Wednesday 16 January 2019

Interview One: Oli Spleen

photo by Jonathan Dredge, Gay Times

Interview One: Oli Spleen

Salena Godden

I have known Oli since he was 17, we met in Hastings over twenty years ago. I know him as a great and loyal friend and also as an indie artist who's work ethic, passion and determination I've always admired. 

Aged only 22, Oli Spleen was hospitalised and fighting for his life. Although that was back in 2000 I recall that time vividly, I remember the phone calls and I remember regularly visiting Oli in the hospital and taking him a walkman, cassette tapes and books.

As Oli recovered he had an epiphany that he must follow his heart and write his way toward a better future. The resulting work was the astonishing debut book Depravikazi, which was published in 2003 by Running Water Publications. This poetic memoir sang out to me. I felt it was all about living defiantly and owning your struggle, it was a tender, brave and brutally honest account of being young and gay and contracting HIV at the turn of the millennium.

It was at the Brighton launch of the book that Oli's first band The Flesh Happening was formed and Oli started writing songs and performing live.

Later in 2009 Oli formed the band Pink Narcissus - I remember their first festival show was with the Book Club Boutique at Standon Calling and I recall the punk spirit in the tent, the raucous music, powerful and passionate. During this era Oli also released his first solo album Fag Machine which spawned a Brighton club-night of the same name which ran for three years and was the first to showcase live original music on Brighton’s gay scene.

Oli is currently living in Brighton where he still writes and performs with his two bands Pink Narcissus and Spleen. On February 9th, Oli is releasing his second solo album Gaslight Illuminations, a glorious dark and haunting work, which explores themes of psychological manipulation and the emotional fallout of toxic relationships. 

The work is also a salute to his dad John Speer who died in January 2018. I was so fond of John. I nicknamed him Papa Sausage because he gave us sausage sandwiches and whisky coffees the mornings after our boozy adventures in Hastings.

Oli Spleen is the mother of invention. I find his creations intriguing and extraordinary. I was excited to be sent his new solo album Gaslight Illuminations. In Gaslight Illuminations Oli Spleen has pushed himself further than ever and appears to have reinvented himself yet again...

SG: Let’s begin at the beginning, looking back can you remember your first gig and the those early years and tell us a little about it please?

OS: I remember meeting you when I was seventeen and how you took my bad teenage poetry seriously and would ask me to go on stage to introduce you to big London crowds. Sometimes you'd ask me to read a poem first, a prospect which was daunting to me back then. My crowd pleaser in those days was a poem about necrophilia. It was more than five years on before I formed a proper band and though I couldn't sing, your encouragement gave me the conviction to keep trying and the confidence to confront a crowd.

SG: How has the landscape changed since you first started making music and writing and performing?

OS: It's become increasingly harder to find decent gigs, in London particularly. Promoters don't seem to do any promoting any more, they only seem to want acts that can guarantee a crowd and how can you begin to build an audience if they won't take a chance on you in the first place?

Also many great venues have been closed down. A lot of the wonderful places which my first band The Flesh Happening would play at the start of the millennium, such as The Bull & Gate in London and Hectors House in Brighton have been turned into hipster gastropubs, favouring craft ale and food served on a slate over original live music.

Pink Narcissus

SG: I think you are one of the most motivated and driven independent artists I have ever met. What drives you and motivates you to continue to make work?

OS: I do it for myself primarily, as a form of therapy. Nothing else gives me the same release. The subjects which I write about are often very personal and frequently touch on traumatic life experiences. To write and perform the songs is a catharsis.

I'm privileged to still have many great collaborators to work with and an audience for what I do. I used to think that interest in my music would gradually diminish but even through times when it's been a struggle to keep an audience I haven't been able to stop. I needed that release.

SG: Being an independent artist you juggle so many jobs and do so much of the work yourself. What part of your process are you enjoying most, the writing, the recording, studio time with the band, or your film making, making the artwork, or the live performances or is it something else? Where are you happiest? What brings you the most joy?

OS: I love being in the moment of creation and feeling the sense of achievement which hopefully lingers for some time after; be it completing a lyric, developing the words into a melody or song, seeing it come to life in the studio or realising it visually in the form of a video. All of these processes give me some sense of achievement but there is also a feeling that you can't take credit for what you have created, as Rimbaud said "I is someone else" meaning we are not fully within ourselves at the point of creation, so how can our egos take credit for it? That said I get post creative depressive slumps as well but Gaslight Illuminations has put me on a real high, I almost have to pinch myself to believe I've manifested this thing.

Behind the scenes, the making of the 'Almost Young' video

SG: I love the haunting melodic qualities in this album. There are themes of growing older, life and death and mortality running throughout the album - Please can you tell us more about where this inspiration came from and how you approached writing these poetic lyrics and songs?

OS: Some ideas within the album go back over ten years but had been put on the back burner as I didn't feel they suited the rock vibe of my bands. I really wasn't expecting the songs I chose to flow so well and reveal a greater narrative throughout the album, that only came when I thought about a running order. The idea of the songs being illuminations was inspired by notions of light and dark within Kabbalah and other spiritual teachings, it's about taking the darkness of life's suffering and "making light" of it.

As for the gaslight part, I was in an abusive relationship with a toxic person, he inspired the thread which runs through songs like Gaslight and Never Known. Other tracks depict my own experiences with substance abuse as well as my own mortality. As you know I almost died due to HIV complications at the turn of the millennium. Toward the end of the album it gets extremely dark and hopeless but with the final track Furnace my spirit is reborn from the ashes.

My dad died in January 2018 which kickstarted this project and forced me to confront my own mortality once again. We even used his ashes as a shaker sound, most notably on the track Ghost.

Oli and Papa Sausage

SG: Can you tell us a little bit about the making of the album? You put a team together for this album, can you tell us about the other musicians on the album and what they each bought to the finished album? What was the vibe in the studio?

OS: Ohh that's a hard one to answer as the producer and pianist I chose no longer wanted to work with each other but they thankfully came together one last time for the sake of this project. They were members of Brighton Indie-Noir band Birdeatsbaby who I had previously collaborated with on covers of Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood's Some Velvet Morning and Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. In retrospect I think the personal tension between musicians may have brought out the best in everyone.

The songwriting process was fairly swift. I sat next to Mishkin at the piano, sang her the songs and within a few hours we had knocked out the bare bones of the whole album. Mishkin seems to have the ability to instinctually read and translate my emotions into music and violinist Hana works with her so well it seems almost effortless.

Steve who was in my band Spleen played bass, I gave him some cash toward a fretless bass and suggested that some songs use double bass too as I wanted the bass sound to flow with the fluidity of the piano lines. Forbes the producer had worked with Birdeatsbaby as producer as well as being the drummer of the band. He was able to create click tracks that followed the line of the piano, slowing down or speeding up to suit the mood. I also brought in Ben from my first band The Flesh Happening to play pedal steel and other members of Spleen band make an appearance too.

SG: In this album I feel you have pushed yourself harder than ever, and that you are revealing more of yourself, peeling back the layers, it is a very different feel and a new direction for you, can you tell me more about that vulnerability and more about this reinvention?

OS: It's the album I had always wanted to make but never believed I could. I was in rock bands up to now as I didn't have the confidence as a musician to call the shots myself; instead I learned to adapt to the energy of others and find my voice in their structures and sounds rather than giving my words the space they needed to breathe and be heard.

I have for some time been a fan of the French Chanson tradition which favours heartfelt visceral poetic intensity and a strong narrative over disposable melodic pop. I had always wanted to do my take on this approach but wasn't sure how to go about it. When my dad died I became driven and didn't even let myself stop to think if this album was achievable or not. I couldn't help myself. It's the album I feel he would have enjoyed and understood much more than my previous works.

SG: You are your own boss: What are the great challenges you face as an indie artist? What are the great highlights and perks?

OS: For me the greatest challenge is not creating the art but selling it. When you have exposed so much of yourself and made yourself so vulnerable it's very hard to see the fruits of that process as a "product" and then to try to push for it to be heard and potentially face rejection which in light of the subject matter can feel like a personal attack and cut very deep emotionally. Then when someone does get it and gives it a platform it all seems worthwhile though the hustle to get noticed can feel utterly soul destroying at times. The main perk is when someone tells you how your music had helped or healed them in some way, that's the real pay off. Commercial viability comes second to touching people's hearts.

SG: Your work is so often political, you have marched at protests by my side and you have used your lyrics to speak up for gay rights, and all human rights, please can you tell us a little bit about any of the politics (if any) behind this new album?

OS: I feel that the personal is political. What we go through in relationships, how people support or manipulate one another is a microcosm of the wider political landscape. Witnessing the blame politics of the likes of Trump it seems clear to me that gaslighting is not something that just happens on a one to one basis. Governments and leaders manipulate us as well. I feel today it's more important than ever to speak out against the many injustices of the world if you have the strength to do so. Some days it all seems so overwhelming to me that I don't feel as though have the energy to fight. I guess in a sense the album is about retaining your sense of individuality and not letting the bastards grind you down. To be openly and defiantly yourself is in itself a political act. If that makes me a snowflake then I'm damn proud to be one!

SG: Last question: Who would you most like to work with? What would be your dream gig or collaboration?

OS: Well it's on the cards to duet with you which has been high on my list for some time.... are we saying living or dead? Dead would include the French chanteuse Barbara, Nina Simone or maybe Leonard Cohen. Living perhaps, Janis Ian, Benjamin Clementine or Kate Bush, maybe a music video featuring the cast of Fraggle Rock? ... I can but dream.

Oli Spleen will host a launch party for Gaslight Illuminations 
at the Hope and Ruin, Queens Road, Brighton on 
February 9th, which is also Oliva's birthday! 
See you all there!

Oli Spleen youtube channel: 

Here's some pics of us over the years... 

Here's raising a sausage to the next 20 years friendship and laughter!

Good luck with the new album

 - Rest In Peace Papa Sausage -

See you all in Brighton

09. 02. 2019

photo by Jonathan Dredge for Gay Times

photo by Jonathan Dredge for Gay Times

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