The Clash & PiL’s Keith Levene Talks To Louder Than War’s Kathy DiTondo
Louder Than War recently sat down for a chat with the legendary Keith Levene, a founding member of several groundbreaking British acts, including The Clash, Public Image Ltd. and the almost mythical, Flowers of Romance – a band which disbanded without ever having performed a single show when his mate, Sid Vicious, left to play bass for the Sex Pistols.
Amongst other things, Keith talks to us about his new multi-media digital release, Search4AbsoluteZero, about penning his upcoming non-memoir entitled “This is Not an Autobiography: The Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker,” about his recent “Tweet-a-Rama,” and, oh, loads of other things…
Louder Than War: Keith, some people believe that you disappeared from the music scene for a number of years before resurfacing recently for purposes of recording Yin and Yang and doing the Metal Box in Dub shows in Japan and Europe. How do you respond to that?
Keith: “The truth of the matter is that I really didn’t ‘disappear.’ I’ve always been here. I’ve always worked on various projects that interested me. In some cases, they’ve been uncredited. I was also involved in the computer industry, which has always fascinated me. I’ve enjoyed working on 3D design, desktop publishing…things along those lines.”
You recently put out your new release, Search4AbsoluteZero, through a process which you referred to as a “digital skateboard.’ What’s that?
“Yeah. That referenced my days in New York City after PiL when I put out ‘Commercial Zone.’ Basically, what I did was operate as my own independent distribution channel – then as well as now. With ‘Commercial Zone,’ I arranged to have the albums manufactured through a certain guy I was doing business with back then. When the albums were ready, I would skate over to the pressing plant, pick them up and deliver them myself – on my red-wheeled skateboard! No record companies or middlemen involved. You got the product through me. So I would physically wheel a box of LPs to the purchaser on my skateboard. I’d have to dodge cars and taxis and negotiate the streets of New York in whatever weather until the last box was sold. Then I stopped. With Search4AbsoluteZero, I mirrored what had been done before. If you wanted the release, you get it through me. It wasn’t and isn’t available anywhere else. So, people who wanted to get Search would go to the website, and I delivered it to them through my ‘digital skateboard’ delivery method which was facilitated by the internet. “
Sounds like it’s been a totally independent process, from start to finish.
“It has. But I’ve always believed in that. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. And that includes with music. Write it yourself. Record it yourself. Produce it yourself. Market it yourself. Distribute it yourself. That’s the only way you are going to be able to keep a handle on quality control – from beginning to end. Today, with the internet, there’s no need for anyone to get a quote unquote ‘record deal.’ In fact, when younger acts tell me, ‘Keith, I just got signed’ do you know how I respond? I say ‘You have my condolences.’ I cannot tell you the number of battles I have had with people who know absolutely nothing about music, people on the so-called ‘business end’ of things. No more. Today, more than ever before, you don’t need them to do the publicity or marketing or distribution for you. You can do that all yourself with the help of the internet. It’s a lot of work. But it can be done. I’ve done it! But in the end, it’s the only way to do things. Anytime I’ve involved other people in my business, things have gone wrong. So if it goes wrong now, I only have myself to thank. Bottom line: Do it yourself. At least, that’s what I believe. Always have, actually.”Tell me about Search4AbsoluteZero.
“Search4AbsoluteZero took easily seven years to create. Search’s roots go back to 2004 or 2005. It is also the parity release to ‘Yin and Yang.’ which I did with Jah Wobble. It’s the checksum, if you will. In addition, like the Metal Box in Dub shows I did with him, Search wrapped up some unfinished business from the Public Image Ltd. days. Also like the Metal Box, Search was done live to tape, off the top of our heads. Real time composition. This process is something Wobble and I always managed to pull off, dating back to when we created Graveyard’ for the then-unnamed Metal Box. Search was recorded in a similar fashion, not by design. It just worked out that way. I describe myself as a ‘real time composer.’ That means no pre-conceived ideas or plans. You go into the studio and see where things take you. The results show. The best stuff is usually created in one take. That’s when you give yourself the room to have really amazing things happen. The music just seems to flow out of me then. It’s the same on stage. There are no set lists. If you were to ask me what the next thing I was going to play live was, I couldn’t tell you. It’s always been that way. Take a look at some of the old PiL videos on YouTube or wherever. Invariably, you’ll see us finish one tune and then talk back and forth before going into the next number. We’re discussing what to play next! Like I said, no set lists. As for Search, I’m really proud of it. I like how it turned out. I wouldn’t release it otherwise. I couldn’t. I’ve gotten some great feedback from people and I’m glad they like it, too.”
Search4AbsoluteZero is a strictly digital release that includes your artwork and some videos. Will you be releasing Search on vinyl?
“Yes…and no! The digital release includes three original videos of my 3D computer design work along with nine tunes and an interview. While I will be releasing Search on vinyl in the future, it won’t include the same content as the current digital version. It’s gonna be something different.”
Recently you hosted an interactive listening party on Twitter where you and fans simultaneously listened to a radio special on Search, which was really well received. How did you get the idea for that?
“Real time interactive events seem to be my forte, aren’t they? The thing on twitter was similar. I have always been interested in having people involved interactively with my work as things are unfolding. One of the first times I did this was the show PiL did at the Ritz in New York back in 1981. So recently, I did an interview for Frome radio with Ian Leak and Push (aka Christopher Dawes) who used to write for Melody Maker and was the editor of Muzik and Mondo. Two really great guys. We had a blast during the interview.The finished product was the three of us talking about my work. Much like three friends sitting down for a chat and conversing about things. Some of the tunes from Search were played in between as well as some of my older stuff. So the three of us had been communicating on twitter for a little while. I thought, why not have a little “tweet-fest” or “tweet-a-rama” with other people on twitter who were interested in me and who had been following me there.
We had actually pulled this off unintentionally on a previous interview with Paul Holloway of Pure 1078 Radio in Stockport. The night Paul’s interview of me played, I just happened to be on twitter. Other people were as well. They were tweeting about the show in real time and I naturally responded. It turned into an unexpected event. People were really excited. They were tweeting things like “I’m in New York listening to ‘Search4AbsoluteZero’ on the radio for the first time, and so are you in England!” So once we knew when the Frome show was set to be broadcast, we spread the word on twitter. And then the three of us – Ian, Push and me responded to tweets from people all over the world as the show played live on the radio. I believe that we had people from just about every continent but Antarctica involved! It was kind of surreal. Answering a question from someone in Japan or Australia about a point I’d made on the Frome radio interview as the show was being broadcast! So at one point, I’m listening to the show and the channel just goes down. It’s dead air. Damnit, I thought! Must be a problem with my Wi-Fi connection. As I’m thinking this, people start tweeting that they can’t hear the show either anymore from where they were. I believe what happened was that the radio station simply got overloaded. That’s what happens when things are live, I guess. The station was able to get back up and then someone tweets should we start the show over again from the beginning? Yeah, yeah! Is the response. Start it again! Start it again! This was really amazing to me, because it’s beginning to get late in places like Europe and people had to get up the next morning to go to work. But they wanted the show to start again, and they stuck along with things until they were resolved and tweeted away! Some even stuck around after the show was over and continued their conversations on twitter for a while.
The next day some people were tweeting about how tired they were because they had to get up early to go to work after hanging out (virtually) with myself and everyone else, but that it had been worth it! It reminded me of when people would have to get up early the next day after having been out late at a concert! A couple days later, someone assembled some of the tweets from that event, and put them all together in a collective register (Storify, HERE – ed) so you are able to read what happened, as it happened. It was lots of fun. I’m glad we were able to use the internet in such a cool way.”
Is it true that you have been working on your memoirs, Keith?
“I’ve been working on a project with the working title of ‘This is Not An Autobiography, the Diary of a Non-Punk Rocker!’ if that’s what you mean! Like a lot of things, it wasn’t planned. It just happened. Part of the reason is that people who weren’t there on the scene, or maybe involved marginally in London during the 1970s or New York in the early 1980s have been repeatedly writing books and making movies about what supposedly happened during those times. And usually getting things wrong! Some others have written things about me which have also been really inaccurate, and I’ve never really taken the opportunity to give my point-of-view. Since we just talked about it briefly, I’ll give you one example: The so-called “Ritz Riot show,” which was set out to be a live, interactive video event and which still to this day has never been done the way I envisioned it. Nowadays, people use video technology at will, because everyone has high definition video in their back pocket. Stuff that was the subject of science fiction in 1981. But the Ritz show preceded even the launch of MTV. I have never discussed how that show came together, or what the objective of that live, interactive event was supposed to be, or how the then state-of –the art technology was supposed to work or what really happened at the venue as things unfolded…until now.”
It seems like you’ve been really busy of late.
“I guess I have been. In addition to what we have already discussed, there are so many other projects in the pipelines. I have several more releases in various stages of production, including one that’s entitled ‘Spirit of U.K.’ which is a band as well as a forthcoming release. There’s another project entitled ‘2051.’ Most involve collaborating with other people, which is something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. As I’ve said, I believe in real time producing, so things are always evolving. That’s what makes it exciting, the thing I haven’t done yet. The project I haven’t yet thought of!”