Patrick Wolf Interview (Part Two)

On exploring LA's underworld, satanism and more...
Patrick Wolf 2009
Part two of our in-depth conversation with the inimitable Patrick Wolf, whose latest LP ‘The Bachelor’ is out now.

Find part one of this interview HERE.
Find our review of ‘The Bachelor’ HERE.

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Bandstocks, the funding for your label Bloody Chamber Music, is fairly new – how has your experience been of using this new model? Have there been any teething problems?

I kind of stay away from it a bit, and I’m trying not to make myself too aware of it. I think the most positive thing that’s come from it is that I feel that reconnection between me and my audience a lot more; it feels like doing a fanzine, and feels very personal again. I like that, I think it’s something to be cherished.

I’ve always had that with my audience, but towards the end of the last album I felt it slipping away, and I was a bit worried about that. When things become really corporate, then people tend to close off from you a little bit, and it’s kind of the opposite now.

There’s a lot of panic in the industry right now, where and if any money will come back into funding any creative processes, but I think this is a way of showing the world that people still do believe in music and buying a great album and making sure that album is well funded.

It’s empowerment to the people, and I think that really needs to happen at this point in the music industry, for something to come along with a bit of hope, and I think there’s hope in the Bandstocks thing. That intimacy is back and it feels really personal again.

When we discussed ‘The Bachelor’ when you were in the studio working on the album last year, you described it as being a lot more aggressive and heavy sounding. While I’d agree to a certain extent, I’d also say that it sounds quite positive and uplifting in certain places…

Well, that’s good. Friends of mine have said that, and I guess I didn’t see that at the beginning, and I can see it now, but in a way I’m aware of the subject matter from what it started, and for me I feel a little bit like I was being extremely negative, but adding Tilda [Swinton] and the strings and gospel choir adds an element of euphoria, and people are just like: ‘This is really euphoric’. I guess I see that now, the uplifting side, but I also see the dark place where it was written from, and I guess I focus on that because I’m more aware of that.

Today the sun’s shining and everything’s great, and I was in the studio singing ‘Oblivion’, which was strange, but I can take myself back there and definitely feel the emotions that I was feeling when writing it.

I’m going to touch more on this in a while, but you often do things and experience things to inspire you for your writing, and you say you take yourself back to certain places when you’re singing to get yourself into a certain mindset. Would you say it was almost a musical version of method acting at all?

It could be, I don’t know… People always say that when I do live shows they’re very theatrical, and I don’t really feel like I’m ever acting; I feel like I’m just kind of channelling a little part of myself or an experience that I’ve had in my life, and with writing a song, I don’t think it’s just when I’m writing them, I think as a person I’m just really voyeuristic and adventurous, and I love throwing myself into situations where I feel like I’m feeling something different from how I was feeling like the hour before or the day before, and I guess when it comes to writing the songs, or when songs happen, it’s the most extreme moments in my life, and those are the ones that influence them. The most extreme adventures end up turning into songs.

I just wanted to pick out a couple of lyrics in the album… with ‘The Sun is Often Out’, you’ve got a line that says: “Was your work of art so heavy that it would not let you live?” I was wondering if you were talking about yourself with your music?

No, there was a boy called Stephen Vickery who was a poet. I knew him quite a few years ago, and he committed suicide. He had two volumes of poetry out, and I guess I was contemplating why he would kill himself.

He threw himself in the river and his body was found very near to where I live, down by the river, and I was thinking about this idea of the tortured artist, the poet who is so weighed down… I guess I am empathising with it, and working out from my perspective why someone would feel so weighed down in order to end their life. I’m asking Stephen why was it so bad that he couldn’t live. There are lots of unanswered questions in suicide – you’re always asking why that happened.

Moving on… there’s lots of references to travelling on the road throughout the album. Focusing on ‘Vulture’, you’ve mentioned that the lyrics were inspired by exploring the darker sides of LA. I was just wondering how you’d got involved with this underworld?

Haha, I just had too much time on my hands, I had a week off before shooting the Jimmy Kimmel show, and I’d been touring for some time and I was really horny and needed some sex, and I ended up meeting this guy who turned out to be a Satanist. It was really odd. So he was asking: ‘Have you ever met the Devil? Do you believe in the Devil?’ Blah blah. In America, they think Satan is the answer to Oprah Winfrey and to the Conservative, right-wing America, but I don’t think they realise that they’re being as ridiculous as the right-wing Christian talking about Satan and believing in the Devil. “I’m evil, I’ve got a dagger in my bedside table, I know how to kill people…”

Satanism is a huge Hollywood thing, and so the song is written the day after, me going: What the hell was I doing?! Was I that bored and in such a self-destructive place that I decided I was going to stay there and watch this person be insane and talk about the Devil and Satan and murder, how he wants to kill people?

I was fascinated by this bizarre species of human being, and in a way I was thinking stay, stay Patrick, there’s a really great song in this somewhere. But slowly I’m being brainwashed and this man is really trying to fuck with my head!

Was that the weirdest or darkest thing that you experienced on ‘The Magic Position’ tour?

There were so many dodgy moments. I was just drinking so much, I just can’t actually imagine what… if Gillian McKeith came in at the end of the tour and analysed my faeces, I don’t know exactly what she would have found, but it wouldn’t be great. I can’t believe the state I was in, but I managed to still pull off an international world tour and not end up in rehab and was still alive at the end of it.

But being a solo artist at the top of your game and being in control of everything, not many people can actually come up to you and say: What the hell are you doing? Journalists love it and encourage it in a way, and your fanbase sees this mad person onstage and they still clap, and your friends around you keep saying ‘On with the show’, and it takes somebody really special to come in and go: ‘Hey, are you alright?’ I think that’s when I met my current boyfriend William, who I named [next album] ‘The Conqueror’ after. It took someone really special to come in. You let someone in and they ask: ‘Are you ok, is there something wrong with you, are you depressed, why are you on this self-destructive mission?’ And it really hit home that I wasn’t in a great place. So I had to spend 2008 getting back into a good place.

You say that you put yourself in uncomfortable positions as a writer. I was just wondering if the writing was an excuse when you might just have a self-destructive tendency?

You never know, but songwriting is so… to me, it leads the way in my life; I always have seemed to be on this pursuit of music, and to create. The creative urge has always led me, and I guess it’s taken me through some funny emotional places.
It’s such a huge part of my life that I can’t really analyse between what’s to do with my music and what’s to do with just my personality, ‘cos they’re so intertwined, y’know?

Another lyric that I wanted to touch upon… “Down in Santa Monica, suicide motel.” Can you expand on that at all?

I was in a motel off Santa Monica Boulevard, and I was there for a week - the Jimmy Kimmel show week. I wasn’t suicidal, but it was the kind of motel where… it’s the kind of place where if people in America have been made homeless they check into motels and live there, and take crystal meth and go absolutely insane, and become hookers.

And I felt like I was turning into one of those kinds of people, I felt like I was one of those people who should be sleeping with a gun by their bed and talking to the microwave. I wasn’t in a great place, and I was moving on by writing a lyric about it and making light of it.

I spent seven days in hell paying for my sins: I started to hear things in the air vent, and I was convinced that my manager had put camcorders in my hotel room, and I trashed the whole hotel room looking for the camcorders. I really had lost it and gone crazy, and I was calling my father asking him to somehow come to LA and take me home. I went mad, and a lot of people were trying to help me and I wasn’t really listening to anyone. So hopefully that won’t happen again!

Fingers crossed! You mentioned your dad just then, and he’s mentioned in the album, there’s lots of mentions of family throughout. How much were they at the forefront of your mind during that tour?

Hugely. My family, I mean… there’s a theme to all the albums of me trying to re-establish some kind of good territory with them. With my first album, people have to understand that I was writing it from a place where I didn’t know my parents at the time really: I disowned my family early on in life and changed my name, and over the three albums I’m getting close to my family again and growing older, and just trying to be my father and mother’s son again, and be a better brother to my sister. I think that ‘Blackdown’ is the pinnacle of that.

It was only when my father called and I found out that he had prostate cancer, that was the moment where I just decided that it just wasn’t important any more, any of those struggles, any teenage runaway instincts or any of the grudges that I might have held against my family or they had held against me. The moment you think you’ve got a short amount of time left with one of your family, then you just kind of drop everything, and you just want to be the best son that you can and just get to know your father as much as possible because you’re really worried something’s gonna happen, and it’s me just saying: ‘You know, dad, I just wanna be your son, I want to know you really well’.

The lyric is: “Any way I can help you, I’m only just getting better to know you”. I was really worried we didn’t have much time together. Luckily through the miracle of modern medicine he was cured wonderfully, but it took that insane, horrible moment to pack my bags, go to the country, sit with my father and get to know him down in Sussex, and it was a big healing process. There’re definitely moments on every album where I’m saying sorry, and working out why [disowning them] happened.

Tilda Swinton provides some narration on the album. Why did you choose her?

Her presence in every film she’s done is extremely… her personality is just a totally unique character, I just can’t really… She brings herself to every role that she does, but she manages to totally convey and articulate the character.

I really needed someone with a maternal voice, of somebody with hope, an inspirational voice, some kind of oracle to give words of wisdom throughout the album, especially as I was getting quite negative and I could tell that the album was getting into a depressive place. I thought I needed somebody to come in and uplift, so Tilda was really perfect for that, I thought.

So what was she like to work with?

Everyone that’s worked on this album - Eliza McCarthy, Tilda, Matthew Herbert and Alec Empire - we worked intuitively together without any arguments and without having to explain things to each other. It was very natural.

You wear your heart on your sleeve more than most people - do you ever feel vulnerable for exposing yourself so much?

I’m very aware that people like to take the piss out of people that do that, and I’m not really scared of that any more. I think it’s a lot easier for me to be myself and not worry about the consequences, than not be myself and worry about the consequences of not being myself.

I’m just an extremely open person that talks so much and feels so much, and that’s just me - I’ve always been the way that I am, and I think that I just have more confidence as I get older not to just digest myself. With the amount of interviews and travelling that I do, to me, honesty is the best policy. It’s better not to play games with the public. Maybe people aren’t used to that, maybe they’re used to people who are shy and try to hide things, but I’m the mad person who just keeps talking and talking.

You’re obviously staying true to yourself though.

I’m a lot happier that way. There have been times where I’ve tried to be shy and enigmatic, but I just end up feeling like a dickhead! It’s a lot better this way.

If you found the touring for ‘The Magic Position’ exhausting, how are you coping now?

I’m actually ten times busier right now than I was with ‘The Magic Position’ - I’m getting two hours sleep and falling asleep with the Blackberry as I’m doing my own label now on top of the work I do normally, but I’m enjoying it this time.

I don’t seem to be in a bad place at all and it’s really bizarre, and I think it’s maybe because I’m in a good relationship and I’ve got somebody to fall asleep with; I’m not so lonely anymore. It’s very hard to do all that when you feel like you’re on your own, and now I feel like I’ve got somebody to share the whole journey with as well, and that really helps.

I’ve established my friendships - 2008 was great to spend time with my friends that I hadn’t seen for two or three years, and actually develop good relationships. I’ve got a good support network now: it’s not so much Michael Jackson with a blanket over his face trying to deal with the world.

Are you a competitive person?

If you play me at Top Trumps or Jenga or something, I’m the nightmare of the party. If someone beats me, I’m the worst loser in the world, but with music I don’t see it as a competition. There’s no competition there at all, because there are so many musicians in the world. When I was 18, I craved to be on Top of the Pops, but there’s no TOTP now. So I don’t have that competitive streak when it comes to music, but other stuff, I’m a complete nightmare!

Who, or what, is your biggest enemy?

That’s hard… I try not to make enemies anymore - I try to be a lot more empathetic with the world. I made enemies when I was younger, and I loved making enemies; I was a riot kid and enemies were the fuel of my life. But I think as I get older I’m becoming a lot more… even people that I don’t like what they do, I try and work out my way of working… because I’ve been on the other side of it where people just decide ‘cos they take one look at me that they don’t like me, and I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that vigilante behaviour, so now I try to understand the world a bit better.

How far is too far in terms of experiencing things for your art?

Never too far - there’s no such thing as too much information, there’s no such thing as going too far, ever. Take it to the ultimate limit, and there should even be no limit.

Looking forward to ‘The Conqueror’, when is it coming out?

Early next year, I really hope that it can be January or February. July this year is when we’re finishing off a bit of the strings and the choral arrangements for that album.
It’s funny: I thought it was finished, but suddenly songs popped up that I’d been writing that I didn’t even realise were big hits. So I’m really excited about this, it’s going on heavy rotation around my head at the moment. I want to get it out of my brain and onto the record.

You’ve said that you’re not in it for the glitz and the glamour, and you’re not in it to get rich. So why are you in it?

To make music, and create and to keep on working. I’m over all that. If I end up winning some BRIT Award or something then that’s fine, it’s hilarious, but I’m here to make albums and videos and tour. That’s all I really want from life, and then when I’m 80 I’ll settle down in a beach hut and write about the experiences of my life.

Some people would say that to win a BRIT Award suggests success for them…

I’m not saying I want that, I’m saying if things like that happen then it’s hilarious, but it’s not something I care about any more.

So apart from making music, is there anything that you care about? Is there an ultimate goal?

If you’d asked me when I was 18, I’d have given you a list of 20 things, but now whatever happens, happens, and it’s not really in my control to want or demand any of that stuff.

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Find part one of this interview HERE.
Find our review of ‘The Bachelor’ HERE.

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