June 10, 2003

Interview: Imitation Electric Piano

When you're involved in a highly successful, distinctive project--from the Beatles to Seinfeld to Star Trek--it's very easy to get typecast for life. It's even harder for those in the music world, because of the watchful, meandering and demanding eye of the press--who will hate what you do because it doesn't sound like your previous work or will hate it because it sounds too much like your previous work. It's a no-win situation, for sure. Luckily, some artists make music so beautiful, so distinctive, that it doesn't matter what name they use, it's still going to be good--hi, Robin Guthrie!

Simon Johns is known, if at all, for being the bass player for the wonderful and highly respected Stereolab--but that's not all he does. He's taken the time out of his busy schedule to make music as Imitation Electric Piano. Trinity Neon, the band's proper debut album, is a wonderful slice of jazzy-pop that, while different than Stereolab, hints at what the 'lab would sound like were Simon to usurp Tim Gane. Or not. Either way, he's a wonderfully funny fellow who just so happened to make an excellent record, and I'm very honored that he took time out of his Sunday evening visit to the pub to answer our questions...

How are things in the Stereolab camp these days? Is Stereolab on hiatus, or were the solo releases that are coming out now planned before Mary's passing?

As you can imagine things have been difficult. We're in our new studio in Bordeaux recording a new album that should see the light of day around the beginning of 2004. Well, obviously I'm not. My bit was done a month or so ago. They should be on the vocals by now or mucking about with the cricket bat that I made whilst waiting to get in the studio. Considering the tolls it wasn't half bad. Not something that you walk out to the crease at Lord's with mind you, but good enough for a few over in the garden before the next session. All the recent clutch of solo releases were planned prior to the awful accident. Certainly Trinity Neon had been in the pipeline for a good eighteen months prior to release and the ball was already rolling by the time Mary died. There seemed no hurry to get it out until I felt the songs were the best that they could be given resources and time.

What musical projects were you involved with before you joined Stereolab?

I was in a band called ClearSpot with Colm o'Ciosoig from My Bloody Valentine. We released a single on Duophonic Super 45's. Before that I was stumbling around in a succession of local bands that all sounded pretty much like IEP; long haired blokes playing very loud and for as long as possible before the beer glasses began to rain. The long hair has since gone. Not cut off, just falling out of its own accord. Dom's got the head start there though, ho ho.

When I listen to Trinity Neon, it's hard not to make a connection to the most recent Stereolab albums. Do you feel as if your role has changed since initially joining the band, or that you have helped to redefine their sound?

My role has stayed much the same, although I write more of my own parts than when I first joined. Perhaps I can predict the kind of riffs that Tim generally likes. I'm not sure whether the Lab sound has been redefined as such, but I bring along my idiosynrcatic style. Live the sound has certainly changed. With the addition of Dominic, Andy and I are a far tighter proposition than previous back rows. (No offence Duncan, Richard and Morgane.)

Do you prefer making music in the studio or performing live?

The two disciplines are so different it's hard to say which I prefer. The studio is more relaxed, less smelly but occassionally tedious (hence the cricket bat). Thrills do come now and again when you do something you're really pleased with. Live with the Lab is breezey and comfortable, live IEP is an entire day of tension, perspiration, elation, inebriation then deflation. (Sorry about that.) Rehearsing is pure hell whoever it's with.

What's next for Imitation Electric Piano? Have you planned on or will you be collaborating with the other Stereolab folk with Imitation Electric Piano?

IEP are in an odd state. A record out but nobody to play to. I'm trying to secure a modest record deal to finance a new record, half of which is written. More singing, more direct, more screaming guitar solos. Trying to convince the powers that be to invest in something outside of the current fad for re-worked rock and roll is going to be difficult. Dominic and I have made an album with Andy that started life as a soundtrack for a short film featuring Mary's voice. It's under the name of Europa 51 and is out on Low records soon. We are working on another record with Andy at the moment. Dominic is a constant collaborator with IEP.

Thanks, Simon!

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