My favorite part of New York-based artist/musician Alexis Georgopoulos’s website is the press page, where reviewers work out the most nuanced equations of similarity between the dreamy, liminal tracks he composes under the moniker ARP, and those his predecessors synthesized thirty-five years before. References to Kraftwerk, Cluster, and the later Eno abound—until the comparisons are exhausted and the esoteric, pseudo-academic, music-nerd prose come out—the fun stuff that reminds us how difficult it is to describe music. Resident Advisor credits ARP’s 2010 full-length, The Soft Wave, with “renegotiating mid-’70s Krautrock,” by “touching on so many of the bearded layabout’s tropes of the past several years — from Balearic to kosmische, minimalism to New Age of Earth-style spacewalking.” Pitchfork calls it “simultaneously fleet-footed and humid,” while Japan Times describes the track “Catch Wave” as “rising above structuralism and everyday life. It is the hope of all minimalists.”
ARP’s latest album, MORE, out this September from Smalltown Supersound, might be the hope of all pop nostalgists. These are autumnal sing-along songs that bring to mind Marc Bolan’s prettiest ballads and Roxy Music’s layered horn-and-guitar interludes. But as a point in the trajectory of Georgopoulos’s musical career, from San Francisco No Wave disco band Tussle, which he co-founded in the early 2000s, to performances at art-world establishments like Philip Johnson’s Glass House, MoMA, and The Kitchen, it’s clear that MORE is, well, more than just a superb record. It’s the product of a deliberate move to try something that is, for Georgopoulos, quite new. I met up with Alexis in a noisy Williamsburg bar to talk about what inspired this push to write pop songs, and the complicated nature of inspiration in general.
Leigh: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when considering what influenced the sound on MORE?
Alexis: Off the cuff, I’d say New York City was the initial, primary influence on the record. This is the first record I’ve made here from start to finish —wait, that’s not entirely true. Uhh—no no, it’s true haha! I did make one other record but it was a collaboration, with Anthony Moore, a British composer. It’s a chamber music sort of thing. There’s this label in New York called RVNG Intl (pronounced Revenge International) – they put out Julia Holter and Blondes and reissue cool overlooked 70s Private Press stuff. They curate an album series called FRKWYS (pronounced Freak–ways) where they invite emerging young musicians to work with their heroes—preferably someone a little under the radar, to shed light on their influence. I proposed the idea of working with Anthony, who did a lot of different things. He was in a band called Slapp Happy in the seventies, which was sort of a nexus between the UK Canterbury scene . . . people like Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith and Kevin Ayers—and German Krautrock people, like Faust . . . anyway, in addition to being a part of this band with a kind of cult following (Mazzy Star covered one of their songs), he also wrote lyrics for Pink Floyd, he produced the first album by This Heat, and he wrote two albums of minimalist chamber music. And that’s what I was really into at the time. Though, really, I think I just identified with his varied approach to composition. So RVNG put us in the studio to make a record together. So yeah, that was officially the first record I made in New York; but this is the first record I wrote alone in New York haha. My move from California felt really major, and I felt inclined to make something that was, I don’t know, my little New York record. Geography has always been, in direct and indirect ways, influential. So I was thinking New York City, in the physical sense; the architecture, the rhythms, the characters, the rivers, the possibilities. But also New York in a historical sense; thinking of the twentieth century, the last hundred years of New York, as seen through film and literature.
L: Yeah, and in lyrics, right? The single, “High-Heeled Clouds,” references Fifth Avenue—very Velvet Underground–y . . .
A: Yeah, it’s funny, you’re right. The piano part felt very John Cale. I was thinking in terms of a Ray Davies/Kinks kind of character portrait. But you’re right, it’s actually probably more Lou Reed–y kind of thing. And this ties into another inspiration for the album: literature. Ray Davies and Lou Reed both approached pop song in a way that resembles short story writing. Prior to now, I’ve never had the opportunity, or I never took it upon myself to do that on a record. Since I wasn’t singing very much, there wasn’t much room to write character portraits (laughs)! It did feel a bit vulnerable to sing, “Walking down Fifth Avenue”. But I think if something feels uncomfortable – in the right way – I usually go for it. That to me feels real. The unlikeliness or the risk-taking. I try to put myself up to be a little bold and out of my comfort zone in my own way, if that makes sense—
L: Of course. And that’s so exciting, to feel like you’re pushing your own personal boundaries as a musician.
A: Yeah. I think there’s a common desire among creative people to say, “This is who I am,” and to frame themselves with aesthetic reference points – which I’m guilty of, certainly. But I think it’s also important to not always use taste as a crutch. The idea of mentioning such a historical kind of place, like Fifth Avenue, feels like a throwback to another time. I mean, why aren’t I singing about Bedford Avenue, right? But it came up naturally because I live a few blocks from Fifth Avenue, near the Flat Iron building. And in my day to day life – walking or riding my bike north and south – I usually choose to walk/ride Fifth Avenue because I love it. There’s still something special about that street, regardless of one’s thoughts on Manhattan has changed —the concentration of beautiful architecture is incredible, there’s a connection to an older New York there; one that stirs my imagination. You see the Empire State building. And these visual things put you in a certain state of mind. Not many skyscrapers still inspire me, but the Empire State and the Chrysler still fill me with butterflies on the right day.
L: When I think of songs that reference walking, walking from place to place, you immediately have a narrative by traversing space . . .
A: Definitely. A journalist recently called this an album of “walking paced songs,” which at first I took as a slight. But then I thought about it, and I realized, no—I wrote these songs and I listened to the demos walking and taking the train and living my day-to-day life—so actually I’m very comfortable with that description. And in a way these very elemental rhythms on the album connect stylistically to New York. It’s still such a primitive place in terms of machinery. Even though it’s gorgeous and ultra–modern in certain ways, in other ways it still feels mechanically antiquated —cogs clicking into place, trains coursing down the tracks—and in terms of rhythms I tried to mirror some of that.
L: It’s amazing how janky and antique the subway feels—something that everyone relies on every day grinding around the corner.
A: A friend of mine who just recently moved here told me he read that the noise levels inside train stations are just not good for human ears. At all. In fact it’s quite bad. And I’m positive living in New York has damaged my hearing. But that element of noise, and rhythm, has also helped informed so much music that’s come out of the city.
L: We could have a whole conversation right now about how daily life is so different here from San Francisco . . .
A: In good and bad ways.
L: It’s strange because so many things about city life are so familiar that it doesn’t feel like a big deal, but when I really break it down it’s so different . . .
A: Yeah, my first year in New York was very challenging. Maybe the most challenging year of my life, actually. I’m happiest in a more natural environment, and in a slower environment. And that’s why I lived for a decade in San Francisco. Because it did have more of a town feel. But that’s also why I left. It was just too small. And I felt like I could lose myself there, that I could just fall off the grid entirely. Further, I felt I could get away with not challenging myself. That’s one of the things that bugs me about the “underground” culture there. The sense that there’s not a need to push oneself into new things. This record would not have happened, for example, if I’d stayed there. That said, on a day-to-day level, New York can be really challenging—the highs are high but the lows are very low. Rent is always on my mind. It wears on you. Money is a constant, nagging presence. In a multitude of ways. Wherever you are, financially speaking, you’re constantly rubbing shoulders with extremes.
L: It can be really interruptive to life as an artist. I mean, what feels dangerous is when you start thinking about art in a professional capacity because of financial pressure. Everyone else is making money doing what they love, why am I not making money?
A: You’re absolutely right. And one thing that is so nice about San Francisco is that artists who’ve chosen to stay there do so in order to avoid getting caught up in this thing. The other level of this is the idea of status. There’s an incredibly judgmental scene in New York . . . In San Francisco I was never asked where I went to school, for example . . . that wasn’t an entry point into a conversation. The fact that people choose to size you up so quickly, in these incredibly primitive ways (are you part of our club or not?) is offensive. Whether you went to Harvard or the University of Nebraska—are we having a good conversation or are you a total prick? Aside from all of the self-doubt and self-criticism that’s part of being a creative person, at the end of the day, when you get to a point where you have this thing, and you say, Ok, I’m going to live with this warts and all, and then you put it out there. Most likely, money will trickle in, if it does at all. And then you see the drivel people do and get paid for. When you know that, even if you’re not making the masterpieces that maybe some other people are making, you know that what you’ve done is of a certain caliber . . . it can drive a person mad. And the distractions of New York can also make it hard to focus on your work. But that’s where friends and good people, and surrounding yourself with good people, come in. And people who believe in quality. I think I told you this before, but I was very impressed with the last reading you did.
L: Wow, thanks. That means a lot to hear from you, and from someone who isn’t a writer.
A: Yeah, that’s why it’s nice to talk to you about music. It’s one thing to make records that music nerds like, but it’s another to have contact with people—who are interested in music—or interested in writing. I’m not a novelist, but I do read books . . . But maybe this is a point to bring up a second inspiration point, which is literature.
L: When I first met you I remember you saying that you didn’t read contemporary literature and you didn’t think that any contemporary literature could contribute any value.
A: Oh God, please don’t put that in the piece! (laughs)
L: These are the things that a person remembers!
A: Sometimes I like to say ostentatious things in an effort to provoke conversation! (laughs) I will say that I find writers like Balzac and Dostoevsky, social realists I suppose, deeply compelling. But I do read contemporary fiction and essays. I think the reason I said that, and do sometimes feel that, is because sometimes I feel contemporary fiction is so aware of its past that it’s more concerned with an idea of innovation than something that may be old fashioned, but that I’m still compelled by, which is storytelling. That said, someone like Renata Adler is a good example of the kind of writing that relates to how I approach writing a song about a character. A book like Speedboat and these vignettes speaks to the rhythms of the city, but also tries to really convey character in a very small amount of space. I’m reading The Master and Margarita right now, so that’s very much on my mind, but there’s a way that some of these Russian or French or British writers can, in one paragraph, tell you who a person is, so quickly, and with such insight, and I find that allows me to trust the writer. It’s clear that these writers have tried to understand what it means to be a human being—that’s my attraction to those works.
L: Yeah; the inclusion of not only lyrics here [as opposed to 2010’s The Soft Wave] but also the kinds of pop melodies at work strike me as being really generous to the listener, in the same way that you’re talking about literature. In that those writers aren’t trying to trick anyone. They’re not trying to be structurally innovative or complicated; it’s really about these basic human emotions and psychology. I found myself responding to the record in a similar way.
A: I’m flattered to hear that.
L: I feel like accessible can be a . . .
A: Negative term . . .
L: Yeah, yeah, but I like the idea of generosity as an alternative word for that.
A: An engineer I’ve worked with a lot, Phil Manley—I told him that I was thinking about making a vocal record—and he nodded and said something along the lines of, “There’s just something about the human voice – when people hear it, it brings them in”. And that sealed the deal for me. Because he put it—I don’t know—when it’s a question between instrumental or lyric-driven songs, I’ve always liked both. If music is instrumental, it’s never felt difficult to me—but there is something about hearing someone’s voice. I don’t know if it’s intimacy or something else—but it felt like something that I wanted to try. On the record I did with Anthony Moore, we spontaneously covered one of his old band’s song’s [Slapp Happy’s “Slow Moon’s Rose”] but we inverted things by me singing it. And it was so fun to sing. I wasn’t use to the act of singing. Air coursing through and the way your muscles contract and release when you’re singing—it felt good in a visceral way. And I took that as a sign to do more of it. But I suppose maybe to elaborate a little bit on what we were talking about . . . I’ve always wanted to write songs that were focused on characters in a certain way. There weren’t any particular writers who were looming presences or influences. But it’s always hard to know with these things when you read things and take them in; they become part of your…
A: Yeah. I’ve never really given it that much thought; this idea of a song being about a character. But that was my approach here.
L: How would you describe the characters on this album?
A: There was a certain kind of femme fatale figure I was interested in. In terms of the album art, Mallory [Melander, Georgopoulos’ girlfriend’s presence] assumed the role of the certain female figures that pop up on the record —a narcissistic character who was someone I came across when I moved to New York whom I’d never really encountered in the same way—in a damaging way.
L: Are you talking about one particular woman?
L: A type?
A: A few different women. “High-Heeled Clouds” is an amalgamation in some way. I mean you’re familiar with that process—you “write what you know?” So, these people I knew provided the impetus behind the song, but then I had to allow the characters of the songs to emerge. So, the songs use people as a launching off point into a character. How do you interpret that when you’re writing a character?
L: I try to write about things that I know to be true on an emotional level. And that’s it. If you can embody the feeling a character is going through, I think that’s because you’ve experienced that emotion, or some aspect of that emotion.
A: I’m a horrible procrastinator. I wrote all of the lyrics on the record the morning of the last day of recording the album. So I had ideas about what I wanted but I didn’t actually have the words. I couldn’t really sleep the night before . . .
L: All of the lyrics?
A: Yeah! (laughs) I would sing scratch vocals where I’d work out syntax and rhythm, so that became the framework. And the feeling the music put me in—the tone of it was my guide. So as I was demo–ing the songs and composing them I had ideas, but I didn’t know until the day that I sang them. I scribbled things out and put it in front of the microphone and I just did it until it felt right. I’m a horrible music nerd and I love reading things about people in the studio, and you always find anecdotes about people, from Dylan to Stephen Malkmus and Mark E. Smith, who are infamous for writing words on the spot, in the studio.
L: Mark E. Smith was definitely making it up in the studio.
A: Right! (laughs) I suppose what he and Damo Suzuki (of Can) do is something different. Just stream of consciousness. I guess it’s funny to bring up both Mark E. Smith and Malkmus because early Pavement was so indebted to him—but all three of those guys are so known for their language.
L: I have a feeling that Stephen Malkmus pulls everything from his journal. I think he reads his old notebooks—they’re such one-liners. “Irish folktales scare the shit out of me.”
A: Reading all these accounts of these guys in the studio, and I’m always thinking—the studio’s expensive. You really try to prepare before you go in. On the one hand there’s something about being in the moment that can draw something out of you—but on the other, you’re also thinking – wait, how much did I just spend wasting the past three hours?!? The morning of—as I drank espresso after espresso—I was like, am I going to humiliate myself here? Because these are first songs that I’m singing! (laughs) Ultimately, though, I feel like at least I didn’t humiliate myself. Which is good. Although I’m sure that there are certain things I’d change. But I feel Ok.
L: Lyrics seem so fun though—what a great platform for words. Because anything you’re going to say becomes so tempered—it’s so much in dialogue with the music itself. There isn’t the same kind of nakedness that poetry has.
A: Exactly. In a way it’s easier for a song to convey mood, although at the same time, lyrics in songs are often glossed over or misunderstood. Song as a form, in general, is something that I felt very tenuous about even getting into, and I’ve essentially avoided it for ten years.
L: You mean in your other projects?
A: Yes, well, in everything. I’ve never really pursued lyric or song writing before. Someone like John Prine—or country music—where there’s a form, and the way each verse builds—and the last chorus means something very different from the first chorus—I’ve always been blown away by that.
L: And that’s the “short story” of the song that you’re talking about—there’s been a progression of story and a change in a character.
A: Absolutely. And it’s an incredible rewarding listening experience. In the same way that contemporary literature can feel overshadowed by the giants that came before, there are these Giants of Song. I’ve been very reluctant, out of respect, to be like, ‘Yeah, I write songs!’ A lot of people jump into that—and by all means do whatever you want—but I was intimidated to even go there. And even with this [record] I’ve only dipped by toes in. There’s still a few instrumental songs here. I needed to try to bridge my past with my future. This is a bridge album, to me. The next thing I think will be much more lyrically driven. But it can be really intimidating—and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—to say, “Is my thing really worth reading when there’s all of this other—?”
L: Oh yeah. Every day. I guess all you can do is be honest with yourself and your audience—not being false, and being as genuine as possible.
A: This whole idea of masks and persona. There’s a Virginia Woolf quote that’s really stuck with me this year—something like “Never to be yourself and yet always.” That’s part of the goal and that’s something I’ve thought about a lot—I want to be surprised by what I do so that it’s interesting to me. I want to not recognize what I’ve done. And yet there has to be something in there, a fabric, that is completely me.
L: Yes, and I think that’s the locus. That’s has to be the starting point—the you—and then the surprising thing comes when you push your own boundaries—when you say, I’m going to try something different. I’ve always been afraid to write a song but now I’m going to—and even if it isn’t perfect I’m ready to try this new thing.
A: And that ties into the influences here that were deliberate—and a few of them were not from a songwriting background, they were from an experimental background—and they were musicians who weren’t great singers—and that somehow liberated me and made me feel like it was ok for me to sing, too.
A: Well, ok. Many years ago—I had no older siblings to teach me about music. This was a pre—well, pre-blog . . .
L: I’m with you.
A: I’m just saying. To the readers who are reading this blog . . .
L: Mostly fifteen year olds.
A: Haha! (laughs) I remember reading these British music newspapers like Melody Maker, and just digging, trying to find new music and to figure out who I was through that. And I read an interview with Stereolab in their early days, and they were like, name your five favorite albums. And Tim Gane basically listed the people he was blatantly lifting from. But the way he was so candid; it felt like such a breath of fresh air. So many people are so cagey about their influences—but he was like, this is what I love, and this is the foundation of our band. But they were still Stereolab—they were their own thing, even if they were trying to be the Velvet Underground or Neu! or whoever—the fact that he was so upfront about his influences was inspiring. You try to disguise yourself and at the end you’re still yourself. So I don’t mind when people say John Cale or Brian Eno—I mean yeah, sure.
L: Great, right? What a compliment!
A: I mean they’re not saying I’m equal to Brian Eno—but there’s a whole school of guys who knew each other, and Eno was one of them—Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Anthony Moore, and Robert Wyatt – many of whom were based around Canterbury—and they were definitely a guiding light. They were quite strange in their approach to song, in a way that felt right to me. Most, or all, of them were untrained singers who came at music through art—and the art school band, Wire, Roxy music . . . I have no problem wearing some of these influences on my sleeve because it’s from a place of love. And also a place of comfort. There are degrees to all of this. There’s ripping off a lick, and then there’s trying to go inside a world and understand why an influences world was like that. One is ripping off and the other is something else. Ripping off a lick is imitation. But the other—going into someone’s world and trying to understand why you’re fascinated with it is research, to me.
L: Did you do this?
A: I don’t know, you tell me?
L: Did you go into the Green World?
A: No, no no. I could have gone way further into the Another Green World territory. Another Green World would have been a smoother transition from my last album, actually! (laughs)
L: Totally. More is more Taking Tiger Mountain.
A: In one’s creative relationship to one’s heroes it’s very personal. What is to one person too derivative, to another is not. As LCD Soundsystem comes on. [LCD comes on in the bar stereo.] Um, Gary Numan anyone? I mean, James Murphy is another person who’s making it really clear—yes, Gary Numan is someone I like and I’m going to riff on him. But when you’re riffing—if you want to talk about postmodernism or whatever—it’s a jumbled process that, in the end, creates something different. Here I go again talking about Bob Dylan. But a song like “Masters of War” was just a total lift of a British folk song called “Nottamun Town”. He just changed the lyrics. Of course, in the process it became a different song. And the folk tradition has always been about that. It’s often considered ok to borrow a whole song and throw new words on it. In the folk tradition that’s a way to pay homage, showing that you know where you’ve come from, or being an auteur who builds upon a tradition. To me, these people who I’ve referenced form a genealogy of reference. My “folk” is just another genealogy of influence. That’s how I see it. Others might see it differently. One has to come to terms with influence in their own process.
When you try to make something, ghosts are just lurking around every corner. When you pick up a guitar you have twelve tones. No matter what move you make it’s been done before. The key is less about some kind of idea of innovation. I do believe there’s nothing new under the sun. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for authorship. Otherwise I wouldn’t be making music. But when it comes down to what is behind making something, in my case, it’s just a love of music. There’s something about vibrations in the air and mathematics that are beyond my comprehension that does something to me—that moves me—and I don’t always feel that I succeed in making work that satisfies me, but the goal is there.
Photo by Shawn Brackbill