On Collaboration: A Conversation With Anni Hogan

anni hogan

You probably don’t know the name Anni Hogan, and that’s a shame. She’s a veteran of the early post-punk/goth scene, a classically trained pianist who would work with a lot of people over the past three decades, including Marc Almond, Attrition, Yello, and more too numerous to name. 2016 has seen her release a new collaboration, Scanni, which pairs her with Scanner’s Robin Rimbaud. Their recently released self-titled debut album is a dark, unique pop record with a sound reminiscent of the 1990s trip-hop scene, yet without the trappings of nostalgia. Cherry Red has also reissued two albums from the past year , Music From Billy Chansaw’s Alphabill (a love story), a collaboration with Attrition’s Martin Bowes, as well as Siberia, a collaboration with Itchy Ear. We sat down with her for a delightful chat about her illustrious career, and the nature of collaboration.

It’s been a busy year for you, it seems, with three albums out simultaneously.

Yeah, it has been, really! Two of those albums came out last year, two albums I did that were released in a really small pressing on a tiny Hong Kong label called impulse. Their releases tend to be more along the line of art projects, with original art pieces, really thick cardboard sleeves, books, and really super limited edition releases that most people don’t know about until they’re snapped up and they’re traded for high art collector’s prices. (Laughs) Both of them were sort of stylistically similar, in that they were soundtracks to imaginary films. The first was a collaboration called Siberia, and the second was Billy Chainsaw’s Alphabill (a love story), which was more composed for an art exhibit that Billy Chainsaw was having, and we had these different instillation ideas, based around the film Alphaville. We put them out digitally to get ‘em out more in the world.

In looking at your discography, I come away with the feeling that you’re the type who’s more comfortable working with other people.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say comfortable, but yeah, I do love a collaboration! I mean, when we talk about music, the term “solo” rings sort of false, you know? Because when you’re making music, unless you’re one of these sort of mad or brilliant multi-instrumentalists or studio wizard, you’re going to work with other people. When I started recording, it was 1979, 1980, and I really didn’t have much of an idea about how to record music, so I was always going to studios, meeting musicians, producers, arrangers, engineers—people more experienced than me, people who wanted to help me see my creative ideas to fruition. It’s the nature of how things work, at least for me. I mean, I do a lot of the actual creation of my music alone, I have a lot of time in my flat by myself to create—my partner goes and works the nine to five, and I’m by myself! (Laughs) I love working with other people, and if anything, I sort of miss how it used to be, where unless you were super wealthy, you didn’t have a studio in your home, if you wanted to record, you had to go and meet up with people, get organized, and sit down and work in the same room together. Nowadays, it’s mainly collaboration over the internet, which has its up sides, because you no longer have the limitations of geography or time, so if there’s someone who’s in America, and I want to work with them, I can do that from home, and on that level, it’s great. But yet, there’s something lacking when you don’t have other people in the room with you.

When I create, I just really want to come up with the very best sound, and other people are great for that. I have a cadre of friends whose style I know that I can go to in order to help me to achieve my goal of getting that sound, and they’re scattered all over the world. With the new technology, it doesn’t have to be like the old days, where you’d have to wait for someone to be in the city, and that might be six months or a year after you came up with that great idea that you had to put on hold, because your collaborator wasn’t going to be around until then.

Had you worked with Martin Bowes before?

Not in the 80s, but in 2012 he asked me to play on his latest Attrition album, Unraveler of Angels,and I was happy to do so. I worked on four of five tracks on the album, and we enjoyed the experience, and so we decided we wanted to work on an album together. He told me about this World War One project he wanted to do, about how his grandfather had been blinded by the mustard gas, and Martin had these postcards his granddad had sent back home from the front. His grandfather lived on past the war, and Martin wanted to do something to honor his life. We knew that we wanted to include war poetry from both sides, and that became Millions of the Mouthless Dead. After that, we decided to do the Alphabill soundtrack together, because it was so fun working with him and Billy Chainsaw. Billy did a lot of paintings and artwork inspired by both Burroughs and the film Alphaville, so I made a sci-fi/soudtrack sounding record, and that was good fun. Then we did some drone pieces on the Scanni album. I end up working with a lot of the same people over multiple projects, because they’re friends, and because I like working with people who I have a good rapport—that makes it so much easier.

Was this the first time you worked with Scanner? How did that come together?

Yes. I approached him and made first contact. I love his sound, and I thought that what he does would work with a more traditional song construction, and then with him putting his own unique Scanner touch to it. He loved the idea, and so we did it, and I think it turned out really well, actually. It’s a unique approach that resulted in an interesting take on pop music, I think. (Laughs) Well, it’s probably not ‘pop’ but I call it pop because it sounded like pop songs to me, though I’m quite aware that we’re not going to be hearing them on the radio any time soon! (Laughs) So I put it all together, I selected the vocalists, and put all the elements together. The Scanni part came together quickly, but a number of these songs were really quite old, things I had written over the years, strays that had never really fit in anywhere else.

I did an interview with an American musician recently, Eric Bachmann, who’s just released his first proper solo album, but has been making for nearly thirty years, and he said that one of the dangers about working alone and by yourself is that you can get into a rut, you can lose your way about how something sounds, and that unless you’re someone like Prince or Jeff Lynne, other people are valuable to keep your bearings focused.

Yes, indeed! You need that in the creative process. Sure, you might work on something by yourself, but it’s really important to get among friends and people you can trust, who you can go, “hey, what do you think about this bit?” and who can give you honest feedback. It’s scary sometimes—you run the risk of getting a critique that you might not want to hear! (Laughs) And that’s what was so great about working with Robin Rimbaud on Scanni—he was such a great person to bounce ideas off of, to get encouragement on something that i might not be so sure about, or to hear constructive criticism on how to make what I’m working on better.  For me, I’m not particularly precious about the parts that i write, unless it’s something that comes deep from my soul or is something intensely personal, in which case I wouldn’t work with anyone on that sort of thing. If I’m working with another person, I don’t mind someone making a change if it improves the final result.

There’s this notion that the best art—and most especially music—is created in a vacuum, that it’s solely the work of one or two really brilliant people, and that really, I don’t care for that concept.

Why not?

Because I think it short changes musicians and their artistic contributions.  Look at the bands of the 1960s. You might have a group, and they might have a name producer, like a Phil Spector or George Martin or whoever, but more often than not there are tons of people working behind the scenes to make that song you hear great, especially in pop music. You have a girl group with a producer, but who’s playing the music you hear? Who’s writing the songs? Who’s forming the arrangement? Probably not the girls doing the singing and getting their names on the record! (Laughs)

I recently did an interview with an American musician, Sid Griffin, who lamented that London was a very closed, competitive scene that was highly unfriendly, whereas his experience in the band’s hometown of Los Angeles was just the opposite. Many years ago I did an interview with Anita Lane, who worked with you on your Kickabye EP, who said that she found the scene in London to be just the opposite—that there was this overwhelming sense of “we’re all in this together,” and that it was a very fertile, friendly, and extremely supportive underground scene. Did you find this to be the case?

We’re all in it together? Very much so, yes it was, that’s an excellent way to put it.London at the time–and very much now, in different ways—it was very much in a state of distress, an urban dystopian culture. It was hard times in the Eighties in Thatcher’s England, and the music very much reflected that—it was dark, depressing, bleak. The community I was involved with was unbelievably supportive of each other. From my own experience, Lydia Lunch lent me a flat to stay in, Siouxsie Sioux took care of me, looked after me, would drive me to the Batcave and back so I could DJ and be safe, Nick Cave and Anita put me up and helped me out, and all of these things weren’t necessarily asked for—it was friends helping friends. I totally agree with Anita, she’s a lovely woman, and she’s right. As for Los Angeles, I only spent a very little bit of time there in the late 1980s, so I didn’t stick around long enough to get into the scene.  I liked the place, very sunny, and by its massiveness and its role in entertainment, it’s a fertile place.

In thinking of Griffin’s statement, I think there’s something of a culture shock, too—a form of perspective from one side of the fence to another. What you’re saying about London at the time isn’t something he would have seen, him being located in the States, whereas someone from London might think that LA was unfriendly and unhelpful—that it wasn’t necessarily the scene, but it was the outsiderness that exacerbated his experiences.

There are always going to be not very nice people out there in every scene, and often times they’re the ones who are the most vocal, and they’re the ones who are taking advantage of the situation for personal gain—whether it’s knocking you down, or building you up just so they can knock you down. But you know, Joseph, that’s not just true of the art world—you’re going to find that in every walk of life. Scenes can be nasty places, or they can be wonderful places, it just depends on the people involved and the nature of humanity. It’s life, isn’t it? But maybe that was going on in the music scene, and I just didn’t know it. I was really young and naive when I started to get involved in it, just a teenager, really. My experiences were that people were really nice to me, and maybe they were slagging me down behind my back and I just wasn’t aware of it. I always look to the brighter side of humanity, even in the dark music world! (Laughs)

You were classically trained, right? (Confirms) Considering at the time that there was a charmed naiveté about “professionalism” in making music—just look to the Glen Matlock/Johnny Rotten story, which even now John admits was probably wrong-headed of him—did you find that having the talent and the training was helpful, or did it work against you?

Yes, I’d had my piano exams right when I started to get involved in making music. I knew that I enjoyed making music, but I wasn’t sure I was going to go into the classical world. My piano teacher might have had other ideas, though! (Laughs) Instead, I went down to Leeds and got really into politics and history, sort of getting away from the more staid classical world that seemed to be my direction. I loved being in a new environment, because it was something that was an interest to me, but was one that I wasn’t necessarily proficient in. I was learning new things and I was outside of me comfort zone, as it were, and I loved it. When I came back to London, I got back into music again, and like before, I got involved in a world I had no real experience in, other than knowing how to play a piano. And that was terribly exciting for me. I think a lot of the “amateurism” was just a pose, really—kids bucking against the system by acting as if they couldn’t play their instruments, when, in fact, they were usually more talented than they let on. I certainly found that to be the case when I met up with Marc Almond, and the people around him—all of whom were extremely gifted musically, even though they might have played it down, and here I was, this young girl with a strong musical background, in awe of these people who were so much better than they might have admitted. I never noticed such posturing until I was a bit older and wiser, though.

Marc Almond—now there’s a talent!

(Laughs) I know, right? I was in so much awe of him-he was and still is one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

Another cohort of yours I interviewed in the 1990s was Dave Ball. At the time, he said that the point of Soft Cell was that they were making music that was classically and theatrically inspired, delving into everything from music hall to Broadway to classical and opera, putting it together in a contemporary manner, for an audience they were well aware just might not get it—and doing it anyway.

(Laughs) That’s exactly how it was! Dave is absolutely correct about that, that’s how we were back then. Marc was, if anything, a lover—he genuinely loved the music he was making, even if it was idiosyncratic. We would work on an oeuvre which ran from Brecht to Brel and Bowie and back again, and I think my classical training was an appeal to them at the time. The music appealed to me as well, because I knew that style that he was going from, had strayed from it somewhat, but was ready to approach it from a completely new direction and a completely fresh way. Nobody was going there, musically, and even though we were rooted in something very traditional, it was alien to the times, and it was very divisive—you either got it or you didn’t. Marc was such an enigmatic artist, you didn’t mind following where he was going, and he built a rare trust between audience and musicians. It’s not for me to say whether it worked every time, but it worked for him, and he’s still making fascinating music.

Even today, I still hear from people about the work I did with Marc, and about Marc and the Mambas. We would perform, and people would respond, and that response was overwhelmingly emotional and positive. I don’t think I was aware then—well, I think I knew we had something special—of just how original, unique, and special we were. We were certainly a different sort of group with these disparate elements, but it all magically worked. You never can fully appreciate what you’re doing until years have passed, but I’m honored to have been able to work with some truly talented people, and that I have such talented, interesting friends to collaborate with and make music together. I’m lucky, really.

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