A conversation with Australian singer-songwriter Douglas Pearce
The British-Australian singer-songwriter Douglas Pearce of Death in June has been one of the most widely discussed artists of his kind since 1981. Now he has released a new album that takes a new direction: 'The Peaceful Snow'...
In your recent interviews you have already indicated an era for Di6 would end. You said something about leaving your compositions to other people to interpret them. When did you decide to work on new songs and how did the idea for the piano came up? Were there other ideas to involve people with other instruments maybe?
In April of last year some fans pointed me in the direction of YouTube to listen to some piano versions of 2 Death In June songs from The Rule Of Thirds album someone had posted videos of. I thought they were brilliant and I was eventually put in touch with Miro Snejdr, a Slovak pianist. I suggested I'd like to put out an entire album of well known/favourite Death In June songs done in this instrumental 'Lounge Corps' type of way so that project began then. Some months later towards the end of those particular recordings I was listening to mixes of them in the office when the basic words to Peaceful Snow, quickly followed by The Maverick Chamber, started coming into my head! This completely surprised me but when the Muse descends you can't afford to ignore it so that was how it actually started. A new album wasn't planned it simply declared itself! As I suggested after the release of The Rule Of Thirds that as I'd embarked on a course of deconstruction in Death In June that taking my own playing out of the equation would probably be the next step. However, I didn't realize that it would be that kind of step totally into the unknown. I thought it more likely that another group like Down In June for instance would end up playing an album of new DIJ songs. That obviously was not meant to be!
How did the writing process happen? Did you still write the songs on guitar and handed them over for the piano-interpretations or have you been writing the songs together?
On this occasion the process literally began in August 2009 staring out of the window in the main Fort Nada office where I never usually work creatively. I have other rooms and places for song writing. I was depressed, angry, worried about all the destruction our property had recently suffered in recent late Winter storms, listening to a variety of Miro's interpretations of old DIJ songs and actually getting more angry about the situation when the idea of Peaceful/Pearceful Snow slid into my brain. The words to that and The Maverick Chamber were the first I recorded alongside Miro's piano and originally I thought these would be like bookends to the 17 instrumental Death In June 'Lounge Corps' tracks that he'd done. However, these 2 new ideas did further inspire me to quickly fly off to a couple of my favourite hideaways where I can usually write new material and within a couple of weeks about another 6 songs were written. Ironically, whilst I was absent from Fort Nada even more damage was done by a massive 30 metre tree falling down so I returned to even more destruction! By December, 2009 I felt confident enough to commit to a full new album and started recording my stripped back Totenpop guitar versions/demos, sending them over to Miro in Europa and then re-doing my vocals over the top of his piano interpretations when they arrived back. We've never physically worked together so I really appreciate how close he keeps to the momentum and nuances of my originals. In fact, I don't even know what he looks like. All I've ever seen are his hands and forearms which can be seen on YouTube! The whole experience has been refreshingly different. At the end of the day we have 13 new Death In June 'Totenpop Torchsongs' plus 17 'Lounge Corps' interpretations of classic DIJ which will only be available as an extra CD in the first 3,000 copies of the Peaceful Snow CD.
Do you yourself also play the piano? It has already been an instrument that sometimes was used on earlier Di6 recordings.
I would prefer to say that I can 'get by' on keyboards and you can hear the start of my handiwork from the "NADA!" album onwards, after which I played all keyboards. But, I wouldn't come close to Miro's proficiency. As an aside, there are a few of the Totenpop demos I sent to Miro that have my typical keyboard riffs on them and sometimes Miro will cleverly allude to these original motifs.
To me your last two albums seem to stand out your earlier works. My impression is some kind of a relaxed spirit, something maybe even peaceful. Can you understand this impression of mine and is there maybe some truth to it?
Even though released in 2008 to me The Rule Of Thirds started its birth in 2005 which was a major year of great change, melancholy and saying goodbye to so much and to so many. In retrospect it was one of THE major years of my Life. Peaceful Snow has been created out of a time of great uncertainty, concern and outright anger as Life at Fort Nada became less secure, less beautiful, less assured. With weather conditions becoming ever more extreme 2009 was the first year it actually felt dangerous to live here. Link that to the other World climate change of the new economic depression then I can't say I feel at all "relaxed" or "peaceful" so I'm not in tune with your mpression. If TROT was the 'Kampf Fire Music' where everything was stripped back to return to nature, return to the basics to examine what I had in the starkest of light then Peaceful Snow is the soundtrack heard in the foyer of the 'Hotel Fort Nada' where we can sip and enjoy the finest cocktails and food but outside the crystal glass windows all is not well - at all!
I have received an announcement you are going to re-release the "Occidental Martyr" album from your back catalogue. Sometimes you tend to rework some of the songs on the re-releases. Will there also be changes for this release?
The difference with this 'boutique' release will be that in will be available as a 10" picture disc and on numbered coloured vinyl for the first time. There are, in fact, certain releases I wouldn't contemplate reworking musically in any way and Occidental Martyr is one of them. It's one of my personal favourites and I would never be able to find myself in that frame of mind again to be able to approach any new work or remixing. It's too of its time. It's remained precious, unreachable and untouchable. Another such album is Burial which is also being re-issued as another 'boutique' picture disc LP for the first time but that does come with a bonus picture disc 7" of 'Totenpop' versions of Heaven Street and Death Of The West. As most will know Burial, when originally released in 1984, marked the end of the first incarnation of Death In June and, as flawed as I think that album is, I won't touch the master tapes for that reason. In fact, Death In June's strong sense of Zeitgeist existed from the very start as we refused to buy the 16 track (I'm pretty sure they weren't 24 track) master tapes of our first singles and The Guilty Have No Pride album deciding that what we had final mixes of would be exactly what we wanted to sound like in 1981-83 and that was how it was going to remain. We were very adamant about that. In retrospect it's quite strange to think those original Death In June multi-tracks got wiped over at Alaska Studios at our own request!
How is it to work on old songs or albums of yours, do you sometimes feel to "correct" something you do not like anymore? Would it not be fair to leave these old recordings as documents of their times as they are/were?
As I've said, some are 'untouchable', have remained precious and are respected as such but others that have different versions/mixes/instrumentation on their respective master multi tracks then with re-issues I think most people appreciate hearing those as well as the original versions and, in some cases, replacing the original versions and inventing new ones. One of the themes behind Death In June is Purity of Intent and if that Purity becomes somehow defiled then that situation has to be dealt with in the only way defilement can be. If some reviewers or listeners don't like that then that's fine but I suggest to them that the next time someone they know secretly shits in a part of their home and they don't know about it until the smell gets so great it alerts them to the fact that that 'friend' is no friend at all and they find out what they've done - relax! Don't do a thing. That shit and its smell is a wonderful document of that time and 'friendship' and must be savoured as such. Some people enjoy that kind of thing. But, I happen to be one of those who would prefer to clean the shit up - preferably after I've rubbed the culprit's nose in it, naturally!
Correct me if I am wrong, but on the last two albums of yours the image of "your father" can be found in the lyrical work. How much of your real father is contained in the lyrics? As far as I can remember from an old interview I read you mentioned a strong tension between him and you. An example was your interest in the WW2 German military while he was a fighter pilot and not very happy about your interests. Can you describe your relationship and maybe tell us about why he might be part of the words in your newer songs?
With the exception of the title track of Peaceful Snow I'm unaware of any imagery to do with my Father on any Death In June album! There is nothing of him contained in any lyric! I had a close, loving relationship with him and he eventually encouraged me in my historical interests but as he died a few days after my 14th birthday I cannot really say I really knew the man as a man. There wasn't any "strong tension" between us. That incident was dealt with and in fact, there was a real understanding between me as a young boy and my Father - especially just before his death.
"Winter" is another image we can find in lyrics of past and present songs of yours. What is it that you feel about winter? Is it threatening or peaceful to you? Are there proper winters where you live with snow etcetera?
From a European perspective I feel very much in need of Winter. In fact, it was my favourite Season in the Northern Hemisphere. I feel energized and at home in it. However, the Winter we experience here can be cold, long, very wet and dour. It's not the same. There are never days when you wake up to a bright white covering of snow that I still find so exciting. In fact, this year, after I'd finished recording the final tracks for the album and as I missed this so much we decided to drive East 12 hours to the snowbound Alpine region where we rented a log cabin for a week. It was brilliant to be surrounded by metre deep snow and trekking through blizzards again! It was a real celebration of the making of Peaceful Snow! And made for some good photographs as well!!
In our last interview you said turning 50 and heart disease running in your family has influenced your thinking a lot. Death, decay, farewells etc. were always part of Di6 lyrics and are again reflected on the last two albums, but somehow differently. Has your personal situation changed your way of putting down thoughts on these topics? How do you see your lyrics with similar subjects written when you were still younger? Were they written in a more naïve way than today?
First of all, I've never written in a naive way for Death In June. I had got rid of my naivity in Crisis. Secondly, the aging process and Life experiences must have an effect upon one's writing, or at least, how one articulates. It's normal. It's nature. I was 24 when Death In June began. I'm now 54. That's food for thought in itself.
Some of your lyrics seem still to address former companions of yours. Despite the reasons you broke with them or they broke with you do you sometimes find it sad having lost friendships?
Once again, I'm unaware of any particular lyrics addressing anyone specifically but I'm pleased your imagination has been stirred. It's the Death In June way! As regards feeling sad about ridding my Life of treacherous, back stabbing egotists, mighty mouthed drunk, threatening braggarts etc then all I can say is that my Life feels all the more enriched - by their absence from it.
Although you have stopped to perform on stage, was there no weak moment in which you spent a thought about playing your new album live? I can imagine it could be very interesting with a Steinway on stage and you in front on an old fashioned microphone
The idea of a man camouflaged as a bush and a pair of disembodied hands playing the keys is possibly more likely and with the 30th Anniversary of Death In June in 2011 anything could be possible. The Pearceful family meets the Addams family!
Interview conducted by Gernot Musch via Email in October 2010. The photos are promotional shots and are copyrighted by the respective copyright-owners. They are reproduced here in the context of documentation of the new release.