It may not be possible to prove empirically that talent is genetic, but equally it is no coincidence that Robert Coyne, the son of one of the most singular British artists of his era, demonstrates the same gift for prodigious originality as his renowned, revered father Kevin.
The release in 2011- by underground music maverick Marty Thau’s esteemed Red Star label of Robert’s EP, 'Soft Tread Of The Future', began a new chapter in a book already filled with fantastic music and creative adventure. But a greater chapter still begins now with the release on German label Meyer Records this year of Robert's collaboration with legendary drummer of Can, Jackie Leibezeit. "The Obscure Department" is not your average album, to put it mildly, nor even your average great album. It's unusual, direct, intriguing and quietly confronting all at once, a statement in secret that everybody can hear. In short, hard to describe. "Rock'n'roll by other means" might cover it, but never do it justice. Beautiful, though, it is. Beyond question.
Born in 1969 in England, Robert Coyne grew up steeped in music and musicality, and by his teens was already playing in bands as a guitarist, but also as bass player, drummer and keyboardist. Robert's debut solo album 'Death Is Not My Destiny' (Turpentine), released in 2007, condensed '70's hard rock with a yearning melodic sense. Largely self-written and self-performed, the music reflects rock 'n' roll influences ranging from '50's vocal groups like the Paragons, Chimes, Sonics and Flamingos to '70's hard rock bands. This led to the formation in 2008 of The Robert Coyne Outfit and performances in Germany and the UK, most notably at the My Bloody Valentine-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2009.
Also in 2009, following an approach from the Cologne-based Meyer Records, Coyne began to write new material with a stripped-down, acoustic setting in mind. This quickly generated the intimate, darkly humorous set of songs that comprise the album 'Woodland Conspiracy', which draws its influences from singer-songwriters like Mickey Newbury and David Ackles as well as Marc Bolan and '50's rock 'n' roll. Robert’s Red Star debut – apt given his love of the label’s flagship act Suicide, whose sound so influenced Silver Chapter, a trio Robert played with in the Eighties with his brother Eugene – was a consolidation and evolution of his deceptively simple sound. Says Robert: “The Red star recordings were the manifestation of an electric sound I've been evolving for a few years now. The instrumental feel is something like the MC5 or Bloodrock as played by Kraftwerk - a '70s hard rock/electronic hybrid - but with a melancholic pop surface. The heavy influence of the many other musical constants in my life are also always present - albeit sometimes now pretty abstracted - and most prominently include Suicide, T Rex, Chrome, Fleetwood Mac and the productions of Giorgio Moroder and Kasenetz and Katz. Lyrically I often find myself drawn to write about the strange psychic blind alleys down which people seem endlessly to blunder - their petty obsessions and misconceptions - although the first song on this EP, 'How Can I Choose', has something of a supernatural theme, and the final song is an instrumental from my soundtrack for Jake Clennel's great 2006 documentary 'The Great Happiness Space: Tale Of An Osaka Love Thief'.”
In addition to recording and touring extensively with Kevin, Robert has also worked with Eric Burdon, The Barracudas, The Scientists, Amy Rigby, Wreckless Eric, Sky Saxon and the Flamin’ Groovies’ Chris Wilson, among many others. (At the moment Robert is in fact recording an album with my good self for release in 2014.)
The Obscure Deportment: Robert Coyne and Jackie Liebezeit - As the drummer of Can, and called famously by a bandmate for his uncanny timekeeping "a human metronome", Jackie Liebezeit is a musician of a caliber that many more junior and less famous musicians might shy away from working with. Robert, however, had in approaching the collaboration a secret weapon: good, old-fashioned talent. Featured on the album cover next to Robert, Jaki Liebezeit has been called "one of the few drummers to convincingly meld the funky and the cerebral". ,,In the mid-1960s, he was part of Manfred Schoof's quintet, who were early exponents of European Free Jazz.
He subsequently moved towards the new possibilities being opened by psychedelic music as a member of Can. His drumming was prominent in the band's sound, particularly in his much-admired contribution to the side-long "Halleluhwah" on Tago Mago. Liebezeit is best known for his exceptional "metronome" style of playing; other members of Can have suggested that he sounds as though he is "half man, half machine". In 1980, he became a member of Phantomband, and has formed drum ensembles such as Drums off Chaos and Club off Chaos. Later he recorded with numerous musicians, such as Jah Wobble and Philip Jeck, with whom he produced an album for Jah Wobble's 30 Hertz Records, and has contributed drums and percussion to many albums as a guest throughout the years, such as the Depeche Mode album Ultra and Brian Eno's album Before and After Science. Recently, he has worked with Burnt Friedman on the Secret Rhythms albums and with Schiller on the Atemlos album.
"The Obscure Department" is a remarkable album in many ways, not least for the deceptively aged and intuitive way in which Coyne and Liebzeit meld their styles and content. Sure, it would have helped that the elder Coyne's legacy is honoured in Liebezeit's homeland. But musicians like Liebezeit tend not to be very sentimental about who they work with. This is very much a meeting of equals, each with a unique and happily complimentary musical bent. It's not "less is more" as much as "much less is much more" on this album of sometimes almost skeletal arrangements. As Robert says below in his replies to my questions, his guitar playing style is idiosyncratic, and over the years he has pared his arrangements to the bone. A good thing, then, that Liebezeit's economy of playing verges on austerity. So here we have two linear minimalists laying down quietly lateral music, where everything you hear is essential. Inside each song is another that you don't hear, too, an intimation created by the craft employed. This is accomplished work and it is no surprise that the album has already earned some admiring reviews in Germany.
I sent Robert some questions to try and get inside his process. His generous answers say more about his musical background, solo career and the new album than more of my prose can. Over to Rob:
JEREMY: What inspires you to write and what music has influenced you?
ROBERT: I'm always writing songs, or trying to; I love playing and listening to music, and I don't really need any special motivation or inspiration to do either one... it's an everyday thing for me, and my greatest pleasure in life! I was extremely fortunate to be exposed to a wide variety of great music from an early age, thanks to my Dad, all of which has influenced me, I'm sure... on a typical day he might play Elmore James, Little Richard, AC/DC, Hot Chocolate, Tommy James and The Shondells, the Russian national anthem, The Beach Boys and a dozen other things. All of that music resonates very deeply with me. When I was 13 and discovering the music of The Stooges, which I loved, my Dad suggested that I might want to check out the MC5 - that was wonderful. My two favourite bands are T.Rex and The Rolling Stones, though... I always come back to them.
JEREMY: What was the genesis of your collaboration with Jaki?
ROBERT: I wanted to do some things that were a bit more rhythmic than the songs on 'Woodland Conspiracy', the previous record, using just acoustic guitar and drums - I thought it could be an interesting sound. By chance, Werner Meyer, who runs Meyer Records, was thinking along the same lines, and suggested asking Jaki to do it... a fantastic, far-fetched idea, to which Jaki amazingly agreed.
JEREMY: Your music is informed by that of your father but clearly also very different. How aware are you of his influence in your playing and songwriting?
ROBERT: I don't think my Dad has had that big an influence on the actual form of my music, but he's absolutely the benchmark for me in terms of creativity and - particularly - honesty. I always try to be honest and to communicate something heartfelt in my music, as he did.
JEREMY: Singer-songwriters seem to be swamping us at the moment. What do you make of them by and large? I tend to call most of it “laundry music”; music you listen to at a Laundromat while waiting for your laundry to spin. Yours is in a different class, of course, but is there any of it you like?
ROBERT: I don't pay much attention to contemporary music, so I might be missing something, but most of the singer-songwritery stuff I've heard in recent years has been pretty horrible, unfortunately.
JEREMY: Your songs are generally very simple, spacious and quite short. The words tend to be personal and also at times elusive or even opaque but freighted with meaning. How did this style evolve?
ROBERT: Mostly just by following my nose - it's been interesting and surprising for me to see it evolve in the way it has. I think I used to include a lot of extraneous stuff in my music, and at a certain point I began to try very consciously to leave things out - any decoration that wasn't strictly necessary. Partly as a result of that, and partly because I have an odd, untutored finger-picking style, my acoustic music has developed what seems to me to be quite an unusual character, which I like. The words are certainly personal, but they're not intended to be obscure - I'm expressing myself as clearly as I can, in fact!
JEREMY: I understand that you have a growing reputation in Germany, where your father lived and worked for many years. Please talk a little about your label there, Meyer, how you came to record for it, and how your father's artistic legacy in Germany has contributed to your own career. What was your process with Jaki in creating your new album?
ROBERT: Werner Meyer was initially interested in me because of my Dad, but he and his partner, Petra, were incredibly responsive to my music, and have been extremely supportive of me... nurturing, even. I'm enormously grateful. I don't know if my reputation is growing in Germany or not, but the new record has certainly received more attention there than anything else I've done... my Dad was better appreciated in Germany in the last years of his life than he was in the UK, but I don't think that's translated into interest in me, particularly.
The process with Jaki was very informal, not much talking... we rehearsed a couple of times - which was the first time I'd met him - and played through the songs. All very normal - but not, with Jaki playing the drums. He really is an extraordinary musician, and a very individual person; a lovely, thoughtful guy. The actual recording was done quickly, with the two of us playing live together.
JEREMY: Songs like "Why Would I Remember You" are notable for their brevity, subtle wit and observational honesty. This song, like many you write, immediately strikes a chord, elevating an everyday experience all have had and opening it up. How does this relate to your own personality and predispositions?
ROBERT: I'm pleased you can relate to that song, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it's rather brutal, which it wasn't meant to be... It's a sad song, more than anything, but it does take a kind of leap of faith for me to be that honest. One of my favourite writers is Carson McCullers, who's essential message, as I understand it, is that the divides between people can never be bridged... they can never really know one another. I agree with that idea, and a lot of my songs have to do with it, somehow.
Robert Coyne solo discography:'Death Is Not My Destiny' (CD, Turpentine, 2007)
Interview by Jeremy Gluck