Interview with Sel Balamir
An interview that never got its transcript up till now, which is something that is very much regretted and now apologised for in no small way. The band play the Netherlands on the 31st of January as they enter the stage at the ‘Monsters of Mariaheide’ festival. This interview however harks back to August 2014 with Sel Balamir, singer and guitarist with Amplifier in a particularly good mood.
Sel: Hey Marcel, it’s Sel from Amplifier. Sorry it’s a bit late.
Marcel: Well, that’s no problem at all. You must have been busy with other interviews.
Sel: Well, no, you’re the only one today, so that’s cool, but I have been catching up with other things.
Marcel: OK. Well, let’s start our conversation then. I was wondering about Mystoria as I have listened to it 8 or 9 times today.
Sel: Wow, that’s a lot.
Marcel: It is. What can you say about how the writing came along? There was already talk about Mystoria in 2010, in the days of The Octopus, after all?
Sel: Well, making a record is like making a film, well, I have never made a film, but if I made a film, how I would make it, is first of all, I would know what the genre of the film was, comedy or thriller, and then after that, I would probably know how I wanted the vibe of the film to be. Is it an emotional roller coaster or what is it? You start with very general terms when making a record. And like with Mystoria, in 2010 we already had the title. Because the title already had a feeling, it’s a make up word we use and has a good feeling. And well, ‘The Octopus’ which we were making at that time did not have that feel. It is quite dark. While we were making ‘The Octopus’, I wrote some songs that didn’t share that dark vibe, didn’t fit in. And well, they felt like Mystoria. And since then, that has just got more and more focused like a plot and a story line. Just like when making a film, the focus developed along the way. That is kind of how the album was written. It’s not just like the first ten songs that came along and we put them on an album. That is not how I make my records. It’s like gathering collections and moving pieces, you know.
Marcel: So there was no blueprint that you had in 2010 which was the general outline in 2010?
Sel: Yes, well, we had ‘Magic Carpet’ so. But back in the day we were more about kind of being long and instrumental. But the thing about ‘Magic Carpet’ is that it is short, only about 3 minutes and so that became a feeling of empowerment and happiness because that’s the feeling the song gives you. It makes you want to jump out of your chair and run down the street. That’s the feeling of what ‘Mystoria’ is like for me.
Marcel: Speaking of ‘Magic Carpet’, what’s the thought behind the 8-bit version?
Sel: Well, as the album came along, it was all about having a good time, And this is, well, if you remember going to the video arcade when you were a kid, we started reliving that a bit so that became part of the record somewhere along the way. And well, somewhere along the way we also started wearing horses’ heads as well, you know. (Laughs). And well, everything kind of got a bit surreal.
Marcel: A bit Fellini like?
Sel: Mystoria certainly has definitely kind of surreal qualities about it, there’s fun in it. The band’s humour has always been quite like that, as well. I think this record is more like the band celebrating having a good time; and for us, having a good time, is often a bit odd.
Marcel: Well, if you take into account your newsletter, it is obvious to see where that comes from.
Sel: Well, yes, it is the record that is absolutely like our newsletter. It absolutely is.
Marcel: This was already the third recording in the new line up. How did that affect recording this album?
Sel: It was good! Because this time, you know, the band has been pretty stable now. And this time we decided to rehearse before going into the studio. While our other records, we explored the record after we recorded it. We may have gone to really old fashioned with this one. Certainly for our next record we won’t be using any computers anymore. We are just going back to how people used to make records. It’s easier. It’s more about the music and less about things attached to the production. Here actually the music proves to be the production value which is why we took so long rehearsing the music before recording it. The other records, the vibes and so on would be pieced together back in my studio. That is great. But well, now, we just got old. (Laughs) Ancient!
Marcel: Is that it?
Sel: I just rather practice and play my guitar correctly and then go and play my music… (Laughs).
Marcel: The songs on the album are compact, just as ‘Named after Rocky’ shows. You very much get to show your songwriting skills and your mastering of the instruments as well as is the case with the more funky, if I could call it that, ‘Cat’s Cradle’.
Sel: Yeah, Cat’s Cradle. Someone has said it’s like Blur. And yes, it is like Blur. Well, I like listening to Blur and thought: “Well, imagine if it would sound like Blur…”And it does… It is weird. The album is much more about writing songs. One thing I did not want to do, was recreate ‘The Octopus’. I wanted to make a record that actually would fit on one record, like people used to do, in a ‘record’. All our other albums are like two records. Frankly, that’s twice the cost.
Marcel: There’s always a mysterious feeling to your music. In what way do you strife after that?
Sel: Absolutely. All of our records, it is very important to me that they all have a character. They all have different flavours, personalities. Like people say: “My paintings or my records are my children”, well, in a sense that is true. They all have different characters. Like our first album, that is very youthful and optimistic. It’s got the vibe of young people that is very full of hope and sincere. Then ‘Insider’ is much more bitter, more harder, twisted and fucked up. Then ‘The Octopus’ is not any of those either. It is more like a labyrinth thing, vast, sprawling and overindulged, well, overly self indulged. Pompous, ridiculous, articulate and intelligent, the opposite of ‘Mystoria’. Then ‘Echo Street’ is dreamy.
Marcel: What I was wondering about, when you take the new album, there is a balance between how you write the songs and the way you get to show your skills on the instruments. Is that another aspect of what Amplifier stand for?
Sel: I think the record is pretty restrained. I wanted the record to last about 45 to 50 minutes. Period. And I also wanted at least 10 songs on the album. And if you set out with that goal, obviously, you can’t have the same mindset used on ‘The Octopus’. It’s completely different. You strip away all that is not necessary to the songs. It’s like a celebration of Led Zeppelins ‘III’ to me or Queen’s ‘Jazz’ or Van Halen’s ‘II’. All those records I listened to when I was a kid. All that they did was make you feel good. That is what ‘Named after Rocky’, what this album is about. Just like Van Halen’s ‘Jump’. Rocking out and celebrating life. It is lean and mean, that’s what this record stands for. The only song that isn’t lean and mean is ‘Open Up’. I wasn’t even sure whether or not it should go on the record. Yet everyone else was sure. And it’s a great song. That is a bit more traditional Amplifier song. A somewhat more head nodding tempo than the other songs on the album.
Marcel: Another album, another label. How does that influence you on writing, on recording?
Sel: That was all bout the music. ‘Echo Street’ was right for K Scope (former label for Amplifier) as a label and well, ‘Mystoria’ was not right for K Scope, the guys there would tell you that. And ‘Echo Street’ is not an album that would fit on Superball Music. Both labels have different audiences. It doesn’t matter to the way I write or record. It’s always meeting different people. That is what I like to do. Well, it’s my way of going out, dating, changing labels. (Laughs).
Marcel: Looking at the lyrics, there were some things that caught my attention. You have 2 songs mentioning Mrs. Jones. Any deeper thought behind that?
Sel: No, it’s just a technique I use when I run out of lyrics to write. And it works, it works all the time. So sometimes later on I might change it again. In these songs I left it in, because it made complete sense. And also, like the whole thing with ‘Mystoria’ was self-referential. And also there was an old spinsters in a sitcom years ago, that made it fit in quite fine now. It’s an everyman type of character. And that goes well with Amplifier as I don’t write about specific persons.
Marcel: What about the ‘Crystal’ songs at the end of the album?
Sel: That is basically one and the same. It is a journey song. We always end our albums with a journey song. Just if you go back to the albums. And, if you think about it, it makes sense, a journey song leads you to an end somewhere and also a new beginning, which is of course again is another album. As a matter of fact, we do that all the time. It’s not that we analyse our albums like that though.
Marcel: What can you say about the two bonus tracks?
Sel: Well, to be honest, the version of the album with the bonus tracks, to me, is the proper version. It was difficult to decide what would be the bonus tracks. I don’t agree. (Laughs) I think they both should have been on the record.
Marcel: You do succeed in using both heavy parts and soundscapes, even though your songs are compact. And ‘Open Up’ might be the ultimate balance between both. Did you set out to write songs like that?
Sel: Erm, no, I think I’m getting better at writing songs. It used to take me about 8 minutes to explore the sounds I want and now I can condense that down to 4,5 minutes. And be completely satisfied in the same way. I like ‘Open Up’. It’s a good song. It only took 90 minutes to write. And well, all the textural kind of stuff, this is just what we sound like. So there isn’t really a secret, except that we have been playing a very long time.
Marcel: Are the lyrics something you divide in the band or do you write all the lyrics?
Sel: No, I write everything, both the music and the lyrics. It’s part of the same parcel. I pretty much know the title very early. Once I know the title, it’s a bit like finding a murder weapon at the scene of a crime. It’s easy, you can just write the words down.
Marcel: You recorded at the Monnow Valley studio where Oceansize recorded as well. Was that the reason for doing so?
Sel: Well, that was one of the reasons. I knew exactly what it was going to sound like. And there aren’t many studio’s that I like left anymore, at least that we could afford to go to. There are about 2 or 3 left. Monnow Valley is one of the few left. It’s hard for studio’s these days to stay afloat as there is a lot to be maintained which obviously costs money. And as for the recording artists, there just isn’t the same money around as there used to be. A lot less copies of albums are being sold.
Marcel: Did you ever think of a kickstarter campaign then for your music?
Sel: I don’t know. I don’t know. There are things that are good about, other things might be a bit naff about it. I mean, I know you don’t have to do it. But where do you draw the line in all the extra things you might want to add? Play a concert in one’s bedroom? I find that a bit demeaning.
Marcel: Yet on the other hand, if you take a special edition like you did with ‘The Octopus’, that might be just something for it?
Sel: Yes, I know. We’d like to a vinyl version of ‘The Octopus’ but that’s just so expensive. If we want to do something at the moment, I think we should get the money from our label or just pre-sell it ourselves. People now know that if we are going to do something, that it is going to be good. Maybe if it would prove to be difficult to get the funds in for another release, I might look into it, then again, if I wouldn’t have to pay someone 15%. I try to be pragmatic as well about it. You learn the hard way. It’s a business and you have to be sure that you make as much money as possible because otherwise there isn’t going to be another release.
Marcel: Well, particularly with both the special releases of ‘The Octopus’, you probably had to invest a lot yourself.
Sel: Absolutely, I had some money to invest at the beginning to make that in the first place and I still haven’t got it back.
Marcel: If you were to market the album yourself, which people would you approach to listen to ‘Mystoria’?
Sel: I think we might have moved back to our initial area. I think there might be people amongst those who liked ‘Echo Street’ and there are others who won’t. We just don’t fit in a certain box. That is both our strength and our weakness. We are sort of nomads of rock.
Marcel: What were the main musical influences when writing the album?
Sel: Not Blur, that’s for sure. There weren’t any specific influences. There was just the feeling when we went in every day and tried and celebrate the history of all of rock music condensed into one kind of orgasmic feeling. That is what ‘Mystoria’ is about. Absolutely.
Marcel: You talked about humour in your music and it being essential to your music.
Sel: You know what the general source of our humour is? That’s our day to day bad luck. That’s pretty much it. (Laughs) Well, when you observe a child growing up, one of the first things they do is, that they learn to laugh. Literally, they learn to laugh within a week or two from being born. That is testament, it really shows how important it is in human life. Being in this band, this long and you’re still here, if you don’t have a sense of humour, then it’s not going to happen. Rock music is not a choice for a life style. It’s just an intrinsic core part of my personality. My joy of being alive is expressed through rock music, through guitar and electricity in the same way my sense of being poisoned would be expressed by vomiting if I had drunk too much. It’s the same thing. It’s intrinsic. And having a sense of humour about all that, is really important. Because otherwise, what joy would be there in life if you couldn’t celebrate it?
Marcel: What can we expect of the set-list on the Mystoria tour?
Sel: We’ll play the whole record. Well, I’ve got it written down here. We’ll play the whole record. We’ll play a load of old songs that we never played before. So we’ve got quite a lot of work to do. And I should probably really get on with it.
Marcel: The way you regard music, is also reflected in your artwork, merchandise and the cover. It has a Hitchcock feeling to it.
Sel: Yes, it has. A bit of a Sci-Fi horror feel to it. Well, the building is actually in the town where the series ‘The Prisoner’ was filmed.
Marcel: Well, that concludes my questions. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Have a great tour.
Sel: No problem at all. Thank you.