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Most of Ka-Spel's work is charmingly moody. It's rich in psychedelic earwash with plenty of electronic gimmickry on the edges. But even with all the artifice, Ka-Spel's music can be curiously tuneful and attractive. Especially engaging--most notably with the Pink Dots-- is Ka-Spel's all-consuming gothic mindset. Ka-Spel plays the part of the English eccentric with panache. His songs are composed from an inward line of sight and his sing-talk sounds like a wobbly Syd Barrett before the fall.
On "Stitching Time," a magnetic opus from the Dots' 1992 disc, Shadow Weaver, Ka-Spel croons sullenly that, "The rules of the game are all mine for the making/You'll cheat all the same, but you're mine for the taking/There's no special favors and no one forsaken/I live for you all, but I'll die alone."
Such evocative navel gazing has made for a devoted battalion of Dots fans worldwide. But anyone looking for scripture in the Ka-Spel canon will likely find his private "prophet" looking straight back at him.
"My music allows space for interpretation," Ka-Spel says, his British accent dripping long-distance from a Florida hotel room. "I once wrote a song [Space Between'] based on the idea that events have feelings. We played the song at a show here in America, and this one time a girl came up and said, 'I know what that song's about. It's about abortion, isn't it?' I thought about it, and I could see how she thought what she did.
"Those kinds of things can be scary," Ka-Spel continues. "My music is very, very personal with many, many messages. A lot of emotion goes into it. A lot of questions are asked with very few answers. It's all very much a personal search--a realization of how utterly small everyone in the human race really is. Including me."
Ka-Spel's existential crusade includes an array of offbeat visions. An example is the Dots' 1988 concept album, The Golden Age. It tells the tale of a psychotic slacker who thinks his former lover, now a wildly succesful model, is taunting him via TV shows and magazine ads. Other Dots ditties range from "The Death of Jack the Ripper" (off 1990's The Crushed Velvet Apocalpyse), on which Ka-Spel intones a "Jack is dead" mantra over the sound of dripping water, to Shadow Weaver's "Prague Spring," a subtle but stunning neoclassical piece.
The resulting eclecticism brings to mind early-'70s art-rock acts like Can and Faust, along with such disparate avant-gardians as Syd Barrett and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ka-Spel says he doesn't mind the inevitable comparisons--not much, anyway.
"No, it doesn't bother me. I just don't think the Syd Barrett comparison's a good one. Nobody could be Syd Barrett," he says. "He's a unique character and such a magnificent songwriter. It would be a disservice to him to say we sound similar."
The Legendary Pink Dots' most recent album is Malachai/Shadow Weaver Part 2. It was recorded at the same time as last year's Shadow Weaver disc. But Part 2 is more ambient and textured than its predecessor. The latter release also incorporates a slightly more acoustic soundscape with "special guests" Patrick Q. Wright (viola, violin) and Steven Stapleton (exotic devices") adding to the efforts of Dots regulars Phil "Silver Man" Knights (keyboards), Martijn de Kleer (guitar), Ryan Moore (bass) and the aptly named Niels Van Hoornblower (sax, clarinet, flute).
"We like using acoustic instruments very much," Ka-Spel says, belying his band's reputation for electro high jinks. Ka-Spel maintains that "a sampled cello isn't quite right. It's like a blurred Polaroid. Electronics should only be used for sounds that you can't get naturally."
But the Pink Dots are still most "legendary" for their more adventurous noise applications: sampled car horns, dentists' drills, the rhythmic bluster of someone snoring like a sailor--they're all in evidence throughout the Shadow Weaver discs. One of the band's more inventive audio ideas was to use a creaky floorboard for percussion on a Malachai song titled, imaginatively enough, "On the Boards."
"We simply put a contact mic on a noisy floorboard and stepped on the board for rhythm," says Ka-Spel. He adds that the original version of the six-minute song went on for a full 17 minutes. "The person 'playing' the board couldn't walk for a week," he laughs. "On the Boards" likely won't be performed when the Dots hit the Roxy on Wednesday. Ka-Spel cites too many "exotic devices" needed to re-create the song live. But the fact that Ka-Spel and crew are even touring at all this spring is something of an achievement. The Dots' current U.S. tour had a shaky launch, to say the least.
"We started out the tour with the worst disaster in the entire history of the band," Ka-Spel says, a sense of wonder slowing his voice. "Someone stole $6,000 from us in Amsterdam right when we were leaving. It put us in an atrocious position. We recovered, but when we got to New York, we learned our tour bus was in Montreal. We also learned our first show, in Washington, D.C., had been moved up a night. So we had to drive up to Montreal, back to New York and then down to Washington without stopping. But we made it. And we played well when we got there."
Ka-Spel's expecting a much smoother ride the rest of the tour. And he says he's especially looking forward to the Phoenix date.
"We've been there a couple of times," he says of the Valley. "In 1987, we opened for Skinny Puppy at a wonderful place called Crash. It was a brilliant space to play, great atmosphere. I still consider that show as one of my all-time favorites.