. There aren’t many female producers around who produce for other people. There are lots who produce themselves of course, Joni Mitchell, Bjork produces her stuff with Nellee Hooper obviously, but I can’t think of many jobbing female producers.”

“Blue Velvet” (1986)
“I love the film; I think it’s far better than ‘American Beauty’. I like Laura Dern’s character in it. A lot of people don’t understand it, they think it’s funny, particularly that scene outside the church but I don’t think it’s funny at all. I like how her character is treated here - sympathetically. Not like in ‘American Beauty’, where the film thinks it’s so much better than the character Mena Suvari plays. It spends all its time mocking her and reveling in her misery, it’s laughing at her all the time. I like how in Blue Velvet it treats the girl as a “girl in trouble”. Sure, she’s not very clever and she’s spoilt and so on but that doesn’t matter. I love the score. I know it’s full of big 80s synth-pads, but it adds to it. It’s mysterious and electronic; we don’t really know where we are. Lots of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores are like that. Even in ‘Twin Peaks’, the jazz bits are played on sort of electronic instruments, there’s something not quite right about it. I love the main song in ‘Blue Velvet’, the simplicity of it. I think it’s just a couple of lines – ‘Sometimes the wind blows and the mysteries of love come clear…’”

Michael Lesy “Wisconsin Death Trip”
“It’s a book of photographs taken in this town were tragedy seemed to be around every turn. There was a cholera epidemic, lots of people died, all the kids turned out gay, and it just seemed that everything turned out wrong in this town. There are a lot of photographs of dead babies’ bodies. It’s like the last act of kindness the parents’ could show to their dead infant children. When somebody dies and you get to see them after their death, it’s the first time you ever get to see them still, genuinely still. A friend of mine died, though I didn’t see him die, and I didn’t see his body, but I imagine it’s the same with a person as it was with my dog. Not that I mean to compare the two things!”

David Turpin’s album, “The Sweet Used-To Be”, is out now on Kabinet Records.