Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Chris Plummer (September 1998)

With over 30 years of writing and performing, Kevin is one of rock's true survivors. After attending art school in his home town of Derby, England, and moving to London with some friends to do music, he and his collaborator, pianist Nick Cudworth, were discovered by John Peel in the '60's. With the resulting band Siren (which included ex-Bonzo Dog Band bassist Dave Clague), Kevin started on a musical road that gave the music world one of its most singular bodies of work. Finding himself sought out by Virgin Records when they were just beginning, Kevin explored many personal topics (the insane, the lonely, and the cutthroat music business among them) with an original music style that crossed blues and avant garde with a little theater thrown in.
A rocky time in the early '80's followed. A nervous breakdown and his long-time marriage ending could have spelt the end for Kevin but instead, Kevin found a new life in Germany. There he continued issuing strong albums, constantly touring, and then started to gain notoriety for his painting and drawing with high profile showings in galleries throughout Germany and Europe.
With people such as Sting and John Lydon citing him as an influence, and such musical greats such as Andy Summers, and the late Archie Leggett (Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen) backing him up in his years when he lived in Britain, along with the equally great support Kevin gets from his German collaborators, Kevin continues to keep on doing what he does best- singing about the underdog, be it himself or others, such as all of us are at one point in time or another!
So, you can bet that I was excited when Perfect Sound Forever asked me to interview Kevin himself! (I previously had written a tribute to Kevin for Perfect Sound) You could also bet that I was somewhat nervous. Interviewing a man who has "been there, done that" in almost thirty years of writing, recording, and performing, not to mention painting, without hardly a break in the action! What follows is an interview I conducted over the phone from Maryland, USA, to Kevin's home in Nuremberg. Kevin was indeed nice, and was very easy to interview! He needed hardly any prompting to get informative answers! All this, and he made a few comments that he has done countless interviews, and they all seem the same- the same questions, and more or less the same answers. So, I really tried to avoid the typical questions he may always get asked- working as a social worker, his rocky past. I mainly focused on what is happening now. Actually, I didn't plan a thing! I just rolled the tape, and just let what happen, happen! Talking to one of my favorite artists was a special thing to me, and he seemed to enjoy it, too! Thanks, Kevin!
ED NOTE: Enormous thanks go out to Simon Thackray.

PSF: So... 1998. How has the year been?

Kevin Coyne: Very good... It's always good these days...

PSF: Just the other day, I was looking on the Internet. Are you familiar with the Internet?

KC: A bit. People send me things occasionally that they have taken from it, but I don't have a computer myself. So, I guess I have to rely on other people, but I do know that people do put things on the Internet, yes...

PSF: Just the other day, I was just doing a search, and a bunch of your artwork seems to have just popped up recently. Mostly, related to your participation in a show in Boston. How has that been?

KC: Well, that's finished now, but it went very good as far as I know it was well received. Somebody sent me a review back from the Boston-something-or-other and it seemed OK, yeah.

PSF: That was the first time your artwork has had a major showing in America?

KC: As far as I know, yeah.

PSF: So, a little bit about songwriting. How did you get involved? Actually what came first the music or the artwork?

KC: Well, I have been in bands since the '50's. I started with rock and roll like a lot of people did in that era and the songwriting thing came along later, I guess. In the '60's, I had a band called Siren. We made about three albums, I think, I can't remember how many. And, there are one or two kind of "bootlegs" around as well. But, I guess in the '60's I really seriously started songwriting... mid-60's.. Just before the Siren period, I was living out in the north of England and had some friends out there, and putting together basically very spontaneous, really, and still is blues and folk influenced kind of thing. So, in the mid-'60's is when I started.

PSF: So, you were in bands before then?

KC: Yeah, that's right. I was in bands when I was home in Derby (in the Midlands in England). I was in bands from about the age of 14 in one way or another. In art school I was a part of the "Blues Boom" in England in the early-'60's. I was right from the start, really. Almost.. Not exactly sharing the stage with Bill Haley and The Comets, but not far off. I have been around a long time.

PSF: Were you a singer or an instrumentalist back then?

KC: I was a singer. Of course during the blues period I played harmonica as well, as everybody did, and went on from there. I sort of picked up guitar in the '60's... late-'60's, and went on from there.

PSF: You seem to have an original guitar style. How did you come up with it?

KC: I don't know really. I guess I really didn't want to pursue it too much in the beginning because I really was just a singer, and I was happy to be that; writing lyrics and stuff. But, I reckon as I sang these songs, I was actually writing the fucking things as far as I was concerned! So, I lent an open tuning to the guitar, which some people call "open-E" or "Spanish" tuning. And... my tiny hands had trouble making proper chords so I started using my thumb. But originally I used a metal rod to do things like "Dust My Broom" and Elmore James blues-type numbers. Then I started using my finger instead of a metal slide and it developed on from there, and it's all gotten quite complicated now..

PSF: Have you ever worked with electric guitar?

KC: I have done, yeah. I did an album called Legless In Manilla in the early 80's, which I think came out on Rough Trade here in Germany and one or two other places. But normally, I never use electric guitar though..

PSF: You've worked with both British and German musicians...

KC: and one American, too... [Gary Lucas]

PSF: Oh! So, what have you found to be the differences, instrumentally wise, between German, English, and American musicians?

KC: Well, I think with Germans [rock and roll], it's not really part of their culture, I don't think. The rocker/boogie sort of transatlantic type of thing. Their thing is more tubas, leather shorts, and all that sort of thing, in my feeling. But, they do have a version of stomping along. I think that this comes from Kraftwerk and Can. They do have this original kind of modern rock music, and they have created something particularly that belongs to them that's their own. But, this kind of mid-Atlantic boogying thing, they copy but never quite get the feeling, in my feeling.

PSF: Would you say that Germans, then, are not really good at improvising. Like just "wing-it." Can they do that?

KC: Well, they have a go at it. I mean, the proof is in the pudding, really, because on the last album I did, Knocking On Your Brain, is done with some of the best musicians in Germany- I would say without any doubt- and they can all do it. They all romped along rather well, but I don't know if it was because I was prompting them rather heavily. But, they can "wing-it", yeah.

PSF: That album was recorded quite fast, wasn't it?

KC: Well, it was. It was all done in one-take jobs really, you know, over a period of three or four days in The Main.

PSF: That's pretty much a feat there.

KC: No, I don't think so. I think I work incredibly fast on everything. Including painting, writing, the whole lot really. I like to work fast, and I have accepted that's the way that I am, and when I am at my best, really.

PSF: So, you have let things go by that could have been better? Something that maybe I wouldn't notice but you would?

KC: Sometimes. Well... I think that some people do notice, but occasionally. Well.. some do and some don't.. Some people notice, it's common-something that could have been a little better or more precise. I recognize that myself, but I am not a great listener to my own records, I have to say.. I tend to make one and then forget about it... I think that's fairly common.

PSF: I heard through a mutual acquaintance that in the early days, you were quite a fanatic with tape recording practices and stuff like that.

KC: Yes, sure. In the late 60's, when the band that I was with was sort-of-broken up, and I recognized that I had to do something on my own, I became sort of this "back-bedroom" type with a tape recorder someone from the record company lent me. From this, it all sort of transformed itself into Case History, my first solo album. But, I don't do anything like that anymore, now. But, yes, I was quite a fanatic. There are alot of Siren CD's around that were home recordings, none of which I never intended to put out at all. I am very annoyed about these, I have to say. Although I am told by the man who did it, the bass player from Siren, that it is good for my name, but I'm not too sure about that. They are a bit "iffy," some of them.

PSF: So, The Club Rondo, Let's Do It, and Rabbits CD's...

KC: Oh yeah, I never planed to put those out, no.. They were done in a real studio, I think. Some of them I can distinctly remember doing around Dave Claque's flat or somewhere or somebody's, you know. It wasn't my tape recorder either. He kept the tapes, and over the years released them.

PSF: Four years ago, somebody in Norway sent me a tape of Siren. One side was titled "Live At Robert's House" and the other was "Live At Tat's House." That side sounded like a bedroom recording....

KC: "Live At Tat's House"? [laughs] That's the ace drummer [of Siren] who I met a few years ago in Brighton... Yeah, I really have no knowledge about what is on these things...sort of rambling, nowhere blues most of them, I think. I wonder who Robert is. I know one Robert very well, and one of my son's is called Robert. I am mystified by that.

PSF: "Robert's" starts out with "Blues Before Sunrise"

KC: Oh, that sort of thing, yeah... I don't remember where that was done, but we used to do that old Elmore James thing...

PSF: So, what does the rest of the year, 1999, and the millenium hold for Kevin Coyne?

KC: Well, I don't know. As I rather say boringly through every interview: more of the same, I suppose. But, I have exhibitions coming up. One is Leverkusen in October, and some tour of France in October, too, dates there. Something came in from Italy the other day, which I don't normally go there very often.

PSF: Would these be with the band?

KC: Italy will be with a band, I think. Hmm. I don't remember the name of the town now, but Utenay or somewhere. Anyway, Italy is one of the things, and there are also things in Paris, hopefully Brussels, and all around in October.

PSF: How come it is rare for you to play with a band outside of Germany? Is it economics?

KC: It is a matter of costs, really. You have to pay four or five people's wages, and circumstances are that I just can not get the money for it, you know. But, I don't think it is any less meaningful or powerful without a band. I think it is just different, that's all.

PSF: Oh yeah. Different forms.

KC: Yeah, that's right.

PSF: So, are you from that school of thinking that if you change the form of something, you give it a different meaning, a different twist?

KC: What do you mean? In terms of what? a live performance?

PSF: Yes. If you play one song in one concert as a duo or solo, and then you put on another show with a full band, doing the same song, do you think that there is different atmospheres?

KC: It certainly does, yes. I mean, if you are not playing yourself, not concentrating on remembering chords and things, there is more chance to lay back and improvise, but that doesn't necessarily make it any better. So, it is all a matter of the day and time with me.. Every song gets treated differently every time I perform it, especially verbally. The words can change dramatically. It's strange often to see people in the audience mouthing the words, and then getting stuck as they are following what is on the record. So, it is all just different, that's all. I like working with a band. You know, they have to be well tuned in to my way of working, and sometimes that can be difficult. The current band is extremely good, I think.

PSF: Is it the same band that is from the record?

KC: No, none of the guys in the current band played on this record. But, they actually live in Nuremburg, which is handy for me. They had appeared on the previous record, The Adventures Of Crazy Frank, but they were not on the last record, no.

PSF: How have you adjusted to life in Germany? How long have you been there?

KC: Oh, about 13 years, or something, now.

PSF: Did it take a while to settle in?

KC: Oh, it did. I mean, I went back to England periodically. It was all a rather traumatic time, you know- change in circumstances, family wise, divorce, and all this. It was all a long time ago. It happened, and there you are. It took me a time. Now, I like it very much here, I have to say. I am very happily married. I have been with the same person for the last 11 years. I'm stable in that respect.

PSF: Did you have trouble getting around at first? Do you know how to speak German now?

KC: I do, but I am not an expert, but yes, I can understand pretty well all of it. I speak reasonably well on occasion when I am in the mood, or in form. But remember, I first came to Germany, God knows... 27-28 years ago, and I know the country pretty well, really, working here prior to living here. So, I got a good sense of the order of things. The language was a problem. But, many people, as you probably know, speak English anyway here in Germany. So, it is quite easy. One of the best places in Europe, probably the best, apart from Scandanavia, to be if you are speaking English.

PSF: Especially when I was in a layover in Holland en route to Germany.

KC: Oh yeah, Holland is magnificent. Everyone speaks some form of English. It's the world language, I guess. Thanks to the Americans anyway but, it can be difficult if you get stuck in places like Madrid and Paris.

PSF: With some of your audiences in different countries, who are some of the best?

KC: Well, you have to remember, sort of the beginning of the eighties, I haven't toured as extensivley in so many countries as in the Seventies for various reasons. One, is just being centered in Germany and being a little bit off the beaten track. Over the years, though that, taking all into consideration, an English audience is as good as any, although I hardly play there at all at the moment. I love English audiences because they are full of the wit, the humor. There is a lot of comedy in my things, very well, in my show, and I don't want to be, like, endlessly serious. So I would say a good English audience but particularly London. But it's very hard to differentiate, really. I mean the response is... I'm not blowing me own trumpet really, but the response is universally good, really. I get really good audience in East Germany, for instance, you know, which is the former Communist bloc. I played there a lot because I toured there during the time, you know, the Communist time, so they knew me anyway. I went there when the Wall came down, and the response was absolutely amazing, and they don't understand a lot of English there, or did at the time. But, if they really get the jokes, and they get the expanse of the thing; the breadth of what I do, then I appreciate that, and obviously England is the best place for that.

PSF: So, now it seems you very active touring and playing live, unlike the early '80's.

KC: I was active in the early 80's! I have never stopped touring. I have toured more than anybody, anywhere. I don't think I have ever stopped. I think I have had a month off, or two, in a period of about twenty years. (laughs)

PSF: Sort of like Jim Croce in his prime!

KC: Well, I don't know. B.B. King or something like that, I guess. Slightly bigger names than me commercially.

PSF: Do you get a kick when people recognize you in public?

KC: Ahhhh... (pauses) Depends on who the people are. What can I say? It happens far more frequently than I plan. But, it's alright, really. I mean, who cares really? If people know who are, it's alright. It is better than not being known. In my business you need a certain degree of publicity.

PSF: Are you still with Rockport Records?

KC: No... well.. not really, no... It has sort of fizzled out a bit at the moment. I can't 100% say one way or the other, really, but at the moment it's... a little quiet...

PSF: So, are there plans to record when things get resolved?

KC: Well, I guess I will carry on pretty well as ever when it all gets resolved but, there are no definite, 100% plans at the moment. But, I do have ideas and I do have people interested. So, I don't really know. The Rockport thing hasn't really faded, yet. The problem with it is that it is a little narrow in scope, you know, not very international, and I want to get somewhere, you know, getting sold all over the place. That's my main complaint about that situation. Although, I wouldn't in any sense put it down. I think, they have done their best, but it is kind of limited, really. It is a small record company, and it doesn't have the resources of Sony, or something like that.

PSF: So, you would say that some growth has happened since you have been with Rockport, and it is time to move on?

KC: Yeah. The fact is, is if I walk into [Virgin] in Oxford St. and there are about six of my albums, which is nice, but not one of them from Germany, it's a bit off-putting, you know. I'd like it to be altered. I'd like to see my records- from now- readily available. But if you really want to get them, you can, you know.. Communications being what they are today, you can find Rockport in Germany, and all the rest of it and do something about it. But, having said that, I'd like it to be a bit more convenient for the potential customer..

PSF: I thought it was cool when I was in Germany just walking into a CD shop in a train station and seeing almost all your CD's. Unlike here in America where you would see one or two from time to time.

KC: Yeah. Well, it's the same in England, too. But, I have held the opinion that if you really want to know you will find out. So, you must have at some point, and many like you.

PSF: I was introduced to you through your Miniatures submission.

KC: Through my what submission?

PSF: The Miniatures compilation.

KC: Oh right! Morgan Fisher, yeah.

PSF: Then I sort of listened to jazz real heavily for awhile, and the album Silence just stumbled into my record library for a time.

KC: Oh yeah, Carla Bley, yes. I know this one. I haven't heard that. NEVER heard that. I think it got some of the worst reviews at the time. I don't know what it sounds like now, but I wasn't wholly satisfied with it, I must say.

PSF: Then I ran into a whole bunch of albums of yours, and I said "Here's that guy from Miniatures!"

KC: That's how it works!

PSF: So, your documentary will be airing again on German TV this Saturday, {August 8th} isn't it?

KC: Which one is that?

PSF: The Arte-TV documentary.

KC: Is it?! Thanks for telling me. That was actually a segment of three different installment from different periods, all German-made but, very good publicity. But, they run too late. I think it is a strange business, the record industry. In the mid-'70's I had a strong following, packed concerts and all the rest of it. But, I find it all much more satisfying now than I did then, you know. The people that stay with you are the people that really care about you.

PSF: Has any contemporary music caught your ear?

KC: Ah, no... I have been buying tons of CD's lately. I have suddenly started buying records in shoals, really, because I didn't take alot of interest. Really all I am doing is replacing albums I had on plastic with CD's. What I see on MTV and the German music stations, much of I just find hackneyed, the endless story around and around and around. Some of it good singers around, and good powerful performers, but still, in the end, it's the same old story, somehow. But, I have to say, that when one gets my age, as far as I am concerned, the interest isn't quite as sharp as it used to be. So, I think I would be doing everyone a disservice if I said 'Sure. There are some great performers around, who I have been missing out on.'

PSF: So, you go back to the old Masters, then?

KC: Well, I tend to do that. I do. I recently bought a Kevin Ayers album.. I was excited about how fresh still it is, and what a great lyricist he was, and hopelessly under-rated.. Alright, so you do have people today like Nick Cave, and the like, but I think Kevin Ayers was as good, if not better than any of them, really..

PSF: He's still around, he just recently played some shows in America.

KC: I know he still does concerts, and is still around but I always feel his stuff should be a bit more universal, really. His stuff is very witty and to the point.

PSF: I just recently read an interview with him, and he made the remark he believes his creative high-point is done, and he realizes he is just getting on with the future.

KC: That's a Kevin Ayers' type of remark. He had this band, The Soporifics- a good name, a good title, a good indication of where he is at, really. But, I don't necessarily agree with that. I haven't heard what he does now, but I am sure he is still on the ball. The last time I spoke to him was about three years ago in Belgium. He came to a gig. I thought he was... you know, a bit older, and maybe a bit wiser, I don't know, but it's still there, I think. You can tell just from conversation.

PSF: Did you get billed with those people in the early days, a lot of those psychedelic bands?

KC: Well, I did. I suppose being the second person signed to Virgin, after Mike Oldfield, or whatever. I was rather bundled together with that bunch of people. People like Gong, you know, Daevid Allen and all these people, and the extended things like Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and these people. Not that I object to it, really. It could be worse. To my mind, it was all very literate and amusing stuff.. Yes, I did get lumbered with it to an extend. {laughs} There is more to me than connections to that, I hope!

PSF: Well, you are also known as an artist.

KC: Right.

PSF: Have you ever done acting?

KC: Yes, I did! I was in a musical for 3 1/2 years here in Nuremburg called Line One-- Linie Eins. It is about the Berlin Underground, not literally you know. The underground, not THE underground. I can't remember the word for it now. You know, like the London Underground- the trains, The Tube. It was about life on The Tube and the characters around it. It was a very successful musical, a big hit really, but I was in the Nuremburg version of it.

PSF: Would you like to do more acting?

KC: I am interested. I was in a German film, too, called VA BANQUE. I played in that. I have done a lot of different things. I was in an English BBC-1 play once with... I don't remember now, but it was a late night, Saturday night, improvised TV-show. I did the music, but I was also called upon to perform. Over the years, there have been bits and pieces all over the place, in fact.

PSF: I understand that while you were with Rockport, you unearthed the tapes for a show you did called "Fat Old Hero"

KC: Yeah, well, that never has actually been done yet. It is sort of down as "To Be Done." The tunes are pretty much 90% written, but the record has never actually come out. Whether it will, I don't really know. As it stands, it looks rather doubtful.

PSF: One of the songs appeared on the Cherry Red compilation.

KC: Did it? I can't remember which one. Pillows and Prayers wasn't it? or the other one...

PSF: Yeah, that one. Pillows and Prayers. The song is called "Light Of Your Love".

KC: Yes, that's right. Something did come out of it. The tapes are there, and almost ready to go, but the situation has never been quite right, really. It is basically a musical about Elvis Presley, really.

PSF: Is it a life story?

KC: Well, it is not the full story, because no one would be actually able to pinch it. Anyway, let's just say it is about Elvis Presley! {laughs}

PSF: So, did you like Elvis?

KC: Oh yeah, of course. In the '50's. Later, he got a bit boring. Later, too, after his death, he got interesting again, really, because we really got to know more about his life. Reports back were a little more honest than they were during his lifetime. I recently just bought all his '50's recordings in a box to reacquaint myself with all that stuff.

Also see:
A Coyne overview
See some of Kevin's favorite music
A tribute to Coyne (RIP)
Kevin's official site

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER