“…what does everyone else do when they finish work? Make some music?”
Despite his numerous concerts, the Berliner-of-choice Stephen Burch (The Great Park) has taken some time to reply to our questions.
And no, our author Katharina didn’t take the long way journey to Ireland…
She has interviewed the musician and artist, who was born in 1975, via email – fortunately he was willing to put his pencil and guitar aside for a little while…
photo by Sam Collins
So let’s start!
You’ve told me that you are out in the Irish countryside at the moment. I imagine some kind of loneliness but also the possibility to receive new strength. Do you get your inspirations for new songs there?
I tend to write best here, yes. There seems to be less distractions and I can just write away without worrying too much what things are going to feel like being played in front of people. I don’t play concerts in Ireland really – I use the time here to write and record and then take it all back to the city where it gets played out loud.
I know that a lot of my imagery comes from my immediate environment here – the fields, the farms, the animals and the woods. I hear good stories from people here as well of course – I have friends who are wonderful storytellers – and this is important to me too. But I will say that living in Berlin and the history of the place has fuelled my writing more than anything else that I can remember. I think at the moment I’m mixing certain atmospheres I feel from Berlin with images of the Irish countryside more and more.
Nevertheless, you recorded your new album “If you can hold you you can throw it” in Berlin, is that right? Do you think that the ambivalence of the city is reflected in this album?
That was the third album I’ve recorded in Berlin, and it does seem to be a little tougher than the others to me. Perhaps I’m getting used to the place.
And what about the title of the album? In contrast to “Cellar” (the previous album) the title does not sound frightening… at first sight the title has a rather ironic character. What does the title refer to?
The title refers to being able to have the courage to throw something away – to live without something. There’s several songs on the record that are about falling out of good relations with people, and also about a desire to ‘travel light’. ‘Cellar’ to me wasn’t funny at all – and most of that was written from a more vulnerable point of view. I’d say that experience prepared me for this one – thickened the skin somewhat.
It’s nice that you hint at it being almost funny; this ‘gallows’ humour is really important to me – this ‘grave drama’ stuff. I think a lot of what I write is kind of funny – in that most of it is sang with a smile,
however bleak it sounds. I’m not sure it’s ironic – I mean, it’s true – if you can hold it you can throw it. Simple.
Good that you mentioned the “gallows” humour… I´ve seen several of your concerts. Everytime there’s such a great atmosphere. People sit or lie in their chairs, smoke cigarettes, drink beer… – they can simply relax and allow themselves to be transported by the desire to listen. It seems to me that they can lose themselves in your stories… Could you tell me something about the connection between your autobiography and your stories/songs?
Well the songs always start somewhere, and more often than not this is a direct experience. But very quickly for me the trick is just to write without thinking too much. I think I try to start with something real and then move just into the song – things can be suggested by autobiographical events but in the end I’m trying to make songs that work, not tell life stories.
But I do like to include actual things in songs – real places and people. I like names, and I often like images to be as definite as possible – I would rather hear ‘Berlin’ than ‘city’ for example, or ‘Thomas’ or ‘Michael’ rather than ‘he’. So I tend to mention things that I have some knowledge of – and it frightens me a bit to use real names, I like it.
photo by Fee Rieger
I have noticed that you seem very well prepared before and within the concert. How do you get in the mood for your songs? Could you tell me something about that?
In terms of writing it helps me to write in the morning, before I’ve started with anything else, and I think this is a common practice with most people. It’s good to write before I’ve woken up properly, before I’ve started thinking about practical things. I also play guitar much worse in the morning – make more mistakes and write things that I don’t understand so much – and this helps with new ideas.
But in terms of playing a concert I don’t have any preparation or anything serious like that. I really enjoy it – I find it very natural and an easy thing for me to feel comfortable doing. Obviously it’s ideal to be relaxed and calm beforehand with a quiet audience – but when it’s been less than ideal as soon as I start playing I find I settle a lot. As long as I know the first couple of songs I’m fine with it – I guess I rely on them.
You also sell your albums at your concerts. I like the design of the albums and posters. They are always handmade by “The Great Park”, am I right?
The albums and posters come out from the Woodland Recordings label – a DIY label I started around 2007 in Brighton. This came out of a desire to have the freedom to release music by myself and the people I knew that were making work that I loved. It was a simple thing – we’d make CDRs and get excited about beautiful artwork, make a few hundred and sell them online and at gigs. Each pays for itself and it’s somehow sustainable.
I think the best way to make an album is to make it yourself, and the best way to get a concert is to organise one yourself. Anyway, the label has had over 30 releases – most of them albums in limited editions, all handmade by myself and the artists I’m working with at the time. I’ve put out about 10 releases of my own music through the label – about 7 full length albums – and the others have been with lots of different artists. The poster artwork again comes out of this desire to have control over things and to care about the details – I try to treat each concert as an event in itself with specific references about who’s playing and so on.
There are certain things that I think are important when making one’s own work – I think that if at all possible one shouldn’t rely on waiting for someone else to make decisions or to have control over how things are made. The label is about doing things yourself and having a love for the details – to this end I think it’s important to make home recordings, design artwork, make websites (avoid Myspace!) and take some care about what you put your name to. It’s ultimately more rewarding and satisfying and you should be able to make what you want.
photo by Cobie Deuling
How would you describe your music – can one categorize it as folk music? If so, what is your background concerning “folk music”? Is it based on experiences from your childhood or family?
I always call it ‘folk music’ yep, but there’s no real history in my family of that traditional folk music thing. My father always played music when we were growing up – Neil Young, Elton John, country stuff, lots of west coast American things – ‘Dadrock’ – nothing unusual about that really. When I started making music I did it on my own – and out here in the country, and I think that’s where the basic sound comes from – the lack of super clever instrumental things, the use of acoustic guitar, wonky piano, no traditional drums, etc.
I would just like to ask a supplementary question: When did you create your first song? How old have you been?
I was at art college in England when I was about 20 and was writing pretty awful songs there. Recording a lot though, making things. After I graduated I went to Ireland and continued painting but it was getting me down a lot. It was fairly depressing trying to continue with these large canvasses and so I started recording more and more in the painting studio I had built. Some things I’d recorded got heard and I was offered some concerts in London so I went. It was suddenly much simpler to make a song, put it on a cassette and send that to someone than making a large scale oil on canvas and trying to carry that somewhere. I was lazy basically – this was when I was about 24.
What are your favourite musicians? Does it reflect somehow within your work?
I like most of those heavy fellows – Dylan, Cohen, Young and all those folks. But I love blues music – especially Blind Willie McTell – and I play really terrible blues guitar at home all the time but I can’t say I’ve ever played too much of that blues stuff in my songs.
I’m lucky to have friends who make great music too – people like Fee Reega, Preslav Literary School, Thirty Pounds Of Bone, Mute Swimmer, Birdengine, Woodpecker Wooliams, Binoculers – I would think having these folks around in some way means that there’s a kind of work ethic in place all the time, something that’s really important to me.
photo by Jon Simmons
I really enjoyed the concerts where you’ve been on stage together with your friends! These collaborations are very strong, sometimes experimental… and especially for the audience it’s often an unexpected music experience. Stephen, I’ve read that you’re playing more then 150 concerts a year! How do you manage this?!
I really love it and it’s my job – so for me it’s like work that I can get excited about. And, although I do enjoy playing with other people, travelling and making concerts alone is very simple for everyone – I don’t need a lot of equipment and can often play in rooms that aren’t necessarily built for music. This year I think I’ve played a few more than that, next year more too I hope.
So the question is: What are you doing when you’re not writing/playing music?
Well these days I seem to spend a lot of my time online arranging shows for myself and for other people that the label work with. When I can I book concerts and tours for other musicians from England and elsewhere and this takes a lot of organising. I have some releases for the label always coming up too so there’s usually something that can be done with that. As I’m self-employed I have to watch the hours and try to keep some order to my day otherwise it would just get away from me. I don’t know – what does everyone else do when they finish work? Make some music?
The last thing I’d like to know is if you could tell me about the strangest place you´ve been to so far…
I’ve played some different places – tiny little villages way out in the Italian countryside, wine cellars in Switzerland, the Tate gallery, museums in The Netherlands, charity shops in Brighton – but one of the strangest concerts I’ve played was last month in Berlin. I was asked to play a private concert – they offered me a lot of money and I was in town at the time, so I thought it’d be ok. When I got there I realised I was to be playing in what was essentially a carpet showroom – and for two and a half hours… Everyone was eating and looking at carpets – no one listened of course, played dozens of songs – still haven’t been paid. Hmmm, is that kind of strange?
That sounds definitely bizarre!
Stephen, thanks for this great Interview!
photo by Felicia Kubieziel
ACTUAL DATES IN BERLIN
Intersoup, Berlin, Germany – with Mute Swimmer
Laika, Berlin, Germany
Joe’s Bar, Berlin, Germany – with Thirty Pounds Of Bone
Here www.showtogo.ch you can find some more videos.
interview by Katharina Worf