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Vague Angels

Interview von: Matthias Rauch mit Chris Leo, am: 15.05.2007 ]

Obwohl Chris Leo leider oft nur im Schatten seines großen Bruders Ted wahrgenommen wird, muss er sich keinesfalls dahinter verstecken, denn spätestens mit seinen fantastischen Bands wie The Van Pelt oder The Lapse hat Chris seine musikalischen Spuren in der Popmusikgeschichte hinterlassen. Nach einer kurzen musikalischen Pause, die er für das Verfassen von zwei Romanen nutzte, ist Chris nun mit seiner neuen Band Vague Angels unterwegs, die irgendwo zwischen Dandytum, Indierock-Gestus und Singer/Songwriter-Ästhetiken zu verorten ist. Wir sprachen mit Chris über popmusikalische und literarische Werkgenese, New York City und Schaumwein auf der Reeperbahn.


Musicscan: Chris, please tell me a little bit about how the last European tour went. What were some places that you connected with and that remain special to you?

Vague Angels: Jeez, places I identified with. That's difficult considering I generally enjoy the whole thing. Swimming in the Baltic sea after a sauna in Malmö. Promoter in Stockholm too drunk to remember where he lives so after two hours of driving around the city late night he gives up and gets us rooms at the fancy Sheraton downtown. Ordering Schaumwein on the Reeperbahn thinking I was getting a glass, not an entire bottle, running down the street leaving my band members to haggle with the guy. Sitting on the banks of the three rivers in Passau. Spending an entire night in an interrogation room in Dresden after not passing a blood alcohol test -- it was buffelgrassvodka -- while friends from Peru who mysteriously showed up argued with the cops in the hallway. Playing a friend's 30th birthday party inside a chicken farm in Belgium. Playing atop a mountain in the Italian Alps at a club called Caribe to four paying customers. An idiot savant at an Autogrill in Campania comes up to me while I'm drinking and asked me if my last name was Leo. This list could keep going. Ending it all with four solo shows on the Costa Brava and Madrid.

Musicscan: Quite a few people where wondering if the Vague Angels were solely a promotional gimmick in order to promote your novel. In how far do you consider Vague Angels a real band now?

Vague Angels: Initially, Vague Angels was just a vehicle to promote my first novel, but after you tour for long enough, whether you try or not, you begin writing new songs. The songs on "Let's Duke it Out at Kilkenny Katz'" are the initial part band / part solo songs that mostly came out of touring on "White Pigeons," but by the time to tour on “Kilkenny,” I had finally gotten myself a real cohesive band. This summer we'll be recording plenty of songs that have nothing to do with any books.

Musicscan: Apart from the fact that you intertwined literary and musical worlds quite impressively in your first novel, I find that your writing is also very musical in a sense, very much written to be spoken out loud or performed. Would you agree? What can acoustic dimensions add to the atmosphere and maybe even the semantics of a text?

Vague Angels: That's great to hear and something I was glad to see when I finished “White Pigeons.” I'd always felt that my lyrics were too literary, sometimes not musical enough. When I started writing I realized that my writing was highly tempoed. Meter and rhythm are salient. This is one of the reasons why I put that CD at the climax of the book. The book is about paradox and my music and my writing dance around each other. If the day was longer, I would try and put my most recent novel "57 Octaves Below the Middle C Buzzed by the Bee" to the stage, create a long one act play because, you're right, it is meant to be spoken. The day is not yet long enough, though.

Musicscan: Both of your literary works revolve at least partly around your fascination with NYC. Could you elaborate a little bit on what makes this city special to you, what keeps you fascinated with it?

Vague Angels: What keeps me fascinated with New York. It is Monday morning right now and I can't make it to work in New Jersey. I am stuck in my practice space in Brooklyn. It has been storming outside now for almost 48 hours. The street in front of my house is flooded knee deep 100 meters in either direction, but let me take you back to Friday night. We played a show at Union Hall in Brooklyn. Naturally, I'll bump into people from both Germany and Italy there. After the show I receive a mysterious text message: "Chrissy! Who is the King of New York?" To which I respond "Me you retard." To make a very long story short, over the next 12 hours we exchange texts every hour or so. At 5pm I send a text "Enough, just come over." It takes me an hour to convince her, but at 6 I get a final message: "I am outside in a blue Volvo." Erica, it turns out, saw me perform a spoken piece at an art exhibit on a moving bus last fall. It also turns out that while she was getting her nails done that day at Dashing Diva on Smith Street I was across the street having margaritas with Gary and Eva of The Gang. Earlier in the day she bumped into her ex-boyfriend with current girlfriend in front of Robin Dubois on Smith Street while, across the street, I bumped into one of mine rolling her new baby and walking with her grandmother while all I had was a fresh bottle of Tempranillo in my hand. I tried to hurry away but only one block later I bump into Marcellus who illustrated “57 Octaves” who was running away from an awkward encounter he had on Smith Street with his ex and her current boy. I head to the studio with Marcellus. On the way home I receive a text from Erica (before, of course, I knew her name and coordinates) who (again, I later found out) was having drinks with her ex in Frankies 457 trying to patch up their earlier awkward encounter but she was just making it worse because she was texting me as I walked by. After a very long night I woke at 9am with an angelic phone call from a Chilean friend: "Wanna go to the Jewish Russian Bath Houses in Borough Park?" And within two hours old men were smacking branches over my back while I sweated out last night's toxins in the sauna. I ended that night with a margarita with her at Pacifico.

Musicscan: How do you currently manage to pay the bills in this increasingly expensive city, considering that big parts of Brooklyn and Queens and even the Bronx are getting more and more gentrified? How do experience this development and do you see ways of preventing this dynamic from further spreading in the future?

Vague Angels: Good question. I've just recently, finally, gotten scared I must admit. I work as a legal assistant to my father in New Jersey every day - an hour commute - and I usually have at least one other hustle, like a once a week DJ gig or like this summer, I'll be taking children on tours of their local parks once a week. I also live in my practice space, which is not quite as awful as it may sound. New Yorkers are always leaving town and generally someone will call me and ask me to watch their cat. This week I'm living in a huge apartment all to myself in Crown Heights. Next week I get one in the East Village. That is, if the flood ever lets me out of my practice space. Still, something has to change.

Musicscan: It seems like you work quite intuitively both on a musical and on a literary level. Would you say this is true? How much contemplation goes into a song or a written page after it has first been laid down? What are the advantages of working in a rather intuitive way if that is the case at all?

Vague Angels: Some songs/writings fall right out and I generally leave them that way, you're right. The benefit for that is that you can deliver them honestly easier. The other type of work grips me for days at a clip. They want to come out, but it's not simple. These songs I'm meticulous with and after you pay so much attention to like one line or one riff you can start to overthink it and this cloud any attempt at naked honesty.

Musicscan: Do you sometimes compare yourself with your older brother musically? Would you say there is some kind of competition between brothers in a way? How would you describe the relationship to Ted?

Vague Angels: Well, fortunately, there is almost no musical overlap with either of my brothers. We all make entirely different forms of music, so competition is out of the equation. I'm a huge fan of both of my brothers’ music, though. I even play in my little brother's band.

Musicscan: In how far do you think literature and music are going to change because of its different media, the internet for instance? Do you think this is going to influence the way songs are going to be written and might people primarily read online?

Vague Angels: I'm happy with the way it's changing music. Right now, everything is in a state of chaos, but if we ride through this properly I think it should free music up. It'll allow us to not feel constrained or restrained by the semi-arbitrary forms we've been working within. And most importantly, one of the allures of music is that it's an intangible. As soon as you hear it it's gone. Music is not a CD or an album or anything you can touch. The internet is bringing us back to that truth. Literature, well I prefer the book in my hand in a park, a car, bed, fireplace...but I'm sure computers will soon be that portable. So no, I have no worries. I remove myself from the debate.

Musicscan: Do you feel connected to the New York music scene? When I was there last year for a few months, I got the impression that New York is quite particularized. People in Williamsburg don’t bother with what is going on in Manhattan and vice versa and even within Brooklyn there seem to be various little scenes that remain quite isolated for themselves.

Vague Angels: Right. Well I'd argue first that Williamsburg and Greenpoint are something different from the rest of New York. I love them, but they're not integral parts of the city. They're their own thing. And right, with a city (country) this big the idea of scene dissipates. Everyone goes their own way. I mean, there must be 20 incredible bands in my immediate network of friends alone: Suzan Hurtuk, The Gang, The Holy Childhood, Earl Greyhound, This Frontier Needs Heroes, Dutchess, Marcellus Hall, Larune, Young Writers, Finnean McKean...I could just keep going. Too big. This city is too big. A scene is for smaller places. I also feel like scenes usually are not integral to the city. They form an "us vs them" approach to society and there is nothing about me that functions like that.

Musicscan: Do you think you would be making different music if you didn’t live in NYC? What influence does the city have particularly on your music?

Vague Angels: The only time I haven't lived in this city was in 2005 when I lived in Glasgow for a bit. I wrote only words while I was there. Not a single song. So yes, though it hasn't been accurately tested, I'm sure my music would change.

Musicscan: What is the difference between art and entertainment in your opinion?

Vague Angels: The only difference to me between art and everything is a level of critical approach. Art is just a way of approaching all things. I think artists piece things together by first looking for holes between or within pieces rather than just gathering them up and assembling.

Musicscan: Is it necessary to create a certain distance between you and your writing/music in order to get a better understanding of its inherent quality?

Vague Angels: Possibly. The only way to get that distance may be time, though. I just have to wait it out.

Musicscan: What can we expect from you in the near future?

Vague Angels: A new Vague Angels album within a year. A new book "Carnation" is finished, but books take time. A children's book "Coomoococklemungmung" illustrated by Francesca Massai of Buenos Aires will hopefully be released in Latin America within a year. A feature length film with Michael Galinsky (Half-Cocked, Radiation, Horns and Halos) within a year. Some shows in October with Ted and hopefully Dan. My sister is getting married in Sweden in late September so we'll probably come down to Germany in the shape of some strange band for a few shows.

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