Perhaps it’s something of an irony, here on a site that heralds shiny technology, but there is a longing among many musicians to return to something raw and unvarnished in music. There’s discontentment in the ranks of the techno-futurists, enough to sow the seeds of rebellions. If that feeling could be given a voice, Anika would be a good candidate. A political journalist who found herself, entirely unexpected, at a session with Portishead producer Geoff Barrow, she is a vinyl-loving, politically-minded throwback, an antidote to everything that commercially-calibrated in music.
The first thing you should know about Anika’s self-titled debut is that some people immediately hate it. Others just as quickly fall in love with its tendency to sound as though it were made 30 years ago. It’s not retro as pastiche: the music is unrehearsed, largely unproduced, fed through cavernous spring reverbs and played on abused instruments and machines. It sounds like another decade because it was made in the way those records were produced. But it’s also divisive, something unprocessed enough that people can form strong opinions about how it tastes.
And, of course, there’s the question I knew I’d have to broach – the fact that the results sound rather a lot like Nico (of Velvet Underground fame). (The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff described the effect neatly as “healthily irritating.”) Barrow must have been pleased; the guy’s festival here in New York is “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” so you do the math. But it works, because the similarity is entirely organic. Anika, too, is German-born, here German by way of England with a hint of Welsh inflection, and intentionally over-pronouncing the lyrics she intones. She doesn’t sound like an imitator, but like a successor. (She also sounds a great deal more English and Welsh, for the record.)
When Anika was to do the photo shoot, she tells me, Geoff instructed the photographer to “make her look as rough as possible.” That might be the best way to sum up the musical performance and production here, too, a punk rock, just fell-out-of-bed approach to music. And like Nico, like Anika herself, no matter how rough the styling, the results are somehow oddly irresistible. (Anika, on the cover of the album, seems to channel Warhol.)
Producer Geoff Barrow, who gave us Portishead, BEAK>, and Invada Records, might be a surprising pairing on first blush. But his own sense of the importance of song-writing, of the album as a vessel for expression and not just mass-production, and taste-defying, upstream-swimming aesthetic here is perfect.
And I wouldn’t mention this here if I didn’t find this album relevant to the other techniques of production in a digital age. If it makes people angry, actually, that’d even serve its purpose.
I spoke to Anika in New York, where she was doing a series of DJ gigs. The night before, I saw her at Gallery Bar; she struck me as almost delicate with her collection of all-vinyl, no computer in sight. (She told me that she’s doubly careful because she’s actually clumsy, which I can appreciate as something of a klutz myself.) But for all the practiced carelessness of this record, Anika herself is careful and thoughtful. And I think, whether you’re in the love it or hate it camp as far as the music, what she has to say about musical expression and the industry will be very, very familiar to readers here.
CDM: Tell us a little about your background – before you got into promoting this record, you were really a journalist, right?
Anika: I was a political journalist. I had to give it up officially. It’s the Berlin-based news network – ESNA, it specializes in education and science policy, and I was the UK correspondent. We’re a news network, newspapers and policy makers buy our service. It’s on a very specialist scale.
I studied politics in University. I’m officially more of a political journalist. Music has always been there, but it was more of a hobby. I’ve been doing all sorts over the years. I did a bit of work for BBC Wales News, a lot of news stuff, worked for newspapers.
And this is something to which you intend to return.
It’s definitely something I’m going to back to. I was doing that full-time in Berlin up until October when I said, okay, I have to go back to England to rehearse, because the album’s actually doing alright. I recorded it not necessarily with the hope of releasing it. We did it as an experiment, more of a mini-rebellion for me against what I disliked about the industry at the time.
I can think of a pretty long list myself, but what was it specifically that you disliked?
I worked as a promoter. In Cardiff, I used to book bands for four bands in Cardiff and one in Bristol. I used to deal with entertainment for the venues, do all their graphic design, all their marketing, set up a label for them, release local bands in Cardiff. There were just a lot of things I really disliked about the scene, and about the way it works.
In England, people weren’t going to gigs. In my venues, the bands would always be secondary. One of the venues that I worked for, they got a sound restriction the minute I got there, which meant they couldn’t have live acts before twelve. They weren’t aloud to have any live music before midnight.
For the venues, music was always secondary. It wasn’t their biggest income, really. They knew it would only ever make ten pounds a night. Since people aren’t willing to pay for gigs, the most I could charge for a gig was four pounds – like, six dollars. People wouldn’t pay more, and they’d normally expect it to be free. And the way they run it, they never took the bar into account. I usually just break even. I don’t think I ever made money from gigs, ever. I don’t think anyone does.
I worked directly for the venue, so I was on salary. It was four venues. I had to make sure there was a band on every night in two of the venues. For the commercial nights, I had to come up with the concept, the graphic design, book the DJs. I had to do all the graphic design for the bars, the cocktail menus, the food menus, worked with the food and cocktail people to come up with good stuff. It was a lot of work for one person. I had to rep the gigs at night, as well. I’d come in at ten in the morning and I’d be working until about four or five in the morning. I’d go home, sleep for an hour, and come back to work. I’d normally work six, seven days a week. It was a bit much. I had to rep the gigs, so I had to cycle from one venue to the next to sort out the bands, give them their beer, cycle back, buy some more beer, give it to the bands, and maybe DJ at three in the morning and go home. And they’d always say, oh, well, you’re not structuring your time well enough.
So I quit, because I hated it. I was being absolutely taken advantage of. So now I know I only want music as a hobby and not as a career. And then a week later, I got a call from my friend saying, oh, yeah, my friend’s band are looking for a singer. Do you fancy having a go? I tried a few bands in Cardiff, not because I want to be in a band, but because I had a load of lyrics, and I wanted to see how it worked with music. I recorded stuff that directly rejected all the kind of stuff that most bands thought that they have to fit in. So on purpose, we rejected the whole imaging of it. The way I sang it, at first it was political.
How would you say it’s political?
In two ways. The songs I write are [often] directly political. It was also political in the fact that it was a statement for me. It was directly rejecting everything that pissed me off about the industry at the time. It didn’t fit. It wasn’t pleasant to listen to. For ages, in England, all the bands that were doing well were so pleasant and so nice, and they’d go on [BBC] Radio 1 and they’d have interviews and they’d be, like, oh, yeah, it was so nice, I love the record… It was great, and I think music like that is really important to have, but there was no alternative.
It’s great to have that, if you want to do the washing up or you want to do the Hoovering, fine. But there was no music that was any different.
When indie became music, rock music became mainstream, between 2000 and now,, for England, it is commercial rock, isn’t it? In England in the 90s, at least people did stuff that was more rebellious. It wasn’t so nicey-nicey all the time. What if you’ve got something to say? And people were too scared to make any statement, in case someone didn’t like it. There were scared to take a risk. And that’s the thing about this record. It wasn’t designed to be liked. It was designed to make people think.
It’s like “No one’s there.” Now it seems cliche, but when I first wrote it, it was when the English media was writing all these headlines … personifying the recession as if it was some wolf that was going to eat your children. It was just the politicians’ mistakes, and the fact that we spent beyond our means. It was scaring people so much that they weren’t spending any more, so it actually makes things worse.
It was just interesting reading people’s opinions on matters and how they’d been framed. I remember my housemates at the time making all these throw-away comments about religions that they didn’t really know anything about. It’s the same with the Recession. A lot of people didn’t know much about it and didn’t look into it and understand why. That’s the thing about “No one’s there.” It’s just saying you need to question what you’re told.
And I imagine there’s also the politics of the music itself – you had said that music itself had suffered.
The reason music was suffering was because the people going to gigs weren’t taking risks. Firstly, people stopped buying music, which was pretty shit. Gig goers in England weren’t taking risks. So I’d put on a really good band, but they hadn’t had that much press coverage that week. People follow too much what they’ve been told. So this year, at the moment, the BBC released their top ten bands of the coming year. So all the music media has been writing about these bands and no one else. They’re just so lazy. And now they will be the top years this bands because they’ve been told. It’s like the chicken and the egg – which came first?
All those people on that list have the whole package, they’ve got the photos, they’ve got the MySpace friends. It’s just so predictable.
So, really, it’s not only the press, but the listeners, as well?
It’s the chicken and the egg. What comes first, the apathetic listener, or the [press]?
Just thinking about the production here, too, do you think you can record rebelliously, as well?
You can record it rebelliously by not over-producing it. That’s exactly what we did. To try and get that, we had to go to extremes. We didn’t plan any of the songs before we turned up that day. We’d walk in – we’d go the night before and spend the night on YouTube finding things that we could twist into a completely different form, and then we’d go in the next day and say, look what I found? And then I’d go print out the lyrics, Billy would figure out the bass, and then Jeff do that and Matt would walk in, and then we’d try it out, and then the third take was the one that we used. And that’s why it’s not perfect, and that’s why it’s funny when people say oh, yeah, what is this? It’s not perfect singing or whatever. It’s like, oh yeah, it’s not. It was never meant to be.
Okay, I have to ask – obviously, the comparison is going to get made to the Velvet Underground. Was that a conscious influence?
It was really weird with the singing thing. A lot of people said oh it’s Nico and rubbish — like a rubbish, rip-off version of Nico. But firstly, I’d like to point out I’m actually half German. I learned German before I learned English.
When I was doing it, because I had a lot of political lyrics, and because some of the stuff we were doing was Bob Dylan, if anything, I tried not to sound American. So I over-pronounced everything, because I didn’t want it to sound American. And I happened to be living in Wales at the time, for the last five years. It actually sounds a little bit Welsh, but people don’t know that. And so that’s where it ended up where it was. It was me trying consciously not to sound American and then trying to sound Mockney. Mockney is like the London accent. And I didn’t want to have that, either.
I personally didn’t realize we were going to release it. I did it just for a bit of fun. I didn’t realize it was Geoff Barrow at first.
Wait – really? When did you find out that’s who it was?
[laughs] I thought it was just some guys that wanted to record stuff. And when I turned up, no one had borrowed to tell me that it was Geoff and people. I only found out after a few sessions.
My friend kept telling me, oh, they’re called, like Beep or something. I typed in Beep onto Myspace and I couldn’t find them. I think eventually it’s because Geoff gave me a CD in the studio. I was like, oh yeah, do you have one of those Beep CDs, and he said, oh, you mean Beak? And he gave me the CD. And so I went on their MySpace and I was like, oh, right, so that’s Geoff Barrow then… [laughs]
It was good, because I think we all just wanted to do something different. At first, they were just looking for a singer, I think, to do Beak stuff. But then, I just did stuff slightly differently and it ended up being a solo project.
Geoff just kept saying don’t practice. That was his only input, he said don’t practice. At first, it was just to get that kind of rawness, where we weren’t trying to fit it into anything. If I’d had more time, I probably would have had singing lessons, and it would have lost all of its vulnerability and everything. And it is vulnerable, because people can dislike it. It’s easy to go off and make stuff perfect, and then if people don’t like it…. At this sort of point, it is … [pauses] very vulnerable. It’s vulnerable to attack. Because it’s me, not necessarily feeling particularly one hundred percent when I was doing it, it makes it even more vulnerable. But at the same time, it makes it more genuine and more sincere.
It’s a rebellion against what we were told to be. We were told the right way, how best to produce a perfect record. I could have probably got singing lessons, gone to the gym a bit, got a haircut. And that would’ve been alright. And I could have fit it in.
I didn’t actually want to be a musician. I wanted to be a politician. I did it for kind of almost the right reasons. I wanted to do it for sincere reasons. There’s this hyped-up image of this amazing pop-star lifestyle. And because of these reality shows where the emphasis is only on the person’s voice, and then probably what they look like, and then nothing else matters. Nothing about what they want to say, the individuality. People often want to be famous, or they want to be musicians for completely the wrong reasons. And I think that’s why so many people have reacted strangely to the record. I know a lot of my friends at home who are used to mainstream records say, oh, this isn’t really my thing. And it’s fine. I know a few people have commented on my singing ability. And that was never really the point.
How did it come to be that you wound up going this route, then? You had been writing for some time?
I’d been writing loads in that year. It was in the years when I only had two hours at home a day to sleep, and I could never sleep. I was so shut down after work. So I ended up buying a rubbish guitar and trying to put structure to my words. I’d written for years, but never put much structure to them. Still can’t play particularly well, but it helps structure it. I used to just sit there for two hours in the time when I should have been sleeping. I think my housemates thought I was nuts at the time. But it was my way to unwind. So I wrote loads in that year.
I tried out with a few bands in Cardiff, just some jamming sessions with my friends. And it didn’t work because they had big electric guitars and would just drown out my lyrics.
I think it was because my Geoff said to my friend, oh yeah, we’re looking for a weird singer with a bit of a weird voice. And my friend was like, oh, I’ve got exactly the person.
When you did hear yourself on the album, did you say to yourself, oh yes, that’s really my voice, personally?
I didn’t listen to it. I just did it and didn’t listen. We just recorded and that was it. I just walked out of the room, went in the kitchen and made some tea, and didn’t even want to know what happened to it.
And then sometimes I’d say, oh, well that sounds really bad. I’d say, can I do it again, and we’d do it again, and we never used that one, because it just sounded, too …
I think the record can be quite enjoyable. But people seem to be one extreme or another – they’ll fall in love with it, or absolutely hate it. That to me is rather interesting.
I don’t mind. I quite like asking people why do you dislike it – because some people really do to an extreme. It’s always nice to hear why. It’s always good, because it’s made them think. It’s made them question why they don’t like it. That’s good. That’s an achievement.
I couldn’t listen to it for ages after. I just forgot about it, took up that job in Germany with the intention of staying, moving to Brussels to work in policy development.
That’s why I let [Geoff] do it. It was rejected all the pre-cut roles, how it should be. That’s why it worked so well. Geoff’s a bit of a rebel, as well. He doesn’t like fitting to what he’s told.
That’s why it’s good for me to do these DJ tours and only use vinyl. It’s really difficult for musicians at the moment … if you sell your soul and make knocking music and get endorsed by some big company, it pays for you to do that. But if you don’t, it’s really hard to try and afford to [be a] musician. I was fortunate that I moved to Berlin and managed to live. It’s really difficult how people don’t buy music any more. I know it’s really cliche to say, but it’s true. Especially with vinyl, that’s why it’s really important to endorse vinyl stores. It’s really important to buy.
So, to you playing vinyl isn’t so much about nostalgia or authenticity, it’s the economics around that physical object.
Yeah. That’s why I bought vinyl today. Even though I could probably pick up the phone and say could I have some vinyl, please. I think you need to put something back, because otherwise it’s not fair.
So many [shops] have shut down in the last years. And they do help underground music survive. They have in-stores, and they help promote records. And that’s why I was in Other Music. They helped with my record a lot.
That’s the problem with the whole downloading culture. It’s just a reflection of consumerism, how we want everything now.
What’s in Anika’s Vinyl Shopping Bag?
Anika and I met for the interview at Manhattan’s terrific independent music store, Other Music. (If you do prefer digital downloads, or happen not to be in New York, they also have a digital store – so, in fact, you can have it both ways after all.)
In fact, the very first thing she did was to show off her acquisitions. Here’s what she bought, with some commentary, via her Tumblr blog:
The Soft Moon Parallels 7” (This band played before me at Part time Punks in LA and i really liked them! I hadn’t heard of them before)
Nite Jewel – Am i real? six song ep (I like nite jewel)
Kleenex/Lilliput 4 vinyl box set (This just excited me so much that i closed my eyes and handed over the cash..)
Circuit 7 video boys album 12” on MW (I love the MW label and wanted these tracks for a while)
Oppenheimer Analysis album on MW (I always play radiance because i have the single, so was desperate for more!)