not on the map
After bringing out their debut album two years ago, the avant-garde folk group phonoroid now releases their second project "not on the map."
The original duo made up of singer Vanessa Vassar and guitarist/soundman Axel Heilhecker are joined by percussionist and drummer Harald Grosskopf as well as other guests. Originally named phonoroid due to their style of working like "a sound equivalent of a polaroid picture," the group have continued with the firsttake approach but with a few additional developments.
Says Axel, "The first album was based more on intuition. With `not on the map' I know morewhat phonoroid is about so it's easier to find the points where I can be more constructive. I also took my time and am more precise with what I'm doing with the guitar-- influencing songs more specifically. We're still working with a lot of first takes and often writing the album as we record, but I'm no longer afraid to lose the fragility of the songs by taking more time with the beats and using overdubs and effects on the sounds. I play around a lot more with the elements- taking them apart and putting them back together again in order to realizea `snapshot --character.' Of course having Harald there makes everything more fluent as well. When I go to the mix, the music is already floating." And the lyrics? Vanessa described phonoroid's first CD as being "little road songs." With "not on the map" she goes back to the same American desert and country areas but with a different take. "For me, most of these songs are about being on the fringes of society. Not really fitting in to the group and, I suppose, not really wanting to. In 'Bubblebath' I sing about being `tired of white bread and marshmallows' at a party which, to any American, has two levels. The first applies to the food itself-- boring, sweet and full of preservatives. The second applies to a type of people-- boring, sweet and full of preservatives. She wants to escape and `slip into hot water' both in the literal and figurative senses. And, of course, she might as well take someone with her for a little fun.
"Me song `Armadillo' is another example of this not really fitting in (or in this case not being able to catch up). When I was growing up we had this game where you had to say which animal you were most like. I kept thinking about this when I wrote the lyrics to `Armadillo.' I compare myself to an armadillo and find, in the end, that I'm just like one. On the one hand they are almost prehistoric and really too slow to exist in our industrialized societies. On the other hand, they look like hard little animals from the future complete with protective shells and night vision. But, of course, that's not enough to protect them. Armadillos aren't as tough as they look. If you drive the roads in certain areas of Texas, you can count the casualties." phonoroid took a road trip through some of these areas last summer and collected more polaroids, film material and stories. Axel comments, "I'd never seen such a large desert. I guess you could use it as an analogy of what you have within you. It makes you realize how important it is not to be too influenced by other developments in art but to find your own roots within yourself and take it from there." Vanessa agrees. "These are my roots so it's what I know best. I love it that my Grandmother Frankie West sings a piece from `Waltz Across Texas' on the `Sweet Grass' track. I grew up hearing that song so it brings back good memories."
But the project isn't simply American. The stories originate there but the sounds ate mixed with other influences. Harald says, "Usually I don't like German bands that try to be American but since Vanessa is American it's okay. Musicians should have the intention to listen to their own impulses and to express them. Axel and I are European and this comes through:, So phonoroid is American but on the other hand it's not. The sound has European electronic stuff in it and that makes it different."
Since Harald was one of the first on the German techno scene in the 1970s, this has been a big influence on his style. "I was one of the first drummers who played with electronic music because nobody knew sequencers in the beginning of the `70s." But live with phonoroid on stage he plays big drums which he makes himself and likes to call "trash drums." They're made of materials he has found basically because, "I like big drums and big drums are expensive. These drums I make are cheaper, look more original and have a good sound." When asked why he joined phonoroid he says simply, "I like original projects." phonoroid produce their own CDs with Axel mastering it in his home studio. Axel explains, "When we record or stuff it's with the remix approach, not with mainstream structures and normal song progressions. It's always interesting to bring traditional styles into new contexts. I love country music but if I had to play traditional country songs all day long I guess that would be the end. If you're with nice people it doesn't matter that much but it could get boring." He smiles here. "If it's boring you have to drink more and I'm not such a hard drinker so I guess I couldn't play in a country band." Vanessa agrees that phonoroid's music doesn't exactly fit the normal country music format although she admits that she listens to it herself and appreciates the humor. "I've always liked to play with language. I love it when something has more than one meaning especially when there is humor involved. Not everyone will understand what's behind every lyric I've written, but that's okay. I know what's there and most of the time it's good for a laugh. Even with more serious topics like in `Skin By Skin' where a man rediscovers what's important in life through a woman's skin, it's done while having sex on the kitchen sink. The humor comes out first through the music which, I think, fits this image perfectly. The way I see it is that even when life is serious, it's still ridiculous. And if we can't laugh at ourselves, we're missing out on a lot of good giggles." Band Bio
Vanessa Vassar was born in Dallas, Texas and grew up in California. She graduated from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Media Studies and English. Since then she has worked as a journalist, creative writer and as a music video director. She studied classical piano and voice and sang opera in New York City before moving to Berlin, Germany. She also works with photography and film-- especially in connection with phonoroid.
Axel Heilhecker studied with Don Cherry and played the German rock scene for years. He now plays in the only German "Late Night" show (The Harald Schmidt Show) band backing a wide range of artists such as James Belushi, Oletta Adams, Grace Jones, Eric Burden and Brian Ferry. In addition he plays on and produces a variety of projects in his home studio including phonoroid, Sunya Beat (with Harald Grosskoph), and some crossover ethno/ambient instrumental music.
Harald Grosskopf was one of the first musicians on the German techno and electronic scenes-playing world tours with several bands including the well-known Ash Ra (formerly Ash Ra Tempel) and Christian Schultzer. He's played on more than 50 albums since he began his musical career in 1966. He and Axel have just finished their second instrumental CD with Sunya Beat entitled "Dehli Slide." They often perform together live in everywhere from large festivals to converted churches to techno dance clubs.