Lisa Tenzin-Dolma interviews Peter Ulrich about Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, 4AD, solo albums, and generally the story leading up to the release of his latest collaboration project release - The Painted Caravan.
Peter, what's the story behind you signing up with City Canyons?
Back in summer 2003 I had just finished recording material for a new solo album and started looking for a label to release it. Being based in London, but with my largest potential market in the US - largely thanks to the American success of my former band, Dead Can Dance - it was essential to me that it should be a US-based label. I made myself up a target list and sent out my demos in small batches over the following months. I had a few expressions of interest and occasional negotiations which didn't come to anything. Then one day I received a very enthusiastic response from Trebor Lloyd, CEO at this label City Canyons in New York which I'd noticed in a US music magazine I picked up in a London branch of Borders. Although it was a small label in its infancy with, if I remember rightly, only two artists signed and one release from each under its belt at that point, I felt immediately comfortable in my discussions with Trebor, with his aims for the future, and with his thoughts on developing my audience. Once you have a good feeling about something like that, things move pretty quickly, and we soon had a contract exchanged and signed. Then there's the inevitable frustrating wait while you do all the necessary pre-release planning and wait for the optimum moment for release - and finally my 'Enter The Mysterium' album hit the streets in March 2005.
Do you view The Painted Caravan tracks as a new creative stage that's evolved from your involvement with Trebor and the other artists? Or do you see it as a natural progression from the albums you made with Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil?
Very much the former. Being part of DCD was really amazing - an opportunity that I was incredibly lucky to get and which shaped my musical 'career' way more than anything else. The invitation to contribute to This Mortal Coil was also something I was surprised and honoured to be given. But those elements of my life are becoming ever more distant. TMC was 1986, my last live work with DCD was in 1990, my last recording with DCD was in 1996, and I last worked with Brendan Perry [of DCD] when he arranged and produced my first solo album, 'Pathways and Dawns', which we completed in 1997 (released on Projekt in 1999). My 'Enter The Mysterium' album was a kind of 'rite of passage' as I felt I had been so much under Brendan's wing up to that point that I needed to prove to myself that I could bring an album to fruition on my own. So, while I would never seek to distance myself from the huge and wonderful influence of my time with DCD, I have for many years now been looking to plot my own path. While Trebor has always been very enthusiastic about 'Mysterium', I think from early in our relationship he had a vision of how he could see my music developing, which he introduced to me very gradually and without any pressure. At the same time as chewing over ideas for my next solo album, Trebor mooted the idea of me recording something in collaboration with one or more of the other City Canyons artists and with him having an artistic/creative involvement. I was very open to the suggestion and the first thing Trebor sent me were the lyrics and basic melody for 'Hanging Man' with carte blanche to arrange the song however I wanted, using whatever instrumentation I chose, but just leaving the lead vocal to be added back in the US by a singer he would finally determine once he had heard my arrangement. I made my recording - which included a part I wrote in for Irish pipes, played by a friend of one of my daughters - and sent it over, Sara Wendt (who had been the next artist signed to City Canyons after me) was invited to perform the vocal, and then Trebor added some embellishments and did the final mix and production. We were all very happy with the results so it was readily agreed that we should try another one or two songs, bringing in more participants. The experience continued to be comfortable and productive and we decided to continue with a view to making a full length album. Trebor was firm that every track should have a greater or lesser contribution by me so that my rhythms and instrumentation would be a consistent 'trade mark' of the album, but otherwise the sounds and direction of the album are very firmly shaped by his own extensive input (writing, arranging and producing) and the other contributors - City Canyons artists, guest artists and a group of musicians Trebor calls on as required.
You have a lot of experience of collaborating with other gifted musicians. What, in your involvement with The Painted Caravan, stands out most for you?
It's interesting you have that perception, but actually I have very little experience of truly 'collaborating' with other musicians in this way. In DCD the great bulk of the material was written by Brendan and Lisa. In the early days we wrote to some extent in rehearsals so there was a small input from other band members, but for much of DCD's life the music was written and also recorded by Brendan and Lisa, and the band came together only for the live performances. Then I have contributed to albums by This Mortal Coil, Piano Magic, Wolfgang Press and Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook - but in the case of TMC I contributed a solo track, and in the others I contributed relatively small parts to songs that I was otherwise not involved in writing. So while all those experiences and opportunities were great to do, they did not involve 'collaboration' in any comparable way to our working process for The Painted Caravan. What actually stands out for me most in what has therefore been for me a quite new and different experience is the sense of anticipation at each stage. Firstly there is the intrigue as to what Trebor is going to send me as the starting point for my involvement, then there is the wait to see what he will make of my recordings, then the wait to see where he and the other contributors will take the piece next, and then there are the various stages of the mixing. It's been a fascinating experience, and it's always exciting waiting for the next email to arrive with a progress update or new mix of whatever track we're working on at the time.
You provided a lot of the very diverse backing music. Which instruments did you play, and what drew you to choose these?
Diversity is, I guess, the key element which Trebor looks to me to bring to the project. I've always been attracted to unusual, exotic instruments and sounds, but it wasn't until I had the opportunity to watch Brendan crafting songs that I came to understand how to go about writing and arranging music from different angles. It's all very well finding different instruments, but if you merely incorporate those sounds into standard pop/rock/whatever song formats, you'll just get a bog-standard song with a quirky sound in it. So, yes, I always look for a different starting point - something that will give the next song a very different feel from the last. And Trebor also actively participated in this process by choosing themes and settings for the lyrics he was writing that would give me good scope - it gave the project an aspect of being like soundtrack creation for me, creating a musical setting for Trebor's storyboards - or, in the case of 'Pureland', working from ideas of Sara's to help realise her vision. As to the instruments that I played, they naturally included a wide range of drums - frame drums, tabla, darabuka, djembe, bongos, Mayan drum, Chinese wood drum, talking drum - and percussion - a variety of Chinese and Turkish cymbals, claves, guiro, maracas, temple blocks, tambourine and cowbell included. I played a few guitar parts, my first attempt at bass(!), hammered dulcimer, yuet ch'in (Chinese moon guitar) and piano. I also wrote some parts for various brass instruments, Scottish and Irish bagpipes, and strings, and programmed the tuned percussion for 'Love's Skeleton'. And my range of instrumentation was further expanded by contributions from guest artist Saskia Dommisse on didgeridoo and bullroarer, Anne Klein on sitar, Kingsley Sage on harpsichord, and various of Trebor's friends and contacts - dobro, double bass, banjo, mandolin, flugelhorn, accordian, Native American flute, and many more! I used some different vocal styles - chants and choral arrangements - in addition to the natural variety of having four or five of us sharing lead vocal duties across the spectrum of the album, and Trebor devised a beautiful harmony arrangement for the song 'Children of the Rain'. The songs are all very evocative and atmospheric, and the selection of instruments and voices was discussed and developed between me and Trebor to give each song its own distinct flavour and feel.
Do you find it easier to work from a distance, between England and America, or all together in a studio?
This way of working actually suits me very well to the extent that I am not the kind of musician who works things out by jamming in the rehearsal studio with other musicians. I'm very comfortable working on my own, trying things out, and selecting what I think works and what I think doesn't. Although I've got myself a modest home studio set up, the aspect of working alone I don't enjoy so much is having to be my own recording engineer - I must confess I do like to be able to go into a professional studio and have a 'real' engineer doing all the mic set ups and knob twiddling at the desk so I can concentrate fully on the performance. However, I think/hope Trebor would concede that the technical quality of my recordings has improved over the course of the project and that I'm gradually giving him less corrective headaches with each data file I strap to the carrier pigeon and send across the pond. It does seem a little strange to have made an album collaborating with so many people I've never met - even David Steele who's also UK based I've only ever been in contact with by e-mail. I finally met Trebor and his wife in New York in August 2012 when my wife and I visited to attend the two wonderful DCD shows at the Beacon Theatre, but this was after all the recording for TPC was finished and we were well into the releaseplanning stage. But even at a distance, I enjoy the camaraderie of this kind of label family. That was very strong amongst the 4AD artists in the 80s - largely through the catalyst of everyone having such affection and respect for the label owner Ivo Watts- Russell - so I'm appreciative and supportive of what Trebor is doing with City Canyons. One minor disadvantage of the distance is that I would love the opportunity to sit in on some of the mixing sessions and be a bit more involved in the production process, rather than just commenting by e-mail on each mix that Trebor forwards to me, but that's an issue for me personally and has no bearing on the quality of the final recordings which appear on the album.
Is there a particular track which has especially fired you up or challenged you musically?
It's perhaps a bit of an obvious statement, but I'm always 'fired up' when I'm writing new songs. It's a process I love - taking the seed ideas, selecting the instruments, building the parts and bringing the whole together. Whichever track I'm working on at any given moment is the one I'm 'fired up' about and takes full possession of my thinking. In terms of my responses to the input of my fellow collaborators, I generally found the lyrics and song concepts that Trebor sent me to be powerful starting points that enthused and inspired me, and I was immediately excited to receive Anne Husick's basic guitar track for the song 'Secret Gardener' which offered me the opportunity to do something more akin to a full-on rock arrangement which took me a bit out of my usual territory but which I loved doing. I should take this opportunity to mention that Anne Husick, a longtime writing collaborator of Trebor's, made a very significant contribution to the essential elements of many of the tracks on TPC. 'In This or Other Skin' is a song I received in a more fully developed stage, with the basic arrangement and David's vocal already laid down. My role in this one was to add all the percussion and to give each verse a flavour of its national setting - which was great to do - and both Trebor's lyrics and David's passionate vocal delivery certainly fired me up. And the first time I heard the vocal part Sara wrote and performed over the backing track I worked from her initial ideas for 'Pureland' - that was a real "Wow!" moment. As for any aspects of the project which 'challenged' me, I've already alluded to the fact that my main challenge was technical. I'm a total dunce when it comes to the engineering side of recording and pretty much anything to do with computers, and I'm still using a 17- year-old Korg X3 workstation for any sequencing I do as it's the only thing I vaguely understand - I dread the day it packs up on me! During the making of The Painted Caravan I got a little MacBook and ProTools recording system which is amazing and of which I am able to use about one millionth of the functions and capacity, but nevertheless I can finally lay down studio-quality basic recordings at home. Thankfully, Kingsley Sage (of the band Anemo, which has worked with Trebor/City Canyons) is a great guy and techno boffin, and there were a good few occasions when he received a panic phone call from me and patiently talked me through tasks a newborn baby could have figured out in his laid back, matter-of-fact way. Musically, I suppose the biggest challenge was recording the lead vocal for 'Secret Gardener' as I've never previously sung a song written by anyone else. As with several of the songs on the album, the lyric was written by Trebor and the vocal melody by Anne Husick. Now I've always considered myself a songwriter who sings his own songs rather than a singer, if you get the distinction. I wouldn't get past the preliminaries on X-Factor, and you'd have to buy me a goodly number of beers to get me anywhere near a karaoke - but you could probably say the same of Bob Dylan and a fair few other singer/songwriters who haven't done too badly for themselves over the years. I'm comfortable singing my own songs which I can tailor to my limitations, but I've never before had a song written for me to sing. So I have to give great credit to Trebor and Anne that they sent me something which was completely in my zone, and so far the feedback has been very positive.
In his interview about City Canyons Records and The Painted Caravan, Trebor says that "...we will strive to speak with a single, unique voice." This is unusual in a recording company. Does the process of finding and expressing that voice inspire you? And how did you go about identifying it?
In my understanding, what Trebor was referring to is the direction he is steering the City Canyons label in, which has actually become more of a production company than a label whilst retaining many of the attributes of a label. When I first signed to City Canyons, Trebor was keen to build up an artist roster covering many different musical genres so that the label was seen to be free of boundaries. This appealed to me and I was very supportive of the policy, even to the extent of recommending the occasional unsigned artist whose work I thought might add a further dimension. However, as with any business, there is a danger in over-diversification and the consequent difficulty of giving that business a recognisable identity - if the 'product' is too woolly, the 'brand' doesn't register. Some years down the line now, I think Trebor has reflected on where City Canyons is going and decided that each of his artist's audiences are too far removed from one another and this is holding back the development of the City Canyons 'brand' to the detriment of both the label and its individual artists. Thus the new course he is setting is to become more 'labelcentric' (if I might coin such a pretentious buzz-word) with the aim of establishing a label audience which will benefit all future projects, whether they be the solo work of City Canyons artists or collaborations. It may seem a paradox for City Canyons to have become less of a traditional label while at the same time seeking to create more of an identity as a label. The aim, I think, is to focus more on the identity of the music so that City Canyons music is perceieved as a distinct, unique 'brand' even when its music is licensed and actually released by another entity, as it has been in this case by Market Square Records. The Painted Caravan is not so much a result of this change of direction, but rather a catalyst for it. As we have worked on the project, it has developed in such a positive fashion with all the participants enjoying each other's contributions and with the final results seeming to hold appeal broadly across their respective audiences. Although Trebor says in his interview with you that there was no one 'Eureka!' moment in conceptualising The Painted Caravan, I have a sneaking suspicion that there may have been a Damascean moment as the album came together when he suddenly visualised the future of City Canyons. So, in that sense, does the 'single, unique voice' inspire me? Yes, it does, because I feel very excited about what we've created in this current project and I'm really looking forward to launching it and seeing what responses we achieve. Trebor and I both believe that The Painted Caravan will not only appeal to the previously disparate audiences of all the contributing artists, but can also potentially appeal to a much broader new audience. And now that we are nearing the point of release, and we are working with an expanding range of 'collaborators' on the launch - including Peter Muir of Market Square Records, Duncan Clark and the team at 9PR (handling the press work), Prudence and her team at Rocket PR (radio plugging) - we are getting highly enthusiastic support that increases our belief that we can strongly appeal to this broad new audience.
How would you describe The Painted Caravan to readers who haven't yet heard any of the tracks?
When Trebor sent me his first handful of suggestions for a title for the release, one immediately leapt out and I told him straight away that was it. There was no need for any further discussion as The Painted Caravan perfectly encapsulates the journeying of the unrestrained traveller through the album's set of slightly dark folk tales told around camp fires. There is (fortunately) no stock term, phrase or genre which can pin down an album which contains tracks as wildly different as 'Love's Skeleton', 'Children of the Rain' and 'Pureland', and yet there are sufficient common elements which, combined with Trebor's unifying production, make this very much a 'collaborative' whole rather than a 'compilation'. Trebor also pointed out to me at some point in the latter stages of recording that the album explores many aspects of love - dark love, eternal love, evil love, damned lovers, love lost, and divine/spiritual love. Beyond that, I'd simply say... you've just gotta hear it!