Interview: Cold Specks

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 10.01.13 in Interviews

I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Cold Specks

[To celebrate the release of his 11th studio album, Innocents, we invited Moby to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. You can read our exclusive interview with him here, and he also picked his 10 favorite albums on eMusic. We resurrected our interview with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, who sings on Innocents, and Moby requested an interview with one of the album's other guest vocalists, Cold Specks, which you can read below. — Ed.]

When Moby requested we interview Cold Specks as part of his takeover of eMusic, we were all too happy to oblige. The debut from pseudonymous songwriter Al Spx topped our list of eMusic’s Best Albums of 2012, and her live show had grown more riveting and more assured each time we saw her. Her performance on Moby’s record Innocents contains all of the things that made her first album so stunning — enigmatic lyrics, deeply-felt vocals and a free-floating but undeniable sense of spirituality. eMusic’s editor-in-chief J. Edward Keyes caught up with Spx by phone to discuss her new record, her collaboration with Moby and her paralyzing perfectionism.

I’m interviewing you at Moby’s request, because he’s taking over our site for a week, but it’s kind of convenient — your album was our No. 1 record of last year.

I heard about that!

So I thought this would be a good time to see what you’ve been up to since then. Where are you right now?

I’m in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I’m in a studio recording some songs for the next record.

How long have you been working on that?

Well. I don’t know. It’s kind of — [pauses]. Some of the songs have existed for a while, some are brand new. We didn’t start tracking until maybe a month ago.

So there were still some songs from your original batch that didn’t make it on to I Predict a Graceful Expulsion?

There’s just one. It’s existed in many forms, and I finally forced the son of a bitch to give in recently. I won’t tell you which one. It’ll ruin the surprise.

I was going to ask if it was the one you were playing on tour.

Well, actually, OK — I got that wrong. There’s two that have existed in a few different forms. The one that you’re speaking of — where did you see me play?

I saw you at Glasslands, then at Mercury Lounge, then at Piano’s.

OK. So you probably heard a bunch of the new ones. There’s a song… [stops suddenly] I don’t want to say!

You don’t have to!

Oh, I’ll just say it, whatever. There’s a song called “All Flesh is Grass” and a song called “Let Loose the Dogs.” “All Flesh is Grass” is probably written around the same time as “Blank Maps,” but it didn’t make the first record because I hadn’t figured out the arrangement for it, and it’s taken a couple of years to get right. The other one was written when I first started touring.

You talk about these songs existing in a few different forms — how do you know when to say “stop”?

I know it’s done because when I listen to it, I become filled with delight and satisfaction, and I know that I can’t make it any better. My producer, Jim, and the assistant here are probably realizing that I’m incredibly anal when it comes to the studio, but these songs exist forever, so I just want to get them right. I’m kind of a perfectionist. I want and I need for everything to be absolutely as perfect as I can make it.

What was the moment you started becoming aware that the first record was really resonating with people?

I guess when I started to tour the record, I would notice the crowds start to get bigger. We’d be playing tiny shows in small towns in the middle of nowhere — like, say, Denton, Texas — and there would be loads of people who knew and loved the songs. I guess that’s when I started to realize that I was doing something right.

One of the things that really struck me about the record was the way you took Bible verses and either recontextualize them or manipulate them in certain ways. How conscious a choice was that?

Not very conscious. The record is a representation of loss in many forms — mostly just loss of several relationships. I studied English and noticed Bible verses are common in literature. It’s the best piece of fiction in the world as far as I’m concerned. There are some really beautiful lines in it, and some lines really just stuck out to me. I don’t really like to go into detail about what the songs are about. I’m a very private person and my songs are very vague and I really do love it when people interpret it and take it in different ways. I think it’s incredibly fascinating.

A lot of the story around the early record was about the falling out between you and your parents. From what I’ve read, it sounds like things are better now?

It’s all good in the hood. It was kind of blown out of proportion in the early days. It was mostly just growing pains, really. My parents wanted the best for me and they didn’t necessarily believe that music was the best for me at first, but they’ve come around. It’s all love.

Does that mean you’ll start using your real name?

[Laughs.] No, I’m a very private person. I write music and I enjoy doing it, but because I do it, I think it’s completely unnatural to perform day in and day out and give yourself to people — a collection of strangers — every night. I’d much rather have a stage name and remove myself from it all.

So you take on this persona of Al Spx to maintain a sense of self.

That’s exactly what it is. Al Spx is a character, and she exists because I created a project called Cold Specks, and people kept asking me who Cold Specks was. And I thought I’d given enough at first, but evidently I hadn’t [laughs]. So I came up with a stage name, and that’s all I’m willing to give. I just got so uncomfortable attaching my real name and myself to songs that are incredibly personal and have the tendency to be morbid. It’s not a reflection of me, and I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the songs completely defining me as a human being, because it’s just one side of me. So I have a stage name.

I’d imagine it also allows you a degree of sanity because you can step out of that character when you’re not performing.

Exactly. When I’m not touring, I go back to the girl I am and remember who I am as a human being. It can be incredibly grueling at times. Al Spx is a tough bitch and she can deal with that, but when I’m at home, I want to just be me.

One of my favorite lines is on “Blank Maps,” where you sing “I am a goddamn believer.” What are some things you believe in?

I’m not sure. I’m still figuring it out. That particular song is — [pauses]. That particular song is about a boy, and I think I was just trying to let him know some things.

Have any of the people these songs are about heard them?

Probably. [Laughs] I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’d rather not say.

Let’s talk about the new record. Thematically, how do the songs relate to the songs on the first record?

It’s different. They’re louder. There aren’t any acoustic guitars — I’ve been joking that I’ve gone all “Judas” on this record [laughs].

Is this for real, or are you doing that thing you like to do to interviewers where you pull my leg and then I report it?

[Laughs.] I’m not! I’m not. I’ve stopped doing that. It’s more playful this record. The first record was a delicate record, and it was a moment in time and a reflection of a fragile girl. For this record, I’ve grown a lot as a human being. The songs on the first record were written when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, and I’ve grown a lot since then. I think I also got a little tired of being depicted as an “emotional songwriter.” That sort of seeped into my songwriting. So this one’s just playful.

So more major-key songs?

I actually can’t answer that for you, but only because I don’t know anything about music. I play in two tunings, and they’re both, I guess, minor tunings — it’s always gonna be minor with Cold Specks — but I don’t actually know anything about music. I play guitar and write all the songs and I sit down with the boys and tell them what I want. Like I said, I’m incredibly anal in the studio.

I’m curious as to how you think other members of your band would describe working with you.

Chris Cundy, the woodwind player, has a phrase — he says I’m “predictably unpredictable.” And that’s accurate. I’m the most disgustingly indecisive person. I think I know what I want, but I really don’t.

Let’s talk a little bit about the collaboration with Moby — how did that come about?

We’re on the same label, Mute, and I think he was looking for singers and Daniel Miller from Mute mentioned me, so he looked up all my stuff and really liked it, and we just started working together.

Was the song already finished by the time it got to you?

“A Case for Shame,” he sent an instrumental. There’s a studio in London that I work in occasionally and I recorded some vocals and sent them back to him. It was a very creative and collaborative setup. The other song we actually recorded in his home studio. I had a day off on my last North American tour, so we stopped in L.A. and I went over to his house and recorded the second song. Very quickly, actually. He already had the instrumental and I had it for weeks but couldn’t come up with anything. The night before [we were recording] I scribbled some notes on my hotel notepad and went in and we did it in about an hour.

How is his process different from yours?

He’s not an anal piece of shit like I am.

That seems like you’re being pretty hard on yourself!

I like to think I’m funny with my harshness! [Laughs.] He goes with the flow, Moby. He doesn’t overanalyze. It’s something I learned from working with him. I can spend a lot of time just picking at things and just doesn’t do that. He’s a very free and open and creative man and he’s not at all disgustingly over analytical. It’s a really refreshing thing.

I’m sure some of that comes with experience, though.

Yeah, I’m only making my second record now. He’s had a lot of time to grow as an artist, so he knows what he wants and he gets there quickly.

I know you have a lot of influences outside of music. I was curious to know what you’re reading now.

There’s a book by Milan Kundera called Immortality that I just picked up the other day.

What kinds of books do you tend to be attracted to?

I like really descriptive stuff, and I like really short and sweet stuff as well. I like ‘em all.

Are you living in Canada when you’re not on the road?

I don’t live anywhere. I just finished touring. I’ll probably be moving back to London soon. I like it because it’s a very big city — I think it’s the best city in the world. It’s huge — there are cities within the city. So many people, so many things to do. It’s just a wonderful city.

Since Moby asked us to interview you as one of his favorite artists, I was wondering who you’ve been listening to lately and who you admire.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Scott Walker. Michael Gira from Swans. There’s this band from the UK called Savages that I really like.

I could almost hear a collaboration between you and Scott Walker.

Oh God, I would love that. The guy who did our latest music video did the video for that song “Epizootics!” from the last Scott Walker record. That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to Scott Walker.