Interview: Renaldo and The Loaf

SFSLBrian Poole and David Janssen are Renaldo & The Loaf (respectively). Aside from Renaldo Malpractice and Ted The Loaf, they’ve also been known as Plimsollline (collectively), Hooper Struvé & Josef Sneff, Bonsoir & Butex and probably some others as well. They also provided the soundtrack to the infamous and amazing short film Songs For Swinging Larvae (to promote the record of the same name). Four full-length albums were released in addition to various compilation appearances and the collaborative album Title In Limbo, recorded with the Residents, owners of their US label, Ralph Records. Their last album, The Elbow Is Taboo is one of my all-time favorite records, so I’d always wanted to do an interview with them — not only as a fan, but as a guy really interested in their strange sounds made (until the last two records) without the use of synthesizers. Renaldo & The Loaf broke up in 1987, though they’ve gotten back together and done some new music for the film Kurt Mannikan’s Liberty Mug, as well as working on other projects including an update of their greatest-hits compilation Olleh Olleh Rotcod, and their own solo material.

Part the First

At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?

David Janssen: I don’t have a particular favourite; I tend to listen to music on random play so I rarely hear the same thing twice.

What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?

David Janssen: Univers Zero, a Belgian group who’ve been around since 1974. Especially their first 2 albums, 1313 & Heresie, which blend a kind of dark 20th century chamber music (oboe, bassoon, violin and harmonium) with a rock rhythm section.

What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?

David Janssen: A painting of an ammonite by my wife, Jane.

What’s the strangest thing you own?

David Janssen: A wand that used to belong to a wizard.

Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?

David Janssen: I don’t really have favourite actions although I’m quite pleased when a piece of DIY goes well.

Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?

David Janssen: Rene Magritte.

What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?

David Janssen: Kate & Leopold, 1408, Red Dragon, Cape Fear, Primal Fear

What’re your top three movies?

David Janssen: The League of Gentlemen, Carry On Constable, Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?

David Janssen: Yes, but I can’t remember who painted it, it’s unsigned.

What is your favorite game?

David Janssen: Freecell.

What sort of pie do you enjoy?

David Janssen: I prefer crumbles – any fruit, preferably home grown.

If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?

David Janssen: Did you enjoy sharing a hot tub with The Residents?

Describe some horrible/otherwise amusing local commercials.

David Janssen: Advert in the local camping equipment shop for their winter sale: “Now is the winter of our discount tent”

At the local farm supply shop; “Wormer of the month”

What are your five most favorite books in the world?

David Janssen: All There Is by Tony Parsons, Demianby Herman Hesse, Mysteries by Knut Hamsun, A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber, Ritual in the Dark by Colin Wilson.

What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?

David Janssen: One summer when I was a student I has a job on the production line at a factory that made electronic switches. For a fortnight I was employed taking apart the rejects; drilling out the rivets and then sorting the components into boxes. That must be the most boring job ever!

If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?

David Janssen: Mozambique.

What would be a better weapon, a gun that fires dogs or a gun that fires cats?

David Janssen: Either would be grossly cruel to cats or dogs. Humans are apparently the only animals that wage war, why involve cats or dogs? And better in what sense? If the dogs were friendly and just licked you and wagged their tails, I suppose you could say that was a ‘better’ weapon.

What is your favorite meal?

David Janssen: Pasta.

What is reality?

David Janssen:

Part the Second

I’ve read that Renaldo & The Loaf originally got together over a mutual love of T.Rex, which then blossomed out into more experimental music. How did you go from T.Rex to the experimental stuff? How did you discover it?

David Janssen: Strictly speaking it was a love of Tyrannosaurus Rex rather than T. Rex, there is a difference. Actually I know plenty of people who would describe Tyrannosaurus Rex as being weird!

The transition was very gradual, we began adding more improvised sections to our performances (yes, we did a few gigs in those days), started adding backing tapes, electric guitars, ring modulators etc.

At around the same time we also discovered (independently) the prepared guitar. We’d heard of Cage’s prepared piano studies and thought, ‘Well, why not try it with guitars?’

There was also a period of about a year when we didn’t play – college work got in the way, and when we started up again we were working in a much looser way just improvising and seeing what happened.

Out of this eventually a ‘song-like’ structure emerged and we began to use overdubbing. This was the phase that lead, over a period of about a year and a half, to Renaldo and the Loaf proper – a gestation period of about 9 or 10 years!

Brian Poole: The admiration of Tyrannosaurus Rex (not so much T.Rex) was that they used minimal instrumentation and some cool, strange sounds and Marc Bolan’s vocal style appealed too….I guess we saw it as experimental in its field. So, right from those early days, we stayed a duo and extracted the maximum out of the minimum of instruments at our disposal. But we were also listening to Incredible String Band and (Syd Barrett era) Pink Floyd who were more complex and certainly experimental… Let’s face it, most hippy music aspired to be experimental in some way. As a frustrated hippy it certainly guided my attitude.

Everything we did somehow embraced stuff we were listening to and getting excited by….the range was wide from mainstream prog/space rock (King Crimson, Yes, Hawkwind) to electric folk music (Steeleye Span) to the more, for that time, esoteric (medieval music, Eno, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and various world musics…mostly Indian) . My music collection at that time was very eclectic….and still is I suppose. The music we made then (1970-74) was probably derivative and aspirational to the groups we were listening to, the product sounding ‘strange’ due to the odd mixture of influences and our lack of technical ability to really sound like any of them. Although the sounds and techniques we used were, I suppose, loosely experimental, we tended though to rehearse a lot and often became bored trying to play our songs without making mistakes…so in 1975 we took a break and rejuvenated.

So the experimentalism in our music didn’t really hit its stride until about 1976-7 when we went back more to raw sound/found sound and improvisation, inspired by the likes of Fred Frith, Henry Cow/Slapp Happy and a bunch of European bands that Dave had discovered in our year apart. I was still getting off on the twangs and bangs of traditional folk music and also some electronic stuff.

I know that you’ve used dice to determine drum programming on The Elbow Is Taboo — could you go into more detail on the process of that?

David Janssen: Basically we had a Roland drum machine that enabled you to program up to 16 steps for each sound into the drum pattern. For “Hambu Hodo” I think we used the dice to decide how many beats the pattern would last, and then we used the dice to decide where the beats would fall, something like odd numbers meant no beat and even numbers meant there was a beat. I think it was as simple as that, all the sounds were either ‘on’ or ‘off’. For The Elbow is Taboo song I think we used the same principle but applied it to individual sounds so the snare, bass drum, cymbals etc. all had different patterns to make up the total rhythm.

Brian Poole: As far as I can remember the dice were used first to select the range of instruments we could (and had to) use in the song. We laid out all the stuff at our disposal by type –percussion items, stringed instruments, things you blew into… I think we made the conscious decision to use the drum machine but to programme it by dice.

From each group of instruments an item was selected probably by a process of elimination by throwing the dice, something like odds = no/ discard, evens= yes/use, until only one item remained in each section. I think it ended up as mandolin, harmonica and cymbal. Any of these could be multi-tracked of course.

A similar approach was used on the drum machine, a Roland TR-606 Drumatix, to select the sounds and a matrix drawn for each to derive its 16 beat pattern. So for the snare (say), the decision whether it was on beat 1 of its pattern was a yes/no dice throw and so on. Putting the whole lot together, thankfully, created a cool but jerky rhythm.

The use of my voice for vocals could, I suppose, had been put to the dice but wasn’t…if it had been maybe Dave would have had to sing it, which would have been singularly interesting.

If “Of Bad Teeth” from the second version of Struve & Sneff is a bit of a tribute to Madness, what type of their stuff in particular influenced the track? I think I can hear a bit of “Baggy Trousers”, though I’m not sure if that’s because I’m looking for it.

David Janssen: As I recall ‘My Girl’ was in the charts at the time. It was an attempt to cross the type of rhythms Kurt Weill used for Brecht songs with a Madness type of rhythm.

Brian Poole: The track does have a certain Madness-like sound but that’s probably just because it’s choppy and in reggae time. Although we would have heard the Madness track I’m not sure how much it influenced the song…maybe just sub-consciously.

Were there ever any disagreements with Ralph Records on how your records were released?

David Janssen: No.

Brian Poole: No disagreements about the business side, their support for us or the artistic freedom they gave us…in many ways the perfect label. Perhaps, because of the distance involved (and in pre-email days) we would have liked to have had a more hands-on approach to our cover art. OK, they got cool people to do the work but we felt divorced from the process – our ideas were influential but the result didn’t always reflect what was in our heads or the images that would complement the music.

Does the alternate cover for Songs for Swinging Larvae with the collage exist, or was it only planned?

David Janssen: There were some rough sketches that Brian made, but the collage was never made.

Brian Poole: No idea if it still exists somewhere. More’s the pity we omitted to take a photocopy of our mock-up/sketches….just imagine the poster for Gone With The Wind except Clark Gable is in a clinch with a giant grub.

Did you have any input on the artwork for Larvae by Gary Panter or Arabic Yodelling by Steven Cerio?

David Janssen: We described the type of thing we envisaged to Ralph and then the artist got on with it. It wasn’t always easy to have much input given the distances involved – this was long before you could email a jpeg of ideas for feedback.

Brian Poole: Not really, apart from our sketch/idea. We were shown some of Gary Panter’s formative ideas and sketches which were done on scraper board. Those adhered somewhat to our original idea with a greasy lothario seducing a startled grub-girl with a 1940s hair-do…Gary’s final work went in a more abstract direction. We had no direct input to Steven Cerio’s work as he did the CD version inside cover and by that time RATL were no more, however our music and lyrics acted as the catylst to his illustration.

If the albums are re-released, will you re-work the cover art to better match your original ideas, or would you go with the artwork as originally released?

David Janssen: It’s possible that we could re-do the artwork, but I’m not sure how much energy we’d want to put into ancient history. Personally I’d rather put more energy into new material.

Brian Poole: We have talked a bit about this although no decisions have been made but we agree it would be interesting to somehow represent the original cover ideas as well as the released versions. With Photoshop it should be possible to do this. The Elbow Is Taboo artwork was an idea of ours that we were able to directly oversee.

How important do you think album art is in the entire Renaldo & The Loaf package? Do you see it as an integral part, or just something to sell the music on the disc?

Brian Poole: At the time the surreality of the images we imagined complemented the songs we were recording. Suppose ideally we would have liked to have created, in our minds, a more integrated package, the art being ours as well a the music. But we did not have the capability to send over ‘camera-ready’ art and relied on Ralph, who had Pornographics at their fingertips, to do the packaging.

David Janssen: I see the music as the main thing, the cover is an afterthought inasmuch as it’s not something usually we consider until we have a title – the title then usually suggests an image. It depends where in the process the title presents itself.

Do the tapes for Tap Dancing In Slush/Behind Closed Curtains still exist? Any hope of a release now?

David Janssen: The tapes still exist, it depends how well they ‘clean up’. A release is possible.

Brian Poole: Yes the tapes still exist though they’re a bit old and fragile now. A couple of years ago I made a point of getting them digitized in a local studio to preserve the music. We’ve not made any plans to release them but elements of those tracks are planned to make an appearance on our Olleh Olleh Rotcod project.

What did you think of the alternate “Desperation Edition” cover of The Elbow Is Taboo?

David Janssen: I’d say it was fairly typical Ralph/Pornographics artwork.

Brian Poole: No opinion really….it was an interim measure that we had nothing to do with. The clear vinyl disc was quite nice though.

Were there any other artists you would have liked to collaborate with?

David Janssen: Brian Eno perhaps, our difficulty (my difficulty?) is that we’ve not worked in a ‘proper’ studio. I’m not sure if it would work in an environment where the clock is (metaphorically) ticking and it’s costing money for which there may be no return. We’ve always had the luxury of being able to work in our own environment at our own pace, be that fast or slow. But if you fancy a long weekend in Wales, Brian…

Brian Poole: Musically I don’t recall we ever thought about it. Having a chance to jam with the Residents was sufficient.

What is the It Was What It Was release?

David Janssen: One for Brian to answer I think!

Brian Poole: It wasn’t a release. Back in the late 90s I made a compilation of rare RATL for my own enjoyment which I copied for a very few close friends and RATL supporters like Ian McGrath who ran the RATL fan/website at the time…Ian put it in his site’s discography and maybe as a result it was mistaken for a release.

Were there any projects you would have liked to have done? Perhaps other music videos/short films?

David Janssen: Doing some video work would have bee interesting, or perhaps film music. Although we’ve done film music twice actually; once in the pre-RATL days we provided the music for a documentary film about a Spanish architect, and more recently (2007) we contributed 2 tracks to Alex Wroten’s film Kirk Mannican’s Liberty Mug.

Brian Poole: Would’ve been interesting. In 1986 we almost did a film for Altered Image, an arts and music programme on Channel 4. We were planning to do “The Bread Song” but we had no guidance and perhaps naively our ideas were too ambitious. By the time they sent someone down to talk through new ideas it was too late and the deadline was missed. Oh well.

Do you have any feelings on the legal troubles between the Residents and Snakefinger’s daughter?

David Janssen: I didn’t know there were any, so I can’t comment!

Brian Poole: No. Snakefinger was a really lovely guy and great musician; we met him a couple of times and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to witness him playing and recording on Title In Limbo.

Of the Renaldo & The Loaf records, which is your favorite?

David Janssen: Songs for Swinging Larvae.

Brian Poole: The next one.

Had you not disbanded, would the next record have continued in the poppier vein of The Elbow Is Taboo?

Brian Poole: Who knows? Just before we called it a day we were talking of investigating medieval music, its rhythmic simplicity, fascinating instrumental sounds and strident singing… no reason why all these years later we cannot continue where we left off albeit with more sophisticated equipment and sonic possibilities.

David Janssen: Not necessarily; we were experimenting with the sound of early music and possibly re-exploring some of our folk roots – viz. “Haul on the Bowline“. I think we’d probably have started in a new direction.

What equipment and techniques do you both use to make music now?

Brian Poole: Computers. I have a PC-based system running Cubase, Fruityloops and Soundforge. I still have my old guitars, bouzouki etc.

David Janssen: We use basically the same techniques, but adapted to the digital world. There is so much that we can do now that is just so much easier to achieve. The software available now just makes the work easier and quicker. Basically I’m just using a PC and FruityLoops software – I’ve not played an instrument for over 20 years; all you hear as far as my contributions to the new RATL material and all of The Darkening Scale material is sound samples sequenced with a step sequencer!

Are there any new acts that you find interesting?

Brian Poole: I listen to anything and everything and what I find interesting is the last thing that I heard that made me smile/tap my foot. With sites like MySpace, on average every day I’ll hear something that is ‘interesting’ – it’s the artists whose work stands the test of time I suppose and those for me are usually not so much ‘new’ acts as those who have been around for a while. But I’m currently liking Beirut at the moment, if that helps.

David Janssen: I’m totally ignorant of most modern music.

How is the remix project coming along?

Brian Poole: The Olleh Olleh project …hmmm….waiting for some input from my side of the fence.

David Janssen: It’s going well, we’ve had 14 varied contributions so far and there are more in the pipeline! It’s nice do be involved in a project where you don’t have to do all of the work!

Do you see your solo work as palpably different than your Renaldo & The Loaf material, or do you see it as more of an extension of what R&TL would be doing as a group today?

David Janssen: I’d say it has a different emphasis, though it is, of course, heavily influenced by the way RATL worked. What exactly the RATL of today sounds like still remains to be heard, but there is obviously a different chemistry involved when you are bouncing ideas around with another person – Brian and I approach things in different ways. It’s always been the way that we interact that has made RATL interesting for me.

Brian Poole: It still remains to be heard just what new RATL material may sound like though “Aria Meica” and “Crank Manikin” might possibly give a hint….I don’t know.

As to my solo work it reflects me and I’m half of RATL, in my heart the two aren’t really very different. The songs I’ve done since 1990 are my expression as Renaldo missing The Loaf’s input….I certainly found it odd creating on my own.

Now and then I get the chance to collaborate with others and that has the potential to create material that sounds different from what might been seen as identifiably Renaldo or RATL-like.

The solo work we’ve done will no doubt feed future music we make together.

After we split, the tape based studio was dismantled and a little bit later I bought an Atari midi set-up and started messing around with constructing tunes in midi…. the idea being I could work more quickly as I had less and less time to devote to music projects. With borrowed equipment a couple of tracks were finished off but the painful truth was that the computer threw up too many options/arrangements/potentials that I could hardly ever settle on a completed project ….I needed a second mind to discipline the process. So after a couple of PCs and a number of years I find myself with a clutch of songs awaiting completion, mostly just needing vocals – I will finish them off (promise) as a sort of ‘cleaning out my closet’ exercise.

Aside from your new music (The Darkening Scale and the Renaldo solo projects), are you working on any other projects you’d like to talk about?

Brian Poole: Since I find it hard enough to work my time to do RATL and Renaldo work I’ve put any other work pretty much on the back burner. Now and then I do some backing vocals for my friends The Autons and have requests to provide some voicework from a couple of other artists… vocals don’t take so much of my time.

David Janssen: I also have another solo project; Lightness Ascending, which came about at the suggestion of my wife, Jane who is a healer. She suggested that I made some music that she could use as a background for her healing work. It’s very different to RATL and The Darkening Scale. Pieces last for 30 minutes plus and typically move very slowly; it’s about atmosphere and ambience.

I’m also doing a project with a French artist, Sylvie Walder, who makes drones. I was asked if I’d like to use these drones in any way I wished and there are a number of pieces in the pipeline.

Also we’ve both been involved in Andrew LilesVortexVault project making contributions to Black Pool and Black Sheep (there are 12 CDs in the series all called Black something!).

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

David Janssen: All of The Darkening Scale’s music can be downloaded for free at www.soundfromsilence.co.uk.

 

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6 comments

  1. QWE Tully

    it’s great to hear things are so active now in the R&TL world. I’d love for there to be some sort of retrospective box set of albums (with a few extra discs of course!) as I only own the albums on vinyl… Except my “It Was What It Was” CD-r has had too much play and is beginning to skip a little (luckily I ripped them as wavs on my computer).

  2. Rev. Syung Myung Me

    I lucked out about 10 years or so ago when Esoteric still had the old Tec Tones CDs of the R&TL and Snakefinger stuff, so I got to pick all that up (along with most of the Uncle Willie discs!). Really great stuff, though; it makes me wish more of the Ralph catalog was available, since pretty much everything I’ve heard from Ralph has been pretty grand.

  3. Moon!

    After a number of years of interweb silence… a wealth of info/links to a well of RatL music.

    Thank you, interviewer and Brian + David.

    Really, thanks.

    Jon

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