The November 2003 sophiamusic.net interview (by Wouter Berteloot, 28/11/2003, Brussels)
While preparing for the interview we talked about glossy magazines like Esquire who want to do a Sophia feature (Sophia hits the mainstream?), about the guitar he destroyed two days earlier during the VPRO radio session, about the brilliant new album and about the new single ĎOh my loveí.
Robin: Iím glad you like the new single. Itís quite a different song for people to take in. I was afraid people werenít gonna like ĎOh my loveí.
Sophiamusic.tk: Itís more up-tempo and it has electronic influences but it still sounds like Sophia. It kind of made me think about the OBX collaboration ĎReminds me of the suní. That was completely made of electronics but it still sounded like a Sophia song.
Robin: Do you wanna hear a song that I didnít use on the album? Itís called ĎAirportsí. This is a true electronic song. It was supposed to be a hidden track but in the end I didnít think that the album needed it. At first I thought that I was gonna have to push the album in as many directions as possible in a way to challenge people. But at the end of the day I thought that the album said exactly what it was supposed to say, without the song.
Sophiamusic.tk: This is not your first adventure into the electronic world. You teamed up before with OBX and the Slack Dog Ensemble. How did that happen?
Robin: Iím trying to think how I met John Tye (from OBX & Slack Dog Ensemble, ed.). To be honest I donít really know. I had the studio and I was doing the Flower Shop Recordings. Because of the label I came across a lot of people that had heard about the way I worked, there was a lot op spontaneity involved in what I was doing and it was a very punk rock set-up with Old Betsy Satan (the Flower Shop 8-track, ed.) and a lot of people liked the simplicity of that. I had worked with John on some electronic things even before that and he called me up and said: ďLook, Luke Vibert and Kingsuk Biswas are here, and we all want to get together and have a bit of a session togetherĒ. So we got together and we all kind of improvised, I think on Lukeís version of Ruff Dog you can hear me in the background, talking and stuff like that.
The thing that really amazed me is how they approach music after itís been recorded and what they do with it. I approach music as a moment in time. The way that I write music is I sit down and I literally write it all together: the words and the music. I try to express the way Iím feeling at that certain moment. But with them, they kind of take things how they come and they donít know what theyíre gonna come out with in the end. They add things and subtract things and in the end they have a piece of music. The way they construct it is totally different from the way I work. I was stunned when I first heard the really distorted version of ĎNew Yawk Dogí thatís on the A-side of the Slack Dog Ensemble 7 inch. It sounded like an electronic band played through a Marshall stack. I loved that. I thought it was fantastic.
Weíve just been friends for a really long time and in that type of environment you basically say: ďletís do something and weíll see if it worksĒ. Do you know the French band M83? Theyíre also on Labels and they have a couple of great albums out. Theyíre looking for a singer to collaborate with and they sent me a copy of a song they want some vocals for. I donít know if itíll eventually become anything, but these kind of things are good because this way I can approach music differently than I would normally, where the music and the lyrics have to be very intertwined or else it doesnít have any emotional dept for me, which then makes it impossible for me to play. Which was the problem with The May Queens. The idea behind the May Queens was that we would just get into a room and make this kind of punk rock record. But the problem was that I couldnít approach the lyrics the same way that I approach the music. I ended up taking lyrics I had written for Sophia songs and apply them to music that they werenít related to. So that took the music out of context. People asked: will you do any live shows? And I really didnít see that happening. Especially now, now that Iíve kind of pushed Sophia even further in that direction.
Sophiamusic.tk: Youíve even made The May Queens obsolete with this new Sophia album. ĎIf a change is gonna comeí could easily have been on the May Queens album.
Robin: The funny thing is that James Elkington - who played drums on The May Queens - said the first time he heard the song: oh, this is how the May Queens should have sounded. The only thing I can say why thatís happened, is because Iím finally creating music with everything in mind: the lyrics influence the music and the music influences the lyrics. Thatís Sophia. And thatís Robin Proper-Sheppard. Thatís what Iím so happy about with this record. I went into it with no expectations. I thought: Iím gonna release this album the same way Iíve done all of the other Flower Shop records and the only thing I had in mind was challenging myself and challenging peopleís impressions of Sophia. And there were no commercial concerns like if people donít like it, itís not gonna sell this manyÖI didnít worry about that, I wanted to make a record that encompassed everything that I have done.
Sophiamusic.tk: That was the only plan you had when you started working on the album?
Robin: In the beginning I really did have an idea of what I wanted. I wanted to create an album with the dynamics that Iíve always tried to achieve. Iím so used to doing albums where during the first week or two I think ďthis is gonna be the record Iíve always wanted to makeĒ and gradually it doesnít become that. You find other things in it that you really like about it and it becomes something else. But with this album, you know, youíre working on the songs, out of sequence, youíre focusing on songs at individual times but then the day that I left the mastering studio, I was listening to the album on the way home in the car, and I pulled up in front of my house and I was only half way through it and I waited till I got to the end of it. And thatís when I realised I wasnít gonna use ĎAirportsí. Because ĎAnother traumaí faded out and I realised I had finally made the album that I had always wanted to create since the very beginning of my career. It feels right, the dynamic and what itís saying. In a way, all the previous Sophia records have been about me and about the things that are happening to me, whereas with this record itís about the way that Iím relating to people and the impact that Iím having on these people. Itís a totally different record. And I didnít really recognise that while I was working on it. For instance ĎSwept backí, which is about the way that I feel when Iím in relationships and how much I hate the fact that I seem to hurt the people that I care about. So, when Iím focusing on one song at a time, Iím just looking at that aspect of it. But when I heard the whole album I realised that it has this thread: that the whole way that I see life and my partner has totally changed over time. It was really a surprising record for me to make.
Sophiamusic.tk: Lyrically speaking, there a lot of accusations flying around: ďlook I told you soĒ but also a lot of apologies and ďIím sorryĒs. Are you aware of that?
Robin: Thatís the pattern that I have in my life, and in my relationships. With ĎPeople are like seasonsí Iíve finally been able to turn the accusations back on me. That the pain that Iím experiencing in relationships is often the pain that Iíve caused. But it isnít always about whatís happening to me and about the sadness that Iím feeling. A lot of that has to do with my relationship with Hope (his daughter, ed.) and watching Hope grow up, and about how the way that I feel and think influences her. And about how to protect her from my cynical or less positive attitude towards life. I have to let her look at the bigger picture. Like when sheís talking to me about the children in her class or how she got into an argument with someone or how people change from being best friends with one person to being best friends with another person. Iíve got to try and explain to her the reasons behind that. You know like in ĎFoolí, which is about how people change. How Iíve got to try and make her understand that life isnít always as dark as sheís making it out to be. Iím trying to explain to her: look, everything is gonna change. Whatís happening today will be different tomorrow. And to just try to be happy about everything. That has really influenced my attitude towards life and it has influenced my writing.
The writing of the first few Sophia albums was a way for me to deal with something and to be able to kind of let it go. And by keep singing those songs, I was letting go. And I thought I was doing that with this album. Iíve been playing acoustically a lot recently and when I play those old songs I keep thinking about where they came from. But with the new songs, where they came from wasnít a really good place but the fact is that I havenít been able to let that go as itís still a part of my life today. Itís a part of the way Iíve continually lived my life and dealt with my relationships and the people around me. And itís actually really hard to play them. Itís very confrontational. I find it very emotional. Itís a new way of dealing with music for me. I thought I was gonna be able to let these things go but unfortunately Iím still dealing with them on a day-to-day level. Itís probably the darkest record Iíve ever made. Although I tried to produce it in a way that the focus isnít so much on me and this kind of aura around me. I tried to lift it up outside of that. Even with a song like ĎHolidays are niceí where I really tried to make a positive song. Itís all about the only way for me to ever find happiness in a relationship is to leave all the stuff that causes all the pain and problems behind us and go somewhere else. But thatís not the way life is. Thatís not the way it works and thatís very sad.
Sophiamusic.tk: Has Hope heard the part of the De Nachten album where the crowd sings happy birthday for her?
Robin: Absolutely. The first thing she said was: ďBut how did they all know my name?Ē (laughs)
I remember playing it for everybody when I was back home. Julie (Hopeís mother, ed) started to cry. Look, it was a promise I had made to myself that I would try so hard to never miss her birthdays. I was there at her birth. I held her like 30 seconds after she was born. All that stuff. Luckily the thing is that she does understand that this is the way that I make my living. That I do have to go away sometimes. I tried to explain to her that even if I donít see her for a little while, sheís always there with me.
Sophiamusic.tk: I tried to figure out the lyrics to ĎIf a change is gonna comeí. Am I right that youíre having a go at yourself in that song?
Robin: That song is absolutely about that. It goes ďSometimes I hate all day, but isnít that OK?Ē Itís about accepting yourself and accepting the way you are as a person. We kinda joked around when the album was finished and we were saying: this is gonna be a song for the kids. But to be honest it seems to be the people that are my age, in their thirties, that seem to relate to it the most. When youíre a kid and you say ďLifeís a bitch and then you dieĒ you say it like, oh well, cíest la vie. But it has a different meaning when youíre an adult and you say it. Youíve just accepted that life is fucked up. Thereís a lot of stuff in life you have to deal with youíd wish you didnít have to deal with. But the fact is, youíre an adult and you have to deal with it. But the ďLifeís a bitch and then you dieĒ line is a very simple thing to say. When we were recording I was saying: thereís no way I can sing this song. Itís such a clichť. But one day I was walking down the road and I thought: how can I not sing it? Everything about my music is about how I feel. And if I was to chance that song because I was afraid to say something, I might as well change all of my songs. Itís about honesty, it doesnít matter how simple it is and it is very simple.
Sophiamusic.tk: First time I heard the song I was also thinking ďíLifeís a bitch and then you dieí? What a clichť.Ē But then I paid more attention to the other words in the song and they put everything into perspective.
Robin: Thatís right. You know, we refer to it as Ďthe bumper sticker songí, because itís like a bumper sticker. But at the end of the day, like you say, it depends on to context in which you listen to the words. And then you realise that it is in a way about making fun of your situation and about accepting it. There comes a point in your life where you have to accept that youíre an adult and when you accept that fact, you also accept that lifeís a bitch and then you die. Itís funny and you can laugh about it and thatís what Iím doing. It is quite an angry song, the opening line (ďbeen walking down this road every day of my fucking lifeĒ), thereís a lot of anger in that. Itís me realising I live the same things over and over again.
But Iím glad you got that out of that song, though. Because the songs are so simple, people almost donít get it because itís too simple. A lot of the times Iím quite worried that people try to find something deeper in it, and there isnít. Iíve been asked by City Slang to write a track-by-track explanation of the songs, but itís so simple. You just have to look at it to understand where it came from. I remember talking about it with Christof (Ellinghaus, the City Slang label manager, ed.) and I said: how do I explain something thatís so simple? He goes: well, just say that. Donít explain the songs, but explain to people that itís not as complicated as they might think.
Sophiamusic.tk: I was very surprised when I heard that you had signed to City Slang/Labels. At the end of The God Machine you vented your disgust with the record industry. You even wrote songs about it like ĎFucking Hypocriteí. Why did you change your mind?
Robin: I never really anticipated doing this again. The situation within the music industry has changed a lot. And I remember kind of looking at the people within the record industry that had helped Sophia. For instance I had lots of distributors all through Europe, and the reason why Sophia was able to develop as much as it has is because certain people within these companies loved Sophia. I donít think I ever sent out a CD to any distributor, they all came to me. They said: ďlook we really like the record, let us distribute itĒ.
After Iíd finished this album I called up Christof to just talk to him about my options. And he honestly believes that I called him because I wanted to sign to City Slang and I can say with my hand on my heart that I didnít. I called him for his advice. He had set up City Slang the same way that I had set up the Flower Shop Recordings. I wanted to talk to him because heís been through the things that Iíve been through. At the end of the day he said: ďLook, why donít you send me a copy of it and Iíll listen to it and weíll have a talkĒ. And I said ďYeah yeah, Iíll send you oneĒ but I didnít. About a week later I get an e-mail from him and heís like ďWhereís my copy of the album, I thought we were gonna have a chat about it.Ē I said, ďYeah sure, Iíll send you a copyĒ. I still didnít send it to him. Then probably about a month later I get this phone call and he went: ďWhere the fuck is my album! I want to hear it and I want to hear it now!Ē (laughs). So I finally sent him a copy. And he called me back and said ďThis record should come out on City Slang. I know what youíre trying to do. You know what Iíve been doing with Calexico and Lambchop and the way we deal with music.Ē What is also a big difference for me is that I now own everything I do. I learned a lot through The God Machine, I learned a lot through my relationship with Polygram. The fact is that the God Machine records now belong to a record company that we didnít sign to. The fact is I donít own those records. If I wanted them to come out, they wouldnít come out.
Sophiamusic.tk: Have you ever considered re-releasing the God Machine records? There would be a lot of interest.
Robin: Well, there would be a little bit of interest. But there would never be enough interest for a major label to re-release them. These companies buy things to own the copyright. Thatís what has value for them. Not the fact that theyíre selling 1,000 or 2,000 copies of the album. Itís like buying rare stamps and gradually theyíll have millions of rare stamps and therefore the millions of stamps will have a bigger value than all the stamps individually. I learned a lot from that and I never want that to ever happen again. The deal that I have with City Slang is the kind of deal that they have with all their artists like Lambchop and Calexico. All those bands say: look, this is what we do, this is the music that we make and this is the way that we would like to be seen. For instance I told City Slang that I wouldnít take photographs with anybody else than Philip Lethen. I can tell them: these are the people I want to use and this is the way I want to work. And Christof said: ďRobin, you tell us what you want to do and weíre here to help.Ē Obviously itís a business and they want their business to be successful as well, but within the confines of everybody being as happy as they can. Iím just so happy about that. They even understand my relationship with Bang Distribution in Belgium. I donít even have a contract with Bang. Itís literally based on friendship and it goes way beyond just selling records. Thereís been times where anything that Iíve needed, all I had to do was call them up. Whether I needed a car booked for me, whether I needed money to pay my rent, whether I needed them to ship some records to me while Iím on tour. I told Christof that I would rather just put my records out through Bang in Belgium and not have them come out anywhere else in the world, just so when I come to Belgium we can sit down and have a beer. The respect we have together is more important than anything else.
Sophiamusic.tk: Now that youíre talking about territories. Are you thinking about releasing the album in the States?
Robin: Weíre definitely talking about it. But itís a long process, thereís a lot of politics involved. With the whole Virgin/EMI thing, itís a totally different way of dealing with things over there. All of the people Iíve been dealing with here in Europe are huge music fans. For instance, I show up in Berlin and the radio promotion girl picks me up and she knows all the words to all the Sophia records. Iím supposed to do interviews but she and I are talking about our lives and our experiences so that Iím late for everything. Everything is related on a personal level. Which is the way that Iíve been doing Sophia from the very beginning, itís all been about the personal relationships.
Sophiamusic.tk: You once said that Sophia was a three-album project. Do you still think that way about Sophia?
Robin: I think the creation of De Nachten proved to me that Sophia could become much more to me then I ever thought. In the beginning I didnít think that Sophia would do anything, I thought we were gonna do one show in London (laughs). And now it turns out that it has become much more than that.
Sophiamusic.tk: In 2000 you even planned to release a double CD with covers and remixes. What happened to that idea? Did you record anything for that? Are there still songs left I the vault?
Robin: There are some songs in the vault. But you know, life changes and some things in life change, like: plans! (laughs) Personalities donít change but plans do. But weíll see what happens. Iíve already started working on some news songs that are directions for a new album and thereís other songs that Iíll use as B-sides.
Sophiamusic.tk: Another plan was to release a free tour single. That turned out to be a bit of a mess. Did you ever think during the past 2 years: ďWhy on earth have I decided to give away a free tour single. What was I thinking?Ē
Robin: No, not at all. That was an idea from the tour I did after ĎDe Nachtení and I always wanted to stick to it. Because that ĎIntimistic night with Sophiaí tour saved me. It really gave me a purpose: this is what I do. Because they were acoustic songs, because people were so close to me and because everything was so personal. I realised: this is what I want do with my life.
Some talk afterwards with Sophia (Carsten Wohlfeld, Oxymoron Berlin, 19/11/2003 for www.gaesteliste.de, translation by maRz for SophiaMusic.tk)
Before colleague Ullrich Maurer will thoroughly look into the publication of the album "People Are Like Seasons" middle of January, in a detailed feature with Sophia, we already asked Robin some questions, the day after the Berlin showcase.
GL. de: Yesterday only Will Foster, on keyboards, stood next to you on stage. Considering the line-up of the band changed a lot of times in the past: who belongs to Sophia now, live and in the studio?
Robin: Will Foster, Jeff Townsin and I were the core of the line-up that recorded the new album. And, altogether, they've both been in the band for quite some time already. Laurence O' Keefe of Levitation and Dark Star played bass. And Calina de la Mare, who already wrote the string-arrangements for "De Nachten", collaborated very closely in the arrangements. Therefore a substantially narrower circle of people was involved. The collective will always get larger, but somehow it also simultaneously shrinks. On the tour, starting in February, together with Jeff and Will, Laurence will probably join too, but that's not yet confirmed, because bass-players are always hard to find. Adam Franklin of Toshack Highway and Swervedriver will be joining us as a guitarist [like on earlier Sophia-tours] .
GL. de: Speaking of other musicians: are there any recent albums that you found very stimulating?
Robin: I won't say they're the best band, but I must confess that I found the last Coldplay-album unusually inspiring. Not even musically, but the album radiates so much honesty. It is very epic, but nevertheless simple. I like that. And, naturally, the last Johnny Cash album is also incredible.
GL. de: Yesterday you said jokingly: "And now let's all us City Slangs drink beer, because that's why we are here". How did you come to the decision, not to release the new album like the previous ones on your own Flowershop-label, but through City Slang?
Robin: I had a long talk with Christof [Ellinghaus, the founder of City Slang] and after that I questioned myself again and again: Do I want to sign such a contract at this point in my life? Christof understood my dilemma very well, but also said: "If you ever want to do it, it should be now! Let's see, whether we can manage that together!" I said: "But what if I only sell 30,000 albums, like I did through Flowershop? Then you would hold me for a failure!" On that, Christof said: "How do you think I will be? You are this cool indie-type that never spent a penny on marketing and yet has sold so many records. I'm under pressure too. We're both on the same ship!" A telephone call was the deciding factor then. I was at home, thinking about whether I should accept the offer. Next morning Christof called, from the airport in Nashville -just on the way to Lambchop - and asked me: "What's the situation on our deal?" At that moment I thought: this is fate, this is karma, let's it do it! Moreover Wyndham [Wallace, who leads City Slang UK] has been a good friend of mine for quite some time. He's always joking and saying he's been wanting to sign me for eight years now. And Sophia is only seven years old!