Monday, May 9, 2016

An Interview! With Tan LeRacoon.

In April, Tan LeRacoon released the double-LP Dangerously Close to Love. The album recalls songwriters like Wreckless Eric, Dan Treacy or Jonathan Richman -- the product of someone with DIY spirit, nostalgia, and writing that is so honest and straightforward, it almost appears childlike. The kind of work that is so genuine it could be mistaken at times as having a novelty appeal. And yet, there is no novelty here. What makes him so fascinating is the way he so perfectly appropriates his life experience and emotion to his work, but in a way that does not mimic any particular influence or attempt to relive any particular moments. He's a true original. I had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Tan (a.k.a. Tanju Böru), who is based in Hamburg, Germany and was kind enough to discuss his work with legends like Ari Up and Nikki Sudden, his dislike of hiding behind irony, and his minor obsession with Dion.

Choir Croak Out Them Goodies: First off, tell me about Tan. U Sound; what is it beyond a label, and who else is involved? How do you keep it running, logistically?

Tan LeRacoon: Tan U Sound is more an idea than a label. A "collective" of people -- artists -- helping each other out with what they can do, share logistics, create together, play together, etc., without the need to constantly hang out. It is kind of a romantic idea, and it turns out to be way easier in music than in fine arts or movies, for example. This might have to do [with the fact that] some other forms of art rely heavily on grants and financial support. I think it started with some DJs sharing mixes, then fine art creators looking for soundscapes, musicians looking for art(work). It became a pretty classic network, with Tan U Sound in the middle of this small network and bringing people together.

I "released" books, like T.A.Z. by Hakim Bey, an open source book. With other projects, Tan U Sound acted as label but also licensed material to other labels. Tan U Sound should not be about ego or any prolific aims, but to help and support. The very moment I see that others' help is more useful than mine, e.g., a bigger label, better network, bigger management, I will try to make that possible and help heave it to the next step, without us. I do not want to retain anyone because of ego reasons.

Also, I can only support projects I like. Otherwise it's not worth getting involved. Some of the artists from the past, I am still in contact with; others disappeared. Right now I am talking to some artists, and maybe we'll bring the label to a more consistent output.

Most of my life was and is centered around live music: putting on shows, producing shows and tours, managing tours, advising and managing musicians, festival production. A great live show can be life changing and life saving, and be very influential. It happened to me several times in my life, always when I was getting a little more quiet or tired. That special energy is magic. I like the idea of Tan U Sound as me returning some of this energy.

CCOTG: Financially?

TL: Well, I am naive enough to believe the idea that everyone involved will give their fair share to the other. If not, another lesson learned. But it also is about investing, even if modestly, even if only with manpower.

CCOTG: You have a number of pseudonyms, but what do they each represent to you?

TL: I grew up in those wild punk rock days in the late '70s, when everyone used a provocative stage name. The "good" ones were all used, so I settled for Naive as my surname. From then on, I liked the idea of toying with names, variations of the same name, always depending on who I was with, and my project persona at the time. Jetboy, for example, I used for my wilder rock 'n roll bands; Tan U Sound was originally my DJ moniker; Toxicgirl is a name I toyed around with for many years without finding the right project until I teamed up with Ari Up, so we used it as our dub/remix alias.

Even my real name, which I use for my writing, is corrupted, as it was originally written with an umlaut. I learned from some Irish folks many years ago about Brian Boru, who has [an acute accent] above the same letters, but only if written in Gaelic. Guess I'm in good company. Tan LeRacoon, which I've been using for some years as my sole name, is a combination of my real name, my power animal (the raccoon), the tanuki, which is the Asian raccoon dog, and of course the slang word (ra-)coon, hence the misspelling of only one 'c.' I like to believe that the name is really complex. The more I [give away about my pseudonym history, though], the more I feel I don't really need different names anymore.

CCOTG: Tell me about your fascination with Dion. Where did the appreciation stem from?

TL: Dion must be seen as my first contact with rock 'n roll. My mom gave me a compilation of his hits, and I must have been very young. I remember his great looks, clean but mean, and those amazing songs by the Belmonts. I guess their scat imitating of horns must have great appeal to children, as that's what kids do as well. To me he is a piece of New York history, and New York cool. Him, and West Side Story, which is one of my favorite [sources] of music (hence the name Jetboy, which sounded better than Sharkboy, though of course the Sharks were the cooler gang in WSS). I've followed Dion's music ever since. His late '60s, early '70s folk records are among the best genre pieces. Some of his songs can make you cry. And he is still out there, putting out good stuff every now and then, especially when he releases songs about NYC. It's an art to write about that city, to capture the feel, the beauty, the danger, the love, the grit.

When I read his (first) autobiography I was stunned at how he wrote about finding religion and how he dealt with singing the gospel. "God" later allowed him to sing rock 'n roll again. No joke.

And most famously, the "flip-a-coin" incident. You know, he was part of the [1959 "Winter Dance Party" tour] with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, but didn't go on the fatal plane ride. Now, they say he lost the coin flip, but I remember having read the story as being that he couldn't afford the plane, as he already was a full junkie by then. The first rock 'n roll drug casualty, which actually saved his life. I like that story better, true or not. Yes, Dion is a symbol of New York rock 'n roll, just as the New York Dolls or Max's Kansas City are. Iconic.

CCOTG: You were Ari Up's manager before she passed, yes? I had the chance to see her perform with the Slits in 2006 and she still had so much energy to offer. How did you end up working together and putting out her 2005 record?

TL: Sigh. Yes, I managed her solo career. The Slits are the most important band to me, and I believe they cannot be hailed enough for what they did musically. They'd really created something new. I first came across them when there was a two-page spread about them in a German teeny-bopper music magazine, when they didn't even have a record out yet. That was something new, a feature without any release to promote. Pure punk, energy and attitude, no business. They were young, Ari was my generation, not like all the others back then, who were 10 years older, and the Slits were wild. I mean, one picture, that's all it takes to change a life. These "girls" stood there and were a threat to society and the music world as we knew it. It took over a year until Cut was released. And that record sleeve, again, was a threat to the world. I believe if they had made a call-up, everyone would or at least should have followed. Savages against civilization. The album was, and still is, by today's standards, radical. A masterpiece. When their second album came out, they incorporated all these world music elements and free jazz, and it was even better, newer. I kept telling everyone from Cut forward that this was the band to change the world of rock 'n roll. People kept laughing at me, though, as this wasn't rock 'n roll or "punk."

I followed Ari's works afterward, until she left for the jungle. Around the year 2000, I heard she had left the jungle quite a while ago and was sharing her time between Brooklyn and Jamaica. I wondered what she was doing and if I could help with anything, so I called her. I guess we clicked. She was German as well, and our mothers had a lot in common, which made Ari and me like rebel brother and sister. She was still as wild, and she played me all the music she was writing. We had a mutual love for dark and beautiful artists like Keith Hudson, whose work at the time did not get its due respect.

We made a master plan, but the world wasn't really hip to it. The Slits were still regarded as a threat, uncontrollable. We worked together on stuff -- hers, mine, other people's. I deejayed for her live while she was doing the vocals. The album received great reviews worldwide, and all of a sudden people were interested in the Slits again. Ari was always in contact with Tessa, but Viv did not want to get involved. So Ari and Tessa planned the new Slits. I did not like the idea that much, I'm not a fan of reunions. Mainly, I was scared that the new Slits could not live up to the expectations, though they did, and I should not have worried to begin with. Still, I did not want to get involved on a business level, for it would affect Ari's solo career, and actually [the reunion] did take the attention away [from her solo work and back] toward the Slits. And that's a shame. I kept working with her, advised on her deals and contracts the Slits made, and [helped organize] her second solo album. Some of [her songs] did find their way out on other artists' releases, some are waiting in my closet to get a respectful release treatment sometime in the future. Her sons asked me to keep looking after her business in regards to licenses, publishing, etc. Ari was a striking character, which everyone who met her will confirm. A lot of people were deceived by her wild looks and behaviour, and could not see what an amazing musician and composer she was. Plus, she was a hell of a dancer.

CCOTG: What is/was your tie to Biffy Clyro?

TL: I consider them a great live band, as energetic as, for example, early Ruts. I was a promoter's rep for them through quite [a lot of] touring, and witnessed their rise right at the front line. I introduced Simon to Robert A. Wilson and the Illuminati books [The Illuminatus! Trilogy] but I don't really know what he thought of them. One night, we were on the bus and were discussing live recordings. I suggested they put their energy on record, but they didn't like live recordings and couldn't think of any good ones. I went to my bunk to sleep, and one minute later jumped out and yelled, "What about 'Kick Out the Jams?'" Biffy Clyro released a live record a little later, but I personally think it turned out too clean to capture the whole idea.

I guess we all became friends, but we don't really see each other these days. As a matter of fact, Neil, their tour manager, who is an amazing person, just wrote me on Facebook, as we missed each other in Berlin the other day.

CCOTG: You seem to have spent a lot of your career supporting other artists. You've mentioned your brief collaboration with Nikki Sudden in the 1980s, and I can hear quite a lot of the Jacobites throughout your new record. Do you feel that your current style has been shaped by some of the work you've done with others, or have your ideas for music generally been consistent over the years?

TL: Of course I am influenced by the music I listen to, as with the movies I watch. Actually, even more by movies and pictures than music. Often, I hear music as pictures in my head. I don't try to make music sound like anything. It pours out, the music I write is me. Even if I wanted it to sound differently, I wouldn't be able to do so.

The Jacobites offered something new in 1984/85. They brought in all these influences that were not rock 'n roll or punk. I liked Swell Maps, and when I met Nikki, we quickly figured out our mutual love for T.Rex and Johnny Thunders, who just had released a full acoustic album. That was the basis of our work together. But he also was a big Neil Young fan, and he was the one to introduce me to the joy of great country music. He gave me a Jerry Lee Lewis record box set and said everything I needed to know about music would be in there. Of course, it was not, but I did get the picture.

I always tried to look beyond obvious sound and inspiration. If I like some artist, I quickly get to the artist they like or cover, and on to the next. So music is always a fountain of something new to discover. My influences are so widespread, but when I listen to Neu! or the Saints, the New York Dolls or Keith Hudson, Tappa Zukie, Prince Far I, Mingus, Sun Ra, Jazz Messengers, Chet Baker (my dad left me all of his awesome collection), Cage, Glass or Stockhausen (please excuse this namedropping), it does not mean that my next song will sound like [any of them]. When I listen to music, I try to listen as a fan, not as a musician or analyst. I want to keep the joy of listening to music and going to live shows. When I record a song, not as much when I write it, I hear the elements somewhere in the back of my head. Not clearly, but strong enough that I get the idea to try something out. Most of the time it actually works. And if others hear an influence in it, so be it. That's beyond my control, unless I try to rearrange it for the sake of avoiding a sound, which would [come at] the cost of my creativity. I've worked with such diverse people and arrangements, I think the people I work with are more of an inspiration than their actual music. And also, I think a week alone in the woods does create a bigger influence than music.

CCOTG: Why did you turn down a permanent role as bass player with the Jacobites? What did the opportunity look like at the time?

TL: I was so young, just turning 19. Playing with Nikki was such a push to me and my ego, and finally doing what I'd dreamed about as a kid, with Nikki Sudden from Swell Maps, almost as iconic as Thunders (as you know, Swell Maps were among the early pioneers of DIY recording and releasing, who left the boundaries of three-chord arrangements very quickly). That was a lot for me. Totally different from the punk rock and post-punk bands I played in before, where I felt a little alienated.

Still, I wasn't sure if I was really ready to go the full road. My school exams were coming up, and I decided I wanted to finish those. Four or five months later and I would have said yes. Duncan [Sibbald] became the bass player, and he was so much better than me at the time, anyway. Nikki released some of our stuff later, I did get my first publishing deal with Rough Trade through him and I think it was good for my own direction that it came as it did. Working with Nikki also opened some doors, as I only realized through the years. He was pretty influential.

CCOTG: Your website bio mentions an early '80s fanzine you'd created, Colt 45, along with multiple concerns that it -- and other fanzines -- were "intellectual jerk-offs." How do you feel about the intellectualization of music today? Are you more of a romantic about music, preferring the emotional response rather than pondering what is behind a song?

TL: I feel very ambivalent toward this. Of course intellectual discourse is important where it's due, but it also takes out the fun. I mean, I stopped my fanzine because my writing lost the fan aspect, and the fun. I was starting to diss music rather than recommend it, but I don't think that's respectful in a fanzine. Sure, disappointment can be voiced (that's what my song "Promises Promises" is about), but why bother with negative art in the first place? Rather, use that space and put more positive thoughts out there. Then again, yes, society, capitalism, really need to be approached critically, and this must be voiced as well. Rock 'n roll can and must change the world, I do believe in that, but we must not lose the fun of three chords and a hook.

My articles got quoted in more "mainstream" outings, like a piece I wrote about Crass having sold out. It was an interview questioning [the idea of] re-releasing material at the time, but that was something to be discussed in our scene, not to be taken any further into the mainstream. Actually, Crass are still as relevant today. Anyway, that was the start of me looking deeper into the motivation behind the artist. Personally, I felt this didn't suit a punk rock zine named after a cheap beer.

Sometimes a song lyric does not need any deep interpretation. There was this lengthy article in the Observer recently, which mentioned the 40th anniversary of the Ramones' first album. Their producer, Craig Leon, explains how it is a piece of art, thoughtfully and intellectually created. I wasn't there when the album was made, but bringing especially that record up on a different art level in its meaning spoils the fun of it having the ultimate "teenage rock 'n roll versus the world" stance that I associated it with. But back to the question; back in the early '80s it became very fashionable for an author to put him/herself above the actual topic, so the author was the centre of the writing -- not the artist, not the song.

Some songs just need the emotion, not the explanation, and that's what makes music great. You can feel it, but everyone can feel it differently. Then, also, there are times to write clear words, to shake up the world, and no explanation needed there, either. Poetic lyrics and music again can be for all worlds, felt, read, spoken about. I don't think you must decide between either. Just write and see what's coming out. When I was rehearsing, my recent band someone asked about the meaning of some lyric, and I felt pretty uncomfortable explaining. So I asked, "What do you think it means?" That's exactly it, play what you feel it means. If [the connection with the band] works, you know they understood the song (they did).

To this day, bands seem to be ashamed of playing rock 'n roll, and artists make excuses for not writing "intellectual" music, as if it was "only" rock music. I think it is a great art to write short and sharp rock music.

CCOTG: Onto your brand new record, then. I love "Promises, Promises" -- it reminds me a lot of Wreckless Eric [as does "I Want to Be a Beach Boy..." and "Perfect Night, Almost Out," which is a great update on "Reconnez Cherie"]. And lyrically, while there is some humor [as with "Perfect Night"], I hear a lot of wishing and hoping. Do you agree that there is a general longing behind the album? And if so, for what?

TL: I don't really think my lyrics are too humorous, I tend to be pretty serious when I write and I don't look for irony. A good line of course gets attention. I grew up in a time when we thought we could and would change the world. Anarchy, peace and freedom. But we failed. We failed big time. My generation was talking and striking the rebellious pose, but we allowed the world to become even worse. I'm sure I don't need to go into detail. So, yes, I am motivated by a longing. I hope for peace, peace of mind, respect between people, fair trade, universal love. I am looking for truth and knowledge accessible to everyone (i.e., education), also that beyond our rational thinking and beliefs.

I find it hard to understand how world leaders reach their positions even though they announce what they stand for. If mankind really has become that dumb, we do have a serious problem. Sorry, we DO have that problem.

On a personal level, I see all these people around me who are lonely, they've lost their ability for companionship. They don't know how to communicate with each other and are scared of communication, and therefore they do not find love. I am not only speaking of monogamous partnerships. People are seemingly not even able to go out and hook up for quick sex. It all comes down to communication. And yes, I guess I try to communicate with listeners through my music as well. At the same time, I know I fail myself, I make plenty of mistakes, I realize and own my lack of respect. I still feel hatred, not only love, and my peace of mind seems so far away. I am chasing this. Brecht said: "You run and run and run, and your happiness is running after you (sic!)." But I cannot stop.

Not all of my lyrics are autobiographical, though. I tell stories, but I make these stories personal affairs. I offer myself to the audience. Here I am, this is how I feel. This could be you. Maybe this is you. I long for a loving, more respectful and better world than the one we have to offer. That is pretty romantic, I guess.

CCOTG: How did you end up recording in Sweden and assembling your array of musicians for the record?

TL: Mattias Larsson and Linus Lindvall became very good friends when they were touring with their bands, respectively. That, again, is the Tan U Sound network. I helped them get their first shows on the continent, started managing Linus' band Golden Kanine. Mattias is running a studio in Malmo where quite a few albums I like were recorded. I love that room with its very special atmosphere, very '70s. So I went up for a weekend of sessions, and on the first evening we thought we were up to something, but we kept recording my songs instead. Others heard about our recording and dropped by. Kristofer Astrom is also a friend and I kept hearing his voice on this one song, so he recorded it for me. One song was recorded in Hamburg with Jens, who used to be the guitar player in Gisbert zu Knyphausen's band, [and Gisbert is] probably is Germany's finest lyricist and a good friend. Gisbert and I did some stuff together in the past, and when we look at each other's lyrics, we have some kind of mutual feeling about words, only he is writing in German.

CCOTG: One of the most fun aspects of your record is the small details -- the playful whispering of "Kokomo" in "I Want to Be a Beach Boy but Not Mike Love," the brief appearance by Ari Up at the very end of the record, the teenage enthusiasm you use to describe the "date" in "Perfect Night, Almost Out." Had a good laugh starting at 2:10 in "Perfect Night." How much of a perfectionist are you about writing and and recording in meticulous detail?

TL: It really differs from song to song. "Beach Boy," for example, is a first take vocal. It had what it needed. The "Kokomo," on the other hand, was a voice I had in my head while doing the lead vocal. "Beautiful Thought" at one point took so many tries that I almost skipped it until the zither appeared. As I mentioned, I hear and see these things, and if I cannot get it that way, I either get pretty tough about it or I might lose interest. It really depends on the songs and what direction I feel it should go in. I don't detest coincidence if it leads to something -- of course I let it happen (if there is such thing as coincidence to begin with).

That's about recording. Writing is different, though. "Oh Johanna" was there, it came to me. Others, like "She Said She's Sad," needed way more attention. I recorded it for my first album in 1990, but I did not get the result I wanted, so I took it out of the closet and started to work on it with my recent band. We play it live, and it's just these tiny little things that make a difference and me happy. Details: yes. Perfectionist: I guess I pay a lot of attention to visual aspects, it [has to satisfy] me aesthetically.

CCOTG: On your website, you have a section that says, "In a world slowly and subtly becoming part of a totalitarian system that is way broader than any nation alone could ever achieve, the creative force has to define itself." As a personal note here, I've developed a fascination with the English band Fat White Family, not just because of their music, but because so many reviewers label them a dangerous force in music, and I spend a lot of time trying to decide whether this is actually possible. They mention a lot of historical figures, but more in a humorous way, or as characters or metaphors, than in a way that tries to push political influence. And the thing I've decided so far is that what gives them a dangerous feel is that they don't appear to care about how they are perceived, and are willing to disagree or mock public figures when other artists are afraid to give a controversial opinion for fear of negative press. Not caring about your image gives you a lot of power, though what that power is when you're a musician, I'm not yet sure. 

That said -- do you think that music and art have the ability to shape beliefs, for better or worse? Do you think that there are any current musicians out there who have the ability to motivate and inspire, or do you think music is no longer a force, that there are now too many artists afraid of confrontation to make any social progress with it? And is there anything you hope to accomplish with your music, or even your fiction?

TL: When I published my novel, Near By The End Of the Rainbow, I added an appendix with a naive essay on the reception of reality, on how you can do things if you really want to, and that by doing so you are already changing the world. Creativity is so strong of a power, if only in a spiritual way. I certainly have something to share, to say. Everyone can; don't let anyone tell you you can't. When I mentioned that I am recording a new record, people gave me a stare, and when I said it would be on vinyl, they laughed, and when I said that it would be a double LP, I was crazy. Everyone can still do things just like it was 1973, 1979 or 1982 or whatever. It's a matter of will, not of all these excuses everyone makes (no money, no time, no space, wrong city, etc.). Bullshit. I always thought I needed to live in the hot spots: London, New York, LA, until I found out that it does not matter where you do it but that you do it. Especially in this time and day.

The world does need hope, needs love. People are starving, everyone knows that. Nobody likes it, but people accept it as part of the world. That is wrong! Nobody in the world needs to be poor or starve or be cold or suffer or die just because they live in the wrong part of the world or wrong part of town. And if we are told that some people worked hard for their profit, fine, so what? Does that make anyone better, rich enough to judge about peace and death? No, it does not. The richest people in the world wouldn't even realize if they were missing some of their wealth. The world could actually buy peace. I believe everyone can and should share if it doesn't hurt anyone else. At the same time, I know it is not that easy to do so. We are conditioned on what we are to believe what wealth is. A warm heart is wealth, if you ask me. How you gain a warm heart is up to you.

Fat White Family are a force, but by being humorous they also keep a safety net, so they are not daring or risking too much, But yes, a few bands have this energy and attitude. Chuckamuck from Berlin, for example. When I first met them they had the youth advantage, didn't have any respect for anything, said what they thought, and yes, maybe they were a [bit of a] pain. Now they are serious about what they say and do, and really great. Savages also rule, I saw them live a couple of times, pure energy. José Gonzalez comes up with very spiritual power on stage.

But you are right, people do not dare to talk any truth anymore. Too much worry -- you can forever find every word you utter in public on the internet. That's why everybody is so careful. I for my part want to be liked, yes. But not at the expense of credibility. If people don't like me or what I say, that's fine. I am who I am. I offer my art, which makes me naked. I don't put on a different persona on stage or in the studio, I offer myself with what I can do. I realise that plain honesty is a weapon, too.

The world is ruled by fear. You are conditioned to believe that you need to be scared and therefore dare nothing. But by doing something, anything, you become a threat to the "establishment" (about time to use that idiom). That is the power of DIY. I just have the slight feeling that a lot of people in the DIY scene are already scared. But rage and creativity are still powerful weapons to show, that there is something, even if this something cannot be named.

Last year I met Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire records, who signed The Deviants, Richard Hell, Madonna, and gave Brian Wilson a comeback. A legend who certainly dared a lot. I had a talk with his assistant, I was curious to know about Seymour still running the label. And all they care about now are figures, clicks, followers online. But as artists, this is not what we should care about. It is about creation. Building your own little worlds under your own vision. Don't get me wrong, I am well aware of how today's music does work, and I do have an artist page on Facebook, though I want to believe that it might not be necessary. I only started it this February, and I don't do Twitter or Instagram.

Anyhow, nobody dares telling the truth, dares to risk anything, in arts nor in politics. I think it would be so easy to just stand up and talk about the truth, say when someone is lying, when something is dangerous, when others betray the people. But everyone is worried about their pensions, their "good" name, their money, and yes, sometimes their families. But someone has to step up and do it. Whatever the truth may be. I sometimes view myself in that position, but honestly, yes, I am scared, too. People who tell the truth are usually shot or made to look ridiculous. My next album will most likely include some blatant battle songs. Straight, in your face lyrics, warrior songs. Maybe this is a language people do understand. Yes, point in the direction of the wrongs, but that is not enough. Offer solutions. We need a bigger picture to look at. I know it's easier said than done. By talking all the time we miss the point of acting, and we live in a conditioned world, just as Huxley proclaimed. In Brave New World Revisited, he described how his science fiction from the original book was already in practice, and that was only in the 1950s.

Art and music should have and do have a powerful quality. If only someone would dare. Are there any musicians out there to take a risk and stand up with their ideas? Not many, not enough. Some conscious reggae is out there, some hip hop, a little political electronica. Rock 'n roll is viewed as something from yesterday, even though this is still where a force can be found. Conservatives always used the power of music, be it folk or right wing hard rock. For some reason they are able to motivate, whereas the left really is missing this ability these days.

But let's stress this: you don't have to be an artist to speak up, or have any funds to do it. Anyone can do it, everyone should do it. What makes the difference: music can be heard [by a wide range of] people, and an artist can tell their listeners that they can do things, too. That might be a little old-fashioned.

Is there anything I want to accomplish with my music, my writing? Well, romantically speaking, yes. I can offer myself as a tool in calling out for and maybe achieving a change for the better. But honestly, don't forget -- all I ever wanted was to be a guitarist in a rock 'n roll band.


Purchase Dangerously Close to Love at Bandcamp.

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