two many frames
By Kristina Melcher For The New Mexican
Vanessa Vassar and Axel Heilhecker, who form the duo phonoroid, began their songwriting collaborations the day after they met while working on solo projects in recording studios near Cologne, Germany. Vassar asked Heilhecker to play guitar on something she was doing. The following day she visited his studio to perhaps sing something on one of his projects. To their mutual amazement they promptly wrote and recorded five songs, giving birth to phonoroid. "We wrote the first songs in two days in the studio," Vassar said in a recent interview in Santa Fe. "Most of that time was spent going out for walks and out to eat." A Texas native, singer and songwriter, Vassar cites early musical osmosis of the country- Western kind. Her father played guitar and banjo at home, she said. Pistol-Pachin' Papa was the first song she ever learned. As a child Vassar also studied classical music - piano, clarinet and voice - but she said she never thought about a career in music. She developed her interests in writing and photography and eventually became a music-video director. "Everything for me was visual," she said. "I was doing music videos and Polaroid photogra- phy before I did music. "I think it's interesting how we got the name phonoroid," Vassar said. "It comes from the way Axel and I were working and recording, which can best be described as doing a lot of things on the first take. "We were writing (the music) right there in the studio.
Maybe Axel started playing something that gave me an idea for some lyrics, or I had an idea for a story and he would play some- thing about that. One time I said, 'Play some- . thing that sounds like a cheap motel,' and Axel played these weird sounds," Vassar said. "Or I'd have a picture and I'd say, 'Make sounds like this looks,' " she said. "Our songs are the sound equivalent of Polaroid photos. Our CDs are made up of these first takes." Phonoroid presents a showcase of songs from its 1998 debut album two many frames and new recording not on the map at 9 p.m. today, Aug. 11, at The Paramount. Percussionist Harald Grosskopf joins Vassar and Heilhecker for the performance. Heilhecker and Grosskopf are visiting from Germany for two weeks and joined Vassar for the interview. Heilhecker produced and mastered both phonoroid CDs in his own studio in Lindlar, a small town in the countryside near Cologne. He said, he spent many years playing guitar in bands and on studio recordings. He is the guitarist on The Harald Schmidt Show, Germany's version of The Tonight Show. When Heilhecker first began working with Vassar, he said, he was involved in a project with Grosskopf.
"I said, 'Harald, come along to a phonoroid session and see how it goes,' " Heilhecker said. "Because (Vanessa and I) were very intimate in our style and in our working process, it was always a big question if we should bring anyone else in. But it worked very well, so the three of us went on tour for the first CD." "When we first toured, they let me rehearse - maybe for an hour or two," Vassar said. "They said, 'OK, now let's go on tour.' They said I'd be fine. "Axel told me you have to learn to trust your ability and that being spontaneous onstage is a whole other thing. So every show was different." Vassar later spent five months traveling around the United States, collecting stories and taking Polaroids that became the raw material for not on the map. Some of phonoroid's most successful song- pictures are in the vein of beat poetry readings with improvised musical accompaniment. Other phonoroid compositions are text-sound collages layered with sonic elements - maybe a voice from a radio or a telephone ringing. The tune bubblebath from not on the map begins with a ghostly, barely audible layer of Paul Robeson's voice from an old record, singing, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child."
Vassar's almost childlike voice joins in out-of-sync counterpoint: It's one of those potluck dinner parties where Everyone brings something made out of Jell-O But all I want to do is take a bubblebath All I want to do is slip into hot water With you. Each song is a minimovie. Vassar takes care to craft just enough detail into her lyrics to create a story: "I've been down the hallway a few times and the water pressure seems just fine." There are odd juxtapositions: blues guitar, Choctaw singing and drumming, a sampled TV ,commercial, generally mysterious noises. Much of phonoroid's music sounds like what you'd hear if you stopped your car on old Route 66, got out and listened to the sounds of the highway "I was never a big visitor to the States,"
Heilhecker said. "But I grew up with a lot of American influence from music, starting with bluegrass and folk and the whole hippie thing. It was the same with the movies. "I always really loved the big desert, this wideopen country. It's very narrow in Germany - I always felt like it was very small - so I developed this little world in myself that had these big sounds." With Heilhecker's guitar twanging like in an Ennio Morricone score for a spaghetti Western, Vassar sings she cowboy, phonoroid's single and Vassar directed video: She's going through her daily business just like everyone else Wandering through shopping malls and driving on freeways But more than anything she wants to be a cowboy But more than anything else she wants to roam the wild, wild West.
Vassar said she's still working on the cowboy thing.