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Alex Monk: The Advantages of Working Alone

img  Tobias Fischer

What were important milestones for the album?
Personally, certainly during the formative parts of the recording, it was a rather difficult time for me and the 2008/2009 winter did feel like a long one. However, it was a beautiful time in a way as I met some incredible people who I had a lot of fun with and who became very good friends and remain so. Important milestones I think were writing 'Spiders' as I feel the album needed a track like that, which is more I suppose traditional in compositional methods and relies on just acoustic guitar and vocals and very little treatment apart from the intro which is almost like a separate piece of music anyway. ‘Cabiria’ was wonderful because that was a very spontaneous jam which turned in to something quite beautiful. And 'Masks Survive' simply because I knew what I wanted to do for so long but struggled with the actual conveyance of the sound until I altered the melody slightly and it suddenly all developed from there. That was the last track I wrote for this album and when that was done I felt much surer the record was complete: I really needed to feel that and that is one of the advantages of working alone.

What prompted your move towards a more live-oriented framework?

I was using a lot of processing on the previous records which I did enjoy as that was really my first foray into the 'studio as instrument' mindset after being frustrated with indifferent and grumpy engineers in grim London studios. So when I realised I could do it myself or with my friends instead, the possibilities were absolutely mind-blowing at the time. However, performing live is very important to me and I wanted to feel that the album reflected more what I do live and in terms of the approach I take along with the equipment I use. I did not want to turn up to gigs with a laptop anymore; that felt rather unsuited to me. I love what Francisco Lopez does live for example - he was quite amazing at ATP - but I need to engage with people in a different way.

In which way exactly?
Well, I was listening to a lot of Franco Battiato's trilogy of albums from the early seventies (Fetus, Pollution and Sulle Corde Di Aries) where there were long exploratory passages combined with much more structured compositions and also Wyatt's Rock Bottom which had a similar approach and influenced me greatly. I love the sense of freedom and exploration that improvisation can provide but I also feel that there is a great amount of emotional resonance in simple songs, too. You can  hear this in Dennis Wilson's 'Thoughts of You', where he manages to capture all this in one song alone. I can't say that in my case either one led the other; it was simply how I felt like expressing myself at the time whilst instinctively making sure that the pieces on the album felt balanced with one another.

Were the lyrics also part of this improvisational approach or even of some sort of concept?
With 'Masks Survive' I sat down in the old style way with pen and paper and then sang it - there was no improv - same with 'Spiders.' I think a concept did seem to develop, though it certainly wasn’t conscious at all from the outset: that might have felt a bit silly, like The Wall or something, though I am all for the concept album if executed well – see Kraftwerk's Radioactivity. As songs went on from the earlier ‘Much further out than you thought’ which did seem to evoke being rather lost at sea - the line was lifted of course from Stevie Smith - to tracks like ‘1000 ships to the next life’ and ‘Masks Survive’ which were both very much about liberation or release from pain; about going through a very difficult place to get to somewhere more peaceful. ‘Crossing’ was about the getting there and the anguish involved in it as you can probably sense when you listen to it.

Elisa Gallo Rosso seems to have been important in bringing out these qualities in her performance.
I think she brought some necessary peace and light to the feeling of the record - her voice is not only beautiful but she is able to express a great deal with it and that is demonstrated by what you can hear between the light of 'Cabiria' and the more sinister 'Crossing.' 'Cabiria' though really does sound like a lost raga to me and that Elisa is yearning for a release from the samsaric realm - again in line with the above ‘concepts’ - and that there is a very strong chance that she will get there! She also had no fear about the fact that we had nothing at all prepared: she immediately seemed to know exactly what she wanted to express at that moment. I was very fortunate to work with Elisa and hope we will do more stuff together.

With so much relying on improvisation, what did the editing phase for the album entail?
There was not a great deal of editing to do on the album apart from the track 'Vathek' which was recorded over a longer period with a more similar approach to the first two records. Tracks like ' Walking with Beatrice' and '1000 ships to the next life' were recorded to 4 track tape in one take so I took the best parts of those sessions. But there was very little editing involved generally; just a case of selecting the parts I felt best fitted the album.

In which way were artists like Eno, Robert Wyatt and Moondog and Krautrock as a genre an influence on The Safety Machine?
I think I already mentioned Robert Wyatt, but Eno has been if not a direct influence but someone who has always been present, especially in Roxy Music. Krautrock yes - I love all the great albums like Faust IV and Popul Vuh’s In Den Gärten Pharaos. Can you include again Radioactivity in that rather silly ‘Krautrock’ genre? That is an incredible record because you can feel that the way that electronics can be very tender and comforting and interludes such as 'Stars' can be just as evocative as the opening title track. Those interludes or intermissions are very important to me and definitely were in mind even if unconsciously so on tracks like 'I can hear your heart through the breeze' and 'Light Separation.' Moondog I believe possessed that same tenderness and evocation of a bygone childhood as on Radioactivity that perhaps never really existed in any other reality other than in the music itself.

There is a palpable psychedelic touch to the album. Is music a tool to see reality more clearly to you in a way?
When I am creating music I certainly feel all kinds of emotions and different realities! I do like the term psychedelia as it doesn't just represent listening to 'Lucifer Sam' or whatever but also perhaps signifies getting in deeper contact with a part of yourself that you might otherwise not encounter without music. That does not mean it is always blissful or transcendent however. It may also be full of trouble or anguish and I hope all of that comes across on The Safety Machine.

Homepage: Alex Monk
Homepage: Smeraldina-Rima Records

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