Saturday, 13 September 2014

Santa Semeli and the Monks Interview.

Photo by Ben Buchanan.

Love, Life and Happy Endings?

Santa Semeli and the Monks are eclectic, impossible to pigeon hole they veer between European avant garde and punk, echoes of Henry Cow, Nick Cave and 'Cabaret' sit alongside full on rock! Their lyrics confront and engage with the human condition, the real lived experience that each of us uncomfortably recognizes, dealing with hope, disappointment, love, lust and our own inconsistencies. Full of honesty and warmth their album is like listening to the soundtrack of you life-not your Facebook life your real life-evoking memories that make you smile and wince.
In a pub near Camden Semeli Economou and Haraldur Agustsson agreed to an interview.

Q: How long have Santa Semeli and the Monks been a musical entity? How did you meet and decide that you wanted to collaborate musically?

S: We got together as a musical entity in September 2013. We studied together at the same drama school, but we are a few generations apart. We actually met in December 2012 when I cast Haraldur in my short film The Burning Bush. Here's a funny little anecdote: I got hold of Haraldur's phone number to ask him if he was interested in playing a part in the film. I called a few times and left some messages to no avail. Eventually someone on a bus who sounded like a young kid and drunk picked up the phone. I asked if he had time to act in my film. 'What's the part then?' So I started telling him all about the abstract nature of it...'Do you know Kokoschka?' 'Nah what's that?' I then asked if he was free to shoot on Saturday 'Nah I've got school.' 'What on a Saturday?' 'Yeahhh' We eventually hung up the phone. I thought he was the rudest guy ever. I told some people about it and they couldn't believe it...Long story short I was given the wrong number. Haraldur could not be more different than the guy I'd spoken to. Thinking about it makes me laugh! Who did that poor kid think I was? A secret admirer? A prankster? Hahaha!!!

H: We had a good connection right from the start even though we knew nothing about each other but I really enjoyed being directed by Semeli, so when she approached me again I was curious to see where it would lead us. And here we are.

S: One single and an album later. All in less than a year. Not bad eh?
Q: How did you settle on Santa Semeli and the Monks as a band name?

 H: It came to us one night at the pub after a lot of pondering.

 S: It's a long story but to cut to the chase: Who are the contemporary Saints of today and what do they offer? I think it's a funny name and it makes everyone work with the right ethics and intentions, i.e to love and serve. Very fitting for music. It makes it better. Plus wouldn't it be great for religion to serve art as opposed to art serving religion?  If you're going to be an icon, you might as well go all the way and do some good in this world. Don't fuck with the monks!

Q: Do either of you have a musical history?

S: My father was a brilliant concert pianist. A virtuoso and a composer so I grew up being exposed around great music and musicians. I had piano lessons too but I hated them, except for one nice teacher that I had when I was ten. I would often improvise with my dad on two pianos which was always fun! He would say to me: 'You don't need to play piano to be a pianist, or to prove anything to anyone, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to play for your friends?' I totally agree and I think that's a beautiful thing to be able to do.
H: There is a rich singing culture in Iceland where I grew up. My parents sang in choirs and so did I from a young age as well as learning to play the guitar from the age of 8.

Q: What bands would you place yourself near on the musical spectrum?

S: I have no idea. What do you think? I don't really consider us a band. We just are, you know? Whatever that means....
H: We just focus on making good music.
Q: Your music makes no attempt to compromise-to be commodity-it is 'art'. Was that a deliberate decision or the effect of you priorities and personalities?
S: We just do what we love to do. I never think about pleasing, but I do think it's important to have high standards and to produce good work and offer something beautiful and entertaining. Love what you do, love who you are. That's all there is to it. That and a few Grammys. 
H: I guess you could say it is deliberate, although not specifically planned. Like you say, it is 'art'. All we strive to do is make good art and any profit we might gain from that goes into making more good art.

S: Just like any good religion. I actually don't believe that capitalism works in the arts. It makes it bad. But it does work in accounting.

Q: Some artists find their work is more complete live-in the interaction of band and audience-does the live setting bring an extra dimension to your work?

H: Performing live is always an intense experience, sometimes you can´t even remember having been on the stage when it´s over. I really enjoy it. Recording is completely different, you become very conscious of what you´re doing, and the best way to counteract the rigidity that could bring to one's performance is simply imagining you´re playing live. Just going for it and seeing what happens often brings out the best results.

S: It's always fun to perform live and having instruments support you on stage is a near-orgasmic experience really! It gives you a certain strength and feeling of invincibility. I love it. And I love making people happy. I really get a high from that. It's like good sex...

Q: Do you aim to hold a mirror up to the world revealing the truth of our lived experiences, or are your songs more autobiographical? They have an authenticity that will resonate with many people, reminding them of past events, relationships.

S: First and foremost I hold a mirror at myself. That is the only way to sanity. In other words, awareness and honesty. At the same time it is my need as an artist to express myself and share my thoughts. I could keep them to myself but I would go insane and I think I have interesting things to say. I put myself forward by voicing my observations and experiences. People might take it personally but only because they're 'guilty'. Like me or shoot'll run out of bullets eventually. I try not to take myself too seriously, after all I'm not so important. Nobody is. At one point or another we all have similar thoughts and/or experiences and that's the beauty of humanity. I want to highlight that with my work.

Q: Your album reminded me of a film soundtrack! Do you think your music making is informed by your involvements in film and drama?

S: This particular album is inspired by stories of past relationships. All songs have a story to tell and in some instances they are quite dramatic to say the very least. Santa Semeli The Movie. A comedy about a drama queen. I do like happy endings though...I'm an MGM Baby at heart.
H: It´s just storytelling really, and you can tell stories with all art forms.
Q: Who has inspired you musically and more generally?

 H: The Beatles, Nirvana and many, many more. One of my favourite bands is Deerhoof, they have a great style which I´ve learned a lot from.

 S: My first love was Tchaikovsky since I was in my mother's womb. Because of him I wanted to be a ballerina and because of him I know that music can make the world a more beautiful place. My father taught me to be fearless and that music should be accessible to everyone to enjoy and not for the elite. He would play Beatles songs and he'd have all these so called 'intellectuals' around the piano singing along to 'Rocky Raccoon' or whatever. In later years my good friend Tony who used to be a Mod back in the day introduced me to all sorts of music like Nick Drake, Diamanda Galas, Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson, etc. He basically gave me his entire i-Tunes library which was super eclectic and so I studied a lot. My ex husband introduced me to The Velvet Underground, who's favourite band it is. I really love Lou Reed because he did whatever he felt like doing and I rate him highly as a poet.
Then I fell in love with a pretty brilliant pop icon and because of him, for all sorts of crazy reasons, I was put back onto my intended path which I was previously afraid to follow: Making and performing music.

 Q: Do you think the overall sound and ethos of Santa Semeli and the Monks is the result of your diverse cultural backgrounds, a synthesis of your diversity?

 S: It's all the result of loving what we do. Each day is different but we can only bring to the table who we are. 
H: With us there are two very different worlds being united and something massive is going to come out of that collision as a result . What exactly we don´t know yet, but time will soon tell...

Photo by Roger Eaton.































Friday, 12 September 2014

Constructing the Self.

image by yvonne forster

Constructing the Self.
Sociologists known as Social Constructionists (1) believe that we construct our sense of self, of self identity from the cultural resources available to us. That is in order to construct a version of ourselves that is understandable and intelligible to ourselves and others we draw on the representations, roles and social signifiers around us, configuring and modifying them to construct a sense of who we are both for ourselves and those around us. Many of these cultural resources-conventional gender roles, nationalities, etc- are top down products of a nation state capitalist system and these cultural resources will perpetuate roles, identities and social structures that serve the status quo and reactionary relationships. Natasha Walter writes in 'Living Dolls' that the mainstream cultural resources available to young girls to construct a self from have narrowed over the last decades, leaving a one dimensional version of 'woman' for many (2). Hegemonic femininity and masculinity elevate a version of femininity and masculinity in a particular society (3) as an ideal to be aspired to, some would argue the current hegemonic models in the UK are for many the overtly sexualised woman and the soldier.
However there are innovative ways of combining cultural resources, as well as resources that lie outside the 'norm', available to those who wish to construct themselves in a way other than that proffered by the mainstream. These constructions of self draw on ideas and models that challenge the status quo, that 'mix and match' existing representations and performances in customised or novel ways. Often these combinations initially confuse or offend as they appropriate and subvert, re-combine or expose and confront the traditional. An interesting example of this would be Grayson Perry who combines conventional gendered male mannerisms and learnt behaviour with traditionally female clothing. Another interesting example of appropriation is Dave Lee Roth's performance in the Van Halen video 'Jump' where he borrows from traditional female behaviour exposing gender as performed. (In social constructionism the two sex model, gender and
the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy are contested (4 and 5)). 
Many people construct a sense of self from that 'to hand' rather than that available, unaware of alternatives they use popular cultural resources to construct their self from. Radically new cultural resources are unusual, but punk would be a good example. When punk was constructed in 1976/77 it opened up a possibility, was a resource, that young people could utilise to give expression to themselves. Prior to that time few people would have imagined combining tartan, S&M gear and leather jackets as an expression of self- although mythically  John Lydon had previously worn a 'Pink Floyd' t shirt altered to read 'I hate Pink Floyd' an example of appropriation and subversion- but punk opened up new possibilities and people took that resource and deployed it in their self construction, transforming their self identity and appearance and consequently others perception of them and relationship to them.
I would argue that a healthy individual is engaged in an ongoing process of reconstruction, that our self identity should be being constantly updated as we find better resources to draw on or find facets of our self that needs upgrading. Anarchism should be an adventure that challenges us to be growing and developing.
John Holloway argues in 'Change the World Without Taking Power' (6) that our sense of self should be sourced in our collective efforts to improve situations and circumstances, that who we perceive our self to be should be rooted in acts of collective creativity and community. This is particularly challenging in a society that atomises and encourages the individual to derive their self identity from consumption rather than class consciousness or creative doing.
(1) Redman, P. (2008), 'Introduction' in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), 'Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds', Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(2) Walter, N. (2010), 'Living Dolls. The Return of Sexism', Virago Press, London.
(3) Woodward, K. (2008), 'Boxing masculinities; attachment, embodiment and heroic narratives' in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), 'Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds', Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(4) Gabb, J. (2008) citing Butler, J. (1990), Laqueur, T. (1990) and Moore, H. (1994) in 'Affective attachment in families' in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), 'Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds', Manchester University Press, Manchester.
(5) Spargo, T. (1999) 'Foucault and Queer Theory', Icon Books Ltd, Cambridge. 
(6) Holloway, J. (2005) 'Change the World Without Taking Power', Pluto Press, London and New York.