An interview with Project Adorno

During the last few years I have seen a number of music and spoken word acts, and combinations of the both. There’s something about the mix of styles which I rather enjoy. However, one group in particular seemed to touch on themes and ideas which I’ve always liked or had a fascination with: libraries, Doctor Who and the Pet Shop Boys.

I first saw Project Adorno when they came down to Torquay while I was hosting Poetry Island. It was an amazing and funny set of songs and witty banter which left my head filled with inspiration. Even my grumpy friend Mark, who did the door for me, bought their cd afterwards. Since then I have eagerly followed Project Adorno, stalking them via social media to see what they’re up to. 
Project Adorno are Russell Thompson and Praveen Manghani.
  
Hello! What are you working on at the moment?

R: A musical appreciation of the screenwriter Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven, etc). It’ll be one continuous suite of songs, spoken word and ambient music, accompanied by Patrick Keiller-esque film. In fact, we’ll be doing for the Forest of Dean what Keiller did for London.

 P: Yes, still very much a work in progress, though some nice bits emerging. It’ll either become an art-house Keiller-esque film or a quirky version of The Singing Detective complete with lip-synched songs…somewhere in-between I suspect. It has been nice to include visuals in some of our recent work. Just at the moment I’m very taken with the “information” films of Charles and Ray Eames…

– The last time we met you were working on a project about film maker Derek Jarman. How is that going, and why did you choose him?
R: Jarman would have hated the idea, but he does seem to have become a sort of countercultural national treasure. Even if you don’t admire every piece of work he produced, it’s still possible to think ‘thank God there was a Derek Jarman’. The arts are full of people who court controversy, but they seldom have the degree of integrity that he had, or the conviction of their own beliefs. Later, of course, that increasingly applied to his lifestyle as well as to his art. We took the show – Jarman in Pieces – to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, since when we’ve been doing one-off performances of it at various LGBT arts festivals around the country. We’re really pleased with it: it took the multimedia side of our work to a new level, and established the format we’re now using for the Potter show. I tend to think of Jarman in Pieces as our Dark Side of the Moon. Which of course means that Potter will be Wish You Were Here. After that we’ll be on to the inflatable pigs.

 P: I was originally fascinated by the whole Super 8 DIY film-making ethos of Derek Jarman. I particularly loved the grainy look and feel of super 8 film. That, and his diaries, and his paintings and his house and garden in Dungeness (an artwork in itself). That’s the thing about Jarman – he had so many strings to his bow. I was also inspired by his oddball, left-field creative spirit (which seemed slightly at odds with his well-to-do middle class background). In 2014 we were asked to curate a film night as part of a local arts festival – as it was also the twentieth anniversary of his death we chose Jarman’s “Last of England”. We performed a short multimedia piece to accompany it and decided to develop it into a full-blown Edinburgh show. It was only when we started working on the Jarman project that Russell and I realised we’d both independently admired him in our respective formative years.

 – Project Adorno seem to be fascinated with libraries. That’s no bad thing. Personally I believe that the downfall of western society began with the introduction of self service machines in libraries. What is it about libraries that appeals so much?

R: You’d better ask Praveen about the machines – it’s all his fault, I’m afraid. But we do have a song about the perfection of the date-stamp. My local library still has one available so that people can stamp their own books if they want. We’re not very progressive in East Sheen. Praveen works in libraries, I just hang around in them. Is it ‘customer’ or ‘user’ these days? Personally, I’m obsessed with books (which a visit to my house would confirm) and with a sense of order (which a visit to my house would not). I’m the sort of person who likes compiling indexes in their spare time. 

 P: Ah the appeal of libraries…don’t get me started…a world of possibilities, escape and imagination. A place to ponder, pontificate….and just generally sit and think, or learn, or just be…reading and books are of course still mainstays…but it’s not just about the “borrowers” any more (another one for the “customer” vs “user” terminology debate). I’ll always prefer the date stamp to the self-service machines but we must move with the times – people now demand computers and wi-fi and coffee shops so we have to adapt if we want to stay relevant. Libraries are one of the few places where one can go unchallenged without requiring a reason to visit and as long as the library remains a place that’s free to enter and universally available for everyone that’s good enough for me. Plus they’re now very established at putting on arts events and literature festivals – a natural home for Project Adorno gigs!

– One of your most famous songs is about Davros from Doctor Who. You’ve been working on a new version of this song. How is it different to the original?
R: A longer intro, just to ramp up the mounting excitement. Oh, and we’ve removed a slightly un-PC line. Apart from that, it’s fairly recognisable – still firmly entrenched in the Baker T era.

 P: It’s actually become a bit more “prog-rock” to my ears – unintentionally so! Oh, and the opening verse is different to the original recorded version (something I’ve been meaning to fix for ages).

– Who are your influences?
R: Our influences are like a Venn diagram with a small intersection between the two circles. Most of my mine are things you may not guess from listening to us: ‘70s folk-rock, ‘80s anarcho-punk, and traditional folk – by which I mean hundred-year-old field recordings of shepherds singing songs about the Napoleonic Wars. My favourite comparison was when someone likened us to Radical Dance Faction, although I think that was just a kind way of saying I couldn’t sing. The intersection consists of The Wedding Present, Philip Jeays and Ian Dury, and we also share an unhealthy fixation with the doo-wop band Darts.

 P: Originally for me it was all about Pet Shop Boys (I still marvel at the sleek simplicity of “West End Girls” and that supposed trick of a G chord with an E in the bass… or perhaps it was the other way round…) and early eighties electro-pop/disco in general. And of course Frankie Goes to Hollywood and in particular Trevor Horn. His production techniques and OTT arrangements and remixes just blew me away – I wanted to do things like that but was limited both by lack of musical ability and studio technology. An anologue Fostex 4 track tape recorder just didn’t quite compare to the (then) state-of-the-art Fairlight sequencer. After that I discovered indie and realised one could do quite a lot with just a few chords and some imaginative words. We’ve mutated into more of a song-based cabaret act over the years and in many ways I think the musical side of things has become more simplistic and DIY as we’ve progressed. The lyrical content, whilst always important, has become ever more so – influenced by Momus, Brel, Aznavour and Jake Thackray amongst others.

-I’ve read some Adorno. He’s incredibly dull and weighty. I tried to include him in my masters dissertation just so that it looked good in the bibliography. Why did you decide to reference him in the band’s name?

R: All I know is a useful four-word summary someone once gave me: miserable German, hated jazz. In other words, he despised popular culture. We like to see Project Adorno as a reconciliation beween high and low art. A modest little aim, there. We should also mention that there’s something called the Adorno Project, which monitors the migratory habits of birds. They’re not us. It’s crazy, though – they’re always getting invited to perform at cabarets in Brighton, we’re always getting invited to read our paper on the movements of the Manx shearwater.

 P: It’s all my brother’s fault. He was doing a critical theory degree (or similar) and he came home one day spouting on about Adorno. We somewhat pretentiously concocted the name Project Adorno as it sounded good. Then my brother then decided to go to Germany and I was sort of left with the name, decided not to change it, and Russell came board. So we both inherited it really. I’ve mugged up a little on Adorno since then, but must agree, he’s not an easy read! As Russell says, he appeared to loathe popular culture, tho’ it would be fascinating to get his view on our work (especially as we’ve taken his name in vain). People have occasionally said of us “it’s very accessible on the face of it, but the lyrics deserve repeated listening as they often contain extra layers of meaning” (or something like that) – and that’s the best compliment I could hope for really.

-What are your creative processes? How do the songs come about?
R: Praveen is a one-man songwriting factory. I have a mental image of him gripped by bouts of creative frenzy, like Beethoven – unable to leave the room until he has given shape to his ideas. He seems to have written at least two new songs every time I see him. As for me, I either present pieces to him solely as lyrics – ‘See what you can do with that’ – or I’ll have an idea of a tune and attempt to sing it to him. Considering my inability to carry a melody, he always does a pretty good job at interpreting what’s in my head.

 P: That’s a nice description from my esteemed colleague. Actually I still have a whole folder full of Russell’s poetry that I’d like to commit to music one day! What I like about Russell’s lyrics is that he often uses words that I either don’t understand or that have never before been used in the medium of popular song – usually both (Coalhole Cover Lover and Zubenelgenubi are just two such examples). He’s certainly broadened my vocabulary! I think we’ve both got a passion for the geekier side of popular culture which helps as reference points. We often each go away and write things on a particular theme (eg as in recent Potter and Jarman projects) and then choose the best of these. Tho’ some of my favourite pieces have emerged more organically with Russell reading a lyric and me just playing a basic guitar rhythm underneath (When London Shone and Famous Diplodocus are two that come to mind).

 – What is the future for Project Adorno?

R: Gosh, there’s a question. As I say, the new multimedia, semi-ambient approach has great possibilities. I’m interested in places, so a show based on some sort of travelogue would be interesting. I’d like to do a show about the A1. That would at least ensure we were listed first in the Fringe brochure, if nothing else.

 P: I’m quite liking the idea of writing some sort of play (It’s all Potter’s fault) – it will have to have songs or music in it of course, so I guess, if it happens, it will end up becoming a musical. Seriously though we’ve often talked about doing a Project Adorno book – a sort of creative “history of” as opposed to a biography. Still, I think we should strive to at least getting a mention on Wikipedia before that happens! If nothing else we are determined to record and release a new CD this year – there are loads of songs which need committing “to tape”. (Tho’ I guess in truth it’s all downloads these days). Anyway, that is a must. Beyond this I’ve often harboured the ambition of performing Project Adorno songs with a live orchestra at somewhere like the Royal Festival Hall…one can dream.   

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Thoughts of a poetry audience member.

I went to a poetry gig last week, only I wasn’t performing. It was the first time in ages that I went somewhere purely to be an audience member. I thought it would be am incredibly annoying experience, being there knowing that I wouldn’t get a chance to go up on stage and do a set.

And in a way I was right in that the whole dynamics of the evening were different. Relieved of the emotions of pre and post performance, I was able to sit back and relax and watch the listen to the performers.

The first thing that struck me was just how good everyone was. There were no signs of nerves, no silliness, nothing amateurish or half-baked. Every performer was on top form. The second thing that struck me was how amazingly captivating each and every performer was. The event in question was Taking the Mic in Exeter at the Phoenix arts centre, which is nominally an open mic event, (although slots have to be booked in advance), but everyone who performed was excellent.

And this made me a little nervous. I’ve been performing poetry now for five years or so and every time I step on stage I tell myself, ‘Well, this is going to be pants’, and every time I step off stage I tell myself, ‘Well, that was pants’. Before my performance I’m usually thinking of what I shall be doing and the minor details of my set, so I don’t have much of a chance to concentrate too much on the other poets. And after my set I’m usually too relieved to think coherently.

Freed of such constraints, I was able to sit there and fall in love with every single performer. And one question came to mind: How on earth do they do it? How do they perform so brilliantly, so effortlessly, every single one of them?

I do a lot of practice and I plan what I’m doing, and I have to write out in advance my ‘spontaneous’ comments, and this kind of makes me immune to seeing my own oeuvre as equal to the others on the local scene. In other words, I’m merely trying to keep up! And sitting in the audience emphasised this, showed me that when it comes to performance, stage craft and presence, I still have a long way to go.

It’s good news for the local scene, of course. South Devon and the south west in general has the most wonderful, diverse and creative bunch of spoken word artists in the country, and im glad to be a small part of it. Watching the performers at Taking the Mic was a fantastic experience, and I urge all poets to go to gigs and just watch, freed from the restraints of preparing for a set. It’s done me the world of good, (while at the same time giving me a huge dose of the willies).

Found Poems.

I’ve been looking for found poems. I haven’t found any, which is weird, because I’ve been to so many gigs where people have had found poems. They must be lying around all over the place, these found poems, waiting to be found. Perhaps they’re not found poems if you purposefully go looking for them.
I had this big plan of finding a found poem and I figured a good place to look would be the index of a biography under the subject heading of the person the book was about. I thought about who I might choose, because there are so many famous names who are also a bit of a rake and whose biography would have the index and bibliography necessary to provide a found poem. I chose Bill Clinton. The index was dull, because the book itself was a scholarly affair. A book which concentrates on the more sordid details of a celebrity’s life does not, alas, usually bother with such things as indexes and bibliographies.

I went to the bus station and looked at the bus timetables but they were similarly unforthcoming. There’s nothing noteworthy or humorous about a bus timetable, although here in Devon, they might seem more as fiction than found poetry.

I work with second hand books and often people have used old shopping lists as book marks, but these hardly ever have any content worthy of performance repetition.

I looked at Daily Mail headlines, but it turned my hair white with shock.

It seems that the found poems I’m looking for are remaining hidden. I also think that there’s an element of composition in every found poem. There’s editing going on, manipulating of the facts. I’m sitting in a trendy coffee shop as I write this and I’m looking at the menu board, but there’s nothing on it that’s remotely funny. There’s nothing inventive or fun about a flat white.

I think the best thing to do with found poems is not to look for them. Unless, of course, I did a list of found poem subject matter, and then made that into a found poem. Yes, that might be one way out of it.

Or I could just stop looking and get on with my life.

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