What started off as a talk with Lisa Papineau about Big Sir --the project of The Mars Volta's Juan Alderete de la Pena and Lisa Papineau --soon turned into a fascinating, insightful, and deeply wonderful conversation about strength, inner struggle, and dealing with life. I have to say that this is one of my favorite conversations, and though you, dear reader, only get a glimpse at our conversation, suffice to say I came away from this chat feeling refreshed, enlightened, and inspired. How could I not?
"Und Die Scheiße Ändert Sich Immer?" Interesting title! (Laughs)
Yeah, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot with that one, for sure. The biggest problem is it has the umlauts and the double-s, so in search engines, it doesn't come up, and people spell it wrong, so it's a disaster in terms of that. (Laughs) At the time, we thought, "Oh, it really won't matter..." but anyway...
When I saw the title, I thought, "Hmm, this is going to be interesting!"
We always manage to do that. On every album, we always manage to do some stupid little thing that makes things more challenging and complicated.
Is it trying to tap into a sense of humor that doesn't necessarily translate very well with others?
It's a very poetic way of saying what it says. Talking to my German friend, there are other, more direct ways of saying, "And the shit don't change," but this is a very poetic way to say it. It was supposed to be an in-joke, a very private little joke between me and Juan. When we were doing the rough mixes of the album, whenever we would put it on iTunes to listen to it, our songs kept coming up weird. Not only did they come up in German, but they kept coming up in these titles like, "The Death of the Pagan" and "Blood Rage," these crazy, death-metal titles. We thought it was kind of a sign, and we were laughing about it, and we were trying to think of a name for this record. We were playing around, making these fake white-boy ghetto sayings, and then someone said, "The shit just keeps on changing," and we thought, "Let's say that in German!" And then we were like, "OH! We've got it!" (Laughs) We're idiots, that's for sure.
In referencing the loose vibe of the record, I went back and listened to your solo album and compared the two. In comparison, the Big Sir record seems to be much looser, almost based on improvisation, much less structured than your solo work.
Oh, very much so, and especially on this album. Juan and I don't have the same kind of time together to sit down and intricately sculpt a song down to the last detail, so the approach we took is definitely more reflective of how it came about instinctively. That doesn't happen on my solo album; there's a lot more thinking involved about arrangements. That's kind of fun, though. I like that there are two different approaches. With every album you do, even if you're doing the same thing with the same people, the approach is always going to be somewhat different each time around. It just depends on where you are in life and how together you are within those circumstances. For Big Sir, going back to the title, even though it's a rather silly title, it's quite apt. This past year has been a really rough one for me. I was diagnosed with MS, and I've essentially gone from being a hyper, too-much-energy, bouncing off the walls type of person to a person who...I can't really walk. So, you know, a lot of the songs, whether lyrically or just emotively, are expressing some of that Hence the title. I mean, what am I supposed to call it, "I have MS, feel sorry for me?" No. (Pause) That was a very long answer to a question you didn't ask. Sorry. (Laughs)
When you do Big Sir--with you living in France--do you do it a la The Postal Service?
When I was here in America a lot more, there was an intensive time where we'd be in a studio or in a room, writing. From that, sometimes we'd mail stuff back and forth from each other and work on it that way. I'm also here in LA about half of the time, so I'll try to schedule time to work on things with Juan when he is off the road. He's been really busy, but when we get together, we'll run in and do what needs to be done. Not all of it has been emailing files back and forth; all of it has had a bit of urgency to it. In terms of when we have time, it's so limited that we really turn it on when we get together--we have to, because we don't have a lot of time. That's definitely a color to the tone of the album. The next album, we're hoping to do it much more quickly; we're really hoping to get together for a week with some of the pieces we've started writing, and then spend a week recording it so it won't be so spread out like it has been for the first album and for this album. We'd like it to be a very tight, decisive recording process. We'll see how that goes, though.
What I like about it is the quickness; there's a definite feeling of spontaneity to the record.
Here's a good example of how it works for us. We'll have written something maybe five years ago, just some little piece, and we didn't actually record it until the day before we finished the record. So in a way, it's like they're already written. It's not like (improvises a melody) "Hey, let's do THIS idea!" They're more like little pustules of ideas that are waiting to burst. The first song on the album, the intro/interlude, it was something we kept holding off on finishing. We felt like there might be another part to make it a whole song. Finally, the last day of recording came, and I said, "I want to do this song," and I thought it was what it was. It was meant to be an intro, and it is complete unto itself. So we put it down, and, to me, it's so right-on. It's one of those moments where it feels 100% all-natural. Not all songs feel that way; some of them you really struggle with, and it takes time to get them right. This one, once we started recording, it just fell into place. It was sublime.
Did you enjoy making this record?
I did, but there were some times that were really frustrating. A couple of years ago, when we went into recording, we got set up and ready to go, but we had a lot of problems and we didn't get a lot done. And that's rather frustrating when you've come into town specifically to work and there's so little time, and then everything goes wrong. The last recording sessions and mixing, which was last spring, went beautifully. Everything just felt right; the right people came together, and it was wonderful. It's always been that way with us. Whichever friends are in town, they'll come down to the studio and play. The group of people who came down for those few days of recording--it was just magical. It reminds you of why you go through the trouble of making a record. To end on that kind of note, it was wonderful, and it's been nothing but good since then. To have that kind of support, it's nice. The album was supposed to come out in November, but it doesn't officially come out until February, but we feel alive again.
Looking at your website, I can see you're going to be busy this year.
(Laughs) Yup. Juan is going to be working on a new Mars Volta record, and I'm going to be working on some things, too. I'm already working on a new solo record. We're hoping to do a new Big Sir record, only this time writing and recording it over a very short period of time, so it won't be spread out over the decade (Laughs). I'm going to be doing a record some of the guys I've made music with for a long time. I just finished some songs with a Japanese composer, and I'm pretty much finished with that project, though I may be doing some more lyric writing for him. Then I believe I'm going to be recording a live album with a band called Crooked Cowboys, who I'm going to be doing some shows with soon. It is spaghetti western meets Japanese music meets Europop, amongst other things. (Laughs) It's beautiful. It's epic. That's more vocalizing than singing. It's more about being an instrument. Those are the things I have lined up for now. Oh, and I’m going to start an experimental mime group. (Laughs) It sounds like something that will be fun, don't you think?
You seem like the kind of person who has to keep busy doing something artistic.
(Laughs) Oh, I don't know about that. Whether it's artistic or not, it's not important. I enjoy learning and doing new things. I'd like to think most people are that way. I'm in my element when I'm a little bit lost and overwhelmed with either something I don't understand and I have to learn how to do it, or a project that was supposed to be done yesterday and I have to get it done immediately. I think I have to learn a different way to work, though, having gotten sick. That method's just not going to fly any more. I definitely need to learn how to adjust. That's going to be a learning project for me now--how to do the things I want without getting sicker. That's a really big deal for me. Learning to say "no" to something--saying no is the hardest thing for me to do.
I'm sure you feel like you're betraying your muse.
Yeah. It's that, but as I'm sure you know, whenever you do a musical project, there are ten million other little duties that go along with it that aren't musical. There's so much paperwork, there's so many other things besides writing and recording and playing live, and that stuff is just--I want to say "yes" to every project, but hand in hand with every project is all of that other stuff. I'm going to try and learn how to micromanage that a bit. And right now I’m talking to me, but I do want to talk about Juan, too. We hope to do a record as quickly as possible. It feels like we just got started; when we finished that last session, it went so well, I felt like we were only starting.
With the struggles you're going through now, do you find yourself in a different place creatively than you were before?
Oh yes, for sure. Physically, emotionally, everything. My voice, it sounds different now. My voice, it's still my voice, but because my body is changing, my voice is changing in ways, too. Even in terms of my writing; the sounds I hear in my head, the kind of songs that I write--they're changing. Whether you're sick or not, we're all dying. (Laughs) As people, we have to learn how to get through life, and once you do that, you come to an understanding about what you are doing in life. Every day is a constant cycle of growth and understanding, and it's a never-ending cycle. It's very...overwhelming...if you spend a lot of time thinking about it.
It's very humbling.
It is humbling. But if it doesn't humble you, then you are not really understanding your place, that you are a vessel, that you are a part of a whole, a very small part of the eventual and never-ending whole. When you get there and you start to understand that, once you're humbled, and you appreciate where you are, that's the sweet spot. That's when you start to appreciate life and enjoy what you have.
Big Sir's newest album is available now on GSL
Labels: Big Sir, GSL, Lisa Papineau