dinsdag 21 januari 2014

Interview with Olaf Caarls of Long Conversations

by Wout de Natris
© WoNo magazine 2014

With Jonathan, Ca. Long Conversation released a fine new album last year. After our favourable review WoNo Magazine got into contact with singer and songwriter Olaf Caarls. Here’s our interview with him

How would you like to introduce yourself/the band?
Two of my favorite quotes are 1) “I’m just a human being with a lot of shit on my heart” (Jack Kerouac); and 2) “We were boys, but nice boys” (Nescio). I guess that’s the best introduction I can give you right now.

Long Conversations in not an average band name. Is there an idea behind it?
In part it’s a very vain, and futile, attempt to counter the shortening attention span of a lot of people. I mean, you should google “long conversations” (I do…), and then check people’s Twitter timelines, for example. I think it’s hilarious that people would post “I love having long conversations” on Twitter. The irony of that is just unbearably funny to me.
But it comes from a line I once wrote: “Life is a long conversation with a stranger on a train” -- because it is; it’s interesting and funny and weird and wonderful, and uncomfortable, and petrifying, and tedious -- but the main thing is: you can’t fucking escape. There’s no way out. I mean, you could jump out of the train, but I’m not crazy enough to do that. 

With Jonathan, Ca. the band’s name was shortened to Long Conversations. What happened to the Closet Orchestra?
They were conceived as a backing band that didn’t exist -- when I played solo shows -- but now they’ve materialized, so I dropped it. 

The title of the album is Jonathan, Ca. What is your relationship with or the inspiration behind this town in California?
Ehm, I don’t know. Once I was driving through California and saw a trailer park with a confederate flag waving. Later I went back on Google Maps to find it, but I couldn’t, so I just made it up. It’s a nice place. It’s small, isolated from the world, and you can fill it with a bunch of characters. There are a few songs that didn’t make the cut with regards to the album, but they [the characters] all exist in my mind, living there, going to church, just hanging out. I guess inventing this town allowed me to fill it with the people and memories of my choosing. I liked that.

Where the title song is a personal song, Jonathan, the album title refers to the town Jonathan. Hence the difference in the two titles?
I just didn’t feel like making the story “perfect”, if you know what I mean. One refers to a person, the other to a town. There’s not much more to it than that. I mean, I wrote the song first, and then when I had to come up with a name for the town I just really liked the sound of “Jonathan”. It’s a good name. 

Some of the songs on Jonathan, Ca. are nearly bare, singer-songwriter while other songs have a full band sound. When do you know a song is as good as it gets in its final form?
You don’t. Or I don’t, anyway. They’re just interpretations of the songs. I know what feels good to me, but if we recorded the album today it would be radically different, I think. Do you know that famous concert Dylan did that was supposed to be at the Royal Albert Hall -- the recording I mean, which is actually in Manchester, I think. Anyway, they’re booing him, and he tried to calm them down saying “it’s a folk song, it’s a folk song” -- and then launches into some rock version of Ballad of a Thin Man, I think. But it is a folk song.

It’s like Jeff Tweedy said: everything’s a folk song at the core. Whatever you do with it afterwards depends on your mood, or the musicians playing, or the listener/audience, or the time of day. Lyrically I’m much more likely to have a moment where I think “Okay that’s it, I’m done, that’s what I want to say”, but musically, I don’t really care. It just keeps changing and that’s fine. It’s exciting.

Musically your songs do not necessarily follow the classic verse-chorus-verse pattern. Instead they follow a pattern around a chord progression. Do you try to weave a mood around your listeners and capture them that way?
I never consciously decided not to write in a standard pattern or whatever. But yeah I am interested in communicating a feeling or emotion, or “mood”, if you will. That’s the main goal, the means can differ with each song.

In my review I mentioned some names that seem influences to the album. What are your main influences?
Wilco, Okkervil River, Ryan Adams, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Spinvis, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground, Yo La Tengo, oh and Death Cab for Cutie, obviously. But that’s just me, though. The other guys in the band listen to all kinds of different things. Like Jazz, or Post-Rock or whatever it’s called.

We built a fire starts with a long audio clip of a speech about the U.S. going to war against Germany. Where did you find it and is there a message behind putting this on the album, as it rather contrast with the lyrics?
First, I don’t think it contrasts with the lyrics at all. I mean, it does, but that’s the point right? “Contrast and compare”? Like, if there’s a message I’m trying to get across in that song it’s that people make different choices based on the same information, and that’s what that clip is about.
I think it adds a new layer to whatever is happening in the song.
Plus it’s hilarious. And his diction is great. I just think it sounds fucking cool.

Long Conversations is a band, but you are the driving force. What is the role of the band members when making an album?
To be honest, I don’t really consider myself to be the driving force. I guess I kickstart the whole thing with writing the songs, but after that it’s really up to them what they do with it. All I do is sit back and put in my two cents when I want to, plus I do have this sort of veto when things go in a direction I really don’t like, or that really doesn’t fit the mood of the song, but that’s about it. And especially with recording, most of them know a lot more about that sort of stuff than I do.

The one time I saw Long Conversations play live, in the Q-Bus in Leiden, things did not exactly go as one might expect. What is the story behind that evening?
Well, I was playing with a different guitarist at that time -- and he was so sick he was sort of hallucinating I think. And I was probably slightly drunk -- or at least inebriated enough to start a three-time song in 4/4, so… I don’t know. I don’t even know if people liked our set that evening, but I really liked that vibe. Like, you fuck up, but that’s okay too. It’s just different, it’s not necessarily wrong or something. It was the first time I had the feeling a song was like a furnished room that you walk into, and there’s nothing telling you you can’t rearrange the furniture, especially when it’s your own room.

In a Different way to fall you sing: ”Is that what you want?, that is no plan at all, it’s just a different way to fall”. It sounds like a grave warning to someone. Is it meant to be?
Yes, I guess. But this is actually kind of personal so I don’t really want to talk about it, if that’s okay with you.

Song to my sister to me seems the most personal song on the album. Is it meant as a song of consolation?
No, I don’t think there’s any consolation in that song. The title might be misleading. The guy singing that song really doesn’t care about his sister all that much. He just wants some idealized past to return and she’s refusing to play along. It’s a pretty cruel song, really. Not in the least because I just decided to kill off my father in a song, just because I could.
Although I sort of sympathize with the sister (and I guess the father, because he’s, you know, dead), I find it hard to like any of the people in that song.

Some titles of songs seem very close to you: Jonathan, We built a fire, Song to my sister, while others overlook vast expanses of space: Best century, Endless fields, Oceans. Was this divide something conscious?
Yeah I think so. Like I said, life is strange, you know? So much is happening at the same time, and to me it’s just magical that all that stuff goes on at the same time. I guess Oceans is the best example of that for me. It’s like taking three slices of life, almost at random, and they’re unconnected, but then for you personally, in order to live your life, you have to make them fit together. So you end up with this kind of cognitive dissonance that you can’t resolve, all this shit is happening at the same time, and it doesn’t make any sense, but somehow it’s connected anyway. Like that guy in Best Century, when he says “this is the best century I’ve seen in a million years” -- obviously he couldn’t have seen more than 2 centuries, at best, but somehow, for me, he’s entitled to say that. Because it is the best century he’s ever seen. Do you know what I mean? In spite of all this stuff that’s happening around him, all around the world, so many things that he can’t influence, he just holds on to his own belief. And he knows that it’s futile, but what the fuck else is he going to do?

What are the plans for the band in 2014?
Play shows, world fame. 

You can listen to and buy Jonathan, ca. here.

And read the review of Jonathan, Ca. here.

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