[With many thanks to Josep Monrós for the use of his photos, please visit his Flickr stream]
April 2015 – The Exchange, Bristol
“Sel Balamir for Prime Minister!”
When The Progressive Aspect were offered an opportunity to review a show on the latest Amplifier tour and interview Sel Balamir I jumped at the chance to see this band in action, you can read my review HERE. Sel is clearly a thoughtful and charismatic leading man in Progressive music. We met in the bar prior to the gig and had the majority of Amplifier’s albums on the table during the interview, which provided interesting reference points. Due to traffic problems Amplifier sound checked late so time was limited, but Sel considerately found the time to engage with warmth, thought and wit.
How is the tour going, Sel?
Really good so far, this is only the third show.
Amplifier are a hardworking band with tours and increasingly more frequent albums. Is it paying off in terms of interest, sales, audience numbers?
Kind of… it’s like balancing a see-saw. If you tour too much then you can’t do the other stuff. It becomes like chasing your own tail.
What do you prefer, touring or writing and recording?
I like doing both. It’s like, which do you prefer – the toast or the marmite? They are all parts of the same equation.
I’m loving the new album Mystoria. Where does the rather strange title come from?
It’s a made up word that we sometimes used to use for something that’s just bizarre.
It conjures up images of a 1950’s Sci-Fi novel or movie.
It’s supposed to… that’s why I designed it like that. It’s Hitchcockian – some have said it’s like Poe’s House of Usher or a film noir. This is actually in Portmeirion.
(Sel points at the house on the Mystoria cover, Portmeirion is the eccentrically designed community built in North Wales, and which famously provided the surreal ‘Village’ for the cult 60’s paranoid fantasy TV series The Prisoner)
I was there about a month ago! I didn’t realise that cover was shot there.
(Laughing) You didn’t look with your Mystoria eyes, and then you would have seen it. They’ve cut down some of the trees around that house so it doesn’t look exactly like that anymore.
I was up there for HRH Prog festival and visited it, and felt like I was walking into a dream as it was one of my favourite TV series.
It’s one of my favourite series as well.
I thought there was something familiar about the Mystoria cover.
Well, there you go, that’s why!
New Material? I just write all the time anyway. I write mostly in my head. I think a lot, so it’s all part of the same process of thinking. I have periods when I go and… ‘expurge’ it from inside… like having a big shit.
(Laughing) I probably won’t quote that.
A Big Psychic Shit…
I might use that!
Use that as a tag line – that’s what interviewers generally do – use the line that makes me look the most ridiculous.
It’s a great line Sel.
To me it feels like each album is a reaction to the previous album.
Yeah, yeah – it always is. Like a classic synthesis – thesis and antithesis.
Is that a conscious decision?
No, it’s not – it’s a natural state of affairs…
(The interview is interrupted by a burst of very loud static from the music speaker in the bar)
(Laughing) Wow! That’s like some new breakthrough artist!!
For Mystoria you wrote and rehearsed the music a lot before you recorded it…
(The interview is again interrupted by a burst of loud static – Sel calmly and politely asks the barman whether it would be OK to have the music speaker off for the rest of the interview.)
We spent years making Octopus – that was a real anal, self-indulgent exercise.
But it put you back on the map.
Yes, a lot of that was to do with us not doing anything for quite a while. When everyone’s forgotten about you, you pop up again like a friend you haven’t seen for ages…
‘Oh still around? Heard you were dead! But you’re not – Oh, you’ve done something new?’
Octopus was quite a big… a big… ?
It was epic, only word for it, Sel.
Yeah, and when we did Echo Street because we had spent so long working on Octopus afterwards we were about to run out of money, so pretty much me and Matt (Brobin, drums) went into the studio and made Echo Street.
It was like a life saver. But out of that need came great creativity.
That’s what art is, always a reaction to some situation, otherwise it’s not art.
Otherwise it just becomes a business. I particularly like Where the River Goes.
Yes, that’s a classic – but all of Echo Street was a very simple record really. The songs aren’t complicated, because it had to be. Literally me and Matt went in and just listened to some old jams – completely the opposite to Octopus which was very premeditated. Echo… was very instant, it was a real gamble. The songs didn’t exist when we started.
Fantastic. Though I don’t think it was as successful as Octopus empirically.
But in terms of the time and input into its creation it was a great return.
Echo Street is like a one night stand. I love this record so much.
(Sel picks up the CD and leafs through the Booklet – he appears quite distracted, almost emotional, in remembering how he feels about the album Echo Street. It is an interesting insight into the feelings evoked by a work of art for the artist, which cannot always be summed up in words)
It’s really passionate. It’s like a one night stand with a lot of passion packed into a short period of time, and it’s boiled down to it’s simple constituent parts. If you see the special edition it’s like a book or memories.
(Looking at the cover of Echo Street with the picture of a young child) Who is this is? Is it you?
No, I collect old photos. These I found around places in Europe – they’re anyone and everyone.
They’re quite evocative.
They are very moving and I used them to tell a story that happened in my own family in the early twentieth century. It’s a completely different vibe to Mystoria which is ‘balls out’.
So Echo Street is almost autobiographical?
Kind of – it’s quite a raw record for me. Echo… is a nostalgic record – everything about it, like the title. The songs celebrate the records we used to listen to in the 90’s – The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘smoking records’ that we used to sit around and get stoned to listening, wishing we were rock stars – it’s a homage to those days.
In contrast Mystoria is like a summer fun rock record. The opening song Magic Carpet takes you on a ride.
Totally! It’s so enjoyable to play.
Black Rainbow was my favourite song of 2014 – just such a great vibe.
Classic. Black Rainbow is brilliant.
The Ska-type sounds of Cat’s Cradle are unusual for Amplifier.
It was – it’s just an earworm. We knew it was a bit unusual but we really liked it… we just really liked it – we had fun with it!
That comes across Sel for the whole album. Someone recently asked me to recommend an Amplifier album and I said it depended. If you want epic spacey psychedelia try Octopus, if you want something to roll down the car windows and have blaring out on a summer’s day to put a smile on your face then Mystoria is the one.
That’s what it was designed to be for. When it came to doing Mystoria that had been on the ball for a long time – back to when we were doing Octopus, which is very dark and serious. I couldn’t just do records like Octopus – the human personality has all kinds of facets.
You don’t seem a dour person. Mystoria is such a fun, vibrant album.
I wouldn’t say Octopus is dour.
It’s quite ‘heavy’ though in terms of the themes. ‘Dour’ was probably the wrong word.
Octopus is quite ‘Armageddon-esque’! Absolutely. Mystoria is simple. Simple and complex are two sides of the same coin for me.
That’s pretty much done. I have a lot of albums on the go at the same time so they kind of manifest when they choose to.
Is that going to be on KScope records?
Mystoria we did with Superball Records. Echo Street is a perfect KScope record in terms of style, but Mystoria is not a KScope style record, which is why we did it with Superball. We’ll do another one with Superball, but probably not Tripping with Dr. Faustus. With Superball this is what we want to do (picking up the Mystoria CD) – the Black Rainbow kind of vibe. We have a campaign strategy that works around that vibe and garnering more exposure. Faustus is a bit like the first two records (Amplifier and Insider), but not totally like them. We’ll probably release Faustus as a ‘fan release’.
Any news on the timescale?
Don’t know – end of the year… in time for Christmas! (Laughing)
Mystoria feels like something you could easily play at festivals.
It’s designed to be. Basically we can play the whole thing in 45 minutes.
You played the Pearl Festival in Hyderabad in India – how was that?
It was amazing. Have you ever been to India?
Ever been to anywhere that’s… ‘alien’?
I’ve been to the Philippines.
OK – the Philippines is quite Americanized.
Not the bit I went to! I went to a wedding in a remote part of one of the Southern Islands, but I know what you mean in terms of Western influence. I’m sure Hyderabad’s not very Westernized.
No, it’s not westernized at all. It just has completely different cultural values.
How did the music go down over there?
Amazing! We have more Facebook ‘likes’ from India than the rest of the world combined. 3000 people came to see us play in India. I’m sat here feeling like ‘Why aren’t we there now?’… and you get to eat curry three times a day!
Any bands or records influential on Mystoria?
Not really…? (Sel seems puzzled and possibly a little irked by the question).
For instance, earlier you referred to The Smashing Pumpkins as an influence on Echo Street?
That was specifically a throwback. Absolutely a throwback, like a homage. But with Mystoria now we’ve gone beyond a lot of things we were thinking about then. When you get to be a mature man I’ve got my own vocabulary. I don’t have to name check anyone apart from what was in my parents’ record collection when we were kids. The way I look at it, when you make music you have a language, but you only use the language to talk and say things – it’s the content, the semantic content which is important, not the grammar.
There appear to be quite a few Science Fiction influences on some of your work. Do you have any favourite Sci-Fi authors or directors?
Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C.Clarke. There are loads – I can’t even begin to answer that!
The last question Sel is topical and a bit silly. We’re in the run-up to a general election in the UK at present. If you were elected to govern what would be your first three Acts of Law?
(Without any hesitation)
Firstly, you have to be in a band.
Secondly, you have to give 10% of your income to people less fortunate
The third law would be that you would have to have a guru or someone older than you that gives advice.
Thanks Sel – good luck with the gig.
Amplifier played a brilliant, scintillating set later that night. It may be interesting to note (in the context of this interview) that no songs from Echo Street were played in the set, with songs mainly from the latest album and their first two, Amplifier and Insider. Amplifier were clearly focusing on the more ‘balls out’ rock side of their catalogue, which was more compatible with the new album, and also the feel of the venue and atmosphere of the audience. It is a credit to the versatility of this remarkable band that they can tap into such different elements of their ‘personality’. It will certainly be interesting to see in which direction Sel Balamir and Amplifier choose to go next.
One last thing – Sel Balamir for Prime Minister!