Name: Pepe Deluxé
Members: Paul Malmström, James Spectrum + plenty of friends
Occupations: An Explorer of Worlds both Known & Unknown, Baron of Sealand
Interviewee: James Spectrum
Current release: Phantom Cabinet Vol. 1 album (out now on Catskills Records) & Virtual Phantom Cabinet (virtual gallery)
If these thoughts by Pepe Deluxé piqued your interest, visit their official homepage for everything you ever wanted to know about them. They are also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
‘Creativity’ is one of those terms that are just so overused that they’ve become almost the opposite of their original meaning – maybe not as bad as ‘underrated’, but close. When people talk about creativity, the usually mean some sort of a nice a servant: something they can consume or sell. They don’t want or even recognize wild creativity - like a successful bank robbery.
What drives me is the fact that I like producing more than I like consuming. Music is a perfect excuse for all kinds of fun adventures!
Sources: I do believe that one definitely needs plenty of input – the sources can really be ANYTHING – to produce some decent output. We’re not gods creating something outta nothing; we filter and combine stuff like the engines of synthesizers.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I find the idea of being able to somehow ‘visualize’ the end result quite appalling. No adventure in that! Someone defined Hell as place where every day would be exactly the same, and you’d always know what was happening next. I’ve often said that if we ever know what we’re gonna do next, that's the day we should call it quits with Pepe.
Planning is a most important thing – perhaps the most important thing after the ability to react and change the plans when it’s the right thing to do. Especially when it feels wrong!
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Study the art of science, study the science of art. Research is everything, that ‘input’ is everything. But no, I don’t have any patterns I stick to or any wish to create demos or versions. It would be like “just playing that I’m playing”. Why waste time on that?
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Coffee. COFFFEE! The dreadful things I’d be willing to do for cup of black gold when it’s not available. Rituals can be great, also power suits, talismans, all stuff like that. Routines help sometimes, but they can also be like treating the symptoms instead of the disease. If you really think you need something like that, it’s sometimes a good idea to ask yourself why.
Unless it’s about coffee, of course. Good food, good exercise, good sleep, and good relationships – those are the four master keys you simply MUST have. Miss even one and your mind’s synthesizer will start malfunctioning, sooner or later.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The trick is to never start, but to just keep on doing. Of course, this is false advice – until it works for you. But it’s like when you’re on a holiday, and you’ve just had a great breakfast and you’re visiting some nice place with some people you love ... and you get this EXPLOSION of thoughts and ideas and mental connections and whatnot. Did you “start” it? Nope.
However, occasionally you have to do ‘creative’ stuff like work. Then you just start it – and as you’ve most likely been doing it before, you know both what you SHOULD do AND what your brain, that lazy energy-conserving bastard, is trying to make you to do. Oh yes. Stay away from YouTube, social media and other cheap drugs! When working, it’s quite OK to occasionally slip into routines.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I can’t remember that well – was it something like between the ages of one and two years? My younger daughter is five and she’s constantly singing songs with totally made-up lyrics – lyrics that often drives her sister nuts. I do that stuff too when I’m in a good mood. I get very little appreciation for my instant songwriter talent, especially on Monday mornings.
Now I don’t know where the lyrics for all those songs about human relationships come from – but could somebody PLEASE close that window a bit? And perhaps open some new ones?
I rarely – if ever – hear songs where the music and lyrics are related more than on a superficial level. Emotion, energy ... those are easy, but there can be more. Take your average pop song and remove the lyrics – can you still tell what the song is about? Just by listening to the music? You can do that with good classical music you know. Not everything has yet been done and discovered in music- we merely keep repeating the stuff that sort of works. Is that creative?
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
That is a bit of a trick question, isn’t it? It really depends on the context. You can have the most wonderful words, most beautiful poetry – but if doesn’t work in the context ... and then you have songs like Surfin’ Bird, with stolen lyrics that are all about the context, and impossible to improve. Also, I personally think one should try to avoid “good” unless you work for someone else. It’s the worst enemy of great you know? Better aim high and fail than low and succeed.
My ambition is to become a little less bad at writing, my challenge is that deep inside I want to be like Yngwie Malmsteen who has taught God how to play guitar. I want to be the Yngwie of lyrics; my writer ego is my Sisyphus’ boulder. We go up ‘n’ down.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Slowly, oh so very slowly. In the beginning it almost always works, especially when it comes to Pepe music – as the first versions of songs always come from Paul, who is just so frustratingly talented. He’s incapable of producing anything unsatisfactory. But then I keep adding way too much of everything, and it becomes another “normal” Pepe song. Occasionally you need a manual to be able to enjoy them. Tho, with The Manual ... they’re not too bad.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Yes, there’s a lot of stuff we people who make stuff up make up. Sometimes we even believe in that ourselves – and it can be good if it helps us to do and achieve things. Art is a lie that tells the truth, and every artist is a liar. But the stories we tell ourselves can also be very destructive, harming us and people around us.
Control vs. following: to me this again ‘planning’ vs. ‘chance’. You know how it is: “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.” I occasionally work as a producer, and many times I have no idea whatsoever what we are doing or where we are heading to, but I need to be the Leo DiCaprio of Titanic: repeating “THIS WAY!” Eventually we always end up somewhere. It’s more like riding the collapsing wave function than control/following.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I’m a Lutheran agnostic. Traditionally the ‘ultimate achievement’ is to die of a heart attack while working in the fields, having made sure the funeral is as modest as possible & not messing up anyone else’s work schedule. I’m so old that I’ve been breastfed this “my work is what I am”-attitude. It’s terrible. I also pray a lot. Being an agnostic is like being a double-agent or a double-traitor. I lack both the faith to believe AND also to not-believe. Perhaps I do apply that to what I do?
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I don’t. I’m notorious in that aspect. I’ve been tweaking mixes after the third or fourth mastering. But once the work’s been forced out of my hands and released, it’s been released. I hate remakes, artist tweaking their old work and artists trying to repeat their work. Yes Lucas, what you did was WRONG! You can’t ever go back to that time when that particular piece of art was created. You can’t make it ’better’; you can only, at best, make it different. That’s ‘uncreativity’ if anything.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
See my previous answer. What does it look like? Well it probably looks like I’m either a friggin’ idiot, or a madman – or both. And while them observers are right, I usually do eventually manage to improve the work a tiny bit. It’s like painting the walls extremely well – especially the parts that will be hidden by the skirting. No-one else will notice that, but YOU know the quality’s there.
And “satisfied”? Not experienced that feeling yet – but I’ve only made music and art for a few decades ...
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Ah, those things are highly overrated! Everyone knows that the magic, the secret, the sound is in the fingertips of musicians. We’ve all seen Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
I try to avoid those things as much as I can, and I try not to get involved. However, as producing, mixing and occasionally mastering (just don’t tell ANYONE!!!) is what I do, and ONLY what I do in music, I’m occasionally forced to dip my toe in that water.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Pardon? “There CAN be a sense of emptiness”?!?! Well, of course there are some people who make art as if they’d be making a couple of sandwiches. Some of them are very successful. But if you show me a person who’s not suffered from the “Post-Release Blues”, I’ll show you a person who hasn’t really tried hard to be as great as she can be. Maybe she will in the next life?
Again I don’t “return” to any state, as almost always when I’m suffering from the PRB- like I am right now, I’m doing all kinds of fun things - like writing these answers to your lovely questions! The Not Stopping is very very important. Don’t check the number of plays on Spotify, don’t refresh that browser to see if there’s finally that one more like – go back to doing something. Anything!
And it’s very true that if you take (or are forced to take!) a longer break from some form of work/play, like music, the return CAN feel a bit awkward. You might even get the “I don’t know how to do this anymore!!!” feeling. Don’t panic - that’s perfectly normal, we’ve all been there.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Oh yeah, that first question is SO good! I don’t just feel, I KNOW the answer. But that answer only has real meaning to one person: myself. Everyone should occasionally ask themselves that (or similar) question!
The second one is tougher for me as I’m a very immature person and I also have the mind of a scientist. I do understand the concept of “expressing” something on a theoretical level, but I can’t really relate to that. I just play and do stuff I enjoy doing.
There are of course various important things in life like the desire to be accepted, recognized, respected and loved, even the desire to fight death with producing things that have some ‘meaning’ and will ‘last’. Those things drive us to do and produce stuff. But if I live to grow old, I’ll probably be like everyone else: wishing I’d spent less time doing the things that USED to be important to me, and more time with people I loved. The paradox of chasing that what we already have.
... But I’m SO glad I’m not there yet – as I’ve got the munchies for new high adventures!