Interview With th tyg
by Robert Lurie
Tim (th spaceman) Powles discourses on solo work, The Churchs Hologram of Baal, The Refo:mation, Crackerbox, and everything else in between. Interview conducted by Robert Lurie in Tims hotel room, Atlanta 10/4/98
Tim Powles is a musician and producer based in Sydney, Australia. He currently plays drums in The Church and produces their albums. In addition to his duties in The Church (and their spin-off group, The Refo:mation), Tim is involved in a host of other projects. He produced Penny Flannagans recent effort, which has been well-received, and also mixed and played on Margot Smiths critically acclaimed Taste album. Tim recently released his first solo album, titled tygs in space, on his own spacejunk label. Its an amazing collection of psychedelic noise pop which mixes elements of Massive Attack, The Beatles, Beck, Tool, and even the B52s. It should be emphasized, however, that these stylistic elements merely serve as the launching pad for tygs wholly unique explorations into the outer limits of sound. tygs in space is one of the best albums of the last few years, and although it is currently only available via import, it is well worth the effort.
The following interview took place after the Churchs most recent Atlanta concert. I was impressed with Tims willingness to talk into the wee small hours, even though he must have been exhausted from the show (Tim is a very physical drummer). I found him to be a very gracious, articulate person, and a pleasure to be around. Plus, he fixed me coffee! Here is the complete transcript of our conversation:
RL: The first thing I want to talk about is the Refo:mation project. I really enjoy the song Take Your Place. Any chance of you singing lead on future Church projects?
TP: I did all the backing vocals on Hologram Of Baal. Marty and Pete didnt sing on that one. I guess thats a fairly close-kept secret. We havent made any great mention of who played what on that record. Yeah...Steve did the lead vocals on the left and I did all the backing vocals after hed gone. There wasnt time to do them when he was there so I did all the background stuff on Buffalo and No Certainty. On Certainty, everything but the lead vocal was me. And...I sang on Lizard.
RL: Did you do the whispered Lizard at the beginning?
TP: Yeah I did all that. You guessed, did you?
RL: I thought it was Marty actually.
TP: Right. I mean it doesnt really matter. I guess the other guys might be protective of that sort of stuff. The silly thing was Steve played almost more guitar on Hologram than he did bass.
RL: Did you do a lot of bass playing on that album?
TP: Yeah I did about four tracks. Pete played on Lizard. Buffalo was Marty. Im on Ricochet, This is It, umm...cant remember all the songs now. Steve played the bulk of the guitars on Louisiana, he played electric on Great Machine, 12 String on Ricochet, Buffalo. Its pretty mixed up. We dont care actually. Were at the point now where - whoever picks up what, you know? go with it.
RL: So how did the lead vocal on Refo:mation come about?
TP: Steve thought it should be an instrumental and I disagreed. and he said well you sing something then. and it sounded like a challenge and I said okay. so I took him on at his own game...in the sense that when Steve writes a song he normally listens to it for about three or four times and then walks downstairs and sings it and thats it. so I sat there and rolled it a couple of times and wrote down some words and then went downstairs and sang it. Thats it. I basically looked at it as a challenge and it worked out.
RL: I really liked your voice on that. You had a sort of low monotone thing going on that worked well. I wasnt at all prepared for the range you displayed on tygs in space. You have a really great voice!
TP: Yeah, kind of. I actually feel with tyg that the vocals are way too loud. I cant listen to it. It really bothers me. Annoys me. But Im not going to do anything about it now. I just want to get it out there and get on with the next one. Ive got a real idea in my head about what the next tyg record is going to sound like. Its going to be even less like The Church. Its going to be more like...Beck. Its going to go in a more obtuse direction. I sort of like the idea of being really dissonant and noisy but being really dumb and pop at the same time. I like the idea of the songs being really stupid and easy to get other than the fact that they sound really obtuse. Theres only so much of that I can put into The Church. They let me have [as much control on Hologram as I did] because there was no alternative. The only way Hologram was going to get made was if I did it. Its a slightly artier album than they would have had, but the great thing about it is that the reaction to that record has been absolutely awesome, which has just basically solidified my position in the band.
RL: Are there any plans to do another Refo:mation project?
TP: I dont know if weve got anything that we dont want to put into The Church. Theres a reason why that record happened when it happened. Im really glad it happened because Hologram wouldnt have sounded like it did if we hadnt done Refo:mation. A lot of people just get the new Church album, they get the hype and the press, and dont even know about the Refo album. But the Refo helped Pete and I develop his sound. That gave Hologram a depth. The next records going to be a lot better because on Hologram, Marty was playing Fenders. He did play the Ricky 12 occasionally, but on this tour what were getting into is that Martys using all Rickenbackers and Petes using Fenders and were trying to split the sound into this whole tonal thing and that Im really looking forward to recording because next time theres gonna be so much more separation between the guitars.
RL: For the first time in the history of the band, all four members are songwriters in their own right. Everyones done their own albums. Everyones done strong work on their own. While this may open the door for a lot of ego clashing, it also offers some exciting possibilities. Do you see the Church moving in the direction of Hologram where Steve is doing the vocals and lyrics, or do you think its moving towards a multi-voiced sound like The Beatles.
TP: I think the strength of the band at the moment is with Steven vocally. I dont think we need anyone else in the band singing on the records. How it has worked in the past is that Steve just goes Would you like to sing on that track to somebody. I think were starting to realize what it is were interested in in music. The sort of jams that were getting into onstage and in the encores are kind of indicative of where the new albums going to be. My joke is that were gonna get to the point where the first song is the encore and then we just go from there. Id like to see a situation where we just basically free-form through the whole set and somebody leads us into one song and somebody leads us into another song. Thats the ultimate thing to me because with this band I think weve got to define and develop things that are potentially original about the Church. There are areas we venture into that other people have already covered. I think if we can develop our own thing that no one else has covered really well then in the long term weve got more of a future. I mean no ones trying to get the band back to be Milky Way part two. The bands been around, musics changed, young people listen to different sorts of things and I think that basically weve just got to build the underground part of the band to the point where it sustains everybodys career. I think we can do that. I mean, in Steves head, the next albums got to be our Dark Side of the Moon.
RL: Well Im looking forward to hearing that. Its great that you said that thats sort of the direction youre moving in because thats what I love most about the band: when you do go in those more far out directions.
TP: Same here. Im very capable of that. Im probably more capable of that than anyone, actually. In fact Martys almost the straight man, and Im far more left than Steven is. Im happy to sit in a room and just listen to short wave radio for four hours. I like that. That interests me as much as music does. Steven too has questioned the validity of normal... of the convention of vocals, guitars, bass drums, whatever. Hes been full circle on that whole thing. So it will be interesting to see what he has to say on the next record too.
RL: Having been on this tour and having met a lot of the fans, do you think on the whole they are pretty supportive of you as the new guy in the band, even though youve been playing with the Church now for about four or five years?
TP: Im not sure. Im a pretty sensitive sort of person. Im an over-achiever. Im pretty self-critical. Theres only one person Ive met in America who flat-out refused my handshake. I said you must be a Richard Ploog fan and he said yes. Everyone else has been...maybe a couple of people have been slightly grudgingly respectful but generally Ive been thoroughly, thoroughly welcomed by everybody. And I mean the silly thing is I can only be myself and I can play Richards parts and I can play them the best I can, but I still am playing my own interpretation. I can not physically remove myself from my own shell. Thats me. Its like if someone says to you play Bob Marley. You can only play your version of Bob Marley. You just can not be him. So I can not be Richard, but I can come as close to that as I can and then I can try and incorporate that into what I do. If all the people, and I dont think theres that many of them, and to be honest it kind of doesnt matter anyway because its not going to hold up the future of the band, but to anyone who thinks that Im not right, if they saw inside my head and actually saw what I do and how I treat Richards drumming, I think theyd actually think differently. I dont go out there and think Im going to do it my way, I go out there and try to do most of the stuff Richards way. Thats how I think in my head. I really respect what he did. I could not have been the original drummer of this band. I could not have been there. I can only do what I have been doing. If I really wanted to flatten all criticism, I could easily say that its quite simple - if I wasnt there, there would be no band - its simple as that. Even the other guys acknowledge that its an absolute fact. Its only because of my nature and my temperament and the fact that I know everybody that the bands together. Because theyre a very very volatile, complicated three way thing. Im just a very patient person. Ive known Steve for a long time. Steve trusts me and I trust him. Hell leave the country and will leave me to mix something and still have his name on it, so he knows Im sensitive to what he likes and I mean if I ever do get slightly upset I can take total consolation from that fact that Steven will tell them to fuck off in an instant. Hes never been happier with the band ever. He thinks Im the perfect drummer for the band and you could ask him that and he would say that any day. I know that. I believe that.
RL: He has definitely championed you quite a bit in interviews.
TP: And I deserve it. I can say that without being big headed because you know the band would not be here and the album would not be here without me. Its not because Im great. Its just cause I did it. Thats what The Church needed: someone to come along and do it. We had no record company; we had nothing. We had to put something together ourselves and the thing that I think Im personally particularly satisfied with is that the picture in my head of Hologram of Baal is exactly the picture on that CD that you hear and thats why I said to you earlier (before the concert) Im a better producer than I am a drummer. The art of producing to me is to walk in and given a situation, draw a sketch in your head and then somehow over the next -whatever time it takes- you realize that sketch until when you play that CD, the same picture is fully realized and you go thats it, thats what I always knew it was with all the details filled in, and with Hologram thats exactly how it went. I knew thats where it was going and I engineered it to that point -not engineered acoustically but in every sense of the word- I definitely erred on the noisy side on Hologram but I just thought no one is going to sit up and listen to the Church again if we sound like Heyday. The material was potentially very classic Church. If you listen to the actual songs on Hologram, theyre more like the old songs because we were writing them while we were gigging. See, the band could have made a more contemporary record in terms of writing. I could have gotten a lot of loops happening, we could have got really more like Sometime Anywhere. We could have done a really modern record, but I thought that the strength was what we were doing as four people. The songs to me are fairly timeless classic Church songs but the with the production Ive just tried to bring in new elements. And were very lucky with Radiohead, Verve, all these bands happening at a time when guitar musics supposed to be dead and thats held the door open for The Church, plus, youve got an 80s revivalist thing happening. Youve got The Wedding Singer and all these movies with 80s soundtracks. Its the right time for the band to come back. Its like the bands been around so long that it can exist again. Its that full cycle thing. Its like I meet people who are 18 and 19 and they have the same musical taste as me because its just gone so full circle, because their parents listen to what were listening to. So when you get 17 and 18 year olds who are into Pink Floyd and stuff like that... its bizarre how its gone around.
RL: I dont know if Ive picked up on this from your solo album, or reading it somewhere, but I get the sense that you are coming from a somewhat different musical direction than the other members of the band. Who are some of your favorite musicians?
TP: Well in the last two years when anyone asks me to define my tastes and this would just probably horrify Church people but my two defining albums are the Tool album called Aenima and Beck Odelay. To me those are my two defining albums: miles apart, but they just define everything that I like about music. See now, Marty might like the Tool record, Steve would hate it. None of them would like Beck, and I like The Beastie Boys; and they dont like The Beastie Boys. I have a far more rhythmic inflection. I mean the Church are a white melodic rock band; theres no blackness there. Pete has an ability and he understands the swing of black music really well and I think thats why what he enjoys about me being in the band is that I have the ability to be more obtuse rhythmically, and he understands it, which is really cool. Stevens very straight rhythmically; you know hes more of a melodic person. The challenge for me is to find a way of introducing more rhythm into The Church without blowing the center of the things that Steve creates. Thats why the Refo worked because I really stretched myself in terms of playing around what Steve was doing to come up with some new things. I think if Marty was there on the Refo I wouldnt have had that freedom, so I had that freedom which I needed to have to develop, to find that thing and then I took a bit of that into the Hologram record. It will be interesting to see now when we go again just where it goes to because what were all realizing is that the moments we love are the more random moments. So were realizing that we have to put ourselves in a situation in the studio where we can achieve that, and I think that we all feel that Holograms maybe a bit laid back in places, but getting energy in the studio when youre in your 40s...you dont just walk in one morning and have a cup of tea and go RIGHT! ...Youre just not there. But if youre in the encore in Atlanta, you are there, so how do you get that moment in time when youve got that incredible commitment and energy going on and intensity, and get that in the studio? Its really hard. Weve been thinking about maybe recording the next record in front of a live audience. You should have heard some of the encores about four or five weeks back. I said, Steve, in my mind if we recorded all the encores and then cut them together, that could be the next record. Its a bit obtuse but thats kind of where we could be heading, and he was like yeah!
RL: When do you think the Church is going to make the next record?
TP: I think wed like to make it March/April next year (1999)
RL: Speaking of ways of getting inspired, I hope Im not beating a dead horse with this issue, but in the past, members of the Church have been very outspoken about drug use and its relation to creativity. Whats your whole opinion on that? Do you think there is still some value in incorporating drugs into the creative process, or do you think thats more of a deterrent these days...with this band at least?
TP: Theres no simple answer to that. Usually when people claim this value of drug use, its something that they claim after the event in hindsight to justify the drug use. They dont go Im gonna make a great record, can I have some drugs? They had the drugs and they go lets make a great record. Personally, I dont need to take too much in terms of intoxicating substances to let my head go. Thats just me. Everybody finds a different way of getting in tune with themself. There are moments on Hologram where if marijuana hadnt been invented, the music wouldnt exist. but there are other moments where its the opposite to that.
RL: Its something Ive always debated with friends. I still havent quite figured out how I feel about it.
TP: Well, you can just look at Steven. Hes had some difficult times, some interesting times with drugs in the last few years. Ive learned a lot about music through his drug use. Its a weird thing to say but its true. Its not like Ive done a lot myself, its just that Ive learned to have to deal with things in a different way. The more drugs somebody uses, then usually the less patience they have. In the 80s I would take a week to do the drums for an album. When I first met Steven and started working with him, I learned to do it in a day. That process was an amazingly great thing for me, and it wouldnt have happened if drugs werent around. Its the same thing with the Jack Frost record. Theres definitely an air of something going on there. It all comes down to individuals. How do you get to the point that you want to get to? Some people can do it without [drugs].
RL: I think Ive been more inspired vicariously by other peoples drug use and the things theyve come up with.
RL: I have a bunch of questions on just about everything, but I want to try to cover your own stuff, because Im really enthusiastic about the tygs in space album. I hear some similarities between tyg and the new Church album but its not so much in the sense of song structure or style of music, but more in the sense of atmosphere. The first time I heard radiotronics was on your tyg tape.
TP: Ive defined radiotronics on the tyg record way beyond Hologram. The first track spaceman is to me the defining moment of radiotronics in pop music. It goes way beyond what I did on Hologram.
RL: is William Bowden (credited with radiotronics on Hologram) on the tyg album?
TP: Yeah. When I was mastering the record, spaceman was incomplete. It was just a mix without the radio, without the guitar solo, and when we mastered it, I asked him to put the radio on and then I actually played the guitar solo live. That was the last thing we did. So I actually played the solo in the mastering suite and it came together like it was always supposed to be like that.
RL: Its kind of a small world among Church fans. I met his brother David via e-mail. We were trading CDs of our own stuff and then I realized that his brother was the guy making all those noises on your records.
TP: Well he doesnt make all the noises, thats the other thing. Theres a lot of stuff on my record thats me, thats not radio and theres a lot of stuff on Hologram thats not radio. I have tricks in the way I chain stuff together and create sounds off of sounds. I did more of that on my record than on Hologram; I didnt want to go too far on Hologram.
RL: I want to bring up the song comet because I think its THE song of the decade.
TP: a lot of people like that.
RL: Is that about the UFO cult in California?
TP: Yeah. Its about the Halebop and the people that died. I had the piece of music and didnt know what words were going to go over it. Julien Kluttenberg whos done a lot of artwork and photography for people inside the Church group and other people came to my house one night and brought a guitar and I said do you want to play guitar on a tyg song? So we set him up to play and I realized that he was going to be a very conventional player, so I set up the effects so that no matter what he did it wouldnt be normal. Theres no radio on comet, its just one guitar part which he played, and I was shouting and directing him to do this and go up and down and do this and blah blah blah and it was just one of those magic things where all the things that he did and the way I rode them up and down for the vocal just all made sense. The whole records like that. It really is. It just all worked. You would think that someone had orchestrated it that way.
I think comet is great. The thing I like about comet too is that Im very comfortable with that sort of talking thing in the verses and also lyrically thats very me. Id like the next record to be a lot more like that.
RL: I hope you take this as a compliment because I meant it as one; Whenever I try to describe the sound of the album to friends, the only thing I can think of is some sort of cross breed of Nirvana and The Pet Shop Boys.
TP: Thats bizarre. The only people that Ive ever heard it compared to which I thought was interesting was that people nailed my early Bowie influences and Lennon. Theres a Bowie/Lennon sort of thing to certain melodies, which I didnt acknowledge until afterwards. Thats interesting...Nirvana and Pet Shop Boys. wow.
RL: Slammed together. Do you like Nirvana? Do you consider them an influence?
TP: I like what they did, definitely.
RL: The reason I tagged it is that song departed you do, where the chorus I love you no more is repeated over and over again, like just about every Nirvana song.
TP: For some reason I never thought of Nirvana with that song. I mean, when I was playing that song I was thinking more of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, or Depeche Mode. I was trying to do a really dumb British pop song that was just really twee...
RL: What does twee mean?
TP: Almost naive to the point of being stupid. Because it is, lyrically, stupid. I just like that repetition. If youre going to sing I love you no more you might as well fucking sing it a million times, because its not exactly an artistic phrase. I kind of had something to sing about at the time...
RL: The other song that really intrigued me was buddhist. You sing that line Everyones a Buddhist when it suits them...
TP: ...Everyones a prophet driving in the back seat.
RL: What do you mean by that? I mean, I dont want to take away the mystery...
TP: No no...that whole song, who am I, where am I going... its supposed to start off as a really naive take on spirituality and that point you get to where you start to question your own....do you need a faith? do you need to believe in God? do you believe in yourself? are you your own God? When I was growing up I went to Sunday school and all that sort of stuff, and I went to boarding school in New Zealand, went to church every Sunday, and I just had no interest in God at all, despite all that. I believe that...I have so much faith in myself that I dont need to have any questions answered by someone greater than me. Thats just my own personal feeling. Im an atheist in that sense. I believe in spiritual things, absolutely. I dont believe that there is A God. I totally respect people who believe in God, I just personally dont believe that way. I feel that somewhere outside of that is a whole transitional area - the world where people get caught up believing what theyre told to believe, whats cool to believe, or whats trendy to believe. The whole thing about Everyones a Buddhist when it suits them is kind of characterizing exactly that. When it suits you to believe in this god, you do. When it suits you to believe in that god, you do.
RL: I wasnt sure if you were saying that cynically or...
TP: I was saying it very cynically.
RL: Do you have any interest in Buddhism?
TP: Oh I wasnt condemning Buddhism. I was condemning people who claim to invest in a particular spiritual area for their own gratification. People do it all the time; its a very trendy thing to do. When I was a kid, if I lost something I used to pray to God that I could find it, like Oh shoot, God, Im late to school, please help me find my shoes; I dont know where they are... stupid things like that. It was a comment on all that; if Im just kind of using this religion to fill the hole. Its a fairly pretentious thing to sing - I am my own God, but I sang it with intent. Its an honest delivery; its not posey.
RL: well, where would art be without pretension?
TP: well, where would The Church be without pretension?
RL: Good point. Lets close with this one: I was also curious about the Crackerbox project, since Im a big Margot Smith fan as well. What makes this different from a Margot Smith solo project?
TP: For starters, its my project and I started it, and I invited Margot to sing on it. Margot was expressing a desire to do something out of her own thing. Shes finding it really confining being Margot Smith and what people are expecting of her so what Ive been wanting to do is I want her to do a record like tyg but with a different person fronting it, where I could just completely go berserk behind someone and know they have great capabilities. The idea of Crackerbox was from a friend of mine, Dave Skeet, who used to be in a band with me that I dont like to mention at all, called the Venetians in the early 80s. He came back to Sydney this year and I started getting him to do work on certain records I was producing, and he started to understand where I was at; weve been apart for years literally, and we both used the same samplers and we started creating a lot of things by just sampling nonsensical pieces of atmosphere or music or whatever, turning it backwards and creating pieces out of it, and the concept of Crackerbox basically is all the music is created out of other things. We dont sit down and just play the chords and write songs. We generally come into it with the sampler; it starts the whole thing and it will be like some classical piece that hes got on a cassette, through a microphone, reversed, chopped-up, cycles, and then well realize whats been made there and we might play some other thing over the top. Its more on the ambient side of what I can do. I dont know if its got any commercial future, but its a really interesting sound. I think its about five tracks so far, and Ive got Margot in on it and what Im trying to do with Margot is Im trying to get Margot to be a different person on this stuff, and shes finding that at times difficult...but because shes finding it difficult, the end result is pretty cool. Im writing a lot of the lyrics with her as well. Its certainly not a Margot Smith solo album at all. Dave and I basically control it. Were the producers, and Margot is the voice. There may be some other voices. I cant even describe what its like. Its like...a much more hardcore/distorted Primal Scream meets Massive Attack. With a girl singing with a lot of balls instead of the Portishead thing. Theres that other band I listen to a lot, theyve got one record out...Sneaker Pimps. All those girls have got a certain amount of coyness. They never go up; theyre cool. Have you heard Lamb?
TP: Lambs like a more left-of-center Portishead. Lambs one of my favorite records. Thats been an influence on Crackerbox. Not a lot of people seem to know about Lamb, which is kind of cool. I mean theres some almost bass and drum / trip hop sort of stuff going on with Crackerbox as well. Its far more dancey and rhythmically infectious than anything that we would ever do with the Church.
The quickest and easiest way to get most of the albums discussed in this interview is through an online service called Gregs Music World. Their prices are very reasonable and their delivery time (including international orders) is excellent.
For more information on Tims music, check out the tygs in space website at http://www.tyg.net or The Churchs web page at http://church.sausage.com. These pages contain soundclips from many of the albums discussed.
Tim Powles can be reached via spacejunk: TheGoodfolks@Phantom.com.au