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InterviewsThomas Thielen speaks about his progressive rock opus Psychoanorexia

Posted on Sunday, October 06 2013 @ 18:41:32 CDT by Pete Pardo
Progressive Rock

German multi-instrumentalist Thomas Thielen (known as "t") has made quite a few waves with his most recent observation, 2013's Psychoanorexia (available from Progressive Promotion Records). Sea of Tranquility writer Jeff Ballew had an opportunity to catch up with Thomas to talk about his project's history and the inspirations behind his music.

SoT: Hey Thomas! Your latest album, "Psychoanorexia" has been very well received by the progressive rock community, myself included. Can you tell me a little bit about what the recording process was like this time around?

T: The creative process is always a bit of a mess with me. People always tell me to tidy up neatly all the tracks when recording, like using colours for different groups of instruments or actually writing down the lyrics... But I never get around to actually doing this, although I see their point. When you work alone, writing, arranging, recording, producing, mixing everything on your own, you have to have a very clear view right through chaos anyway. The amount of chaos, then, is secondary, at least for me.

So, when I started work on Psychoanorexia, I, as always, started with a vision of what the album should be about. This time, I had decided to move in a less personal and more political realm, but as we are talking about lyrics and poetry in a wider sense here, I packed it up in a story about two people, a couple suffering from psychoanorexia: What happens, I asked myself, when your mental sloth takes over your life? What happens to your relationship when trash TV enters your quality time because you are too exhausted from your job etc. to fight back? This is what the album then grew to be about: Two people lost in the forest of today's trend towards superficialty.

The actual recording process then was rather unstructured. Now that I am talking about it, this confession rather surprises me: I got a reputation of self-discipline and being very analytical and the like - but when working on my music, I jump from one end to the other, just as the ideas come along.

SoT: Although you are a multi-instrumentalist, is there any instrument that is your primary focus when writing and recording?

T: Yes, I have been educated most and earliest on the piano. I consider this the best tool to actually write pieces. The dynamics are so great, you can very well sketch melody, harmony and rhythm at once, you can even lay down bass tracks and guitar chords with it. Try that the other way round...

SoT: The cover artwork for the new album immediately struck me as pretty cool what is the inspiration behind the art and packaging?

< T: My wife does not only have her PhD in art history, but is also a very talented painter and photographer. She also writes novels and, at the moment, is involved in a children's book which is pretty cool. We talk about our projects a lot, and as I adore her view of the world as it is apparent in her art so much, I always try to talk her into creating the cover artwork. I have been successful ever since... Voices and Anti-Matter Poetry also feature her work.

The actual picture is a hommage to German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. They are famous for their photography of industrial buildings. What Katia created here, is a progress from this basis. As all serious artists, she never bothers to explain anything about her paintings, but if you want my idea of it... I chose this one because the velocity of modern city life seems to be mirrored in the style of the painting, as well as the streamlined design of being that you are fitted into. Everything is parallel, no actual content can be seen apart from direction. Unconditioned careering, the paradox of egocentrism and conformity, the loss of the individual in his respective roles... all this, to me, is present in the artwork. And of course these are central topics of Psychoanorexia.

SoT: What are the main influences in your music?

T: I have been asked this a lot lately, and still I am lost for an answer. What I really think is that musically, I have never overcome my adolescence days and my passion for The Cure, The Smiths, Nine Inch Nails and the more pathetic pieces of Marillion.Yet, I think that this is the wrong question if you want to understand where the music on Psychoanorexia actually comes from... The music came after the topical and lyrical vision, and in this I have tried to follow where the great ones led... WH Auden, TS Eliot, EE Cummings, Janet Frame, Ted Hughes, Paul Auster... if they had created music instead of poems, what would it sound like? I adore all those poets (and others I forget now) and writers... in a different genre I try to capture their approach and spin it on.

SoT: Let's travel back in time to your participation in the prog band, Scythe. What was that experience like and what prompted you to subsequently pursue music as a one-man-band?

T: I am not much of a team player when it comes to music. With Udo Gerhards, I had one of the best minds in German artrock by my side, and I am still very proud of the music we wrote together. Really, I very much treasure the thought of one day revisiting those days and writing stuff with Udo again. However, he has travelled on in a completely different direction, more of a RIO approach, and when it became apparent that I would rather take the more melodic road, trying to be more eclectic and indie, we felt we could not really go on together very well. Actually, Scythe has never been officially dismantled... But I cannot really see how it could fit together again, at least not with where we are at the moment.

The other part of the explanation for me going solo is a lot simpler. All the band members simply vanished to different cities, quite far away. Udo and me had always been the driving forces, and the combination of actual artistic diversion and organisational problems led to a point where simply none of us called in any more to get the next rehearsal going. This is actually where it is still at: I think we just could not find the energy to go on any more after this first album had been produced. Starting from zero again? D'uh.

I cannot stop making music, though. So I just recorded stuff that I had collected over the years and that had not seemed to fit into Scythe. This is how Naive started. The label desperately wanted a second album, and so they released my solo work. The rest is history, albeit a very small and secret one... (smiles).

SoT: Can you tell us a little bit about the first trio of T albums (2002's Naive, 2006's Voices, and 2010's Anti-Matter Poetry?

T: Naive very much was a collection of ideas that I recorded for the sake of recording them. There are a few songs on Naive I really, really love: About Us, She Is Dead, She Said... I think this is what Progressive Pop would sound like if the genre existed... Voices then took a more ambitious approach. Actually I started a loose trilogy with it, and I was quite aware when I did Voices that I could not fit the whole story into this one album. Let me put it that way: Paul Auster's New York Trilogy features the same story, at least the same essence of theme, thrice. From three perspectives, in three different narrational modes, with three different sets of character names (I actually think they are the same all the time...) etc. Voices, Anti-Matter Poetry and Psychoanorexia take the same approach. Voices is a rather classical journal of poetry about the same topic as Anti-Matter Poetry, which is a postmodern novel. Psychoanorexia then takes that into a more classical narrative style; I would compare it to a collection of four short stories that invite you to an interactive reading. But I would subscribe to the idea that you can only understand what I was trying to say when you listen to all three albums. If you bother at all, that is...

SoT: What, if anything, prompted you to release your solo albums under the monicker "t"?

< T: I was a founding member in two of the largest and most respected projects in the German prog scene: The Babyblaue Seiten, a review magazine, and [progrock-dt], a mailing list. In there, I always signed my hurriedly scribbled notes and emails using the first letter of my first name. When both projects grew and grew, the "newer" members started to refer to me by that letter, as more and more Thomasses sprang into their progressive on-screen being. So I had a sort of "prominence" (what a curious word in that small scene!) under the monicker, and as I do not like the sound of my name too much, it seemed a logical thing to choose "t" as the label for solo works. You must not forget that I never actually planned to build a career on it. I thought that there would be a very small number of copies of a rather introvert solo album and that's it ... It is a catastrophe for marketing approaches, actually - it is a hell of a pain in the youknowwhat to google, e.g.... But the actual story behind it is rather blunt: It just happened.

SoT: As the home of acts like Tangerine Dream, Eloy, and Popol Vuh (as well as contemporary outfits like Sylvan, Vanden Plas, and RPWL), it seems that your homeland of Germany has a rich history of great progressive rock. Can you comment on your country's music scene?

T: No. To be honest, I can't. I have never actually listened to one single note of Vanden Plas, Popol Vuh or RPWL. I remember once trying to listen to Tangerine Dream, but couldn't. Eloy entered my cd player once, but I could not bring myself to like it. I have heard so much good about all these acts, and it is certainly rather a problem I see in me than in their music - but Krautrock and German neoprog and me, we don't mix very well. There. It is out. Buy the crucifying mats.

SoT: Lots of great music, both prog and non-prog, have been released so far in 2013. Are there any albums that have been really grabbing your attention this year?

T: Yes, for very different reasons. Of course, I think noone can ignore Wilson's Raven. I have very mixed feelings about the album and the project. I completely adore the musical realisation from tip to toe: Production, performance, mix... Great. Wilson even manages to get his voice right in the gap where it belongs, as actually it is far too "small" to compete with the musical greatness around it. That impressed me very much. On the other hand, I consider myself blatantly manipulated. Isn't it a strange coincidence that right now, after mastering all this classic prog stuff, Wilson changes his mind and produces classic prog when all the years before that he tried to turn Porcupine Tree away from the genre, entering debates about the quality of acts like The Flower Kings etc.? Has he been enlightened or is this a commercial decision - now that the audience of King Crimson etc. has come into contact with him..? Has he really been gravely influenced by the sheer musicality or has he simply traced the market of combining all the gimmicks of these acts (which he clearly and nonchalantly does on Raven! You can even tell the band whose line he is following from part to part, can you not?)

I have also run across iamthemorning, which I liked a lot. And I am very curious as to their next album: The musical approach must be varied then in order to keep up the freshness. Will they do this? Or will they try to sell more of the same?

I have also enjoyed the fact that Placebo came up with something new. The approach is very modern and a lot more mainstream than before, but still it is Placebo. Also, what Trent Raznor does, is always very interesting.

SoT: Thanks for taking the time to conduct the interview!

Jeff Ballew

(Click here to read our review of Psychoanorexia)

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