6 Music favourite and acclaimed alt folk rocker Kieran Saint Leonard caught up with Das Wasteland on his recent return to the UK for an extensive talk about his creative input into Das Wasteland Vol 1 & 2: Berlin, his auspicious meetings with Rob Doyle and the Fat White Family, how being lost in Kreuzberg inspired Always Night and why his Berlin album in destined to be finished on the Isle of Wight.
DW: You’ve recently returned from living in Berlin after living there since last October. Was that a strange time to be there whilst it was mostly in lockdown?
SL: Yeah, I went for the unique combination of lockdown and winter in Berlin, so just maximising all the fun potential of that city! It was an extremely strange time to be there. It was almost like an acquired memory - some of it, particularly in January and February was so bleak. It was unimaginable and just only spending time around a very small group of friends in their houses and not doing anything else. Not to say that it wasn't entirely without its charms. I was saying to my collaborator, Rob Doyle, that we realised that we had tens if not, almost hundreds of hours of conversations that we wouldn't have had with that intensity if Berlin had been opened. Four or five days a week, we would just be around each other's flats having dinner and then staying up all night, drinking and talking in the salon kind of way, with an intensity that would never have been the case if the nightclubs and bars were open.
DW: You were involved in the early days of Das Wasteland as well while you were there?
SL: Absolutely. Through meeting Terry Blackburn and Martyn Goodacre on those long dark nights in Berlin, we came up with the concept of a very bespoke record label and after much sort of to-ing and fro-ing, came up with the idea of a compilation of the most interesting and unusual and most vital musicians that either were based in Berlin or had extremely strong spiritual or commercial association to the city. I'm very, very pleased with the outcome. It's a great expression of that city as it is right now.
DW: Can you give some direct insight as to where the label name came from as well?
SL: My friend Leticia lives in a place called Kopernikusstraße which is essentially the old industrial area in a complex that was built to house the workers who worked at the Kraftwerk: the power station that literally powered and heated the whole of Berlin when the Wall was up. Because of an industrial accident some time in the seventies; behind it there is a huge area that is just completely empty. Fallow land that's been left because they can't build on it and they can't use it for recreation purposes. I was around there looking out of her window, looking at this remarkable space thinking, "God, that's just so weird, to have a wasteland in the middle of this vibrant city". Two two days later, I was at Terry’s house having dinner and we were desperately trying to settle on a name because our previous incarnations had either been taken or weren't appropriate. I was explaining this space to Terry and I was describing this, sort of, voidal, liminal space behind where this festival could happen. And I think I said "Oh, it's just a total wasteland". Then my girlfriend said, "Oh, Das Wasteland. And then we all just went, "Oh, that's a great name". We just settled on that and everyone agreed.
DW: Aside from your own, the tracks you were directly involved in on the LP, what would you pick as your other favourites?
SL: I do like the Art Brut's one a great deal just because if anyone has ever spent a night in Berlin, they can relate to that: "I can't believe the state I'm in" it's a wonderful lyric. I love Tim Burgess’s and Anton Newcombe's because it's just so bloody weird. It's such a weird piece of music that one, in terms of: everything about it is wrong, but it works wonderfully which is the sort of thing I like artistically.
DW: You’ve now left the city after your short tenure. Which places do you regret not being able to visit while you were there?
SL: It would be remiss of me not to say the Kit-Kat Klub because I would have liked to spend a few more nights there. In the last week I did absolutely slam pretty much every gallery and museum I could possibly get into which was quite overwhelming. I was desperate to go to the amazing seventies cocktail bar at the top of the Fernsehturm Tower, the TV tower in the middle of Berlin. I made a promise to my girlfriend that as soon as that reopens, we're just going to fly over there, go directly up to the TV tower and have a Suffering Bastard up there.
DW: I believe you met Rob Doyle in Berlin for the first time also?
SL: I had been invited to do a reading of my forthcoming novel Muse at a gallery in Mitte with Rob Doyle and funnily enough, I'd read Rob's book Threshold before I was invited to meet him. So I was quite thrilled, I was a fan because I'd read Threshold right at the start of lockdown and I'd been totally enamoured by it. I thought it was some of the most modern, freshest writing I'd come across for years. I was fascinated by this interesting auto-fictive character in Threshold. That night was hugely auspicious for a couple of reasons because
firstly, it's where I met Rob and had the great joy of hearing him read Threshold and I got to read a bit in my book and I was sat in the gallery quite nervous and the first people that file into the front row were the Fat White Family which I really wasn't expecting, because at that point I'd only knew of them, their infamy and their reputation somewhat preceded them. I couldn't believe it and Rob turned and went, "Oh, it's the lads, they're all coming down". They'd known Rob through his book beforehand and they'd spent the summer hanging out. I had this very strange experience of not only sharing the work of my book, with an
audience for the first time and an author who I was a huge fan of sat next to me, I also had what I'd have perceived to have been one of the most difficult audiences imaginable which was the front row just being concocted of the Fat White Family!
As things often are, it was the complete opposite. They were absolutely lovely and straight afterwards, Alex and Nathan came up to me and started talking about my book and I mentioned to him that I was moving imminently to Berlin to make a Berlin record, and after a couple of bottles of beer they agreed to be my collaborators, which was amazing: on my first night in town, I acquired the band I was looking for to make my record.
It then dawned on me that it would be really, really good to have something from Threshold on the Das Wasteland record. Rob is archetypically a Berliner: he's like a traveler, an artist, and an exile, I should say an immigrant actually, is the right word. He's so of that place, he writes about the place so beautifully. So it felt like it would be remiss not to include him. He's got such a wonderful voice as well, it's a perfect thing.
DW: Were you aiming for anything musically specifically with that track? Would you consider it to be a Saint Leonard piece of music?
SL: Because I recorded it right in the middle of doing the sessions on my record, it certainly deploys all of the instrumentation that features quite heavily on the Berlin aspects of my album. I didn't discuss anything musically with Rob. We talked about that a couple of nights before we went into the studio to do it. He was really excited by the idea that I would just completely musically respond to his words and what he was reading. While Rob was testing out the microphone and getting comfortable with his reading, I was sitting in the control room with him turned up really loud and he's reading away in his dulcet Irish tones. I just started turning the knobs and pressing quite minor chords and it was a really magical moment where as his voice was coming over the relay speakers, I was just finding these chords on this very strange sounding synth and it just was perfect. Martin Fielder, the engineer and producer at Klangbild, said "I'm hitting record" and Rob didn't even know he'd done the take and he was like, "Oh right, do you want me to, do you want me to do one now?", and we're like, "We've got it Rob. We've done it". And from that weird synthesiser pattern we built up the whole track and then I added those various other elements.
Martin had built this... Well, I don't know what it is. It's technology! Future alien technology! This thing he'd reclaimed from 1886, a Steinway piano, and he's turned the body of it, where the strings are contained on its side, and he's fitted contact microphones and contact pickups to it and then re- tuned it to concert pitch and then the other half of it is tuned relative to that. He’s put microphones all around it and what you can do with this thing is play other instruments into it and then all the strings on the Steinway piano frame begin resonating to the relative notes and harmonies and modalities that you're playing in and then playing them back at you.
So at one point I just started screaming into this thing while we were listening back to the track and it started resonating with all the various harmonic resonances of my voice, which you can hear on the track. So there's lots of stuff going on in the recording process. Perhaps you could regard it as a Saint Leonard track and it wouldn't surprise me if it was hidden away or a secret track, or at least a B-Side on my forthcoming album because I am very fond of it and it does completely encapsulate a moment of time around the making of my album, because Rob was very much in the thick of that with me.
DW: On a related note, regarding Always Night, aside from the fact that it was recorded in Berlin, would you consider that to be a Berlin track?
SL: Very much so, it was the first song that I wrote in Berlin. I never bothered to get my mobile to work in Germany. I moved out there in such a rush. I just didn't bother to get a SIM card. So I had this experience of being in a new city, a locked-down city without access to the internet or a mobile or any mobile telecommunications, which meant that I was frequently getting completely lost in the middle of the night with no way of contacting anyone which was quite an amazing experience. The start of Always Night came out of being at a party with Alex and Nathan and they'd jumped in a cab and I'd thought I'd known where I was. When they got in the cab, I walked thinking I knew where I was in Kreuzberg, and realised I was no longer in Kreuzberg and had no idea where I was. It was about 4 in the morning and there's not a soul around and it was the middle of November, freezing cold. I was in a labyrinthian city with no way of contacting anyone and I walked for about an hour without seeing another human being, which in a major capital city is quite a hard thing to achieve.
There's also this sensation of lockdown in bleak Midwinter in Berlin, it did actually start to feel like one very long evening, particularly from November into January, because we were staying up partying and talking all night which means we'd wake up at three or four in the afternoon, which is basically nighttime in Berlin. So there was a week or two where I definitely didn't see daylight.
DW: I believe you're finishing off the LP currently? So what else can you tell us about that?
SL: I'm about to finish my Berlin album in the Isle of Wight: the COVID tale for you.I've done about two thirds of the record. I started the record in the Church Studios in Crouch End, which is an amazing studio and then took all the tapes from that, brought them to Berlin with me and then under Alex and Nathan's very wise guidance, we sort of cannibalised aspects from those Church sessions and wove them into the recordings. Because of me having to
be back in the UK now, we're planning on finishing that in the next month. We’re going to do a week back in the Church and then we're going to go to the Isle of Wight to Chale Abbey, which being on an island, there are very few distractions so we'll just be focused on getting the record done. So, my Berlin record will be a Berlin, Crouch End, Isle of Wight record in the end.
DW: Between Brexit and COVID, it's been a pretty bad year for British musicians, do you have some hope for the future? Anything you feel optimistic about?
SL: What did Joni Mitchell say? ‘You don't know what you've got till it's gone’. I think the general populace have been really awoken to how much live music means to them and also maybe realise how mad musicians' lives are. On a daily basis, I'm getting many, many messages from people who like my music saying how excited they are about gigs coming back and about hearing my new music. I think people are just going to be very appreciative of it. As Leonard Cohen said, "Survival is success". The bands that have managed to keep going or doing things during this pandemic, when it ends, there's going to be a lot of great bands doing very interesting music.