Wednesday, April 1, 2015

An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with THE LEATHER NUN's Jonas Almqvist!

All Those Crazy Dreams:

Jonas Almqvist

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

   Every album has a story to tell. Sometimes, that story could manifest itself as a lyrical ‘concept’ album that Prog Rock bands are so fond of making. Sometimes, ultra-privileged Pop artists live their fabulous lives in the spotlight and end up sharing their ‘hardship’ stories – we can all relate to a lover’s quarrel while spending a month in Saint-Tropez – with their slickly-produced radio hits. However, Sweden’s The Leather Nun is neither Prog nor Pop and their 2015 album, Whatever, has a true story behind it filled with so many disappointments that it would destroy the soul of a lesser band. Yet, here they are, 24 years after their last studio album and nearly 40 years after their inception, releasing their most focused album yet.

   Led by singer/songwriter Jonas Almqvist – the band’s sole original member and visionary – The Leather Nun have never followed the strict guidelines of the music business. Truth be told, it is near impossible to confine the band to one genre. Since they formed in 1978, The Leather Nun has successfully dabbled in so many musical styles that they have attracted a wide cross section of fans over the years – hardcore followers of Punk, Goth, Industrial, Garage, Alternative, Rock and New Wave probably own at least one record by The Leather Nun. Their early singles were released on Genesis P. Orridge’s Industrial Records label. They’ve had albums produced by Kim Fowley (1988’s International Heroes) and Mick Ronson (Nun Permanent from 1991). Grammy-winning video/film director Jonas Akerlund is a lifetime fan and has used their music in several of his projects. And to top it all off, they inspired loads of Garage, Industrial and Rock bands who still namecheck them in interviews (and nick some of their pioneering musical ideas on record). However, the band had been silent for over 20 years until its recent revival by Almqvist, after a long journey to reclaim his position as one of Sweden’s most innovative musicians.

   Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to fire off some questions to Jonas as he prepared for the next step in The Leather Nun’s long-awaited return to the music scene. Jonas was kind enough to share his thoughts on the new album, the band’s past and their future…

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Whatever is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the journey you took to create it?
JONAS ALMQVIST: It’s been a great journey and we’re all really pleased. If I never get to record another Leather Nun album, I’d still be pleased. It’ll stand the test of time as the best Leather Nun album. Originally, Whatever was to have been produced and mixed by Alexander Hacke, a longtime friend and sound-wizard of Einstürzende Neubauten, but we ran out of funds as well as time, as Alex was approaching the pre-production of Lament (their 2014 album). We spent five months recording Whatever working long hours in the studio. It was intense, hard work but very creative and satisfying.

SPAZ: Why did it take so long between albums? And why did you feel that now was the right time to release Whatever?
JONAS: When our then record company was swept away in a bankruptcy in ’92, everything was shattered. Everything we’d built up over the years by constant touring and record releases was demolished. We’d just released a studio album produced by Mick Ronson, outselling every Leather Nun record ever released combined. We were to embark on the biggest European tour ever and with all shows sold-out in advance. Major label executives were queuing up on the guest lists. We were about to take a major leap forward. Then suddenly, there was this big silence. Phones stopped ringing, people didn’t call back. And then we got word of the bankruptcy. We had no management, no record company and a publishing company that decided not to act. We were back to square one with little or no possibilities to continue. In ’95 we decided to disband for the time being. I started working full time as an editor for the Swedish music educators’ journal. Apart from myself, no one in the band was interested in taking care of business. They were pretty pissed with the consequences of the bankruptcy.
In my spare time, I built an ambitious LN website, to at least keep Leather Nun alive on the fastly growing internet. And I wrote songs. I wrote about 250 – 300 songs between 1996-98. Not Leather Nun songs the way we’d been writing songs during the latter part of the ’80s. It was more like blending old school Leather Nun with influences from both contemporary art music as well as the Drum ’n’ Bass scene in the UK. Swedish publishers BMG got very interested in my songwriting and wanted to pair me with young UK producers, but it all fell through. I know BMG were talking to people in the hip Metalheadz and Logical Progressions communities in the UK, but they considered the music either too avant-garde or potentially too commercial! Hahaha!
After a few years, I was approached by the UK label Easy Action. They were then working with three acts: The Stooges, Fred Sonic Smith’s Rendezvous Band and Brian James of The Damned. With the blessings of Iggy and the Asheton brothers, Easy Action was releasing bootleg recordings (that’d been circulating as cassettes) as official records, allowing the former Stooges members to collect royalties and eventually reform and start touring as Iggy & The Stooges. Anyway, Easy Action loved Leather Nun. They wanted to have us as the fourth act on the label and rerelease old albums as well as live recordings that had been circulating on the bootleg cassette market. And I thought, “That would be awesome!” So I started to trace old master tapes. But halfway through, I got a call from the label. Their distributor Pinnacle was about to close business due to the sudden dramatic drop in record sales, and Easy Action had to shelf their business for the time being until they could find another distributor.
It was a bit of a let-down but on the other hand, I’d just been approached by Bunny Lake, an Electronica band from Austria. They were signed to Universal Music Austria and had just won the Austrian Grammy Awards. Bunny Lake and the CEO of Universal Austria were big fans of Leather Nun and they wanted to make an Electronica version of a Leather Nun song as a duet between me and their female vocalist. We got as far as recording a demo version, but then the project got cancelled and Bunny Lake eventually split up.
In ’10 Leather Nun was suddenly invited to play the biggest, most important festival in Sweden. We turned down the offer basically because I don’t believe in nostalgia and I didn’t want to be part of a then growing trend with reuniting bands playing old hits. But it made me think - could Leather Nun offer anything vital and relevant to the current rock scene? So I started writing songs for Leather Nun, for the first time in almost 20 years. And we played the material to a small group of selected people working in the music biz (major label A&R’s, DJ’s, journalists, etc.) and it was all ‘Thumbs Up.’
From then on, it was three years of hard work. Digging out all the old contracts, securing the name of the band, negotiating and finally reversing all the publishing rights back to the band, preparing for a legal battle to regain the masters to the old recordings which had wound up with a sub-label to Universal Music by mistake due to the mess surrounding the bankruptcy.
By the end of ’13, I’d cleared all the necessary rights to be able to shop the old publishing rights, shop the publishing rights to the new songs, shop the merchandising rights, shop for the rerelease of the oldest (and the formative) Leather Nun songs. By then, we were finally ready to go about recording a possible new studio album.
It’s been a long journey. I knew it would be a long and uncertain journey when I took it on. But the way the new songs turned out and the reception they received, it was worth the three years of legally clearing the way for a new Leather Nun studio album.

SPAZ: The Leather Nun has always been hard to pigeon-hole, musically. Do you purposely try to avoid classifications? The new album really takes a lot of stylistic twists and turns…
JONAS: No. Yes, Hahaha! Good question. I try to write interesting music for interesting people. Interesting music works long-term. Interesting music educates the listeners. Interesting music inspires the listeners. Interesting music sustains and nourishes the ecosystem of the music-business. I remember visiting the Manhattan penthouse of a Warner CEO in the late ’80s. He’d seen Leather Nun live and he said, “I love the band and I’d love to sign the band but I need to label the band in order to sell it. Can I label you as Punk Rock? Alternative Rock or what?” And I said, ”No, we’re not Punk Rock and we’re not Alternative – we’re just Rock ’n’ Roll.” Interesting music doesn’t need labels, because it works outside the box. And every now and then, there’s a Mark Lanegan, a Trent Reznor, a Gibby Haynes or whoever, who picks up on the music and makes use of it. If I can write, arrange and produce songs that differ from the mainstream conception of Rock, I add to the eco-system of Rock. I prove that you can go about Rock in a slightly different way. I guess I sort of act out, musically, the theories of Stephen Hawking about the necessity of imperfection for the development of the universe. I don’t strive for smooth perfection. I enjoy dynamics and clash of elements.

SPAZ: Were the songs on Whatever written for this particular project or were they tracks that you’ve been accumulating over the years?
JONAS: They were written for this album.

SPAZ: Is the opening track, “All Those Crazy Dreams,” autobiographical or is it more of a nod to everyone’s childhood dreams?
JONAS: It was autobiographical and the first song I wrote for this album. Then I played the demo of the song to a friend – the guitar player of Swedish band Hardcore Superstar who was just about to sign an international solo contract with EMI. And he just looked at me and said, “I want that song. That song is about me.” So I guess the song is kind of universal. Lots of people can probably relate to it.

SPAZ: There are many layers to The Leather Nun’s sound. Songs like “Just Like A Dream” has some pretty heavy percussion yet the music is quite lovely. Do you find it more challenging to mix these different emotions into your songs?
JONAS: Yes. It’s challenging in a good way. It’s like the band name Leather Nun – the dynamic of opposites. That’s what makes music and life vivid and interesting. That was one of the things Mick Ronson and I spent hours talking about: what happens if we bring this element in? What happens if a harmonica plays the saxophone part? What happens if strings play the guitar part? What happens if…
With “Red Hot Gwen” for example, I wanted to put this “what if?”-thinking to the test. I wanted to write and arrange a song in the New Orleans Jazz tradition – but with guitars playing all the different horn parts. I did all the guitar/horn parts on the demo and it was great fun it sounded awesome. The challenge in the studio was to get the guitarists to grasp the idea and make them think and play like a trombone player, a clarinet player, a flugelhorn player – which is kind of tricky as guitarists are brought up to think and voice like guitarists.  

SPAZ: Was recording Whatever a positive experience for you? And how did recording the album differ from what it was like when the band first started their journey?
JONAS: Absolutely. And challenging on all accounts. In the old days, songs were rehearsed and then recorded live in the studio with a few guitar overdubs. This time, every song was under the looking glass throughout the project. What’s the song about? Can this be expressed in a different manner or with another instrument? And I wanted to use real live strings instead of fake digital ones. Real instruments carry not only real sounds and overtones, but also the sound of living musicians, their personalities, their personal history, etc. That’s what makes music vivid.
No one believed in the project, no one believed in the way we were going about with the project. Even we had moments when we doubted that we’d be able to carry this project to the end. We spent five months in the studio, working 10-12 hours each day. But every minute and every penny was worth it. This was not just another album recording project. It was a boot camp to reboot Leather Nun. An opportunity to work ourselves into the core and essence of what Leather Nun was and is about.

SPAZ: Do you prefer to work with the darker or lighter side of music, or maybe somewhere in the middle? Has that changed over the years?
JONAS: It hasn’t changed over the years. Probably just got worse. Hahaha! As long as the music seems interesting, I don’t care if it’s darker or lighter. But I guess I’m ruled by the dynamic of opposites. Back to Stephen Hawking again! I guess I’m mainly driven by curiosity, trying to learn the essence of music. And the essence of music is beyond good, bad, light, dark…

SPAZ: Do you have any particular favorites on the album at the moment?
JONAS: Actually, no. This is the first Leather Nun album where every song brings a content smile to my face. It’s a nice collection of short stories, orchestrated like a concert.

SPAZ: In the early days, you played porno films and had strippers perform at your gigs. Do you see yourself continuing that trend now that the internet has made all of that more accessible?
JONAS: No, it would be quite pointless. We never used porno films or strippers for sensational purposes as cheap effects or whatever. At those shows, we wanted to move beyond music. To stress points we were trying to make. And we felt awfully embarrassed when our record company, unbeknownst to us, hired two strippers for a sold-out show at Hammersmith in London, UK. That was just cheap. I still have several friends from back in the early days of Leather Nun, who were then working as strippers or porn actresses. It wasn’t like Motley Crue. We could sit in the early hours of the morning having professional talks being young men and women working different sectors of the entertainment industry. We were bonding rather than going for flamboyant excesses. And the first time we used a stripper, we flooded the stage with backlights so people could hardly see her. We were not exploiting the act of stripping or her nudity – we were teasing the audience.  

SPAZ: The late great Kim Fowley produced your second album. Was he as crazy to work with as everyone says?
JONAS: Kim Fowley was a great personality. I knew of him pre-punk, pre-Runaways. When his name came up as a possible producer, I thought it was really nice. Leather Nun was running blind at that stage, musically. Anything that would add craziness, might spark off the kind of outside-the-box creativity in the band that we’d lost down the road. Kim was a really great guy but on his creative downfall we didn’t realize till we came to the US to record. He spent most of the time in the studio, answering female penpal adverts in HM magazines. We’d have to redo lots of stuff on the recordings when we got back to Sweden, due to it being so poorly recorded. Apart from a song we co-wrote, naming the album after one of his songs and having his name on the album cover, Kim didn’t add much to the album. But he became a good friend and someone we met on and off while touring. When Jonas Akerlund received his Grammy Award for the Paul McCartney video last year, I texted a greeting message to Jonas. A few minutes later, Jonas was on the phone from the Grammy after-party, thanking me and chuckling: “Guess who I am talking to right now? Kim Fowley! And all he wants to talk about is Leather Nun!” We stayed in touch up until mid-Fall last year, having the last conversation in late September. We were talking about the whereabouts of the two teenage Catholic sisters that were hanging around the studio at the time of the International Heroes recordings. Then he went silent. I spoke to Jonas Akerlund shortly before Christmas and he was telling me of Kim’s physical condition and then sent me a message at Kim’s death.  

SPAZ: In the past, you’ve toured the U.S. and elsewhere. Do you like touring?
JONAS: I love touring. It doesn’t wear me out. Traveling, new cities, new clubs, new shows and meeting new people every night. To me, it’s a good way of living. What wears you out when touring are the drugs and the drinking. Your body never fully recovers in-between gigs. I learnt that after the first European tours and have stayed off drugs and excessive drinking ever since. On the other hand, I easily fall in love. That’s my buzz, instead of drinking and doing drugs.

SPAZ: What’s next for The Leather Nun?
JONAS: We’re working with United Stage, the second biggest booking agency in Sweden next to Live Nation. With the album release comes gigs and touring in Scandinavia and Europe. Jonas Akerlund wants me to come over to LA. That’s where we met the first time, backstage at the classic Scream club in Feb ’88. Jonas had been a fan for years and decided to do a US coast-to-coast road trip with some friend. The road trip ended in LA at the time of our show. Jonas was just an unknown video director then, learning the trade. But that night at the Scream, he got to meet backstage with Ian Astbury (The Cult), Lars Ulrich (Metallica), people from Guns N’ Roses, etc. We had a nice celeb turnout that night. And I guess that night ignited his video director ambitions as it connected him with all these people that he’s been hanging with ever since. Jonas been a good friend, who’s been playing Leather Nun tracks on the radio, using Leather Nun songs for his first movie Spun. Leather Nun has been a common denominator in the crowd he hangs with. And Jonas is keen on directing a Leather Nun video. It all depends on what happens with the album in the U.S. And we have a number of artistic collaborations in Europe in the year to come. Side projects within the Leather Nun framework. For instance, we’ll be doing a 40 minute Industrial Noise-rock show based on the oldest Leather Nun songs. Material and ideas we worked on during the early Industrial Records days. Shows that will incorporate European and US artists, as well as live strings. It’s gonna be like a string quartet playing on top of the burning ruins of the world. And hopefully there will also be dates set up in Europe with our old buddies in Einstürzende Neubauten during the Fall.
Apart from that, we’re preparing for the next album. Writing songs. We’ve already demoed a handful of songs during the winter. That will give us the opportunity to pre-plan and pre-produce the next album well in advance, in order to develop and further the musical ideas and layers that we bring to the table on the Whatever album.
Rock music is such a great genre. There is so much that can be done within this genre. Endless musical possibilities.

SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD, record, DVD and Blu-Ray players?
JONAS: Actually, I don’t listen to new music that much on CD. Most of the Rock music put out today is pretty uninteresting. Few young bands/artists can produce an album’s length of material, ideas and visions. Compared to a single (or single track), an album is a journey with a beginning and an end. It’s like a movie. Lots of bands and artists can make interesting videos, but few of them can carry the length of a full movie.
In the ‘old’ days, there were singles bands and there were album bands. And that was great. Problems started when singles bands started to make albums. Artists and labels pushed the development together. Albums were more prestigious than singles and with a greater profit margin. And with CDs, you could cram another 2 to 4 songs onto the album, with the logic that more music meant better turnover. But the record buyers didn’t follow that logic. “Why would I pay good money for a piece of plastic containing 14 songs but only 3 or 4 of them worth listening to?” Instead, the record buyer went for bit-torrent sites like Napster, where they could review music and pick the cream of the crop free of charge.
People still love to form bands were they can bang out three-chord songs for better or worse. Few bands go beyond that primitive stage of just knocking out new songs few bands have musical visions and ambitions.
For the past 20 years, we’ve been force-fed by media that Rock ’n’ roll is dead. But if you review the figures last year, Rock music is the biggest genre as for the turnover of digital and physical sales. It’s bigger than Hip Hop, R&B, Country and other genres. Kanye West and Pharell Williams may go down better with radio, but Rock is where the consumers are. And Rock is so much more than AC/DC, U2 or Foo Fighters.
Personally, I’d rather spend time listening to young unsigned bands and artists on websites like Soundcloud or watch them live, than buy CDs by artists that cannot produce an album’s length of songs and ideas. In that respect, I’m pretty old school. I enjoyed the late ’70s/early ’80s with bands focusing on putting out 7” singles. If you found an interesting 7” single, you’d go and watch them live. And if you liked the gig, you’d be on the lookout for the next 7” single. And everything built from there. Whereas today, bands and labels focus on albums that rarely go down well in the streaming world, which is mainly built around consuming individual tracks.

Thanks to Jonas Almqvist
Special thanks to Johan Haller and Nick Kominitsky




No comments: