(POOR GENETIC MATERIAL / QUIXOTE MUSIC RECORDS)
An Interview with Philippe Jaehne, one of the main men behind Poor Genetic Material and Quixote Music:
VM: Hello Philippe, and welcome to ProgressoR. While talking with you, I'd like to open the discussion with subjects that may not concern you and your work in particular, but are quite relevant regarding the general situation around the contemporary Prog labels. So let me please use some direct aspects of your activity as examples.
VM: You are one of only a few people who combine their duties of owner (co-owner, in your case) of a recording company with playing in a band. Please tell me of your musical experiences prior to forming the Quixote Music label and, later, the band Poor Genetic Material.
PJ: Well, since my father was a professional classical musician, I grew up with music. I don't remember when I actually started to play the piano myself, but since there was music around all the time anyway, it must have been quite early. Stefan (Glomb, PGM guitarist) and I started to make music together when we were about 13 or 14. It was our common fascination for the music of The Beatles that brought us together. But from the very beginning we were not so much interested in playing cover versions, but in writing our own music. It's the creative process that we were and are really interested in. Still today it is much more important for us to write and record new music than to perform live. About ten years ago we started writing soundtrack-like material for different drama groups. That was a very interesting period as we had to learn to write music in order to create a very specific atmosphere - that atmosphere, however, is defined by others. And probably even more difficult: The music must not distract from the action of the play, yet, it has to be interesting enough for those who listen deliberately. Out of this work and based on that experience the "soundscape-version" of Poor Genetic Material evolved.
VM: Whose idea was it to set out on the path of a musical creation besides the work with the record label? Of course, I am talking about the formation of Poor Genetic Material... Who are the main masterminds: composers and arrangers behind the band?
PJ: It's pretty much the other way round - the band was first, then came the label. Another friend of mine - Stephan Weber, lead singer of Tea for Two - and I decided to form the label to promote the music of our bands. The idea to work for and with other artists as well came later when we realized that the work we were doing with QuiXote was quite well received by critics, audience and musicians alike. The masterminds behind PGM are Stefan and me. We write most of the musical and lyrical material. Yet, the contributions of the others, especially Phil Griffiths's ideas have a huge influence on what is developed from our initial "sketches". So when a track is finished, all we can say is "words and music by PGM", impossible to say exactly how much influence each member had.
VM: By the way, why did you choose the name Poor Genetic Material? Does it have any immediate meaning?
PJ: We wanted a name that had absolutely nothing to do with Tolkien, Arthur, elves or knights. We actually found this name in a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. Describes the mental constitution of the band members pretty well, doesn't it:-).
VM: Was the work on "Winter's Edge" different from that on the other Poor Genetic Material albums?
PJ: The band worked much better as a unit. On each of the albums before we had just gone through line-up changes - on "Summerland" we had just joined forces with Phil Griffiths and Ludwig Benedek from Alias Eye. For "Leap into Fall" Dennis Sturm on bass joined. So on both albums we had new members, who had very little time to find themselves into the band before recording sessions started. After "Leap into Fall" we stayed together, had time just to play and jam. So when it came to recording the new album we knew each other much better musically. I think you can hear it especially in the rhythm section.
VM: Can you tell me how many copies of each of the band's previous two albums: "Summerland" and "Leap Into Fall" were sold until now (if it is not a secret)?
PJ: Considered the fact that PGM has never played live, sales are surprisingly high. That does of course not mean that our music would provide us any kind of a decent income. But we've sold enough copies of each album to cover the production costs and earn a solid budget for the next production, which is about the most a prog band can hope for today.
VM: You often mention that you have the two Alias Eye members in your line-up. Why not to say that these are Alias Eye members who happen to be two PGM musicians in their lineup? Especially since the debut albums by both of the bands were released in the same year, and the name of singer Philip Griffith more often relates to the context of PGM...
PJ: Alias Eye was there before Phil and Ludwig joined PGM. When we met them, Alias Eye was already quite active as a live band and had started work on their debut album. Today, Alias Eye still is the band Phil and Ludwig spend most of their time for, especially since they've got a pretty busy concert schedule. So for them PGM is definitely a side project (although a pretty time consuming, meanwhile.)
VM: You are the keyboard player. Which keyboards do you use on Poor Genetic Material's albums? Do you prefer any special types and models of instruments or it's out of great importance to you?
PJ: Well, I use different types of synths (Kurzweil, Korg, Roland), but most important is probably the Nord Modular, an amazing machine that can emulate about any synth you want. In the studio we also work with Software Samplers a lot. For someone like me, who is more interested in the actual music than in programming and creating sounds, is the easiest way to get the sounds I want. On the new album, I had the chance to use an original Hammond organ : that was great fun and really made a big difference, these old analog keyboards are just irreplaceable.
VM: Poor Genetic Material is quite an outstanding event on the contemporary Progressive Rock scene. Furthermore, the music you play is fresh and doesn't contain any direct influences. Nevertheless, what are the musical sources you derive inspiration from?
PJ: When I read the list of bands that we are compared to, I very often have to smile: it's such a wide range - from old Genesis to Camel/Caravan to 80s Crimson to The Police - that I can't believe all those critics are talking about the same band. So I guess, we've got quite a unique sound. But of course we've got our influences. There are probably too many of them, so it's hard to find a specific band we sound like. Our influences start from classical music, and then there are of course the great prog bands of the Seventies, but also pop-bands like XTC. There are just too many different kinds of music we are interested in.
VM: Do you listen to other genres of music apart from Progressive Rock? And what is your attitude towards today's mainstream?
PJ: As I said, I listen to all kinds of genres, EXCEPT today's mainstream. (If you define mainstream as 'what is played on the radio') that does not mean I don't like and appreciate a good pop song or what I would call "mainstream rock". But what we hear on the radio today is just unbearable. The same 30 or so songs played all day - and those 30 songs all sound the same: same beat, same harmonies, same melodies : I just can't stand it. Trouble is that this policy of formatted radios has killed the most important way for new bands to gain popularity. Even bands, that you and I would certainly consider "mainstream rock" - like Coldplay for example - are just not played on the radio anymore. We all remember how the majors pushed radio into that policy of playing only mainstream hits. Now they suffer as much from it as independents like us.
VM: Have you ever listened to such bands as Tool and Radiohead? If so, what is your opinion on their music?
PJ: I'm not too familiar with Tool, but I've got the last three albums of Radiohead and find them very, very interesting. Though I have to say, they appeal to me mostly intellectually, not so much emotionally. It's not quite the same as with my old favourites. I remember when I first heard Genesis or Camel or Van der Graaf, the music moved me deep inside, touched my emotions in a way that I knew I would not want to live without that music anymore. With Radiohead it's more of an analytical interest. So it's rather Sigur Ros or Porcupine Tree I would have to mention when asked about "new" bands that mean almost as much to me as the "great old dinosaurs".
VM: What do you think about the future of Progressive Rock? Does it have any chance of becoming part of the mainstream again or is its decline inevitable?
PJ: Progressive Rock will definitely not become part of any kind of mainstream again. Those days are over. Maybe I'm wrong - there ARE young bands around, that DO play progressive music (although they do not even know Genesis, Marillion or Spock's Beard) and certainly have the potential to capture a big audience. But the way the music industry is working today; I doubt these bands will ever meet the people that could be their audience. That does not necessarily mean that Progressive's Rock decline is inevitable. Prog has been Underground for years and decades now and from a musical and creative point of view this has been a very productive time. What could become a problem is that there are too many bands around - too many good bands I have to say. It seems there are more musicians than people who listen to their music. InsideOut alone releases about ten albums a month : who can buy all these? Even the most fanatic prog collector cannot buy all the albums he would be interested in. At the moment I really see the danger that prog may get drowned by the sheer quantity of releases. The problem is made worse by the ever-growing number of re-releases and remasters. Last year we had remasters by Crimson, Yes and Gabriel. If you buy all of them - and the die-hard prog-fan certainly will - how much money have you left for new music? So it's very hard for new bands to find an audience. I mean, the old bands still live from the fans they gathered in the Seventies. But what can a new band do to find an audience that is large enough to enable the band to make a living from music? - No Airplay (let alone TV) no coverage by the mainstream press, concerts in front of 100 people (on a good day.) So what I fear might happen is that once the big names in prog cease to exist, labels, distributors, magazines... the whole prog scene find that they have run out of bands.
VM: Please tell me now of your work at Quixote Music. How all of it started and what is the current situation around the label and its activity?
PJ: Well, how it all started, I explained earlier - Stephan and I did what other, better known artists (like Camel) did: Instead of looking for a label to release our music, we just decided to do it ourselves. We had no commercial interest as we both don't have to make a living from it. So we can play (as musicians) and promote (as a label) exactly the music we want to work with. In the present situation, as I described it above, I think this is the only way to go: You must not depend on music. If you do, you will have to pay more attention to what the people want to buy than to what you actually want to sell. From the start as a label just for Tea for Two and Poor Genetic Material, QuiXote started to grow as we found some other bands that seemed to fit into our concept, artists who had to offer something truely original. Where it will lead, is very hard to say. QuiXote has already become a lot bigger than we imagined when we started. If one day the label really earns us enough that we could make a living from it - fine, but we're definitely not aiming at it.
VM: Why there are only German performers in the Quixote family? I believe there were foreign artists who sent their demos to you with the purpose of releasing albums through the label...
PJ: It's not quite true, that we have only German performers: Lou Maxwell Taylor, whose wonderful album "Cheshire Tree Suite" we've released, is from the USA. Generally we have to say that we are a very small label and can only manage to work with about four or five releases a year. So naturally the number of artists we can work with is limited. The problem with performers from outside Germany is that we cannot work together with them as closely as we would like to. We try to be at every concert our artists play, meet them regularly to discuss our "strategy" and offer some kind of coaching while they're recording. Obviously this is only possibly if the band is from somewhere not too far away.
VM: The history shows that the recording companies that were from the outset oriented towards working with artists from all over the world: Musea, Mellow, Inside Out, etc became not only the largest, but also the most successful among the contemporary Prog labels.
PJ: I very much appreciate what these labels have done and still do for progressive music. Yet, our concept is a different one. We don't want and don't try to become as big as they are. We work with a handful of artists - musicians whose music we really believe in and who we can work together with in the way I described above. If we manage to help them become "bigger", we'll grow with them. You also have to consider that all those you mentioned started quite a while ago and obviously hit just the right time. I doubt that, if someone started a label today and tried to repeat what InsideOut or MUSEA did, he would have a chance to succeed.
VM: By the way, if the people at Inside Out would offer you (Quixote Music) to become a division of their 'transatlantic' label, would you join them?
PJ: If that offer came, we would have to be crazy to decline it. But we certainly do not have to worry about that, as we're much too small to be of any interest for InsideOut. I'm quite sure they do not even know that we exist.
VM: The situation when large companies absorb little ones is quite typical for the world economy in general, and in my view, this process isn't that negative (at least not always). There are such examples in the world of Progressive, too. For instance, even though the same Inside Out Records is not a division of the SPV concern, at least officially, the collaboration between these two companies is in many ways similar to that between Atlantic Records and its divisions: Lava, Atco, Anthem, etc. The activity of the well-known Japanese label Poseidon is now practically inseparable from that of Musea, which, as a larger company, has much more chances to withstand: Don't you fear that Quixote Music's independent 'navigation' may lead to the end of it, as it already happened to many (excellent) contemporary Prog labels (Germany's Music Is Intelligence, Holland's Si Music, etc)?
PJ: I do not really see that danger. A basic mistake that many people in the music business make is that they try to take three steps at a time, trying to grow too fast. That very often involves financial risks, which may (and often do) eventually lead into bankruptcy. As we're quite satisfied with the status we have, we don't have to take these risks, we can go one step at a time. Besides, we're in no way ideologically "married" to the idea of "independent navigation". Whenever there is a chance, we will gladly collaborate with other labels, no matter if they are as small as we are or if it's giants as Musea or InsideOut.
VM: Well, it is my wish that your desire and potential continue to coincide. Finally, here is the question that I can't imagine any interview without. (I think it's not that advisable to manipulate with absolute values in our unpredictable world, so:) What are your plans concerning, let's say, the more or less near future of Poor Genetic Material and Quixote Music?
PJ: Well with Poor Genetic Material we have just started writing material for the "Spring"-album, the last one in the four-seasons-cycle. It'll probably be much different from "Winter's Edge" or "Leap into Fall", but it'll take time. The last three albums were released with just little more than a year in between, but this time, I'm quite sure it'll take longer. With QuiXote the next release will be by a band that we think could definitely become somewhat bigger: The Amber Light is a fantastic live band, already quite successful with their concerts and they play music that is a very original blend of classic prog, psychedelic and new art rock. Best thing about this band is that they are all very young (so there ARE young prog bands), they play progressive music without even knowing Genesis, Marillion or Spock's Beard, so they are not in the least danger to become a clone. And they have a young audience, which, as you know, is something very unusual in prog. Yet, it's is something prog really needs - young people who get to know this kind of music.
VM: Thank you very much for doing the interview Philippe. I believe it will interest most of those who start reading it.