When Brighton-based duo Prinzhorn Dance School signed to New York’s renowned DFA label, they whipped up a flurry of interest in the music press. Except the press pack didn’t have much to go on. PDS had only played a handful of live shows, hadn’t done many interviews and, shock horror, didn’t even have a MySpace site.
One leading music site was so perturbed that their profile of the band admitted to not knowing anything about them. Tobin and Suzi, the supposedly mysterious pair behind the enigmatic name (Hans Prinzhorn was a German psychiatrist who built a large collection of art created by his patients), laugh as they recall this.
“We had a list of things we wanted to talk about and these particular instruments at our disposal."
“We have our own website with music on it,” says Suzi. “I mean we’re with DFA Records. It is just laziness. We do interviews but I prefer to meet people face-to-face rather than talk on the phone. Most of the press can’t be arsed to leave their offices so they miss out.”
Nevertheless Tobin acknowledges their definite disregard for the promotional side of the music industry.
“We’re being judged by other people’s standards. Some bands are madly careerist, but that’s their problem. We’re allowed to not do things their way. We’re not making music to make money.”
A cursory listen to their eponymous debut album should convince any cynics that they are genuine in this attitude. PDS have an uncompromising sound based around a generously sparing use of one-note bass lines, methodical guitar licks and precise drum beats. These elements construct a frame on which hang the words and phrases that constitute Tobin’s fragmented, occasionally paranoid lyrics. The songs are initially remarkable for their resolute minimalism but gradually the contrast of silence and sound reveal glimpses of a fragile beauty that finally unveils itself through the faint melodies of the closing track ‘Spaceman In Your Garden’.
PDS don’t sound like many of their contemporaries or their predecessors and they are conscious to avoid any talk of influences. Instead they want people to take the songs as they are and not look for the presence of outside inspiration.
“It’s just us being ourselves,” says Tobin. “We had a list of things we wanted to talk about and these particular instruments at our disposal. The most important thing was that we were honest with each other. It was like we found a space and used whatever was available to fill it.”
That space also existed physically in the form of an old chapel by a motorway in Portsmouth, where the pair first began playing music together. They met whilst both lived in Brighton and quickly realised they had a lot of similar ideas about music and art. Tobin had been in a band previously but hated it, while Suzi had never played an instrument before. Without intending to form a band, the pair holed up in their space to experiment. Eventually they recorded a demo onto mini-disc, which was sent to their five favourite record labels, leading to the deal with DFA.
The album was recorded without the aid of computers in a couple of isolated studios in the UK, before they took a trip to New York to mix it with DFA’s acclaimed production duo James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) and Tim Goldsworthy. They had expected the introduction of outside influences to be problematic, but Tobin admits it was far less fractious than the recording process.
“The mixing was measured, the recording was volatile. When you have two strong personalities like Suzi and I, there will be a lot of confrontation. We ended up throwing out lots of songs because we couldn’t agree on them and didn’t want to make compromises.”
It is this candour and commitment to honesty that best describes PDS. Perhaps this is why they, especially Tobin, have a mistrust of the music press. He is constantly clarifying what he has said to ensure it can’t be misconstrued as something else. They both take issue with those critics who seem unable to formulate a definite opinion on their music, seeing them as hedging their bets and unwilling to say something that may be proved wrong by history. PDS don’t seem to care whether critics like them or not, all they want is not to be misrepresented.
Perhaps the music press’ problem with PDS is that the reality isn’t as exciting as the myth. Behind the often gloomy and demanding music, and their ambivalence towards certain aspects of the music business, are a couple of people who are palpably excited by the music they make. They frequently discuss things like the particular sound of a snare drum or recalling the hours spent in the chapel, gaffer tape in hand, arranging the acoustics of the space.
They have a wide-eyed, romantic attraction to making music but were smart to have clauses in their record contract that excluded them from many of the usual commercial obligations. They shy away from the Internet and the culture of blogging and self-promotion, bemoaning the loss of backstage camaraderie at gigs now that the dressing rooms hum to the sound of laptops clacking instead of beer cans cracking. As for MySpace: Suzi derides it as an instrument for information gathering and corporate manipulation and is discouraged by “the click generation” constantly looking for the next new thing.
“Besides, who wants to listen to music on a shit computer?” she laughs. For Tobin the instant access to any new band that MySpace offers is “destroying the beauty of discovery. Just go see a band live.” The irony that the music industry’s recent revolutionary tool is lacking one of contemporary music’s most innovative bands should not be overlooked. Nor for that matter should Prinzhorn Dance School.