(Intro and interview done in December of 2005. Photos from the second day of 2006. The subject hates this interview, but I still think it turned out OK…)
Chris Leo’s words and music have been a trusted friend of mine for oh, a little over ten years now. I could go on and on about the intricacies of his song writing and the accompanying lyrics that reference a life of enrichment, worldwide historical/cultural awareness and real life experience, but it would do little justice to the body of music and art that Chris Leo has created since first being introduced to music many years ago.
Throughout the years, Chris’ song writing has taken on various formations and names, from Native Nod to The Van Pelt to The Lapse. But following The Lapse’s final album release in 2000, things seemed to have quieted down for Chris. Of course, things are not always as they seem. Chris was busy writing his first novel and simultaneously working on a new band called the Vague Angels throughout most of that seeming downtime.
Finally, near the end of 2004, Chris’ book was released alongside the first ‘Vague Angels’ album. I read the book in a day and played the ‘Truth Loved’ album for most of the past year. The book/CD combination release was an amazing accomplishment for Chris, and the result of his works is an inspirational piece of New York fiction intertwined with what’s come to be considered Chris’ finest song writing to date. The story takes an unusual turn here, as I listened to ‘Truth Loved’ one more time on my last flight over to Glasgow this past November.
The following day, I coincidentally bumped into Chris in a health food store not far from the Dig office. Since we were both in Glasgow with time to kill (Chris plays in a Glasgow band called Pro-Forma; I was there to “work”), the decision came quite easy. I said, “Interview?,” Chris said, “When and where?” We met up in a tiny corner of Glasgow, and Chris was quite receptive to espouse upon any and all past, present and future projects happening under the Chris Leo as writer and Chris Leo as songwriter tag. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
Can you describe what you set out to do with the release of the ‘White Pigeons’ book and CD?
I wanted to explore the spaces between spaces, and then the spaces between those spaces. It’s an endless dissection of off, so take two things that are on, and the two things that are on are before and after the book. So the book begins in this break in the character’s life, and in that break is another break, and it keeps on going down, down, down. The fictional band name The Breaks came from that, and the CD also falls right in between the romance of the book. So before the CD, the character’s only alluding to the love he might have in the future, and then after the CD, he’s only alluding to this love he had in the past. It’s kinda about love in the present tense but not really.
Are the experiences in ‘White Pigeons’ based on real life?
Some authors say that they don’t write based on true experience but I don’t believe those authors, nor do I really like them. Hemingway would always get down on Fitzgerald for writing about real life experience, but if you’re not writing about real life, what the fu*k are you writing about? Where’s it coming from? It’s coming from real life at some point. I pulled those stories from real life experience. I wasn’t really worried about when I was lying and when I wasn’t. I wanted to tell the story above all, I honestly can’t say what’s the truth and what’s not the truth. It’s blurred in my mind. I think that’s intentional. If I hold these things in, you can’t be here. You can’t be in Glasgow. I’m in my 7th month on the road, and I have one more month to go. If I’m thinking about home, and I’m thinking about memories, I’m going to have a miserable day in Glasgow today. The only way to make Glasgow today work, it’s fucking cold, it’s winter, I have no money, nobody does, and I don’t even have a show tonight, and I can’t go home because the place I’m staying at, my flat mate’s girlfriend is going away for two months, so here I am tossed out in the cold in Glasgow. If I start thinking about home, and what home means to me, and collecting these stories, then I’m going to be depressed. The only way to go to it is to wake up in the morning and say, “What the fuck do I do with today? Today is the only day that exists.”
Can you explain the ideas you’ve aimed to create within your second book?
‘Fifty Seven Octaves’ is the working title. So basically, it’s same sorta scene as ‘White Pigeons,’ which is, that, paradox is the same thing as exploring the breaks. You take these two things that are opposing forces and then focus on where the shift is, and I think that’s the part where you enjoy it, the shift. With this book, I did set out more methodically than ‘White Pigeons.’ I figured I would take, what I consider to be the greatest paradox, which is my love for New York City, and NYC in general, and everybody’s love for NYC. Not just New Yorkers, but everyone everywhere loves New York. So I was bartending. Talk about ruining a relationship, and where you make bank in NY, and I quit to work as a tour guide on top of those red double-decker buses. So for 9 months, I was getting up at the crack of dawn and yelling on the top of a tour bus to tourists from all over the world, and then I’d get home at like 6 at night, right when my girlfriend was starting happy hour at her bar. I have no voice left, no energy. I’m lucky if I can stay up til 1 or 2 in the morning, while she doesn’t get out til 3 or 4. But I had to do it to write this book, even though it was a total girlfriend killer.
So you’ve finished writing your second book and finished recording the second Vague Angels album, when are they being released?
I don’t think my new book is going to come out anytime soon. I think we’re going to put it out in September, maybe in the end of Spring, but the next album is coming out in early March. And I don’t want them to come out too close to each other because initially, after I wrote the first album and book, I wanted to do the same thing again. I just thought it was perfect, a book and a CD. If I’m always writing a book and I’m always writing a CD, it will become the same story, but when I was done with the first book and CD, it wasn’t the same story. I could not synch them up, which was the exact opposite of what I thought they would be at the beginning. So I naturally thought it was going to be same thing, and next thing I knew, it was two totally different projects. So I wanted to give them at least six months space so people don’t confuse one with the other. They’re related but they’re not at the same time. The CD veers from the story, but the story also veers from the story. There are new stories from the CD, but it’s the same kinda of narrative that runs through the whole project.
Is the Vague Angels a solo project or a band now?
I did this whole European tour, half was with a bass player and the other half was with a keyboard player. And we’re going to play as a trio when we get back. And I think that might be it. I can’t see myself playing with a drummer again. I love drums but it took me a long time to realize that I don’t need them with what I do. I remember the first time I heard Kraftwerk, I was depressed. I remember thinking, “This CD is mid-blowing and it has nothing to do with the art I make. Have I got it all wrong?” I was young at the time and then I just realized that you’ve got to figure out what you do. And I know that I play guitar, frustrated and as naked as a guitar can possibly get.
From the first album to the second album, the sound of the Vague Angels has become a lot more stripped down. Why is that?
It’s easier for me to get into the acoustic music I’ve been writing lately. In the studio, it’s easy for me to get into anything. You’re wearing headphones and you’re no performing for anybody. I can be as drunk as I want to be or as sober as I want to be. Depending on what the song needs, I can change what needs to be changed. Whereas, on stage with a drummer, there were these lines that I find important, lines that I believe in and spend a lot of time with, and then I take it to the stage, and there’s a drummer, and I’m trying to scream over the drums to get my words said, but the words aren’t words that need to be screamed, they need to be whispered. To sing them really loud is counter-productive to the point that I’m trying to get across, so this is easier.
Is it difficult for you to align lyrics you write with the music you write?
When the words don’t meet up with the music, that’s one of my flaws. I try to make off music often. But even with off music, there needs to be some balance. You can’t be too off, you can’t be so off that it’s pointless. There’s got to be a reason why these two off things are together. So if my lyrics are fighting the song, hopefully they’re fighting it in a way that’s also going with it. And that’s a hard thing to figure out all the time, if it’s truly fighting each other or if it’s an argument. An argument’s a good thing, but I hope that they (the song and the lyrics) are arguing together, arguing the same topic.
Do you think it’s slightly unique that you grew up so closely with your brothers in a tiny scene, sharing the same record label for the earlier parts of your career and even playing the same shows, but that each of you took such divergent paths within your respective song writing?
I’m a middle child. My sister had to get away from all the boys, so she moved to Sweden, but she’s not making music. My older brother is 4 years older than me, my little brother is 1 year younger than me, so he’s barely a little brother. But I think I fall in the middle musically. My older brother [Ted] writes these perfect songs, and my little brother [Danny] writes bizarre, unclassifiable music. I don’t know what he calls what he does now, I think he might be calling it the Love Overdub, but he built a studio in Ridgewood near Queens, and he’s been working on this opus forever. I recorded a lot of my album there. I don’t know if this is cheesy or not, but I feel like he’s in the heart of the city and he’s writing music about way on the outskirts of the city, and Teddy is way outside the city and he’s writing about the inside of the city, and I’m kinda hinkering on the edge. I like playing with song format, but I don’t write music like Teddy’s music. I couldn’t if I tried.
How do you think that happened?
I don’t know, it must be a trip being a parent and watching your children each take their own path, especially cause we all get along. If we didn’t get along and we all took different paths, that would be one thing. But we all totally hang out, and our musical tastes may overlap, but they don’t come out the same way at all. People that like the Vague Angels usually hate Teddy’s music and vice versa. Ted’s fans think I’m evil.
What do your parents think about the choices you’ve made to arrive at where you are?
My parents don’t hate that I’m poor, they hate that I’m in Glasgow, cause they know that I hate Glasgow. They know I prefer the sun. They had a couple freak outs. Before Teddy was successful, that’s when they started to freak out. They sat me down at the piano when I was 4, and they just forced music down our throats. And there was a time when they were like, “We’re so sorry for doing this to you. We made you into musicians. We made you poor and miserable, we made you bi-polar.” And then Teddy made it big, and they realized that there might be some hope, and then they could focus and realize that I don’t care. I know I’m making myself happy and most people spend their whole lives trying to make themselves happy. My dad came to Sicily with me on this tour. So they’re into it, they’re kinda having a renaissance.
How difficult has the song writing/holding a band together thing been for you?
There were times when it’s been incredible for us. There was a time, where The Van Pelt had like a year and a half and it was just easy. We were all thinking the same way musically. Not outside of music, that was amazing. Otherwise, it’s been few and far between. But it’s getting there. The two people I’m playing with now are incredible. One guy, the stand up bass player, his birthday is a day away from mine and we share a lot in common, and then the girl playing keyboards is an ex-girlfriend of mine. She’s one of these characters that everyone has in their lives. The most important love interest of my life was with this girl, it wasn’t the longest but it was the most important. And so, every two years, we’d bump into each other again, and either one of us would have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or if none of us would, we’d date each other for two weeks and then hate each other after that. So in the end of last summer, I was dating a girl for three years and she and I broke up. So naturally, I bump into this girl again, and she’s dating a boy anyway, so it makes it easy. And we say, “So what are we gonna do?” And we decide to play music together and see what happens, and it’s been incredible. Not easy by any means, but incredible.
A lot of Vague Angels’ lyrics mention specific names of people in your life, how did that come about?
Usually they’re real names. If you’re trying to make honest music, you might as well not even change the names. It makes it difficult to enjoy the night though. If I play those songs and I’m trying to make honest music. But making honest music means that every time I perform it, I’m performing it honestly. So it’s a weird self-destructive night. I’m trying to destroy my night. If I succeed in doing everything I want to do on stage, then I’ve destroyed my night, because there’s no way I recoup those feelings. Yeah, I’ve gotta relive those memories. So in some ways, I hope I’m having a pretty good show. It’s this weird thing, if I have a piss poor show, then my night’s ruined, but if I have an amazing show, then my night’s ruined, cause I just sunk into these memories. My real goal is to probably have a pretty decent show, it’s a weird balance.
How have both the Vague Angels and ‘White Pigeons’ been received?
Let me give your the chronology of tours since the book has come out. The book comes out exactly a year ago. Imagine this, I began the book and the CD in 1999. Finally, I find a publishing house that’s willing to put out a book with a CD. No record companies were willing to put out a book and no publishing companies were willing to put out a CD. So finally, I find this cool art house from Atlanta. The book comes out, and the first tour I do, is with my older brother. So I’m playing to like 400 to 600 people a night, solo on stage, and his fans are so dedicated to him, all he needs to do is say, “Buy my brother’s book,” and I’ll sell like 30 books. So I’m thinking, “Fuck yeah, this is so easy.” Then I go out by myself on a tour of the states, and I’m playing to like 11 people, selling 3 books a night, so it was a slap of reality. Then I go Europe, and I sell like 500 books on a 6-week tour of Europe. But I think it was about the novelty of it all instead of people being into what I was doing. Here’s this guy from The Van Pelt and The Lapse, so we’re gonna turn out and buy his book anyhow. So I don’t really consider that to be a successful tour, because it felt like people were going to buy what I did regardless, and then I did another tour of the states for a month by myself. And I was lucky to get $50 for gas a night, if I was lucky. And I had a girlfriend at the time, so she wanted to kill me for being away all the time, but the only places I can stay when I’m out tour, is either with girls, who I can’t stay with cause I have a girlfriend, or with, you’d hope to god there was some kid that lived with his parents and had digital cable. But 4 out of 5 nights on the last tour, I spent the night driving my car, finding the nearest lamp post to shine light into my car. I tallied it up, by the end of that time on the road, I had read 1,500 pages of literature, cause I had nothing to do at the end of the night. There was nothing to do. Either you go home with a drunk girl, whom I’m not allowed to go home with, or trying to find the kid who lives with his parents. So I spent most of the time sitting in the back of my car. That was the worst tour ever. And then I followed that up with a Pro Forma tour of the UK, which was a good tour, but the UK Pound is so strong that all the money I made, I burnt right through.
I don’t feel like I really had a great tour until this last Vague Angels tour of Europe. That was the tour when everything congealed and we were able to articulate that to the audience. They could see that the point we were trying to convey got across, and I think that’s because I had given up.
We’ve both since returned to the NY area, and Chris along with the other members of the Vague Angels, are currently in full swing promoting the new album, ‘Let’s Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz’ in the greater NYC area.
For more information on Chris’ first and upcoming books, log onto http://www.fifthplanetpress.com/
For more information on Chris’ current band, The Vague Angels, log onto http://www.myspace.com/vagueangels