BLACK OX ORKESTAR

Interview
BLACK OX ORKESTAR

Interview by Myriam Bardino

Black Ox Orkestar is a Montreal based quartet formed in 1999.They
released their record Ver Tanzt at the end of April through Constellation. 
The band features: Thierry Amar (contrabass – also Silver Mount Zion/Godspeed
You! Black Emperor/Molasses) – Jessica Moss (Violin, bass clarinet – Silver
Mount Zion/Frankie Sparo) Gabe Levine (clarinet, guitar- Sackville), Scott
Levine Gilmore (vocals, mandolin, cymbalon, drums, etc.)  Word asked
Scott Levine Gilmore some questions about their style of music and the
ideas they wish to express through this release.

WORD: Why did you choose klezmer music as a means of expression?
How do you relate your specific work with that of other klezmer artists
like: Oi Va Voi, John Zorn’s Masada, Elliot Sharp, The Klezmatics?

SCOTT – We chose to play klezmer because of our personal experiences
with Jewish music. Thanks to the revival of klezmer and Jewish folk music
that began in the 1970′s, the traditional music of European Jews (Ashkenazic
and Sephardic) has become an important means for Jews to connect with
their identity outside of the normative approaches of religious orthodoxy
and identification with Israel.
Music has been a central aspect to secular and religious Jewish culture
in the Diaspora. I wouldn’t say that our goal was specifically to reconnect
with Jewishness or anything like that. It’s more that, having been exposed
to this musical culture, we recognised the beauty in it and its potential
for exploration. Much of Jewish music bridges the divide between folk
song and art song.
There is a complexity to the music that demands an initiation into
its modes of interpretation and improvisation. It is this complexity
that allows you to play these old songs without sounding quaint, to breath
fresh ideas into it. We certainly aren’t the only band to recognise this.
The Klezmatics have been modernising klezmer and Yiddish song for years.
While they tend to draw more on theatrical music and rock elements than
we do, their innovation definitely opened the doors for younger musicians. 
John Zorn has made a great contribution to contemporary Jewish music. His
work with Masada and the Tzadik label have in many ways established the
field of alternative Jewish music.
I would say that we desire to break out of the Tsaddik mould a little.
I don’t mean to knock what the New York scene has been doing for the
past decade, but there does seem to be a certain sound that you find
across the Tsaddik roster. I would hate to see that sound define the new
boundaries of contemporary Jewish music.
In Black Ox Orkestar, we have tried to interweave new and old elements
without falling victim to eclecticism and fusion. If we can remain true
to the intensity of the old music, to its hypnotic weirdness, and use
its musical elements as a vocabulary than I think it is possible to create
seamless new sounds with it.

WORD: You are a Montreal based band with strong links to other Constellation
artists: Silver Mount Zion, Frankie Sparo, Sackville, Godspeed You! Black
Emperor. Do you feel particularly loyal to this label because of its
underpinning values?

SCOTT – Absolutely. I think Constellation is a great example of how
far you can get by really sticking to your principles. Not only are they
consistent in their aesthetic standards, but they hold true to their ideals
in their business practice as a socially conscious record label. In a time
where many independent record labels seem to be just talent-farms for the
majors, they have stubbornly insisted on remaining truly independent. I
think that their interest in putting our record out is partly an effort to
show that indie economics needn’t apply only to ‘rock’ music. It might be
a bit of a gamble on all our parts, but since the outset, we as a band have
always wanted to be making independent Jewish music. It’s just being honest
to our values and the values we see in the music. Klezmer has already been
co-opted in a mainstream, corporate manner. It makes sense that radical Jewish
music should make its way out into the world through radical means.

WORD: Gabe and you performed in “Le Petit Theatre de l’Absolu” a
political theatre and puppet show that performed across Europe. Do you
think that this work is complementary to your music and in what way?

SCOTT – Forgive me for waxing theoretical here, but I should confess
that both of these projects have been pretty intellectualised. Gabe and
I have  certainly seen elements of our band and our theatre influence
each other. In terms of performance, we have always sought means to break
down or play  with the boundaries of performer and audience. Puppetry
is a form of stage  magic that allows the performer to create a world
for the audience and invite  them inside to laugh at it, poke at it,
walk away from it, or critique it.  We always refer back to Bertholt
Brecht’s concept of alienation, whereby the  audience sees both the
character on stage and the mechanisms of performance.  It creates the
illusion and reveals its artifice at the same time. If you do  it
right, it allows you to be really thought-provoking without being too didactic.
You disarm the audience with your cute little puppets, and then let the
puppets speak the uneasy truth about power and history.
People always seem much more willing to listen to a puppet make
bold political statements than some earnest, breathless activist. In a
way, we try to do the same with our music.
Jewish music has its campy,
irreverent elements. To a lot of people it sounds like circus music.
Like the clowns, we can speak the sad truth through silliness.
So, the
bounce and energy of klezmer can be very disarming. And then there is the
matter of singing in Yiddish, a language that is practically dead. I feel
like I am doing a masked performance sometimes when I sing in Yiddish.
There is a certain ambiguity to it; people must ask themselves, “Who is
this person, this young punk, singing like an 80 year-old ghost from Poland?”.
It all leads back to Brecht’s idea of alienation. People can see the multiple
layers of identity that go into the performance, and somehow that critical
position opens up a place for thoughtfulness. That’s really what I want
for people to get out of our music; I want them to feel charmed by it, but
also to ask, “what’s this all about anyway?”. Yep, charmed & puzzled.

WORD: Is it important for you to sing in Yiddish? What is your position
with regards to multicularism and anti-globalisation movement?

SCOTT – It’s very important for me to sing in Yiddish for two reasons.
Firstly, Yiddish is the language in which this great, beautiful body
of folk music was sung. If we want that music to survive its history of
genocide and disappearance, somebody’s gotta sing it. Secondly, I think
Yiddish is amazing because it’s such a mishmash of different languages.
It’s an embodiment of cross-borders culture of diaspora Jewry. Although
I love Hebrew, the prospect of it (or English) becoming the mono-language
of Jewish culture strikes me as being unfaithful to the far-flung, polyglot
nature of Jewish history. As far as multiculturalism goes, I think it is
already an undeniable feature of the 21st century. There’s no fighting it.
Nationalists can tighten their borders and try to homogenise their education
systems till the cows come home, but the circulation of populations has
been a growing feature of global capitalism since the 19th century. There’s
no turning back, so we should celebrate it and figure out what kind of interesting
stuff it opens up to us.
Regarding anti-globalisation, I would make of Yiddish a humble but
sturdy cudgel with which to strike fear into the hearts of plundering
multinational corporations and their well-catered forums.

WORD: You sing, in ” Ver Tanst “A young soldier. He dances a hora
on Arab bones. He sings over Arab graves. There’s no peace, no truth. All
oaths are broken. Do the oppressed mirror the oppressor?” Members of the
Black Ox Orkestar are also involved in a local Arab-Jewish group that promotes
the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. What
do you think of Sharon’s latest policies and what do you believe ought
to be done for a resolution of this conflict?

SCOTT – Sharon’s latest policies are atrocities, just like his old
policies. This man seems to be incapable of seeing the light. I don’t
think any positive change can occur until the Israelis get him out of
office and break the stranglehold of the religious right-wing. The recent
IDF campaign in the Rafah refugee camp seems to be a bloody and crude attempt
to win back the support of the settlers and zealots after Sharon’s referendum
on a Gaza pullout blew up in his face. I would say that many, if not most,
Israelis realise that they are spinning out of control. But no one really
has any idea what to do or what can be done. The uncertainty and panic in
Israel is fertile soil for strong-arm solutions. There are many shameful
precedents of the right-wing wresting control in times of crisis through
the unequivocal language of violence: Fascist Spain, Nixon-era America, &
hell, post-9/11 America. There is an internal struggle in Israeli civil society
and I believe that this struggle has to be played out. My earnest hope is
that this can happen peacefully. I certainly don’t have any brilliant proposals
to bring peace to the middle east. Clearly, I believe that occupation in
the name of ethnic nationalism must end. And of course, the bombings have
to stop. The brutal antagonism that has led to generations of Palestinian
terrorism and Israeli militarism must be somehow pacified and reconciled.
If I knew just how, I’d be devoting the rest of my life to carrying it out.

WORD: The lyrics in “Toyte Goyes in Shineln”, the 8th track in your
album, are from the poet Itzik Feffer a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist
Committee (JAC) murdered by Stalin’s decree in 1952. Why did you choose
this piece and how do you relate to it?

SCOTT – I chose to write music for this poem for a reason that few
will be able to appreciate. I encountered Feffer’s poem in a university
course on Soviet-Yiddish literature and I was immediately drawn to it. 
The quality of his Yiddish is amazing. The poem is perfectly minimalist.
Its verses are tightly coiled in repetition and rearrangement. It describes
the sight of women frozen to death in Russian train stations during the
civil war and famine of the 1920′s. The writer merely observes a horror that
defies meaning. He doesn’t try to eulogise. In this poem, I always found
something that lays out the future for Yiddish poetry. It’s modernism is
a glimmer of future developments that weren’t fated to come. There’s a line
in the poem, “they waited for trains that didn’t come”. Well, the train for
Yiddish never came.

WORD: There are quite a few representations of ancient cabalistic
icons in your artwork: front cover, inner sleeve, and other 2 in the booklets.
What do they represent? Scott has drawn in the back cover an image of a
helicopter flying over of what looks like the skies of Babylon, is this
a representation of a kabala too?

SCOTT – There are a number of Kabbalistic images in the album cover.
It’s not that we are Jewish mystics or anything. There are aspects of
Kabbalah that I find interesting and parts that strike me as beautiful.
A sense of exile and alienation run through Kabbalistc mysticism. The image
on the front of our record is a representation of the ten layers of separation
between the divine and the profane world. I find this image of a labyrinth
as a sort of representation of isolation and loneliness that we have to
struggle to find our way out of. The drawing on the back cover is a bit
of an esoteric collage. The building is the alt-neu shul in Prague which,
according to legend, was where the body of the Golem was put to rest. The
Golem is like a Jewish Frankenstein, created by a Rabbi from clay to defend
the ghetto from persecution. Without a soul and without the ability to discern
right from wrong, the violence he is charged with overpowers him and he
becomes a threat to all around. This has always struck me as being somewhat
analogous to the creation of the state of Israel.
And so, the helicopter
in the drawing is an Israeli chopper. I guess I wanted to suggest the Golem
idea and just put in contrast the realities of old-world and contemporary
Jewish life.

WORD: You wrote in your bio: “Ver Tanzt is not a record for dancing..but
as we play this old and new music, blending archival material with our
own experimentation, some ancient ghosts are certainly dancing around
our heads.” Did you particularly refer to any historical or political
characters?

SCOTT – I don’t think we had any particular characters in mind, though
I think we’ve been possessed at times by the spirits of Emma Goldman,
Karl & Groucho Marx, Moyshe Oysher, Meyer Lansky, & some Ziegfried
Follies girls. I had a dream once that I was taken over by the dybbuk of
Sigmund Freud, but it was probably just my own guilty conscience.

WORD: Have you got any plans for a next release or an european tour?

SCOTT – We have begun writing and researching new material for a
follow-up album. We will be recording in August. We don’t have any plans
for a European tour, but it is definitely a possibility for spring 2005.

<<Ver Tanzt>> was released on Constellation on 29th April
2004

na

30
JULY 2004

Gold Smith

Johnny Marr

Will Hodgkinson
Friday June 4, 2004
The
Guardian

The most innovative guitarist of his generation is going back to
his roots. “I seem to be in transition a lot of the time, but the one
constant that has stayed through my life has been the notion of saying
what you need to say with an acoustic guitar,” states Johnny Marr. “There
are things that can be done with an acoustic guitar and a voice that I find
more interesting and more expressive than standing on stage with four geezers
in leather jackets. There is nobility in it.”

If ever there were someone whose first language is articulated through
his instrument, it is Marr. As a child he would spend Saturdays staring
at the guitars and amplifiers in Manchester’s department stores while
his mother did her weekly shopping, and any guitarist on television, from
a member of Cilla Black’s studio band to Marc Bolan, was an object of fascination.

By the time he came into prominence with the Smiths he had developed
a style that was richly lyrical and intricate without ever being bombastic.
“When I first discovered pop music, listening to it was an experience
that bordered on the mystical,” says Marr, who is quietly spoken and hesitant,
but endlessly enthusiastic about what he does.

“There’s a sad song by Del Shannon called The Answer to Everything
that my parents used to play, and it struck a chord in me because it sounded
so familiar. That song was the inspiration for [the Smiths'] Please, Please,
Please Let Me Get What I Want. I tried to capture the essence of that tune;
its spookiness and sense of yearning.”

Over an afternoon of coffee-drinking at his Manchester home, Marr
goes some way to explaining what it is that drives him. The legacy of the
Smiths is growing as the years pass – last year NME recently voted them
the most influential band of all time, and Morrissey has returned after
years in the wilderness of the Los Angeles sunshine – but Marr looks unlikely
to revisit his old band, or the orchestral, multi-layered music he created
with them.

“I’ve had enough of smoke and mirrors, both literally and figuratively.
So I’ve been listening to Melanie, Donovan, Davy Graham, Joni Mitchell’s
first album… I don’t want to hear music that uses a large vocabulary to
say nothing. My attitude now is: why use a lot of words when fuck off will
do?”

Marr’s role model has, for years, been Bert Jansch, the former guitarist
of the British folk-rock group Pentangle. Marr was first aware of Jansch,
who has since become a friend, after seeing Pentangle play a concert
that was broadcast on television when he was 14.

“The band were all hunched over their acoustic guitars, wearing old
plimsolls and odd socks, looking like the performance was interrupting
a drinking session that started two days earlier and was only just gathering
momentum. This was the era of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, and I got the
impression that Pentangle regarded those bands as utter lightweights musically,
physically, philosophically and lyrically.”

Marr mentions obscure psychedelic folk bands from San Francisco he
has been listening to recently – Sunburnt Hand of Man and the Six Organs
of Admittance are two of the more colourful names that come to mind -
while applauding two folk legends that are a million miles away from the
urbane sophistication of the Smiths.

Clive Palmer was a founder member of pastoral folk hippies the Incredible
String Band who went on to make solo records that sound like they are
best listened to with a bout of the plague. Incredibly, he left the Incredible
String Band because he felt they were getting too commercial. John Martyn
is the troublesome, troubled, alcoholic singer-songwriter of intensity
and depth. “Clive Palmer is so purist that he makes regular folk singers
sound like Will Young,” says Marr. “John Martyn made an album called Stormbringer
that is intense, heavy, beautiful, relevant – and that’s all from one
guy with six strings.”

Folk music is often accused of being gauche, or fey. Can such terms
be applied to the music of John Martyn? “Stormbringer is heavier – genuinely
heavier – than all the heavy rock bands. There’s a certain posturing
in rock music that has become outdated, and there’s only so much testosterone
I can take in one lifetime. It’s been done to death and there’s not much
strength in it any more.”

Two of Marr’s heroes, however, were chiefly responsible for creating
that pose in the first place. The first is Andrew Loog Oldham, the teenage
svengali and recent subject of Home Entertainment who managed the Rolling
Stones and fashioned their image; and the second is Keith Richards, whose
louche, ragged style has become the template for generations of rock guitarists.

“Andrew Oldham inspired me because he wore hyperactivity like a badge
of honour, and because he considers it impolite to be boring. I like Keith
Richards more for his ethic than his playing. He’s the captain of the
ship when it comes to being in a rock’n’roll band; he’ll steer the band
through anything, and go down with them if he has to. And he always looked
good.”

Whatever makes Marr such a soulful guitarist is an elusive thing.
From the Smiths to stints in the Pet Shop Boys and Electronic through to
his current band the Healers, he has intermittently rejected any guitar
style he has pioneered to make way for a new one, and he claims that he never
plays a known song on the guitar, least of all one he has written.

When you play music you
catch whatever is in the air, and every now and then you catch something
that gives you a sense of ecstasy and transcendence,” he says. “My first
lightning bolt came from Marc Bolan.
I bought Jeepster by T-Rex purely
because it was in the bargain singles box and it had a picture of Marc
and Mickey Finn on the label, so I figured I was getting more for my 25p.
When I played that record I heard magic. That magic is what I’m endlessly
trying for. That’s what keeps me breathing.”

n/a

 Published: June 9, 2004
New York Times

And You Thought It Was Just a Ballgame
By PETE HAMILL

Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They
See When They Do
By Michael Mandelbaum
332 pages. PublicAffairs. $26.

Michael Mandelbaum has written extensively on foreign policy, but
here his subject is possibly far more important: the role of team sports
— baseball, football and basketball — in American lives. Along the way,
we learn many things about ourselves.

He is certainly correct, for example, when he says that in a frequently
chaotic world, team sports provide structure to millions of Americans.

“While the news sections of the daily newspaper may report the baffling
and the unintelligible,” Mr. Mandelbaum writes, “the sports section features
succinct histories that everyone can understand, with a clear-cut beginning,
middle and end.”

Unlike politics, love or foreign policy, every sport has clear-cut
rules. In that sense, sport resembles religion, and Mr. Mandelbaum is
superb in drawing the parallels. “These games,” he writes, “respond to
human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs
to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized
religion.” As religion did before the modern age, sports offer us many
consolations: “a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life, a model
of coherence and clarity, and heroic examples to admire and emulate.”

Mr. Mandelbaum’s focus is on the fans, not the players or the owners
of teams. He wants to understand what draws so many of us to these games,
why they often enlist us as fans for life. The reasons are often as mysterious
as religion. On one level the games are simply entertainment, leisure-time
diversions in a prosperous country. Each is driven by a sense of drama,
whose essence is conflict. Nobody dies in these dramas, except in rare accidents,
but the conflict is always resolved by victory or defeat. Most important,
these dramas do not have scripts. When the curtain rises, nobody knows
with absolute certainty who will win. When there is a script — as in the
infamous 1919 “Black Sox” World Series — there is a sense of national calamity,
accompanied by fevered sermons and excommunications. This is serious stuff.

In his own serious (but not solemn) way, Mr. Mandelbaum traces the
way these games entered American lives. His thesis is that each comes
from a unique era in the evolution of American society: the agrarian era
(baseball), the industrial (football), the postindustrial (basketball).
The form of baseball was set in the late 19th century before most Americans
succumbed to the tyranny of the clock. Once the rules of baseball were
set, they were seldom changed. Tradition was everything, the present always
measured against the past. Statistics became essential to that tradition.
Around 1920, Babe Ruth changed the leisurely spirit of the game, establishing
the home run as its most dramatic accomplishment. But the game itself seldom
changed.

As Mr. Mandelbaum reminds us, football and basketball are ruled by
the clock, as were the fans who worked in those factories and mills of
the early 20th century. Americans don’t like games that end in draws (an
acceptable ending in soccer, the world’s most played game), so the concept
of overtime was added, a word itself drawn from the industrial world.
Both sports started as college games, with limited audiences through the
1920′s and 30′s. History intervened. Millions of American men served in
World War II, and back home they embraced professional football, which
Mr. Mandelbaum calls “the war game.”

“War involves the organized, deliberate use of force to attain a
goal, often the control of territory,” Mr. Mandelbaum writes. “So does
football.”

Warlike, nonlethal brutality is the essence of football. The line
is the infantry, Mr. Mandelbaum says. The running backs are the cavalry.
The backfield, especially the quarterback, is the artillery, “hurling
deadly objects over the adversary’s first line of defense.” The quarterback
throws the “long bomb” or is “blitzed” by the opposing defenders. Coaches
(the models are Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi) rule their teams as if they
were George S. Patton-style generals.

Professional basketball began to flourish around the time that American
factories were closing. The triumph of television in the mid-1950′s was
essential to the game’s spreading popularity, showing millions of city kids
how the game was supposed to be played. The kids took their televised lessons
to thousands of playgrounds, where, free of the authority of coaches, they
invented their own moves. A sport of grace and style began to evolve, punctuated
by dramatic explosiveness.

Younger fans, all those baby boomers who briefly celebrated sex,
drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, had found their sport, one that indirectly expressed
the way they wanted to live. “Many of them,” Mr. Mandelbaum notes, “were
accustomed to working in cooperative rather than hierarchical fashion.”

Basketball was a cooperative sport, fluid and spontaneous. The players
were trained to see the opening, to react instantly, pass the ball to
set up unexpected opportunities to score. Mr. Mandelbaum calls this “spontaneous
coordination.” It’s impossible to imagine Michael Jordan in his prime
wearing a headset, taking a play from a coach, the way most quarterbacks
do. Basketball coaches are never generals. In the end, the game is in
the hands of the players, and what they do together. This is also true of
the modern workplace.

Mr. Mandelbaum treats these generational and aesthetic differences
with clarity, in prose mercifully free of academic jargon. He explains
why Americans are usually absorbed by all three sports, almost always rooting
for the home teams. He examines the crucial power of our nostalgias, the
ways sports help erase ethnic and religious differences, the corruptions
of money and the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which form a hidden
script in our scriptless dramas.

In its way, Mr. Mandelbaum’s book can help explain America to Americans,
but it is also a subtle extension of his own expertise in foreign policy.
It can help explain the United States to the rest of the often-baffled
world.

Pete Hamill, author of 16 books, saw his first baseball game in 1947
at Ebbets Field

na

30
JULY 2004

Gold Smith

Johnny Marr

Will Hodgkinson
Friday June 4, 2004
The
Guardian

The most innovative guitarist of his generation is going back to
his roots. “I seem to be in transition a lot of the time, but the one
constant that has stayed through my life has been the notion of saying
what you need to say with an acoustic guitar,” states Johnny Marr. “There
are things that can be done with an acoustic guitar and a voice that I find
more interesting and more expressive than standing on stage with four geezers
in leather jackets. There is nobility in it.”

If ever there were someone whose first language is articulated through
his instrument, it is Marr. As a child he would spend Saturdays staring
at the guitars and amplifiers in Manchester’s department stores while
his mother did her weekly shopping, and any guitarist on television, from
a member of Cilla Black’s studio band to Marc Bolan, was an object of fascination.

By the time he came into prominence with the Smiths he had developed
a style that was richly lyrical and intricate without ever being bombastic.
“When I first discovered pop music, listening to it was an experience
that bordered on the mystical,” says Marr, who is quietly spoken and hesitant,
but endlessly enthusiastic about what he does.

“There’s a sad song by Del Shannon called The Answer to Everything
that my parents used to play, and it struck a chord in me because it sounded
so familiar. That song was the inspiration for [the Smiths'] Please, Please,
Please Let Me Get What I Want. I tried to capture the essence of that tune;
its spookiness and sense of yearning.”

Over an afternoon of coffee-drinking at his Manchester home, Marr
goes some way to explaining what it is that drives him. The legacy of the
Smiths is growing as the years pass – last year NME recently voted them
the most influential band of all time, and Morrissey has returned after
years in the wilderness of the Los Angeles sunshine – but Marr looks unlikely
to revisit his old band, or the orchestral, multi-layered music he created
with them.

“I’ve had enough of smoke and mirrors, both literally and figuratively.
So I’ve been listening to Melanie, Donovan, Davy Graham, Joni Mitchell’s
first album… I don’t want to hear music that uses a large vocabulary to
say nothing. My attitude now is: why use a lot of words when fuck off will
do?”

Marr’s role model has, for years, been Bert Jansch, the former guitarist
of the British folk-rock group Pentangle. Marr was first aware of Jansch,
who has since become a friend, after seeing Pentangle play a concert
that was broadcast on television when he was 14.

“The band were all hunched over their acoustic guitars, wearing old
plimsolls and odd socks, looking like the performance was interrupting
a drinking session that started two days earlier and was only just gathering
momentum. This was the era of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, and I got the
impression that Pentangle regarded those bands as utter lightweights musically,
physically, philosophically and lyrically.”

Marr mentions obscure psychedelic folk bands from San Francisco he
has been listening to recently – Sunburnt Hand of Man and the Six Organs
of Admittance are two of the more colourful names that come to mind -
while applauding two folk legends that are a million miles away from the
urbane sophistication of the Smiths.

Clive Palmer was a founder member of pastoral folk hippies the Incredible
String Band who went on to make solo records that sound like they are
best listened to with a bout of the plague. Incredibly, he left the Incredible
String Band because he felt they were getting too commercial. John Martyn
is the troublesome, troubled, alcoholic singer-songwriter of intensity
and depth. “Clive Palmer is so purist that he makes regular folk singers
sound like Will Young,” says Marr. “John Martyn made an album called Stormbringer
that is intense, heavy, beautiful, relevant – and that’s all from one
guy with six strings.”

Folk music is often accused of being gauche, or fey. Can such terms
be applied to the music of John Martyn? “Stormbringer is heavier – genuinely
heavier – than all the heavy rock bands. There’s a certain posturing
in rock music that has become outdated, and there’s only so much testosterone
I can take in one lifetime. It’s been done to death and there’s not much
strength in it any more.”

Two of Marr’s heroes, however, were chiefly responsible for creating
that pose in the first place. The first is Andrew Loog Oldham, the teenage
svengali and recent subject of Home Entertainment who managed the Rolling
Stones and fashioned their image; and the second is Keith Richards, whose
louche, ragged style has become the template for generations of rock guitarists.

“Andrew Oldham inspired me because he wore hyperactivity like a badge
of honour, and because he considers it impolite to be boring. I like Keith
Richards more for his ethic than his playing. He’s the captain of the
ship when it comes to being in a rock’n’roll band; he’ll steer the band
through anything, and go down with them if he has to. And he always looked
good.”

Whatever makes Marr such a soulful guitarist is an elusive thing.
From the Smiths to stints in the Pet Shop Boys and Electronic through to
his current band the Healers, he has intermittently rejected any guitar
style he has pioneered to make way for a new one, and he claims that he never
plays a known song on the guitar, least of all one he has written.

When you play music you
catch whatever is in the air, and every now and then you catch something
that gives you a sense of ecstasy and transcendence,” he says. “My first
lightning bolt came from Marc Bolan.
I bought Jeepster by T-Rex purely
because it was in the bargain singles box and it had a picture of Marc
and Mickey Finn on the label, so I figured I was getting more for my 25p.
When I played that record I heard magic. That magic is what I’m endlessly
trying for. That’s what keeps me breathing.”


na

28
JULY 2004

Vincent
Cassel: Spaced cowboy

Peruvian hallucinogens? All in a day’s work when you make a ‘metaphysical
Western’. Vincent Cassel talks to Liese Spencer

09 July 2004 The
Independent

The French pin-up and father-to-be Vincent Cassel is sipping mineral
water in Paris’s supercool Hotel Costes and talking about how director
Jan Kounen introduced him to psychotropic drugs.

“I went with Jan to Peru and took ayahuasca with the Shipibo-conibo
tribe. Did I hallucinate? You bet! I saw snakes. You know there are scientists
researching into what ayahuasca does to your metabolism,” says Cassel.
“Some of them think that these intertwined snakes are a visualisation of
DNA. Meaning that these Indian tribes are in contact with the meaning of
life.”

Blimey. For actorly preparation, it certainly beats Renée’s
doughnut diet for Bridget Jones’s Diary. The two men were in the Amazon
to research a metaphysical Western Kounen was planning, loosely based
on a cult French cartoon.

“I was scared, of course,” he says. “It’s not like going out and
taking ecstasy. It’s not recreational. In fact it’s the opposite. You
can have the worst night of your life.” Indeed, when Kounen had returned
from his first sojourn with the Shipibo-conibo, Cassel had been a bit worried.
“Jan came back saying, ‘You know what? Making movies is not that important.
There are many more important things in life.’”

Not the kind of insight you’d normally share with your potential
star, but Cassel was intrigued. “I thought it was a dangerous game he
was playing but I also thought he was brave to seek out a new perspective.
Jan said to me, ‘Come with me into the forest. You’ll see. It’s incredible,’
and I said, ‘Hooyaidonknow’” – Cassel gives a full-body shrug – ” ‘I ‘ave
things to do.’”

A few weeks later he was in the rainforest looking at his pineal
gland through his third eye. Or something. He finds the experience hard
to describe. In fact, after weeks of struggling to find the right metaphor
for the French press, he decided to do it again, just to remind himself.

“Jan and I talked about it so much, I began to wonder if it was really
what we described. So I went back and saw the shaman. I had another experience.
While I was upside-down I laughed so much, because actually we weren’t
wrong. It’s what’s in the movie plus 500 different sensations that go
through your body that you cannot put on screen.”

Apart from the film’s trippy climax, were there any lasting effects
from the drugs? “There’s no toxicity,” explains Cassel, “and your serotonin
levels, which are very low after having coffee or cigarettes, or any
kind of stimulant, actually go up after taking ayahuasca… so it’s really
something.”

So is Kounen’s finished film. Although Blueberry begins, conventionally
enough, with a shootout in a frontier town brothel, I can’t think of another
Western in which the good and bad guys duke it out by lying down in a cave
and tripping off their heads. Or of another Cajun cowboy for that matter.

Eddie Izzard, who plays an evil, bearded, Prussian prospector, calls
Blueberry a “baguetti” Western. French critics have called it pretentious.
Not that Cassel will be overly bothered. He’s made it his business to
rebel against mainstream “bourgeois cinema”. He made his debut as an angry
young skinhead in 1995′s La Haine, going on to star in Kounen’s graphic
Dobermann and the controversial rape drama Irréversible, co-starring
his wife Monica Belluci.

Through it all, he’s turned down a steady stream of “baddy” roles
from Hollywood. “I realised that I needed to be anchored,” he says. “I
made movies that are real.They are not just part of the industry.”

Cassel will never live in LA. He loves the anonymity of his home
town too much. “Paris is great because French people, as you know, are
a bit snobby, so even if they do recognise you, they don’t like to admit
it.”

He and Belluci live in a working-class neighbourhood. “I think people
are happy that we live there because they are like, ‘We have the prince
and princess,’ you know? But I’m still able to go down to the street corner
and have a smoke.”

Despite the grey hair growing up from his widow’s peak, Cassel burns
with a fast-talking, wide-ranging enthusiasm.”I think you can really
ruin yourself if you start working for the wrong reasons,” he says, “such
as money. Doing things that you don’t like is like sleeping with people
you don’t want to sleep with. After a point you lose your self-respect.”

Despite art-house hits such as Read My Lips and Brotherhood of the
Wolf, the versatile and talented Cassel is still relatively unknown outside
France. Still, he shows no sign of wanting to go mainstream. “It’s not
that I’m looking for the most bizarre roles but I like things that are
edgy.”

So what about comedy? Can this subversive force in French cinema
drag the country’s lame slapstick into the 21st-century? I put to him
the great film conundrum posed by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening:
“The French are funny. Comedies are funny. So why are no French comedies
funny?”

“I can’t talk about humour with a British person because you are
the kings!” he says. “Actually, I did do a comedy: Guesthouse Paradiso
with Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson. I had a lot of fun. The balls in the
nutcracker. All that kind of stuff.” Touché.

Of course, with the release of Ocean’s 12 Cassel’s low profile will
be a thing of the past. He’s shooting it at the moment with the director
Stephen Soderbergh, George Clooney and the rest. Cassel plays the best
thief in the world. “I am very French in it. Varrry French. But I am not
a baddy. That was the deal.”

‘Blueberry’ is released on 23 July