Saturday, 27 April 2013

A REAL EXCLUSIVE: Interview with René van Commenée 20th April 2013

In my various guises I get an enormous number of emails each day. The other day, in between a selection of pdfs about new species of lizard and emails trying to sell me a Far Eastern mail-order bride, I received an intriguing email from a man called René van Commenée. I dug a little further and found this statement:

"As a musician I work mainly as a percussionist, electronic music performer and sound designer. I am a member of the trio The Art of Doing Nothing with Pipe Organ master Willem Tanke and MIDI-wind-controller/flutist Martijn Alsters. With Alsters I formed a duo for live-surround concerts and installations also. Separate from this I create visual sound art installations. I always like to use my voice though. I was a singer in several Dutch rock bands in the seventies and eighties, and like to write, record and perform more song-based music as I call it. But if you do so many diverse things I think you have to make clear to your audience what it is they can expect when buying your work or attending your concerts/performances. Therefore I chose to give my song-based projects a separate name, Mr Averell; a band in which I am the main writer and performer."

I then received a copy of his smashing new album Gridlock and wrote THIS.

I was so massively intrigued that I arranged an interview.

JON: Tell me about the album;  I think it is really, really good. How did it come together?

René: I first started in my own studio to do, let’s call it, the skeletons of the album and the songs using a computer and very – I call it – low end synthesiser work; what we call general media. So the compositions became clear then and I knew what I wanted with sound. Before really starting to do the thing in the recordings etc and of course I needed the lyrics.  Sometimes I already had the lyrics, and sometimes I had the music earlier than the lyrics. I had to write the lyrics and I am not very fast of that. So that was the way I started the recording.

JON: Did you know from the beginning what special guests you wanted to have?

RENÉ: No, I didn’t.  Because for me it is important to have the right sound, and this is what I fill in with the right people.

JON: I was particularly impressed by Mike Garson’s playing.

RENÉ: Me too.  And that is another story because Mike and I already wanted to work together for a very long time, but since he is living in the States and I am in Holland, it is always very difficult and expensive to do things like that, so when we had an opportunity because we were together, and we could plan the studio recording, we didn’t have anything, we didn’t have any plans what to record. We just went into the studio where a grand piano was and we said well let’s compose a song there, and we will see what happens.  That finally became the song Sightseeing.  That was composed together.

JON: He really is an extraordinary musician.

RENÉ: Yes, he’s fabulous. And I am very proud having him on the record as well, especially that we composed something together, because also that’s quite unique. He is also on Deliberately and that was already composed by me and I knew already what I wanted there so I gave it a chance to ask him to do the piano, and whatever you ask him he comes up with beautiful things. 

JON: I’ve always been a big, big fan of his, ever since hearing him playing on the Bowie song Time about forty years ago.

RENÉ:  Yeah, everybody is referring to Aladdin Sane isn’t it?
JON: Yes – absolutely amazing musician

RENÉ: Yes, he is.  I am a bit surprised he is not on the latest album.

JON: It’s quite interesting when you hear the new David Bowie album.  All sorts of people you thought were going to be on there aren’t. It’s like his long-time bass player Gail Ann Dorsey is not on there either.

RENÉ: She’s doing some vocals isn’t she.

JON: It’s a very good record….oh she sings on it doesn’t she,  but she doesn’t play bass I don’t think.

RENÉ:  No, he worked with a lot of different people than before.  I thought even Tony Levin is on isn’t he?

JON: Yes.  That is an amazing record.  I think it’s going to be nearly everybody’s record of the year.

RENÉ: Yeah probably.  I had hoped it would be mine <laughs>

JON: You’re coming a very close second.

RENÉ: Oh well….. thank you

JON: How long have you been doing the Mr Averell project?

RENÉ: Quite some time already.  Actually I started the Averell project without a ‘Mr’ in the late-‘70s, as a kind of solo thing apart from my event playing.  I was a drummer and a vocalist in some local bands and I had a studio – very primative I must say – so I worked on this sound on sound principle with cassette tapes, and there I did my own work and I called myself Averell.  Actually I was called by other musicians Averell  because I was a very thin, punky, young lad.  Always hungry. So they started calling me Averell, so I thought that was a good artist name to use for my solo projects and there I started actually. And there is one song on Out of My Mind…. did you get it?

JON: Not yet, no.

RENÉ: Okay, that’s a pity.  There is one song on it which is called Temples of Ice, and that was actually composed in that period in the ‘70s. So that is where it started and then I forgot the project and I didn’t go on because I was working more in the visual art field and I did a lot of art sound projects in galleries and museums, sound installations, for a long time and, in  - I think it’s about 2003 or so, I can’t remember - I started the project again.  I wanted to make some of my own recordings and because I did all this other work that was in your article, I thought I need a name so people who know me for instance from David Jackson, and come to a gig they shouldn’t expect to see me as a drummer because I am a vocalist performer there.  If you understand what I mean.  So I thought, well why not take back the name Averell, but since I am a bit older I started to call it Mr Averell.  Out of My Mind I use Averell still as an artist name, so on the album cover my name is not there at all. You see Averell is doing the things and the whole copyright is Mr Averell, but I thought with this album I want to stop with that, because why should I be someone else, if I still am myself, so now I use it as a project name, so it’s still clear it’s my song projects, but I’m still the same person, René van Commenée.  So that is actually the first time I do it this way. 

JON: Do you play live?

RENÉ: Yes, we did gigs with a band, but it’s very hard to get gigs and it’s very hard to finance it because, you know, I need a band with at least 3 other people to make live versions of the songs which are comparable to the album and still can be recognised that it’s the same song, but it’s very difficult to finance. I’m actually trying to get it on the road now. I recently called all the band members – the live band members – which are different than on the album, and everybody wanted to go for it, so I am now looking for a promoter who wants to do it.  Because it’s my aim to do extensive touring.  I love playing live so I definitely want to do it again.

JON: Will that just be in Holland?
RENÉ:  No, no, I hope we can go to Germany, which is very near, and in Germany there is a huge audience for the more, let’s call it,  avant garde music than in Holland so I don’t see a lot of gigging here actually.

JON: Well I hope you manage to come to England some time.

RENÉ:  Well I hope too, but I don’t know how difficult it is nowadays in England and I hear it form fellow musicians there  they say it’s difficult in England as well.

JON: I don’t know, I haven’t played live in 15 years. So I don’t know.

RENÉ: You’re a musician as well…

JON: Yes. 

RENÉ:  What do you play?

JON: I play guitar and bass, and sing.  And I play piano very badly….

RENÉ: I play piano very badly as well.  That’s what I have Mike for isn’t it <laughs>

JON: That’s why God gave us two hands and a piano so we could play it very badly…… Many of the people reading this will be hearing about you for the first time and there seems to be an overall concept to the Gridlock album. Would you like to explain the concept….

RENÉ: Well actually, that’s Gridlock.  You know the Gridlock song itself is about the traffic jams, very simple, but I think you can use the word ‘gridlock’ on almost every song on the album.  Because it’s not the gridlocks on the road, it’s also the gridlocks in our lives and in our minds, and in our relationships etc., etc. And it’s kind of the main theme in the whole album.

That’s what I got from it.  That it was about emotional gridlock, emotional traffic jams as much as physical ones.

RENÉ: Exactly.  Well you had in right then. 

JON: That makes a first.  I am not very good at getting things right. I’ve written long essays where I’ve interpreted a piece of work one way and the artist tells me no I’ve got it completely wrong. 

RENÉ: Oh no, no…this time you are right. Absolutely right.

JON: That’s good René.  So what are your plans next?  What happens next?

RENÉ: Well, you know, we try to promote the album extensively now to give it some knowledge so that people know who Mr Averell is, or what Mr Averell is or how you would call it.  Of course I want to sell the album and that nowadays is very difficult – the other problem with this album is, it is very difficult for me to have it as an iTunes download because I don’t see it as a collection of separate songs, but as an album which you want to play, or you have to play from the beginning till the end. 

JON: I don’t understand the modern way of just having everything as a collection of disparate songs.  I always think in terms of albums anyway.     

RENÉ: Yes that’s what I do, but I am a bit old fashioned as well probably.  I don’t know. But I believe we are both in our ‘50s…..

JON: Yes, I’m 53.  I am a child of the ‘70s and I still think in terms of LPs.  Even when I am listening to something on a CD I think about it having side 1 and side 2.

RENÉ: That is probably difficult with Gridlock, because I was thinking about it as well if we do it, because it is becoming a bit popular again to do it on vinyl but I don’t know where to put the break.

JON: That’s an interesting idea.  I don’t know either.

RENÉ: Well I have to think about it.  But one interesting thing about what you say is this is always important to me, the length of the CD.  If I make a CD I will not make it 74 minutes.  Because for me that is too long.  I think about 40 minutes is very good and that is probably because I am also from the LP generation.  I don’t know but out of my mind about 40 minutes I guess – this is about 44 I think.

JON: I understand totally.  Also what I don’t like about the modern paradigm;  I  like having the physical artifacts in my hand rather than just having files on  a computer.

RENÉ: Yes well that is why I still spend too much on buying CDs all the time, and even the luxury editions if they have them.  Like the newest Nick Cave.  I am still waiting for my box. Then I want to have the luxury edition because I want to have really something in my hands.  But that’s also with my albums.  I spend a lot of time and effort to have a very nice package.  And with Gridlock I didn’t have the money otherwise I would have it much more extensive, but I spent a lot of time in the package because that is very important to me.

JON: Well you did a good job.  I like the package a lot. I like the way you have that mini poster which comes out of the envelope and you unfold it.

RENÉ: Thank you.  I am happy to hear that because we spent a lot of time on it. And I am very critical in it. As you can read on the cover, I worked with two graphic designers and they had a heavy job I can tell you.  Because it is very clear in my mind already. I make the concept of the cover myself, so it is very clear for me what I see, but I can’t do it in this computer age on Photoshop and all those programmes – I can’t work with those, otherwise I would probably do it all myself. But they can do a better job because, you know, it’s their job.

JON: Well I think it is a very satisfying package – the whole thing really works well. And I think if there is any justice in the universe it is going to be a very popular album.

RENÉ: Well I hope too.  It’s nice to hear because that is what we try isn’t it - to make people happy with it and in the end myself. 

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